The Nativity scene and other Christmas decorations and traditions go a long way in showing us the deep meaning of Christ’s birth. Yet it can still be a challenge to place ourselves in the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth. After all, it requires that we understand what people would have thought when they heard the word “Messiah” or what was happening at the time when he was born.
To help paint a better picture of this pivotal time in history, let us explore a few interesting aspects of the context surrounding Christmas from both Biblical and extra-Biblical sources — with the help of the late Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.
The Awesome News
One would expect the great story of the God-made-man to begin in thundering fashion. However, reading the New Testament from the beginning can feel quite underwhelming – at least to our modern eyes. For a first-century Jew, however, the first page would have been very sensational. What Matthew tried to convey from the very beginning was precisely what the Jewish people had been waiting to hear for hundreds of years — that the long-awaited Messiah, the kingly descendant of Abraham and David had come, and his name was Jesus. Matthew presents his genealogy as an introductory proof of Jesus’ identify. Let us dive into some important elements he includes.
Jesus and Abraham
God made a promise to Abraham: “All the nations of the earth are to find blessing in [you]” (Gen 18:18). Matthew tells us in two different ways that Jesus, the descendant of Abraham, is the fulfillment of this promise. He does so in the beginning, through his genealogy, and at the end, in the great commission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19).
The new King
According to God’s promise, the coming Messiah and king would be David’s descendant, fulfilling the promise made to the House of David: “Your house and your kingdom are firm forever before me; your throne shall be firmly established forever” (2 Sam 7:16). Knowing this, Matthew shows that Jesus belongs to the House of David before proving throughout his Gospel how he fulfills it.
Mathew divides his genealogy into three parts, each containing 14 generations. Since each letter in Hebrew has a numeric value, the name “David” adds up to 14. Matthew intends to show that all of history points to the coming of David’s heir: Jesus Christ.
Besides Mary, Matthew mentions four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah. Much has been speculated about why he would include these women. But one common characteristic among all of them is that they are not Jewish. In this way, Matthew once again highlights the fulfillment of the universal promise to Abraham, that through his descendants, all nations would be blessed.
We notice a big change in wording when the genealogy mentions Mary. Matthew does not say that Jesus is the son of Joseph, but that he was born of Joseph’s wife, Mary. Thus Matthew emphasizes Jesus’s divine origin.
A reliable account?
One of the things that stands out from Luke’s detailed account of Jesus’ infancy is that he reassures of its accuracy. He states quite explicitly that he did his homework. He says:
“I, too, have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Lk 1:3).
If we pay close attention, we’ll realize that he’s very detailed about names, dates and witnesses because he insists on the historicity of his account. Let’s take a closer look at a couple of those details regarding Jesus’ birth and reflect on their deep meaning.
Caesar Augustus and Jesus
“In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Lk 2:1-2). Pretty detailed, right? Before diving into the historical aspect, it’s important to point out a deeper relationship between Jesus and Caesar Augustus.
Augustus was not just any emperor. He considered himself a semi-god. He was called “savior” and “redeemer.” “Augustus” even means “one worthy of adoration.” It was believed he would establish a new era of peace and bring about unimaginable change in the world. It is quite ironic that he is not remembered for any of those things — and truly fascinating that a baby born in a manger during his reign would be the one to fulfill that very ambition in the humblest way possible.
Now we turn to the historical aspect of the passage. The census mentioned by Luke has been widely debated. Some extra-biblical sources say that this event took place during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in the year 4 B.C. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus dates it back to 6 B.C.
Although this appears to damage Luke’s credibility, Pope Benedict XVI offers two pieces of information that could explain the apparent conflict. On one hand, the monk who calculated the date of Jesus’s birth in the Middle Ages miscalculated it by a few years, which means that Jesus was actually born a few years before 1 B.C. On the other hand, one must consider that an event of that magnitude, given the limited means of the time, must have taken years to complete. This means that Luke’s references fit neatly into the historical context found in other sources.
Besides, as Pope Benedict XVI points out: “In any case, [Luke] was situated much closer to the sources and events than we could ever claim to be, despite our historical scholarship.”
Born in a manger-cave?
Lastly, let us look at the setting of Jesus’ birthplace. An ancient tradition says that Jesus was born in a cave or grotto. What about the stable? Pope Benedict XVI points out that in Bethlehem, caves have been used as stables since ancient times. People even built their houses in front of them in such a way that caves became rooms typically reserved for animals.
Perhaps the earliest account of Jesus being born in a cave comes from Justin Martyr in the second century. He writes, “But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village” (Dialogue with Trypho, 78).
Origen also attests to this around the year 235 A.D.:
“In conformity with the narrative in the Gospel regarding [Jesus’] birth, there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling-clothes. And this sight is greatly talked of in surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith, it being said that in this cave was born that Jesus who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians” (Against Celsus, I, 51).
This tradition is reinforced by the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was constructed over a cave and remains today an important pilgrimage site to this day. The church was built in 330 A.D. by Constantine and remodeled by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.
Some historians have argued that Jesus could not have been born in the cave where the church stands because it is known that this particular cave was home to an ancient Roman cult to the god Adonis. They say this cult existed there before Christians took over. Yet St. Jerome, who lived in a cave near Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, says the contrary. In a letter from the year 420 A.D., he states that emperor Adrian destroyed the holy Christian site and made it into a temple to the god Adonis in the year 131 A.D. It was later recovered by Christians and reinstituted as a pilgrimage site.
Is it possible that the place where the Basilica of the Nativity was built is exactly the place where Jesus was born? People will always argue one way or another, but there are reasons to believe so. After all, as Pope Benedict XVI says, “Local traditions are frequently a more reliable source than written records.”
Whatever the case may be, we know that “in his immeasurable love, he became what we are in order to make us what he is” (St. Justin Martyr, Against Heresies, V). Let us, then, prepare for him a proper dwelling in our hearts this Christmas — a dwelling fit for the one true King.