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Circumstances of Jesus' birth

Dec 27, 2012

When Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit, it is doubtful if very many people actually believed her story. Even Joseph was very disturbed at first, and his view was changed only by divine revelation through a dream (Matthew 1:20).

There is little doubt that some of the neighbors believed that Mary ought to be stoned, according to the law in Deuteronomy 22:24, which said that a betrothed woman who committed adultery should be stoned. But Matthew 1:19 says that Joseph was “a righteous (just) man,” yet it was his intention simply to put her away privately.

How could Joseph be a just man—one who kept the law—and still disregard the judgment set forth in Deuteronomy 22:24? It is because Joseph understood that he was the victim, not the judge. It was the duty of a judge to impose the just sentence of the law, but it was the right of the victim either to demand the full penalty, or a partial penalty, or to set it aside altogether.

In other words, the sentence of the law was his right, but not a duty as far as the victim was concerned. Joseph knew this, and since he was the victim, he had every right to set aside the penalty of the law, whether the neighbors liked it or not. It appears that there was grumbling among the neighbors, for when the Roman decree was issued to register at their home town, Joseph took Mary with him. Leaving her behind may have exposed her to the wrath of his legalistic neighbors.

Joseph could have registered the family without taking her with him, for he represented the family. But it is likely that he did not want to leave Mary behind, in case some zealous neighbors might lead the people in a stoning party. Hence, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

The Roman Census

Meanwhile, in Rome, Augustus Caesar was celebrating his Silver Jubilee. It had been 25 years since being proclaimed “Augustus” (i.e., Emperor) on January 16, 27 BC. And so on February 5, 2 BC the Roman Senate passed a bill giving him another title, Pater Patriae, “Father of the Country.” It was decreed that the entire populace under Roman dominion should ratify this decree by means of a census. Cyrenius, who was Rome’s foremost expert in census taking, was sent to the Province of Syria (which included Judea) to oversee this census. It was this registration and census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem later that year (2 BC).

Where was Jesus born?

Tradition depicts the couple arriving in Bethlehem in the evening, and the birth of Jesus that same night. This tradition is first seen in The Protoevangelion of James, which first appeared about 200 years after the birth of Christ. Kenneth E. Bailey, a scholar of Middle-eastern studies, says of this account:

“The author was not a Jew and did not understand Palestinian geography or Jewish tradition. In that period many wrote books claiming famous people as the author. Scholars date this particular ‘novel’ to around the year A.D. 200, and it is full of imaginative details…. In the novel, for example, the author describes the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem as a desert. It is not a desert but rather rich farm land.” [Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, page 27]

According to The Protoevangelion, Joseph and Mary had not quite arrived in Bethlehem when she went into labor. They stopped in a cave, and Joseph went on ahead into the town to look for a midwife. When he returned, Mary had already given birth to Jesus.

The author was probably a Greek who had never visited Judea. Neither is there any reason to believe that Jesus was born the same night that they had arrived in Bethlehem. Luke 2:7 says that Mary “laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

We have assumed that the manger scene means that Christ was born in a stable, rather than in a house. This, however, is not true. Houses then (and even today) were built with a stable on the end of the house near the entrance, because almost everyone had a few animals. Normally, when one enters such a house, a person must go up about three steps to enter the living quarters. But the animals remained on the slightly lower level. This provided some extra heat in winter, but also protected the animals each night from potential thieves.

There were a couple mangers built into the floor of the living quarters next to the stable so that the animals could eat at night. In the morning the animals were released. In the story of Jephthah in Judges 11:29-40, he made a vow to sacrifice to God whatever came first from his house. He was surprised when his daughter came out of the house, because he expected one of the animals to be let loose from the house in the morning. Likewise, when King Saul visited the witch of Endor, she “had a fattened calf in the house” (1 Samuel 28:24) which she slaughtered in order to prepare a meal for her honored guest.

The manger, then, was in a house, not in a cold cave down the road. Some family, probably a relative in Bethlehem, saw the need and provided them some space at the other end of their living room. The house had a guest room, but it was already occupied. Many houses had just one room that served as their living quarters, but those who could afford larger structures often added another guest room on the side or on the roof. For example, this was the “prophet’s chamber” on the upper level that was built for Elijah (1 Kings 17:19).

No Room in the Inn

Luke 2:7 says that there was no room for them in the “inn.” The Greek word is katalyma, which simply means “a place to stay.” It can refer to many kinds of shelters. In Luke 22:10-12 the word appears again when Jesus told Peter and John to find a location to keep the Passover.

10 And He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house that he enters. 11 And you shall say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room [katalyma] in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?’ 12 And he will show you a large furnished upper room; prepare it there.”

Here the word katalyma is translated “guest room” (NASB), which was a private room on the upper floor of the house. It was “a place to stay,” not a traditional “inn” or hotel for travelers. The normal Greek word for a commercial inn was pandocheion. The word pan means “all,” and the second half of the word means “to receive.” This Greek word was so widely used that it came to be incorporated into Armenian, Coptic, Arabic, and Turkish.

If Joseph had been turned away from a commercial inn because of no vacancy, Luke would have used the better word pandocheion, rather than katalyma. So it is better understood that Joseph and Mary were given shelter in the living room of a private home. The family living there slept on the far side of the house, while Joseph and Mary were given the other end near the mangers built into the floor, because the guest room was already occupied. Mary gave birth to Jesus, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and placed him in a manger on some soft, fresh hay.

Meanwhile, shepherds received a divine visitation to announce the birth of the Messiah, and they came to the house shortly after His birth. Shepherds were at the low end of the social scale. They probably wondered how the parents of the Messiah, or the soldiers guarding such an illustrious family, would allow shepherds to visit the child. But they found the family in a simple home with the Messiah sleeping in a manger.

The Magi Followed Jupiter

A few months later, the magi arrived at the house, having followed Jupiter in its westward trek to Jerusalem. On the 25th of December, 2 BC, Jupiter hovered over Bethlehem as viewed from Jerusalem (Matthew 2:8-10). Jupiter was known as Sedeq (Zadok), “The King’s Planet,” and some months earlier they had observed how the King’s Planet had “crowned” the King’s Star, Regulus.

In other words, Jupiter had made a loop over Regulus, which was positioned between the feet of the Lion (Leo). The first conjunction between Jupiter and Regulus occurred on September 14, 3 BC. After passing Regulus, the planet looped back and made another conjunction with Regulus on February 17, 2 BC. It then turned again and made its final conjunction on May 8, 2 BC, this time continuing its journey toward the West. It finally appeared stationary over Bethlehem on December 25, 2 BC, as viewed from Jerusalem.

Somehow the Magi in the East knew the prophecy of Genesis 49:10,

10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff [lawgiver, ruler, or “regulator”] from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.

Since Judah was pictured as a lion, and the 12 signs of the Mazzeroth in the heavens served as the signs of the 12 tribes of Israel, Regulus was known to be a messianic star. Perhaps the Magi were from Parthia or Persia and had learned of this prophecy through the teachings of Daniel, who had been made the head of the Order of Magi.

Jesus was born on the Feast of Trumpets, September 29, 2 BC. That is when the shepherds arrived as well, for they were local men. Three months later the Magi arrived on December 25, guided by the King’s Planet. They probably found Him at the same house and gave Him homage and gifts that would fund their escape to Egypt.

Herod then killed the children of Bethlehem a few days later. The Church of England commemorates this event on December 28. The Greek Orthodox Church commemorates it on December 29. Within two weeks there was a lunar eclipse on January 9, 1 BC, and Herod then died on January 28.

After Herod’s death, Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth with Jesus (Matthew 2:23).


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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