Was Jesus born in Bethlehem?
A few days ago, I discussed a positive case for the resurrection story having grown over time. There is a similar case for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem being a later addition, though it’s a lot simpler: Only Matthew and Luke make explicit claims about Jesus being born in Bethlehem, they have completely separate stories, and prophecy gives a good reason for them to want to claim a birth in Bethlehem.
So let’s start the same way: looking at the story gospel by gospel.
Mark is usually considered the earliest gospel. It does not mention the birth of Jesus at all. His first appearance is at the start of his ministry when he is baptised. At that time, he is said to come from Nazareth in Galilee, and Bethlehem is never mentioned.
Matthew has Mary and Joseph apparently living in Bethlehem. Jesus is born there with no prior mention of Nazareth. Wise men come and visit Jesus with gifts, but also alert Herod to Jesus’ presence. Warned by an angel, Mary and Joseph take Jesus and flee to safety in Egypt, escaping from the slaughter of the innocents. And given the command was to kill all infants two years old and under, it is usually assumed Jesus was at least a year old by that point. Some time later, Herod dies, and Joseph is told by another angel to return to Israel. The plan is apparently to return to Bethlehem, and it is only after learning Herod’s son is on the throne (and possibly after receiving yet another dream) that they decide to go to Nazareth in Galilee. This is the first time Matthew has mentioned Nazareth, and he gives no indication that they ever lived there before.
Luke has Mary and Joseph both living in Nazareth. Then, near the time of Jesus’ birth, there is a census which requires them to go to Bethlehem, and so Jesus is born there. Shepherds are told of the birth by angels and visit Jesus. Over the next 40 days, Jesus is circumcised, then presented at the temple in Jerusalem as part of a purification ceremony. After that, they have fulfilled all the requirements of the law, and so return to Nazareth, where Jesus grows up.
Like Mark, John says nothing directly about Jesus’ birth, and calls him Jesus of Nazareth. The only reference to Bethlehem is when the crowds ask why Jesus came from Galilee rather than Bethlehem. They clearly view this prophecy as talking about where the Messiah grew up, not just where he was born. John makes no attempt to correct these people, though it is not clear whether this is because he expected his readers to “know” Jesus was born in Bethlehem or because he wasn’t aware of the story himself. Or maybe he just didn’t care.
Finally, Nazareth is mentioned in Acts, but Bethlehem isn’t.
None of the letters mention either Nazareth or Bethlehem.
So, we have two completely independent stories of how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem. Neither of them have any external evidence to back them up.
The slaughter of the innocents was not documented by Josephus or any other historian. Though Herod’s paranoia means it’s hard to completely rule it out, we don’t have a very good reason to believe it happened.
Luke’s census, on the other hand, has numerous problems with it. We do have a documented census when Quirinius was governor of Syria, but it happened in 6 AD, ten years after the death of Herod. It was taken when Rome assumed direct rule of Judea, and as a result was only in Judea. It didn’t cover Galilee, and it certainly didn’t cover the entire Roman empire. It doesn’t even make sense Rome taking a census while their client king Herod the Great was in control. As for returning to the homes of distant ancestors, we have no record of a Roman census that required this, and it’s not clear why it would be useful to an administrator knowing where a person used to live rather than where they live right now.
Matthew makes it quite clear that his story is theologically motivated: each stage of the story, including the birth in Bethlehem, is said to be fulfilling a prophecy. Throughout the book I believe Matthew twists Old Testament scripture to suit his own ends, but the first two chapters are bad even by his standards:
- The prediction of the Messiah coming from Bethlehem can at least be seen to be a prophecy of the Messiah, though it does seem to apply to his upbringing, not just his birth and early childhood.
- The prediction of the virgin birth in Isaiah seems to refer to a child born in the time of King Ahaz, not to a child born seven hundred years later.
- The Egypt story takes a passage in Hosea which explicitly refers to Israel’s exodus from Egypt (also historically on shaky ground), drags a phrase out of context, and asserts that it applies to Jesus.
- The slaughter of the innocents takes a passage from Jeremiah talking about Rachel in Ramah, and applies it to Bethlehem (with absolutely no explanation of why it applies to Bethlehem). Originally this was talking about the Israelites in exile, and contains a promise of return from exile. If it was fulfilled, the fulfillment was the return from exile in Babylon.
- His final prophecy concerns how Jesus came to be from Nazareth: the one fact in his litany that matches with the other gospels. And ever since he wrote it believers have been trying to figure out where “He shall be called a Nazarene” actually comes from. I’ll assume he knew what he meant by it, but today we have multiple suggestions for passage(s) it might refer to, and I don’t think any of them are particularly compelling.
I think Matthew’s use of prophecy here is quite revealing. He starts with Bethlehem, the one with the best claim to be a prophecy and zero historical evidence, and he ends with Nazareth, the one with the best claim to be history, but no-one is sure where the prophecy is. And all the prophecies in between are OT passages taken out of context. I think it’s easier to argue that the story was drawn from the prophecies than that the story fulfilled the prophecies.
Luke, on the other hand, does not mention any prophecy about Bethlehem. However, given he did place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, it seems reasonable that he was aware of the same prophecy as Matthew.
And finally, while we’re talking about birth stories, both of these records have genealogies of Jesus, and the two genealogies are very different. It seems this is because they have very different theological points to make: For Matthew, Jesus was descended from the kingly line of David and was a descendant of Abraham. For Luke, Jesus was descended from God through Adam.
Do they contradict?
Well, the only thing these stories have in common was that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. There is literally nothing else in common. They’re not just different aspects of the same story, they are different stories. To me, this is even clearer than it was with Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. And if they are different stories, at most one can be right, though I think it more likely they were both invented.
I think the most obvious contradictions are:
- Luke appears to link his story to a census at least ten years after Matthew’s story.
- Luke suggests Mary & Joseph started in Nazareth and returned there after a couple of months, while Matthew suggests that Mary & Joseph started in Bethlehem and only moved to Nazareth a year or two after Jesus’ birth.
And yes, it’s easy to “reconcile” these contradictions: hypothesise an extra, undocumented census at the right time, put a gap in Luke between the temple visit and the return to Nazareth, and it magically all fits (though the gap required must be big enough to accommodate almost the entire Matthew story).
But is this reconciliation really credible? What reasons, other than theological, do we have for assuming the stories can be combined?
In Melbourne, there is a live, outdoor performance of the Christmas story called Road to Bethlehem. It’s been running for over twenty years, it welcomes thousands every year, and it’s a lot of fun to visit. It even used to be held in the grounds of my secondary school, though it had to move last year. As a result, I sometimes recognised fellow students and teachers in the cast.
As you go round the different sites, you find the complete Christmas story: angelic visits to Mary and Joseph, announcement of a census, wise men, high priests, a visit to Herod’s Palace, shepherds, angels, and a visit to the stable to meet baby Jesus and listen to the angelic choir. Colourful characters abound: Lots of Roman soldiers, Herod and his slightly wiser adviser addressing the problem, an angel with massive wings, noisy crowds, and even real, live sheep and camels.
I always knew that the wise men didn’t really arrive on the same night as the census or the shepherds. But it wasn’t until writing this that I realised how much Road to Bethlehem synthesises independent accounts with no questions asked. Even the angelic visions given to Mary and Joseph back-to-back come from two different sources (Luke has Mary visited by an angel, while Matthew has Joseph visited by an angel whenever the story demanded a change of scene).
As is hopefully clear from the above, I don’t think we have any reason (other than faith) to believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Nazareth seems much more likely to have been where he was born and where he grew up.
I’ll leave Ken Daniels the last word, since I found Why I believed a really helpful book for thinking critically about Christian claims:
In a Christmas Sunday school lesson I attended in 2006, one of the participants expressed how remarkable it was that the census took place just at the right time to ensure that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem as prophesied. I consider it remarkable instead, in light of the extensive lack of agreement between the Matthew and Luke stories, that so few believers fail even to consider the possibility that the two accounts are fabricated to place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem as a fulfillment of prophecy.