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The Birth of Jesus: Two Gospel Narratives

Births and Namings

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The second pair of parallel scenes in Luke’s narrative depicts the births and namings of the Baptizer and Jesus. The sign given to Zechariah that he would be unable to speak until John’s birth comes to pass. With the child’s birth, Zechariah breaks into the second canticle,  the Benedictus. Although Zechariah proclaims this song of praise to God at the birth of his son, John, his words are almost entirely about Jesus. The exception is Lk 2:76-77, which subordinates John to Jesus as the one “to prepare his ways.” The puzzling fact that this song about Jesus is expressed in the past tense (even though Jesus’ birth has not yet been narrated) can be understood by thinking of its authors as Jews in the earliest church. They saw their post-resurrectional faith in Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s scriptural promises to Israel.

In the Benedictus, Zechariah first speaks about Jesus in Davidic terms as the one who rescues Israel from the Gentile nations. Then he refers to Jesus in Abrahamic terms as the one who brings the blessing of peace to the nations. The Benedictus, therefore, expresses both an early Jewish christology and Luke’s belief that Jesus is the bringer of peace between Israel and the Gentile nations. As the narration proceeds to the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem is described as “the city of David,” even though elsewhere in the Bible that title is used only of Jerusalem. Luke is likely drawing upon Micah chapter 5, which looks for the birth of a shepherd-king like David. Luke twice refers to “swaddling cloths,” the placing of the child in a manger four times, and portrays shepherds as first to learn of the birth. Luke’s Jesus is clearly to be found among Israel’s lowly.

The sign of the child found in the “manger” relates to Isaiah 1:3: “An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand.” Luke here introduces one of the recurrent themes of his Gospel. He asks if Israel will understand the manger of the Lord now present. He wonders if Israel will see that Jesus is the realization of God’s biblical promises. It is very noteworthy that the angels’ proclamation of Jesus’ birth are actually paraphrases of monumental tributes to the birthday of Augustus Caesar, the bringer of the Roman Peace: Luke is subtly indicating that the true bringer of peace to the world is not the emperor. It is the baby in the manger. Mary keeps these things in her heart. Once again, she is seen to be a disciple who, as will be mentioned later in the Gospel, “embraces the word with a generous and good heart.” Luke ends the birth scene by noting Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day. This reiterates his emphasis that Jesus and his family are Torah-observant, pious Jews and that the church is in continuity with the people and traditions of Israel.