The Jewish Origins of the Christmas Story
When the stories of Jesus’ origins were first told, there was no separation between Jewish followers of Jesus and other Jews: Peter and Paul and Mary Magdalene did not cease to be Jews on Easter Sunday. Jewish followers of Jesus did not cease to be Jews, or to be recognized by others as Jews, for the next several centuries.
I appreciate the history behind and the artistry within the Christmas stories, even though I am not a Christian and I do not worship Jesus. If we Jews read these texts for ourselves, rather than have them filtered through shopping frenzies or sappy TV dramas, we can better understand why our Christian neighbors find them inspirational even as we recover connections to our own history. If we get some personal joy in recognizing that the Nativity narratives, which are magnificent pieces of literature, are substantially also Jewish stories told by Jews, so much the better.
New Testament Gospels
The New Testament opens with four “gospels” (a word derived from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον, “good news”) that tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth. The oldest account, the Gospel according to Mark, opens not with stories of Jesus’ birth but with Jesus coming to a man named John (the Hebrew would have been Yoḥanan), who was immersing (Greek: βαπτίζω) people in the Jordan River as a public testimony that they had repented of their sins. He is known as “John the Baptizer” or, more conventionally, “John the Baptist.”
Mark (1:3) describes him as “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” The citation is to (Deutero-)Isaiah, though the parallelism in the Hebrew shows that the verse should be punctuated differently:
ישעיה מ:ג קוֹל קוֹרֵא בַּמִּדְבָּר פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְ־הוָה יַשְּׁרוּ בָּעֲרָבָה מְסִלָּה לֵאלֹהֵינוּ.
Isa 40:3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of YHWH, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
In the Hebrew, the voice crying out tells the exiles in Babylon build a highway for their return to Jerusalem. Mark repurposes the quote, the first of many ancient prophetic texts that take on new meaning for Jesus’ followers.
According to Mark’s account, when John immerses or “baptizes” Jesus, Jesus hears a voice from heaven announce that he is God’s son. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, both dependent on Mark as a source, begin differently by backdating the announcement that Jesus is God’s son to the time of his conception. Matthew begins with a genealogy starting with Abraham, continuing to David, and culminating with “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (Matthew 1:16).
Luke, reserving the genealogy to chapter 3, begins with the conception and birth of John to Zechariah and Elizabeth, an elderly, pious, and previously childless Jewish couple. Only after telling about this miraculous conception, modeled on the various stories of infertility followed by a birth in the earlier Scriptures, does Luke report that something more miraculous than a post-menopausal conception will occur, and that will be a virginal conception.
These narratives were told to show that Jesus’ story is in continuity with the story of Israel, and to demonstrate that the events surrounding his conception, birth, and early childhood fulfilled texts from the Prophets that Jesus’ followers took to be about the Messiah. The following are a few examples of how Jesus’ followers understood his role as Messiah in light of Jewish texts.
Jesus as a Son of David
In the Second Temple period, there were multiple speculations about the Messiah. One dominant view was that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David, to whom God promised:
שמואל ב ז:יב וַהֲקִימֹתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִמֵּעֶיךָ וַהֲכִינֹתִי אֶת מַמְלַכְתּוֹ. ז:יג הוּא יִבְנֶה בַּיִת לִשְׁמִי וְכֹנַנְתִּי אֶת כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ עַד עוֹלָם.
2 Sam 7:12 I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 7:13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
Although this verse refers to Solomon, it does promise a perpetual line of Davidic kings.
The New Testament authors present Jesus as David’s heir. For instance, the Gospel of Luke recounts:
Luke 1:26 …the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 1:28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 1:29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 1:30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 1:31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Both Matthew and Luke list Joseph, the husband of Mary the mother of Jesus, as a Davidic descendant. However, their genealogies do not agree in certain specifics. According to Luke (3:23–38), the line goes through David’s son Nathan, and Joseph’s father is named Hiel. According to Matthew (1:2–16), the line goes through King Solomon, and Joseph’s father is named Jacob.
Matthew’s genealogy—the opening chapter of the New Testament—starts with a general statement:
Matt 1:1 An account of the genealogy (γενέσεως, cf. “Genesis”) of Jesus the Messiah (Χριστός, whence “Christ”), the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Matthew then presents the genealogy beginning with Abraham and including other references to Jewish history as well as to four unexpected women. For example, Matthew explicitly notes that there are fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the deportation to Babylon, and fourteen generations from the exile to Jesus (Matthew fudges the numbers, and that last set actually has only thirteen names).
Hebrew readers would recognize that the number 14 equals David in gematria, in the system where each letter represents a number (ד=4 ו=6, ד=4). Greek readers had a similar system, called isopsephy, but the connection of the number 14 to David does not work in the Greek.
Next, by referring to “Jacob the father of Joseph” (Matt 1:6), the genealogy foreshadows the plot, for, as we will see shortly, this second Joseph, like the original Joseph son of Jacob in Genesis, will dream dreams (Matt 1:20–21, 2:13) and protect his family by resettling them in Egypt (Matt 2:14–15).
Matthew’s genealogy offers another important foreshadowing by naming four women. Instead of the expected Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, Matthew mentions:
- Tamar, the Levirate widow, who conceives twins when she tricks her father-in-law, Judah, into having sexual relations with her (Genesis 38).
- Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho (Joshua 2,6), whom the genealogy takes to be the mother of Boaz.
- Ruth, who convinces Boaz to marry her after she spent the night with him on the threshing floor.
- “The wife of Uriah,” better known as Bathsheba, who at the time she enters the genealogy is actually Uriah the Hittite’s widow and the wife of King David.
These women have several functions in the genealogy. First, Rahab and Ruth and possibly Tamar mark the presence of gentiles in the Davidic line and so anticipate the turning of pagans to the God of Israel. Second, they show a higher righteousness than the men with whom they are paired (see Gen 38:26, where Judah says of Tamar, צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי, “She is more righteous than I”). Finally, their stories, with unusual sexual markers, anticipate the story of Jesus’ conception
A Miraculous Conception
Despite the genealogical connection between Joseph and David, the Gospels present Jesus’ descent from David as legal rather than biological, since Joseph is not his biological father.
Claims that the Incarnation (becoming “flesh”) of the divine is a pagan import connected to stories of the births of Achilles to the goddess Thetis and the mortal Peleus (Iliad 20.206-07; 24.59), Aeneas to the goddess Aphrodite and the mortal Anchises (Iliad 2.819-22; 5.247-48), Asclepius to the god Apollo and the mortal Coronis (Didiodorus of Sicily 4.0.1, 3), Pythagoras to Apollo and the mortal Pythias (Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras 2), and so on, miss Jewish sources that also recount miraculous conceptions.
That angels can father children is explicit in Genesis 6:1–4, and “knowledge” of this phenomenon is what makes Lemach panic in some non-biblical sources about the divine look of his son Noah (1 Enoch 16, Genesis Apocryphon col. 2). The Samson story also implies that the unnamed angel and not Manoah is Samson’s real father. Philo of Alexandria hints that God was involved in the conception of Isaac (though not necessarily in a sexual way). Some Jewish sources also suggest that the priest-king Melchidezek of Genesis 14 and Psalm 110 as a product of a divinely assisted conception.
In none of these Jewish accounts, however, is the mother a virgin.
A Virgin Mother
In Luke’s Gospel, as we have seen, the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will have a child:
Luke 1:34 And Mary says to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 1:35 The angel responds, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
Matthew’s Gospel includes the reason why Mary’s virginity is essential to the story:
Matt 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 1:20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 1:23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
To understand how Matthew finds a virginal conception in the Prophets, we need to compare the Hebrew and Greek (Septuagint) versions of Isaiah 7:14. In the Hebrew, Isaiah states,
ישעיה ז:יד לָכֵן יִתֵּן אֲדֹנָי הוּא לָכֶם אוֹת הִנֵּה הָעַלְמָה הָרָה וְיֹלֶדֶת בֵּן וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ עִמָּנוּ אֵל.
Isa 7:14 Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman (ʿalmah) is pregnant and shall bear a son, and she will call his name Emanu-El.”
When Isaiah was translated into Greek, centuries before Matthew, ʿalmah was rendered as parthenos (παρθένος), which, at the time, meant both “young girl”—the Greek of Genesis 34 describes Dinah as a parthenos after she and Shechem had sexual relations—as well as “virgin,” as in the Parthenon, the temple to the virgin Athena. By Matthew’s time, parthenos was generally taken to mean “virgin.” Matthew, reading Isaiah in Greek, finds a virginal conception; other Jews, reading the Hebrew, do not.
Charges of Illegitimacy
Whether these nativity stories prompted charges that Jesus was the child of an illegitimate relationship, or whether they are responding to such charges, cannot be determine. We do know that such charges were made. For example, in his On the True Doctrine, Celsus, a 2nd century C.E. pagan philosopher whose work was preserved by the Christian writer Origen, suggests that Jesus’ mother “invented his birth from a virgin”:
[Jesus was] born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God. (Contra Celsum 1.28; Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4.1, trans. Frederick Crombie)
The Babylonian Talmud, similarly, refers to the idea of Jesus’ illegitimate conception twice, in passages expurgated from the standard Vilna printing. This version discusses someone called Ben Stada, who brought sorcery with him from Egypt (b. Shabbat 104b, Venice printing [also b. Sanhedrin 67a]):
בן סטד[א] בן פנדירא הוא אמר רב חסדא בעל סטדא בועל פנדיר[א] בעל פפו[ס] בן יהוד[ה] הוא אמו סטדא אמו מרי[ם] מגדלא נשי[א] הואי[ה] כדאמרי בפומדיתא סטת דא מבעלה.
[You call him] Ben Stada, but he is Ben Pandera (=Jesus)! (How could his father have two names?) Rav Hisda said: “The husband was Stada and the lover was Pandera.” But the husband was Pappos (=Joseph) son of Judah! Rather, his mother’s name was Stada. But his mother was Miriam Megadla Nashi! Rather, as they say in Pumbeditha “She strayed (satatda) from her husband.”
We can see in such comparatively late Jewish texts an anti-Christian polemic. (Just as many Christians have rejected the anti-Jewish polemics of the Church Fathers, I think it is time for us Jews to show similar graciousness.)
The Heavenly Portent
Matthew tells of a heavenly portent accompanying the birth of Jesus:
Matthew 2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2:2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
This story is the origin of the famous “star of Bethlehem,” which inspired the Magi, sometimes (incorrectly) called “wise men” or identified as “three kings,” to travel to Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1-2). Magi, who today are Zoroastrian priests, were for Matthew pagan astrologers. The star was not Haley’s comet (seen in 12 B.C.E.), not a supernova (in the constellation Capricorn in 5 B.C.E.), and not a planetary conjunction (Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C.E.; Venus and Jupiter in 2 B.C.E.).
Stars do not function like GPS systems. Moreover, a heavenly body does not, as Matthew states, ἐστάθη ἐπάνω οὗ ἦν τὸ παιδίον, “stop over the place where the child was” (2:9). Had it done so, the house, and the earth, would have been incinerated. The “star” for Matthew is a being, like an angel. Philo, for example, defined stars as “living creatures, but of a kind composed entirely of mind” (Dreams 1.135).
Matthew is likely here alluding to Numbers 24:17, where Balaam predicts, דָּרַךְ כּוֹכָב מִיַּעֲקֹב וְקָם שֵׁבֶט מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, “A star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” Allusions to this verse resurface in the second century C.E. when Rabbi Akiva refers to Simon ben Kosiba, the leader of the second revolt against Rome, as Bar Kokhba, “son of the star” (j. Taanit 4:5):
תני ר' שמעון בן יוחי עקיבה רבי היה דורש דרך כוכב מיעקב דרך כוזבא מיעקב רבי עקיבה כד הוה חמי בר כוזבה הוה אמר דין הוא מלכא משיחא אמר ליה רבי יוחנן בן תורתא עקיבה יעלו עשבים בלחייך ועדיין בן דוד לא יבא
Simon ben Yochai taught: “Akiva, my teacher, would offer the homily ‘a star shall come out of Jacob’—‘Kosiba came forward from Jacob.’” Rabbi Akiva, when you would see Bar Kosiba, he would say, “this is the King Messiah.” Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta responded, “Akiva – Grass will grow on your cheeks and the son of David will not yet have come!”
Other Jewish writers appear to be responding directly to Matthew’s narrative. For example, the Sefer HaYashar, a midrashic work from the early second millennium which rewrites much of the Torah, describes Abraham’s birth as follows:
ויהי בלילה ההוא עת הולדת את אברם ויבואו כל עבדי תרח וכל חכמי נמרוד וכל חרטומיו ויאכלו וישתו בבית תרח... וישאו את עיניהם השמימה בלילה ההוא אל הכוכבים ויראו והנה כוכב אחד גדול מאד בא ממזרח שמש וירץ בשמים ויבלע ארבעה כוכבים מארבע רוחות השמים : ויתמהו כל חכמי המלך וכל החרטומים מהמראה ההוא... ויאמרו איש אל רעהו אין זה כי אם הילד אשר נולד בלילה הזה לתרח...
And it was on the night in which Abram was born, all of Terah’s servants and all of the sages of Nimrod and his magicians ate and drank in Terah’s house… and they lifted their eyes to the heavens that night to the stars and they saw one big star coming from the east and it ran through the heavens and swallowed four stars from the four corners of the heavens. And all of the king’s sages and his magicians were stunned at this vision… and each said to his fellow that night: This must be on account of the baby who was born to Terah this night….
For the midrash, Abraham had an earlier, bigger, and more important star than Jesus.
Matthew’s narrative continues:
Matthew 2:3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 2:4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 2:5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 2:6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
The Magi have the knowledge needed to follow the star and interpret its message about a king, but they need the Jewish sources to provide the details. Matthew’s message is that pagan wisdom can only get one so far, but not to the desired destination.
According to Matthew’s understanding of the Prophets, the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem because of the prophecy in Micah 5:1 (=5:2 in Christian numbering):
וְאַתָּה בֵּית לֶחֶם אֶפְרָתָה צָעִיר לִהְיוֹת בְּאַלְפֵי יְהוּדָה מִמְּךָ לִי יֵצֵא לִהְיוֹת מוֹשֵׁל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.
And you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, least among the clans of Judah, from you one shall come forth to rule Israel for Me.
Matthew frequently cites Israel’s Scriptures to anchor the story of Jesus to the stories of the Jewish community. Bethlehem is also the home of King David, so the quote from Micah and the promise in 2 Samuel 7 are complementary.
Jesus is called not “Jesus of Bethlehem” but “Jesus of Nazareth”; the Gospels identify him as a Galilean, not a Judean. Thus, the Bethlehem birth required explanation. Neither the Gospels of Mark nor John mentions the Bethlehem birth. While Matthew presents Joseph and Mary as living in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, and only later moving to Nazareth, Luke presents an otherwise unknown universal census to bring Joseph and Mary from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem:
Luke 2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2:2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 2:3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 2:4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 2:5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
The census would have reminded Luke’s readers of the tax revolt led by “Judas the Galilean” in 6 C.E. when Rome did decide to take a local census. Luke will later reference this revolt in the continuation of the third Gospel, the fifth book of the New Testament called The Acts of the Apostles.
Luke depicts the noted teacher Gamaliel as speaking against persecuting the followers of Jesus. Comparing their movement to other popular movements, Gamaliel states,
Acts 5:37 Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered.
For Luke, the message to readers is that Joseph and Mary, and so their child, are not anti-Roman revolutionaries.
This depiction of Joseph and Mary coming to Bethlehem for the census then leads to the famous description of Jesus’ birth in a stable because “there was no room at the inn,” and to Mary’s subsequent placing the infant “in a manger.”
Luke 2:6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Despite legends of greedy innkeepers who would not accommodate Mary and Joseph—legends that play on anti-Jewish stereotypes—Luke says nothing of the sort. Despite recent claims that shepherds were “unclean” or that the innkeeper banished Mary from public space because giving birth made her ritually impure—again, anti-Jewish interpretations—the text has nothing to do with ritual purity. The point is that there is no room for them at the inn to give birth. Mary needed privacy. The reference to the manger is symbolic: a manger is a feeding trough, and Jesus will later compare his body to bread (see Luke 22:19).
Jesus and Moses
Returning to Matthew’s account, we find Herod commanding the Magi to seek the child, “and when you have found him, bring me word that I may also go and kneel before him” (2:8). Herod has no such intention; he wants to kill potential rivals.
The Magi, after finding the child, receive their own dream in which they are warned not to return to Herod, and so they do not report back. Joseph too, escapes:
Matt 2:13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 2:14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 2:15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
Matthew here includes another “fulfillment citation,” the technical term for the New Testament’s citing of Jewish Scripture as fulfilled by Jesus or his followers. In this case, the verse comes from Hosea:
הושע יא:א כִּי נַעַר יִשְׂרָאֵל וָאֹהֲבֵהוּ וּמִמִּצְרַיִם קָרָאתִי לִבְנִי.
Hos 11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (NRSV)
Hosea is speaking of the exodus of Israel from Egypt, and Matthew identifies Jesus with Israel in this prophecy.
The story continues with Herod’s reaction, and another fulfillment citation:
Matt 2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the Magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the Magi.
In this account, known as “Slaughter of the Innocents,” Matthew parallels Herod with Pharaoh (Exod 1:22) and Jesus with Moses (Exod 2:2–3). Just as Moses’ life is threatened when Pharaoh mandates that children be cast into the Nile, so Jesus’ life is threatened when Herod orders the massacre of the children. This paralleling of Jesus to Moses continues throughout this Gospel.
Matthew next includes a fulfillment citation:
Matthew 2:17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
The citation is to Jeremiah 31:14 (MT; 31:15 in Christian numeration):
ירמיה לא:יד[טו] כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ.
Jer 31:14 Thus says YHWH: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.
This prophecy originally referred to the children of Israel being taken into exile in Babylon, but Matthew again understands it in reference to Jesus’ survival when the other children in Bethlehem were slaughtered.
Jeremiah’s next verses respond to Rachel’s weeping:
ירמיה לא:טו כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם יְ־הוָה וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב. לא:טז וְיֵשׁ תִּקְוָה לְאַחֲרִיתֵךְ נְאֻם יְ־הוָה וְשָׁבוּ בָנִים לִגְבוּלָם.
Jer 31:15 Thus says YHWH: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work,” says YHWH: “they shall come back from the land of the enemy; 31:16 there is hope for your future,” says YHWH: “your children shall come back to their own country.”
Matthew’s readers, were they to know Jeremiah 31, would likely have heard a prediction of the resurrection of the children; Jews—going to the next verse—hear the emphasis on the land that tends to go missing in the New Testament.
Anyone familiar with the book of Exodus could predict the next events in Matthew’s narrative. When Herod dies, again an angel appears in a dream to Joseph and tells him to return to the land of Israel (see Exod 4:19). He does, but instead of going to Bethlehem, he relocates to Nazareth in the Galilee.
In the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus meets John the Baptizer, and in his immersion under the waters of the Jordan recollects the crossing of the Reed Sea. Jesus then goes into the wilderness for a period of forty days—suggesting Israel’s sojourn for forty years in the wilderness as well as Moses’ forty days on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28). Satan tempts him to engage in false worship (we recall the Golden Calf), but Jesus survives the temptation by quoting to Satan verses from Deuteronomy. Finally, like Moses, Jesus ascends a mountain and interprets Torah (Matt 5–7, the “Sermon on the Mount”).
And this is not the end of the story. Throughout the Gospels, we find more prophecies seen as fulfilled, and more connection of the story of Jesus to the story of Israel. With the advent of Christianity as a separate religion, it became very hard to see the Jewish roots of these traditions about Jesus, but when we bring knowledge of Jewish sources to New Testament studies, we find in the Nativity stories Jewish themes, Jewish history, and Jewish prophecy.
Is December 25 Jesus’ Birthday?
Neither Matthew nor Luke gives a date for Jesus’ birth, so how did December 25 become the (popularly) accepted date?
December 25 for the date of Jesus’ birth is first intimated in 221 C.E. in the writings of the Christian author Sextus Julius Africanus. He dated the conception of Jesus to March 25, the date he assigned to the day the world was created. If Jesus were conceived on March 25, then he would have been born nine months later, on December 25. But there are other possible explanations for the date, one pagan and one Jewish.
Pagan—The Roman emperor Aurelian instituted a festival, celebrated December 25, to commemorate the birth of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun. That the winter solstice occurred a few days before added incentive to make the connection to rebirth. A holiday in place is easily adapted to a new religious concern.
Jewish—The followers of Jesus knew that his death occurred around the time of the Passover holiday; according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ Last Supper is a Passover meal, and Jesus dies on the first day of Passover; John depicts Jesus as being killed 24 hours earlier, when the lambs for the meal are sacrificed in the Temple. Some in the early Church concluded that Jesus’ conception and the crucifixion occurred on the same day, the spring equinox, calculated to March 25, and taking place around the same time as Passover. Again, were he conceived on March 25, his birthday would be December 25.
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Prof. Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Program in Jewish Studies. She holds a B.A. from Smith, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Duke. Her thirty books include The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus and Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi; four children’s books (with Sandy Sasso); The Gospel of Luke (with Ben Witherington III); and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (co-edited with Marc Z. Brettler), and co-author of The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Marc Zvi Brettler). In 2019 she became the first Jew to teach New Testament at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute. She is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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