Birth of Jesus Christ

The birth of Jesus Christ heralded the foundation of one of the world’s major religions, Christianity.

Summary of Event

The birth of Jesus has been seen as significant from the early days of the Christian community, when the story was included in traditional oral accounts recorded by the Christian apostles Luke and Matthew. From the beginning of Christianity, the birth of Jesus Christ was perceived as the entrance into the human situation of someone who, while truly human, was uniquely other and more than human. To express this perception, the tradition as handed down was colored by mythopoeic elements that suggested deeper meanings. Jesus Christ

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the southern part of Palestine near Jerusalem. His parents, Mary and Joseph, came from Nazareth in Galilee, a northern province of Palestine. The history of Jesus cannot be found in Jewish or Roman documents and annals; nevertheless, non-Christian written sources help to corroborate the at times slightly conflicting Gospel accounts that the birth occurred before the death of Herod the Great in 4 b.c.e. Because there is also strong evidence that Jesus died in full manhood during the reign of Augustus’s immediate successor Tiberius, who died in 38 c.e., his birth must have occurred early in Augustus’s reign. The weight of scholarly opinion favors a year between 8 and 4 b.c.e. as the time of Jesus’ birth.

Christian influence on the development of the calendar has made the birth of Jesus the dividing line in occidental history, producing the temporal designations b.c., “before Christ,” and a.d., from the Latin anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord.” The “Christian” calendar was later adopted throughout the Western world. The designations b.c. and a.d., however, have been replaced by the non-religion-specific terms b.c.e., “before the Common Era,” and c.e., “Common Era,” but the dividing line is still the date near the traditional birth of Jesus.

Little is known about Mary and Joseph. Luke gives a picture of his mother, Mary, a young woman engaged to a local carpenter, Joseph. Luke gives an account of the miraculous conception announced by an angel, Mary’s puzzlement at the news, and her act of trusting faith and willing cooperation with God’s act. Matthew records Jesus’ parentage from the standpoint of Joseph. The simplicity of the two accounts reveals the conviction of the early Christians who held a solid tradition of a single historical person who was really born; that is, that Jesus was not a mythical god or hero.

The circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem as recorded by Matthew and Luke also bear witness to the early Christian community’s understanding of the meaning of the event. Jesus was a man whose destiny was bound up with that of every human without respect to social condition. In Luke’s account, there is the manifestation of the child to the poor shepherds, while in Matthew, there is the account of the visit of the wise men from the East, in which scholars see a midrashic element, that is, a story used to carry a religious or moral truth. Other details, such as the story that there was no room at the inn and that Mary for this reason cradled the child in a manger, carry a hint of mystery that has fascinated the imagination of many people.


Jesus of Nazareth, Christ (from the Greek Christos) or Messiah (from the Hebrew)—both of which mean the “anointed one”—is arguably the most significant person in the history of Western civilization. At the very least, he was a riveting and persuasive preacher and teacher and a gifted healer. To the Christians who follow his teachings two thousand years later, he was the son of God whose death for the sins of humans provided hope for life after death in Heaven for all. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth, life and teachings, and particularly death, and how they defined Christianity, transformed the course of all occidental history.

Further Reading

  • Martin, Raymond. The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. A good overview of the approaches and agendas of the main schools of historical research into the life of Jesus.
  • Meier, John P. The Roots of the Problem and the Person. Vol. 1 in A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. New York: Doubleday, 1991. The first volume of a projected four-volume study (the others published as of 2003 are Companions and Competitors, 2001, and Mentor, Message, and Miracles, 1994); discusses what is known of Jesus’ life and his historical context.
  • Vermes, Geza. The Changing Faces of Jesus. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 2001. A balanced presentation of the arguments for a historical Jesus and the ways in which a human life was transformed into myth.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i><br />

David; Deborah; Ezekiel; Ezra; Herod the Great; Jesus; Saint John the Baptist; Mary; Moses; Saint Paul; Saint Peter; Pontius Pilate; Samuel; Solomon; Saint Thomas. Jesus Christ;birth of