At Christmas we celebrate Jesus’ birth. But do we know when Jesus was actually born? I do not mean the day, month, or even the year of Jesus’ birth, only the very moment His earthly life began. Simple, yet utterly profound, this question beckons an examination of three Greek verbs and some of their derivatives in connection with Jesus’ birth:
- συλλαμβάνω [silamváno] I conceive, become pregnant.
- τίκτω [tíkto] I give birth, bear (children). When in reference to the mother, it also means labor in childbirth (cf. John 16:21 below).
- γεννάω [jenáo] I give birth, beget, bring forth. Widely used in the Scriptures and in Modern Greek, this verb denotes bringing forth one into this life.
Jesus affords us a clear distinction between verbs 2 and 3: “When a woman is in childbirth τίκτῃ [verb 2] she has sorrow, because her time has come; but when she gives birth to the child γεννήσῃ [verb 3] she no longer thinks about her suffering because of the joy that a human being was born into the world” (John 16:21).
Proceeding with these verbal nuances, let us now put our question into perspective by looking at Mary and events surrounding the birth of John the Baptizer. In Luke chapter 1, we read that Zacharias, a priest, and Elizabeth, his wife, were advanced in age and childless (7), their childlessness carrying a stigma of disgrace (24). When Elizabeth, who was known to be barren (7, 36), συνέλαβεν conceived (36), she kept her pregnancy secret for the first five months (24).
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (26), the angel appeared to Mary and announced that she was going to συλλήμψῃ conceive and τέξῃ bear a son and that she would name him Jesus (31). He also explained to Mary that τὸ γεννώμενον [verb 3] that which is born was holy and would be called “Son of God” (35). The announcement of the angel ended with another piece of miraculous tidings: Elizabeth, Mary’s “barren” relative, was already six months pregnant with a son (36).
Mary immediately went to visit Elizabeth (39). As Mary entered Zacharias and Elizabeth’s home, and upon greeting Elizabeth (40), Elizabeth’s baby lept inside the womb (41, 44). Whereupon, Elizabeth became filled with the Holy Spirit (41) and pronounced blessings upon Mary and upon the fruit of her womb (42), thereby also attesting Mary’s pregnancy.
Mary sojourned with Elizabeth three months (56). When Elizabeth’s time came to τεκεῖν bear (a child) and ἐγέννησεν υἱόν gave birth to a son (57), Mary returned to her home (56). By then Mary’s pregnancy could not be concealed. As Joseph considered releasing Mary secretly (Mat 1:19), an angel appeared to him in a dream, announcing that τὸ . . . ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθέν (verb 3) that which was born within her was of the Holy Spirit (Mat 1:20).
In light of what we have gleaned from the foregoing, let us now return to two key points related to when Jesus’ earthly life began.
In the angel’s announcement to Joseph (Mat. 1:20) we note the use of the aorist participle τὸ γεννηθέν that which was born. This means that Jesus’ birth at that point in time was an event completed in the past.
Moving now three months back in time, we note in the angel’s announcement to Mary (Luke 1:35) the use of the same verb, except this time in the present participle: τὸ γεννώμενον. Significantly, from the speaker’s time of reference, this participle denotes an action not in the past, hence synchronous with the angel’s announcement.
The point: The verb γεννάω as used in the scriptures examined above makes no distinction whatsoever between (a) birth at the time of delivery, and (b) birth in the womb from conception. It becomes clear therefore that baby Jesus, like all human babies in this world, was a full human life worthy of love and protection from the very beginning of his time in the womb. At conception, to be exact.
Philemon Zachariou is a native Greek, a retired Greek professor, and the author of Reading and Pronouncing Biblical Greek: Historical Pronunciation versus Erasmian. He currently develops New Testament Greek instructional material, is an adjunct professor of English at Northwest University, and a BibleMesh Greek tutor.
 Historical Greek Pronunciation (HGP) using International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols.
 Nominative, singular, neuter, present passive participle.
 Nominative, singular, neuter, aorist passive participle.
 May also be rendered “is born” or “has been born.”