In the New Testament, the Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ birth—the first Christmas. Set during the rise of the Roman Empire, the stories create a radiant image of a young couple giving birth to the son of God in Bethlehem. The Christian world has embraced the faithful story of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus for centuries. Yet, in those times—even without getting into the plausibility of a virgin birth—their situation would have been considered scandalous. Becoming pregnant out of wedlock was a crime punishable by death.
So how did this disreputable situation turn into a cornerstone of Christianity celebrated with tidings of comfort and joy to this day? That’s a question that’s been asked for 2,000 years. Here’s what some biblical scholars claim.
The historical documentation for Mary comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, written roughly between A.D. 70 and 110. Mary, believed to have been quite beautiful, was born to Anne and Joachim in Nazareth. She would have had Middle Eastern features, with dark hair and eyes and spoken an Aramaic patois.
She would have married young, as all girls did at the time since most people did not live more than a few decades.
“There is no luxury called adolescence in that world,” noted Byron McCane, a historian at Florida Atlantic University. “As soon as young men and women show they are capable of reproducing, they get married and start to have children.”
Families arranged these unions, and it is possible that in such as place as Nazareth, which had only a few hundred people, Mary would have known Joseph. In the tradition of ancient Jewish people, Mary and Joseph became betrothed, the first part of a two-stage Jewish wedding ceremony.
For the initial part, called the erusin, Joseph would give a mohar, a dowry, to Mary’s family. At that point, he and Mary were legally wed. Yet by tradition, while they were married, the wife continued to live with her parents for about a year after the betrothal. During that time, Mary and Joseph would look forward to a missuin, a wedding ceremony, after which she would move out of her parents’ home.
But following the erusin, while she was still living with her parents, Mary became pregnant. There is no hard proof about how this happened, but according to the Book of Luke, one of two Gospels that describe the birth of Jesus in the New Testament, the angel Gabriel appeared to the teenager, informing her she had been chosen by God: “And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus’” (Luke 1:28).
This news confused the young woman, who had no idea how this could be, since she had not had relations with Joseph. According to Luke, Gabriel explained that although she was still a virgin, a transcendent event would occur. “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” he said, and “therefore the child to be born will be called holy; . . . the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
According to the Book of Matthew, when Joseph learned of his betrothed’s pregnancy, he was not happy. Observing the Bible’s commandments and, hoping not to cause Mary any embarrassment, he sought to quietly end the erusin. As he thought about how he would do this, he fell asleep. According to the Book of Matthew, an angel appeared in his dream, telling him, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). When Joseph awoke, he understood Mary had been faithful, and they went through with the nissuin, taking “his wife into his home.”
Angelic vision or not, being pregnant outside marriage could be a dangerous thing. “Once you are betrothed, it is considered adultery,” said Carol Meyers, a professor of religion at Duke University. Despite the biblical edict mandating that when “a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death,” stoning was not always carried out.
Even so, Mary’s pregnancy would be looked down upon by the community, and it could also visit shame on her family. Nazareth was a small place, and neighbors not only knew each other’s business but had long communal memories. There were also important social and familial implications for Mary and Joseph. Theirs was a kinship-based society, and a person’s identity was established through the father’s line, as laid out in the first chapter of the Book of Matthew, which details the male lineage of Jesus’ family starting with the patriarch Abraham.
“They wanted to know that all of those children were of that father,” noted McCane, “because he has to support them.”
Who was Joseph?
The ancient Jewish population was obliged to pay taxes to Rome and to King Herod, as well as to tithe of their harvest to the Temple. As it was a census year, the expectant couple, according to the Books of Matthew and Luke, headed to Bethlehem to pay what had been mandated by Caesar Augustus. The trip would take Mary and Joseph about a week to travel from Nazareth, and they probably made their way south along a route where they could stop at springs to rest and find shelter in small towns.
When the couple arrived in Bethlehem, the Gospels tell us that Mary went into labor. They needed a place for her to give birth, yet there was no room for them in the local inn, so they may have taken refuge in a limestone cave used to corral domesticated animals. Some, however, argue they actually stayed with family, in a guest room that in a Palestinian home would have been a lower room where animals were kept. Whatever the case, Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, an event that would be celebrated for thousands of years to come as Christmas.
Church of the Nativity
To learn more, check out The Story of Mary. Available wherever books and magazines are sold