John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v. 1, ch. 8: In the Beginning... The Origins of Jesus of Nazareth,
pp 205-252

(Detailed summary)

What do we know about the birth of Jesus?

  • Let us begin with the name Jesus, in Hebrew Yeshu, which is the abbreviated form of an older name Yeshua, which is itself the short form of the name of an ancient hero Yehoshua, or Joshua, Moses' successor and leader who brought the Jewish people into the Promised Land. This name was popular in Jewish circles until the 2nd century CE. It was so common in the time of Jesus that it should be noted: Jesus "of Nazareth". The Jewish historian Josephus mentions in his works 20 figures who bear the name of Jesus. He must therefore specify: Jesus, the one called Messiah (or Christ). This is why it has become so frequent to use the name Christ to specify which Jesus was speaking of that at the time of Paul, in the middle of the first century, Christ was the second name of Jesus.

  • The name "Jesus" means "God helps" or "May God help". But as often happens in the Bible, the original and etymological meaning has been lost over time and a popular etymology has been invented: God saves, which is found in the New Testament.

  • When we look at the names of the whole family of Jesus, we observe an interesting phenomenon: all the names refer us either to the Patriarchs or to the Exodus and the entry into the Promised Land. His father Joseph is named after one of Jacob's 12 sons. His mother Mary, in Hebrew Miriam, is named after the sister of Moses. His four brothers, James, Joses, Simon and Jude have names related to the Patriarchs: James is the other expression of Jacob, Joses refers to Joseph, Simon to Simeon and Jude to Judas. This desire to reflect the patriarchal era and the Exodus appeared in the 2nd century BC, at the time of the Maccabean brothers and the rise of the nationalist movement which opposed the attempt of culture integration by the Greeks. This Jewish revival movement was especially strong in small towns and rural areas, such as in Galilee. Let us not forget that Jesus surrounded himself with twelve disciples, like the twelve patriarchs and the tribes of Israel, with the idea of restoring the true Israel.

  • It is very difficult to determine Jesus' birthplace. The evangelists Luke and Matthew, who alone speak of it, contradict each other. Matthew's account assumes that Jesus' parents have always lived in Bethlehem, so it is normal that Jesus was born there, not in a stable, but in an ordinary house, and that their move to Nazareth in Galilee, when Jesus was about 2 years old, was necessary for political reasons, because of the threat of Archelaus, son of Herod, who reigns over Judea. This move to Galilee is however curious, since another son of Herod reigned there, Herod Antipas. Conversely, Luke's account tells us that Jesus' parents came from Nazareth in Galilee and tries to explain why Jesus would have been born in Bethlehem. Then he mentions the Roman census of the governor of Syria, Quirinius, who allegedly forced Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem. The problem with this census is that it would have taken place, according to the documents we have, around 6 AD, and would have affected only Judea, not Galilee. However, this does not correspond at all to the time of the birth of Jesus who would have been born around 6 BC (about 2 years before the death of King Herod around 4 BC). So there is no confirmation of a census at the time of Jesus' birth. These are not the only inaccuracies or ignorance of Jewish customs found in Luke's account. For example, he speaks of the cleansing of Mary and Joseph in the temple after Jesus' birth and the presentation and redemption of Jesus as the first-born by means of animal sacrifice, but the cleansing concerned only the mother and was a completely different event from the redemption of the first-born, which did not require any temple visit or animal sacrifice, but merely a gift of money.

  • The stories of Luke and Matthew were composed in ignorance of each other and have above all a theological or catechetical purpose: the Jesus we know in faith after Easter was already at work in his childhood. Matthew, who presents Jesus as a new Moses, shows a Jesus who follows in the footsteps of Moses by going to Egypt and who becomes, as the prophet Isaiah says, the light of the nations with the visit of the Magi. On the other hand, Luke insists rather on Jesus as a prophet, inspired by the Holy Spirit from the moment of his conception, and who reaches the people with his word, a word that impressed the temple teachers when he was young, a word that reached especially the poor, as the visit of the shepherds shows, and which generates joy. In spite of his different portraits of Jesus, there are two points on which Matthew and Luke agree: Jesus would have been born during the reign of Herod the Great (-37 to -4), and more precisely towards the end of his reign, and Jesus' parents were Joseph and Mary.

  • In fact, where was Jesus really born? Despite the fact that the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke mention Bethlehem, there is no echo of this not only elsewhere in these two Gospels, but also in the other Gospels, in the Acts of the Apostles or in the Epistles of Paul. For example, there is a passage from John (7:42) where Jews say that it is impossible for Jesus to be the Messiah, since the Messiah had to come from Bethlehem, and Jesus is from Nazareth; for the people of his time, Jesus did not come from Bethlehem. In fact, several times in the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth or the Nazarene is mentioned. Although it is impossible to prove beyond doubt that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, it is likely that Jesus was born in Nazareth and that the infancy narratives that give rise to his birth in Bethlehem are primarily a theological statement to indicate that Jesus is the true son of David, a man from Bethlehem, from where the Messiah would have come.

  • Now, can it be said that Jesus is of the lineage of David, the Jewish king of the first millennium BC? First of all, in the Jewish world it is the father, either biological or adoptive, who determines genealogy. It is therefore useless to look for a Davidic lineage on the side of Mary: first of all, there is no passage affirming that Mary would be of the tribe of Judas or of the descendants of David, and secondly, a mother can never determine the lineage. The earliest statements of faith found in Paul's epistles mention that Jesus is of the lineage of David: "[This Gospel] concerns his Son, who according to the flesh is of the lineage of David" (Romans 1:3). Similar references can be found throughout the New Testament, not only in St. Paul, but also in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Gospels. Why do we insist so much on the Davidic origin of Jesus? It was to make the connection between Jesus and God's promise of a Messiah found in the Old Testament, more precisely in this passage where the prophet Nathan says to King David: "And when your days are fulfilled and you have lain with your fathers, I will maintain after you the lineage that was born of your womb, and I will establish his royal throne forever. I will be a father to him and he will be a son to me" (2 Sam 7:12-14). It is interesting to note that the Jews of the first century, despite all their controversies with Christians, never questioned this lineage. Even though there is no biological evidence, it can nevertheless be confidently stated that Jesus was perceived by the people of his time as the son of David.

  • Let us turn to the more delicate question of the virginal conception, i.e. the conception of Jesus without sexual intercourse on the part of Mary. Only two passages in the childhood accounts refer to this: Mt 1:18-25 and Lk 1:26-38. Thereafter, there is no reference to it in the entire New Testament. Nevertheless, this tradition cannot be considered a late addition, since Matthew and Luke, who do not know each other, draw on an older tradition. Where does this ancient tradition come from? It certainly does not come from the family of Jesus: first of all, studies have shown that there are so many inaccuracies or errors in Luke that Mary cannot be considered as one of his sources; secondly, the Gospels show us Jesus' brothers as people who do not believe in him, which would be unthinkable if they were aware of his miraculous conception. We have tried to find this source in that passage from the prophet Isaiah, which is also quoted by Matthew: "Behold, the young woman is with child, she is going to bear a son" (Isa 7:14). But the Hebrew word ’almâ, translated into Greek as parthenos, does not mean virgin at all, but young woman of marriageable age. In short, using only historical research we cannot come to any conclusion, either for or against virgin conception.

  • In parallel to the virginal conception, some have proposed the thesis that Jesus was a bastard, someone born out of wedlock. This was the case of Celsus, the pagan author of the second century who, in a work called True Discourse (c. 178), claims to report a Jewish story about Mary's adulterous relationship with a soldier named Ben Panthera. This account is important because it is the first clear and dated document reporting this Jewish accusation. However, such a story seems to be unknown around 160, when Justin the Martyr wrote his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew and completely ignored it. It is most likely that this legend appeared around 170 in Jewish diaspora circles, and would be a polemical interpretation of the childhood story of Matthew, the Jewish evangelist par excellence and the most popular among Christians, and would have no historical basis. This legend takes up the details of Matthew's account. Prior to this charge of Celsus, there is no accusation of illegitimacy. On the contrary, it is said of him: "Is not this man the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, Joses, Jude and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?" (Mk 6:3). And to say that he is the son of his mother does not refer to any accusation of illegitimacy as confirmed by parallels with the Old Testament and could rather allude to the fact that the father has already died. When one seeks to accuse him of something, one would rather say that he is a Samaritan, that Jewish group considered schismatic (Jn 8:48). In short, the illegitimate status of Jesus was invented by the Jews of the diaspora in the middle of the second century from Matthew's account.

Next chapter: Can anything be said about the education and formation of Jesus?

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