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What Can We Know about Jesus’ Birth?

Browsing through holiday-season blogs from previous eras, I came across my first small thread on Christmas from exactly six years ago.  I had forgotten about this.  Some of the material has shown up occasionally in the intervening years, but maybe it’s a good time to repost a bit of it.  Here is the first: an account of what we can, and cannot, know about Jesus’ birth.  Bethlehem?  Virgin?  Date?   Or even… year?


I have decided to provide a series of posts related to the stories of Christmas in the New Testament. This first post more or less states some of the basic information that most readers know, but that it’s worth while stressing as a kind of ground clearing exercise.

To begin with, we are extremely limited in our sources when it comes to knowing anything at all about the birth of Jesus. In fact, at the end of the day, I think we can’t really know much at all. Just to cut to the chase, I think that it is most probable that he was born in Nazareth in the northern part of what we today think of as Israel (back then, in Galilee), where he was certainly raised from the time he was a child. His parents were Jewish by birth, religion, culture. I’d assume their names were really Joseph and Mary. We don’t know anything about them other than the fact that Joseph may have been a TEKTON, which means that he worked with his hands, maybe with wood, or with stone, or with metal. Jesus also had brothers (four are named in one of our sources) and sisters, so it would have been a relatively large family and presumably living at or near the poverty line. Nazareth was an impoverished little hamlet.

Back to the sources.   Our earliest accounts are in the New Testament.  Two of the Gospels , Mark and John, say nothing of Jesus’ birth; the other two, Matthew and Luke are where we get most, but not all, of our traditions of Jesus’ birth from: the trip to Bethelehem, no room in the inn, the Shepherds, the wise men, the slaughter of the innocents, the flight to Egypt, etc. etc.   These Gospels were written over fifty years after the events they narrate, and there is nothing to suggest that they had access to eyewitness reports, or to any reliable information at all.  Both accounts contain several implausibilities, as we will see, and they are hopelessly at odds with one another on numerous points.

We do have later sources that provide some of the legendary material that people associate with Jesus’ birth – such as the idea that Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem, that there was an ox and an ass at the nativity, that he was born in a cave,  that he was doing miracles already right after his birth, and so on.   The chief later sources are the Proto-Gospel of James in the Eastern part of Christendom and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in the Western part (which took over and used the Proto-Gospel for major chunks of its narrative).   From these we get such notions as that Joseph was an old man but Mary was a young girl and that Jesus’ “brothers” were in fact sons of Joseph from a previous marriage.

Finally, there are lots of things that we do not know about the birth of Jesus.   As examples:

  • We don’t know what year he was born.  If he was indeed born during the reign of Herod the Great, then it would have had to be before 4 BCE, since that is when Herod died (creating, of course, the intriguing irony that Jesus was born four years Before Christ!)
  • We don’t know what day he was born (it was not until the fourth century that Dec. 25 was chosen, so that Christmas could replace Saturnalia as the great holiday to be celebrated)
  • We don’t know – as I will try to demonstrate in subsequent posts – anything about the virginity of his mother (how *could* we know?  Anyone who thinks she was a virgin does so as an act of faith, but there’s no way to demonstrate anything like that historically; in theory, even if she told people she was a virgin, that wouldn’t prove it [of course!]; and there have been lots of people who claimed to be virgins who gave birth, either because they were self-deceived, or willing to deceive others, or unknowingly violated or … other options) or whether he was actually born in Bethlehem (I’ll argue that the answer is probably not).

Starting in my next post I’ll look at each of the Gospel accounts for what it has to say about the matter, consider its views historically, and then, in a subsequent post, talk about how the two major accounts stack up against one another.

The Birth of Jesus in Luke
Did Jesus Write Anything in the New Testament?



  1. Avatar
    anvikshiki  December 9, 2018

    I have always found it rather amazing that Luke first hints that Jesus was born in the days of King Herod and then claims that the supposed census which occasioned the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, came under Quirinius. Herod’s death and Quirinius’ governorship were of course separated by ten years. This is all the more surprising given that Luke claims to be writing a “narrative” (digesis) rather than overtly writing a Gospel, which straightens out details of earlier attempts so that the audience can be certain. The difference in dates and the entirely fictional census story strikes one as more a theologically motivated but outright fabrication. That said, it’s doubtful the originally intended audience knew or cared about the discrepancy and fabrication. But do we know whether any ancient or medieval scholar or scribes noticed this internal error, before the rise of modern Biblical scholarship?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 10, 2018

      I don’t think it was known until modern times — to my knowledge….

  2. Avatar
    smackemyackem  December 9, 2018

    //We don’t know what year he was born. If he was indeed born during the reign of Herod the Great, then it would have had to be before 4 BCE, since that is when Herod died (creating, of course, the intriguing irony that Jesus was born four years Before Christ!)//


  3. Avatar
    hankgillette  December 9, 2018

    If Jesus grew up helping Joseph work with stone, rather than wood, that might be why he used stone-related metaphors in the gospels, such as “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”. I don’t think he ever used any carpentry related metaphors.

    Of course, in this case, he was quoting Psalms, and most people back then would have known what a cornerstone is, so it may not be indicative of anything. I do find the idea intriguing, though.

  4. Avatar
    Leovigild  December 9, 2018

    Although Saturnalia came in December, I believe December 25 was specifically the Day of the Unconquered Sun (Dies Natalis Soli Invicti), which appears on that date in the Calendar of 354 (Saturnalia falls on December 17 in the same calendar). So the day of Christmas was probably chosen to compete with that day, not Saturnalia.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 10, 2018

      Yup, I think you’re right. I was younger and more foolish when I wrote that six years ago…

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 17, 2018

      I believe there were actual scholarly theological arguments (then) for placing his birth in December. We can recognize those arguments were unsound today, but it’s not like we know when he was born either.

      Do we celebrate Washington’s Birthday on Washington’s Birthday? No, we celebrate it on the third Monday in February. And since they didn’t want to give us a second holiday for Lincoln, now it’s President’s Day. MLK Day is likewise celebrated during Dr. King’s birth month, but on the third Monday of that month, whether it’s his birthday or not, because people want a long weekend, and nobody likes going to work on Monday.

      I think many, even then, realized they were not getting the date exactly right, but they already had a holiday set up, people were used to it, you can’t have endless holidays, and paganism was dying out. Doing it near the solstice, when days start to get longer again, had a certain symbolic relevance. Makes sense.

      If we ever do find out when Jesus was born, Christmas is still going to be December 25th. It’s lasted WAYYYYY longer than the Feast of Sol Invictus. And to this date, scholars do not consider it a proven fact that this is why the date was chosen. A likely theory, but a theory nonetheless.

  5. Rick
    Rick  December 9, 2018

    Professor, can we make anything from the naming convention apparently used? Or perhaps not used? Ie. he was not (recorded) as having been called Yohohsua Ben Yohosif or Yeshua bar Yusuf….. Is that evidence Joseph was not his father? The “of Notzri” doesn’t make a lot of sense either. As you have noted Nazareth was such a tiny hamlet no one in Jerusalem would have known where he was “from”. And as small as it was, no one in Nazareth would need it to know who he was…..Perhaps it was a useful reference in the Galilee ?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 10, 2018

      I’m afraid we don’t know how his family and neighbors referred to him.

  6. dschmidt01
    dschmidt01  December 9, 2018

    great post Dr Ehrman. what do you think was the theological purpose for Mathew and Luke to tell the story of Jesus birth? Do you think later scribes did some embellishment too?


    • Bart
      Bart  December 10, 2018

      There was a complex of motives, not just one. But the overarching one was to show that the Son of God appeared on earth through a great miracle worked by God.

      • Avatar
        Omar6741  December 15, 2018

        Why did they choose a miracle that was so polemically risky? If anyone claims to have been born of a virgin, you can be sure their enemies will use that as a basis for promoting insulting speculations about their mother.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 16, 2018

          It may have been the insults that suggested the idea of a virgin birth in the first place….

          • Avatar
            Chad Stuart  June 16, 2020

            Just now reading this, but insults about Mary would make logical sense for inventing the idea that she was a virgin.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 9, 2018

    Please keep going with this birth of Jesus thread. I have read it before and it is really helpful. I think you also had something like this published in a national news publication, maybe Newsweek?

  8. Avatar
    brenmcg  December 9, 2018

    If we put Marks gospel as third then the two gospels with nativity stories, sermon on the mount, the lords prayer and no saliva miracles come first; and the two gospels without a nativity story, sermon on the mount nor lords prayer but with saliva miracles come second!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 10, 2018

      I don’t know what you mean by second and third.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  December 11, 2018

        Sorry just meant if mark was written third. Often one of the points given for Markan priority is the question of why he would leave out the nativity – but if john had a reason to leave it out then mark probably had the same reason. Same for sermon on the mount and lords prayer – the two gospels that leave them out should be placed third and fourth historically.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 11, 2018

          Oh, I don’t think that’s a good reason for thinking Mark was written first. John was written last and it also doesn’t have a nativity.

  9. Avatar
    Arizona  December 10, 2018

    I am excited for this series of posts. With regard to the empire-wide census/taxing described in Luke in order to get Joseph/Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, I agree with all of your previous posts that a Roman requirement that everyone travel to the homeland of their 1000 year-old ancestors would be a logistical nightmare. That said, I have seen various apologetic sources take a more nuanced approach by conceding that most people in the empire would have registered in the place of their residence, but that Joseph had some special exception for why he travelled to Bethlehem (e.g. Jews (but not gentiles) would travel back to their ancestral homelands (for reasons?), or Joseph may have owned some sort of land or property right in Bethlehem, or there was a tax deduction gained by registering near Jerusalem, or maybe Joseph’s travelling coincided with the Passover and thus a visit to Jerusalem (an April birth), etc). Can you point me to any good sources which argue against these various nuanced apologies?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 10, 2018

      Yes, but look at why Luke himself says Joseph had to go to Bethlehem. It’s becuase he was descended from David. So we’re not making up that part! It’s what the account says!

  10. Avatar
    mannix  December 10, 2018

    I’ve been intrigued by the “eyewitness” problem. The only reliable ones would have been Mary and Joseph themselves. While Mary is more “famous” today, she was largely ignored after the Nativity by the gospels outside of a few cameo appearances. The society being more patriarchal, one could speculate that Joseph would have been the primary source of oral Nativity tradition despite his virtual disappearance after the Birth (outside of the 12 y.o. Jesus in the Temple story).

    Has anyone speculated or postulated on what eventually happened to Joseph and/or what his role may have been in provision of oral tradition?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 11, 2018

      It is usually thought that he had died when Jesus reached adulthood, which is why he never turns up in the stories.

  11. Avatar
    mkahn1977  December 10, 2018

    How did we get the virgin conception versus a god and a human female producing a demigod like in past stories?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 11, 2018

      It is tied in to the Jewish idea of God’s complete transcendence. Unlike the Greek and Roman gods, he doesn’t come down and have sex with women….

      • Avatar
        JohnKesler  December 11, 2018

        Do you think that the virgin-birth stories in Matthew or Luke were influenced by Philo, who said in *The Cherubim* that God impregnated various Old Testament women?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 12, 2018

          I doubt if there was direct influence; nothing in either Gospel suggests the author(s) had read Philo.

  12. Avatar
    jhague  December 10, 2018

    How do Christians justify combining the two accounts and ignoring the differences? (Back when I did this, I actually did not recognize or realize that there were differences between the two accounts. I was told that Matt and Luke were telling the same birth story but each had different details.)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 11, 2018

      The logic for them is that all four books had one and the same author, God.

      • Avatar
        jhague  December 12, 2018

        Right. I was thinking more from the thought that some of them will notice the points that “are hopelessly at odds with one another on numerous points.”
        What logic is used for points “written by God” that are at odds with one another?

    • J.MarkWorth
      J.MarkWorth  December 13, 2018

      Not all Christians are Evangelical Christians, and not all are biblical literalists. Many liberal and mainline Christians realize that Matthew and Luke conflict when telling the story/stories of Jesus’ birth. They simply believe the stories can be truthful without always being factual.

      • Avatar
        jhague  December 14, 2018

        Right. It’s just that most if not all Christians that I talk to are biblical literalists for the most part. They definately think that everything in Matt and Luke regarding the birth stories is true and can be reconciled.

  13. Avatar
    Marko071291  December 20, 2018

    Hi Bart! Hope you and your family are doing well!
    Is it fair to say that a theory by John A. Cramer (physicist) according to which Herod died in 1. BCE (since that was the lunar eclipse Josephus was refering to) is not grounded in any other argument since every piece of historical information we have (from Josephus, Dio Cassius etc.) points to the year 4 BCE? In other words, are there any other evidence that would point to 1 BCE as a year of Herod’s death?

    Thank’s for the help.

    Kind regards.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 21, 2018

      Yes, those kinds of theories are always driven by Christian theological interests, not historical. No, I don’t know of any decent evidence to suggest that Herod died later than 4 BCE.

  14. Avatar
    SawAlbertCho  December 30, 2018

    How do you think about of this author mention?
    Is it reliable?


    • Bart
      Bart  December 31, 2018

      I haven’t read it. But if you want to summarize the view and ask me about it, I’d be happy to respond.

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