Jesus’ Birth and Childhood
When the Birth of Jesus Took Place (Luke 2:1-3)
Luke gives an accurate time frame for the birth of Jesus that is based on several historical events. It took place during the reign of Caesar Augustus when Quirinius governed the province of Syria. More specifically it occurred during the year Caesar Augustus had ordered a census to be taken. Our problem is that we don’t know when the census took place. We are too far removed from the event and no records of this census have been found. Such is often the case. Time destroys many records. Until recently we did not know the names of most of Rome’s governors.
Caesar Augustus reigned from 31 B.C. to A.D. 14. Quirinius, a Roman Senator, was acting as consular in Syria as early as 12 B.C. By 6 A.D., he was appointed governor of Syria, as recorded by Josephus. “So Archelaus' country was laid to the province of Syria; and Cyrenius [or Quirinius], one that had been consul, was sent by Caesar to take account of people's effects in Syria, and to sell the house of Archelaus.” [The Antiquity of the Jews, 17.13.5] However, notice that Luke doesn’t call him a governor; Luke only mentions that Quirinius was governing (ruling) at the time Jesus was born. It is likely that Quirinius was in charge either of the region, or a least the census, prior to his appointment as governor of Syria.
A book called The Deeds of Augustus notes that Augustus had ordered three major censuses in his empire and that many local census were also conducted. This coincides with Luke’s mention that this was the first census conducted under Quirinius. Thus, Luke’s account implies that more than one census took place. At times you will find people claiming there is a historical contradiction between Quirinius’s census in 6 A.D. and the death of Herod the Great between B.C. 4 and 2 (some date his death to be April 3 B.C.). The truth is that nothing says that the 6 A.D. was the first census. An earlier census could easily have taken place before Quirinius was appointed governor, but while he was in chargein some capacity in Syria.
For the census, Joseph was required to go to his birthplace to register. The requirement to return to one’s native home is not unusual. A census in Egypt in A.D. 104 stated, “From the Prefect of Egypt, Gaius Vibius Maximus. Being that the time has come for the house to house census, it is mandatory that all men who are living outside of their districts return to their own homelands, that the census may be carried out ...” Another census in A.D. 48 also mentions people returning to their homelands: “I Thermoutharion along with Apollonius, my guardian, pledge an oath to Tiberius Claudius Caesar that the preceding document gives an accurate account of those returning, who live in my household, and that there is no one else living with me, neither a foreigner, nor an Alexandrian, nor a freedman, nor a Roman citizen, nor an Egyptian. If I am telling the truth, may it be well with me, but if falsely, the reverse. In the ninth year of the reign of Tiberius Claudius Augustus Germanicus Emperor.”
One source speculates that the census was not a tax census, but a census of people pledging loyalty to the current emperor. This would explain the phrasing “all went to be registered” in Luke 2:3.
“A sixth reason for placing the nativity of Jesus in 3 or 2 B.C. is the coincidence of this date with the New Testament account that Jesus was born at the time when a Roman census was being conducted: "There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the [Roman] world should be registered" (Luke 2:1). Historians have not been able to find any empire-wide census or registration in the years 7-5 B.C., but there is a reference to such a registration of all the Roman people not long before 5 February 2 B.C. written by Caesar Augustus himself: "While I was administering my thirteenth consulship [2 B.C.] the senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people gave me the title Father of my Country" (Res Gestae 35). This award was given to Augustus on 5 February 2 B.C., therefore the registration of citizen approval must have taken place in 3 B.C. Orosius, in the fifth century, also said that Roman records of his time revealed that a census was indeed held when Augustus was made "the first of men" – an apt description of his award "Father of the Country" – at a time when all the great nations gave an oath of obedience to Augustus (6:22, 7:2). Orosius dated the census to 3 B.C. And besides that, Josephus substantiates that an oath of obedience to Augustus was required in Judea not long before the death of Herod (Antiquities I7:4I-45). This agrees nicely in a chronological sense with what Luke records. But more than that, an inscription found in Paphlagonia (eastern Turkey), also dated to 3 B.C., mentions an "oath sworn by all the people in the land at the altars of Augustus in the temples of Augustus in the various districts." And dovetailing precisely with this inscription, the early (fifth century) Armenian historian, Moses of Khoren, said the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was conducted by Roman agents in Armenia where they set up "the image of Augustus Caesar in every temple.''. The similarity of this language is strikingly akin to the wording on the Paphlagonian inscription describing the oath taken in 3 B.C. These indications can allow us to reasonably conclude that the oath (of Josephus, the Paphlagonian inscription, and Orosius) and the census (mentioned by Luke, Orosius, and Moses of Khoren) were one and the same. All of these things happened in 3 B.C." [Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies presented to Jack Finegan, Jerry Vardaman and Edwin Yamauchi, editors. Eisenbrauns:1989, pages 89-90]
Some object that this particular census could not have included Judea because Herod the Great was operating a semi-independent kingdom under Rome. The Jewish people would not be considered Roman citizens and would not be included in the oath census. Regardless of the objection, what is shown is that during this time frame Quirinius did rule in various capacities in the Syrian region, Augustus did have censuses taken for a variety of reasons and in various regions, and some of those census did require people to return to their birthplaces. That we, two thousand years later, are having problems pinpointing the exact census is a very minor point.
The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:4-7)
Both Joseph and Mary, being of the lineage of David, traveled to their home town of Bethlehem. It wasn’t a convenient time as Mary was close to her time of delivery. It is here that we learn that Joseph and Mary are still engaged, but they have not yet completed their marriage. It is likely that this did not occur until after the child was born (Matthew 1:24-25).
The demand that everyone go to their birthplace put a strain on the temporary accommodations in the small town of Bethlehem. While waiting for the census to be completed, Joseph and Mary were staying in a stable. A manger served as the child’s cradle. Mary wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him there. This is a foreshadow of a later event when Mary, along with others, wrapped the body of Jesus in strips of cloth before laying him in a tomb (John 19:40). The common practice of that day was to bathe a newborn, rub his skin with salt, and then wrap them in strips of cloth.
God’s Announcement of the Birth of His Son (Luke 2:8-20)
Luke’s mention of the shepherds living out in the fields, watching over their flocks at night, helps to define the time of the year Jesus was born. Sheep were kept in pens and feed from stored grasses during the winter months, but when the weather was warm and dry (from mid-April to mid-October), the shepherds took them out into pastures to allow them to graze. Distances to towns were too great to move the flocks into pens each night, so the shepherds would stand guard over the flocks in the pastures.
An angel appeared before them, glowing with the glory of God, causing fear in the shepherds. The angel reassures them and tells them that the birth of the Savior, who is the Anointed Ruler, has occurred in the city of David – Bethlehem, which was the birthplace of David. It was joyous news for all people, not just Israel. In the angel’s message is another foreshadowing of future events. The word “bring” translates the Greek word for evangelizing, the bearing of good news. The “good tidings” is another way to translate the gospel. And the news was for all people. Jesus later tells his disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
As if being told by an angel of God wasn’t enough, the angel offers them proof: they would find a newborn baby, wrapped in his swaddling clothes, in a manger. Bethlehem was a small town, but finding a newborn baby would not be unusual. However, finding a newborn in a manger would not be an everyday occurrence.
The angel is then joined by a multitude of angels singing praises to God. He has offered a token of peace between Himself and straying man (John 3:16; I John 4:10). It was a fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 57:19).
When the angels departed, the shepherds decide to see this wonder for themselves. The fact that they were willing to leave their flocks in the middle of the night shows the strength of their belief in what they saw and heard. Without delay they went to Bethlehem and found Mary, Joseph, and the baby just as the angel had told them.
With such news, they could not keep it to themselves. They told everyone they could and, thus, the event becomes another historical marker. People would make note of the fact because shepherds would not leave their flocks at night for a made up story. Nor would it be easy to explain how they knew in the fields that there was a newborn baby and where to find the child. Therefore, people marveled at the message and remembered it. Most notably Mary kept these things in her heart to ponder. These statements offer early readers identifiable sources to confirm the truth of what was written.
The Prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:21-35)
Eight days after the child’s birth, he was circumcised and given the name Jesus as told to both Mary and Joseph (Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31).
A woman, giving birth to a son, was considered unclean for forty days because of the blood that was spilt during the birth (Leviticus 12:2-4). (A daughter’s time was longer because there was no circumcision and additional shedding of blood involved. Leviticus 12:5). At the end of her time, she was required to offer up two sacrifices to God (Leviticus 12:6). A sin offering to complete the days of uncleanness. It was offered whenever unintentional sin was involved (Leviticus 4:2-3), such as becoming unclean. A burnt offering demonstrated dedication to God (Leviticus 1:3-4, 9). It was wholly given, completely burnt, to illustrate complete dedication to God. A lamb was required for the sin offering and a pigeon or turtledove for the burnt offering. However, allowances were made for those who could not afford a lamb (Leviticus 12:8). We learn that Joseph and Mary are poor because less expensive option was chosen.
Being the firstborn child of Mary meant that Jesus was dedicated to God (Exodus 13:2). The parents of a firstborn child was required to redeem (“buy back”) their firstborn (Numbers 18:15-16). The Levitical priesthood was the replacement for Israel’s firstborn children (Numbers 3:12-13).
Because they were near Jerusalem, the family went to the temple to fulfill their obligations. While there, a man named Simeon met them. This godly man was a prophet of God. He was told that he would see the Christ before his death. His meeting of Mary and Joseph was not by chance; the Spirit lead him to enter the temple. He took up the child from his parents and blessed God while giving another prophecy. He testified that this child was God’s salvation for all people, a light for the Gentiles, and a glory to Israel (Isaiah 9:2; 42:6; 60:1-3). First by angels and now by Simeon, the scope of the Savior’s mission was declared from the beginning of his life on earth.
Joseph and Mary marveled at the words. Not that they did not already know because this was what God’s angel had told them before his birth. What was amazing is that apparently complete strangers recognized who was their infant son.
Simeon then warned Mary that things would not go smoothly with this child of hers. He would cause great turmoil in Israel and become a point of derision (Isaiah 8:14; Psalm 22:6-8). As a result Mary will also suffer great grief (John 19:25). Because of who Jesus is, people would be forced to make a choice and their choice will reveal the nature of their hearts (John 8:42-47; 15:22-24).
The Prophecy of Anna (Luke 2:36-38)
Coming right on the heels of Simeon was a prophetess named Anna. She had been married for seven years, but after her husband’s death, she dedicated herself to service in the Temple. Such women are mentioned in Exodus 38:8 and I Samuel 2:22. She was now 84 years old.
She not only added her thanksgiving to God, but she began spreading the word of the Messiah’s arrival to others. It is interesting that God chose humble shepherds in a remote area of Judea and an elderly widow to be the first messengers of the gospel.
The Wise Men (Matthew 2:1-12)
At some point, wise men from the East (most likely Medea) arrived in Jerusalem seeking out the King of the Jews. Because when they found Jesus, he is described as a young child and not a babe, and because Herod in seeking to destroy Jesus orders all children two and under to be killed, we conclude that the wise men probably arrived about one to two years after Jesus’ birth.
The Medes were noted astrologers and wise men (I Kings 4:30). They saw a star while in their eastern country that indicated a great king was born in Israel. Such was hinted at in Numbers 24:17. Thus, the third group announcing the Messiah are not even Israelites, but Gentiles! This too was prophesied in Isaiah 60:3.
Herod was not happy concerning this news and when Herod wasn’t happy, no one in Jerusalem was happy. History tells us that Herod was paranoid about being overthrown. He murdered his two older sons in 7 B.C. because he was convinced by the instigation of another son that they were plotting to overthrow him. Antipater, who encouraged his father’s murder of his older brothers, was also killed in 4 B.C., just before Herod’s death, for plotting to overthrow his father. It caused Augustus to joke that he would rather be Herod’s pig than one of his sons. As he approached the end of his life, Herod slaughtered thousands on the least hint that a rebellion might be breaking out.
Part of his paranoia might have come from the fact that he wasn’t an Israelite. He was a descendent of Edom. His father aided Julius Caesar during the conquest of Judea and Herod was a friend of Anthony and Octavian (who later became Caesar Augustus). Because of his friendship, he was given the title “King of the Jews,” but it took him three years of hard fighting take hold of his “kingdom.” Now, in his old age, foreigners come announcing the birth of a new King of the Jews. Such news would strike Herod’s deepest fears.
Thus Herod gathered his advisors, the chief priests and scribes, and asked them where it was prophesied that the Christ would be born. They cited Micah 5:2 as stating it would be Bethlehem in Judea.
Herod did not want word to get out that it was possible that the Messiah had been born, so he quietly recalled the wise men and asked when they saw the star appear. Such information would give him an idea how old the child was. He did tell the wise men where to look for the Messiah, but it was in hopes of having them do the work for him. He asked that they stop on their way home to let him know where the child was so he could also worship him.
As the wise men left, they noticed something strange. The star appeared to be going before them. Stars are relatively fixed objects. They don’t generally appear to move. Yet this one did and as they entered Bethlehem it appeared above one particular house. Again, think of the stars you see at night. Can you sight one that appears to be directly over your house and not your neighbors? Obviously, the Lord’s hand was behind this wandering star.
Notice that Mary and Joseph are no longer in a stable. Some time has passed and they are now living in a house. Entering the house, the wise men fell down to worship Jesus and presented Mary and the child gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; each a costly commodity. It is because three types of gifts were given that the tradition of three wise men arose. However, the Bible says nothing about the number of men who came, nor the number of gifts given. We only know that three types of gifts were given by the wise men.
Notice, too, that Jesus is described now as a young child and not a babe. The Greek word paidion is used in classical Greek to apply to a child up to seven years old. It is used in the New Testament to refer to the 8 day old Jesus (Luke 2:21) and of a child old enough to believe in the Christ (Matthew 18:2,6). There is nothing in Matthew’s account indicating that the wise men visited Jesus shortly after his birth. Instead, we see indications that some time has elapsed.
Warned by a dream from God, the wise men did not return to Jerusalem and Herod. They returned to their homeland by a different route.
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus' Escape into Egypt (Matthew 2:19-23)
Meanwhile Joseph has another dream. An angel warns him that Herod will seek to kill Jesus. He is told to take his family to Egypt and remain until told to return. Recall that Joseph and Mary are very poor, but the gifts just left by the wise men gave them the finances to quickly leave Judea and move to Egypt. Once again we see the faith of Joseph. He got up that night and left with his family, not even waiting until morning to begin the long journey.
Eventually Herod caught on to the fact that the wise men were not coming back. Not knowing who the child was, he sent soldiers into Bethlehem and the surrounding area with orders to kill any male child two years old or less. Assuming that Herod padded the age to make sure he killed the Christ, we can guess that the wise men saw the star about a year prior. It is likely that Jesus was about a year old at the time of the wise men’s visit.
Unknowingly, Herod fulfilled another prophecy concerning the Christ; this one found in Jeremiah 31:15. The pain of the children’s deaths is depicted as Rachel’s sorrow. Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, died shortly after giving birth and was buried near Bethlehem and thus makes a fitting image of mother weeping for her children (Genesis 35:16-20). On her death bed she had named her child “son of my sorrow” though Jacob changed his name to “son of my right hand.”
The slaughter didn’t make it into the history books. After all, it occurred only in a small region and was just one of many murders issued by the paranoid King Herod.
Not long thereafter, Herod died and an angel appeared to Joseph again to tell him that it was now safe to return to Israel. As they journeyed, Joseph heard that Archelaus, Herod’s son, now ruled in Jerusalem. Herod had divided his kingdom into four parts and willed each part to a different son. Archelaus, Herod’s eldest surviving son, had almost as bad of a reputation as his father. At one Passover, he had three thousand people put to death (Josephus, War of the Jews, 2.6). Eventually Augustus Caesar became disgusted with Archelaus’ cruelty and disposed him (Josephus, Antiquites of the Jews, 17.13). Until then, we can understand Joseph’s concern about entering a region run by Archelaus. God also confirmed his unease in yet another dream. Joseph decided not to return to Bethlehem but to journey further into Galilee and back to their original town of Nazareth.
Matthew points out that this move also fulfilled prophecies. But notice that Matthew is not quoting one particular prophet, he is giving a general summary of what multiple prophets have said. Some readers confuse Nazarene with Nazirite. These are two different word. The former means someone from Nazareth, the later means someone under the Nazirite vow of Numbers 6. Jesus was not under the Nazirite vow, otherwise he would not have been able to partake of the fruit of the vine at the last supper (Nazirites are forbidden from eating anything related to grapes). A more reasonable case is made that the name Nazareth might be derived from the Hebrew word for “branch.” There are numerous prophecies concerning the Messiah being called the Branch, such as Isaiah 11:1. The best case, however, is that the region of Galilee had a poor reputation (John 7:52) and the town of Nazareth had an even poorer reputation (John 1:46). The Hebrew word netzer, from which Nazareth is derived, refers to the small twigs that are worthless (Isaiah 14:19; John 15:21). Such was deemed an appropriate name for a small village of little use. There are several prophecies dealing with people despising the Messiah, such as Isaiah 53:2-3 and Psalms 22:6. The Messiah's coming from a despised area was foretold in Isaiah 9:1-2. It is possible that Matthew is stating that by coming from Nazareth the foundations for Jesus’ eventual rejection were being laid.
Thus, three apparently conflicting prophecies were resolved: that the Messiah would come from the famed city of David, Bethlehem; that God would call him out of the mighty nation of Egypt; and that he would be despised for where he originated all neatly fit together.
Jesus’ Childhood (Luke 2:39-52)
Luke’s account jumps from Jesus’ presentation at the temple to Joseph and Mary’s return to Nazareth. The fact that Luke did not use the events of the wise men and the family’s flight into Egypt in his account does not mean that Luke wasn’t aware of them or that there was a conflict. In any account there must be a selection of the various events to tell the intended story for the intended audience. Matthew wanted the Jews to understand how the seeming conflicting prophecies fitted together. Luke, writing to a Greek audience, dwelt on early signs of Jesus’ great wisdom.
Many years are summed up in Luke 2:40. Jesus grew physically, became spiritually strong – that is, his moral character and his ability to reason -- and was filled with wisdom. As he grew the favor or grace of God was seen upon him. Here was the ideal man moving up through childhood. Here is the fulfillment of Isaiah 11:2-3.
The story jumps to an event when Jesus was twelve years of age. Each year, Jesus and his parents went to Jerusalem for the Passover feast, as was commanded in Deuteronomy 6:16. Again we see the character of Joseph and Mary because they went yearly despite the fact that they were poor. Luke is not indicating that this was Jesus’ first Passover in Jerusalem, but according to Jewish tradition twelve was the age a boy became a “son of the law.” His obligations to follow the law were first recognized at this age. It should be noted that the term for his age has changed again. He is now “the boy Jesus” or pais in Greek, which refers to a male child not yet an adolescent.
Joseph and Mary stayed for the entire eight day feast and then returned for home. As was common practice in those days, people traveled in large groups for safety. Children, as they are want to do, often bounced between friends and relatives and large groups do not move at the same rate. Therefore, the fact that Joseph and Mary lost track of Jesus during the bustle of the beginning of the trip is understandable. Nor is there implication that Jesus purposely stayed behind. It wasn’t until they reached the evening stop over that his parents realized that Jesus was not with any of their relatives or friends.
Jesus’ parents immediately set out to return to Jerusalem, another day’s journey. It appears they spent another entire day scouring Jerusalem for their boy. They eventually found him in the temple talking with the learned men, asking them questions and listening to their answers. Not at all what most parents would expect from their twelve year old son. Nor was it expected from these great teachers of the law. Luke tells us that they were astounded by his depth of understanding shown in his answers to their questions.
Amazing as the sight was, Jesus’ parents wanted to know why he disappeared. “How could you do this to us?” Mary wanted to know why Jesus didn’t show more concern for his parent’s feeling. “Look, your father and I have been anxiously looking for you.”
Though not unsympathetic, Jesus pointed out that if they had considered it, they should have known exactly where to find him. They, of all people, knew Jesus’ purpose in the world. They should have known that he would be in the temple working toward God the Father’s goals. They should have known that God would watch over him; there was no need to be anxious.
Yet Jesus’ words did not make sense to them at that time. They were full of concern for their son and his mention of “his Father’s business” would have led them to think about Joseph’s carpentry work. How carpentry related to talking law in the temple, they could not grasp. But Mary thought about it later and Luke cites her as a source.
Jesus returned to Nazareth with his parents and was the ideal son, obedient to his parents. It is likely that Jesus learned the carpentry trade from his father, as was common for children in those days to do. One thing we do know is that he wasn’t sent off to rabbinical schools for an education (John 7:15; Luke 4:22). Even though he was gifted, his parents would not have been able to afford the fees.
Nothing else is told to us about Jesus’ childhood, other than that he continued to increase in wisdom while he continued to physically grow. He had the favor of God; that is he was morally excellent and God watch over him. And he had a good reputation in his community – he certainly wasn’t a hoodlum in his younger days (Proverbs 3:3-4; Romans 14:18). He was the unusual ideal child.