Every year at Christmas, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The Christmas story is acted out in nativity plays and read aloud during church services: Baby Jesus was born in the stable in Bethlehem after Mary and Joseph wandered all night looking for a place to stay. The story goes back to two biblical writings: the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The stories have similarities, but also some differences. From both writings have developed customs that are performed every year at Christmas. What does the famous Christmas story say and did it really happen like this? When was Jesus really born?
This painting of the birth of Jesus by Giotto di Bondone dates to the 13th century. Century. It shows the manger in Bethlehem, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. (Source: Giotto di Bondone)
Christmas has been celebrated in the Christian church only since the end of the fourth century. Thus, the feast day is one of the last to be included in the church calendar. There are two scriptures in the Bible that tell the Christmas story of the birth of the baby Jesus. The better known is the Christmas story as described by the evangelist Luke in the Bible. Luke probably wrote his famous Gospel, the third book of the New Testament, between 80 and 90 AD.
The Christmas story according to Luke begins with the Roman emperor Augustus initiating a census and therefore asking people to register in tax lists in their place of origin. People moved to their hometowns to respond to his call. So it was that Joseph from Nazareth in Galilee and his very pregnant wife Mary set out on their journey. Their destination was the city of Bethlehem in Judea, the home town of the descendants of King David. Arriving in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor. Mary and Joseph sought in vain refuge in an inn, but all the rooms were occupied. Mary gave birth to her son in a stable, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.
At the same time, shepherds were tending their flocks in a field. Suddenly an angel of God appeared to them and they were very afraid. But the angel spoke courage to them and tried to reassure them. He told the shepherds about the birth of a boy in Bethlehem, who was to be the announced Christ and Savior of the world. The angel told the shepherds to set out for Bethlehem. There they should find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. Soon many others joined the angel and praised God. Suddenly the angels went back to heaven and the shepherds decided to go to Bethlehem to find the boy.
When they arrived in Bethlehem, they actually found a little boy lying in a manger in the stable. They set out to proclaim the good news of God about the birth of Christ to the world. Eight days after his birth, the boy was circumcised according to Jewish tradition. As announced by the angel (Luke 1:31), the cruel Herod had Mary to baptize her son in the name of Jesus.
The time of Jesus Christ
When King Herod learned of the birth of the new king of the Jews, he is said to have given orders to have all the little boys under the age of two killed in Bethlehem. Image: depiction of the infanticide on an engraving from 1509. (Source: Marcantonio Raimondi)
In the years before his birth, Jesus’ homeland, the region of Palestine, was occupied by the Romans. Roman rule at that time extended over the entire Mediterranean area. Nevertheless, the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine were allowed to practice their religion. Thus the Jews were allowed to observe their dietary laws and honor the temple in Jerusalem.
From 37 B.C., King Herod ruled the Jewish people for 33 years. In his reign let he build many structures. His most famous deed to this day refers to a narrative of Matthew in the New Testament: the infanticide in Bethlehem. The three Magi from the East reportedly told the king about a little boy in Bethlehem who would soon become the new king of the Jews. At the king’s command, the three astrologers set out to find the boy. But although they were ordered by King Herod to inform him of the discovery immediately after the visit to Bethlehem, they did not do so. Out of anger and fear of losing the throne seat for himself and his three sons, let According to Christian tradition, the cruel Herod had all the boys from Bethlehem who were under two years old killed.
It is not disputed in research that the man Jesus of Nazareth actually lived. The biblical Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, however, are not historical descriptions of the life of Jesus. Although they report about him, they all give their own personal picture from the point of view of the Christian faith. The four Gospels can therefore be described as messages of faith. While the scriptures are particularly important sources for researching the life of Jesus. However, these are not verified data with which his real life can be traced historically.
When was Jesus really born?
When Jesus was really born cannot be said with certainty. It is certain that Jesus was a Jew and worked as a carpenter like Joseph. Image: depiction of Jesus by Jose de Madrazo Agudo from 1803. (source: Jose de Madrazo Agudo)
Although the Christians annually on 25. December or "Christmas Eve of the 24. The birth of the infant Jesus is celebrated on the day of his birth in December. The actual day of Jesus’ birth is unknown until today. There are theories that justify why the 25. December could be the correct date. Even before people began to use a calendar, the Roman Christian Church celebrated the imperial holiday "Natalis Solis Invicti" – which means "birth of the unconquered sun" in Latin. This meant the Roman emperor. The feast day was celebrated on 25. December, the winter solstice of that time, celebrated.
Jesus Christ, however, was to be the true unconquered sun, so that his birth feast was set on the same day. Another reason to celebrate the holiday on December 25. December is the thesis according to which the conception of Mary took place on the 25th of December. March is said to have been, so she became pregnant. If the day of birth were exactly nine months later, it would fall on the 25. December.
Just as it cannot be proven on which day Jesus was actually born, it cannot be said with certainty in which year he came into the world. However, he was probably not born in the year 0, the beginning of our calendar system. Today it is assumed that Jesus was probably born in the year 4 before Christ. According to the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod was still alive when Mary gave birth to her son. This also suggests the year of birth 4 before Christ.
Furthermore, in the Gospel of Matthew we find the famous story of the wise men from the East who followed a shining star to Bethlehem to look for the baby Jesus. According to calculations of some researchers, such a bright star should have been seen in the sky already in the year 7 before Christ. In the Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, we can read that the birth of Jesus took place at the time of a census, which is certainly documented for the year 6 before Christ. Moreover, Luke writes about Emperor Augustus, who reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD.
Many uncertain data about the life of Jesus
This painting by the artist Mihaly von Munkacsy from 1881 depicts the imprisonment of the historical Jesus by Pontius Pilate. (Source: Mihaly of Munkacsy)
The Gospels report about Jesus’ birth and Paul’s letters tell about his work in the world, but nowhere can we read how Jesus spent his childhood and youth. Only the current state of research gives little information about this time. Jesus came from Galilee, his home was the city of Nazareth.
Whether Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem cannot be said with certainty. It is assumed that Bethlehem is given in the Bible as the place of birth, because in the Old Testament this city is mentioned in the announcement of the Messiah as the chosen "bringer of salvation" is called. Apart from these passages and the birth stories of the two Gospels, Bethlehem is never mentioned as the city of birth. There is always talk about Jesus from Nazareth.
Although the Gospels do not agree on whether Joseph was the real father of Jesus, we know that he raised Jesus together with Mary. His son had several sisters and four brothers who are mentioned by name in the Bible – James, Joses, Judas and Simon. ÜNo statements can be made about the education and upbringing of Jesus. The only certainty is that Jesus was a Jew, spoke Galilean Aramaic and worked as a carpenter like Joseph. Jesus traveled around as an itinerant preacher and probably died in Jerusalem in 30 or 31 A.D. As a "troublemaker He was arrested and crucified by the order of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.
Besides the biblical texts that write about the birth, ministry and death of Jesus, there are other historical writings that mention Jesus. Tacitus, a Roman historian and senator who lived a few years after the death of Jesus, mentions for example in his work "Annales" the execution of Christ ordered by Pontius Pilate. The Roman writer Suetonius, who lived from 77 to 122 A.D., writes in the Vita Claudii The Gospel tells of the expulsion of the Roman Jews and also mentions Jesus.
Two different Christmas stories
The painting shows the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem. The astrologers present their gifts to Jesus. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Both Luke and Matthew name Bethlehem in Judea as the birthplace of Jesus, but they give very different reasons for this. Matthew reports that Mary and Joseph had already settled in Bethlehem before the birth of the child and left the place because they had heard of Herod’s order to kill all boys up to the age of two. Luke’s Gospel says Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth and went to Bethlehem because of the emperor’s ordered census. While Luke tells us that some shepherds visited the baby Jesus in the stable, Matthew writes about the wise Magi from the East, who later became known as the Magi. In Bethlehem they found the baby Jesus and gave him gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The two Gospels each want to say something different about Jesus, so we can find differences in their Christmas stories. Matthew wants to portray Jesus as the new Moses, the prophet and founder of religion commissioned by God, as he is described in the Old Testament. Therefore, in Matthew’s Gospel, when describing the Christmas story, we find similarities to Moses’ birth story. Thus the author brings the promise of the Messiah, as he is announced in the Isaiah scripture, under. Luke, on the other hand, presents Jesus as the Savior of the poor. That is why he chooses for his story the simple stable as the place of birth and the poor shepherds as the first visitors of the baby Jesus.
However, the Christmas stories in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels also have common features. Both report in the same way about Mary. She was visited by an angel of God who announced to her the conception of the Holy Spirit and the birth of Jesus and invited her to name her son Jesus. In addition, both Luke and Matthew write that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
How to explain the differences and similarities in the Gospels? Luke and Matthew used two common sources for their writings – the Gospel of Mark, because it is the oldest of the four, and the "Logia Source", üabout which only little is known until today. It is said to have been a handwritten text in Greek, containing mainly sayings of Jesus and excerpts from his itinerant sermons. In addition, both Luke and Matthew used different sources, which were mainly orally transmitted, the so-called "special goods". In the Bible, special material is the content that appears only in one of the different Gospels, because overall there are many similarities within the writings of the biblical evangelists. So Luke and Matthew used common and also different sources to tell about the birth of the baby Jesus.
Today’s customs based on the biblical Christmas story
Nativity play acted out by children based on the biblical Christmas story (Source: Wesley Fryer/ Flickr.com)
Many Christmas customs go back to the biblical Christmas story. The nativity plays are the most widespread in Germany. In the Church, the Christmas story is reenacted from the point of view of the shepherds. The account begins with the appearance of the divine angel who announces the good news of Jesus’ birth. The congregation then witnesses the shepherds’ procession to the manger and can see how the baby Jesus is given gifts and honored.
Another variant of the Nativity play is the re-enactment of the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem and their search for an inn. There are also nativity plays based on the Gospel of Matthew. Individual scenes often re-enact the visit of the Wise Men from the East to King Herod in Jerusalem and their subsequent visit to Bethlehem’s stable.
Christmas cribs have been found in German households for many years at Christmas. They have their origin in the year 1223. Francis of Assisi let recreate the stable of Bethlehem on the occasion of the midnight service at Christmas this year. They included the manger, the ox and the donkey. Since churchgoers were so taken with the display, they distributed this ornament. Nowadays in the reconstructed nativity scenes you can usually find the angel and the three kings. It is traditional to place the figure of the baby Jesus in his manger on Christmas Eve. The three kings follow on 6. January.
There are also other customs related to the biblical Christmas story. The so-called Kindelwiegen is a round dance. In church, the Christ child, in the form of a doll, is placed in a cradle and cradled. The congregation sings lullabies, such as "Joseph, dear Joseph, help me to cradle my child". The Kindelwiegen is not part of the actual Christmas service, but is done before or after it. The Christmas plays have also been derived from the biblical Christmas story. The congregation re-enacts the shepherds’ march to the stable in Bethlehem. For this they move to the church in the night for the Christ celebration. After the service, they go home and sleep not in their beds, but on the floor, which is covered with straw.
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