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The Nativity (with a capital-letter "N") is the account of Jesus's birth and childhood. (The English-language word "nativity" comes from the Latin nativitas, meaning "birth".)

The story which has evolved into the current Christian popular tradition does not appear in the Bible — it was cobbled together by Francis of Assisi (subsequently Saint Francis) in 1223 in order to teach about Christ.

Of the four canonical gospels only the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Luke cover Jesus's early years; the others start with Jesus aged about 30 getting baptised and beginning his ministry. The Nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke bear almost no relation to each other. They both mention Jesus's parents, his birth in Bethlehem, and his family's subsequent relocation to Nazareth. Everything else differs.

To add to the fun, there are a variety of other apocryphal gospels which also offer stories about Jesus's youth (though Francis of Assisi didn't have those in hand, hence the absence of dragons).

The canonical gospels[edit]

Matthew and Luke offer different Nativity stories. Both Mark and John start with the beginning of Jesus's ministry as an adult, but both, too, contain no childhood tales.


See the main article on this topic: Gospel of Matthew

This is a fairly no-nonsense narrative aside from the Massacre of the InnocentsWikipedia, which is historically dubious. You'd think it was the sort of thing other people would have mentioned, but none of the many historians of the period bothered to mention the ruler of Judea deciding to kill all the babies.

  • It starts in Bethlehem which seems to have been Mary and Joseph's home with Jesus's birth
  • Visited by Magi (wise men)
  • The holy family flee to Egypt to avoid massacre by Herod
  • After Herod's death they go up north to Nazareth


See the main article on this topic: Gospel of Luke

This makes up a whole load of stuff about a census, which is incredibly improbable: firstly, there's no evidence of such a census, and second, why would you make people go to their ancestral homes to be counted, when they might have left there generations before?

  • Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem due to census
  • Jesus is born in Bethlehem
  • Visited by shepherds
  • Presented at temple in Jerusalem
  • Return to Nazareth and visits to Jerusalem each year for Passover (as was common at that time)
  • Aged 12, his parents find Jesus in the Temple discussing theology with priests


Both gospels face a central problem in the structure of the narrative: prophecy suggests that a descendant of King David will be born in Bethlehem and will become the Messiah.[1] But somehow that has to tally with young Jesus the Nazarene[2] growing up in Nazareth. Even before Jesus was born you get the genealogy of Jesus, which is different and contradictory in each gospel account. Luke goes to elaborate lengths to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, while Matthew, who was generally more laid-back and less fussy about historical detail, just puts them there. Finally, the holy family have to get to Nazareth; Matthew invented the Massacre of the Innocents, which certainly provided some colorful material for painters,[3] but the massacre seems historically unlikely. Luke simply had the family going home after the nonsense-census.

Other gospels[edit]

There are other stories of Jesus's early childhood in non-canonical gospels, the Infancy Gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Other later texts draw heavily on these sources and the New Testament canon to construct longer and more detailed tales of Jesus's infancy. Often the focus is really on the Virgin Mary.

Infancy Gospel of James[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Infancy Gospel of James

Otherwise known as the Protevangelium of James or Gospel of James, this is basically a biography of Mary. Jesus doesn't really do anything other than emerge in a flash of light.


  • Birth of Mary to Anna and Joachim
  • Following a devout childhood in the Temple she is given to the care of Joseph
  • Census as in Luke: off to Bethlehem
  • Virgin birth
  • Magi, as in Matthew
  • Massacre of the Innocents, as in Matthew

Infancy Gospel of Thomas[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Infancy Gospel of Thomas

This contains various stories of Jesus as a boy. He gets into trouble by making clay birds and playing with water. He kills and blinds some people, but restores them to life, and cures others injured by falls and snakebite. A number of schoolteachers try to teach him to read and write but instead he says clever things and gets the better of his schoolmasters.

It also includes the flight to Egypt from Matthew, and some versions of the text include the 12-year old Jesus going missing in the Temple from Luke.

Syriac Infancy Gospel[edit]

Probably dating from the 6th century CE, although it only became widely known in Europe thanks to Henry Sike in 1697, it recycles material from the Infancy Gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It includes an expanded version of the flight to Egypt with lots of miracles and fun. Jesus has a magic diaper, and there is an early meeting with Judas Iscariot, much as Superman in Smallville encounters the youthful Lex Luthor.[5]

Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew[edit]

A text focusing on the life of the Virgin Mary, this was probably written in the 7th century CE. It is otherwise known as Infancy Gospel of Matthew or The Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior.[6]

It draws on the Infancy Gospel of James, stories of the flight to Egypt, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

This includes a story of the young Jesus calling dragons from a cave.

History of Joseph the Carpenter[edit]

Apparently written in Byzantine Egypt in the 6th or 7th century CE, this is structured as Jesus telling the life story of Joseph, with particular attention paid to his death. There are repeated references to Mary's virginity throughout.[7] It seems to be constructed from a mix of Matthew, Luke, and James.

This is the story Jesus tells. Joe was a priest and carpenter who had 4 sons and 2 daughters: Judas, Justus, James, Simon, Assia, and Lydia. When Joseph was widowed, Mary was 12. The priests gave her to his care, telling Joe to look after Mary till she was old enough to be married. When Mary was 14, she was knocked up, and Joseph did a bit of soul-searching. You then get the census as in Luke, and Jesus born in Bethlehem. The Holy Family fled to Egypt while Herod killed all the babies.[8]

A detailed chronology of Joseph's life is provided:

  • 40 years unmarried
  • 49 with his wife
  • 1 year widowed
  • Jesus born in the 3rd year with Mary

Joseph lived to be 111, so presumably Jesus was 18 when he died. Joseph never stopped working his whole life, while Justus and Simon got married. Jesus explains that he viewed Joseph as his father and always did what he was told.

It devotes a lot of time to Joseph's death, from the announcement by angels, to his illness and everybody's wailing. When it happened, angels carried his soul to Heaven, and his body did not decay. Jesus cried and lamented death, and it ends with a prophecy about the Apocalypse.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. Compare Micah 5:1 - "But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting."
  2. Matthew 2:23 - "And he [Joseph] came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene."
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Massacre of the Innocents (Rubens).
  4. Infancy Gospel of James, trans Roberts-Donaldson,
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Syriac Infancy Gospel.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on History of Joseph the Carpenter.
  8. 8.0 8.1 History of Joseph the Carpenter, Translated by Alexander Walker. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.