The circumstances surrounding the two miraculous births that took place in year one are so well accepted by Christians, that we often don't think much about them. But maybe we should. It is too easy to glaze over and miss details when you read a story that you've read many times before. For instance, we say three wise men, but we also know the bible doesn't number them. Maybe it's a good idea to revisit the birth stories from time to time.
The story of the birth of Jesus can be found in the first two chapters of Luke and Matthew. The two accounts have different information so let's try to compile a timeline of events.
Zechariah is a priest serving in the temple in Jerusalem when he is visited by angel Gabriel. Gabriel informs Zechariah that, despite their advanced years, his wife Elizabeth will have a son and they are to name him John. He is to take no alcoholic drink, indicating he would be a lifelong Nazirite (like Samuel and Samson.) The Bible doesn't say how old Zechariah and Elizabeth are, but context indicates they are well past child-bearing age. Zechariah expresses doubt is rendered temporarily mute. Elizabeth becomes pregnant when Zechariah returns home and she secludes herself for the first five months. She expresses devotion and gratitude. Her seclusion may a practical as well, considering her age.
Except for the age of the parents, this would seem like a natural pregnancy, but it is no less miraculous than the pregnancy of Mary. Zechariah and Elizabeth are an old married couple and were barren (V. 7). It was God's intervention that allowed Elizabeth to conceive. The same thing happened with Isaac's mother Sarah, Samuel's mother Hannah, Samson's mother the wife of Zorah, and Jacob's mother Rebekah; God supernaturally intervened to enable the pregnancy.
When Elizabeth is sixth months pregnant, Gabriel visits Mary, a young virgin pledged in marriage to Joseph. Joseph and Mary are both descendants of King David living in Nazareth. Gabriel speaks to Mary, "Greetings*, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." Mary is troubled but Gabriel puts her at ease and explains that she will become pregnant and bear a son and will name him Jesus. Mary doesn't express doubt, but asks "How will this be?" since she is a virgin. Gabriel explains that "The Holy Spirit will come upon you" and he tells her about Elizabeth. When Mary acknowledges her situation, the angel leaves.
* "Greetings" in Latin is "Ave". It's where we get "Ave Maria"
This is where we learn that Elizabeth and Mary are related. They are usually referred to as cousins, but the bible isn't explicit. Also, the bible doesn't give much information about Joseph, but a very important detail is given in Matthew 1:19, Joseph is a righteous man!
Sources differ, but the engagement period for first century Jews would have been about one year. Generally, events unfold like this: The girl's father arranges the marriage with the boy's father, the boy's father would pay the girl's father a bride-fee or mohar. When the girl turns fourteen (or so) she and the boy become contractually married, but she would still live with her parents. After the one-year betrothal they would ceremoniously marry and then they would move in together and buy a car. Either party could call off the engagement, but since they are legally married, it would require a certificate of divorce. They would be expected to abstain from sex during the engagement even thought they are considered husband and wife.
Mary makes the five day trip to visit Elizabeth. Zechariah's house is close to Bethlehem about one hundred miles south of Nazareth. When Mary greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth's baby "jumps" in her womb and she is filled with the Holy Spirit. Mary has not told of her condition, but the Holy Spirit empowers Elizabeth to recognize the mother of the Lord. "In a loud voice", Elizabeth blesses Mary and tells her of her own baby jumping in her womb. Mary responds with a song*. Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months and heads heads back to Nazareth. Nazareth is still 100 miles away. North. Three months pregnant. Riding a donkey.
It's not stated explicitly, but the timing suggests Mary stayed until John was born. The bible does tell us that Elizabeth had neighbors and relatives, so she wasn't alone for the birthing. Elizabeth had plenty of help.
* Mary's song is known as the Magnificat from the Latin translation of "glorifies". The song reads like a psalm.
John is born. Elizabeth's people recognize the Lord's hand in this and they rejoice with her. On the eighth day bris, the assumption was he would be named after Zechariah. Elizabeth protested, "No! He is to be called John." The people consult Zechariah and he writes on a tablet, "His name is John" and immediately, Zechariah could talk again. He began to praise God and the neighbors began to speculate about the child. Zechariah then sings a hymn, Zechariah's Song*.
* Zechariah's song is known as the Benedictus from the Latin translation of "Praise be". If Mary's song reads like a psalm, Zechariah's song is more of a prophecy.
The last verse (v. 80) says "And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel." This, and the fact that his parents are old, has led some to believe that John was orphaned at a young age. Remember, John the Baptist will embody the spirit of Elijah: Matthew 17:12-13. John's "public appearance" took place when he was thirty years old. Just like Jesus, John's ministry began at thirty.
Numbers 4:47 All the men from thirty to fifty years of age who came to do the work of serving and carrying the Tent of Meeting
At this point the timeline becomes fuzzy. In Luke's Gospel, Mary is back in Nazareth and there is no indication that she has told Joseph of her pregnancy. Joseph hauls Mary down to his ancestral home (Bethlehem is the city of David) to register for a Roman decreed census*. It is not clear how far along in her pregnancy she was. Christmas Tradition portrays the young couple rolling into town after dark, attempting to find lodging and failing that, heading out to the barn to birth her baby. We get that image from a short section in Luke:
Luke 2:7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
I believe this interpretation to be incomplete. In Matthew's Gospel, there is no mention of the details in Luke: Nazareth, the census, Zechariah, etc. There is, however, an account of Joseph finding out his wife is pregnant.
Matthew 1:18-19 18. This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
Deuteronomy 22:23-24 23. If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, 24. you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death-the girl because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man's wife. You must purge the evil from among you.
Mary was "found to be with child". Sometime in Nazareth or perhaps after arriving at Bethlehem, Mary's condition becomes apparent. Now Joseph has a problem, he knows he isn't the father and therefore he is innocent of this sin. If he publicly calls out Mary for her indiscretion, she is in danger of the purge. If he says nothing, there may not be a stoning, but he will be complicit in Mary's sin. Joseph chooses option three; divorce as quietly as possible and move on. An amazing thing happened though, in a dream an angel of the Lord appears and tells Joseph that it is okay to take Mary home as his wife! Mary's pregnancy would be perceived by every Jew as a sin and God is asking Joseph to take this perception of sin on himself.
I discovered that in several newer translations, the NIV for one, that there is no mention of "the inn" in Luke 2:7. Also, one of the confusing things I kept trying to reconcile is Luke 2:6 —While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born,. Whether Mary's pregnancy was discovered in Nazareth or after arriving at Bethlehem, it's clear that they had been in Bethlehem for some time before Jesus was born. Joseph is from King David's bloodline and likely would have had family in Bethlehem to stay with and even if he didn't Zechariah and Elizabeth live close to Bethlehem. The point is that Joseph and Mary would not need to seek out lodging for her to have her baby. Just for the record, here is a modern translation of Luke 2:7:
Luke 2:7 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. (This is NIV.)
In most translations, it still says "inn" but you can compare translations here https://biblehub.com/luke/2-7.htm and scroll to the bottom of the page. The Greek-English Lexicon is listed. If want to hurt your head a little more, you can compare with the translation of "inn" in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in https://biblehub.com/luke/10-34.htm. Here the inn is a commercial lodging establishment and Luke uses a different word. In essence, Joseph and Mary were staying in someone's house.
But what about the manger? Well, the idea that Mary went and had her baby in a barn or a cave also comes from Luke 2:7 and his use of the word manger. A manger is simply a feeding trough, I have one in my kitchen (not really, but I have had.) In the first century, it would have been perfectly normal to keep some livestock inside the house, like my wife does, to prevent them being carried away by predators or thieves.
* There WAS a census. I've heard non-believers trying to discredit the birth story say "there is no record of a census" but there were actually two of them. The other is mentioned in Acts 5:37 and is a different one than Luke 2:1-2. A word of warning though, if you Google "Census of Quirinius", you'll go down a timeline rabbit hole.
I didn't discuss the Magi, or Herod and his thugs, or an angel of the Lord appearing to the shepherds. This began because I'd read an article about The Scandal of Jesus' Birth on the gutenberg.edu website. I became intrigued by God's choices in bringing the Savior of the World to the earth in such an unassuming way. I'm fascinated by Joseph's dilemma and his solution, by Mary's quite acceptance, and by God's love for us when we do so little to deserve it. I wish you all a Merry Christmas.