The only time of the year that the birth of Jesus receives attention is usually at Christmastime. Some people are content to leave Jesus in the manger for the rest of the year, forgetting that he grew to be an adult, ministered for three years, and gave his life for humanity. Before we get to the adult Jesus, we learn about the Incarnation of Christ. This miraculous event was told to Mary by the angel Gabriel, and now it occurs. But, first, let’s pause to address the matter of Christmas.
We know that Jesus was born in the days of King Herod (Matt. 2:1). However, Josephus recorded that Herod died in 4 BCE (Antiq. 17.8.1), and another vital record of the year of Christ’s birth would have been the census mentioned in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:1). Quirinius served two terms as governor of Syria: the first term was from 4–1 BCE, and the second term was during 6–11CE (Schaff History of the Christian Church 1.2.16). Therefore, Jesus must have been born between 4–6 BCE because Herod had all male children murdered two years and younger (Matt. 2:16).
The earliest suggested date of Jesus’ birth comes from Clement of Alexandria (ca. 160–220), an Egyptian theologian. When Clement lived, the Gnostics were a sect that sought to advocate tenets of Greek philosophy and sacred doctrine. While many sects of Gnostics seemed to have existed, one particular belief among many was that anything material was inherently evil. They agreed that Jesus was “manifested”—from the Greek term epiphaneia (Epiphany). The discussions of when Christ was manifested led ultimately to his birth date since some argued that Christ’s birth was his manifestation. Clement wrote that May 20th was the likely date. He also suggested April 19th or 20th as possible dates.
Clement acknowledged an Egyptian Gnostic group called Basilideans. They held that Christ’s baptism was the date of his manifestation or Epiphany and designated January 6th as the particular date. This date became the agreed-upon date for Christmas in ancient Christianity. They celebrated not Christ’s birthday but his baptism. Joseph Kelly explained that Christians believed Christ was baptized on his birthday in his book, The Origins of Christmas. These two events made January 6th significant since it was the date of his birth and baptism, so they taught. John Cassian, the fifth-century Balkan Christian, is recorded to have agreed with this sentiment.
Around this time, some North African Christian scholars began disagreeing with January 6th and proposed March 25th. Since this was at the time of the spring equinox, and since this time was symbolically held to have represented rebirth, Hippolytus (ca. 170–235) considered this date as that of Christ’s death and the anniversary of creation itself. Hippolytus linked creation and Christ’s death and the redemption it brought. Tertullian (ca 160–220) held this same view. While March 25th wasn’t advocated by either of these two as Christ’s birthday, others regarded it as such. Another African came along and rebutted March 25th and suggested March 28th as Christ’s birth date instead. A part of the justification was given by Malachi 4:2 and the mention of the Sun of Righteousness. They interpreted the Sun as being Jesus. They also believed that the Sun was made on the fourth day of creation, and that must have been when Christ was born and resurrected. Hence March 28th was thought to have been the fourth day of creation that coincided with his birth and resurrection. In the third century, Julius Africanus listed December 25th as Christ’s birth date as a matter of chronology. Unlike many before him, Africanus argued that Christ’s birthdate wasn’t the date of his Incarnation. Instead, Christ’s Incarnation was the date of his conception nine months before on Marth 28th. Thus December 25th was born and eventually chosen as Christmas. At this time, it wasn’t a festival but only a chronological understanding.
A fourth-century Christian, Gregory the Theologian, wrote that Christians celebrated Christ’s birthday, then, as a way to tell the story of how God wanted to restore humanity through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus who came in the flesh. Christians, so Gregory wrote, celebrated God coming to man so that man might return to God by putting off the old person to put on the new person renewed after Christ through baptism (Oration 38.4). Furthermore, he encouraged that the celebration not be observed as the heathens observed their festivals. “Let us not adorn our porches, nor arrange dances, nor decorate the streets; let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music, not enervate the nostrils with perfume, or prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch, those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin” (Orations 38.5). To read Gregory’s words is to understand that any Christmas celebration was meant to exalt Jesus and distinguish Christianity from paganism through the very festival itself.
(Matthew 1:18–25) Betrothal, the husband’s acquisition of a wife, preceded the marriage proper—when the husband took the wife into his home. This could last up to a year, and usually, the bride’s father arranged the betrothal and dowry price, and for women, as early as twelve years of age was the time they were betrothed (B. Yebam. 62b). This relationship period was considered marriage and could only be dissolved by divorce. When Mary was found pregnant, Joseph wanted to divorce her in secret and not make an issue of the whole thing. Yet, in a dream, an unnamed angel instructed him otherwise. The name “Jesus”(Greek) means “God saves”—in Hebrew (Yehoshua). Interestingly enough, this name is Joshua and is the Hebrew equivalent of Jesus.
God informed His people that they’d be saved in the days of the Messiah (Jer. 23:5–6). Jewish readers wouldn’t have understood this as personal salvation from sin but as political salvation from an enemy in the first century. They prayed for the day when God would deliver His people from their enemies. Since the exile, Israel had been a vassal state of Persia, Greece, and Rome. Accompanying this salvation was a new covenant and forgiveness of sin (Jer. 31:31–34). The first Joshua was the military savior, but Jesus was the spiritual savior who gave liberty from the guilt and consequence of sin (Rom. 3:23–24; cf. 6:23). While primarily for Israel, this salvation is extended to all humanity (John 3:16–21). Since we will all die and face the Judge, we can obtain salvation and be justified before the Judge or ignore it and be sentenced by the Judge (Heb. 9:27).
The birth of Jesus from a virgin was the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. Some believe Jesus is the only fulfillment of this prophecy, but that wouldn’t have brought comfort to Ahaz in the immediate context of Isaiah 7 if something far off was meant. Nevertheless, Jesus is a fulfillment of this prophecy on the macro-level but not on the micro-level. The Hebrew term in Isaiah could mean a virgin, but it was a young woman more often. Matthew borrowed from the Septuagint, which, in the place of almah, is the specific term parthenos (“virgin”). Jesus’ presence on earth was indicative of God being with his people. Joseph awakens and changes his mind based on what the angel told him. Note that the angel is unnamed, though some have said it’s Gabriel, given Luke 1.
(Luke 2:1–7) The reign of Caesar Augustus brought the Pax Romanum (“peace of Rome”) after years of civil war. What’s noteworthy is that Caesar Augustus’ reign had a Messianic aura about it, so when Luke mentioned him in light of the story of Christ, Luke proposed that Jesus was the actual Messianic figure. The ancient Roman poet Vergil (of the Augustan era) wrote a national epic of ancient Rome entitled Aeneid after its chief character Aeneas—a name borrowed from Homer’s Iliad (cf. book 5). Therein Aeneas strives and struggles to fulfill his destiny by arriving on Italy’s shores—Rome’s founding act. In his epic and his other works, Vergil specifically “prophesies” about the reign of Caesar Augustus as the anticipated reign of the Roman people.
Here is the man so often promised you,
Augustus Caesar, a god’s son, and bringer
Of a new age of gold to Saturn’s old realm
Of Latium. He will take our rule past India,
Past Garamantia, past the solar pathway
That marks the year, where Atlas hefts the sky
And turns the high vault set with burning stars. (Aeneid 6.791–97, trans. Sarah Ruden)
Vergil’s epic was published in 19 BCE, so by the time of Luke’s Gospel, the notion of Caesar Augustus being a “Messiah” was firmly implanted in the Roman mind (cf. Ecl. 4.4–52). Augustus’ reign was synonymous with peace and prosperity. Still, Jesus’ rule in the kingdom of God would solidify the very concepts of peace and prosperity.
The purpose of Quirinius’ census (cf. Schaff Hist. of Church 1.2.16; Eccl. Hist. 1.5) was likely for a tribute or direct tax. Luke may indicate that Quirinius was governor around 6 BCE. If it was during this time, it shouldn’t be confused with Josephus’ account of when Judas the Galilean arose in rebellion (Acts 5.37; cf. Antiq. 18.1.1ff). Joseph going to his ancestral home may have been sensible to paying taxes. He may have had ancestral property (cf. Lev. 25:23–28) in Bethlehem that could have been rented out to relatives. However, if Joseph had ancestral property, one might suggest that he would have stayed there instead of permitting Christ to be born in a manger.
The term translated “inn” is elsewhere translated as “guest room” (Luke 22:11). Still, the word given as a proper, commercialized “inn” is used in Luke 10:34 of the Good Samaritan’s hospitality to the injured traveler. The term for “manger” isn’t a barn with stalls as we might envision it. Instead, the “manger” was often an adjacent room to a family room where people sheltered animals. If Joseph had ancestral property (cf. Christiad 3.546–47), he would have expected to stay in the “guest room” if he had rented the dwelling. However, if this was the assumption when he and Mary arrived, the “guest room” was occupied.