Traditionally, Christmas is the feast of the nativity of Jesus Christ, the Christian feast commemorating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth that, from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, would be born in Bethlehem. Historians hesitate to share between Bethlehem and Nazareth without any assumptions manages to impose.
Only the Gospel of Luke tells about this birth. The Gospel of Matthew evokes only, but traces a genealogy of Jesus, while the Gospels of Mark and John begin the story of his life through his encounter with John the Baptist.
According to Luke
The Gospel of Luke presents the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth in a parallel connection. The story of the birth of Jesus in chapter II says:
”2:1 Now it came about in those days that an order went out from Caesar Augustus that there was to be a numbering of all the world.
2:2 This was the first numbering, which was made when Quirinius was ruler of Syria.
2:3 And all men went to be numbered, everyone to his town.
2:4 And Joseph went up from Galilee, out of the town of Nazareth, into Judaea, to Beth-lehem, the town of David, because he was of the house and family of David,
2:5 To be put on the list with Mary, his future wife, who was about to become a mother.
2:6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.
2:7 And she had her first son; and folding him in linen, she put him to rest in the place where the cattle had their food, because there was no room for them in the house.
2:8 And in the same country there were keepers of sheep in the fields, watching over their flock by night.
2:9 And an angel of the Lord came to them, and the glory of the Lord was shining round about them: and fear came on them.
2:10 And the angel said, Have no fear; for truly, I give you good news of great joy which will be for all the people:
2:11 For on this day, in the town of David, a Saviour has come to birth, who is Christ the Lord.
2:12 And this is the sign to you: you will see a young child folded in linen, in the place where the cattle have their food.
2:13 And suddenly there was with the angel a great band of spirits from heaven, giving praise to God, and saying,
2:14 Glory to God in the highest, and on the earth peace among men with whom he is well pleased.
2:15 And when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the keepers of the sheep said to one another, Let us go now to Beth-lehem, and see this thing which has come about, which the Lord has made clear to us.
2:16 And they came quickly, and saw Mary and Joseph, and the child in the place where the cattle had their food.
2:17 And when they saw it, they gave them an account of the things which had been said to them about the child.
2:18 And all those to whose ears it came were full of wonder at the things said by the keepers of the sheep.“
The episode of the annunciation to the shepherds – traditionally despised in the ancient world and considered unclean in Jewish antiquity – resumed the reason for the worship of the “Child–King” discovered by shepherds recurring motif in stories of birth of the Greco-Roman mythology, like the birth of Paris, Oedipus or Romulus. The shepherds are also encountered in the stories of the birth of Mithra. The editor offers the concept of a Messiah hidden from the wise and powerful and discovered by simple people, whose title “Savior” and “Lord” – usually reserved for the Emperor – suggest that it will succeed in imposing peace where the legions of Rome were unsuccessful.
According to Matthew
In the Gospel according to Matthew, the focus is on the miraculous birth of Jesus:
“1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this way: when his mother Mary was going to be married to Joseph, before they came together the discovery was made that she was with child by the Holy Spirit.
1:19 And Joseph, her husband, being an upright man, and not desiring to make her a public example, had a mind to put her away privately.
1:20 But when he was giving thought to these things, an angel of the Lord came to him in a dream, saying, Joseph, son of David, have no fear of taking Mary as your wife; because that which is in her body is of the Holy Spirit.
1:21 And she will give birth to a son; and you will give him the name Jesus; for he will give his people salvation from their sins.
1:22 Now all this took place so that the word of the Lord by the prophet might come true,
1:23 See, the virgin will be with child, and will give birth to a son, and they will give him the name Immanuel, that is, God with us.
1:24 And Joseph did as the angel of the Lord had said to him, and took her as his wife;
1:25 And he had no connection with her till she had given birth to a son; and he gave him the name Jesus.
2:1 Now when the birth of Jesus took place in Beth-lehem of Judaea, in the days of Herod the king, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2:2 Saying, Where is the King of the Jews whose birth has now taken place? We have seen his star in the east and have come to give him worship.“
Herod the Great died, according to sources, in -4 or -1 and is assigned to him the episode Massacre of the Innocents which made him the “candidate” most likely that is mentioned in this passage. This presentation is an update of the massacre in the history of persecution by Pharaoh of Moses, though he perhaps relies on a historical basis.
Historically, neither the year nor the day of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth are not known. The Gospels do not give any details as to the date of his birth.
The dates for Jesus’ birth year can oscillate between 9 and 2 BC. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke place it during the reign of Herod the Great, whose long reign ended in 4 BC. The estimate generally used by historians today is 7 to 5 BC.
It is paradoxical that Jesus of Nazareth to be born “before Jesus Christ”: the origin of the Common Era is indeed supposed to be the birth of Christ. But the beginning of the Christian era (the Anno Domini), which has gradually imposed in Europe since the first millennium only, was set after the work of the monk Dionysius Exiguus done in the sixth century. This work is incorrect, as shown by Paul Mattei. If the historical calendar was clear since then, his conventional origin has not changed.
Setting of the holiday
The birth of Jesus – the “Nativity” – is traditionally celebrated on December 25th, at Christmas, but this date is entirely conventional and is not considered by Christians as the birthday of Jesus: they celebrate the event of the birth and not the day of the birth. This is not a theological and historical approach. In this context, the accuracy and correspondence of dates with historical reality are accessory items.
The feast of Christ’s birth on January 6th, the day of Epiphany, could have its origin in some Christian communities in Egypt in the third century that not favored the commemoration of the physical birth of Jesus but the first event of the divinity of Christ. It seems that at that time Basilidians celebrated the baptism of Jesus at that date, other Gnostic sects rather celebrating the wedding at Cana (first miracle) or the Adoration of the Magi, which symbolizes the divine recognition of the newborn around the world but the whole question of the choice of these dates remains debated. Some Christian Gnostics were calculating that Jesus was born thirty-three years (symbolic number for its value doubling Trinity) before such events. This interpretation aroused a great controversy since that date also corresponds to that of his death and did not correspond to the Passion of Christ at Easter, also Christians of North Africa as Tertullian proposed as date of birth and death 25 March (corresponding to the equinox in the Roman calendar).
The first Council of Nicaea in 325 condemned the Arian heresy for whom Jesus can not be the Father and the Holy Spirit because of his birth and of his mortal flesh. The feast of the Epiphany on January 6th commemorating the descent of the Son of God in the midst of its creation and the baptism of Christ, the Latin Church certainly wanted from this council to reaffirm the divinity of Christ by moving the feast of Nativity on December 25 to dissociate it from the heretical custom of commemorating the appearance of Christ at his baptism. Another explanation for the choice of this date is the influence of Sextus Julius Africanus, author of the first universal chronicle designed from a Christian perspective. This Christian writer considered the incarnation of Jesus does not occur at his birth on March 25 but its conception nine months earlier, on December 25.
The date was set in the Latin West in the fourth century, possibly 354, to coincide with the Roman feast of Sol Invictus, celebrated on this date like the birth of the god Mithras, born on December 25; the choice of this festival allowed assimilation of the coming of Christ – “Sun of Justice” – to the rise of the sun after the winter solstice. Before then, the Nativity was celebrated on January 6 and is still by the Armenian Apostolic Church only, while the Roman Catholic Church feast Theophany or Epiphany today.
According to Catholic tradition, it is Pope Liberius who, in 354, would have instituted the feast of the Nativity in Rome on December 25, the date of Natalis Invicti. Many dates were proposed for the Messiah’s birth and it is accepted that the popularity of the festivals of the winter solstice Mithra in the Roman Empire was a factor in the choice of the date.
The Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on December 25 they schedule that they follow (Julian or Gregorian calendar) and the baptism of Christ on January 6. The Christmas of the Armenian Apostolic Church is also celebrated on January 6 everywhere except in Jerusalem where it is celebrated on January 19.
In the second half of the seventh century, the Feast of the Annunciation (announced to the Virgin Mary in her divine motherhood by the archangel Gabriel) is symbolically fixed on March 25, nine months before that Christmas.
In a speech of December 16, 2004, Jean-Paul Jaeger, Bishop of Arras explains the choice of a date close to the winter solstice:
“The evangelists that only one in four provides an account of the birth of Jesus were quite unable to locate the exact date. Excellent teacher, the Church in the West has set in 353 Christmas celebration at the time of pagan celebration of the winter solstice. The sign is beautiful. The sun’s rays are at their lowest decline. Gradually the day will emerge at night. The light will triumph. The Christ is born so praised and welcomed as the light that shines in the darkness, as the day dawns on the numb and sleepy humanity. It is a new day that points to midnight.”
This metaphor of Christ identified in a new light that will light the world is already present in the Gospel of John (8:12). Resumed frequently in the homilies of the Christmas season, for example that of Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of Christmas 2007:
“In the stable at Bethlehem, Heaven and Earth meet. Heaven came to Earth. Therefore, there emanates a light for all time; therefore, there lights joy.”