By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
What circumstances made Jesus’s birth so important? Was it the immaculate conception, the biblical prophecies the birth fulfilled, or Mary’s and Joseph’s visitations by angels? A biblical scholar dives deep into the history of Jesus for clues.
December is a month that’s particularly full of holidays: Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, Yule, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve all fall under its umbrella. However, no religious or secular group boasts as many holidays this month as Christianity. From Advent to Christmas Day, from Krampusnacht to Holy Innocents’ Day, December is full of Christian holidays.
Of course, Jesus Christ is central to Christianity, and the events surrounding his birth are vital to the purpose of his life. What made Jesus’s birth so special? In his video series Searching for the Historical Jesus, Dr. Jean-Pierre Isbouts, Professor Emeritus at Fielding Graduate University, examines the birth narrative of Christ.
How Did Mary Become Pregnant?
“The story of Jesus’s birth, the theme of the Nativity, only appears in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew,” Dr. Isbouts said. “Mark and John begin the story of Jesus when he is a grown man and is about to join the movement of John the Baptist in Jordan. Only Luke and Matthew give us the news that Mary was pregnant before she and Joseph were married.”
A premarital pregnancy, if the father were not the intended husband of the mother-to-be, was a source of shame for the woman’s family. The Torah even says Mary could have been taken outside by her family and stoned to death for it. The Gospel of Luke tells the story from Mary’s perspective: Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, who tells her she is to bear the Son of God, despite that she is a virgin, and she will name him Jesus.
Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s perspective. Joseph receives a visitation from an angel in a dream who encourages Joseph to take Mary as his wife because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
Was Jesus Born in a Stable?
“The oral tradition about Jesus specified that he was raised in a tiny village in Galilee called Nazareth, so the challenge for the evangelists was to develop a narrative to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in time for the birth of Jesus,” Professor Isbouts said.
Luke links this story to a census ordered by the Syrian governor, Quirinius, though the census didn’t take place until several years later and didn’t apply to Nazareth. Matthew resolves the problem in a straightforward manner: In the Gospel of Matthew, the three wise men set out, following a star that stops above the house where Jesus is, and they pay Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus homage.
“In other words, in Matthew’s version there is no stable, no child in the manger, and no shepherds in the fields,” Professor Isbouts said. “Instead, he uses the Greek word oikia for the house, which means a place of residence, a household. Put simply, Matthew says that the engaged couple was living in Bethlehem all along.”
However, Dr. Isbouts said, analyzing the exact circumstances of Jesus’s birth aren’t intended to take away from the meaning of the story, or the meaning of Christmas: In Christian theology, Jesus was born as a new light unto the world. This is why Christmas was initially linked to December, when Romans celebrated the winter solstice and Saturnalia, decorating trees and giving each other gifts.
Searching for the Historical Jesus is now available to stream on Wondrium.