Every December 25, Catholics worldwide celebrate the day of Jesus’ birth. However, not every Christian is familiar with the nativity story.
The story of Jesus’ birth is much more complicated and obscure than it appears.
In the Bible, the nativity story isn’t presented in a well-structured manner but scattered across two Gospels which have many factual discrepancies.
Scholars still introduce their theories regarding the details of Jesus’ birth and the characters involved in the story, and theologists provide new interpretations of the accounts dozens of centuries later.
Most importantly, despite the mystery surrounding Jesus’ birth, the nativity story teaches us to care about our loved ones and stay faithful to God – the two messages Christians honor every Christmas Day.
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Where The Christmas Story Is in The Bible
The Christmas story, or the story of Jesus’ birth, appears in the New Testament twice – in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. The stories have some points in common but also many distinctions in the plot, characters, and message.
In brief, the nativity story narrates Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They can’t find an inn, so Jesus is born in a stable surrounded by donkeys and ox. Shepherds come to celebrate his birth, and the Magi bring gifts.
That’s the widely known version of the nativity story, but it blends material from both biblical accounts. Blending material makes the story more comprehensible, but as a result, it misses some important points.
In other words, to understand the nativity story in full, one must read both biblical accounts. Matthew 1 explains Jesus’ relation to Abraham and David, how the conception of Jesus occurred, and how it fits Isaiah’s prophecy.
In Matthew 2, we can find the familiar Christmas story about Mary and Joseph’s journey, King Herod’s attempts to kill Jesus, and how the family flees to Egypt.
Luke wrote his Gospel in the late first century, parallelly with Matthew yet independently. Apart from Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Magi, and King Herod, Luke includes numerous other characters, including Elizabeth, John the Baptist, shepherds, Simeon, Anna, and angels.
Luke’s genealogy of Jesus stems from Adam. The story differs from Matthew’s nativity story both stylistically and structurally, but the narrative is the main distinction.
Luke’s nativity story tells about Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, the birth and naming of Jesus, the annunciation to the shepherds, and Jesus’ presentation at the temple.
Facts don’t always converge in the two nativity stories, so we should perceive them merely as legends than historical accounts. For Example, in Matthew’s nativity, the angelic annunciation is made to Joseph, and in Luke’s to Mary.
Jesus Birth Foretelling
Before the immaculate conception occurred and Jesus was born, there were prophecies. Eighteen centuries before the nativity story, God told Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, that his descendent would bless all people.
Matthew’s nativity explains the relation of Jesus to Abraham in detail. The second prophecy in Jeremiah 23:5 states that the Messiah would come from the house of David and take his throne. Joseph was related to David and essentially was Jesus’ stepfather.
About seven centuries before the Christmas story, prophet Isaiah foretold that Jesus would be born of a virgin. Micah, a prophet of the Old Testament, foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
In Hosea 11:1, we can find a foretelling of Jesus’ return from Egypt to Nazareth. The story about King Herod’s death and Jesus’ journey to Nazareth can be found in Matthew 2.
Lastly, Jeremiah wrote in the Old Testament that many children’s lives would be lost following the birth of the Messiah – this prophecy relates to King Herod’s massacre of the innocents.
An Angel Visits Joseph
In Matthew 1, Joseph finds out about Mary’s pregnancy and doesn’t know what to do because the child isn’t his. He wonders whether he should marry Mary after such news. But one night, an angel comes to him in a dream.
At that time, breaking up wasn’t as simple, and Mary could even be punished by death for being unfaithful if Joseph canceled the engagement.
The angel tells Joseph that Marry was pregnant from the Holy Spirit and her baby would be the savior of the world. He then tells him to marry Mary and name the baby Jesus.
Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t explicitly state who the angel was, but other accounts suggest it was Gabriel, God’s chief messenger.
After hearing Gabriel’s message, Joseph decided to stay with Mary and marry her, despite the humiliation he could receive from people who thought that Mary and Joseph had conceived a child before getting married.
This part of the nativity story is short, yet it has a profound message. Joseph proved his love for Mary and faith in God by listening to the angel and not thinking about what others could think of him.
Mary & Joseph Travel to Bethlehem
Many people unfamiliar with the nativity story are confused about why Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth, where they lived, to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. The reason is purely bureaucratical.
The Roman government ordered everyone to return to their ancestral towns as part of a census. Nazareth and Bethlehem are 75 miles apart, and the journey would’ve taken a week on a donkey, the only means of transportation at that time.
And if a week-long journey on a donkey wasn’t challenging enough, Mary was nine months pregnant with Jesus. Mary rode a donkey, and Joseph walked.
We don’t know all the hardships they experienced on the way – the road was likely full of wild animals, bandits, desert robbers, and other hazards. Assuming that they were traveling in December, they likely had to deal with cold temperatures at night.
In short, Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem lacked the convenience of modern travel. When they arrived at their destination, the town was crowded due to the census.
Mary and Joseph struggled to find an inn. There was no room anywhere apart from a cave that served as a stable for farm animals, and Mary and Joseph decided to stay there.
The Birth of Jesus
Soon after Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable among farm animals. She bonded Jesus with cloth bands and laid him in a manger.
We don’t know many details about Jesus’ birth and what happened right after it. Biblical accounts tend to romanticize the moment, yet the reality was harsh – a stable is hardly a hygienic and comfortable place suitable for labor.
Interestingly, nowhere does the nativity story say when Jesus was born. Although most Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25, scholars agree that it’s unlikely the real date of his birth.
Some suggest that the date was chosen to replace the pagan festival of winter solstice Saturnalia, and Jesus could have been born in September, December, or March of 2-4 century B.C. However, the date of such ancient events doesn’t change the meaning of Christmas.
Shepherds Worship Jesus
While Mary was bonding Jesus with cloth bands, shepherds were taking care of their flocks at night. Suddenly, an angel came and told them that the savior of all people was born in the town of David, or Bethlehem.
He also gave the shepherds directions, telling them they would find Jesus lying in a manger in a stable. When the angel left, shepherds went to Bethlehem. When they found Mary and Joseph with Jesus lying in a manger, they worshipped the Messiah.
The story is simple, but why shepherds, you may think? In the first century in Palestine, shepherds were by no means in a privileged position.
Jewish leaders would criticize shepherds for not always being able to observe religious rules due to the nature of their work. Therefore, Jesus’s annunciation to the shepherds shows that Jesus was the savior of all people, even those marginalized and considered insignificant.
Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men, were noble pilgrims from the east who arrived in Bethlehem following a miraculous guiding star to pay homage to Jesus. Every Christian knows the gist of the story, but the details are pretty obscure.
The Gospel of Matthew never explicitly mentions from where the Magi came, only that they were visitors from the east. Scientists and theologists still debate the matter. Clues suggest that Melchior came from Persia, Gaspar from India, and Balthazar from Arabia.
They were likely ancient philosophers, astronomists, or mathematicians because they were able to find the way by stars, something only highly educated men could do.
We also don’t know how long Magi took to find Jesus. The text doesn’t specify the interval between Christ’s birth and Magi’s visit. Many people think that they arrived on January 6, now celebrated as the Three Kings Day or Epiphany.
However, some evidence suggests that Magi came two years later. The fact that King Herod ordered his men to massacre all boys up to two years old supports the claim.
The Magi brought to Jesus gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Most theologists agree that gold represented the kingship of Jesus because it was a precious metal inherent to royals.
Frankincense represented the deity of Jesus because it was traditionally burned in temples as an offering to God. Finally, myrrh represented the death of Jesus because it was used to embalm bodies.
So, Magi’s gifts acknowledge Jesus as the King of the Kings, God’s Son, and the Savior of all people who died for their sins.
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