The Birth of Jesus

The main part of the Christmas Story, the birth of Jesus! But why was Jesus born in such unusual surroundings?

The Story in the Bible

Now it happened in those days, that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to enroll themselves, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David; to enroll himself with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him, being pregnant.

It happened, while they were there, that the day had come when she should give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him with pieces of cloth, and placed him in a feeding trough, because there was no guest room available for them.

Luke 2:1-7

The History behind the Birth of Jesus in the Christmas Story

Scholars think that the census ordered by Caesar Augustus was the first of its kind. It was done because the Roman government wanted to make sure that everyone in the Empire was paying their taxes correctly. The census was carried out all over Empire (most of Europe): but in Palestine, it was carried out in a Jewish way rather than a Roman way. This meant that families had to register in the their historical tribal town rather than where they lived. This also meant that Joseph and the very pregnant Mary would have had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, as this was town that Joseph's family (the royal family of David) originally came from - a journey of about 70 miles (112 kilometres).

Some people think that Bethlehem could also have been Joseph's actual home town and he'd traveled to Nazareth to collect Mary, once they were betrothed/married, to take her to his home town to initially live.

The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have taken about three days.

In those times, there weren't really such things as motels or inns, you normally would have stayed with some extended family or relations. In the Christmas story, it's often said that "there was no room in the inn". However, a more accurate translation of 'inn' would be 'guest room'. You would normally stay with extended family in their ‘guest room’; but, as it was a busy time, the guest room was already full.

Most houses would have been shared with the animals that the family kept. Houses had two levels, the upper/mezzanine level where people slept and the ground floor where the animals slept at night and the family lived during the day. The animals were a kind of 'central heating' at night keeping the house warm! The 'guest room' was often an area on the upper/mezzanine level or even a hut put on the flat roof of the house!

The Christmas Story - Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus

As many people would have traveled to Bethlehem for the census, all the houses, or certainly upper levels were full. Many people think that Jesus was probably born in September or October during Sukkot, the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, rather than during December. During the festival, Jews live outside in temporary shelters (the word 'tabernacle' come from a latin word meaning 'booth' or 'hut').

So Joseph and Mary probably had to sleep with the animals on the low level (where it’s common to have a manger cut into a wall where you put the animal food) or possibly (but unlikely) out in a stable, cave or even a covered market stall that sold animals (these stalls could be rented during tabernacles). You can read more about that here in an article on the blog of theologian, Rev Dr Ian Paul.

So Jesus was probably born in a 'normal' house at that time and in that area, surrounded by family members and other local people. That's a rather diffrence scene to what's on many Christmas cards and in nativity scenes!

It was the custom in those times to wrap a new born baby very tightly in long bandages called swaddling clothes. The arms and legs of the baby were also wrapped, so they couldn't move. This was done because they thought it helped the baby to grow strong, straight limbs! And as no proper crib was available, the new baby boy was placed in a manger, or feeding trough.

There's a theory that Jesus might have been born a couple of miles outside of Bethlehem where there was a special shepherds' watch tower called the Migdal Eder. So Jesus might have been born out with the shepherds.

The birth of Jesus probably didn't happen in the year 0 but slightly earlier, in about 4, 5, 6 or 7 BCE/BC. The dates that we use now were set by Monks and religious leaders in the Middle Ages and before. It's also quite likely that Jesus was actually born in the autumn (during Tabernacles), not in the winter! It can get very cold in the winter in Israel and it is thought that the census would have most likely taken place during the spring or autumn, at a when many pilgrims, from all over the country, came to visit Jerusalem (which is about six miles from Bethlehem).

There is an excellent article on the dating of Christmas based on the dates of Zechariah's experience and Temple Service also by Rev Dr Ian Paul.

You can watch an animation of The First Christmas Story! (opens full window/tab)