The Christian world celebrates Christmas Day on December 25th across most parts of the globe as the day that Jesus(as) was born to the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, Palestine.
In this article, we consider the latest views on the significance of the events being celebrated in its historical context including the virgin birth, the date of the celebration and other events surrounding the birth such as the wise men and the Star of Bethlehem.
In many parts of the world Christians celebrate the 25th of December as the birthday of Jesus(as), born to the Virgin Mary in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem in the year 1 CE (i.e. the start of the Gregorian Calendar).
The story also includes details of a Star of Bethlehem which guided 3 wise men from the East to the new baby bearing gifts, and King Herod’s discomfort and fear of the new boy messiah that led him to take drastic action.
The Biblical account of the birth of Jesus(as) is narrated in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke whilst the Gospels of Mark and John start the story from Jesus’ ministry and give no importance to the birth. According to these gospel writers, the story runs as follows:
‘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.’ (Matthew 1:18)
Luke provides more detail about the Immaculate Conception and how the angel Gabriel addressed Mary:
‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you. …Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ (Luke 1:28-34)
Luke goes on to describe Mary’s shock and concern and how she was reassured by the angel.
According to Matthew, Joseph was perturbed about Mary’s pregnancy and had doubts about their intended marriage until he saw a dream in which an angel gave him the following message:
‘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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ (Matthew 1:20-21)
Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem at the time of the first global census that had been ordered by the Roman Emperor Augustus. Luke provides the detail that Quirinius was the Roman Governor of Syria at the time. Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to be registered because Joseph’s family line came from David(as) and Bethlehem was known as his city. It was whilst in Bethlehem that Mary gave birth to Jesus(as).
Thereafter, the story focuses on King Herod’s search for the boy and the threat he felt by a reported new messiah, and also the journey of the wise men from the East to visit the new messiah and give him gifts. Matthew describes the journey that the wise men took having spoken to Herod:
‘When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.’ (Matthew 1:9-12)
Again Joseph was warned by an angel:
‘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.’ (Matthew 2:13)
Interestingly, Luke does not cover the story of Herod at all. Having moved to Egypt, Herod in his fury had all boys around Bethlehem of 2 years or younger killed in an attempt to eradicate this new messiah, but eventually he himself died, and Joseph was instructed to return to Israel with Mary and Jesus(as).
So whilst only two of the four Synoptic Gospels have an account of Jesus’ birth, those two that do also have a few contradictions. The Gospel of Matthew describes the angel repeatedly talking to Joseph, the husband of Mary, whilst Luke carries the narrative between the angel and Mary. This may reflect the differing cultural attitudes and backgrounds of the different gospel authors. Those from a Jewish background may have found it offensive that angels were talking to Mary rather than to her husband, and would have altered the story, whereas, as we will see, the Qur’an which came later, also describes a conversation between the angels and Mary herself, and in fact, the Qur’an does not acknowledge Joseph at all in this whole situation.
The dating of events is also in question as Quirinius is unlikely to have been the Roman Governor of Syria until at least 6 CE when the Romans annexed Judaea; King Herod died in 4 BCE, so any events concerning Herod would have to date from before 4 BCE. In general, there are many nuggets of truth in the story as it is conveyed, but the accounts are neither entirely chronological, nor historically accurate and reflect the bias of the communities from which the gospel authors originated. A truly Divine book would not show any inconsistencies.
Other Early Christian Sources
As the story of Mary and Jesus(as) became widely known, other texts emerged and new cults sprang up. An example is the Protevangelium of James thought to date from 150 CE in Palestine (the oldest known copy is from the 5th century) which covers the birth of Mary, her background and family, and events in her life. We are not sure if the version we now have is the original, but the version available also has an account of the birth of Jesus(as) in which he is born in a cave in the desert (Porter, pp.130-136).
Although this and other Gnostic texts are not considered authentic or in the same vein as the Bible, they spawned many sects that turned Mary into the object of their worship, and the impact is still felt today in Christianity.
Although there is no Jewish account of the birth story of Jesus(as) as officially they have not accepted him as their messiah, there are many clues as to what Jews were anticipating at the time of the advent of their messiah in the Torah in books such as Isaiah, as we shall see later in this article. These stories shed light on the expectation of the messiah being born in Bethlehem (the home of David(as)), the arrival of foreign kings bearing gifts and following a morning light. As the Jewish messiah, it is essential to understand the Jewish context into which the messiah would be understood in order to make sense of the nativity story of Christmas.
The Holy Qur’an focuses more on the life and death of Jesus(as) once he began his ministry. A detailed account is provided in Surah Al-‘Imran (Ch.3) and Surah Maryam (Ch.19). Surah Al-‘Imran describes how the angels spoke to Mary:
When the angels said, ‘O Mary, Allah gives thee glad tidings of a word from Him; his name shall be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, honoured in this world and in the next, and of those who are granted nearness to God; and he shall speak to the people in the cradle and when of middle age, and he shall be of the righteous.’ (Ch.3:Vs.46-47)
The chapter then goes on to describe Mary’s shock and the explanation given to her about the high status that Jesus(as) would attain and his mission to the Jews.
The chapter named after Mary relates incidents in the following verses:
And relate the story of Mary as mentioned in the Book. When she withdrew from her people to a place to the east, and screened herself off from them, then We sent Our angel to her, and he appeared to her in the form of a perfect man. She said, ‘I seek refuge with the Gracious God from thee if indeed thou dost fear Him.’ He replied, ‘I am only a Messenger of thy Lord, that I may bestow on thee a righteous son.’ She said, ‘How can I have a son when no man has touched me, neither have I been unchaste?’ He replied, ‘Thus it is.’ But says thy Lord, ‘It is easy for Me; and We shall do so that We may make him a Sign unto men, and a mercy from Us, and it is a thing decreed.’ So she conceived him, and withdrew with him to a remote place. (Ch.19: Vs.17-23)
According to the Qur’an, the fact of the matter is that Mary consumed ripe dates upon giving birth to Jesus(as) (placing his birth nearer summer than winter) and what is mentioned is the reaction when she took the baby back to her family. However, when she pointed them at her baby, Jesus(as) began speaking saying:
‘I am a servant of Allah. He has given me the Book, and made me a Prophet; and He has made me blessed wheresoever I may be, and has enjoined upon me Prayer and almsgiving so long as I live.’ (Ch.19:Vs. 31-32)
So in many ways, the Qur’anic account corroborates the Bible on the virgin birth and on Jesus’ maturity from a very young age. However, the Qur’an does not mention the wise men, the Star of Bethlehem or Herod’s actions, so these must have been insignificant. Indeed if these elements of the story were so significant, it is strange that neither Mark nor John cared to mention them at all. However, if there is any truth in the shepherds or the wise men seeing signs and visiting Mary to see the baby messiah, it would have served to reinforce the faith and resolve of Mary that this had been a Divine plan.
The Qur’an does revert to a couple of other issues, one of which is the parentage of Jesus(as). The Qur’an says:
It does not befit the Majesty of Allah to take unto Himself a son. Holy is He. When He decrees a thing, He says to it, ‘Be!’, and it is. Said Jesus: ‘Surely Allah is my Lord, and your Lord. So worship Him alone; this is the right path.’ (Ch.19:Vs.36-37)
The Qur’an is clear that Jesus(as) was born of a virgin, but is not the actual son of God. On the other hand, Adam was ‘born’ without the agency of a father or mother.
The Gregorian Calendar used globally for business is based upon the birth date being in the Year 1, and we commonly describe years as CE (Christian Era i.e. years since the birth of Jesus(as)) and BCE (Before the Christian Era i.e. years before the birth of Jesus(as)).
Yet, a significant event in the early years of Jesus(as) would have been the census and the killing of Jewish boys by King Herod. As King Herod died in 4 BCE and the census is likely to have been after 6 CE when Judaea came under Roman rule, clearly the events, if authentic, would not have occurred in the first year CE, so the Gregorian calendar has the wrong start date. But that is a minor point.
So we have determined that the year of the birth is inaccurate. What of the date – 25th December? A common belief in Judaism was that prophets died on the same date as their birth or conception. According to ancient calculations, Jesus(as) was crucified on 25 March and that was presumed to be the date of his conception. Nine months after that leads to 25 December which is a bizarre justification for this date. Nobody knows which date Jesus(as) was born on or even the month of the year, but many commentators believe that it was more likely to have been in the spring or summer.
Christianity seems to have adopted the 25th of December (the winter solstice and significant date of the Roman Sol Invictus cult) in the early centuries under Roman patronage to gain security and empathy from the Romans particularly with Emperor Constantine at the helm (Wilson, p137). But for Constantine, just as in his forcing the Nicene Creed on the Global Church in 325 CE, the acceptance of the 25th of December as the birth date and main celebration of Christianity may have cynically helped his cause to unify the Roman Empire through this new faith.
Sol Invictus (victorious Sun) was a Roman cult dedicated to the worship of the Sun with patronage from Roman Emperors such as Diocletian (who led much of the persecution of Christianity). Sol Invictus was related to Mithraism, and they also worshipped Cybele, the ‘mother of god’. December the 25th was a significant date for these worshippers as it was considered the birthday of Mithra and was the celebration day for Sol Invictus and Cybele. Some commentators suggest that it was the day Romans celebrated the birth of the Sun by the mother of god, Cybele.
So when Constantine became Emperor, it was an easy transition to encourage Christians to worship the Sun god as the Son god, and so Sol Invictus was morphed into a Christian deity and Christians were able to worship on December 25th without attracting attention.
This view has been gaining currency, but is not accepted by all scholars including R. L. Fox who argues that Constantine had to tread warily in order to keep his largely pagan subjects under control, and claims that this is why Constantine was not baptised until his deathbed. Some of his arguments make sense, but this still does not explain how suddenly the 25th December was accepted as the celebration of the birth of Jesus(as).
Even early Christian leaders such as St. Clement of Alexandria were not convinced that the birth month was December and instead preferred April or May, but this compromise suited Constantine and reduced Christian persecution during the 4th century as Christianity gradually became the religion of the Roman Empire.
The Virgin birth by Mary is one of the most striking parts of the story. The Christian aspect of this story is well known, but Islam also has a similar account of the virgin birth as described earlier.
Modern research and analysis shows that such a birth could be a natural phenomenon, as natural processes such as Parthenogenesis become better understood.
Wise men of the East
The Bible refers to the wise men of the East following a Star of Bethlehem to visit Jesus(as) and bringing him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It does not mention three wise men, but wise men bringing three gifts, and as Spong (p.187) identifies, there is no mention of Camels. Spong goes on to relate that actually the subconscious imagery of camels comes from the prophecy in Isaiah in the Old Testament:
‘A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.’ (Isaiah 60:6)
In fact, in the preceding verses of Isaiah, it says:
‘Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the bright-ness of your dawn.’ (Isaiah 60:3)
We will soon consider the Star of Bethlehem, but here we have an early reference to that light, to that bright dawn.
Most commentators accept that these wise men would most likely have been Zoroastrian Magi priests from Persia. Indeed, the Persians had interactions with the Jews for many centuries when first Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and led the Israelites to slavery, and then Cyrus the Great freed the Jews and enabled them to return to Jerusalem. However, not every-one accepts the Persian link, and given that myrrh is only found in Yemen where there were many Jews, this has led some commentators to suspect that the wise men may have been Jews from Yemen excited at the prospect of the advent of the Jewish messiah.
Star of Bethlehem
There have been many theories about the ‘Star of Bethlehem’ and astronomers have been looking at comets, novae and planetary alignments for centuries to explain this phenomenon. In 1603, the famous astronomer, Kepler, calculated that there would have been a conjunction of Mars, Saturn and Jupiter in 7 BCE (Wilson, p.49).
More recent analysis by Grant Mathews in the USA suggests that alignments of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn on February 20th 6 BCE, and the Sun, Jupiter, the Moon and Saturn on April 17th 6 BCE would have been bright enough to have been seen in the East and to attract some attention. Many are also looking at similar alignments to announce the return of Jesus(as) for the latter days.
Certainly the connection between the star and the wise men would have been that Zoroastrian astrologers were heavily reliant upon such alignments for their predictions and would have been actively seeking such alignments to herald significant religious events.
Santa Claus or Father Christmas
In the modern Christian celebrations in the West, Father Christmas or Santa Claus plays a prominent role in the mythology of Christmas by distributing gifts. However, there was a historical Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra in southern Turkey, who used to provide gifts for vulnerable children, and this is perhaps from where the modern Santa derives.
Religious communities get very excited about historical details and often neglect the spiritual message that was delivered. It is interesting that only Matthew and Luke cover the birth story and even then each covers detail on certain aspects. There is no single complete account of the birth story in any single book of the Bible, and there are discrepancies over who the angels spoke to, whether Herod was actually involved, whether the events took place at the time of Herod or at the time of the Roman Census, whether and how many wise men from the East arrived and where they came from, and the nature if at all of the Star of Bethlehem. The date of December 25th is almost certainly wrong.
Many European pagan rituals and accounts have made their way into the Christmas story and festivities over the centuries, and add very little to our understanding of Jesus’ birth and its significance; for example, the Christmas tree, Father Christmas and the reindeer, and the Elves. The earliest followers of Jesus(as), the Judaeo-Christian groups such as the Ebionites and Elchasites would not have recognised any of these trappings. More fundamentally, they would have considered Jesus(as) to be their human messiah, and Mary to have been his mother, but would not have associated any divinity to either.
Certainly there are many details in the modern Christian account, in particular the divinity, salvation, crucifixion and celebrations of Jesus’ birth, that cannot be considered accurate or authentic, but Muslims and Christians share a common understanding on a few points that:
• Mary was a very pious lady chosen for this special task by God.
• Jesus(as) was born to Mary whilst she was still a virgin.
• Jesus(as) was blessed with wisdom from a very early age.
• He would go on to become one of the many significant Prophets whose influence is felt globally even today.
At this time of Christmas, if we focus on the greatness of Jesus’ teachings and ministry and the piety of his mother Mary in accepting her role despite her shock, then that is something we can all appreciate and all agree upon, and something that the religious community can draw inspiration from, whether or not we agree upon the historical and technical details.
1. The Holy Bible – New Standard Revised Version, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, Thomas Nelson Inc, USA 1989.
2. The Holy Qur’an, translated by Maulawi Sher Ali, Islam International Publications Ltd, Tilford, UK 2004.
3. Jesus: The Evidence, Ian Wilson, Pan Books Ltd, London 1985.
4. Christianity: A Journey from Facts to Fiction, Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Islam International Publications Limited, Tilford, UK 1994.
5. The Lost Bible – Forgotten Scriptures Revealed, J. R. Porter, Duncan Baird Publishers, London 2001.
6. The Religions of the Roman Empire, John Ferguson, Thames and Hudson, London 1982.
7. Pagans and Christians, Robin Lane Fox, Penguin Books, London 1986.
8. Liberating the Gospels – Reading the Bible with Jewish eyes, Bishop John Shelby Spong, Harper Collins Publishers Inc., USA 1996.
9. From Jesus to Christ, Paula Fredriksen, Yale University Press, USA 2000.