What is the story of Jesus’ birth?

What actually happened when Jesus was born? The Bible gives us several different accounts of the birth of Jesus – from Luke and Matthew and some of the apocryphal books. Who were the wise men and how did they fit into the birth? From the book of Matthew we are given a few details about the magi, but it is unlikely that they were actually present at Jesus’ birth, but rather came later. From actual Scripture, we only know that Joseph, Mary and the shepherds were at the birth of the Christ.

Birth Accounts

The Gospel of Luke

The story of Jesus’ birth is recounted in two of the biblical Gospels, Luke and Matthew. Luke’s account is significantly longer and more detailed than that of Matthew.

Jesus’ actual birth is found in 2:1-20 and begins with the familiar line, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” However, this is preceded by a long section in 1:5-80 that describes the birth of John the Baptist and the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary.

This narrative begins in 1:5 with Gabriel announcing to Zechariah the priest that his wife Elizabeth, who was barren and also a “relative” of Mary (1:36), would bear a child named John. He would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah . . . to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (1:17). Elizabeth conceives a child and the story turns to Gabriel’s visitation of Mary and announcement that she will conceive a son who will be called Jesus and to whom the Lord will give the throne of David. Mary visits and rejoices with Elizabeth and offers her song to the Lord in 1:46-55, which became known as “The Magnificat.” The rest of the chapter recounts the birth of John the Baptist and prophecy of Zechariah.

The birth account of Jesus, then, begins in 2:1. The decree given by Caesar Augustus was about a registration for the collecting of taxes.[1] It required all to go to “his own city,” and so Joseph left his current city of Nazareth in the region of Galilee to travel to Bethlehem in the region of Judea, where his lineage in the “house and family of David” originated. Luke tells us that the inn was full and so Mary “wrapped him in swaddling cloths” (strips of cloth wrapped tightly around the baby to keep their limbs straight) and put Jesus in a manger.[2] The usual meaning of the Greek word translated “manger” is a feeding trough for animals, and, though no stable is mentioned, the trough suggests that Jesus was born “in an animal room of some sort.”[3]

The rest of the story centers on certain shepherds keeping watch over their flock in a field in the same region. An angel appears and proclaims the birth of a Savior, “who is Christ the Lord,” and tells them that they will find him wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger. Suddenly, then, a “multitude of the heavenly host” appear with the angel, all praising God. After this, the angels return to heaven and the shepherds go to find Jesus. Mary, Joseph, and all who hear the shepherds’ tale of the angels are amazed, and the account ends with Mary “treasuring” and “pondering” these things in her heart and the shepherds returning to their field, glorifying God for what he had done.

The Gospel of Matthew

The account in Matthew is found in 1:18-25 and focuses more on the difficult situation created by Mary being with child before marriage. In 1:18 Mary is found with child “from the Holy Spirit,” even though she is only betrothed, not married, to Joseph. Betrothal was a legally binding engagement in ancient Judaism that “required divorce if it were to be broken,” though “sexual relations and living together under one roof were not permitted until after the marriage ceremony.”[4] Thus, Joseph plans to “divorce her quietly” (1:19). However, an angel appears to him and assures him that the pregnancy is from the Lord, that Mary will bear a son who will “save his people from their sins,” and that it will all happen in fulfillment of prophecy. The story in Matthew ends with Joseph obeying the angel and taking Mary as his wife and calling his son Jesus, as he was told. Matthew 2:1 begins with the phrase, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” This is a clear narrative indicator that the story has moved past the birth account and into a different event in the life of Jesus. It goes on to give the details of the visit of the magi of the East (more on this below).

Apocryphal Accounts

Before moving on, a brief note should be made regarding apocryphal accounts of the birth of Jesus. Because of the small amount of information in the canonical Gospels themselves, there has been a persistent concern with filling in the details. This led to the writing of several accounts of Jesus’ birth and childhood that were never accepted as Scripture by the church. “In these later narratives more is written about Mary and her parents in an attempt to explain the unique status of the mother of Jesus. Joseph’s role is also enhanced. Gaps in the stories in Matthew and Luke are filled, it being a common characteristic . . . to amplify the stories.”[5] While these stories are interesting, they are viewed as later embellishments and thus not overly helpful for determining the actual account of the birth of Christ.


The Magi or Wise Men

The word in the Bible for the Wise Men is “magi” (magoi in Greek), which is the plural form of the Greek word magos, denoting a Persian “wise man and priest, who was an expert in astrology, interpretation of dreams and various other occult arts.”[6] The magi are only mentioned in Matthew, and they are not placed at the actual birth of Jesus. As mentioned above, the text indicates that their appearance in the story is “after Jesus was born.” Further, in 2:11 we read that the magi visited Jesus in a “house” (oikia in Greek). Instead, the story of the magi is connected to the story of king Herod’s attempt to find and kill Jesus, the location of whom he attempts to determine from the magi themselves. The magi come to Herod looking for the “king of the Jews,” whose star they had seen in the east. Herod sends them to Bethlehem and tells them to report back to him on what they find. The magi are led by the star to the house where Jesus is, and they offer him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (which were precious spices). The magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod and so they return home another way.

Even though the magi are not placed at the birth of Jesus, because they were Gentiles and somewhat mysterious, they acquired their own significance and folklore in church history in connection to Christmas.[7] Many of the traditions that are connected to them come from church tradition, not the Bible itself. Two examples are their number and their designation as “kings.” In Matthew the magi are nowhere described as only being three in number. This likely stems from the three gifts they brought,[8] whereas their designation as “kings” was a result of the church applying to them the prophecies of Isaiah 60:3 and Psalm 72:10.[9]


Who Was There?

Thus, based on the Gospel accounts it can be said with certainty that those present at the actual birth of Jesus were Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds that kept flock in the same region. Beyond this, we can only speculate who might have been present. In Luke 2:17 the shepherds disclose what the angel told them, and verse 18 states that “all who heard” marveled at what they said. It is possible that included in this “all” are others. But neither Gospel account provides anything more specific than this.

[1] I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 98.

[2] Darrell L. Bock, Luke, Volume 1: 1:1-9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 208.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary, vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 57; also see John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 92-93.

[5] J. K. Elliott, A Synopsis of the Apocryphal Nativity and Infancy Narratives (Leiden: Brill, 2006), ix.

[6] Walter Bauer, Frederick William Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilber Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 608.

[7] Joseph F. Kelly, The Origins of Christmas (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004), 93.

[8] Gerry Bowler, ed. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000), 138.

[9] Kelly, Origins of Christmas, 94.



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