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Luke 2:1-7: The Birth of Jesus

Verses 1-3: Setting the scene

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. (2:1-3, NRSV)

Some notes on these verses:

  • Emperor (Caesar) Augustus. He ruled the Roman Empire from 27 B.C. to 14 AD. Based on this and other chronological data, the birth of Jesus is estimated to have occurred between 6 BC and 4 BC
  • Luke is the only gospel that names Roman Emperors, and locates the birth of Jesus in relation to larger political framework. It encourages us to think about power: who has real power? Who is in control? Is real power in the mighty Empire, or is God at work in another place?
  • Luke may be drawing our attention to a contrast between the powerful Emperor (who often was given titles that suggested that he was divine, or somehow godlike) and Jesus, who we will discover, is really God. Further, one of the things many people were justifiably grateful to Augustus for is that he brought and end to banditry and conflict and established a time of peace. But is Jesus the real source of peace?

verses 4-5: Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem.

So Joseph had to leave Nazareth in Galilee and go to Bethlehem in Judea. Long ago Bethlehem had been King Davidís hometown, and Joseph went there because he was from Davidís family. Mary was engaged to Joseph and traveled with him to Bethlehem. She was soon going to have a baby.

Some notes on these verses:

  • A betrothal is a bit more than an engagement. In this ancient culture a betrothal meant that a formal agreement had been made between the families, an agreement that could only be broken by death or divorce. Mary might have been informally called Josephís "wife" at this point. However, if she was following custom, she would have been living with her parents and she would not have been having sexual relations with Joseph (nor he with her or anyone else). Incidentally, if Mary was like most Jewish girls she was quite young when she was betrothed, perhaps no more than 12 to 14.
  • Luke started with the emperor and a national census. Heís now focused our attention on one specific couple. The power of the emperor is really serving the purposes of God.
  • David was King of Israel about 1,000 years before Jesusí birth. He was recognized as the start of a line of kings. People looked for a resorted "House of David" (kings descended from David) to again rule over Israel. More on David in connection to Jesus is given at Luke 1.32, 35, 69 and 78.
  • King David was from Bethlehem. See 1 Samuel 17.12 and 2 Samuel 7.12-20.


Verse 6-7 Jesus is born in a manger

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Some notes on these verses:

  • Jesus is the first born. If his family owned land, he would inherit it. If his family was royalty, heíd inherit the title.
  • "no place for them in the inn." It might not be a real inn, hotels were very rare in ancient days. It is more likely that Mary and Joseph are staying at the house of some relatives Ė perhaps rather distant relatives who werenít all that excited to see them. The house is full of guests. There is a guest room in a traditional house, and it must be already taken by more wealthy or important guests. Below the living quarters are the place where the animals are brought in at night. Mary and Joseph have been given some space there. This is a rural society that is comfortable with being close to animals in a way most of us arenít, but it still isnít the best place for a woman to be giving birth. The point remains: Mary and Joseph werenít considered important, and they are being forced to make do. No one important welcomed Jesus at his birth.
  • "wrapped him in bands of cloth." ("wrapped him in swaddling clothes" in older translations.) Some see in this wrapping a suggesting or a foreshadowing of how Jesus will be wrapped in white cloth when he is laid in the tomb at the end of his life.
Last updated 12/17/2007; first posted 12/11/00; Original material © 2007, 2000 John P. Nordin