The Nativity You Never Knew? An in-depth, historical look at Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:1-20

Audio version – The Nativity You Never Knew

It’s one of the most famous stories ever told: The birth of Jesus.

Shepherds, angels, and hostile Inn-keepers have appeared in thousands of Christmas pageants for hundreds of years.

But when we hear something so much, we stop hearing it. Instead of paying more attention, we pay less. There was a man who lived right beside an airport. Over time, he stopped hearing the planes take off. There were still zooming around, of course, but his brain learned to tune them out.

In the same way, we too can tune out the familiar, even when it comes to the story of Jesus’ birth. We can miss the bracing elements of the story which so powerfully shook our world in the first place.

With that in mind, I’m going to slowly take us through Luke 2:1-20 and provide some commentary on the background, words, historical context, and meaning. I’ll highlight a few lines at a time, and offer some comments for clarity along the way.

And when I say slowly, I mean slowly. This isn’t a post you skim while waiting in line at the grocery store. It’s going to take some time and attention. It’s more of a take-your-time-in-the-evening-with-a-warm-drink kind of thing. Or maybe you’ve downloaded this as an audio file and are listening to me talk while driving or going for a run.

Either way, let’s take to heart Jesus’ words in Matthew 4:4 (referencing Deuteronomy 8:3): “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” And as I often say to the congregation I pastor, the more you get into God’s word, the more God’s word gets into you.

Preachers, pastors and Bible teachers do this sort of research on a weekly basis, usually only sharing details they feel are necessary to share. But since Christmas Eve messages tend to be shorter than usual, and since the season is such a blur, and since this critical story is so readily leap-frogged on the way to a new year, I thought I’d invite you to take a stroll with me through the text while the rest of the world is mad-dashing to the mall.

My hope is that disciples of Jesus—both newish and mature—as well as people who are just plain curious, will gain fresh eyes and hearts by seeing what they need to see.

Another thing I often say to my congregation is that details matter. Consider the hymn by Edwin Hodder:

Thy Word is like a deep, deep mine;
and jewels rich and rare
are hidden in its mighty depths
for every searcher there.
*

So let the searchers begin.

Authorship

The consensus of the early church was that Luke was the author of the Gospel that bears his name. There’s no credible reason to doubt it. He was a companion and co-worker of the apostle Paul. He was a doctor who was known for paying close attention to details. As he himself says in chapter 1, verse 3, he set out to “investigate everything from the beginning” and to write an “orderly account.”

The text: Luke 2:1-20 (New International Version)

1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

“Caesar Augustus”

Caesar Augustus was the Roman Emperor. His name was Gaius Octavius Thurinus and ruled from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D.

“Decree”

A decree was a formal order from the Roman Senate.

“Census”

A census would have been for taxation and military purposes. Jews were exempt from Roman military service, so the purpose for them would have been for taxation.

“the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor…”

There is considerable historical debate regarding this detail. The issue, some say, is that Quirinius wasn’t governor of Syria until 6 A.D., years after Jesus was born. Therefore, they argue, the biblical story is incorrect (and therefore unreliable). But let’s take a closer look.

First, verse 2 says, “This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor…” There are times when the Greek word for “while” (protos) can be translated as “before.” The translation could therefore read, “This census took place before Quirinius was governor…” If so, there’s no issue from a historical standpoint.

Second, there are records of Quirinius leading military expeditions before he became the official governor. So he may have issued a census sometime during those years. This is possible since the word used for “governor” (hegemoneuo) was a generic term and different kinds of joint-rule were not uncommon in those days.

Third, it’s possible that the non-biblical ancient records which tell us about the census in 6 A.D. (a) neglect to mention an earlier term of office that Quirinius also held, or (b) neglect to mention an earlier census at the time of Jesus’ birth, or (c) get it wrong altogether. Luke elsewhere demonstrates great accuracy and care for historical details, so it’s unlikely that he would make an error on a detail like this.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.

“Nazareth”

Nazareth was a small village. Some say that it would have been a hamlet of just over a hundred people. Other scholars say that it could have had up to four hundred. Either way, it would have been very small. Dr. Craig Evans suggests a geographical area of about four hectares (just under 10 acres). There is no evidence from the first century of it even having any paved streets. But it was big enough for a synagogue (as we are told in Luke 4:16).**

“Bethlehem”

Bethlehem is where the famous king David was born. It was (and is) just over 11 kilometres from Jerusalem. Joseph belonged to that lineage. Micah 5:2 famously identifies Bethlehem as the birthplace of a future king of Israel/God’s people. Luke doesn’t specifically quote that biblical reference in his story (Matthew’s Gospel does). Even though the census was officially ordered by the Roman Emperor, I think we’re supposed to see how God’s hand is at work—he has foreordained that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem; God works through, and is sovereign over, everyday human events, including this one.

The journey to Bethlehem would have been dangerous, difficult, and over 140 kilometres, no small thing in those days. There weren’t cars, trains or superhighways. Traveling in caravans would have been ideal for safety, but with people traveling in different directions to ancestral towns for the census that may not have been possible.

No donkey is mentioned, sorry.

5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

“Mary”

Mary had certainly been having some life-changing experiences! She had been told by the angel Gabriel that she was favoured by God, and that she would give birth to “the Son of the Most High” who would reign as Messiah on David’s throne with an everlasting kingdom (Luke 1:26-34). She was a humble and devout Jewish girl. How old was she? The text doesn’t say, but perhaps in her early to mid-teens. That would not have been uncommon in her day, but the text simply doesn’t provide that exact detail.

“Pledged”

At this time, being “pledged” to someone (some translations like the CSB say “engaged”) was more serious and involved than it is now in the West. A marriage in the ancient world was a contract and formal arrangement between two families (not just two individuals who “fall in love”).

Breaking an engagement would have been the legal equivalent to divorce. Further, being pregnant before a marriage was formalized and consummated would have been seen as disobedience to God, very controversial, bringing personal and social shame to the families, possibly including financial ruin to the family business, and could have resulted in death by stoning according to the law of Moses if unfaithfulness could have been proven.

6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

“While they were there”

The text says that the time came for the baby to be born “while they were there.” This could have been right away, or perhaps after a longer period of time, maybe even weeks. We’re simply not told.

“a son”

Jesus’ arrival is communicated very matter-of-factly. We’ll get more details soon.

“cloths”

Wrapping a baby in cloths was what we call swaddling. These were most likely ripped sheets or ripped cloths.

“manger”

A manger was a feeding trough for animals. The inclusion of this detail is why many people think the birth was in a stable or barn.

“because there was no guest room available for them”

The 1611 King James translation of the Bible renders the phrase as follows: “there was no room for them in the inn.” Since Bethlehem was small there certainly wouldn’t have been a large motel or hotel (to use today’s language). But there could have been some sort of guest accommodations for travelers, perhaps even attached to someone’s private home and used for their business.

Bethlehem would have been busy and crowded because of travelers in town for the census. Perhaps Mary and Joseph got to town after other travelers, or perhaps they were simply socially outranked by others who were also looking for a place to stay.

The location of the birth could surely have been some sort of stable (as has already been suggested), but it could also have been a cave too. It could also have been a modest room or ancient garage-style setting physically connected to the house of another family, perhaps relatives. It would have been customary for family to stay with family while travelling; in fact, that was often preferred.

We should also note that animals were sometimes kept inside poorer homes as well, especially when the weather was cold (hence the possible need for a manger). One-room dwellings for people without a lot of money were sometimes U-shaped with the floor on one side of the U being higher than the other side. The people would have slept on the higher side, and a lantern (or candles) would have been placed in the middle of the U to give light to the whole the house (see Matthew 5:15). The lower side of the U was sometimes occupied by the animals when it was required that they come inside for their well-being, warmth or safety.

Regardless of the location, it would not have been an ideal place to give birth, and certainly points to the humble circumstances of Jesus’ entry into the world. We are to note the irony that the Lord of the universe is born here. God could have chosen a fancy palace; instead, he chose a humble and devout Jewish girl, living under Roman oppression, weary from travel, in a second-class setting, and with the usual and unpleasant smells of animals.

Jesus arrived unwelcomed to our earthly home, to welcome us to his eternal one.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.

“shepherds”

At this point the news starts to spread, and in the most fascinating of ways. While shepherds are sometimes referred to in a positive way (for example, God is called a Shepherd in the Old Testament, and David and Moses had both served for a time as shepherds), they were sometimes looked down upon, perhaps for two reasons. First, they weren’t at home at night to guard the honour of their families. Second, they were sometimes considered trespassers for grazing flocks on other people’s property. But it might be too simplistic to say that this view was wide-spread, especially among the labouring classes.

But that shepherds received the announcement is surely a sign that Jesus’ birth is for all people (as the angel himself says in the next verse), including common people navigating the difficulty of life and trying to make ends meet.

The presence of shepherds might also serve a few other functions: They connect the birth of Jesus in yet another way with king David (who, as mentioned, was a shepherd); their presence may also be a fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 61:1 that “good news” would be preached to the poor. (We can perhaps think of the shepherds as the ‘working poor.’) Note that in verse 10, the verb that is used for the good news proclamation about Jesus (evangelizo) is the same one used in the Greek version of Isaiah 61:1 (called the Septuagint), thereby strengthening the possibility of this connection.

“keeping watch over their flocks at night”

The shepherds were “keeping watch over their flocks at night.” They were on guard, actively watching against thieves and prey. At this point, let me share a word of informed speculation about the time of year and what Jesus’ actual birthdate might have been. If we assume that shepherds weren’t likely to tend their flocks in December (it was just as unlikely in Judea then as it is in North America now), and if we do some speculating based on the proximity to his cousin John the Baptist’s birth (based on when John’s father Zechariah was serving in the Jerusalem Temple), some venture an informed guess that Jesus was most likely born in the fall, probably September. But it’s hard to be sure.

With respect to the shepherds, let me make one more point. I can’t help think that we are supposed to be similarly humble as we ponder the arrival of Jesus and the circumstances of his birth. As the well-known Protestant theologian John Calvin noted on this passage hundreds of years ago: “If we desire to come to Christ, we must not be ashamed to follow those whom God chose, from the sheep dung, to bring down the pride of the world.”***

9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

“angel”

An angel is, quite literally, a messenger. Sometimes this can be a person/being who appears human, but in this case (as seen in the verses that follow) it is clearly a supernatural being of an extraordinary nature.

“were terrified”

The shepherds “were terrified” when they saw the angel. Literally, they “feared a great fear.” This is a Semitic idiom carried into the Greek language in the original text.

10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

“Do not be afraid”

Terror is often the reaction of those who experience a manifestation of God’s awesome glory. Hence the instruction: “Do not be afraid.” They’re about to hear good news, not bad.

“good news”

Historically, it is of tremendous significance that in the Roman Empire there were “good news announcements” about certain people or events related to the empire. In What St Paul Really Said, Bible scholar N.T. Wright says that these good news proclamations often referred to the birth of a new ruler, or to a great military victory, or to the accession of a new ruler like the Roman Emperor. The arrival of a new ruler was supposed to bring a great benefit to his people and the start of a new reign, world, or period of history. One example is found an inscription from 9 B.C. about Augustus’ birthday where he was called a “god” and “saviour.”

This is all surely a part of the background to the birth of Jesus who, in contrast, comes as the true God-Man and Saviour. His birth is, in this way, politically subversive. There is more to this Jesus than meets the eye. He is the actual Ruler (not the Roman Emperor) and his peace is the true peace that the world needs and longs for. Again, by way of background, it is helpful to mention the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) announced previously under Augustus. This was a supposed period of peace and stability in the empire, but which would have been distinct from the greater peace brought by God in and through Jesus. I think that the original hearers of this story in the first century would have seen these connections very clearly, and would have understood that Jesus was a new Ruler who had come directly from God, and who stood in contrast to the Roman Emperor and his pseudo “peace.”

“great joy”

The arrival of Jesus is the source of joy; but even more than that—great joy. The word for joy appears 59 times in the New Testament. Only five times is this same word “great” added to it for emphasis. Here are the five occurrences, beginning with the one we’re currently discussing:

(1) When the shepherds are told about the birth of a Saviour in Luke 2:10;
(2) When the wise men saw the star that would lead them to Jesus and were filled with “great joy” in Matthew 2:10;
(3) When the women discovered that Jesus had been raised from the dead and were filled with both fear and “great joy” in Matthew 28:8;
(4) When Jesus physically departed from his disciples to be with his heavenly Father and they “worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy” as per Luke 24:52; and
(5) When Paul, Barnabas, and some others, were travelling through Phoenicia and Samaria telling people about how Gentiles had been converted to Christ, and when the people were therefore filled with “great joy” at this news as recorded in Acts 15:3.

A common strand in these five occurrences is that they centre around God’s dramatic and miraculous action in the birth, resurrection and ascension of Jesus—all of which confirm his divine identity and mission as Lord—and also around the news of others coming to faith in him.

“Savior”

One of the titles given to Jesus is Saviour. A Saviour is a rescuer. This title is often used for God who rescues his people from sin, wrath, death, hell, oppression, and from being separated from God and his love.

“Messiah”

The title Messiah means, in Hebrew, “the anointed one.” (In Greek, the word for “anointed one” is Christ.) This is the long-awaited Messiah promised by the prophets and refers to God’s chosen king and representative on the earth. Writing with a style of English more at home in times gone by, Puritan commentator Matthew Henry captures the anticipation beautifully: “Long-looked for is come at last.” Awesome.

Again, some historical context is illuminating, this time from the thought-world of the Old Testament. The use of the phrase “good news” (as it is used here by the angel) is, I think, intended to bring to mind Isaiah 40:9: “You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”

This prophecy, which dates back to more than 700 years before Christ, looks forward to a day when God’s people will return from exile in Babylon, after having had their city and temple destroyed, along with many of their hopes and dreams. It also references God’s enthronement in Jerusalem. So it’s about the return, triumph and enthronement of God in Jerusalem, and about God’s people being restored and blessed in the process. So the announcement about Jesus as Messiah would have, I believe, brought many of these ideas to mind.

Messiah means “anointed one.” Let me share some other general background to the idea of being anointed that I think furthers our understanding about Jesus’ significance. In the Old Testament, prophets were anointed (see Psalm 105:15), priests were anointed (see Exodus 29:7), and kings were anointed (see 1 Samuel 16:13). As the Messiah, Jesus is all three in one—prophet, priest and king—meaning that as a prophet he receives and speaks God’s words and teaches us, as priest he gives us peace with God through his self-sacrifice on the cross, and as king he reigns, rules and cares for us individually, collectively, and for all of his creation.

“Lord”

Finally, he is given the title “Lord.” He is God come to us in human form. Many Jews at the time would have been familiar with the Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. God was called “Lord” (Greek: Kyrios). This is the title given to Jesus.

Also of historical significance is the fact that the Roman Emperor was often called Lord. Later, many Christians would be martyred because they refused to say “Caesar is Lord.” Instead, they would say—quite rightly—that “Jesus is Lord.” It was an early and well-known statement of faith. Jesus’ arrival as King was seen to many as a political threat. In John 18:36 he said that his kingdom was “not of this world,” but the nuance was clearly lost of many people, including many of his fellow Jews who had been anticipating a different kind of Messiah—one who would take up the sword and overthrow the wretched Romans.

The word for “Lord” can, in some contexts, be translated as ‘master’ or ‘sir.’ But as the story unfolds, and based on the context and background we’ve already explored, it is clear that Jesus is being described as God come to us in human form.

“sign”

The “sign” to the shepherds is the child lying in the manger, and is meant to confirm in their minds that what they have heard is true. Think of how strange this would have been to the shepherds. After hearing an announcement from an angel, wouldn’t you expect something more grand? But no, they are to look for a simple child in a manger. That is The Lord. Wow. Matthew Henry is again insightful at this point, referring not only to Jesus’ lowly birth, but to the wider witness of his life: “When Christ was here upon earth, he distinguished himself, and made himself remarkable, by nothing so much as the instances of his humiliation.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

“great company of the heavenly host”

The “great company of the heavenly host” is a huge army of angels.

“host”

“Host” is a word usually used in military contexts. It might seem strange, then, that it is used here. But perhaps we can think of it in this way: That in this newborn King (Jesus), God is on the warpath against the forces of evil; he is undeterred and ultimately triumphant in his purposes to bring peace and reconciliation to his people, between people, and over all of his creation.

“Glory to God”

All glory is to God. Everything that is happening in and through Jesus will bring God glory.

“and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests”

Peace is envisioned on earth “to those on whom [God’s] favor rests.” Recall what was said previously about the Pax Romana and how the distinctive peace that Jesus brings is over and above anything that might happen in and through Rome. In this verse we also hear the echoes of the prophecy in Isaiah 9:6: “For to us a child is born… And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.

“Let’s go to Bethlehem and see…”

The shepherds went to Bethlehem. It was a small village so it would have been pretty easy to find them.

“the baby”

They go to look for “the baby.” The word for baby is brephos and is earlier used to describe a baby while still in the womb (as in Luke 1:41-44). This same word is used to describe a human baby outside the womb after birth as well (Luke 2:2; Luke 2:16; Luke 18:15; Acts 7:19; 2 Timothy 3:15; 1 Peter 2:2). I include this detail simply because I think it is instructive in debates about abortion.

17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

“treasured up all these things…”

Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” She certainly had been having some life-changing experiences! She had been told by the angel Gabriel that she was favoured by God, and that she would give birth to “the Son of the Most High” who would reign as Messiah on David’s throne with an everlasting kingdom (Luke 1:26-34). After having given birth (and received a visit from some shepherds) she ponders all of these amazing events, and surely considers what the future might hold as Jesus’ earthly life begins.

20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God…”

The shepherds “returned, glorifying and praising God.” Presumably the shepherds “returned” to their work and flocks. But as they did so they were “glorifying and praising God.” When you have seen such things, how can you keep it to yourself? You can’t! They give praise where praise is due—God himself!

“just as they had been told”

The scene at the manger had been “just as they had been told,” underlining the fact that God is always true to his word. During this holy night, they now know that they too will benefit from the arrival of this Saviour, Messiah and Lord in ways beyond their wildest dreams.

So friends, there you have it. I hope you have enjoyed this slow walk through Luke 2:1-20. When we hear something so much (including the nativity story), we stop hearing it. Instead of paying more attention, we pay less. Hopefully this post has had the opposite effect.

Remember Hodder’s hymn?

Thy Word is like a deep, deep mine;
and jewels rich and rare
are hidden in its mighty depths
for every searcher there.*

I pray that all searchers will, like those first shepherds, discover that this Saviour, Messiah, and Lord is for them, and is the source of an eternal joy that is truly great. “Long-looked for is come at last.”

Merry Christmas!


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*Edwin Hodder, “Thy Word Is Like A Garden, Lord” (1863). The hymn can be found at http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/t/h/y/thywilgl.htm

**Craig A. Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 13.

** John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke: Volume I, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, trans, A.W. Morrison (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 74.

2 comments

  1. Thank you, Matthew, for taking the time to create this. It’s clear and concise. I will share it on Facebook.
    You probably read Vincent Walter’s devotional on presbycan today where he adds the detail about the swaddling cloths.
    All of this helps people understand the Bible.

    Liked by 1 person

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