The birth and early life of Jesus.
We know surprisingly little about Jesus’ childhood, but what we do know gives us an exciting view of God’s plans and purposes.
We can also gather some interesting facts about some of Jesus’ movements by looking at what the Law required of parents, and their babies, ceremonial purification and other customs…
If we want to look at the main, important events before Jesus’ childhood we can see a timeline from 600 B.C. to Jesus’ birth.
1. John the Baptist needed to be born before Jesus to prepare the way.
Before Jesus was born, Mary, Jesus’ mother, had a relative named Elizabeth who was old and barren.
Elizabeth’s husband was Zechariah a priest in Jerusalem and he was chosen by lot as to who would go into the temple to burn incense.
But while he was in there, an angel appeared to him:
…the angel said to him:Luke 1:13-17 NIV
‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.
Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.
He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.
He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.
And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
But Zechariah didn’t believe the angel, so he became dumb until his wife Elizabeth gave birth to their son John.
The first prophesy ends over 400 years of prophetic silence.
John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, started speaking at John’s circumcision, after being mute for nine months:
His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:Luke 1:67-79 NIV
‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.’ “
An angel visits Mary.
In the meantime, Mary who was living in Nazareth, had a visit from an angel too and he said:
‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’Luke 1:26-38 NIV
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God.
You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.
The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants for ever; his kingdom will never end.’
‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’
The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month.
For no word from God will ever fail.’
‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her.
Mary was engaged to Joseph who also had an angel visit him.
2. The birth of Jesus.
The Roman census demanded that the people had to return to their original town, so that meant Joseph had to go to Bethlehem.
But because there were so many people doing the same thing, all the accommodation was full:
He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.Luke 2:5-7 NIV
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”
On the same day that Jesus was born, some shepherds came to see the baby Jesus in the stable.
According to Christian tradition, Jesus was born in a cave that served as a stable for the inn at Bethlehem. This site is marked today by the Church of the Nativity. 2
But Migdal-Eder, ‘the Tower of the Flock’, just outside Bethlehem, is an exciting new line of thought – see this article on Migdal-Eder, ‘the Tower of the Flock’.
An angel of the Lord appeared to them (the shepherds), and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.Luke 2:9-12 NIV
But the angel said to them,
‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.
Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you;
he is the Messiah, the Lord.
This will be a sign to you:
You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ “
So when was Jesus born?
3. Jesus as a very young baby.
The early life of Jesus at 8 days old.
Jesus was taken to the temple in Jerusalem.
Jesus’ childhood had to follow the Law of the Old Testament, so Joseph had to take him to the temple for his circumcision on the 8th day.
Mary probably went with them, but she could not have entered the temple because her purification from childbirth was not complete.
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.”Luke 2:21 NIV
Joseph then had to bring them back to the house in Bethlehem.
The early life of Jesus at 41 days old
Jesus probably was taken to Jerusalem again because, according to the Law, Mary had to complete her days of purification after giving birth by visiting the temple.
So, after Jesus was circumcised they then had to wait 33 days following the Law:
Say to the Israelites:Leviticus 12:2-4 NIV
‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period.
On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.
Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding.
She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.’ “
So Joseph would have to take them back to the temple in Jerusalem for Mary’s purification and the offering of two doves for Jesus’ consecration:
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord’ ), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons.’ “Luke 2:22-24 NIV
The second prophecy in Jerusalem about Jesus.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout.Luke 2:25-35 NIV
He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts.
When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’
The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother:
‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.
And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ “
The third prophecy in Jerusalem about Jesus.
But while they were still in the temple a lady approached Joseph, Mary and Jesus:
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher.Luke 2:36-38 NIV
She was very old…
She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”
4. Jesus’ early childhood: Joseph finds a house to stay in Bethlehem.
Magi from the east saw certain star movements that indicated that the time had come for a King to be born in Israel, so they travelled to Jerusalem and saw King Herod to ask him about this new King.
The Magi could have visited the baby Jesus from several months after the birth up to the first two years.
When the wise men saw King Herod he had not heard anything and he felt threatened by the story of a new King.
So “Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.” 4
The Magi then left Jerusalem and headed for Bethlehem:
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.Matthew 2:9-12 NIV
When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
On coming to the house**, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.
Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”
Notice it says: “coming to the house**” so Joseph, soon after the birth of Jesus, must have moved his family from the stable to a house.
When the wise men did not return to Herod, he realised that he had been tricked and he was furious.
He instructed his soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem up to the age of two “according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” 5
5. Jesus’ childhood up to two years old.
Shortly after the Magi (wise men) left Bethlehem an angel appeared:
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.”Matthew 2:13 NIV
This verse in Matthew comes directly after the Magi, so does it mean that the angel visited them soon after the birth of Jesus?
I would say not, because Matthew does not include Jesus’ circumcision, Mary’s purification, or Simeon’s and Anna’s prophecies.
Also, Herod killed the boys around Bethlehem up to the age of two years, which gives us quite a long time.
The verses continue with the angel saying:
‘Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.Matthew 2:13-16 NIV
Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.
And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.”
Notice it says; ‘take the child and his mother’ so affirming that Joseph was NOT the father of Jesus.
So Joseph, Mary and Jesus secretly went to Egypt.
6. King Herod died during Jesus’ early childhood.
After King Herod died, the kingdom was split between three of his sons: Antipas, Archelaus and Philip, but the date of King Herod’s death is uncertain.
It can be narrowed down by Josephus, a Roman-Jewish historian and military leader, who put Herod’s death at the time of a lunar eclipse.
There are two possible dates: 6
- In 4 B.C. the eclipse was on the 13th of March. So if Herod died in 4 B.C. then Jesus could have been born in 5-6 B.C.
- 1 B.C. is the traditional date and there were two lunar eclipses in that year, one in January and the other in December.
If Herod died in 1 B.C. Jesus could have been born in 2-4 B.C.
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,Matthew 2:19-23 NIV
‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.’
So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.
Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.
So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.”
7. Jesus’ childhood at 12 years old.
Did Jesus have complete access to God’s wisdom and knowledge?
It would appear not, because as Jesus was growing towards manhood he also increased his wisdom through learning, Luke says, ‘And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.‘ 7
And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.Luke 2:40-42 NIV
Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover.
When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom.”
But Jesus stayed behind at the temple and spent the time discussing the things of God.
When Joseph and Mary finally found him, he answered them:
‘Why were you searching for me?’ he asked.Luke 2:49 NIV
‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ “
It is interesting to note that Luke wrote this account of Jesus when he was twelve years old.
Was there something important about that age?
The Jewish website Chabad discusses the Bar Mitvah ceremony where at 13 years old a boy becomes a man at the time:
This is the youngest age at which someone is referred to as a ‘man’ in the Torah; thus, we derive that the Torah considers a male of 13 years to be a man.”‘Why Are Bar and Bat Mitzvah at 13 and 12? By Yehuda Shurpin. Chabad. 8
(The Bat Mitvah is for girls becoming women at the age of twelve).
We do not know if the Bar Mitvah age was at thirteen during the time of Jesus’ childhood, but we can surmise that this was probably Jesus final year as a child.
Which is why Luke says about this trip to the temple that Jesus ‘went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.’ 9
Jesus was submissive to Joseph and Mary because he was still a child.
8. When Jesus was about 30 John the Baptist prepared the way.
Why is thirty years old used as Jesus’ age to start his public ministry?
Luke tells us that ‘Jesus when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age…’ 10
Why use the word ‘about’ which makes it sound vague?
The word ‘about**’ is used in other situations in the New Testament, for example at Jesus’ baptism John ‘saw the Spirit of God descending like** a dove and coming to rest on him’. 11
Another example of the word is when Jesus saw the crowds and saw that ‘they were harassed and helpless like** sheep without a shepherd.’ 12
So it could be said that Jesus’ age was like being thirty, which is not so vague.
Also the Old Testament gives thirty as the age to start important ministry:
All those who were listed of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron and the chiefs of Israel listed, by their clans and their fathers’ houses, from thirty years old up to fifty years old, everyone who could come to do the service of ministry and the service of bearing burdens in the tent of meeting…”Numbers 4:46-47 ESV
So Jesus, following the Law, started his important public ministry probably at thirty years old.
This is how it was started:
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying,Matthew 3:1-3 NIV
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ‘ “
This is what the disciple John wrote about Jesus relating to John the Baptist:
There was a man sent from God whose name was John.John 1:6-13 NIV
He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.
He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
References and credits – open in new tabs:
Knight, G. W. (2001). A simplified harmony of the Gospels (p. 18). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers. ↩
Matthew 2:7 ESV ↩
Matthew 2:16 ESV ↩
Luke 2:52 ESV ↩
Luke 2:51 ESV ↩
Luke 3:23 ESV ↩
Matthew 3:16 ESV ↩
Mathew 9:36 ESV ↩