The answer almost all Christians give, without thinking, is Bethlehem. However, there is little in the Bible to shed any light on this fact. Because the book of Micah in the Old Testament prophesized that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, his being born elsewhere would be difficult to explain. Thus, it would be important that Jesus was born there. The little evidence that is available, as I will show, is very conflicting and there are many references within the bible to “Jesus of Nazareth’” implying that Nazareth was his birth place.
In seeking an answer, the only potential sources in the Bible are Paul, written in the first generation of Christians, and the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, written in the second generation of Christians. It is generally agreed that the authors of the gospels are unknown and not the named disciples. Their titles were applied about one hundred years after they were written.
There is no mention of the birth in any of Paul’s letters. This could have been because he had no knowledge of the facts. However, there might be another reason. He was attempting to convert people into Christianity and the best candidates were Jews. If Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he would be linked with Jewish history, something that Paul would not want them to be aware of since it would make conversion more difficult.
Turning to the gospels, the predominate view is that Mark was the first gospel to be written and the authors of both Matthew and Luke freely drew from its passages. John was written independently.
Both Mark and John make no mention of the birth. However, both freely refer to Jesus as “Jesus of Nazareth.”
The first chapter of Matthew creates the genealogy of Jesus back to Abraham, apparently to show his Jewish roots. This is further weight to the requirement of being born in Bethlehem. Matthew 2 very briefly discusses the birth, implying that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem prior to the birth. They are visited by the wise men, sent by Herod, having followed the star. Interestingly, they visited in a “house” not a manger (Matthew 2:11). In following chapters this event is never mentioned and Jesus is continually referred to as Jesus of Nazareth.
How trustworthy is this view? In Matthew 1 the genealogy is obtained from the book of Chronicles. However, it is incorrectly transcribed to obtain the conclusion that every 14 generations something miraculous happens. Additionally, Luke also changes a story that appeared in John to make it correspond to the Old Testament (Matthew 21:2,7). The biggest problem may be that this version is irreconcilable with the version in Luke.
The version in Luke 2 is the one most people were told. It contains the story of: traveling to Bethlehem from Nazareth because of a Roman census requirement, the birth occurring in a manger because there is no room in the inn, and the infant being visited by adoring shepherds.
This story presents almost insurmountable problems, the largest of which is the journey. While there is some historical basis for the census, records show that is was held several years after Jesus was born. Since the purpose of the census was for tax collection it is unlikely that any travel was required. If it was, only the husband would have been required to be present. The trip was necessary because of a relationship with David, but that was more than forty generations prior. In an age where nothing was written, how could Joseph have known that fact? If Mary was approximately nine months pregnant, the arduous trip on the back of a donkey would have been very dangerous for her health.
Additionally, they were visited by Shepherds, not wise men, and the birth occurred in a manger, not a house.
As with Matthew, these events are never mentioned again and many references are made to Jesus of Nazareth.
Given this evidence a definitive conclusion is difficult. One could argue that this is another example of a story being added to the bible to make a theological point. Biblical scholars believe that many stories were added to the bible for this reason. For instance, nearly all agree that the Story of the Adulteress, usually appearing in Bibles as John 7:53-8:11, was added to the Gospel hundreds of years later.
I think it would be expected that early Christians simply did not know much about Jesus’ birth. The main significance for many of his earliest followers had to do with his teaching, death, resurrection and expected return. The story of his birth or where it occurred would have been almost completely unknown with the exception of his family.
Was he born in Bethlehem? Or Nazareth? We see that the answer to the question initially posed is difficult and probably impossible. How could we determine the truth when it appears that the early Christians didn’t know?