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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

What actually happened when Jesus was born?

“And it came to pass in those days, …”

Well, these days I’ve been preparing for Christmas, Christmas 2023. It’s hard work, challenging and hugely rewarding. And I guess I will be the main beneficiary.

I’m talking about my contribution to the Bible Reading Fellowship notes, New Daylight for Christmas two years hence. The editor has commissioned me to write eight pieces chosen by me from Luke 1-3, each day of between 360 and 380 words to include the Bible reading itself.

As it happens the opening chapters of Luke has to be one of my favourite chunks of scripture.

The very first passage of scripture I committed to memory was Luke 2:1-7. This was when I was in second year juniors at St Nicholas’ school, Blundellsands when Miss Locke prepared the whole class to recite this passage together, from the Authorised Version of course, for a special church service. And those wonderful cadences have stayed with me ever since.

In fact, the Authorised Version more than any other catches the cadences of Luke’s prologue. My Greek isn’t up this standard but I understand that Luke deliberately uses a particular writing style for his opening chapters to try and capture the sense of the Septuagint (i.e. Greek) version of the Old Testament. You can see this, it seems, in the archaic phrase “And it came to pass.”

Luke is making an important point, stressing the continuity of the gospel of Jesus with the Hebrew scriptures. He is picking up, so to speak, from where the Old Testament leaves off. In other words, God is at work over the millennia and through the people of Israel, long-awaited promises fulfilled.

You can see this in his genealogy which concludes his prologue which takes us back to Adam himself, that is to include the entire human race. His genealogy is different from Matthew’s which begins with Abraham.

The point is that Luke and Matthew write from different perspectives, using different sources. Matthew, for example, seems to write his nativity from Joseph’s perspective – Mary is hardly mentioned . Whereas Luke gives much attention to Mary, possibly employing her as an important eyewitness (see Luke 1:2).

When it comes to the story of the birth of Jesus we traditionally merge Luke’s nativity with Matthew’s and if you are not careful you finish up with the standard school nativity when shepherds (stage left) and wise men (stage right) kneel before the manger at the same time. In fact, in Luke’s gospel the shepherds worship the baby (βρέφος/brephos) Jesus while in Matthew’s account the magi kneel before the child (παιδίον/paidion).

As I prepare my notes I realise how important it is to read each of the Gospel accounts in their own right rather than try and fit the two accounts together. Not that they are incompatible, not at all, but we do lose some key insights if we try and hold both narratives in our thinking at the same time.

Luke’s account is peopled with some interesting characters. Not just Mary and Joseph but Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, Simeon and Anna, the two devout witnesses to the new-born Messiah. Notice, incidentally, how Luke likes to use male/female pairs: he is making an important point.

And surprisingly, considering that Luke seems to be writing to Gentile Christians, the temple in Jerusalem is important. We begin in the temple as Zechariah as priest encounters the angel Gabriel as he burns incense in the temple directly before the veil of the temple concealing the Holy of holies. Then later Mary and Joseph choose to go to the temple for the presentation of the baby Jesus where they meet Simeon and Anna.

Again Luke is making an important connection between the Gospel of Jesus and God’s preparation of the people of Israel for the coming of the Messiah. Soon, of course with the cross of Jesus, the Jerusalem temple becomes totally redundant. We, the people of Jesus, are now where heaven and earth meet.

And who are the people of God? No longer just the people of Israel. As Simeon exclaims, even in the temple courts, that the baby Jesus is the light for revelation to the Gentiles. This is radical stuff.

Notice God’s choice of witnesses. Shepherds! They were essentially the underclass –not allowed as witnesses in cases of law, such was their unreliability. And who did God choose to be the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus? He seems to enjoy using those people we would disregard.

The whole tenor of Luke’s account is one of a simple, unhurried rhythm. “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” (Luke 2:6) Forget the story of Joseph doing the round of the innkeepers. Modern translations tell us that Mary laid the new-born Jesus in a manger “because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2:7 NIV)

Reading Luke’s nativity – which incidentally includes the baptism of Jesus before being rounded off with the genealogy – is an exercise in reading what he actually says rather than what we think he says. For me, a useful exercise in the close reading of the text.

As Jeremy Duff writes: “As we live through Christmas, Luke stands alongside us, whispering in our ears, pointing out to us how Gods plan was being unfolded in the events then and challenging us to look to see how God's plan might be unfolding in our world today.”

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