Christmastime, Christ-mas and the birth of Jesus
by Peri Forrester
This is a summary of a presentation given on the 5th of December 2013 by Peri Forrester on the Case for Christmas. See The case for Christmas for the Power Point slides. See the Case for Christmas Presentation and the Case for Christmas Discussion for the video recordings.
Peri’s transcript is given below:
Is the 25th Jesus birthday?
Is the 25th Jesus birthday? No it’s not. Jesus was probably born in spring since that was the time the Shepherds Luke refers to would have been out. Matthew’s star may refer to a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn whose astronomical effect impressed others. There are a number of suggestions on this point, but even if the Magi visit was strictly historical, which I think it probably was, it did not happen at the time of Jesus’ birth, but rather during his toddlerhood.
Celebrating Christ-mas on the 25th of December was instituted in 385 by Pope Julius 1 as a direct subversion of a pagan celebration.
Some say this is evidence of a Mithra connection but Mithra was not born on the 25th of December either.
The 25th of December simply was (and is) a popular annual festival for celebrating the change of seasons or something like that. It was later changed to celebrating Jesus birth.
Does that mean it is invalid to celebrate Jesus’ birthday in December? Of course not. My birthday was yesterday and I am celebrating it this coming Saturday and I hope people don’t refuse to come to my party just because it is not on the historically correct day.
That said, the spectacle of what we call Christmas has perhaps become sufficiently focused on consumerism and its insatiable drain on world resources and disempowered human producers that we may wonder whether Jesus would likely show up to such a party himself (READ Horsley, 1993 intro). Though of course Jesus showed up to many a party that offended religious sensitivities, to establish and enjoy relationships – so who knows.
While very few Christians would have their world- view rocked by the revelation that Jesus was not born on 25th December, the question of if it is worth defending the date and thereby the cultural power invested in that date as a Christian celebration or not is a much more complicated question.
What we first need to think about, in order to answer those who question or poke scornful fun at our faith, are the historical facts behind the Biblical story and the significance both of those facts and the way they are interpreted and told by the Evangelists Matthew and Luke.
There are a number of questions that are commonly and sometimes sincerely raised about the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth concerning:
- The narratives at the start of Matthew and Luke’s Gospel are not referred to elsewhere in the NT
- There are a few differences in what the two narratives tell us about Jesus’ infancy
- Mary’s virginity and Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit (Did it happen, how and what is that all about?);
- Problems with details about the Census
- The historicity (or otherwise) and significance of the Shepherds and Magi visiting Jesus, and, those who prophesied over Jesus in the Temple;
- What was meant by calling the baby Jesus Lord, Savior, Son of God, King and the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy; and is it connected to the titles of savior and son of God that was given Caesar and others?
- Does the whole story reflect common ancient mythological motifs and is therefore not true?
We can look at most of these, but first let’s think just for a moment about what is at stake
- Scriptural ‘inspiration’ or ‘inerrancy’? If there are real historical contradictions in the text that do not harmonize and instead make either Matthew wrong or Luke wrong on a point of historical fact, does that mean that the Bible is not God’s inerrant word? Could your faith cope?
- The trust worthiness of Matthew and Luke as Evangelists? Do such contradictions, if found to exist mean that either of the Evangelists were not good history writers?
- Key Christian doctrines? If some elements of the accounts are deemed to be more mythological or legendary than historical in genre, does that affect any key Christian doctrines, or does it lend weight to one denominational view over another?
- More personally, is there a loss of face if some things we have proclaimed need modification or recantation? I certainly know that I have needed to modify my own truth claims a number of times in my Christian journey as I have continued learning – but none of that has detracted from my core belief in who Jesus is or who his salvation is making me, nor has it changed the good news I have to share with others. God’s gift is the forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Jesus the Christ. But there may be some people who fear their faith would not survive revision of any belief connected to it- and surely we need to be careful with them even as Paul instructs us in 1 Cor 8
Now I know many of you will be keen to get to the punch lines of: does the Scripture really mean, and is it historically true that Jesus was born without Mary having ever had sexual intercourse before? And, were the Evangelists influenced by mystery religions when they wrote their accounts about Jesus? Hopefully you will be satisfied with what I have to say about these things. We will start by examining a few terms commonly used as they apply to the narratives.
History and history writing, mythology/ mythological, legend/ legendary, Midrash.
History and History writing
The first point here is that we do not have the past. We only have the effects of the past. Writings about the past necessarily cherry pick elements of an event or cluster of events and filter out what is not important to the purpose of the writer in communicating with her or his audience. For example, the Evangelists do not tell us if the manger Jesus lay in had clean or dirty straw in it- or if it had some other kind of animal food, or was in fact empty, but, had they told us such a detail we would wonder why they told us- what was meant by their having told us; Getting to what was meant by the writer choosing to tell us something is the literary literal meaning of the text, just as getting to what in the empirical ‘real’ world at the time was the referent of the text is ascertaining the historical reality behind the text- if indeed the text is historical writing. (cf. Vanhoozer, 1998, 303- 308).
It is possible to get so caught up with trying to get behind the text to grab hold of the events referred to that the communicative point of the text is missed altogether- such as when we boggle our brains trying to understand just how God’s Spirit overshadowing Mary put the X and Y chromosomes together in her womb (and yes I have heard people seriously talk about this, as though it matters). It is just as possible to explore the possible symbolic meanings and the essential truths derived from those meanings implied by an account of an event to the extent that one floats away entirely from the historical referent. Much critical scholarship in the 20th C (termed the new hermeneutic and characterized by the work of Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann, (Longenecker, 1975:52,53) erred in this direction.
To be clear: I understand the narrative beginning Luke and Matthew to be historical writing, that is I believe the main historical referents being actual are important to the meaning and truth of the text, even while I acknowledge that the events are selectively depicted and interpreted and possibly at points embellished by the Evangelists to suit their theological communications to an extent that would not be acceptable in the top end of modern history writing. Even so, the gospel accounts do reflect what really happened certainly above and beyond what we can know about what really happened behind most ancient writings.
Mythology/ mythological and Legend/ legendary
The definition of these terms is relevant because there are many who say that the conception and birth narratives are mythological or legendary. Often the people who so dismiss the narratives don’t actually know what mythological and legendary even means, and often when we defend the narratives against the allegation and consequent dismissal on such grounds we don’t really know what those words mean either. What is sometimes meant by those terms as they are commonly used in this way is that the narrative does not match expectations about history writing, as we noted, and are by critics therefore deemed to be not true to events at all, such that ‘mythology’ is put on the spectrum between fiction and fact; closer to fiction.
Mythologies, properly understood however, are accepted as true stories about ‘gods’ of various kinds and divine origins of the universe by their believers. Mythology usually involves the remote past and is often central to a meta-narrative that discerns and integrates meaning for believers in experience and history (Horsley, 1993: 11). By this definition Genesis one is indeed a creation myth- but that does not mean it is not true. The biblical nativity narratives are part of the meta narrative of salvation history which I believe to be true, though they are not central to that narrative as is evidenced by the fact that they are not referred to in the rest of the NT (that is not to say that the history behind the story is not important- that Jesus was born is critically important to salvation history- but the stories about his birth are less important to our understanding of salvation- evidently Paul was unaware of them- these stories are not critical integration points of the Gospel of or about Jesus). The nativity narratives involve a God: Jesus, but they are not primarily about the remote past and the origin of the universe; rather they are about events recorded close to the time of their happening. So they cannot properly be called myths.
Legends on the other hand usually involve human or human/ divine heroes, and their birth and development from the less remote past, as viewed through adoring eyes (Horsley, 1993:12). So by such a definition it is reasonable to speak of the conception and infancy narratives as legends if you view Jesus as a hero- and certainly I do. It should not be surprising that legends develop about the birth and childhood of people who in adulthood become as important as Jesus, as NT Wright notes (1999: 175). However this does not mean that Jesus fits the mould, or more pointedly is made from the same mould as other legendary persons, or even that such a mould exists (regarding the many parallels made see web site: http://www.rightreason.org/2009/the-virgin-birth-of-buddha/). As Strobel quotes to us, “those who claim Christianity was derived from these myths manufacture out of the various fragments of information a kind of universal mystery religion that never existed” (Schweitzer in Strobel, 2005:43).
So, yes we can say the birth narratives are legendary in one sense, but understanding them as historical writing is a more helpful and robust rubric for understanding what their authors intend them to mean and signify. If you are interested in reading in depth on these issues of the genre and meaning of the infancy narratives you may like to refer to Raymond Brown’s comprehensive and widely respected book “the Birth of the Messiah” (1993).
Midrash is an interpretive reading of a text which goes beyond the primary literal referents and seeks a deeper meaning (Longenecker, 1975:32); it seeks to actualize the past as a lesson or fulfillment for the present (Bloch in Brown, 1993: 558). As I understand it, it is entirely reasonable to say the infancy narratives involve Midrash intentions on the part of the Evangelists, and it is true to say that modern history writing tries to rid itself of such, though of course it cannot and if history could be known without relevance for the present it would be of questionable value to know any anyway.
When Matthew tells us that Jesus’ birth is foretold by the text in Isaiah talking about a child being born to us, this is a kind of Midrash interpretation of the OT text.
Let me give you an example of a different kind of Midrash: I am currently a member of a volunteer acting team taking a theatrical interpretation of the nativity into schools. Today we preformed at two primary schools in the western suburbs. The play is set in “grandma’s house” where family members are dressing up as characters from the nativity for Christmas. In explaining the shepherds’ role to her family ‘grandma’ says that shepherds were looked down on in Jesus day, and the Midrash point she derives is that the Good News is that Jesus is for everyone including the poor and marginalized (she words it differently). Now I entirely agree with ‘grandma’s’ interpretation and it reflects a proper Christian interpretation about the role of the shepherds in the story. This interpretation goes beyond the empirical facts of history, however, and from the text we cannot be sure whether this interpretation is true- it is possible that the shepherds being appeared to first, was just because they were close by and that it had nothing to do with their social status and the universality of the Gospel. So while the interpretation goes beyond the facts, the facts are important to the interpretation. If the shepherds were not historically real, and Luke told us they were real in order to get to point to the truth that the Good News is for everyone, that would go beyond Midrash and rightly be taken as pious fiction.
Ok so let’s talk about Mary’s (lack of a) sex life and the biblical accounts of Jesus’ conception. Whatever differences there are in the two nativity accounts both Matthew and Luke tell us that Mary was a virgin and the context makes it clear that, in this case, virgin means not having had sex.
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about[a]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[b] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[c] because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[d] (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Matthew tells us that Mary was found to be pregnant before Joseph and Mary had come together and that she gave birth before they consummated the marriage- we can have no doubt that Matthew intends his reader to believe that Mary was a virgin in that she had not had sex, and not simply that she was a young woman. This is an instance of history writing and while there are arguments out there that depend on a symbolic meaning divorced from the referent of an actual virgin birth, they ignore the basic and first meaning of the text. Such interpretations, therefore, are not faithful to the text. It is possible that Matthew was mistaken about Mary’s sexual history- but- that he believed her to be a virgin needs to be affirmed.
Matthew explains that the events concerned are connected to the OT text Isaiah 7:14. Often critics and defenders of the historical virginal conception of Jesus assume in their arguments that the main point of prophesy in the Isaiah 7:14 as it applies to Jesus’ birth is Mary’s virginity and so they play a game of who knows more about ancient language use. A game that in my view Christian linguists win when both sides are heard, but not a game I think worthy of getting into tonight. (Brown, as referenced before is THE scholarly and fairly considered book to read, http://www.frontline-apologetics.com/Virgin_Birth_Jesus.html a credible, well researched website favoring the view that the Isaiah text is indeed prophetic of Jesus). Suffice to say the word Isaiah uses can mean virgin as we understand it and it can simply mean a young woman without reference to her sexual status.
In the first instance Isaiah was predicting that a series of political events were going to take place in his own context and would take place in the time it would take a child, not yet born or even conceived, to grow to such an age as to be able to tell right from wrong, and that his prediction coming true would be evidence of God’s being present and active in those events. Isaiah was not telling us that the young woman would remain a virgin until the birth of her child. While there is a possible connection with the word virgin which applies to Mary in a way beyond what Isaiah intended in the first instance, for those of us, and I include myself, willing to believe that God super-intended that meaning, the connection between the name Immanuel (God with us) and God’s actually coming to us through the body of any woman seems the grander and more important fulfilment of the Isaiah prophesy as Matthew applies it to Jesus. The point is that Jesus is the ultimate evidence of Immanuel because in his very self Jesus is God with us.
Let’s look at the only other biblical account we have of the virgin conception of Jesus in Luke’s gospel.
New International Version (NIV)
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 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, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 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. 36 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. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
We can first notice that Luke’s describing Mary as a virgin like Matthew’s needs to be read as literally meaning that Mary had at the time the angel appeared to her not had sex. Unlike Matthew though, Luke makes no reference to OT prophecy.
Instead Luke tells us (and just maybe we will allow that he was roughly paraphrasing the angel’s communication to Mary based on Christian theological reflection) that the child would be called the “Son of God”. This could be understood as conveying much of what Matthew says by referring to the Immanuel prophesy, but to Luke’s audience who did not know the OT the way Matthew’s did. Each of the four evangelists develop the theme of Jesus being the Son of God in their own way: Mark tells us Jesus was always the Son of God but was only publically recognized as such after his crucifixion, John develops the theme by focusing on Jesus’ pre-existence and relationship with God, and Matthew and Luke use these infancy narratives to demonstrate Jesus is Son of God.
Of course other lords of the time of Jesus were given the title of Son of God and savior and I think that it is fair to say that calling Jesus the Son of God did serve a counter-cultural, implied revolutionary purpose just as calling Jesus Lord and savior did. We forget this when we read that it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that anyone can call Jesus Lord (1 Cor 12:3) and imagine that just saying “lord, lord” (cf. Matt 7:21) without any courage of conviction- against the cultural grain and sometimes worldly gain- is truly Spiritual. Horsley (1993) develops this theme, I think too far and way beyond the facts of the matter, but though he makes too much of it I think that the basic tenet is true- Christians did know that in saying Jesus was savior and lord, the true Son of God they were calling Caesar, where he took on such designations, a fraud. Certainly spiritual courage was required on their part when they did so. In a way these titles are counter- revolutionary rather than revolutionary though because the ‘Powers’ of this world first usurped God’s own divine authority before Jesus reclaimed it. In any case, these reasons and purposes do not detract from the truth, if it is true, that Jesus is the Son of God, because and primarily, as John shows, he had pre-existent relationship with God as his Father, but also it is consistent with his earthy conception being by the creative and miraculous intervention of God as Matthew and Luke say and his recognition as divine by many through his life, death and resurrection as Mark shows. The fact that others were called such things does not at all detract from the validity of the truth claim that Jesus is the true Son of God, the True Lord, the true Savior of the world- it only puts those claims in context.
Now outside the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke there are no historical evidences that Mary was a virgin when she had Jesus. So if we believe in the virgin birth as history we do so because that is the literal meaning of the text; that is what Matthew and Luke believed- and unlike us they were around the people who were around Jesus. I am willing to believe in the virgin birth on the strength of the testimony we have, especially since it is God’s book and even apart from that, but at the same time, it is not crucial to my faith. The main thing for me is that Jesus is Immanuel, not that Mary was a virgin.
However there are theories within some Christian communities that depend on the virgin birth, one being that since the fall sexual conception itself is the means of original sin being passed on so it is because of the virgin birth that Jesus was sinless (theologians as diverse as Augustine and Carl Barth affirm this) (Brown, 1993:530). It seems a bit down on sex but maybe that is right, I don’t know, but it does fit into the category of religious speculation and is beyond my own call to defend the gospel. Biblical theologians are usually hesitant to base doctrines on isolated texts and so it surprises me many do in this case. (The Immanuel theme of course is anything but isolated, but the virginity of Mary as we understand virginity is).
So are we all happy to affirm with Matthew and Luke that Mary was indeed a virgin?
Some may still wonder at other stories, many of them wild and clearly not written with the historical intention and care of Matthew and Luke who refer to virgin conceptions, but they have little, probably no connection to the story about Jesus, Raymond Brown, who I spoke of earlier tells that the “validity of the parallels hinges on three points…read 1993:522). Lee Strobel says much the same thing on p 43, as we’ve already read.
Jesus Birth at Bethlehem
Some critics say, following C Berger, in 1970 that Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem was a historicized theoloumenon- that is it was made up by some and come to be believed by others because of the prophetic tradition it supports. It needs to be remembered that bold, attention getting statements of refutation can be made about any point of history (there are those who deny the holocaust) and likely will be when the issue is attached to such a widespread faith. Maybe it seems funny, but most critics who say Jesus was not born at Bethlehem say he was born at Nazareth, but there are critics who say Nazareth as Jesus childhood home also is a historicized theoloumen.
Differences and Possible Contradictions between Luke’s And Matthew’s Narratives
I read a passage before that identified the points of agreement between Matthew and Luke, and I have photocopies of the page available. Brown tells us that “Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other, without knowing the other’s work, agreement between the two infancy narratives would suggest the existence of a common infancy tradition earlier than either evangelist’s work- a tradition that would have a claim to greater antiquity and thus weigh on the plus side of the historical scale” (p.34). Brown also notes that “it is striking that all but the last [nativity events told of by both evangelists] are found in one section of the Matthean narrative (1:18-2:1), and the last is something that could have been known by both evangelists from [Jesus’] public ministry” (p. 35).
Possible contradictions suggested are that while Luke tells us Mary lived in Nazareth, Matthew makes no mention of that fact. This presents a real problem for some, but not for me. If that was something Luke knew but Matthew did not, what is the big deal? More difficult is understanding how the family ended up back in Nazareth. Matthew tells us they were refugees in Egypt for a time, avoiding Herod, having been visited by Magi but Luke (2:22-39) tell us they went to the temple and then back to Nazareth. It seems from my reading that scholars seem more inclined to question Matthew’s account than Luke’s.
Matthew does have a ‘this is that’ approach to drawing allegorical meanings from history recorded in the OT and Raymond Brown, whose scholarship is so profound, says that it is possible Matthew is embellishing the story for theological effect.
Brown writes “The two main lines in popular scholarly thought about the Magi story are that it is history or that it is a product of reflection on OT themes.” The usual OT theme recognized in this story is the Balaam story in which King Balak, who equates to Herod, wants an occultist seer to curse Israel, but the seer who is identified with the magi, having perceived the situation rightly from God despite his pagan background, refuses to (p193). Horsley (1993) in his liberation theology reading of the narratives develops these themes, characteristically taking them further.
Brown raises questions about the historical likelihood of Matthew’s story because the explanation of a star coming to rest over a house is problematic, because there is no hint of these events in Luke and because Herod’s surviving son has no knowledge of Jesus later on, which Brown reflects seems strange if his father had been so stirred up at the report of Jesus’ birth. Brown goes on to point out plausible resolutions to these questions noting that there were a number of strange astronomical happenings reported in the period around Jesus birth, and Magi with a special interest in them may have drawn leadings from them not perceived by most (Brown 1993:165-201). Even so Brown favors the theory that Matthew made some bits up. As a scholar of historical writing who has analyzed the text, we need to respect his expert if not his religious opinion – it is not to be dismissed with so many internet rumors. However, as to Matthew telling a story Luke does not it seems fair to ask why might Luke have left it out as well as why might Matthew have put it in. And one very possible reason for Luke’s omission is space. We need to remember they wrote on scrolls, not computers or reams of paper. Luke’s Gospel is as long as it possibly could be and still fit on one scroll. Maybe, since the story added nothing for his audience and purpose he left it out. Maybe the themes were relevant to Matthew’s audience because of OT motifs, and Matthew’s twin message that Jesus fulfills the OT religion, even as he manifests the universality of Israel’s God. In this understanding the Midrash is vital to Matthew’s message, but the history is still important. There is no problem with Luke saying the family offered sacrifice at the temple during the period Matthew places the family in Bethlehem because the city of Jerusalem and its satellite village, Bethlehem were only 8km apart.
Personally my view of Scripture does allow for one or other of the evangelists to have been mistaken on minor points, but if, as a matter of fact the family never went to Egypt that would seem to be a major point. Not Gospel killing major, but major like if Mary conceived in the natural way.
Similarly it also seems that when Luke writes the songs of Elizabeth, Mary and Zechariah, he is drawing on OT themes to elaborate on the actual historical content of the Spirit filled outbursts of joyful communication he reports Elizabeth and the others having. My view of literary literal meanings and of Scripture has no problem with that understanding of the Evangelists’ poetic license here in these instances. As Howard Marshall tells us “the hymns attributed to some of the principal actors are unlikely to be spontaneous compositions, but serve, like the speeches in ancient histories, to express the significance of the moment in appropriate language” (p.46). However, that poetic license would be mightily stretched for me if, for example, the wise men were only representative figures and not actual ones.
So now let me tell you the story of Jesus’ conception, birth and infancy as I understand it to have happened, adding in possible expletory details, remembering of course that none of it has anything to do with the time of year we call Christmas except as the public consensus continues to make it so.
Mary was a young girl of about 13 when she learned from God, through an angel that she was going to have a special baby, by a miracle of God and not involving any kind of sexual intercourse. Embarrassed though she was, she told her betrothed, Joseph, who was about 18. He assumed that Mary had had sex with someone until an angel told him in a dream that Mary was telling the truth. Then the couple, embarrassed though they were, told their parents, and, what their parents believed we do not know. But Mary was sent to stay with her aunt away from the eye of the townsfolk for much of her pregnancy, and her aunt, who knew from personal experience that God can do miracle pregnancies, did believe her and sensed the import of their auspicious unborn babies. Later in Mary’s pregnancy she and Joseph were sent away to Bethlehem- probably again to escape the notice of those who may be able to add up the months and realize conception came before marriage- this was likely the real reason for the move even if a coming census was the ostensible reason, the family justification for a move.
Mary and Joseph, when they arrived in Bethlehem, camped out the back of someone’s house in something like a sleep-out where animals were let in during the cold until 40 days after Jesus was born (the full period of Mary’s ritual uncleanness- and recovery). Shepherds, who had seen a host of angels, came prophesying just after Jesus birth. After 40 days Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem and in the crowded court of women at the temple at least two people came and prophesized over the baby. When the couple went back to Bethlehem they intended to settle down there and they became established in a house- probably the house of relatives- rather than the animal’s sleep-out.
Star-gazers from Babylon or Arabia came, because God told them to, not through means of angels as conceived of generally, but through astronomical and astrological means. They were sufficiently bold enough to seek an audience with King Herod, though, while they were from the intelligentsia of their own people, they were not kings. They found the baby Jesus in the small village of Bethlehem and avoided Herod on their way back home after hearing from God in a dream (it is possible they also heard from other humans what Herod did to his own son, and others, in defense of his throne).
After a prophetic dream Joseph took his family to Egypt, which was beyond the jurisdiction of Herod. Herod did something quite in keeping with his character having all the male infants in Bethlehem killed in an attempt to get rid of the child he was told might be a rival to his kingship. There were probably only 20 or so male infants and compared to his regular brutality such a murder did not even warrant a mention in official records.
Though presumably Joseph had intended returning to Bethlehem after Herod died, he was led by God to move back to Nazareth- which was in a more politically stable region. It would seem likely by then that enough time had passed that most people would not be able to figure out that the conception of Jesus happened before the marriage of his parents- but it also seems clear from later rumors of illegitimacy that some people did still wonder.
Brown, R.E., (1993), “The Birth of the Messiah, a commentary on the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke”, Doubleday: New York
Horsley, R.A., (1993) “The Liberation of Christmas, the infancy narratives in social context”, Continuum: New York
Longenecker, R.N., (1995), “Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period”, Paternosta: Carlisle
Marshall, I.H. (1978), “The Gospel of Luke, a commentary on the Greek text”, Paternosta: Exeter
Strobel, L., (2005), “The Case for Christmas, a journalist investigates the identity of the child in the manger”, Zondervan: Grand Rapids
Vanhoozer, K.J. (1998), “Is There a Meaning in this Text, The Bible, the Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge”, Zondervan: Grand Rapids
Wright, N.T., (1999), “The Meaning of Jesus, two visions” Harper Collins: SanFrancisco