Sunday, October 11, 2009

Where was Jesus Born?

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?



Nieley said...

Nice article. How about a follow-up called “The massive inconsistencies of the world’s most popular text book” or, and this one’s for my brother, ”The mysteries of ascending to Heaven”

I see from your previous blogs that you seem to dive into different areas of thought with each new post. What is driving your decision for each new blog? What’s next?

Rick said...

This is a thoughtful analysis and intellectual exercise about a history that has been written and re-written (by the winners) for 2000 years. Religion is arguably the most corrosive and divisive aspect of Mankind's civilization.

Global warming might be just what we need and probably deserve.

BarelyAble said...

Most agree that Mary and Joseph, Jesus' parents lived in Nazareth. We are told they made a trip to Bethlehem for a census or who knows? They may have been running from Herod's prophecy-dismantling edict of killing first-born male babies at the time. Since the earliest writers do not mention the birthplace at all, neither Bethlehem nor Nazareth, points to the fact that it is completely irrelevant to their story.

Paul, a Jew, a Johnny or Saul-come-lately, not part of the original apostles, Jesus' core sales team, did not seem to attach any importance to Jesus' birthplace either. Paul's mission was to convert the goys; the original twelve apostles were busy converting their own kind. The Sea of Galilee area was relatively small and Jesus sermonized throughout the territory; everyone knew he was a Jew. People worshiped many different gods in those days and one more or less would not be an issue, Jewish or otherwise. They were more interested in getting out from under the thumb of the Romans. Paul was promoting a god-king, an idea that diminished the Roman Emperor. Jesus' story was revolutionary, a threat to the Empire. Who would pay taxes if everyone were willing to die and go to heaven?

The idea that the Bethlehem birth story may have been made up to fulfill an ancient prophecy is a good one; consider the extra books of the Bible that are stored in the Vatican deemed not to be appropriate propaganda during the reins of individual popes with specific ideas of where Christianity should go and where it came from. History is rewritten all the time.

Finally, as everyone knows, it's the message of Jesus that's important. When we are in dire emotional straits we say, "How can I get out? There must be a way?" Jesus told us how. He is the way, the truth and the light. Nobody gets into heaven without believing in Him. "In the meantime, do as I say and did," He might have also said. It's all about faith in an impossible dream but the ultimate reward for that faith is infinite life, a worthy goal. You are correct. It is impossible to know exactly where Jesus was born. We'll just have to wait and ask Him.