Mary was pledged to marry Joseph when they found that Mary was pregnant – a perplexing dilemma for Joseph since they had not yet slept together. Joseph did not want to publicly disgrace Mary so he had in mind to break the marriage pledge quietly. Before he could act, and angel of God explained to Joseph (in a dream) that Mary’s conception was through the Holy Spirit. God told Joseph that he should honor the marriage vows and take Mary as his wife. He explained that the child to be born would be a boy and that it should be named “Jesus” because “he will save people from their sins”. This fulfilled the prophesy from Old Testament Isaiah 7:14:

“A virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son – and they will name him Immanuel (meaning ‘God with us'”).

Joseph followed God’s instructions and married Mary (but did not consummate their marriage until after Jesus was born). As instructed, when the child was born, they named him “Jesus”.

What the story means to us today

Joseph and Mary – a love story

Possibly hidden within the deeper context of the narrative, the story of Joseph and Mary is a tale of true unconditional love. Joseph was surely heartbroken when he discovered that his beloved Mary was pregnant and that he was not the father. Regardless, rather than lash out in anger or cause Mary harm or discomfort, he loved her so deeply that he considered dissolving the relationship as quietly as possible in order to save Mary from public scandal.

Jesus born of God and Man – power and compassion in human form

The primary theme in this story is the unique set of circumstances that result from a human born of both God and Man. As subsequent New Testament stories will reveal, Jesus was a human, a limited form factor we are all too familiar with, but despite these limitations he demonstrated the extraordinary power and compassion of God.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Joseph’s binding marital engagement to Mary

Matthew tells us that Mary’s pregnancy occurred before Joseph and Mary “came together in martial and domestic union” which is typically meant to connote sexual relations (the words used in the original text, “know” or “knowing her”, were almost always family-friendly euphemisms for sexual relations). To understand the implications of Mary’s pre-marital pregnancy, it’s helpful to understand the betrothal customs of her day.

In Mary’s day, a marital arrangement (i.e. betrothal) was much more binding than it is today. A couple would typically enter into a marriage agreement for a period of one year.  During the time of betrothal, the couple continued to live with their respective parents. Although considered “husband and wife” during this period of time, only after one year would they consummate the marriage to finalize the agreement. In other words, the marital process was a series of steps rather than a single momentous moment.

Breaking the marital agreement, which was considered a legally binding permanent relationship, required a divorce. Thus, Joseph was contemplating breaking off the engagement which was a much more serious proposition than breaking a modern-day engagement.

A conduit of God in human form – the ultimate role model

It is interesting to ponder the various ways God could have chosen to introduce Jesus to the world. Instead of being born a child of a human, God could have produced him out of thin air or dropped him from the sky. Instead, Jesus originated as a child of both God and man. This combination holds many interesting connotations not the least of which is the creation of an individual who could have potentially been flawed, subject to hurt and pain, while simultaneously holding the power of the Universe at his fingertips. Similar to first Man, being born of a human, Jesus possessed free will, the ability to choose between right or wrong, and he chose to follow God’s directions and demonstrate to Man not just how God expects us to behave but that we have the ability, and obligation, to carry out God’s will.

The naming of baby Jesus hints at Joseph’s responsibility

Customs of the day dictated the father named the child eight days after birth (at the time of the infant’s circumcision). Thus, God’s instructions to name the baby “Jesus” could also be construed as a command for Joseph to accept his responsibility as the baby’s father.

How do we know Jesus was truly the Messiah mentioned in the Old Testament?

Is a virgin birth enough to prove Jesus was the messiah, the “anointed one”? Not necessarily, but the virgin birth is only the beginning of the story. As we progress through the New Testament, you will find Old Testament signs of the messiah fulfilled in many ways. Most of the “clues” presented in the Old Testament are “framed” and clearly satisfied by the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth (e.g. location of the birth, circumstances of his birth, and the heritage of the messiah) and death (e.g. the road leading to his death, the means of death, the timing of his death, and of course, the resurrection). Adding to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy are the documented miracles that Jesus produced throughout his life as well as the remarkable resurrection observed by many eyewitnesses. Regardless, various religions coexist in modern day, some of which continue to debate the authenticity of Jesus as the Messiah – and this debate will certainly continue through eternity.  If you still doubt Jesus’ authenticity, the single most convincing argument that Jesus was the Messiah is the billions of people who were completely changed by Christianity over the past 2,000 years and the millions that are transformed by Christian beliefs *today*.

The Science behind the story

The name “Jesus”

The etymology of the name “Jesus” is fairly easy to construct. According to historical records, Jesus was a common name among the Jews in 1st century Palestine.  The construction of the name begins with the Old Testament Hebrew name Yeshua (Joshua). Yeshua means “Yahweh saves” – Yahweh is typically translated as Lord in the Old Testament. The Greek rendition of the Hebrew word “Yeshua” (sometimes spelled Yehoshua) is Iesous which translated in Latin is “Jesus”.

The penalty for adultery

In Mary’s day, the penalty for adultery was death. However, the Jewish community at the time often ignored the death penalty and instead imposed more of a social penalty on the offending woman – a shameful stigma was typically placed on the adulteress.

Can we determine when Jesus was born?

No concrete, chronological date was given in Matthew for Jesus’ birth but it is believed he was born sometime between 6 and 2 BC (with a date of death placed between 30 and 33 AD). This date range is derived from bits and pieces of information (with some suppositions added) taken from religious and non-religious historical events.

For instance, from other New Testament books, we know that John the Baptist was born during the reign of Herod (who died around 4 BC) and that Jesus was born shortly *after* John the Baptist. Matthew itself adds additional credence to this estimated date when he mentions Herod being alive during Jesus’ childhood. Other historical records, including a section in Tacitus Annals which documents a bare record of Jesus’ execution by order of Pontius Pilatus (who held office from 26 to 36 AD), provides further clues based on calculations of Jesus’ period of ministry and age at death. Regardless of the unknown date of birth, virtually no modern scholars of antiquity question that Jesus existed historically.

Here are some of the clues from various religious sources that can be collated to calculate an approximate date for the birth of Jesus.

  1. Matthew associates Jesus’ birth with the reign of Herod the Great (who died around 4 BC).
  2. Luke mentions that Herod (who died around 4 BC) was on the throne shortly before Jesus’ birth.
  3. Luke mentions Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem during the first Census of Quirinius (around the turn of the millennium).
  4. John says the temple was in its 46th year of construction at the start of Jesus’ ministry.
  5. Luke states that Jesus began his ministry when he was “about 30 years of age”.
  6. Acts tells us that John the Baptist’s ministry preceded Jesus’ and began around 13 AD.
  7. Mary visited with Elizabeth (the mother of John the Baptist) around the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.
  8. Herod the Great, who ordered the death of all male infants under the age of two in an attempt to kill Jesus, died shortly after Jesus’ birth. Herod is believed to have died between 2 and 4 BC.

Non-religious sources also provide clues to Jesus’ date of birth. For example, scholars have attempted to use astronomical observations as a marker and note a slow-moving comet observed by the Chinese in 5 BC as well as an unusual alignment of Venus and Jupiter in 2 BC.

As you can see, collating the dates can only produce a “range” of dates and thus far, scholars have yet to reach agreement on the year of Jesus’ birth.

Was Jesus born in Bethlehem or Nazareth?

Some wonder why Jesus was called a Nazarene (Nazorean) if he was born in Bethlehem.  Both Matthew 2 and Luke 2 tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem , a town in the West Bank about six miles south of Jerusalem.  With regards to Jesus’ relationship to Nazareth, the accounts differ slightly,  Matthew says Jesus was born in Bethlehem but moved to Nazareth later (where he grew up).  Luke says the family already lived in Nazareth but traveled to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem to be counted in the Roman census and presumably back to Nazareth afterward.  Both agree however, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem as prophesied by Micah (Micah 5:2) and both agree that Jesus ended up in Nazareth sometime after his birth.

Today the little town of Bethlehem houses the Church of the Nativity, the oldest Christian church in the world, which marks the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth.

Bible Text


18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, t because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” w (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Message

The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) 19 Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

20 While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. 21 She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—‘God saves’—because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term:

23 Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son;

They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”).

24 Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. 25 But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

The NET Bible

1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 1:19 Because Joseph, her husband to be, was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately. 1:20 When he had contemplated this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 1:21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 1:22 This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 1:23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” 1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep he did what the angel of the Lord told him. He took his wife, 1:25 but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. 20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. 21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. 22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, 23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. 24 Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: 25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.