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Nativity of Jesus

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Nativity of Jesus

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

The Nativity of Jesus, also The Nativity, refers to the accounts of the birth of Jesus, primarily based on the two accounts in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, and secondarily on some apocryphal texts.

The canonical gospels of Luke and Matthew both describe Jesus as born in Bethlehem in Judea, to a virgin mother. In the Gospel of Luke account, Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus is born there and laid in a manger.[1] Angels proclaim him a savior for all people, and shepherds come to adore him. In the Matthew account, astronomers follow a star to Bethlehem to bring gifts to Jesus, born the King of the Jews. King Herod orders the massacre of all the boys less than two years old in Bethlehem, but the family flees to Egypt and later settles in Nazareth. Many scholars view the two narratives as non-historical and contradictory.[2][3][4][5] Other traditional Christian scholars maintain that the two accounts do not contradict each other, pointing to the similarities between them.[6] Some scholars view the discussion of historicity as secondary, given that gospels were primarily written as theological documents rather than chronological timelines.[7][8][9][10]

The main religious celebration among members of the Catholic Church and other Christian groups is the Church service on Christmas Eve or on the morning of Christmas Day. During the forty days leading up to Christmas, the Eastern Orthodox Church practices the Nativity Fast, while the majority of Christian congregations (including the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, many Mainline churches, and Baptists) begin observing the liturgical season of Advent four Sundays before Christmas—both are seen as times of spiritual cleansing, recollection and renewal to prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

In Christian theology, the Nativity of Jesus concerns the Incarnation of Jesus as the second Adam, in fulfillment of the divine will of God, undoing the damage caused by the fall of the first man, Adam. The Artistic depiction of Nativity has been a major subject for Christian artists since the 4th century. Since the 13th century, the Nativity scene has emphasized the humility of Jesus and promoted a more tender image of him, as a major turning point from the early "Lord and Master" image, affecting the basic approaches of Christian pastoral ministry.[11][12][13]

Canonical gospels

Nativity of Jesus, by Botticelli

The accounts of the Nativity of Jesus in the New Testament appear in two of the four Canonical Gospels, namely the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew. Luke's story takes place mostly before the birth of Jesus and centers on Mary, while Matthew's story takes place mostly after the birth of Jesus and centers on Joseph.[14][15][16] The two other canonical gospels, the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John, begin their narratives of Jesus's life in his adulthood; both mention him coming out of Galilee[17] and John mentions the name of Jesus' father,[18] but neither John nor Mark gives any other details of his life prior to adulthood.

The betrothal of Joseph and Mary and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem appear in both Matthew and Luke.[19] Many events in the Luke account are not in the Gospel of Matthew, - for example, the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem - and others appear only in Matthew, such as the Flight to Egypt.[20][21][22]

The Nativity accounts in the New Testament are generally viewed as ending with finding Jesus in the temple several years later, after the family has returned to Galilee.[19][22]

Gospel of Luke

Angel Gabriel's Annunciation to Mary, by Murillo, c. 1655

The Nativity is a prominent element of the Gospel of Luke, and comprises over 10% of the text. It is three times the length of the Nativity text in the Gospel of Matthew and in itself longer than several of the books of the New Testament.[23] Luke does not rush into the birth of Jesus, but prepares for the event by narrating several episodes prior to the birth of Jesus.[23] Luke is the only Gospel to provide an account of the birth of John the Baptist, and uses it to draw parallels between the births of John and Jesus.[24]

Luke draws parallels between the angelic visit (1:5–25) to Zechariah about the birth of John and the Annunciation to Mary (1:26–38) about the birth of Jesus, and between the Song of Zechariah (1:57–80) about John and the Song of Simeon (2:1–40) about Jesus.[24] However, while Luke devotes only two verses (1:57–58) to the birth of John, the birth of Jesus is narrated in twenty verses (2:1–20).[25] Luke relates the two births in the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth[23] and states that Mary and Elizabeth are cousins.[26] There is no mention of a family relationship between John and Jesus in the other Gospels, and the scholar Raymond E. Brown has described it as "of dubious historicity".[27] Géza Vermes calls it "artificial and undoubtedly Luke's creation".[28]

In the Gospel of Luke, Mary learns from the angel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear a child called Jesus. When she asks how this can be, since she is a virgin, he tells her that the Holy Spirit would "come upon her" and that "nothing will be impossible with God". She responds: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word".[29] Later Mary visits her relative Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. John leaps in his mother's womb, recognizing the presence of Jesus, the Messiah.

When Mary is due to give birth, she and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Joseph's ancestral home in Bethlehem to register in the census of Quirinius, as in Luke 2:2. Mary gives birth to Jesus and, having found no place for themselves in the inn, places the newborn in a manger.[30]

An angel of the Lord visits the shepherds and brings them "good news of great joy": "to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord." The angel tells them they will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. The angel is joined by a "heavenly host" who say "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.[31] The shepherds hurry to the stable in Bethlehem where they find Jesus with Mary and Joseph. They repeat what they have been told by the angel, and then, they return to their flocks.[32] Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem to be circumcised,[33] before returning to their home in Nazareth.[34]

Gospel of Matthew

A page from an 11th-century Gospel of Matthew (1:18–21), with Matthew 1:21,[35] providing the origin of the name Jesus.[36]

The Nativity appears in chapters 1 and 2 of the Gospel of Matthew in which Matthew places special emphasis on the origins of the names of the child and two specific passages, namely from 1:21–23, have theological significance in that they refer to the names Jesus and Emmanuel.[36][37][38]

Following the bethrothal of Joseph and Mary in Matthew 1:18, Joseph is troubled in Matthew 1:19–20 because Mary is pregnant but in the first of Joseph's three dreams an angel assures him not be afraid to take Mary as his wife, because her child was conceived by the Holy Spirit.[39]

The message of the angel to Joseph in Matthew 1:21 includes the origin of the name Jesus, and has salvific implications when the angel instructs Joseph: "you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins".[36][40] It is the only place in the New Testament where "saves his people" appears with "sins".[41]

Scholars have debated whether Matthew 1:22–23 is spoken by the angel or by Matthew.[42] However, Matthew 1:23 does provide the basis for the use of the name "Emmanuel", which means "God is with us".[37] The name Emmanuel (from the Hebrew words: אֵל ’El, i.e. 'God' and עִמָּנוּ i.e. ʻImmānū, 'with us') is related to Isaiah 7:14 and is one of almost a dozen cases in his Gospel where while discussing Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecies, Matthew points back to one of the prophets.[37][38]

In Matthew 2:1-12 the Star of Bethlehem reveals the birth of Jesus to a number (traditionally three) of Magi, (Greek μάγος), commonly translated as "wise man",[43][44] who travel to Jerusalem from an unspecified country "in the east".[45] Setting out from the East, they worship the infant Messiah and bring him the gifts intimated in Isaiah 60, a book dealing with the Apocalyptic pilgrimage of the heathens to Zion. It is the pagan elite who now stand with Jesus, while the elite of the holy people of Israel stand on the opposite side.[46] In Matthew 2:2 the Magi follow His star, believing it to announce the birth of the King of the Jews.

The Magi go to see Herod the Great and ask where they can find the one born "King of the Jews." Herod asks his advisers where the Messiah was to be born. They answer Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, and quote the prophet Micah as in Matthew 2:4–6.[47] Herod tells the Magi to go to Bethlehem and to report back to him when they have found the child.

As the Magi travel to Bethlehem, the star "goes before" them and leads them to a house where they find and adore Jesus. They present Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, in Matthew 2:9-11. In a dream, the magi receive a divine warning of Herod's intent to kill the Jesus, whom he sees as a rival. Consequently, they return to their own country without telling Herod where to find Jesus. An angel tells Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt. Meanwhile, Herod orders that all male children of Bethlehem under the age of two be killed, in the so-called "Massacre of the Innocents". Herod's statement in Matthew 2:16–18 referring to boys two years or younger, suggests that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem a number of months after the birth of Jesus.[48]

After Herod's death, the family return from Egypt, but they are afraid to return to Bethlehem because Herod's son rules Judea. Instead they move to Galilee and settle in Nazareth, fulfilling, according to the author, a prophecy: "He will be called a Nazorean".[49]

Historical analysis

Most mainstream scholars do not see the Luke and Matthew nativity stories as historically factual.[2][3][4][5][50] Some scholars view the discussion of historicity as secondary, given that gospels were primarily written as theological documents rather than chronological timelines.[7][8][9][10]

For instance, Matthew pays far more attention to the name of the child and its theological implications than the actual birth event itself[37] and according to Karl Rahner the evangelists show little interest in synchronizing the episodes of the birth or subsequent life of Jesus with the secular history of the age.[51]

As a result, modern scholars generally do not use much of the birth narratives for historical information.[5][52] Nevertheless, the birth narratives do contain some useful biographical information, e.g., Jesus' being born near the end of Herod's reign and his father's being named Joseph are considered historically plausible.[52][53]

Traditional views

Beginning of a Byzantine copy of the Gospel of Luke, 1020.

Traditionally, the narratives have been considered the inerrant Word of God. Some prominent, contemporary Christian scholars maintain the traditional view, arguing that the two accounts are historically accurate, and do not contradict each other, pointing to the similarities between the two accounts,[6] such as the birthplace of Bethlehem, and the Virgin Birth. However, this is not a universal view. In 1997, a survey found that 31% of the Anglican vicars in England do not believe in the virgin birth.[54]

Michael Patella state that a comparison of the Nativity stories of Luke and Matthew show common elements in terms of the virgin births, the birth at Bethlehem, and the upbringing at Nazareth and that although there are differences in the accounts of the Nativity in Luke and Matthew, a general narrative may be constructed by combining the two.[55][56]

Neither Luke nor Matthew claims that his birth narrative is based on the direct testimony of either Mary or Joseph.[57] James Hastings and separately Thomas Neufeld have expressed the view that the circumstances of Jesus' birth were deliberately kept restricted to a small group of early Christians, and were kept as a secret for many years after his death, thus explaining the variations in the accounts in Luke and Matthew.[58][59]

Daniel J. Harrington expresses the view that due to the scarcity of ancient records, a number of issues regarding the historicity of some Nativity episodes can never be fully determined, and that the more important task is deciding what the Nativity narratives meant to the early Christian communities.[60]


A number of biblical scholars, ranging from Bernard Orchard and Reuben Swanson to Cox and Easley have attempted to show how the text from both narratives can be interwoven as a Gospel harmony to create one account that begins with a trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus is born, is followed by the Flight to Egypt, and ends with a return to Nazareth.[61][62][63][64][65]

Jeffrey A. Gibbs has presented a different harmonization which focuses on Matthew 2:7–9. According to Gibbs, Herod and the Magi already expected the child to be born in Bethlehem, just a few miles south of Jerusalem. The need for a star to guide the Magi "suggests that Jesus was not in the expected place." [66] Based on Luke, this undisclosed non-Bethlehem location would have been Nazareth. Unaware that the star led the Magi to Nazareth, Herod ordered the execution of the male infants in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16).[66]

Critical analysis

Many modern scholars consider the birth narratives unhistorical because they are laced with theology and appear to present two different accounts.[52][67] For instance, they point to Matthew's account of the appearance of an angel in a dream, to Joseph; the wise men from the east; the massacre of the innocents; and the flight to Egypt, which do not appear in Luke, which instead describes the appearance of an angel to Mary; the worldwide census; the birth in a manger, and the choir of angels.[68]

Most modern scholars accept the Markan priority hypothesis, that the Luke and Matthew accounts are based on the Gospel of Mark, but that the birth narratives come from the evangelists' independent sources, known as M-Source for Matthew and L-Source for Luke, which were added later.[69]

Scholars see the accounts in Luke and Matthew as explaining the birth in Bethlehem in different ways, giving separate genealogies of Jesus, and probably not historical.[3][4][5][52][70] While Vermes and Sanders dismiss the accounts as pious fiction, Brown sees them as having been constructed from historical traditions which predate the Gospels.[71][72][73] According to Brown, there is no uniform agreement among scholars on the historicity of the accounts, e.g. most of those scholars who reject the historicity of the birth at Bethlehem argue for a birth at Nazareth, a few suggest Capernaum while locations as far away as Chorazin have been hypothesized.[74] Bruce Chilton and archaeologist Aviram Oshri have proposed a birth at Bethlehem of Galilee, a site located seven miles from Nazareth at which remains dating to the time of Herod the Great have been excavated.[75][76] Armand P. Tarrech states that Chilton's hypothesis has no support in either the Jewish or Christian sources, although Chilton seems to take seriously the statement in Luke 2:4 that Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.[77]

Massacre of the Innocents

Most modern biographies of Herod deny that the massacre took place.[78] Steve Mason asserts that, if the Massacre of the Innocents had taken place as reported in Matthew, it would have been strange for Josephus not to mention it, and that the massacre may hence be non-historical.[79] E. P. Sanders characterizes Josephus' writing as dwelling on Herod's cruelty, thus suggesting that Josephus would probably have included the event if it had occurred.[4] Sanders states that faced with little historical information, Matthew apparently based the story in which an infant Moses is endangered by the Pharaoh's order to kill infant Hebrews and that such use of scripture for telling the story of Jesus' birth was considered legitimate by contemporary standards.[4]

Sources also defend the historicity of the massacre. R. T. France states that the massacre was a low magnitude event of a nature that would have not demanded the attention of Josephus, but was in line with the character of Herod.[80] Paul L. Maier argues that Bethlehem was small and that the massacre would have been too small for Josephus to have heard of, given that it allegedly took place over forty years before his birth.[81] Paul Barnett and separately Craig L. Blomberg also state that Bethlehem was a very small village with few inhabitants and the massacre would have involved too few children to have been recorded by historians in general.[82][83]

Date of birth

Two independent approaches have been used to estimate the year of the birth of Jesus, one by analyzing the Nativity accounts in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew along with other historical data, the other by working backwards from the estimation of the start of the ministry of Jesus.[84][85]

Estimation via the Nativity accounts

A Harley Golden Gospel copy of Luke, c. 800

The nativity accounts in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke do not mention a date or time of year for the birth of Jesus and Karl Rahner states that the gospels do not in general provide enough details of dates to satisfy the demands of modern historians.[51] But both Luke and Matthew associate Jesus' birth with the time of King Herod.[51] Most scholars generally assume a date of birth between 6 and 4 BC.[86]

However, many scholars see a contradiction, in that while the Gospel of Matthew places Jesus' birth under the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, the Gospel of Luke also dates the birth ten years after Herod's death during the census of Quirinius, described by the historian Josephus.[51] Most critical scholars believe that Luke was simply mistaken,[87] but other scholars have attempted to reconcile its account with the details given by Josephus,[88][89] ranging from a grammatical approach to the translation of the Greek word prote used in Luke to be read as "registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria" to archeological arguments and references to Tertullian suggesting a "two step census" was performed, involving an early registration, given that Luke 2:2 refers to the "first enrolment".[65][90][91][92] Geza Vermes dismissed such approaches as 'exegetical acrobatics'.[93]

Despite the celebration of Christmas in December, neither Luke nor Matthew mention a season for when Jesus was born. However, scholarly arguments regarding the realism of shepherds grazing their flock during the winter have taken place, both challenging a winter birth for Jesus, as well as defending it by relying on the mildness of winters in ancient Israel and rabbinic rules regarding sheep near Bethlehem before February.[94][95][96]

Working backwards

An approach to estimating the year of birth of Jesus independent of the nativity accounts involves working backwards from the statement in Luke 3:23 that Jesus was "about 30 years of age" when he began preaching.[84][97]

Three independent approaches to estimating the dates in this way have been proposed: first by using the "fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius" in Luke 3:1–2, second via the reference in the dispute of Jesus and the Pharisees in John 2:20 ("Forty and six years was this temple in building, and you want to raise it up in three days?") and third by the reference of Flavius Josephus to the imprisonment and execution (Ant 18.5.2) of John the baptist by Herod Antipas. The latter relates to a time when Jesus had already started preaching but the other two references relate to when he had begun.

By working backwards in this way, some scholars estimate the year 28 AD to be roughly the 32nd birthday of Jesus and his year of birth to be around 6–4 BC.[84][97][98]

Place of birth

Altar in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The Gospels of both Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.[99][100] Although Matthew does not explicitly state Joseph's place of origin or where he lived prior to the birth of Jesus,[101][102] the account gives an impression that the family lived in Bethlehem.[103] However Luke 1:26–27 clearly states that Mary lived in Nazareth before the birth of Jesus, at the time of the Annunciation.[102]

The Gospel of Luke account states that Mary gave birth to Jesus and laid him in a manger “because there was no place for them in the inn", but does not say exactly where Jesus was born.[104] The Greek word kataluma may be translated as either “inn” or “guestroom”, and some scholars have speculated that Joseph and Mary may have sought to stay with relatives, rather than in an inn, only to find the house full (whereupon they resorted to the shelter of a room with a manger[105]).

In the 2nd century, Justin Martyr stated that Jesus had been born in a cave outside the town, while the Protoevangelium of James described a legendary birth in a cave nearby.[106][107] The Church of the Nativity inside the town, built by St. Helena, contains the cave-manger site traditionally venerated as the birthplace of Jesus, which may have originally been a site of the cult of the god Tammuz.[108] In Contra Celsum 1.51, Origen, who from around 215 travelled throughout Palestine, wrote of the "manger of Jesus".[109]

Sanders considers Luke's census, in which everyone returned to their ancestral home, not historically credible, given that this was contrary to Roman practice and they would not have uprooted everyone in the Empire by forcing them to return to their ancestral cities and that people were not able to trace their own lineages back forty-two generations.[4]

The Quranic birth of Jesus, like the Gospels, places the virgin birth of Jesus in Bethlehem,[110][111][112] at a time when dates were ripe on the trees. (The Quran code of Rashad Khalifa sees numerological significance in the birth of Muhammad (ca 570) occurring 570 years afer the traditional birth-date of Jesus.[113])

Themes and analogies

Thematic analysis

Helmut Koester writes that while Matthew's narrative was formed in a biblical environment, Luke's was modeled to appeal to the Greco-Roman world.[114] In particular, according to Koester, while shepherds were regarded negatively by Jews in Jesus' time, they were seen in Greco-Roman culture as "symbols of a golden age when gods and humans lived in peace and nature was at harmony".[114] However, C. T. Ruddick, Jr. writes that Luke's birth narratives (both of Jesus and John) were modeled on passages from Genesis: 27–43.[115] Regardless, Luke's nativity depicts Jesus as a savior for all people. His genealogy goes back to Adam, demonstrating his common humanity, as do the lowly circumstances of his birth. Luke, writing for a gentile audience, portrays the infant Jesus as a savior for gentiles as well as Jews.[116] Matthew uses quotations from Jewish scripture, scenes reminiscent of Moses' life, and a numerical pattern in his genealogy to identify Jesus as a son of David, of God, and of Abraham. Luke's prelude is much longer, emphasizing the age of the Holy Spirit and the arrival of a savior for all people, Jew and Gentile.[117]

Mainstream scholars interpret Matthew's nativity as depicting Jesus as a new Moses with a genealogy going back to Abraham,[118][119] while Ulrich Luz views the depiction of Jesus by Matthew at once as the new Moses and the inverse of Moses and not simply a retelling of the Moses story.[120] Luz also points out that in the massacre narrative, once again, a fulfilment quotation is given – Rachel, the ancestral mother of Israel, weeping for her dead children (2:18)[121]

Scholars see Matthew as casting Jesus in the role of being a second Moses: like Moses, the infant Jesus is saved from a murderous tyrant; flees the country of his birth until his persecutor is dead and it is safe to return as the savior of his people.[122] In this view, the account in Matthew is based on an earlier narrative patterned on traditions about the birth of Moses. Moses' birth is announced to Pharaoh by Magi; the child is threatened and rescued; the male Israelite children were similarly put to death by an evil king.[118][122]

According to Ulrich Luz the beginning of the narrative of Matthew is similar to earlier biblical stories, e.g. the Annunciation of Jesus' birth (1:18–25) is reminiscent of the biblical accounts of the births of Ishmael, Isaac and Samson (Genesis 16:11, 17;19; Judges 13:3,5) and it recalls the Haggadic traditions of the birth of Moses. Yet in Luz's view the contours appear, in part, strangely overlapped and inverted: "Egypt, formerly the land of suppression becomes a place of refuge and it is the King of Israel who now takes on the role of Pharaoh...[yet] Matthew is not simply retelling the Moses story..Instead, the story of Jesus really is a new story: Jesus is at once the new Moses and the inverse of Moses."[120]

Old Testament parallels

A page from the Codex Sinaiticus.

Scholars have debated whether Matthew 1:22 and Matthew 2:23 refer to specific Old Testament passages. The statement in Matthew 1:22: "All this happened to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet" does not mention the prophet Isaiah in 4th-century documents such as the Codex Sinaiticus, but some 5–6th-century manuscripts of Matthew, such as Codex Bezae, read "Isaiah the prophet".[123] The statement in Matthew 1:23 "Behold the virgin shall be with child" uses the Greek term "parthenos" as "virgin" as in the Septuagint Isaiah, while the much older Masoretic Isaiah uses the Hebrew "almah", which may mean "maiden," "young woman," or "virgin."[124] Raymond Brown states that the 3rd century BCE translators of the Septuagint may have understood the Hebrew word "almah" to mean virgin in this context.[124]

The statement in Matthew 2:23 "he will be called a Nazorean" does not mention a specific passage in the Old Testament, and there are multiple scholarly interpretations as to what it may refer to.[125] B. Aland and other scholars consider the Greek Ναζωραιος used for Nazorean of uncertain etymology and meaning,[126] but M. Menken states that it is a demonym that refers to an "inhabitant of Nazareth".[127] Menken also states that it may be referring to Judges 13:5, 7.[128] Gary Smith states that Nazirite may mean one consecrated to God, i.e. an ascetic; or may refer to Isaiah 11:1.[129] The Oxford Bible Commentary states that it may be word-play on the use of "nazirite," "Holy One of God," in Isaiah 4:3, meant to identify Jesus with the Nazoreans, a Jewish sect who differed from the Pharisees only in regarding Jesus as the Messiah.[122][130] The Swiss theologian Ulrich Luz, who locates the Matthean community in Syria, has noted that Syrian Christians also called themselves Nazarenes.[131]

Christian theology

The theological significance of the Nativity of Jesus has been a key element in Christian teachings, from the early Church Fathers to 20th century theologians.[132][133][134] The theological issues were addressed as early as Apostle Paul, but continued to be debated and eventually lead to both Christological and Mariological differences among Christians that resulted in early schisms within the Church by the 5th century.

Birth of the new man


Apostle Paul viewed the birth of Jesus as an event of cosmic significance which brought forth a "new man" who undid the damage caused by the fall of the first man, Adam. Just as the Johannine view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos proclaims the universal relevance of his birth, the Pauline perspective emphasizes the birth of a new man and a new world in the birth of Jesus.[139] Paul's eschatological view of Jesus counter-positions him as a new man of morality and obedience, in contrast to Adam. Unlike Adam, the new man born in Jesus obeys God and ushers in a world of morality and salvation.[139]

In the Pauline view, Adam is positioned as the first man and Jesus as the second: Adam, having corrupted himself by his disobedience, also infected humanity and left it with a curse as inheritance. The birth of Jesus, on the other hand, counterbalanced the fall of Adam, bringing forth redemption and repairing the damage done by Adam.[140]

In patristic theology, Paul's contrasting of Jesus as the new man versus Adam provided a framework for discussing the uniqueness of the birth of Jesus and the ensuing events of his life. The Nativity of Jesus thus began to serve as the starting point for "cosmic Christology" in which the birth, life and Resurrection of Jesus have universal implications.[139][141][142] The concept of Jesus as the "new man" repeats in the cycle of birth and rebirth of Jesus from his Nativity to his Resurrection: following his birth, through his morality and obedience to the Father, Jesus began a new harmony in the relationship between God the Father and man. The Nativity and Resurrection of Jesus thus created the author and exemplar of a new humanity.[143]

In the 2nd century Church Father Irenaeus writes:

"When He became incarnate and was made man, He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam – namely to be according to the image and likeness of God- that we might recover in Christ Jesus."[133][134]

Irenaeus was also one of the early theologians to use the analogy of "second Adam and second Eve". He suggested the Virgin Mary as the "second eve" and wrote that the Virgin Mary had "untied the knot of sin bound up by the virgin Eve" and that just as Eve had tempted Adam to disobey God, Mary had set a path of obedience for the second Adam (i.e. Jesus) from the Annunciation to Calvary so that Jesus could bring about salvation, undoing the damage of Adam.[144]

In the 4th century, this uniqueness of the circumstances related to the Nativity of Jesus, and their interplay with the mystery of the incarnation became a central element in both the theology and hymnody of Saint Ephrem the Syrian. For him, the uniqueness of the Nativity of Jesus was supplemented with the sign of the Majesty of the Creator through the ability of a powerful God to enter the world as a small newborn.[145]

In the Middle Ages the birth of Jesus as the second Adam came to be seen in the context of Saint Augustine's Felix culpa (i.e. happy fall) and was intertwined with the popular teachings on the fall from grace of Adam and Eve.[146] Augustine was fond of a statement on Nativity by Saint Gregory of Nyssa and he quoted in five times: "Venerate the Nativity, through which you are freed from the bonds of an earthly nativity".[147] And he liked to quote: "Just as in Adam all of us died, so too in Christ all of us will be brought to life".[147][148]

The theology persisted into the Protestant Reformation, and second Adam was one of the six modes of atonement discussed by John Calvin.[149] In the 20th century, leading theologian Karl Barth continued the same line of reasoning and viewed the Nativity of Jesus as the birth of a new man who succeeded Adam. In Barth's theology, in contrast to Adam, Jesus acted as an obedient Son in the fulfilment of the divine will and was therefore free from sin and could hence reveal the righteousness of God the Father and bring about salvation.[132]

Christology of Nativity

In Summa Theologiæ, (1471 copy shown here) Thomas Aquinas addressed many of the open Christological questions regarding the Nativity of Jesus.

The Nativity of Jesus impacted the Christological issues about the Person of Christ from the earliest days of Christianity. Luke's Christology centers on the dialectics of the dual natures of the earthly and heavenly manifestations of existence of the Christ, while Matthew's Christology focuses on the mission of Jesus and his role as the savior.[150][151]

The belief in the divinity of Jesus leads to the question: "was Jesus a man to be born of a woman or was he God born of a woman?" A wide range of hypotheses and beliefs regarding the nature of the Nativity of Jesus were presented in the first four centuries of Christianity. Some of the debates involved the title Theotokos (God bearer) for the Virgin Mary and began to illustrate the impact of Mariology on Christology. Some of these viewpoints were eventually declared as heresies, others led to schisms and the formation of new branches of the Church.[152][153][154][155]

The salvific emphasis of Matthew 1:21 later impacted the theological issues and the devotions to Holy Name of Jesus.[40][156][157] Matthew 1:23 provides the only key to the Emmanuel Christology in the New Testament. Beginning with 1:23, Matthew shows a clear interest in identifying Jesus as "God with us" and in later developing the Emmanuel characterization of Jesus at key points throughout the rest of his Gospel.[158] The name Emmanuel does not appear elsewhere in the New Testament, but Matthew builds on it in Matthew 28:20 ("I am with you always, even unto the end of the world") to indicates that Jesus will be with the faithful to the end of the age.[158][159] According to Ulrich Luz, the Emmanuel motif brackets the entire Gospel of Matthew between 1:23 and 28:20, appearing explicitly and implicitly in several other passages.[160]

A number of ecumenical councils were convened in the 4th and 5th centuries to deal with these issues. The Council of Ehesus debated hyposthasis (co-existing natures) versus Monophysitism (only one nature) versus Miaphysitism (two natures united as one) versus Nestorianism (disunion of two natures).[161][162] The 451 Council of Chalcedon was highly influential and marked a key turning point in the Christological debates that broke apart the church of the Eastern Roman Empire in the 5th century. In Chalcedon the Hypostatic union was decreed, namely that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human, making this part of the creed of Orthodox Christianity.[163][164][165][166]

In the 5th century, leading Church Father Pope Leo I used the Nativity as a key element of his theology. Leo gave 10 sermons on Nativity and 7 have survived, the one on December 25, 451 demonstrates his concern to increase the importance of the feast of nativity and along with it emphasize the two natures of Christ in defense of the Christological doctrine of Hypostatic union.[167] Leo often used his Nativity sermons as an occasion to attack opposing viewpoints, without naming the opposition. Thus Leo used the occasion of the Nativity feast to establish boundaries for what could be considered a heresy. regarding the birth and nature of Christ.[152]

In the 13th century Saint Thomas Aquinas addressed the Christologocal attribution of the Nativity: Should it be attributed to the person (the Word) or only to the assumed human nature of that person. Aquinas treated Nativity in 8 separate articles in Summa Theologica each posing a separate question, e.g.: "Does Nativity regard the nature rather than the Person?", "Should a temporal Nativity be attributed to Christ?" "Should the Blessed Virgin be called Christ's Mother?", "Should the Blessed Virgin be called the Mother of God?", "Are there two filiations in Christ?", etc.[168] To deal with this issue, Aquinas distinguishes between the person born and the nature in which the birth takes place.[169] Aquinas thus resolved the question by arguing that in the Hypostatic union Christ has two natures, one received from the Father from eternity, the other from his mother in time. This approach also resolved the Mariological problem of Mary receiving the title of Theotokos for under this scenario she is the "Mother of God".[169]

During the Reformation, John Calvin argued that Jesus was not sanctified to be "God manifested as Incarnate" (Deus manifestatus in carne) only due to his Virgin Birth, but through the action of the Holy Spirit at the instant of his birth. Thus Calvin argued that Jesus was exempt from original sin because he was sanctified at the moment of birth so that his generation was without blemish; as generation has been blemishless before the fall of Adam.[170]

Impact on Christianity

Feasts and liturgical elements

In the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Lord's Day (Sunday) was the earliest Christian celebration and included a number of theological themes. In the 2nd century, the Resurrection of Jesus became a separate feast as Easter and in the same century Epiphany began to be celebrated in the Churches of the East on January 6.[171] The celebration of the feast of the Magi on January 6 may relate to a pre-Christian celebration for the blessing of the Nile in Egypt on January 5, but this is not historically certain.[172] The festival of the Nativity which later turned into Christmas was a 4th-century feast in the Western Church notably in Rome and North Africa, although it is uncertain exactly where and when it was first celebrated.[173]

The earliest source stating December 25 as the date of birth of Jesus was Hippolytus of Rome (170–236), written very early in the 3rd century, based on the assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox which he placed on March 25, and then added nine months.[174] There is historical evidence that by the middle of the 4th century the Christian churches of the East celebrated the birth and Baptism of Jesus on the same day, on January 6 while those in the West celebrated a Nativity feast on December 25 (perhaps influenced by the Winter solstice); and that by the last quarter of the 4th century, the calendars of both churches included both feasts.[175] The earliest suggestions of a fast of Baptism of Jesus on January 6 during the 2nd century comes from Clement of Alexandria, but there is no further mention of such a feast until 361 when Emperor Julian attended a feast on January 6 in the year 361.[175]

Christmas Eve Nativity at Resurrection Lutheran Church, Fredericksburg, Virginia

The Chronography of 354 illuminated manuscript compiled in Rome includes an early reference to the celebration of a Nativity feast.[176] In a sermon delivered in Antioch on December 25, c. 386, Saint John Chrysostom provides specific information about the feast there, stating that the feast had existed for about 10 years.[175] By around 385 the feast for the birth of Jesus was distinct from that of the Baptism and was held on December 25 in Constantinople, Nyssa and Amaseia. In a sermon in 386, Gregory of Nyssa specifically related the feast of Nativity with that of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, celebrated a day later. By 390 the feast was also held in Iconium on that day.[175]

Pope Leo I established a feast of the "Mystery of Incarnation" in the 5th century, in effect as the first formal feast for the Nativity of Jesus. Pope Sixtus III then instituted the practice of Midnight Mass just before that feast.[177] In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian declared Christmas to be a legal holiday.[178]

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the theological importance of the Nativity of Jesus, was coupled with an emphasis on the loving nature of Child Jesus in sermons by figures such as Jean Gerson. In his sermons Gerson emphasized the loving nature of Jesus at his Nativity, as well as his cosmic plan for the salvation of mankind.[179]

By the early part of the 20th century, Christmas had become a "cultural signature" of Christianity and indeed of the Western culture even in countries such as the United States which are officially non-religious. By the beginning of the 21st century these countries began to pay more attention to the sensitivities of non-Christians during the festivities at the end of the calendar year.[180]

Transforming the image of Jesus

Paper on wood Nativity scene from 1750, Milan, presenting a tender image of Jesus.

Early Christians viewed Jesus as "the Lord" and the word Kyrios appears over 700 times in the New Testament, referring to him.[181] The use of the word Kyrios in the Septuagint Bible also assigned to Jesus the Old Testament attributes of an omnipotent God.[181] The use of the term Kyrios, and hence the Lordship of Jesus, predated the Pauline epistles, but Saint Paul expanded and elaborated on that topic.[181]

Pauline writings established among early Christians the Kyrios image, and attributes of Jesus as not only referring to his eschatological victory, but to him as the "divine image" (Greek εἰκών eikōn) in whose face the glory of God shines forth. This image persisted among Christians as the predominant perception of Jesus for a number of centuries.[182] More than any other title, Kyrios defined the relationship between Jesus and those who believed in him as Christ: Jesus was their Lord and Master who was to be served with all their hearts and who would one day judge their actions throughout their lives.[183]

The lordship attributes associated with the Kyrios image of Jesus also implied his power over all creation.[184][185] Paul then looked back and reasoned that the final lordship of Jesus was prepared from the very beginning, starting with pre-existence and the Nativity, based on his obedience as the image of God.[186] Over time, based on the influence of Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux and others, the Kyrios image of Jesus began to be supplemented with a more "tender image of Jesus", and the Franciscan approach to popular piety was instrumental in establishing this image.[185]

The 13th century witnessed a major turning point in the development of a new "tender image of Jesus" within Christianity, as the Franciscans began to emphasize the humility of Jesus both at his birth and his death. The construction of the Nativity scene by Saint Francis of Assisi was instrumental in portraying a softer image of Jesus that contrasted with the powerful and radiant image at the Transfiguration, and emphasized how God had taken a humble path to his own birth.[11] As the Black Death raged in Medieval Europe, two mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans helped the faithful cope with tragedies. One element of the Franciscan approach was the emphasis on the humility of Jesus and the poverty of his birth: the image of God was the image of Jesus, not a severe and punishing God, but himself humble at birth and sacrificed at death.[12] The concept that the omnipotent Creator would set aside all power in order to conquer the hearts of men by love and that he would have been helplessly placed in a manger was as marvelous and as touching to the believers as the sacrifice of dying on the cross in Calavry.[13]

Thus by the 13th century the tender joys of the Nativity of Jesus were added to the agony of his Crucifixion and a whole new range of approved religious emotions were ushered in, with wide ranging cultural impacts for centuries thereafter.[13] The Franciscans approached both ends of this spectrum of emotions. On one hand the introduction of the Nativity scene encouraged the tender image of Jesus, while on the other hand Francis of Assisi himself had a deep attachment to the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross and was said to have recevieved the Stigmata as an expression of that love. The dual nature of Franciscan piety based both on joy of Nativity and the sacrifice at Calvary had a deep appeal among city dwellers and as the Franciscan Friars traveled, these emotions spread across the world, transforming the Kyrios image of Jesus to a more tender, loving, and compassionate image.[13] These traditions did not remain limited to Europe and soon spread to the other parts of the world such as Latin America, the Philippines and the United States.[187][188]

According to Archbishop Rowan Williams this transformation, accompanied by the proliferation of the tender image of Jesus in Madonna and Child paintings made an important impact within the Christian Ministry by allowing Christians to feel the living presence of Jesus as a loving figure "who is always there to harbor and nurture those who turn to him for help.[189][190]

Hymns, art and music

Canticles appearing in Luke

Luke's Nativity text has given rise to four well known canticles: the Benedictus and the Magnificat in the first chapter, and the Gloria in Excelsis and the Nunc dimittis in the second chapter.[24] These "Gospel canticles" are now an integral part of the Christian liturgical tradition.[191] The parallel structure in Luke regarding the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, extends to the three canticles Benedictus (Song of Zechariah), the Nunc dimittis and the Magnificat.[192]

The Magnificat, in Luke 1:46–55, is spoken by Mary and is one of the 8 most ancient Christian hymns and perhaps the earliest Marian hymn.[193] The Benedictus, in Luke 1:68–79, is spoken by Zechariah, while the Nunc dimittis, in Luke 2:29–32 is spoken by Simeon.[194] The traditional Gloria in Excelsis is longer than the opening line presented in Luke 2:14, and is often called the "Song of the Angels" given that it was uttered by the angels in the Annunciation to the Shepherds.[195]

The three canticles Benedictus, Nuc Dimittis and the Magnificat, if not originating with Luke himself, may have their roots in the earliest Christian liturgical services in Jerusalem, but their exact origins remain unknown.[196]

Visual arts

Annunciation by Nesterov, 19th century, Russia.

The earliest artistic depictions of Nativity of Jesus were in the catacombs and on sarcophagi in Rome. As Gentile visitors, the Magi were popular in these scenes which also played on the cycle of birth and death of jesus and its cosmic significance by depicting Adam and Eve. However, the inherent message of humility and poverty built into the Nativity of Jesus did not sit well with some wealthy Romans who emblished the scene to the point that eventually Mary was seated on a throne as the Magi visited.[197] By the 14th century, images of Mary which combined humble earthly and regal heavenly attributes were appearing, e.g. in the depictions of the Madonna of humility.[198]

Depictions of the Nativity are now a normal component of the sequences illustrating both the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin. The icons of Nativity also carry the message of redemption: God's unification with matter forms the mystery of the Incarnation, a turning point in the Christian perspective on Salvation.[199]

In the Eastern Church icons of Nativity often correspond to specific hymns to Mary, e.g. to the Kontakion: "The Virgin today bringeth forth the Transubstantial, and the eart offereth a cave to the Unapproachable...."[200] In many Eastern icons of Nativity (often accompanied by matching hymnody) two basic elements are emphasized. First the event portrays the mystery of incarnation as a foundation for the Christian faith, and the combined nature of Christ as Divine and human. Secondly, it relates the event to the natural life of the world, and its consequences for humanity. According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, the feast of Nativity in the Eastern Church is not a festival of creation, but of re-creation and renewal.[200]

Hymns, music and performances

A Christmas carol card, Boston, 1880.

Like 1st century Jews, early Christians rejected the use of musical instruments in religious ceremonies and instead relied on chants and plainsong leading to the use of the term a cappella (in the chapel) for these chants.

One of the earliest Nativity hymns was Veni redemptor gentium composed by Saint Ambrose in Milan in the 4th century. By the beginning of the 5th century, the Spanish poet Prudentius had written "From the Heart of the Father" where the ninth stanza focused on the Nativity and portrayed Jesus as the creator of the universe. In the 5th century the Gallic poet Sedulius composed "From the lands that see the Sun arise" in which the humility of the birth of Jesus was portrayed.[197] The Magnificat, one of the 8 most ancient Christian hymns and perhaps the earliest Marian hymn is based on the Annunciation.[193][194]

Saint Romanus the Melodist had a dream of the Virgin Mary the night before the feast of the Nativity, and when he woke up the next morning, composed his first hymn "On the Nativity" and continued composing hymns (perhaps several hundred) to the end of his life.[201] Re-enactments of Nativity which are now called Nativity plays were part of the troparion hymns in the liturgy of Byzantine Rite Churches, from St. Sophronius in the 7th century.[202] By the 13th century, the Franciscans had encouraged a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs in the native languages.[203] Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, who lists twenty-five "caroles of Cristemas".[204]

The largest body of musical works about Christ in which he does not speak are about the Nativity. A large body of liturgical music, as well as a great deal of para-liturgical texts, Carols and folk music exist about the Nativity of Jesus. The Christmas Carols have come to be viewed as a cultural-signature of the Nativity of Jesus.[205]

Most musical Nativity narrations are not biblical and did not come about until church music assimilated opera in the 17th century. But thereafter there was a torrent of new music, e.g. Heinrich Schutz's 1660 The Christmas Story and Bach's Christmas Oratorio in the 18th century. And Lisz's Christus, etc.[205] John Milton's classic 1629 poem Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity was used by John McEwan in 1901.[205]

See also

Events in the
Life of Jesus
according to the Gospels
Life of Jesus
Portals: Bible


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Further reading

  • Albright, W.F. and C.S. Mann. "Matthew." The Anchor Bible Series. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971.
  • Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. London: G. Chapman, 1977.
  • Calkins, Robert G. Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1983.
  • Carter, Warren. Matthew and Empire. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2001.
  • France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew: an Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1985.
  • Gundry, Robert H. Matthew a Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982.
  • Gundry, Robert H. "Salvation in Matthew." Society of Biblical Literature – 2000 Seminar Papers. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000.
  • Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981
  • Jones, Alexander. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1965.
  • Levine, Amy-Jill. "Matthew." Women's Bible Commentary. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
  • Schaberg, Jane. Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives (Biblical Seminar Series, No 28) Sheffield Academic Press (March 1995) ISBN 1-85075-533-7
  • Schweizer, Eduard. The Good News According to Matthew. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975
  • Vermes, Geza "The Nativity: History and Legend". Penguin (2006) ISBN 0-14-102446-1

External links

  • Icons of the Nativity (mostly Russian)
  • , Part 1;The Betrothal and Marriage of Mary to JosephBernard Orchard, Part 2
Nativity of Jesus
Preceded by
Mary visits Elizabeth
New Testament
Succeeded by
Annunciation to the Shepherds
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