Evidence that Jesus Christ marched into history is not just confined to the testimony of the New Testament since even opponents of Christianity maintain that he lived and that he performed miracles. Early Jewish documents such as the Mishnah and even Josephus, as well as, first-century Gentile historians, such as Thallus, Serapion, and Tacitus--all bear witness that the one called Christ lived in Palestine and died under Pontius Pilate. As the British scholar, F. F. Bruce said, "The historicity of Christ is as (certain). . . as the historicity of Julius Caesar’"
Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, the son of Mary. Living in Palestine at the beginning of the first century between the ages of 28 and 30 he conducted a mission of preaching and healing with reports of miracles attested to by the writers of the New Testament, as are his arrest and death by crucifixion. His followers considered him to be the Christ or Messiah and the Son of the living God, believe in his Resurrection from the dead, as recorded in the Gospels, became a central tenet of Christianity.
Most of the information concerning Jesus comes from the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This material was arranged in order to proclaim and interpret his life and teachings to early Christians and although it is based on historical facts the intentions of the authors are to give an accounting of his teachings. According to them, Jesus was born at Bethlehem in the last years of the reign of Herod the Great; he was the son of the Virgin Mary of Nazareth in Galilee. Mary's husband, Joseph, was a carpenter who belonged to the tribe of Judah and the family of David.
Established in the Paleolithic era eventually arising as a village in Judea, the earliest descriptions of Bethlehem occurs in the 14th century Amarana letters. Etymologically the meaning of the name of the town of Jesus’ birth has been thought of traditionally as “house of bread” but considered by most scholars as the home to a deity called the “house of Lahmu.” The city is initially mentioned in the Holy Bible as the residence of a Levite “who became a household priest in the country of Ephram and was carried off by the Danites.” (Judges 17-18). Later Naomi arrived with her daughter Ruth who married Boaz, an ancestor of David (Ruth 4: 13-22).
Extending into the postexilic period was a fervent and persistent hope for a king like David continued in the city as Micah had prophesied aboutt a shepherd king from Bethlehem (Micah 5: 2-4). Matthew 2 and Luke 2 record that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and Matthew takes this as the event that completes Micah’s prediction.
The exact place of the birth within Bethlehem is uncertain; the manger described by Luke might have been an uncovered stall, or perhaps a feeding trough out in the open, the “inn” could have been a yard with a partial shelter as its walls, instead of a building as the modern era imagines. Art depicting the nativity scenes with the ox and ass come not from Luke, but are first introduced in Isaiah 1: 3. Earliest traditional stories elaborate upon a cave as the place of birth which is recorded on the apocryphal from the second century Protoevangelism of James (18 –21) as well as Justin (Trypho 78: 657) further extending the cave story are claims that a stone inside the cave served as the manger. In early liturgies both the manger and the shepherds’ field take part in a role, however it occurs during the feast of Epiphany rather than the celebration of Christ’s birth.
The location of the birth raises problems with only the gospels accountings at hand. One could make out that it was Nazareth according to Mark 1: 9; John 1; 45-46; cf. Luke 2: 4, 39. Luke 2: 1-20 tells the story of the birth as occurring in Bethlehem and Matthew 2: 1 follows in similar fashion, only instead of dealing with the birth Matthew addresses an infancy narrative about
(M)en from the East who, possessing astronomical and astrological wisdom, followed a star that led them to the birthplace of the infant Jesus, in Bethlehem. There they paid homage to him with gold, the gift bestowed on kings, frankincense, used to worship at the altar of God, and myrrh, an embalming agent for the dead. In later tradition the magi became three kings (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar).
According to Matthew’s the account of these wise men or Magi implies that Jesus may have been a toddler of two years old by the time of their arrival.
Biblical historians think that perhaps as early as the second century of the Common Era, Christians traditionally marked a cave as the site of Jesus’ birth. Around 338 CE a church or basilica was erected over the grotto by Constantine, destroyed and later reconstructed in the early 6th century by Justinian. The shepherds’ field is another traditional site near Bethlehem.
Early Christian chronology is best understood by knowing that Jewish authors like Josephus, although familiar with the Syrian era related their texts in reference to the number of years which a contemporary ruler had been prevailing when the event occurred. For example John the Baptist is said to have begun his ministry “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius” in Luke 3: 1, corresponding to the 28 CE. Christian authors would later assume the Roman era where the years were counted from the presumed foundation of Rome:
…on 21 April 753 BCE (ab urbe condita). In the sixth century CE this era was replaced by the Christian era which is based on calculations of the Greek monk Dionysius Exiguus in Rome. Commissioned around 532 CE to coordinate the festival calendar of the church, he dated the incarnation of Christ to 25 March of the Roman year 754, and this year became the year 1, starting from January. Dionysius Exiguus made a slight error, since Matthew 2: 1 dates the birth of Jesus to the days of King Herod, who died in 4 BCE.
The birth of Jesus is explicitly connected to the reign of Herod the Romans' king in Judea by Matthew (Matthew 2
:1). A Jew of Arab origins Herod was supported by Mark Antony
and severely controlled the religious establishment. Looked upon as an usurper by nationalists he thoroughly oppressed his opposition. His envy and brutality were aggravated by quarrels among his ten wives and their sons. Shortly before his demise he ordered the mass execution of the infants of Bethlehem. Matthew refers to Herod’s successor in 2:22
establishing his reference to Herod the Great of the Herodian Dynasty
’ colorful description tells that the Roman senate in 40 BCE elected Herod as the king of the Jews. (Josephus, Ant.
14:14, 385, confirmed by Strabo
, and Appian
), he died thirty-six years later in the spring dating his death as the year 4 BCE(Ant.
1:33,665). Matthew sometime before 4 BCE accounts for Jesus’ birth.
Matthew’s report in 2:22 about the discovery of the star by the Magi has also led many to search for a correlation with a comet, constellation or a nova have been difficult to pin down, so as a result to date the only fixed datum to the birth of Jesus remains Matthews reference to Herod.
Luke too dates his birth under the governance of Herod by dating the birth of John the Baptist to the days of this king in Luke 1:5 and further relates in Luke 1:26 that Jesus was six months younger. The connection of the birth of Jesus with an enrollment for taxation ‘ordered by Augustus and carried out under Quirinius ‘ a governor of Syria during the infancy of Jesus in detailed by Luke in 2:1-2 has been established from sometime in 6CE, when Judea was made property of Augustus, and managed by Caesarea hired by the Emperor collect taxes. Josephus writes about this event in his History of the Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities saying this taxation caused a revolt in Judea, but did not concern the population in Galilee where Mary and Joseph lived as well as where Herod Antipas ruled as tetrarch. Scholars relate that, “Luke had probably heard of an earlier registration within the whole kingdom of Herod the Great, but was attracted by the famous taxation under Quirnius.”
Celebrations of Jesus’ birth became a part of the general populace of Christians around the fourth century. As late as the fifth century the Old Armenian Lectionary of Jerusalem was still commemorating James and David on December 25th making a note that “in other towns they keep the birth of Christ.” The actual year of Christ birth is hard to determine, estimated to be somewhere between 4 and 1 BCE with the time of year nowhere indicated. The English word Christmas means Christ’s mass or the festival of Christ’s birthday which was by the 4th century established on the same day as the winter solstice December 25th which during antiquity had been set aside as celebrations for the birth of Mithras and Sol Invictus. The Julian calendar sets the date for the solstice as January 6th when the birthday of Osiris was celebrated at Alexandria, three centuries later this date had evolved as the Epiphany in the East, a feats day closely related to Christmas. It’s the Philocalian calendar of 354 where the earliest mention of December 25th for Christmas.
The birth stories in Matthew and Luke certainly go back too earliest traditions and are clearly theological: Davidic descent, conception through the Holy Spirit while his mother remained a virgin, homage to a birth and from this limited sketching one can glean a hopeful reconstruction of his career, that led to the accountings of his message and teachings. Factual evidence of these common elements include the date of Jesus’ birth in the last years of Herod the Great, the names of his parents; Mary and Joseph, the fact that the child was conceived between betrothal and wedding; the birth at Bethlehem (though some will attest that this may be a theological assertion related to the Davidic descent). In any case, Jesus was raised in Nazareth, his father is said in Matthew 13: 55 to have been a carpenter, and Jesus to have been one as well in Mark 6:3. Since sons habitually followed in the footsteps of their father this is not improbable. It is safe to also presume that Jesus received the education of the devout poor in Israel along with complete instructions in the Hebrew scriptures.
The Bible. Revised Standard Version.
Metzger, Bruce M., and Coogan, Michael D. The Oxford Companion To The Bible. Oxford University Press, New York, 1993.p.78, 112-113, 119-120, 356.