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The Birth Narratives of Jesus - the First Christmas

Julian Spriggs M.A.

In the New Testament, the birth of Jesus is only described in detail in two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke.

Mark's gospel begins with the account and testimony to Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist. John has a theological prologue, testifying to Jesus and describing the incarnation of the eternal Logos, but does not describe the details of the actual historical event. The accounts in Matthew and Luke complement each other in describing different events that occurred around the birth of Jesus.

Probable order of events

1. The annunciation of John the Baptist (Lk 1:5-25)
2. The annunciation of Jesus (Lk 1:26-38)
3. Mary's visit to Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-56)
4. Joseph discovers Mary's pregnancy (Mt 1:18-25)
5. The birth of John the Baptist (Lk 1:57-80)
6. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Lk 2:1-7)
7. The visit of the shepherds (Lk 2:8-20)
8. Jesus presented in the temple (Lk 2:21-40)
9. The visit of the Magi (Mt 2:1-12)
10. The flight to Egypt (Mt 2:13-18)
11. The return to Nazareth (Mt 2:19-23)
12. Jesus visits the temple at age of twelve (Lk 2:41-52)

The Birth Narratives in Luke, ch 1 - 2

Luke's prologue, dedicating the book to Theophilus, was written in very formal full Classical Greek. The more formal style is even recognisable in the English translation. However the birth narratives are written in Koine (Common) Greek but influenced by Septuagint Greek, with many allusions to the OT, and with other Hebraic or Semitic characteristics, These show that both John and Jesus were born in fulfilment of Israel's prophetic hope. It is only through Jesus, that the mysteries of the OT messianic predictions can be understood.

Theology of the birth narratives

In the birth narratives, Luke introduces some important theological themes, which will continue through his gospel.

Filling with the Holy Spirit.
Each of the main characters are described as being full of the Holy Spirit, including John the Baptist (1:15), Mary (1:35), Elizabeth (1:41) and Zechariah (1:67). No other gospel writer has such an emphasis on the filling and empowering by the Holy Spirit. In the birth narratives, the work of the Spirit usually results in prophetic words, given as songs of exultation as well as predictions of God's redemptive work which is just beginning. In Jewish thinking, the Spirit is the Spirit of prophecy, which had been silent for the previous 400 years. So Luke uses these accounts of the filling by the Spirit to point to the arrival of the messianic age. Eight times Luke explains that the events associated with the births of Jesus were the beginnings of the long-awaited redemption of the nation of Israel (1:16, 32-33, 54-55, 68-75, 2:25-26, 32-34, 38). Luke shows that the promises given by the OT prophets to the Jewish nation have their fulfilment in Jesus, the child born in Bethlehem. In Jesus, the Messianic age has dawned. Most importantly, this fulfilment is not exclusive to ethnic Israel, but is in a way which is surprising and mysterious to the people at the time, as it involves a far greater redemption which will affect all nations.

The significant titles of Jesus The first is Lord (Greek Kyrios). This was used as a title of the Roman Emperor, who was considered to be divine. In the Septuagint, it was the title for Yahweh. In applying this title to Jesus, Luke is proclaiming Jesus exalted status (1:43, 2:11). The second is Son of the Most High, or Son of God. These point to the uniqueness of Jesus. Son of God was the Jewish title for the Davidic king (1:32)

Annunciations

Annunciations of a coming birth in the Bible normally follow a standard pattern:
1) The appearance of an angel
2) The person confronted is filled with fear, and / or falls on their face
3) The divine message:
     a) The person greeted by their name
     b) The person is urged not to be afraid
     c) The pregnancy and birth of a male child is predicted
     d) The child is named in advance
     e) The significance of the name is explained
     f) Predictions of the future accomplishments of the child
4) The person objects, and / or requests a sign
5) A sign is given to confirm the annunciation

Other annunciations in the Bible follow the same pattern, Ishmael (Gen 16:7-12), Isaac (Gen 17:1- 3,15-21, 18:1-2,9-15) and Samson (Judges 13:2-21)

The annunciation of John the Baptist (Lk 1:5-25)

The annunciations in Luke, of John and of Jesus, form a matching pair, which are similar but contrasting. Both John and Jesus are shown to be born as a result of God's actions, yet Jesus is shown to be superior to John.

Introduction of Zechariah and Elizabeth (1:5-7)

The events are dated by the reign of Herod the Great (40 - 4 BC), as in Matthew (Matt 2:1). Zechariah belonged to the priestly order of Abijah, which was the eighth of the 24 orders of priesthood (1 Chr 24:10). Each order of priests served in the temple for one week, twice a year. Elizabeth was also a Levite, a descendant of Aaron, the high-priestly family. Both kept the law, and lived blamelessly before the Lord.

Elizabeth was sterile, and had never had children. In Jewish thinking, there was great shame in being unable to bear children. It is significant that so many important characters in the OT needed miracles for them to be conceived. These include Sarah, mother of Isaac (Gen 16:1), Rachel, mother of Joseph and Benjamin (Gen 30:1), Manoah’s wife of Samson (Judges 13:2), and Hannah, mother of Samuel (1 Sam 1:2,6-8).

The casting of lots (1:8-10)

Each day, the duties for the morning and evening sacrifices were assigned by casting lots. The burning of the incense was the most coveted part of the daily ritual. The priest would enter the Holy Place and burn incense on the incense altar (Ex 37:25-29), which stood in front of the veil leading to the Holy of Holies. The aroma from the incense would penetrate into the Holy of Holies as a pleasing odour to the Lord.

Each priest was only allowed to perform this central function once in their lifetime. This would normally be the only time a priest would be allowed to enter the Holy Place, making this the high-point of Zechariah's career as a priest. Many priests never had this privilege, because there were about 20,000 priests, so each order had about 1,000. As Zechariah was an old man, towards the end of his ministry as a priest, he probably thought that he would never be chosen to burn the incense. Many years had passed and he had never been selected. The burning of incense was a symbol of the prayers of God's people rising to God (Rev 8:4).

The congregation outside remained waiting and praying until he returned to pronounce God's blessing on them, probably the Aaronic blessing (Num 6:22-26).

The angel appears to Zechariah (1:11-17)

The angel appeared at the right hand of the altar of incense, between the altar and the lampstand, telling John that his prayer had been heard. We are not told what prayer. It could be the prayer for a son, but Zechariah would have given up hope for this many years before. Otherwise it could be the customary prayer for the salvation of Israel spoken at the evening sacrifice.

His son will be called John, meaning ‘The Lord has been gracious’ (v13). His birth will cause rejoicing for many (v14), particularly his parents. His son is commanded to abstain from wine and strong drink (v15). This is a partial Nazarite vow (Num 6:1-8). In contrast, he will be filled with the Spirit, from before his birth (v15). This is a key expression in Luke and Acts to describe the empowerment by the Spirit to speak the Word of God.

This was also very significant in the Jewish context of the first century. During the 400 silent years, there had been no prophets, and no Word of God had been spoken. They believed that the Spirit had been quenched. However Jews believed that in the days of the Messiah, the quenched Spirit of God would become active once again. To show that the age of the Messiah has come, Luke continually refers to the activity of the Holy Spirit.

John's ministry will be similar to Elijah's. He will turn many people back to God (v16). He will minister in the spirit and power of Elijah (v17). He will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and he will make people ready for the Lord.

There was a strong Jewish expectation of the coming of Elijah, who had been mysteriously transported to heaven in a chariot of fire instead of dying (2 Kg 2:1-12). They expected him to re-appear as the messenger of God at the end of the age, as predicted by the prophet Malachi, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight - indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts” (Mal 3:1), and “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.” (Mal 4:5).

This is what is written about Elijah in the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus, which gives a flavour of the Jewish expectation of the coming of Elijah, “Then Elijah arose, a prophet like fire, and his word burned like a torch. He brought a famine upon them, and by his zeal he made them few in number. By the word of the Lord he shut up the heavens, and also three times brought down fire. How glorious you were, Elijah, in your wondrous deeds! Whose glory is equal to yours? You raised a corpse from death and from Hades, by the word of the Most High. You sent kings down to destruction, and famous men, from their sick-beds. You heard rebuke at Sinai and judgements of vengeance at Horeb. You anointed kings to inflict retribution, and prophets to succeed you. You were taken up by a whirlwind of fire, in a chariot with horses of fire. At the appointed time, it is written, you are destined to calm the wrath of God before it breaks out in fury, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and to restore the tribes of Jacob. Happy are those who saw you and were adorned with your love! For we also shall surely live.” (Eccl 48:1-11)

There were several similarities between Elijah and John the Baptist, in their person and in their ministries. Both wore the typical clothes of a prophet, camel's hair (Mk 1:6, 2 Kg 1:8, Zech 13:4). Both boldly confronted kings, Elijah confronted Ahab (1 Kg 17:1), and John confronted Herod Antipas, which led to his execution (Mk 6:17-29).

Many Jews believed that Jesus was a resurrection of John (Mk 6:14-15), or a re-appearance of Elijah (Mk 8:28). Later John was asked whether he was Elijah, and said that he was not (Jn 1:21). However, Jesus identified John as the fulfilment of the Elijah prophecy in Malachi (Mk (9:11-13, Mt 11:13-14). This question is addressed in more detail on the Elijah / John the Baptist page.

Zechariah asks for a sign (1:18-22)

In many annunciation accounts, the person asks God for a sign, to confirm that the word was true. The angel introduces himself as Gabriel, his name means ‘Man of God’, who had previously appeared to Daniel (Dan 8:16, 9:21). Gabriel can see that Zechariah does not believe that Elizabeth can become pregnant, so the sign will be that he will be struck dumb until the child is born. This will mean that Zechariah will be unable to pronounce the customary blessing after burning the incense, which would be a surprise to everyone watching and waiting.

Pregnancy of Elizabeth (1:23-25)

She remained in seclusion for five months, presumably until the pregnancy became obvious, otherwise no one would believe her. Her pregnancy removed the shame she bore because she had been unable to have children. Elizabeth's pregnancy became the sign to confirm the annunciation to Mary (1:36), six months later (1:26).

The annunciation of Jesus (Lk 1:26-38)

If John was to be born as the one to go before God to prepare Israel for Yahweh's coming, then the question must arise, as how God was to come. God was to come in the birth of his Son to Mary. Luke stresses that the whole life and ministry of Jesus was the promised visitation of God (1:68,78, 7:16, 19:44).

The appearance of Gabriel to Mary (1:26-27)

In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Gabriel appeared a second time, this time to Mary in the rural area of Galilee.

Mary was engaged to Joseph. Jewish marriage consisted of two distinct parts, the betrothal, and the home-taking. Betrothal was the pledge to be married made while the girl was young by paying the bride price to her father in the presence of witnesses. Until a girl was 12½, her father could arrange for her to marry whoever he wished. Once she had come of age, she could not be betrothed against her will, so the normal age of betrothal was between 12 and 12½. Betrothal signified the transfer of the girl from her father's power to her husband's power.

Once betrothed, the woman was called the wife of the man, and even though they were not living together yet. She could be widowed, divorced, or even executed for adultery. Betrothal could only be broken by divorce initiated by the man (Matt 1:19). In Galilee, no sexual relationship was allowed, and the wife was expected to be a virgin at the time of the home-taking.

The home-taking was the proper marriage, in which the girl would be transferred to the home of her husband. It normally took place about a year after the betrothal. It was celebrated with a procession to the husband's home, followed by a wedding feast.

This would suggest that at the time of the annunciation, Mary was only a young girl, following her betrothal and before her home-taking. Very little is known about Joseph, apart that he was of the house of David (v27). He would normally be older, and have a trade so he could support a wife and family.

The annunciation by the angel (1:28-33)

The angel greets Mary with these words, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you” (v28). These words have become controversial through the history of the church. From the word ‘Greetings’ comes the Latin version ‘Ave Maria’. In the Catholic church this is combined with a prayer to Mary as mother of God:
“Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death, Amen.”

The words, ‘favoured one’ is translated as ‘full of grace’, which is taken to mean that Mary herself is a source of grace. Protestants would say that Mary was the object of grace, receiving grace from God, rather than being a source of grace herself. The words, ‘blessed is the fruit of your womb’ is taken from the words of Elizabeth (1:42).

Gabriel then announced the coming birth, named the child (v31) and predicted his kingly role (v32- 33). The name Jesus is equivalent to the OT name Joshua, means ‘Yahweh is salvation’, or ‘Yahweh is Saviour’. His name shows that the birth is truly a divine act, as well as connecting Jesus with two significant figures from Israel's history, who were called Joshua. The first was the Joshua who led the Israelites into the promised land. The second was Joshua, the post-exilic high priest, who was attacked by Satan and became a symbol of God's cleansing for the nation (Zech 3:1-10).

Gabriel also calls the Jesus the ‘Son of the Most High’. This points towards Jesus as being the Davidic Messiah. There is a parallel between this annunciation and the promises to David about his son (2 Sam 7:9-16). Jesus is seen as the fulfilment of these promises. However, they will be fulfilled in a very different manner from what was popularly believed. The Kingdom of God was not to be the kingdom of Israel, but something much greater. All Mary would have realised, was that the time of fulfilment had come.

Mary's practical question (1:34-35)

Mary's question was how could she become pregnant while she was only betrothed and still a virgin, before the home-taking had taken place. Gabriel explained that the pregnancy would be result from the power of the Holy Spirit. Two different verbs are used to describe the work of the Spirit. The first is that the Spirit will ‘come upon you’. This phrase has the association of unpleasant or hostile events. It could refer to the stigma and difficulties her pregnancy will cause, as well as fact that this son will eventually be crucified. The second is that the Spirit, power of the Most High, will ‘overshadow you’, which suggests God's protection and presence during this difficult time. Together these two verbs set up a tension and paradox. The Spirit caused the problem, but will also protect her during it.

Gabriel names him as ‘Son of God’ (v35). He had already named him, ‘Son of the Most High’ (v32). He will not merely be descended from David physically, but also because he will be conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit, he will be Son of God in a unique sense. This implies his divinity, even though Mary would not have understood this at the time.

The Virgin Birth

This belief has been held by the mainstream church right from the early centuries, as a way of asserting the truth of the incarnation and the paradox of Jesus's humanity and divinity. It was declared in the earliest creeds of the church. The Apostles' Creed stated, “I believe ... in Jesus Christ ... our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”. The Nicene Creed stated, “I believe ... in one Lord Jesus Christ ... Who was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary ...”.

The sign of Elizabeth's pregnancy (1:36-38)

The words of the angel were confirmed by the sign that Mary's cousin Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age, showing her that with God, nothing is impossible. They were either cousins, or some other close relative. Elizabeth and Zechariah were Levites, both being descendants of Aaron, the priestly family (1:5). If Elizabeth was a relative of Mary, then Mary must also be a Levite. Joseph was a descendant of David, from the tribe of Judah (1:27).

Mary's response was one of humility, faith and obedience (v38). This was in the face of certain public disgrace, and mixed and confused inner feelings.

Mary's visit to Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-45, 56)

Mary's visit (1:39-40, 56)

Mary immediately travelled south to Judea. She was only a young girl, so probably joined the rest of her family, or a group of pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem for one of the feasts, rather than travelling alone, which would have been dangerous. They probably travelled via Perea, across the Jordan, to avoid travelling through Samaria.

The annunciation to Mary was in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy (v26), and Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months (v56), probably until John was born.

The impact of the visit (1:41-45)

For Mary, the obvious pregnancy of Elizabeth (by now in her sixth month) was confirmation of the sign given by Gabriel (v36). For Elizabeth, the sudden leaping by the child in her womb was accompanied by a prophetic inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which had filled her. Even as an unborn child, John showed his function as the forerunner of the Messiah, that he recognised the coming of the Messiah (v15).

Elizabeth's blessing is written in the same style as Hebrew parallelism. The first part of the blessing is personal, addressed to Mary as mother of the Lord, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (v42). Elizabeth’s blessing has been incorporated into the Catholic ‘Ave Maria’, as noted above.

By the leaping of her unborn child by the Spirit, Elizabeth recognised that Mary carried the Lord (Kurios) within her (v43-44). Lord (Greek Kurios) is Luke's most frequently used title of Jesus, more than other Gospel writers. It is used 219 times in Luke and Acts. Kurios was the normal Greek translation of the Hebrew ‘Yahweh’ in the Septuagint. Even as an unborn child, Jesus was the LORD.

The second part of the blessing, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (v45). Mary is blessed because she believed what the Lord spoke to her would be fulfilled, but Luke shows that her faith was more important (11:28).

The phrase, ‘mother of my Lord’ (v43) has caused much controversy. During the early centuries, some church leaders gave Mary the title ‘Theotokos’, meaning ‘bearer of God’. This was accepted by the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). Many evangelicals are reluctant to accept this title to avoid Mariology. However, it is not the same as calling Mary the ‘Mother of God’, (Latin: Dei Genetrix), as the Catholics do, and giving her the role of co-redeemer, which allows for the worship of Mary.

Mary was an object of special grace, making her unique in the human race, because of her special role in the nativity of Jesus. Jesus had full deity from conception in her womb. Therefore it is appropriate that “all generations should call her blessed” (v48).

The Magnificat (1:46-55)

This hymn of praise by Mary is known as the Magnificat, from the first word in the Latin Vulgate Bible, translated by Jerome in the 4th century. The word magnificat means to magnify or praise. Again it is set in Hebrew parallelism. It also looks forward to the great redemption that Jesus would achieve in the future. It is very Jewish, drawing imagery form the Song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10), as well as from the Psalms and prophets.

There are two parts. The first part is personal to Mary herself (v46b-49). It is significant that Mary includes herself as an object of God's salvation (v47), and rejoices in it. This would stand against the idea of the sinlessness of Mary.

The word ‘Saviour’ is a significant term in Luke's writings, as he is the only gospel writer to use this title. It was especially so in the Gentile world, where political leaders were considered as benefactors, or saviours, to their subjects. The title ‘Soter’, meaning Saviour was used by the Roman emperors. Luke uses this title to describe Jesus, the great benefactor of mankind, and to describe God, the Saviour who gave Jesus to the world as the ultimate act of being a benefactor.

Mary describes her lowly state and unworthiness to be the bearer of the Son of God (v48). This shows that God's action in her conception was an act of his grace, not a reward for her merit. However, it was because of this grace shown to her that she will be called blessed by all generations.

The second part widens to become more corporate to include all God's people (v50-55). God’s acts of redemption are for those who fear him (v50) (Ps 103:17). This statement depends on the remnant concept found in the OT prophets. It was only a remnant who believed in the OT, so it is only a remnant who will believe in Luke’s time. As John the Baptist declared, being a descendant of Abraham was not enough, if not accompanied by repentance and faith (3:7-9).

There will be a reversal in the social structure of the time (v51). This is a prediction of the words of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth (4:18), as well as the beatitudes (6:20-26). In Jesus, all the promises to Israel are to be fulfilled (v54f). All the promises of land given to Abraham and David are to be realised by the people of faith.

The birth of John the Baptist (Lk 1:57-66,80)

Three months after the arrival of Mary at the house of Elizabeth, her child was born, as predicted.

At the circumcision on the eighth day, it had become customary to name the child formally (v59). The assumption would that he would be named after his father, Zechariah, and it is likely that during the eight days, the relatives had already got into the habit of calling him ‘little Zechariah’. When Zechariah was consulted, he confirmed that the name should be John, as given by Elizabeth, and his dumbness was brought to an end, which brought great awe to the people.

After the Benedictus, there is a brief summary of John’s development (v80). He grew and became strong in spirit, remaining in the wilderness until his public ministry began (v80). The wilderness was the traditional home of prophetic inspiration for the greatest prophets of Israel, Moses and Elijah.

The Benedictus (Lk 1:67-79)

As with the Magnificat, the title of this song of praise comes form the first words of the Latin Vulgate. Also like the Magnificat, the Benedictus is filled with the vocabulary of the OT. It is likely that the Benedictus was the content of the praise by Zechariah (v64). Again, the prophecy has two parts.

The first part is a celebration of the fulfilment of the promise of the Messiah (v68-75). Zechariah recognises that the birth of his son John belonged to the long-awaited visitation from God. As in the Magnificat, the actions of God in redemption are in the past tense, to show their certainty. The time of fulfilment has come.

He blesses God because he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them (v68). The word ‘redeemed’ is significant. Just as God visited his people in Egypt to redeem them from slavery, the great act of redemption in the OT. Luke describes how God is now visiting his people in the great act of redemption of the coming of Christ. In the coming of Jesus, all the OT promises to Israel have been truly fulfilled.

Luke links together several different prophetic phrases out of the OT (v71ff). This shows that all the promises of land and blessings are now being spiritually fulfilled in the redemptive work of Jesus. What was once understood as blessings for Israel as a nation must now be understood in terms of the Kingdom of God. Many of the phrases of this part of the Benedictus follow the ancient Jewish daily prayer, the 18 benedictions. What the Jews had repeatedly prayed was now being realised , but in a different way from what they expected.

In the second part, Zechariah addresses his son, describing the future prophetic role of his son in the great acts of redemption. The pronoun changes to ‘you’ (v76-79). John will be the forerunner, a prophet who will fulfil the predictions about a ministry of preparation (Is 40:3, Mal 3:1). His ministry will focus on the knowledge of salvation and the forgiveness of sins (v77), as in (3:3-6).

The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Lk 2:1-7)

The year of the birth of Jesus (v1-2)

Luke dates the birth of Jesus by the ruling emperor Augustus (27BC - AD14) and by the census taken during the governorship of Quirinius. However this leads to a problem. There are records of a census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria in AD 6, which would place the birth of Jesus too late. Also this would contradict Matthew's account, which places the birth before the death of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC. It may be that Quirinius also had an earlier period of being governor of Syria from 10 to 7 BC, but this is speculation. The standard dating of Jesus's birth is between 4 and 6 BC.

Censuses were taken every fourteen years. Records exist of the censuses each fourteen years from AD 20 to AD 270. There was a census in AD 6, so going back 14 years, suggests that a census was taken around 8 BC, which would have been the one at the time of Jesus's birth.

Jesus was not actually born in the year zero, or between 1 BC, and AD 1. AD stands for Anno Domini, which is the Latin for ‘the year of the Lord’. This was calculated by Pope John 1 in AD 525, so the years are still numbered from the birth of Jesus. However, his calculations have been shown to be incorrect.

The tradition of 25th December can be traced back to the second century, to Hippolytus (165-235), and conformed by Chrysostom (AD 386). Originally 25th December was a pagan Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated after the shortest day of the year, when slaves were temporarily freed. It was a common practice for the church to take over something pagan and ‘Christianise’ it.

Many people suggest that Jesus was actually born around the feast of Tabernacles, in the early Autumn. As noted above, Zechariah was a priest of the order of Abijah (1:5), which was the eighth of 24 orders (1 Chr 24:7-18). Each order of priests served for two weeks, twice a year, plus the three main festivals (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles). The priestly cycle began on the first Sabbath of the month Nisan, which is the first month in the Jewish calendar, around March or April. From this it is possible to estimate that the order of Abijah was on duty in the months of Sivan (June) and Kislev (December). It is probable that John was conceived shortly after the angelic annunciation. If June is correct, then John would have been born nine months later, around the time of Passover in April. This would match the Jewish expectation that Elijah would return at Passover. An extra cup of wine continues to be laid out at the Passover meal for Elijah. Jesus was around six months younger than John (1:26,26), so he would have been born in early Autumn, probably in the month of Soccoth, when the feast of Tabernacles is celebrated.

The registration for tax (v2-5)

In the Roman empire, a census was taken to assess for taxation, as well as discovering those who were eligible for military service, apart from the Jews, who were exempt. So Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to their ancestral town of Bethlehem, a three day journey, to register their names for paying tax.

Bethlehem was known as the city of David, because it was the town of David's birth and childhood (1 Sam 17:12,58).

The birth of Jesus (v6-7)

Many of the traditions associated with the birth of Jesus actually have little or no biblical basis. For example, notice that there is no mention of animals. It would have been nothing like the popular image of an English stable, even though he was laid in an animal’s feeding trough or manger.

Tradition from the second century locates the birth of Jesus in a cave, which may be true. A typical house of a peasant family had a single room. Sometimes this room was dug into a cliff, or used an existing cave, with a wall built in front. The single room was the living and sleeping area for the whole family. There was a small area slightly lower than the main living area into which the family cow or donkey was brought at night. There were one or two mangers built into the floor of the main room, so the animals could feed at night.

The statement that there was no room in the inn (v7) causes modern readers to imagine that Joseph and Mary were trying to stay at in public accommodation. There were inns available to stay in, but they had a bad reputation, so most people would avoid them and stay in the house of a relative or friend. The word often translated ‘inn’ is the Greek kataluma, which is a guestroom in a private house. Some houses had an extra room, either at the end of the house, or on the roof, which served as a guestroom. Evidently, because of the census, the guestroom was already occupied, so Joseph and Mary had to sleep in the area normally used for the cow or donkey, and lay their newborn son in the manger.

The same word is used to describe the large upper room where Jesus and his disciples met for the Passover meal, “The teacher asks you, ‘Where is the guest room (kataluma), where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” (Lk 22:11). In the Book of Kings, there was a wealthy woman who built a guest room for Elisha on the roof of her house (2 Kg 4:8,10).

An inn is mentioned in the parable of the Good Samaritan, who put the man who had been beaten up and robbed on his donkey and took him to an inn (Lk 10:34). A different word is used in this passage, to describe public accommodation.

Mary wrapped the baby in bands of cloth (v7), which was the customary practice. She did this herself, which would suggest that she had no help from a midwife.

The visit of the shepherds (Lk 2:8-20)

The first worshippers of Jesus were common shepherds, who had a similar status to the crowds who flocked to Jesus during his public ministry. Socially, shepherds had a bad reputation, because they were normally unable to keep the law because of their duty to their sheep. They were considered thieves, and were not trusted to give testimony in a court of law.

It is very likely that these shepherds in the neighbourhood of Bethlehem were keeping the sheep which will be used as sacrificial animals in the temple. If this is so, then there is great symbolism in this story. The shepherds keeping the sacrificial sheep come and recognise the Lamb of God, the final once and for all sacrifice.

The annunciation to the shepherds (v8-12)

This annunciation again follows the standard pattern of annunciations described above. The angel appears, the people respond with fear, the message is given and a sign given to show that the message is true.

In describing the story of the shepherds, Luke is using language which would have significant associations for Greco-Roman society. Luke deliberately used words and concepts familiar to the pagan world in order to proclaim that Jesus was truly the supreme divine ruler. The first is the announcement of good news (v10). This was the word used in official proclamations to announce the birthday of Caesar, or the emperor's coming of age, or enthronement, or important speeches or events which were supposed to bring great joy. The second was saviour (v11). This also had political overtones, the emperor was the Saviour or benefactor (as 1:46-47). So Jesus is the great benefactor. The third was Lord (Greek: Kyrios) (v11), the title used for the emperor, who was thought to be divine, as well as for pagan deities.

His descriptions also have strong connections with the Jewish faith. Jesus is the Lord (v11), the word for Yahweh used in the Septuagint, showing the divinity of Jesus. He was the saviour (v11), the word used by Isaiah to address God, again showing the divinity of Jesus. The announcement of good news (v10) also draws from the OT prophets such as Isaiah announcing salvation to the captives in exile in Babylon. Jesus is the Christ, or Messiah (v11), which was the title for the kings of David’s dynasty who ruled in Jerusalem. By the time of the birth of Jesus, the coming of the Messiah had come to represent the totality of the Jewish hope for the future, when all the nationalistic hopes of Israel would be fulfilled.

The great company of angels (v13-14)

They are described as a multitude of the heavenly host (v13). The word host means army. In the OT, God is called the Lord of Hosts, meaning lord of the armies. This can refer to the physical army of Israel, or to the heavenly host of stars, or to the angels.

Again, this has become one of the hymns of the church. The Gloria in Excelsis is Latin for ‘Glory to God in the highest’ (v14). The angels bring a message of peace. This needs to be seen in contrast to the ‘Pax Romana’, the famous peace brought by the Romans, brought by war and conquest, and maintained by the Roman armies. The angels’ message was of an inner peace.

The visit by the shepherds (v15-20)

The shepherds retell what had happened and what they had been told by the angel to Mary and Joseph and others, resulting in two different responses.

The first is that everyone was amazed (v18). One important theme of Luke's gospel is the theme of awe, wonder, amazement, astonishment, showing people’s response to Jesus and his works. He uses a collection of verbs to describe this, often using several of them together to make a stronger impact. Luke uses these to cause the readers to ask, "Who is this Jesus?"

Mary’s response comes in contrast, as she ponders on their words and links them with what she has already been told about her child (v19)

Jesus Presented in The temple (Lk 2:21-40)

Through the birth narratives, Luke shows how carefully all the characters observed the Jewish law, including Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna. Theologically, this shows that anyone who was truly devoted to the spirit of the law will be ready to receive Jesus.

Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah were open to God's redemptive actions, which came in the context of OT thought, and it was this that enabled them to be open to what God was doing through them. This is shown in the Magnificat and the Benedictus.

The stories of Simeon and Anna also indicate this. Both these old people were devout Jews who were zealously observing the law, but were open to the Holy Spirit (v25-27), and were looking for the consolation of Israel (v25) and the redemption of Jerusalem (v38). Their reward was to find that God would fulfil both of these in the child being presented in the temple.

The temple ritual (v21-24)

There were two rituals to be done by Mary and Joseph.

The first was the offering for Mary's ceremonial cleansing after childbirth (v22a). Through childbirth, Mary had become ceremonially unclean (Lev 12:1-8). For seven days, she remained ceremonially unclean, and kept apart from others. On the eighth day, the baby boy was circumcised. Then for 33 days, the time of blood purification, the mother was not allowed to come to the temple. This was the time until her discharge of blood ceased after childbirth. At end of this time, she had to appear at the sanctuary with a burnt offering and a sin offering for her ceremonial purification. Mary and Joseph brought the offering allowed for poor people, two doves or two pigeons, instead of a sheep.

The second was the presentation of firstborn son to Yahweh (v22b-24). This was a separate ceremony, although Mary and Joseph performed both rituals in the same visit to the temple. Firstborn sons were presented to Yahweh, because they symbolised the firstborn sons who were saved during the final plague of Egypt (The Passover) (Ex 13:1-15, Num 18:15). All firstborn males (human or animals) were devoted to Yahweh, but instead of being slaughtered, they were presented to Yahweh, and then bought back (redeemed) for five shekels (Num 18:15-16, Lev 27:6).

This narrative is interrupted by the account of Simeon and Anna, but concludes at v39-40. This literary technique is called framing, in which one account is placed within another account, showing the relationship between the two. Earlier in the narrative, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (1:39-45, 56) framed the Magnificat (1:46-55), and John’s birth and childhood (1:57-66, 80) framed the Benedictus (1:67-79).

Simeon (2:25-28)

Luke tells us all that is known about Simeon. He was a devout believer, who was very careful to fulfil all his religious duties. No indication is given that he was a priest, but it was customary for parents to bring their child to the temple and have an aged rabbi to bless and pray for it.

Simeon's most important characteristic was that he was led to come to the temple at that precise time by the Holy Spirit. Three times the Holy Spirit is mentioned in this account. Again in Luke’s account, we see the return of the quenched Spirit, and the Spirit leading people to speak prophetically. Simeon was looking forward to the consolation of Israel. Again, Luke shows that the true fulfilment of the promises to Israel will come in the kingdom brought through Jesus.

Simeon's first oracle (2:29-32)

This oracle is known in the church as the Nunc Dimittis, which is the Latin for ‘Now dismiss”, the first words spoken by Simeon. Simeon addresses Yahweh, as a slave would address his master. The word ‘now’ comes first in the sentence as an emphasis (v29), showing that God's long awaited time of salvation has now dawned. This is also another important theme of Luke's gospel. ‘Salvation’ is another term characteristic of Isaiah, used to refer to the restoration of the exiles from Babylon. However, the exiles never saw the glorious future predicted by Isaiah. Instead, times were hard, they were dominated by pagan rulers, and disappointment set in. Now, with the birth of Jesus, is the time of God’s salvation. This salvation would also be a light to the Gentiles (v32), so there is a universal aspect of salvation, which is another important theme of Luke.

Simeon's second oracle (2:33-35)

Simeon’s second oracle is addressed to Mary and speaks of rejection and pain for Mary. Her son will be a centre of controversy, causing people to decide either for or against God, in faith or unbelief. For Mary, her son will cause immense grief, a prediction of the crucifixion.

Anna (2:36-38)

Anna was a prophetess, which is unusual. Jews believed that the prophetic Spirit had ceased for 400 years, also she was a woman, and female prophets were extremely rare in OT Israel.

She was of the tribe of Asher, one of the ten northern tribes of Israel. Many refugees of the north had fled south before the land fell to the Assyrians, so she was probably a descendent of one of these. It is probably significant that Luke includes her as a representative of the lost tribes of the northern kingdom who recognised the time of God's visitation.

Again, like Simeon, she was devout, and looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. She continues Luke's theme of the devout Jews who truly open to the Holy Spirit and who recognised the coming of the long expected Messiah.

This redemption of Jerusalem will be a spiritual redemption rather than a physical one. The physical Jerusalem will be made desolate (19:41-44, 21:20-24).

Jesus visits the temple at age twelve (Lk 2:41-52)

This is the only account in the Bible of Jesus between his birth and the beginning of his ministry. Of course, various people have attempted to fill in the gaps.

The purpose of this account is to show that as a boy, Jesus was gradually growing into an awareness of who he is.

Jesus attending the Passover (v41-42)

In the law, every Jewish male should celebrate the three festivals before God, the Unleavened bread (inc. Passover), Pentecost (or Weeks), and Tabernacles (or Booths). At the time of Jesus, it was customary for Jews living further away from Jerusalem only to visit the city for Passover.

At the age of 12, Jesus was about to enter the full responsibilities of adult life. At 13, a Jewish boy was bound to observe and obey the law, he became a ‘son of the law’ (Bar mitzvah). Before this, they were instructed in the law and brought to the temple to participate in the annual festivals.

Jesus lost and found (v43-36)

The festival of Unleavened bread lasted a week, but visitors were only required to stay for the first two days, at which time Mary and Joseph presumably left (without Jesus). During the final days of Unleavened Bread, it was customary for members of the Sanhedrin to sit on the terrace of the temple and teach and answer questions from the people visiting. It was in this situation that Mary and Joseph found Jesus.

His father's business (v47-52)

The other people listening, as well as his parents, were amazed at the insight that the 12 year old Jesus obviously showed. Jesus's response is the whole point of this story. Luke uses this story to show that Jesus had begun to realise who he was and to discern the unique relationship he had with God, even though Mary and Joseph did not fully understand.

Such an account is called a pronouncement story, because the whole story revolves around an important saying of Jesus, with the narrative setting the scene for the pronouncement.

Mary's response was to reflect deeply on it. This reflection later blossomed into faith, as Mary was included with the members of the early church on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14)

The Birth Narratives in Matthew, 1:18 - 2:23

There is very little overlap between the birth narratives in Matt and Luke. The two accounts are complementary, and not contradictory. Matthew takes the viewpoint of Joseph, with a focus on Joseph's role, and how it affected him, while Luke takes the viewpoint of Mary.

In Matthew, three points are emphasised: the role of Joseph, the importance of divine guidance through dreams, and repeated references to the fulfilment of prophecy. Joseph was guided by dreams four times (1:20, 2:13,19,22), and the magi once (2:12).

There are five sections, each ending with a fulfilment statement, particularly confirming the geography. In this we can see that Jesus repeated the history of Israel, moving from Judea, to Egypt and back to Galilee.
1. The virgin conception (1:18-24), quotes Is 7:14
2. Magi come to Herod (2:1-6), quotes Micah 5:2
3. Magi visit, escape to Egypt (2:7-15), quotes Hosea 11:1
4. Killing of babies in Bethlehem (2:16-18), quotes Jer 31:15
5. Herod dies, return to Nazareth (2:19-23), unknown quotation

The origin of Jesus (1:18-25)

Matthew begins with an introductory sentence, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place this way.” (v18). The words ‘the birth of Jesus’ is the genesis of Jesus, using the same words as the first sentence of the gospel (v1). In the genealogy which immediately precedes this, the birth of Jesus is worded in an unusual way, “... Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah” (v16). This is now explained in detail.

The Jewish system of betrothal and marriage is described in Luke’s narrative above. Between the betrothal and the home-taking, Mary was found to be pregnant, which greatly upset Joseph. He knew the child was not his, so Mary had either been unfaithful to him, or she had been raped. His question was whether it was her fault, or someone else's. He decided to divorce Mary privately, rather than make a public scandal. He did not yet know that her pregnancy was ‘through the Holy Spirit’ (v18), so naturally he assumed the worst.

Joseph found himself in a difficult situation. He was unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace (v19a), as this would put the blame on Mary, meaning that she had been unfaithful to him. The law covering this was clearly laid out in the Book of Deuteronomy. There were two different possibilities. The first was when an engaged virgin commits adultery in a town and did not cry for help (Deut 22:23-24). Both people were executed, and the virgin was condemned as was guilty. Under this law, Joseph would also deserve death. The second when an engaged virgin was seized by a man in open country (Deut 22:25-27). Only the man was executed, the virgin was assumed to be not guilty, having been raped. If unfaithfulness was suspected, the woman had to submit to the ordeal (Num 5:11-31), where guilt or innocence was proved by drinking filthy water with a curse.

Joseph planned to divorce her secretly (v19b). He chose to shield Mary from public disgrace, and simply return her to her father. Joseph’s questions and concerns were answered by the appearance of the angel in his dream (the first of four dreams recorded) (v20), who urged Joseph to complete the home-taking, rather than to divorce Mary. This would brought Joseph under the social stigma as well. People would either think that he had made Mary pregnant before the home-taking, or that Mary had been unfaithful, or she had been raped.

The suspicion of illegitimacy continued through Jesus's ministry. He is insultingly referred to as the ‘son of Mary’ (Mk 6:3), which would infer that the father was unknown. This is also claimed in several non-biblical traditions, some of which claim that Jesus was born of fornication, others say that Jesus was the son of Mary and Panthera, a Roman soldier.

Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (v20). This is the teaching of the virgin conception of Mary, that she conceived without any form of intercourse, but through the work of the Holy Spirit, which demonstrates the nature of Jesus of being both human and divine.

The name Jesus means ‘Yahweh saves’. It was quite a common Jewish name, occurring several times in the Bible. It is the Greek equivalent to the Jewish name Joshua, which is translated ‘Jesus’ in the Septuagint.

The fulfilment of Is 7:14

Matthew gives a quotation from the Book of Isaiah showing it finds its fulfilment in the birth of Jesus. Isaiah chapter seven is set during the Syro-Ephraimite War, while Ahaz was king of Judah, at a time when the rise of Assyria was becoming a threat to Judah. Israel (Ephraim) and Syria (Aram) formed a coalition against Assyria, and invited Judah to join them. Ahaz was hesitant and indecisive, which led Rezin of Syria, and Pekah of Israel to attack Judah with the aim of deposing Ahaz, and replacing him with the son of Tabeel who would support the aims of the coalition (Is 7:1-14).

Isaiah met Ahaz to ensure him that the threat from Syria and Israel is nothing to worry about, but instead he should trust God. Isaiah challenged Ahaz to ask for a sign, which Ahaz refused to do, a sign of his lack of faith. However, God gave him a sign anyway, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel", meaning ‘God with us’ (7:14). In the Hebrew text the mother is referred to as a young woman, who was not necessarily a virgin, and could be married. In the Greek Septuagint, the word for young woman is translated as a virgin, implying an unmarried woman. Although the woman is not identified, Ahaz would know who Isaiah was speaking about. It is likely to have been Isaiah’s own wife. To be a genuine sign to Ahaz, it had to refer to a person living at the time. The sign of Immanuel would be double-edged, as a sign both of protection, as well as judgement. God would be with them, both as protector against the coalition, but also as judge, when Judah was invaded by Assyria.

By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Matthew saw a prophetic connection between the prediction of the birth of a child given by Isaiah to Ahaz, and the birth of Jesus. The birth of Jesus made full the word of God to Isaiah about the child Immanuel, in the sense that the birth of Jesus repeated an earlier historical event. Jesus was Immanuel in the fullest sense, not only as protector and judge, but also as a visible manifestation of God, to save us from sin. He truly was ‘God with us’.

Joseph’s response was to do as the angel commanded him. He took Mary as his wife, but had no sexual relations until she had borne a son. (v24). It appears that after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary had a normal married relationship, and other children were born to them. Luke’s account of the ritual cleansing of Mary (Lk 2:22-24) would suggest that Luke, who was a doctor, believed that Mary had a normal delivery which required cleansing. The Catholic belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary would claim that Joseph and Mary never consummated their marriage.

Joseph named the child Jesus (v24), which would suggest that Joseph adopted Jesus legally as his own son.

The Debate over the virgin birth / conception

The proper term should be virgin conception, rather than virgin birth. There is no indication from the text that Jesus was born in any other than the normal way. Many modern theologians claim that the virgin birth is a theological idea without any basis in history, which shows their anti- supernatural world-view. Both Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives would be nonsense without the virgin birth. Both assume that this was a historical event, which had great theological significance.

The Catholic belief is of virgin conception, birth, and the perpetual virginity of Mary. The Protestant belief is in only a virgin conception, then a normal birth, and probably subsequent normal births of other children.

It would be a great problem for the early church to claim the virgin birth as a historical fact, as it would bring the charge that Jesus was illegitimate. There would have been no point them claiming the truth of the virgin birth if it had no historical reality.

The Significance of the virgin birth

The virgin birth shows that Jesus is God’s Son through the Holy Spirit, that he was uniquely a product of both the human and divine, like no one before or since. It explains how the incarnation actually happened, and how Jesus could be born with a human nature not tainted by original sin. It shows that Jesus was fully human, living the whole human life cycle from womb to death. It also shows that Jesus was a miraculous gift of grace to humanity, which came from God through Mary, so his origin is both human and divine.

The visit of the magi (2:1-12)

In most nativity plays, the shepherds and magi arrive at the same time. However, the two visits are not connected in the gospels. Luke describes the visit of the shepherds, and Matthew the visit of the magi, which could have been up to two years later. They are not kings, but are astrologers, wise men, magicians, or those who are wise in the interpretation of stars or dreams. The text does not name them, or say that there were three, they happened to bring three gifts. It is normally thought that they came from Persia, where there were magi associated with the priestly caste. Some have suggested they came from Asia Minor. In Persia there was great interest in the connection between astronomical phenomena and political events. It was believed that stars heralded the birth of human beings destined for greatness. The gifts brought by the magi were valuable products of Arabia and other eastern countries. It would be very unusual for a Persian wise man to come and honour the birth of a Jewish peasant.

Matthew probably included the story to show that wise men, even Gentiles, sought out Jesus, while the Jewish king Herod, who knew the OT predictions, did not seek out or honour the new Son of David, instead he sought to kill him.

The magi had seen his star at its rising (v3). Many people have attempted to identify the star astronomically, but with no real success. Conjunctions between planets, or appearances of comets have been suggested. There was a conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC, which would show as a much brighter object, as the two planets appeared in the same place in the sky. Halley’s comet appeared in 11 BC, which is too early. In several Jewish and other historical accounts, the births of great men are heralded by the appearance of a star. In the Book of Numbers, Balaam predicted that a star shall come out of Jacob (Num 24:17). It is possible that the star was actually a light that appeared, which guided the magi to the location of Jesus’ birth.

In Matthew’s account the star appeared at the time of the birth of Jesus (v3), as Herod understood (v7). He asked the magi exactly when the star first appeared, in order to work out the age of the child. The star then led the magi to the house where the child was (v9).

The magi first visit Herod, asking him about the child who has been born king of the Jews (v2). On hearing this, Herod was frightened, perceiving this as a treat to his own power.

He asks the chief priests and scribes where the Messiah was to be born (v4), and is told that the prophet Micah predicted that he would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), the town of David. This was recognised as a Messianic prediction, which they quote to Herod.

Herod then commanded that the wise men search for the child, then report back to him (v8). It is most unlikely that Herod really wanted to pay him homage. The killing of the infants in Bethlehem shows his real intention to destroy any perceived threat to his power.

The star then led the magi to the house where the child was, where they knelt to pay him homage, and give him gifts (v10-12). The gifts were suitable for a king, especially gold and frankincense (Is 60:6). The Queen of Sheba brought gifts, including spices and gold, to Solomon (1 Kg 10:2). Myrrh was offered to Jesus at his crucifixion (Mk 15:23), and used for his burial (Jn 19:39), so is often linked with his suffering.

The wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod (v12), ignoring his request to tell him where the child was to be found (v8).

The flight to Egypt (2:13-15)

After the departure of the wise men, Joseph receives another dream, warning him of the threat to his son from Herod, and telling him to take his family to refuge in Egypt. As soon as Herod realised that the wise men had not obeyed his request to locate the child, he would have taken action, so there was great urgency to flee, even at night.

Matthew sees the flight to Egypt as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Hosea, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (v15, quoting Hos 11:1). This is not actually a messianic prophecy, but recalls the original exodus out of Egypt, when God called his son, Israel, out of Egypt. "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1). Matthew sees Jesus as the true Israel, so the exodus of Israel out of Egypt was an act of God’s salvation, which prefigures the true salvation available through Jesus. In his early childhood, by going to Egypt, Jesus retraced the steps of Israel.

Matthew seems to bring a parallel between the childhood of Jesus and the life of Moses, so Jesus can be portrayed as a second Moses. This would be clearer to Jews who were familiar with the extra-biblical Jewish traditions about Moses. For example, according to Josephus, an Egyptian scribe warned Pharaoh about the birth of an Israelite child who will bring disaster upon the Egyptians. “One of those sacred scribes, who were very sagacious in foretelling future events truly, told the king, that about this time there would a child be born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages” (Josephus Ant 2.9.2). In response to this Pharoah commanded that all Israelite baby boys be thrown into the River Nile. Josephus continues to record that the father of Moses was told in a dream that his son was destined to deliver Israel, so arranged for him to be rescued (Ant 2.9.3).

Killing of the infants (2:16-18)

Herod was greatly angered at the failure of the wise men to inform him of the location of the child (v16). This action of killing the infants is not recorded in history. Bethlehem was only a small town, so the number of infants under two years old would be quite small. However, this is a typical action of Herod the Great. He was the king of the Jews, and would not tolerate any perceived threat to his throne. He became increasingly sick and paranoid towards the end of his life, even having several of his own sons executed, accused of threatening his power.

The age of the children to be killed of two years and younger was based on the timing of the appearance of the star to the magi (v16). Herod the Great died in 4 BC, which suggests that the birth of Jesus was around 6 BC.

Matthew sees the killing of the infants in Bethlehem as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Jeremiah (v17, Jer 31:15). Again, this is not actually a Messianic prediction. The original context is prediction of the return from exile of the northern tribes of Israel, who were exiled in 722 BC. Jeremiah sees Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, as a personification of the nation of Israel, who weeps over the exile. Ramah was in the land of Benjamin, on the border between Israel and Judah (Josh 18:25), about five miles north of Jerusalem. Just as there was grief at the time of the exile, there is grief at the death of the innocent infants in Bethlehem.

The return to Nazareth (2:19-23)

The words of the angel to Joseph are almost identical to the words of God to Moses in the wilderness, “Go back to Egypt; for all those who were seeking your life are dead.” (Ex 4:19). This again shows the parallel being drawn between Moses and Jesus. After the death of Herod the Great, it was now safe to return to Israel (v20).

By this time, Herod the Great had died, and his son Archelaus ruled as Ethnarch of Judea, Idumea and Samaria. He was known to be incompetent and so cruel that the Jews successfully petitioned the Roman emperor to remove him. It is not surprising that Joseph was reluctant to return to live in Judea. Instead, after listening to the warning in a dream, he returned to Nazareth in Galilee, which was under the rule of Herod Antipas, another son of Herod the Great.

The final quotation is a mystery, “He will be called a Nazorean” (v23), as this is not a quotation from the OT. The Messiah was expected to be born in Bethlehem (2:4-6), not to come from the insignificant village of Nazareth in Galilee. The town of Nazareth is not even mentioned in the OT, or any other contemporary Jewish literature. It is worth noting that Matthew notes that it was spoken through the prophets (plural) (v23). It has been suggested that instead of being a quotation of a specific passage, it summarises the prophetic theme of a humble Messiah, who would be despised and rejected (Ps 22, Is 53, Zech 11:4-14). Coming from Nazareth did not fit the Jewish expectation of a kingly Messiah figure, as noted by Nathaniel, who asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). Jesus became known as ‘the Nazarene’, which like the believers being called the ‘sect of the Nazarenes’ (Acts 24:5) was really a way of treating him with contempt.