Christmas is the world's biggest Christian celebration, but it wasn't always so. Early Christians did not focus so much on Jesus' birth: They were mostly interested in his resurrection and baptism. The first Christmas celebration wasn't held until hundreds of years after Jesus' birth. Carol-singing wasn't popular until the 1500s. Christmas trees are even more recent. England's Prince Albert brought them from Germany to the English-speaking world in the late 1800s.
In the New Testament books about the life of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), only Matthew and Luke mention his birth, and the stories are very different. (Where are the wise men in Luke? Did Matthew overlook the shepherds?)
We thought it might be interesting to explore the two accounts. Here are excerpts from the King James Version of the Bible, with some scholarly context. (We added paragraph breaks and quotation marks, and updated some spelling.)
2:1-2, 9 (and) -11
(See also Matt. 1:1-17,
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins."
Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel," which being interpreted is, "God with us."
Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."
...and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
Luke 2:1, 4-20
(See also Luke 1:5-80, 2:2-3)
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, "Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us." And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child... But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
When was Jesus born?
MATTHEW and Luke say that Jesus was born when Herod the Great was King of Judea. But scholars are certain that Herod died in 4 BC (Before Christ). So how could Jesus have been born four or more years "Before Christ"?
Luke also mentions a worldwide taxation. But the only large-scale census - for purposes of taxation - we know of at the time was conducted by Quirinius (Cyrenius, in the Bible) in Palestine about AD 6 or 7. These and other clues (see "Christmas star" story, below) have led scholars to believe that the year of Jesus' birth was incorrectly calculated.
The Christian calendar was invented in Rome in AD 525 by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus (in English, Dennis the Little). His calculations were disputed early on.
How do we know Jesus was born Dec. 25? We don't! People have written about this question since the early 3rd century. Some thought Jesus was born on March 25 or May 20. And up until about 500, some Christian churches celebrated Jesus' birth on Jan. 6. The Armenian Apostolic Church still does.
The first we hear of a Christmas celebration on Dec. 25 is in AD 336 in Rome. Several pagan festivals were also observed at this time of year. One marked the "rebirth of the sun," when the hours of daylight begin to increase. (The winter solstice is Dec. 21.) Christians probably started observing Jesus' birth at the same time as these festivals, trying to replace pagan celebrations with a Christian one.
What was the Christmas star?
IN ancient times, a "sign" in the sky was expected at the birth of an important person. A sign might be an unusual star, an eclipse, or a comet. Many people over the years have tried to figure out what the star was that's recorded in Matthew. No one knows for sure.
We know that Halley's Comet, which can be very bright, was in the sky in 12 BC. Ancient Chinese books tell of "exploding" stars (now called novae) in 5 and 4 BC. Notable planetary conjunctions (when planets seem to line up next to each other in the night sky and appear very bright) happened in 2, 6, and 7 BC.
A triple conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in 6 BC would have been notably bright. Perhaps the magi, or wise men, saw one of these.
Why are the stories so different?
STORIES in the New Testament about Jesus' birth probably weren't even written down until AD 70 to 100. Before that, Christians spread the stories by telling them to others. By the time the stories were finally written down, different people may have remembered different things about the birth of Jesus. (Have you ever played a party game called "telephone"? Then you know how a message can be altered in the telling.)
Also, scholars think that the authors of the books of Matthew and Luke wrote them to be read by different audiences. Each author wanted to stress different things.
What does 'Christmas' mean?
IT'S from two Old English words: "Christes maesse" (Christ's mass). The spelling changed to "Christmas" around the 1500s. "Mass" can mean either the celebration of the ritual of Communion in some churches, or the music that is a part of that celebration.
Angel: It means "messenger" or "envoy" in Hebrew.
Bethlehem: The Hebrew word means "house of bread." The town is in a fertile area, good for growing crops and grazing sheep. King David was born there about 1,000 years before Jesus, so it was also known as "The City of David."
Christ: The Greek word "Christos" (an adjective meaning "rubbed on" or "used as an ointment") is used in the New Testament to mean "anointed one." The Hebrew word is "Messiah." The Messiah, foretold in the Old Testament, was to be king of the Jews, a descendant of King David.
Espoused: It's from the Greek word meaning "betrothed" (promised to marry). In ancient Jewish culture, betrothal was legally binding, like marriage. To break an engagement was to divorce ("put away") someone.
Gifts of the Magi: The wise men (see below) thought a great king had been born, so they brought gifts worthy of a monarch. Gold objects had been made in Syria as far back as 3200 BC. Frankincense is made from the gum resin (sap) of the Boswellia tree, which grows on the Arabian peninsula. Frankincense was (and is) used to make incense and anointing oil. It has a dusty sweet smell, like a balsam fir tree. Myrrh is also a resin, from the Commiphora tree that grows in Arabia and eastern Africa. It's used in oils, incense, and perfumes. It has a soapy, fruity smell.
Manger: It was probably a feeding trough for livestock. It could have been in a shelter of some kind, but it may have been in a courtyard, or even an open field. Sometimes mangers were cut into the walls of caves.
Swaddling clothes: According to the custom of the times, infants were wrapped in strips of cloth.
Wise men: They were "magi" in the original Greek. Magi means wise man, magician, interpreter of dreams, or astrologer. (Despite the traditional Christmas carol, "magi" does not mean "king.") They were probably priests from Persia or Babylon (modern-day Iran and Iraq, respectively). We assume there were three only because they brought three gifts.