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Jesus Christ: His Early Life

To avoid misconception, it is important to remember, that, rich as are the narratives of the Gospels, materials do not exist for a complete biography or "Life" of Jesus. There is a gap, broken only by a single incident, from His infancy till His 30th year; there are cycles of events out of myriads left unrecorded (Joh 21:25); there are sayings, parables, longer discourses, connected with particular occasions; there are general summaries of periods of activity comprised in a few verses. The evangelists, too, present their materials each from his own standpoint--Matthew from theocratic, Mark from that of Christ’s practical activity, Luke from the universalistic and human-sympathetic, John from the Divine. In reproducing the history respect must be had to this focusing from distinct points of view.

The Nativity

Hidden Piety in Judaism

Old Testament prophecy expired with the promise on its lips, "Behold, I send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant, whom ye desire, behold, he cometh, saith Yahweh of hosts" (Mal 3:1). In the years immediately before Christ’s birth the air was tremulous with the sense of impending great events. The fortunes of the Jewish people were at their lowest ebb. Pharisaic formalism, Sadducean unbelief, fanatical Zealotry, Herodian sycophantism, Roman oppression, seemed to have crushed out the last sparks of spiritual religion. Yet in numerous quiet circles in Judea, and even in remote Galilee, little godly bands still nourished their souls on the promises, looking for "the consolation of Israel" and "redemption of Jerusalem" (Lu 2:25,38). Glimpses of these are vouchsafed in Zacharias and Elisabeth, in Simeon, in Anna, in Joseph and Mary (Lu 1; 2; Mt 1:18 ). It was in hearts in these circles that the stirrings of the prophetic spirit began to make themselves felt anew, preparing for the Advent (compare Lu 2:27,36).

Birth of the Baptist

(Luke 1)

In the last days of Herod--perhaps in the year 748 of Rome, or 6 BC--the aged priest Zacharias, of the course of Abijah (1Ch 24:10; compare Schurer, Div. II, Vol. I, 219 ff), was ministering in the temple at the altar of incense at the hour of evening prayer. Scholars have reckoned, if on somewhat precarious grounds, that the ministry of the order to which Zacharias belonged fell in this year in the month of April or in early October (compare Andrews, Life of our Lord). Now a wonderful thing happened. Zacharias and his wife Elisabeth, noted for their blameless piety, were up to this time childless. On this evening an angel, appearing at the side of the altar of incense, announced to Zacharias that a son should be born to them, in whom should be realized the prediction of Malachi of one coming in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way of the Lord (compare Mal 4:5,6). His name was to be called John. Zacharias hesitated to believe, and was stricken with dumbness till the promise should be fulfilled. It happened as the angel had foretold, and at the circumcision and naming of his son his tongue was again loosed. Zacharias, filled with the Spirit, poured forth his soul in a hymn of praise--the Benedictus (Lu 1:5-25,57-80; compare JOHN THE BAPTIST).

The Annunciation and Its Results

(Lu 1:26-56; Mt 1:18-25)

Meanwhile yet stranger things were happening in the little village of Nazareth, in Galilee (now enNacirah). There resided a young maiden of purest character, named Mary, betrothed to a carpenter of the village (compare Mt 13:55), called Joseph, who, although in so humble a station, was of the lineage of David (compare Isa 11:1). Mary, most probably, was likewise of Davidic descent (Lu 1:32; on the genealogies, see below). The fables relating to the parentage and youth of Mary in the Apocryphal Gospels may safely be discarded. To this maiden, three months before the birth of the Baptist, the same angelic visitant (Gabriel) appeared, hailing her as "highly favored" of God, and announcing to her that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, she should become the mother of the Saviour. The words "Blessed art thou among women," in the King James Version of Lu 1:28 are omitted by the Revised Version (British and American), though found below (1:42) in Elisabeth’s salutation. They give, in any case, no support to Mariolatry, stating simply the fact that Mary was more honored than any other woman of the race in being chosen to be the mother of the Lord.

(1) The Amazing Message

(2) The Visit to Elisabeth

With the announcement to herself there was given to Mary an indication of what had befallen her kinswoman Elisabeth, and Mary’s first act, on recovering from her astonishment, was to go in haste to the home of Elisabeth in the hill country of Judea (Lu 1:39 ). Very naturally she did not rashly forestall God’s action in speaking to Joseph of what had occurred, but waited in quietness and faith till God should reveal in His own way what He had done. The meeting of the two holy women was the occasion of a new outburst of prophetic inspiration. Elisabeth, moved by the Spirit, greeted Mary in exalted language as the mother of the Lord (Lu 1:42-45)--a confirmation to Mary of the message she had received; Mary, on her part, broke forth in rhythmical utterance, "My soul doth magnify the Lord," etc. (Lu 1:46-56). Her hymn--the sublime Magnificat--is to be compared with Hannah’s (1Sa 2:1-11), which furnishes the model of it. Mary abode with Elisabeth about three months, then returned to her own house. (3) Joseph’s Perplexity.

Here a new trial awaited her. Mary’s condition of motherhood could not long be concealed, and when Joseph first became aware of it, the shock to a man so just (Mt 1:19) would be terrible in its severity. The disappearance of Joseph from the later gospel history suggests that he was a good deal older than his betrothed, and it is possible that, while strict, upright and conscientious, his disposition was not as strong on the side of sympathy as so delicate a case required. It is going too far to say with Lange, "He encountered the modest, but unshakably firm Virgin with decided doubt; the first Ebionite"; but so long as he had no support beyond Mary’s word, his mind was in a state of agonized perplexity. His first thought was to give Mary a private "bill of divorcement" to avoid scandal (Mt 1:19). Happily, his doubts were soon set at rest by a Divine intimation, and he hesitated no longer to take Mary to be his wife (Mt 1:24). Luke’s Gospel, which confines itself to the story of Mary, says nothing of this episode; Matthew’s narrative, which bears evidence of having come from Joseph himself, supplies the lack by showing how Joseph came to have the confidence in Mary which enabled him to take her to wife, and become sponsor for her child. The trial, doubtless, while it lasted, was not less severe for Mary than for Joseph--a prelude of that sword which was to "pierce through (her) own soul" (Lu 2:35). There is no reason to believe that Joseph and Mary did not subsequently live in the usual relations of wedlock, and that children were not born to them (compare Mt 13:55,56, etc.).

The Birth at Bethlehem

(Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:1-7)

Matthew gives no indication of where the events narrated in his first chapter took place, first mentioning Nazareth on the occasion of the return of the holy family from Egypt (2:23). In 2:1 he transports us to Bethlehem as the city of Christ’s birth. It is left to Luke to give an account of the circumstances which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem--thus fulfilling prophecy (Mic 5:2; Mt 2:5,6)--at this critical hour, and to record the lowly manner of Christ’s birth there.

(1) The Census of Quirinius

The emperor Augustus had given orders for a general enrollment throughout the empire (the fact of periodical enrollments in the empire is well established by Professor W.M. Ramsay in his Was Christ Born at Bethlehem?), and this is stated to have been given effect to in Judea when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Lu 2:1,2). The difficulties connected with the enrollment or census here mentioned are discussed in the article QUIRINIUS. It is known that Quirinius did conduct a census in Judea in 6 AD (compare Ac 5:37), but the census at Christ’s birth is distinguished from this by Luke as "the first enrollment." The difficulty was largely removed when it was ascertained, as it has been to the satisfaction of most scholars, that Quirinius was twice governor of Syria--first, after Herod’s death, 4-1 BC, and again in 6-11 AD. The probability is that the census was begun under Varus, the immediate predecessor of Quirinius--or even earlier under Saturninus--but was delayed in its application to Judea, then under Herod’s jurisdiction, and was completed by Quirinius, with whose name it is officially connected. That the enrollment was made by each one going to his own city (verse 3) is explained by the fact that the census was not made according to the Roman method, but, as befitted a dependent kingdom, in accordance with Jewish usages (compare Ramsay).

(2) Jesus Born

It must be left undecided whether the journey of Mary to Bethlehem with Joseph was required for any purpose of registration, or sprang simply from her unwillingness to be separated from Joseph in so trying a situation. To Bethlehem, in any case, possibly by Divine monition, she came, and there, in the ancestral city of David, in circumstances the lowliest conceivable, brought forth her marvelous child. In unadorned language--very different from the embellishments of apocryphal story--Luke narrates how, when the travelers arrived, no room was found for them in the "inn"--the ordinary eastern khan or caravanserai, a square enclosure, with an open court for cattle, and a raised recess round the walls for shelter of visitors--and how, when her babe was born, Mary wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger. The wearied pair having, according to Luke, been crowded out of, and not merely within, the inn, there is every probability that the birth took place, not, as some suppose, in the courtyard of the inn, but, as the oldest tradition asserts (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 78), in a cave in the neighborhood, used for similar purposes of lodgment and housing of cattle. High authorities look favorably on the "cave of the nativity" still shown, with its inscription, Hic de virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est, as marking the sacred spot. In such incredibly mean surroundings was "the only begotten of the Father" ushered into the world He came to redeem. How true the apostle’s word that He "emptied" Himself (Php 2:7)! A problem lies in the very circumstances of the entrance into time of such a One, which only the thought of a voluntary humiliation for saving ends can solve.

The Incidents of the Infancy

(Luke 2:8-39; Matthew 2:1-12)

Born, however, though Jesus was, in a low condition, the Father did not leave Him totally without witness to His Sonship. There were rifts in the clouds through which cidents of the hidden glory streamed. The scenes in the narratives of the Infancy exhibit a strange commingling of the glorious and the lowly.

(1) The Visit of the Shepherds

To shepherds watching their flocks by night in the fields near Bethlehem the first disclosure was made. The season, one would infer, could hardly have been winter, though it is stated that there is frequently an interval of dry weather in Judea between the middle of December and the middle of February, when such a keeping of flocks would be possible (Andrews). The angel world is not far removed from us, and as angels preannounced the birth of Christ, so, when He actually came into the world (compare Heb 1:6), angels of God made the night vocal with their songs. First, an angel appearing in the midst of the Divine glory--the "Shekinah"--announced to the sorely alarmed shepherds the birth of a "Saviour who was Christ the Lord" at Bethlehem; then a whole chorus of the heavenly host broke in with the refrain, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men in whom He is well pleased" (literally, "men of good pleasure")--since, the Christmas hymn of the generations (Lu 2:1-14). The shepherds, guided as to how to recognize the babe (Lu 2:12), went at once, and found it to be ever, as they had been told. Thence they hastened to spread abroad the tidings--the first believers, the first worshippers, the first preachers (Lu 2:15-20). Mary cherished the sayings in the stillness of her heart.

(2) The Circumcision and Presentation in the Temple

(3) Visit of the Magi

Flight to Egypt and Return to Nazareth

(Matthew 2:13-15,19-23)

Questions and Objections

The objections to the credibility of the narratives of the Virgin Birth have already partly been adverted to. (See further the articles on MARY; VIRGIN BIRTH; and the writer’s volume, The Virgin Birth of Christ.)

(1) The Virgin Birth

The narratives in Matthew and Luke are attested by all manuscripts and versions genuine parts of their respective Gospels, and as coming to us in their integrity. The narrative of Luke is generally recognized as resting on an Aramaic basis, which, from its diction and the primitive character of its conceptions, belongs to the earliest age. While in Luke’s narrative everything is presented from the standpoint of Mary, in Matthew it is Joseph who is in the forefront, suggesting that the virgin mother is the source of information in the one case, and Joseph himself in the other. The narratives are complementary, not contradictory. That Mark and John do not contain narratives of the Virgin Birth cannot be wondered at, when it is remembered that Mark’s Gospel begins of purpose with the Baptism of John, and that the Fourth Gospel aims at setting forth the Divine descent, not the circumstances of the earthly nativity. "The Word became flesh" (Joh 1:14)--everything is already implied in that. Neither can it be objected to that Paul does not in his letters or public preaching base upon so essentially private a fact as the miraculous conception--at a time, too, when Mary probably still lived. With the exception of the narrowest sect of the Jewish Ebionites and some of the Gnostic sects, the Virgin Birth was universally accepted in the early church.

(2) The Genealogies

(Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-28)

Difficulty is felt with the genealogies in Matthew and Luke (one descending, the other ascending), which, while both professing to trace the descent of Jesus from David and Abraham (Luke from Adam), yet go entirely apart in the pedigree after David. See on this the article GENEALOGY OF JESUS CHRIST. A favorite view is that Matthew exhibits the legal, Luke the natural descent of Jesus. There is plausibility in the supposition that though, in form, a genealogy of Joseph, Luke’s is really the genealogy of Mary. It was not customary, it is true, to make out pedigrees of females, but the case here was clearly exceptional, and the passing of Joseph into the family of his father-in-law Heli would enable the list to be made out in his name. Celsus, in the 2nd century, appears thus to have understood it when he derides the notion that through so lowly a woman as the carpenter’s wife, Jesus should trace His lineage up to the first man (Origen, Contra Celsus, ii.32; Origen’s reply proceeds on the same assumption. Compare article on" Genealogies" in Kitto, II).

The Years of Silence — the Twelfth Year

The Human Development

(Luke 2:40,52)

With the exception of one fragment of incident--that of the visit to Jerusalem and the Temple in His 12th year--the Canonical Gospels are silent as to the history of Jesus from the return to Nazareth till His baptism by John. This long period, which the Apocryphal Gospels crowd with silly fables (see Apocryphal Gospels), the inspired records leave to be regarded as being what it was--a period of quiet development of mind and body, of outward uneventfulness, of silent garnering of experience in the midst of the Nazareth surroundings. Jesus "grew, and waxed strong, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon him .... advanced in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Lu 2:40,52). The incarnation was a true acceptance of humanity, with all its sinless limitations of growth and development. Not a hint is offered of that omniscience or omnipotence which theology has not infrequently imputed to Jesus even as child and boy. His schooling was probably that of the ordinary village child (He could read, Lu 4:17 ff, and write, Joh 8:6-8); He wrought at the carpenter’s bench (compare Mr 6:3; Justin Martyr, following tradition, speaks of Him as making "plows and yokes," Dial., 88). His gentleness and grace of character endeared Him to all who knew Him (Lu 2:52). No stain of sin clouded His vision of Divine things. His after-history shows that His mind was nourished on the Scriptures; nor, as He pondered psalms and prophets, could His soul remain unvisited by presentiments, growing to convictions, that He was the One in whom their predictions were destined to be realized.

Jesus in the Temple

(Luke 2:41-50)

Every year, as was the custom of the Jews, Joseph and Mary went, with their friends and neighbors, in companies, to Jerusalem to the Passover. When Jesus was 12 years old, it would seem that, for the first time, He was permitted to accompany them. It would be to Him a strange and thrilling experience. Everything He saw--the hallowed sites, the motley crowd, the service of the temple, the very shocks His moral consciousness would receive from contact with abounding scandals--would intensify His feeling of His own unique relation to the Father. Every relationship was for the time suspended and merged to His thought in this higher one. It was His Father’s city whose streets He trod; His Father’s house He visited for prayer; His Father’s ordinance the crowds were assembled to observe; His Father’s name, too, they were dishonoring by their formalism and hypocrisy. It is this exalted mood of the boy Jesus which explains the scene that follows--the only one rescued from oblivion in this interval of growth and preparation. When the time came for the busy caravan to return to Nazareth, Jesus, acting, doubtless, from highest impulse, "tarried behind" (verse 43). In the large company His absence was not at first missed, but when, at the evening halting-place, it became known that He was not with them, His mother and Joseph returned in deep distress to Jerusalem. Three days elapsed before they found Him in the place where naturally they should have looked first--His Father’s house. There, in one of the halls or chambers where the rabbis were wont to teach, they discovered Him seated "in the midst," at the feet of the men of learning, hearing them discourse, asking questions, as pupils were permitted to do, and giving answers which awakened astonishment by their penetration and wisdom (Lu 2:46,47). Those who heard Him may well have thought that before them was one of the great rabbis of the future! Mary, much surprised, asked in remonstrance, "Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us?" evoking from Jesus the memorable reply, "How is it that ye sought me? knew ye not that I must be in my Father’s house?" or "about my Father’s business?" the King James Version (Lu 2:48,49). Here was the revelation of a selfconsciousness that Mary might have been prepared for in Jesus, but perhaps, in the common intercourse of life, was tending to lose sight of. The lesson was not unneeded. Yet, once it had been given, Jesus went back with Joseph and Mary to Nazareth, and "was subject unto them"; and Mary did not forget the teaching of the incident (Lu 2:51).