Category:Nativity of Jesus (subject)

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Annunciation to Mary (Rossetti, 1850)
Annunciation to Joseph (Gandolfi, 1790)
Visitation of Mary (Pontormo, 1529)
Birth of Jesus (Repin, 1894)
Adoration of the Magi (Leonardo, 1482)
Circumcision of Jesus (Mantegna, 1461)
Flight into Egypt (Giotto, 1306)

Nativity of Jesus refers to a series of episodes in the lives of Jesus of Nazareth and Mary of Nazareth, associated with Jesus' birth at Bethlehem, as narrated in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and later Christian tradition.

< Life of Jesus : Nativity of Jesus -- Childhood of Jesus -- Jesus' Hidden Years -- Ministry of Jesus (Parables of Jesus, Miracles of Jesus) -- Passion of Jesus -- Resurrection of Jesus -- Relics of Jesus >

< Life of Mary of Nazareth : Mary's Early Life -- Nativity of Jesus -- Jesus' Hidden Years -- Mary and the Ministry of Jesus --- Mary and the Early Church -- Relics of Mary of Nazareth >


The historicity of the Nativity stories is largely disputed for three major reasons:

(a) The Gospels of Mark and John do not contain any narrative about the Nativity of Jesus at Bethlehem and seem to assume that Jesus was born at Nazareth.

(b) There are no recorded sayings of Jesus, which refer to his birth at Bethlehem, while Nazareth is commonly mentioned as his "home." In all ancient sources, Jesus is consistently identified as Jesus of Nazareth (and never as Jesus of Bethlehem).

(c) Both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke record the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, and yet offer two distinct narratives. The two accounts, although containing some common elements, are difficult to harmonize and appear to be theologically motivated.

According to Matthew, Joseph and Mary lived at Bethlehem. When Mary's pregnancy was revealed, Joseph would have liked to dismiss her but an angel announced to Joseph in a dream the true origin of the child. A group of Magi came from the East, following a "star," to pay homage to the newborn "King of the Jews." Herod the Great was so angered that he ordered the killing of all infants at Bethlehem. Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus escaped the massacre as Joseph was alerted in a dream to leave Bethlehem to Egypt. They came back to the land of Israel only when Herod the Great died, but still afraid of his son Archelaus, settled at Nazareth in Galilee. Matthew's account seems motivated by the theological concern of presenting Jesus as the "new Moses," who in his early life repeated the experiences of the ancient patriarch, miraculously escaping death in his childhood (see Finding of Moses) and coming from Egypt to reveal the new covenant.

According to Luke, Joseph and Mary lived at Nazareth in Galilee. Mary received the annunciation of the birth of Jesus. When pregnant, she spent three months with her relative Elizabeth, who was also expecting a baby, John the Baptist. Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem to register for the census of Quirinius, at the time of the Emperor Augustus and King Herod (sic!). During that trip, Jesus was born in the manger as his parents could not find room in the inn. A group of shepherds came and paid homage to the newborn. Jesus then was circumcised and presented to the Temple of Jerusalem, before his parents traveled back to Nazareth. Luke seems motivated by different concerns; the Nativity of Jesus as the Savior of Humankind is located in the more cosmopolitan context of the Roman Empire and the relation of jesus with Jerusalem and the Temple is presented in non-conflicting terms.

The circumstances of the birth of Jesus remain obscure. Nothing is said in ancient sources about the date (or the season) when Jesus was born. The chronology is uncertain. The "star" (possibly, Halley's Comet) appeared in October 12 BCE, Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, and the census of Quirinius occurred several years later, in 6 CE, when Herod's son Archelaus was removed from office and Judea became a Roman province. The census' purpose was to calculate property for taxation; it does not make any sense that people had to go back to their birthplace to register. The custom of celebrating the birthday of Jesus on December 25 derives from the Christianization of a pagan festival; see Christmas.

The tendency of later Christian traditions, starting with the Protoevangelium of James, was to merge and harmonize the narratives of Matthew and Luke and add numerous legendary elements in the process. No Christian source provides any additional historical elements.

Some anti-Christian narratives developed as early as the 2nd century CE, which made Jesus the illegitimate son of Mary and a Roman soldier named Panthera. Evidence of the Panthera legend are in the work of the Pagan philosopher Celsius (quoted by Origen), and in later Rabbinic texts (especially the so-called Toledot Yeshu). The name Panthera comes possibly as a corruption of parthenos (virgin); the phase "son of parthenos was turn into a common Roman name, Panthera, to discredit the reputation of Jesus. All the material contained in these later Jewish traditions developed as a parody of the Christian accounts and does not contain any reliable historical information.

The Islamic tradition provides an alternative account of the birth of Jesus, that only partially overlaps the Christian narrative. According the the Qur'an, Maryam (=Mary of Nazareth) was not married when Isa (=Jesus of Nazareth) was born and was a virgin when Allah informed her through His angel Jibreel (=Gabriel) that she would give birth to the Messiah. Isa was then born miraculously from an act of God's will, like Adam or John the Baptist. Isa was born about 600 years before Prophet Muhammad in the area of the Bethlehem Valley "under a palm tree" (as the Qur'an says: "and the pangs of childbirth drove her [=Maryam) under a palm tree,” ch. 19:23). When Maryam returned to the Temple, Isa performed his first miracle by speaking miraculously as an infant from the cradle: "I am a servant of Allah (abd-Allāh). He has given me the Scripture and has made me a Prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I may be and has not made me arrogant, or unblessed. Peace on me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I shall be raised back to life." (19:30-33).

The majority of scholars tend to conclude that Jesus was born at Nazareth in the last years of the reign of Herod the Great, and that no reliable narratives have being preserved about his childhood. All narratives about the nativity of Jesus have more to do with questions about the identity of Jesus than with historical events.

Nativity of Jesus, in ancient sources

Gospel of Matthew

Gospel of Luke

Protoevangelium of James

Nativity of Jesus, in the arts

The Christian iconographic tradition harmonized the Gospels narratives, creating a cycle of scenes from the Annunciation to Mary to the return of the Holy Family from the Flight into Egypt.

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