Advent to Candlemas: The History of the Gospel Narratives of the Incarnation, Nativity and Epiphany.

Have put up your Christmas tree yet? For many people, especially in Britain, the beginning of Advent, or even earlier, is the time to put up the Christmas decorations. In Central Europe and in parts of the USA, it is more traditional to wait until Christmas Eve, 24th December. The ‘Twelfth Night’ of Christmas, the Eve of Epiphany, is the traditional time to remove the decorations, but these are perhaps seen more as Nordic pagan customs of ‘bringing in the evergreens’ rather than traditions that have their origins in the Christian faith.

From ‘The History of Christianity’, A Lion Handbook, 1977.

The ‘Christmas Season’:

Traditionally, the ‘Christmas Season’ in the Church year occupies two months of it, from Advent Sunday and St Nicholas’ Day on 6th December to Candlemas at the beginning of February. Within that season, Christmas, the festival supposedly celebrating the birthday of Christ, always falls or begins on 25th December in the ‘western’ Christian calendar, a date which was not agreed until some time in the third century A.D. Before that, various dates had been used, but since it had not been possible to determine the date precisely, the Roman Catholic Church decided to accept a date close to the time of year when former pagan festivals had occurred. They overlaid these with the Christian stories of the birth of Jesus, thereby helping converts to move away from their former beliefs with less difficulty; men and women have always needed a holiday in mid-winter when the countryman’s working day was at its shortest. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia with fire, food and light, followed by the New Year celebration of the ‘Kalends’, with a day identified with the 25th, which we can now identify with the ‘Birthday on the Unconquered Sun’, Dies Natalis Invicti Solis. The festival included good food and wine, singing and charades, while homes were decorated with coloured lamps and evergreens. When the pagan symbols eventually disappeared, the Unconquered Sun was the last to go and is still present in the calendar as ‘Sunday’, the first day of the week, instigated by Constantine in 321. He identified the sun with the Christian God, encouraging the tendency of Christian writers and artists to use sun imagery in portraying Christ. For Roman Christians, Christ was the source of light and salvation, and a ceiling mosaic from an early fourth-century tomb found under St Peter’s in Rome even shows him as the sun god mounting the heavens in his chariot.

Christ as the sun-god: the early fourth-century Roman mosaic ceiling under St Peter’s in Rome.

Saturnalia, the Roman winter festival of December, provided the merriment, gift-giving and candles typical of later Christmas holidays. Sun worship hung on in Roman Christianity and Pope Leo I, in the middle of the fifth century, rebuked worshippers who turned round to bow to the sun before entering St Paul’s basilica. Some pagan customs which were later Christianised, for example, the use of candles, incense and garlands, were at first avoided by the church because of their origins. The Norsemen and the Druids also held celebrations on the shortest day of the year, near to the 25th, when they feasted and lit fires to celebrate ‘Yule’ and ‘Nolagh’ (‘Nadolig’ in Welsh) respectively in a similar fashion. The twelve days and nights of Christmas in the Church’s calendar are followed by ‘Epiphany’, meaning the ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’, celebrated on 6th January, marking for the Christian the showing of Christ to the people other than the Jews. Traditionally, this was the presentation of the Christ-child to the ‘Magi’ or ‘wise men’ who came to worship him by presenting their three significant gifts, as described in Matthew’s Gospel.

The Wise Men from the East, by a late fifteenth-century French artist.

Epiphany continues throughout January and is followed by Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, is a Christian Holy Day commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. It is based upon the account of the presentation of Jesus in Luke 2: 22-40. It is also known in the Roman Catholic Church as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In accordance with Leviticus 12, a woman was to be ‘purified’ by presenting a lamb as a burnt offering, and either a young pigeon or dove as a sin offering, thirty-three days after a boy’s circumcision. It falls on February 2, which is traditionally the fortieth day of and the conclusion of the Christmas-Epiphany season. The Feast of the Presentation is one of the oldest feasts of the Christian church, celebrated since the 4th century AD in Jerusalem. There are sermons on the Feast by a succession of fourth-century bishops and it is also mentioned in the Pilgrimage of Egeria (381-384), in which she confirmed that the celebrations took place in honour of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. While it is customary for Christians in some countries to remove their Christmas decorations on Twelfth Night (Epiphany Eve), those in other Christian countries historically remove them at Candlemas. Many Christians of various denominations also bring their candles to their local church, where they are blessed and then used for the rest of the year; these blessed candles serve as symbols of Jesus Christ, who referred to Himself as the Light of the World.

The Historical Jesus & the Gospels:

The date of Jesus’ birth was reckoned to have been 753 years after the foundation of the City of Rome. However, the birth was also recorded as preceding the death of Herod the Great, which was in the year 750 after Rome’s foundation at the latest. Therefore, Jesus’ birth is usually put at between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C. The actual birthday of Jesus is also unknown. In the early centuries of Christianity, the birth and baptism of Jesus were celebrated in the eastern part of the Roman Empire on 6th January, as they still are in the Orthodox churches today. It was only at the beginning of the fourth century that the western Roman Church combined the commemoration of the birth of Christ with the winter solstice and the Roman festival of the unconquered sun. The birth must have taken place around 4 B.C. if his birth took place during the lifetime of Herod the Great as Matthew 2: 1 asserts, and by most reckonings, his crucifixion took place in the early 30s A.D. The Gospels in the New Testament constitute almost all our evidence for him, though he is mentioned, as ‘Christus’, by the Roman historian Tacitus. The literature of the early Christian movement was written against the backdrop of persecution and constituted the writings of a small, oppressed group that nevertheless thought of itself as destined to triumph in God’s good time. The assertion that in Jesus something profoundly new had happened, which broke the bonds of existing Scripture, was fundamental to early Christian writers, and it meant that the two Testaments could not simply be seen as continuous with each other.

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From John Barton (2019), A History of the Bible.
From ‘The History of Christianity’, A Lion Handbook, 1977.

Mark’s Gospel, now almost universally agreed to be the earliest of the four, as it is the shortest of the synoptic gospels, lacks any nativity story at the beginning; while Matthew and Luke each have one, but they are incompatible with each other in factual terms. Popular expressions of Christianity such as carol services and nativity plays mix them up so that the baby Jesus is adored both by shepherds (only in Luke 2: 8-30) and by wise men from the East (only in Matthew 2: 1-12). The nativity story in Luke’s gospel is a joyous one, whether read in the Authorised Version with phrases like and there were shepherds abiding in the fields or more modern (and perhaps more accurate) translations which prefer to refer to the countryside nearby where there were shepherds who lived in the fields. Either way, it’s unlikely that they were actually out in the fields with their sheep in mid-winter, another reason why the birth date of Jesus has been called into question.

From ‘The History of Christianity’, A Lion Handbook, 1977.

The narratives of Jesus’ nativity, with which Matthew and Luke began their accounts of him, are set out as great prefaces to his life story, which tells of the convictions that his first friends held about him. As we now have them, they are a mixture of history, metaphor and poetry. We really know little that is historical about Jesus’ birth and early life. Luke mentions his boyhood but gives us only one story – the story of his first visit to Jerusalem as an adolescent. The first recorded stories about the life of Jesus of Nazareth were probably those written by the Jewish-Roman historian, Josephus, who lived from A.D. 37 to approximately 100. We do know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, probably in late winter or early spring, during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Herod, son of Antipater, was King of Judea. A very shrewd statesman in his younger days, but now in failing health, he avoided difficult situations and decisions, trying to please his Roman overlords. We can therefore understand his dismay on learning that a rival ‘King of the Jews’ had been born, and not one at all related to his own family.

From ‘The History of Christianity’, A Lion Handbook, 1977.

The Mystery of the Incarnation:

The most important attempt to explain the meaning of the ‘incarnation’ mystery is the poem which opens the latest-written account of Jesus in the New Testament, The Gospel of John (1: 1-18). It is read as a lesson in the annual carol service on Christmas Eve at Trinity College, Cambridge. A well-known Greek word, logos, meaning ‘word’ or ‘reason’ or ‘wisdom’. The poem begins with words that echo the opening words of the book of Genesis:

At the beginning of all things –

the Word,

God and the Word,

God himself.

All things became what they are

through the Word;

without the Word

nothing ever became anything.

It was the Word

that made everything alive;

and it was this ‘being alive’

that has been the Light by which

men have found their way.

The Light is shining in the Darkness;

The Darkness has never put it out. …

From the richness of his life,

all of us have received endless kindness:

God showed us what his service meant through Moses;

he made his love real to us through Jesus.

Nobody has ever seen God himself;

the beloved son,

who knows his Father’s secret thoughts,

has made him plain.

While the key title, the ‘Logos’ does not recur outside the prologue, the predicates of the Logos in it – life, light, flesh, glory, only-begotten (Son) – provide principal terms for the portrayal of Jesus in the rest of the Gospel. The two divisions of the Gospel, at ch’s 2-12 and ch’s 13-17, may be said to be explications of two statements in the prologue, He came to his own home, and his own people received him not and But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God (1: 11-12). In this way, the prologue has to be seen as an ‘overture’, which in ‘pregnant’ language places the works and words of Jesus in their widest cosmic setting as the revelation in action of the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, between God and the creative Word. The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) produced a ‘harmonised’ version of the Gospels which emphasised this in his version of verses 13-14:

Those who believed that life lies in the understanding became no longer sons of the flesh, but sons of understanding.

And the understanding of life, in the person of Jesus Christ, manifested itself in the flesh, and we understood his meaning to be that son of understanding, man in the flesh, of one nature with the Father the source of life, is such as the Father, the source of life.”

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From ‘The History of Christianity’, A Lion Handbook, 1977.

Tolstoy’s summary of the nativity stories in the Gospel of Matthew (1: 18-25) is, by contrast, brief and to the point:

The birth of Jesus Christ was thus:

His mother Mary was engaged to Joseph. But before they began to live as man and wife it appeared that Mary was pregnant. Joseph however was a good man and did not wish to shame her: he took her as his wife and had no relations with her till she had given birth to her first son and had named him Jesus.”

Above: The Annunciation, a painting by the medieval artist Duccio, from ‘The History of Christianity’, A Lion Handbook, 1977. In depicting the annunciation, Medieval artists would usually try to capture the whole mystery of mortal flesh being hailed by God’s splendour. He would depict the Virgin (our flesh) crowned with gold, sitting under gilded arches, being approached by a shining winged creature. This was the visual expression of a theological concept of the three-decker universe which was widespread throughout the early Middle Ages. In the later centuries, however, artists like Duccio wanted to suggest the apparently unfavourable way in which the drama of the gospel was played out on the stage of history. In this case, he shows the Virgin as a very ordinary young woman in ordinary surroundings.

Tolstoy makes no further reference to the nativity stories. He was mainly concerned, in his interpretation of the gospels, to lay emphasis on the teachings of Jesus, which are set out in the discursive form of John’s Gospel. It is perhaps surprising, however, given his radical view of Jesus’ mission and teaching in his 1882 Gospel in Brief: Announcement of Welfare by Jesus Christ the Son of God, that he also omitted Mary’s Song of Praise from Luke’s Gospel (1: 46-56), given during her three-month stay with her cousin Elizabeth in the foothills of Judaea:

He has stretched out his mighty arm,

and scattered the proud with all their plans.

He has brought down mighty

kings from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away with empty hands.

The ‘Synoptic’ Evangelists – Biographers of Jesus?:

Virtually all the material in the first three ‘synoptic’ gospels reached the writers or their sources in the form of short, separate, self-contained stories or pericopes. In reading the Gospels we must always be aware of the different practical aims which controlled the writers’ choice and arrangement of their material. This is why the gospel writers need to be regarded as evangelists, not as chroniclers or historians. Those who were concerned to preserve the ‘pericopes’ in the early church were not interested in purely picturesque, personal detail. What is absent from them must also be absent from the completed Gospels, and that means that the Gospels offered no basis for a ‘Life of Jesus’ in the sense of an accurate, ordered biography, and a tracing of the spiritual pilgrimage which accompanied and controlled the events they described.

1423-39 COD.LAT, 359, György Pálóczi.

Matthew’s Gospel begins with a theological genealogy, tracing the descent of Jesus from the father of the Jewish people, Abraham, in three periods of fourteen generations. The birth stories are written in five episodes, each of them built around the fulfilment of an Old Testament prophecy. It has been suggested that the Gospel was written for reading out loud in ‘church’ and it certainly became the most popular Gospel. The fact that so much of Matthew’s own source material is Jewish in tone and is concerned with Jewish matters, and that the author appeals so much to the Old Testament to prove his point, may well indicate that his own church had lived close to traditional Jewish communities. It may be that his message had been hammered out in the teeth of Jewish opponents who fiercely denied the early Christian claims that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, that his people were the true people of God, and that the Old Testament and the Law when interpreted by Christ, belonged to the Christians as well as to the Jews more widely. The Gospel’s dependence on Mark’s account makes it unlikely that Matthew was an apostle. Its reference to the fall of Jerusalem in 22: 7 suggests that it was written shortly after that event, which took place in A.D. 70, and there is evidence that it was known to Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in the early years of the second century, indicating that it was written in Syria.

From ‘The History of Christianity’, A Lion Handbook, 1977

In Matthew’s Gospel, the impression is given that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem, where they had a house, and that it is only later that they moved to Nazareth. The fourth day of the twelve days which traditionally make up the Christmas festival, ‘Holy Innocents’, results from one of Matthew’s ‘exclusive’ stories, told in Matt. 2: 16 f., that of the fury of Herod the Great upon hearing of the wise men had not returned to his court to report on their search for the child, born in the ‘City of David’. According to the Gospel story, Herod ordered his troops to go into Bethlehem and kill all the boy children of two years and under. Joseph and Mary, warned of this danger in a dream, hurried away across the frontier into the safe refuge of Egypt and only when they felt that the danger had passed did they return to settle in Nazareth. In Matt. 2: 22-23, we are told that it was Joseph’s intention, after their sojourn in Egypt, to return to Judaea, but he was diverted to Galilee.

Illustration depicting ‘the Massacre of the Innocents’ by Jackie Morris for Susan Summers’ (1997), The Greatest Gift: The Story of the Other Wise Man. Bristol: Barefoot Books.

Yet Biblical scholars have had difficulty in reconciling the tyrannical depiction of Herod in this story with the capable ruler described by Josephus and other Roman chroniclers. The story is not recorded anywhere apart from the Gospel of Matthew, but we know that Herod was under severe pressure resulting from his chaotic family situation. He married ten wives and had fourteen children, nine of them male, the struggle for the succession centring at first on the sons born to the first two wives. The rivalry continued throughout Herod’s reign until Antipater, one of these sons, was discovered plotting against his father and half-brothers, Archelaus and Philip. In 5 B.C., he was accused in private before Varus, the governor of Syria, and was condemned and imprisoned. By now Herod was seriously ill, both physically and mentally, suffering from severe mood swings and paranoia. It was at this time that the ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’ is thought to have taken place, at roughly the same time as the dying Herod ordered a massacre of a number of Jewish nobles.

From ‘The History of Christianity’, A Lion Handbook, 1977: ‘The Holy Family’, painted by Titian (1477-1576). This artist painted many biblical subjects, as altarpieces and church decorations. He was renowned for his artistic versatility. Christian art from the early centuries up to the Renaissance tended to paint ‘religious’ subjects like the annunciation or the nativity without celebrating ordinary human life. However, many artists brought the whole of everyday life into service, celebrating plain domestic, community and professional life, especially with the theological and cultural shifts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The Gospel of Luke is constructed to a considerable extent from the same or similar kind of material as Mark and Matthew, but the result is quite different to either of them. This is partly because, unlike them, it is not a complete work in itself, but the first of a two-volume work, Luke-Acts, which was separated from its sequel in order to be brought into the Gospel section of the New Testament. Luke was the only one of the four evangelists to think and plan in this way, or to set out the origin and purpose of his work, as he does when he addresses its initial recipient, Theophilus in a preface (1: 1-4) written in the conventional literary language. As generally translated, 1: 4 gives the impression that Luke is writing to give Theophilus further instruction in his Christian faith. However, the NEB translation so as to give you authentic knowledge about the matters of which you have been informed could be taken to mean that Theophilus was not (or not yet) a Christian at the time of his initial reading of the text and that the whole two-volume work was being written to give an account of the origins of Christianity so as to commend it to the whole Greek-speaking Mediterranean world, and to defend the new faith against the charge of being treasonable to the state, a theme which is most apparent in Luke’s account of the Passion and in the second part of Acts. In any case, the style of the preface shows that Luke thought of himself as a literary person, perhaps even a Greek historian. In subsequent tradition, Luke was taken to be ‘the beloved physician’ of Colossians 4: 14; but even if this is true, he would have been anything like an eyewitness of the events he recorded. In his preface, Luke himself acknowledged this by pointing out how he had consulted widely to find out the truth about Jesus:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you … so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

COD.LAT 113. An illustration from the opening page of Luke’s Gospel, circa 1511-16. Tiny, fascinating scenes decorated the borders of devotional books and, in cathedrals and churches, wooden carvings of craftsmen at work.

This implies not only that he belonged to a later generation than the apostles themselves, but also that by his day a number of different written accounts were already circulating. Luke stated clearly that he intended to write ‘in an orderly manner’ (1: 3), by which he seems to imply that many of the earlier testimonies were not recorded in an orderly fashion and that, in his account, he intended the treatment of one subject at a time, with smoother transitions from one section to another, making the whole more intelligible. He wrote vividly in more than one Greek style, including that of the Greek Old Testament. This versatility, in addition to his authentic stories, written in a highly graphic character and vivid style, gives his Gospel as a whole a special appeal. In this context, the birth stories are quite different from Matthew’s. They trace the parallel births of John and Jesus; they are not written around Old Testament texts as the fulfilment of past prophecies, but in Old Testament style and to revive the prophecies themselves (the Canticles 1: 14-17, 32-34, 46-55, 68-79; 2: 29-35). There are some threads that run through the two volumes of Luke’s work and therefore affect the choice of material for the first volume and the way in which it is presented. One is the theme of the Spirit, through whose agency Jesus is conceived, which he receives at his baptism and which controls him in his temptations. The same Spirit is his gift from the Father to the disciples (24: 49; Acts 1: 8) and directs the church throughout Acts. According to tradition, Luke was Paul’s travelling companion. Among the ‘we’ mentioned in the Acts was Luke the physician, referred to in Col. 4: 14; Philemon 23 f.; II Tim. 4: 9-12. The Gospel was written, like Matthew’s Gospel, at some point after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, reflected in 21: 20, but we have few clues as to where.

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An illustration by Trevor Stubley for Alan T Dale’s (1979) Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: OUP. ‘It was quiet among the hills in the small hamlet of Nazareth where Jesus grew up … Nazareth itself, high in a bowl of the hills and off the great roads, gave a boy time to stand and stare…’

In contrast to Matthew’s nativity story, Luke has Mary and Joseph beginning married life in Nazareth, from where they travel to Bethlehem for the Roman census (Lk. 2: 4-5). There is no reference to the exile in Egypt in Luke, the assumption being that the family return to Nazareth directly after the birth and the census. But Luke’s Gospel may itself have gone through more than one revision. Luke 3: 1-2 reads very much as though it was originally the beginning of the Gospel:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, … during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Wise Men or Shepherds?

Like Mark, this would then have been a Gospel opening with the work of John the Baptist and with nothing about the birth and childhood of Jesus. The birth narratives and stories of Jesus’ and John’s childhood in chapters 1-2 would then be a later addition. This may explain why, if (as many scholars now think) Luke drew directly on Matthew, his nativity stories show no points of contact with Matthew’s infancy narratives, and they are written in a quite distinct style, mimicking that of the Greek translation of the Old Testament. On this basis, some have concluded that there was a ‘proto-Luke’ that contained some stories not now in the Gospel but also omitted the birth stories, which were then added by a later revision, possibly made by a different editor or author. As Luke’s birth narratives are not referred to anywhere else in the New Testament, there is no way of knowing where or when this reviser might have worked. This critical approach has stressed that editors, or ‘redactors’ as they are often called, did not simply collect or transcribe material from the past, but actively shaped and rewrote it in the interests of their own guiding ideas. As John Barton has concluded, once we look at the Gospels in this way, we can see them as looking more like ancient biographies rather than simply assemblages of older material. For example, Luke highlights certain themes, such as Jesus’ interest in the poor and outcast and his concern for women. In the infancy narratives, it is not exotic wise men, as in Matthew 2: 1-12, but poor shepherds who are the first outside Jesus’ family to learn of his birth (Lk. 2: 8-20). Yet most Christians would not omit one in favour of the other in the Christmas stories, any more than they would omit either the shepherds or the wise men from the crib scene in their church. In the same way, Francis Watson has argued, Christians must be willing to embrace all four gospels in their canon of Jesus stories:

Faced with this dissonant plurality, there are just two possibilities: either to select one of the gospels as a historically reliable guide and to disregard the others or to accept that the truth of the four is not to be found at the literal-historical level. … Thus the fourfold gospel marks the end of all attempts to reconstruct the life of the historical Jesus.

Christmas may be a distinct mid-winter festival for many Christians and peoples of other faiths and none, but – in Biblical terms at least – it needs to be observed in the context of the entire season from Advent to Epiphany and on to Candlemas. Only when we arrived at Candlemas and heard from old Simeon (Lk. 2: 22-35) do we get the complete affirmation before God in the Temple of Jesus as both a light to reveal your will to the Gentiles and to bring glory to your people Israel. He told Mary that her child was chosen by God for the destruction and the salvation of many. Luke gives us yet another declaration of God breaking into human history through his Messiah. Half a century ago, the editor of The Christian Century wrote that the Incarnation broke the wall between time and eternity, temple and market, church and shop, sacred and secular. It allows no division of the Gospel into personal and social, permitting no escape for public injustice from the Gospel’s judgment. The God who assumed human flesh sought the redemption of the whole man in all his circumstances and conditions. In forgetting this, the Church ceases to be the Church of the Incarnated Christ.


John Barton (2019), A History of the Bible: The Book and its Faiths. London: Penguin (Random House).

John H. Y. Briggs, Robert D. Linder, David F. Wright (eds.) (1977), The History of Christianity: A Lion Handbook. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

Robert C Walton (ed.) (1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM.

Alan T Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. London: Oxford University Press.

Victor J Green (1983), Festivals and Saints Days: A Calendar of Festivals for the School and Home. Poole: Blandford Press.

Leo Tolstoy (1888; transl. Aylmer Maude, 1921), A Confession, The Gospel in Brief and What I believe. London: Oxford University Press.

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