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Quote of the Day: What Do We Really Know About the Birth of Jesus?

bart ehrman

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.


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).

— Bart Ehrman, What Can We Know About the Birth of Jesus?, December 8, 2018


  1. Avatar
    That Other Jean

    Doesn’t the Old Testament say somewhere that the Savior will be of the House of David and born in Bethlehem? So the birth of Jesus would have to take place there, wouldn’t it, despite the fact that the Roman census didn’t work in the way the Gospels say it did. There was a prophecy to fulfill.

    About the virginity of Mary (Mariam?), why should she be technically a virgin, except to produce a miraculous birth–perhaps to match the story of Mithras, a god popular among Roman soldiers, who was born from a stone on December 25? A 2nd Century Greek philosopher, Celsus, names a Roman soldier, Pantera, as the father of Jesus. It makes more sense than the story told in the Gospels, although there’s no remaining evidence to back it up, either.

    What we “know” about the birth of Jesus is demonstrably wrong. Jesus himself may have been a composite of the many wonder-workers in Judaea at the time. If he were an actual teacher, traveling with a group of disciples, I still can’t find a convincing reason to regard him as a divine Savior of mankind–but I do think that his reported teachings are an advance on the law and customs of his time, and the cold, dreary month of December is a fine time for a celebration. I’m not a Christian, but I’m happy to join (without the religious parts) those who are commemorating their Savior’s birth, even if I think they’re mistaken.

  2. Avatar

    I think there are loads of problems with the traditional nativity narrative, which I daresay Bart Ehrman addresses fully in his writings, but there are some that don’t make any sense. These are the points that have troubled me always, even when I was small and, sort of, accepted the overall truth of the story (but not for long, and only in the same sense as belief in Santa).

    How can a star lead people anywhere? Sailors have used the stars for navigation purposes for thousands of years, but without sophisticated measurement tools they can only be a very vague directional help. Even with tools there are limits to their accuracy. So how can a star take people across whole countries, and to such a specific location?

    What purpose was served by requiring people to return to the town of their birth for census purposes? Imagine the chaos! The economy would grind to a halt as thousands of people made these aimless journeys. Trade would be brought to a standstill, something the Romans would have been keen to avoid. And why insist on a heavily pregnant woman making such a trip on a donkey? The Romans were clever, industrious, and sophisticated rulers. Taking a census in the ridiculous way referred to in the bible does not square with our knowledge of them.

    Given the vast, unverified (and actually unknowable) genealogies referred to in the relevant gospels (I think I’ve read that they differ anyway) how on earth could Joseph be said to be of David’s line? By that argument I’m descended from Henry V111. Modern royal dynasties struggle sometimes to establish connections, and their births are recorded in minute detail. Television programmes have grown that help people trace their ancestry through two hundred years, with considerable difficulty it has to be said.

    I’m sure that if I read up a little I’d find that the whole story is full of more holes than a sieve.

  3. Avatar

    I didn’t realize how ridiculous the birth stories of Jesus were until I started thinking about them. Then, yeah, why would any adult believe this nonsense?

    • Avatar
      Karen the rock whisperer

      People believe the stories because the stories tug at hearts. A heavily pregnant woman having to travel, a barn pressed into service as a dwelling and a manger for a crib, a visit from three respected strangers bearing gifts, a wild dash into a nearby but foreign country…these are good fable elements. The amazing happenings are expected around a Savior’s birth. All fun stuff, and adds to the enjoyment of the Christmas holiday if you happen to be Christian.

      I don’t mean to make fun of anyone. When I think back on my childhood Christmases in a Catholic household, tradition was extremely important. The way we decorated, the way Mama baked, the stories that were told about grandparents…the Gospel stories were just more stories. Jesus was laid in a manger, and my maternal grandmother made fabulous bread without ever measuring her ingredients. As a child, I saw no reason to doubt either story. All these things were intertwined together. As an adult, it didn’t matter; I rejected the deity hypotheses based on lack of evidence.

      (Oh, and I never did taste Grandma’s bread. However, my mother followed her recipe, measuring carefully, and hers WAS fabulous. I lost the recipe, and Mama is gone.)

  4. Avatar
    John Arhtur

    No-one is ever born of a virgin. This includes Jesus whose mother had sex with someone for her to get pregnant. Only gullible Fundamentalists and Evangelicals believe that the myth of the virgin birth of Jesus is not a myth but that God performed a miracle.

    Anyone who believes that the bible is the verbally inspired and plenary inerrant Word of God should read it more closely and see how the god of the bible was created in the likeness of very barbaric, violent, bloodthirsty and ignorant savages. It is no word of any god and its stories of miracles being performed by this bloodthirsty Yahweh are simply Jewish and early Christian myths.

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Bruce Gerencser