church website design -

Michael Sheldrake’s Histories


History of the Nativity


The story of the Holy Birth has created historical and theological controversies. Issues such as the Immaculate Conception and the virgin birth have caused many theologians and others to debate the reality of these events. However, the purpose of this article is to review the historical evidence of the birth of Jesus and how accurately it is portrayed in the Bible.

 It is interesting to note that the events of the birth are only described in two out of the four gospels. Matthew describes the genealogy of Christ and indicates that he is descended from King David through the kings of Israel. Matthew then continues with stating that Mary was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit while Matthew states that Joseph decided to marry Mary after which the birth then occurs in Bethlehem in Judea. In Matthew’s gospel the only visitors are the Magi and then Joseph is encouraged to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod.

 Luke gives a much more detailed account of the events. He spends much time describing how Mary was made aware of her pregnancy and her joyous response through the words of the Magnificat. Luke also explains the reasons why the Holy Family had to journey to Bethlehem because of the census. It is Luke who says that there was no room in the inn and therefore Jesus was born in a stable. Like Matthew he records visitors but they are poor shepherds and there is no reference to the Magi. There is no flight to Egypt as in Luke; in fact the family go to Jerusalem to complete the act of purification. Luke does provide the genealogy of Christ but later in the gospel when Christ is baptised.

 So with only these sources, it is hard for an historian to make an accurate statement of what happened at the birth. There are some agreements between the two gospels such as the birth occurred in Bethlehem in Judea and that Christ was a child of God whose human parents were Joseph and Mary. However, there is very little else. This does not mean there was not a birth of the real Christ. The story of his life in all 4 gospels, the writings of Paul which were written within a generation of Christ’s death based on his personal encounter with Christ and the historical writings of Josephus all confirm that Christ lived and therefore he must have been born.

 So are there any facts in the gospels that could help define when and where the birth events happened? Luke says that the birth occurred during the reign of Augustus Caesar when Quirinius was governor of Syria and Herod was king of Israel. Since all three individuals are historical figures and known about from many sources, it would suggest the date can be defined. Regrettably, this does not prove to be the case. Herod died in 4 BC and Quirinius did not become Governor of Syria until 7AD some 10 years later. Historians have tried to determine the date by determining what the star was over Bethlehem which guided the Magi. Some have said it was a comet and some a conjunction of the planets and by searching ancient astronomical records have suggested a number of different dates either side of the millennium. The truth is we cannot define when Christ was born.

 Well surely we can prove where he was born since both Matthew and Luke state it was Bethlehem in Judea and this was so clear to the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century that he built the first church over the site of the birth. Unfortunately, even this “fact” is up for dispute. Archaeological excavations at this Bethlehem have shown that it was a site of occupation in the Bronze Age but there have been no remains or artefacts found from the time of Christ. Perhaps they are still waiting to be discovered. But this brings into question the evidence of the census and the reason why the family had to go to Bethlehem (a distance of 100 miles from Nazareth). Firstly was there a census? Thorough searches of the rich written records of the Roman Empire have provided no evidence of an empire-wide census in this period. There is a record of a census in the region organised by Quirinius when he was governor but this would not have required the heads of families to return to their birth place and certainly not the female members.

 However, there is another Bethlehem but not in Judea but in Galilee and it was just outside Nazareth. Could it be that this was Christ’s home and where he was born? In recent years, archaeologists have discovered the remains of one of the largest Christian sites here. Could this have been built at Bethlehem in Galilee to commemorate Christ’s birth at this site?

 So how can we explain the evidential problems raised by the Nativity? It is possible to state that much remains to be discovered and a clearer picture will emerge in the future. Nevertheless we need to remember that the Gospel writers were not writing scientific history. Their purpose was to emphasise the divine nature of Christ, “his Messiahship” and to strengthen the faith of the followers. They were aware of the prophecies of the Messiah in the books of Isaiah and Micah which stated that such a person would be descended from King David and would be born in the royal city of David, Bethlehem of Judea. Perhaps the census they referred to was the one organised by Quirinius and the passage of time had addled their memories or transposed events.

 There is no doubt that Christ was born in the period around these events and I like the symbolism of the visits of the shepherds and Magi representing the wide range of humanity that longed for a Messiah. The events of the flight to Egypt remind us of the conditions of refugees in the present age and the fact that Jesus was born in poverty and a stable highlights very modern problems of homelessness. If the gospel accounts have been enhanced I have no problem with this since it remains an allegoric representation of faith and the need to eradicate social deprivation.

Michael Sheldrake