Houston Graduate School of Theology


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What Can We Say Historically about the Birth of Jesus?

By Doug Kennard Luke 2:2 identifies Quirinus as governor of Syria, whose term of service began by August of 5 BC and lasted until 1 BC (Josephus, Ant. 12.277; Tertullian, Marc. 4.19). When Quirinus reported to office in Syria, he instituted a census as he did again when he took the same office later during 6-9 AD (Luke 2:2; Josephus, Ant. 18.1; Quintus Secundus, CIL 3.6687). Jesus birth occurred sometime between August, 5 BC (based on Quirinus ascension date) and mid-March, 4 BC (based on Herod’s death date developed below). The incorrect calculation of the year as 0 was done by Dionysius Exiguus in 533 AD and can be corrected through Josephus, Ant. 18.1.nativity

We don’t know when Mary and Joseph married but it was probably in 5 BC, based on Jesus’ birth date (Matt 1:18, 24). Joseph takes his wife or betrothed virgin Mary to Bethlehem because he is of the house of David, fulfilling Messianic prophecy (Micah 5:2; Isa 7:14 LXX; Matt 1:17-2:6; Sib. Or. 8.478; Letter from Pilate to Claudius contained in Acts of Peter and Paul 40-42 and Tertullian, Apology 5.21). The Holy Spirit came upon Mary in an empowerment metaphor to impregnate her (Matt 1:18-25; Luke 1:34-35; Gos. Philip 17; Questions of Bartholomew 2.15-21; Epistula apostolorum 14[25]; Proto-evangelium of James 11.1-12.3; 13.8; Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 11; metaphor of empowerment like Pentecost: Luke 1:35; 11:22; 21:26; Acts 1:8; 8:24; 13:40; 14:19), rather than Hellenistic myths of divine rape of human women.

Mary gave birth to Jesus in a cave and placed baby Jesus in an animal feeding trough, which became the sign for the shepherds (Luke 2:12, 16; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 78.5; Proto-evangelium of James 17-18; Origen, Against Celsus 1.51; Jerome, Epistle 58 to Paulinus 3.5; Infancy Gospel of James 18). There is no evidence that animals were present with them in the cave, for the animals were placed there by early commentators to prefigure the kingdom described in Isaiah 11.

The family is poor, because Mary presents offerings of two doves for her and Jesus’ cleansing in the Jerusalem Temple (Luke 2:21-24). This means that Mary at six to eight months pregnancy probably walked the hundred miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. After the census, Joseph, Mary and Jesus remain on in Bethlehem in a house (Matt 2:11) to complete Jewish purification requirements in the neighboring city of Jerusalem.

The magi show up to worship King Jesus while the family is living in a house (Matt 2:11). We do not know how many magi came but they provided three kinds of gifts (Matt 2:1-12). Magi are wise men and astrologers from somewhere in the East (Matt 2:1; likely Iraq, Iran or Kuwait, based on where the gifts would have been purchased or collected).

Herod the Great was king of Israel during 40-4 BC, dying after Jesus’ birth and before Passover in March, with a solar eclipse after his death on March 29, 4 BC (Josephus, Ant. 14-18; 17.9.3; J. W. 2.1.3). Matthew 2-3 identifies that Herod the Great was still alive for Jesus birth because when the magi show up, Herod feigns interest in a newly born King of the Jews. In the previous four years, Herod had killed several pretenders to his throne including wife Mariame and three sons Alexander and Aristbulus (7 BC) and Antipater (4 BC) (As. Moses; Josephus, Ant. 15.7.4, 15.51-55; 17.159, 164, 167, 181; Bava Bathra 3b-4). It is no surprise that Herod kills the kids up to two years old of the region of Bethlehem in an attempt to kill baby Jesus (Matt 2:17-18; Proto-evangelium of James 22.1-2; Eusebius, Ec. Hist. 1.8.1; Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 17). Based on Bethlehem village size at the time, this was probably about three dozen children murdered.


The flight to Egypt (Matt 2:13-15; Papyrus Cairrensis 10735; Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 18-25) recapitulates Moses call to Egypt (Matt 2:19-21 parallel to Exod 4:19-20) and the Exodus (Exod 12-15; Hos 11:1; Matt 2:15). A donkey and provisions for these travels were likely provided by selling the gifts of the magi. The family moving to Galilee occurred between 3 BC and 6 AD, reflecting the Jewish distrust of Archelaus which led to his being deposed as King of the Jews by the Roman Senate in 6 AD (Matt 2:22-23; Mark 1:24; Luke 1:26; Josephus, Ant. 17.11.1-4).

As Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the celebration of Jesus’ incarnation replaced the Roman Empire pagan winter celebration for the undefeated sun, which under the Gregorian calendar occurred on December 25th (thus celebrated as Christmas by Western Christianity) and on January 7th under the Julian calendar (thus celebrated by Greek, Palestinian, and Russian Orthodoxy).