I love Christmas and I relish the traditional accounts and stories. Occasionally, however, I put on my scholar’s cap and examine these things a little bit more critically, always being careful not to let such historical investigations ruin my appreciation of the holiday. In this latter mode, a question that I find fascinating is “Where was Jesus born?”
Certainly to most Christians, including Mormons, the answer is obvious: Bethlehem of Judea. Our only real sources for the birth are the accounts in Matthew and Luke, and they agree on this point. Many scholars, however, think it more likely that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth. Let me see if I can sketch out the argument:
- The earliest Christian literature, the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark, betray no awareness of or interest in where Jesus was born.
- There was a tradition that the Messiah should come out of Bethlehem, and Matthew even quotes the key OT passage to that effect (Micah 5:2). Matthew was anxious–some would say over-anxious–to establish ways in which Jesus fulfilled OT prophecy.
- It is true that Matthew and Luke agree on Bethlehem as the birthplace. But they seem to be relying on variant preexisting traditions. Matthew relates the appearance of an angel to Joseph in a dream, the visit of the Magi while they are living in a house and Jesus is older than a newborn [paidion], the slaughter of the innocents, the flight into Egypt, after which the little family relocates to Nazareth.
- In contrast, Luke has the couple living in Nazareth, the appearance of an angel to Mary, the worldwide census ordered by Augustus Caesar, the 90-mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, no room in the inn [kataluma, probably a guest room in a house as opposed to a private inn], the manger and the shepherds.
- The census is extremely problematic. If Augustus had ordered such a mammoth census, we would know of it. Quirinius conducted a census in 6 CE–too late to be the one in the story, and it was limited to Judea, so Joseph would not have been subject to it. Censuses were taken where people lived; the logistics of having everyone return to their ancestral lands would have been overwhelming. It is also highly unlikely that Joseph would have brought his extremely pregnant wife on such an immensely difficult and taxing journey (it certainly wouldn’t have been required by the authorities).
- Some understand Mark 6:1 as identifying Nazareth as the place where Jesus was born. And the type of expression we see in Jesus of Nazareth typically identifies the place of a person’s birth (like Judas Iscariot, from ish Kerioth, “a man born in/from Kerioth”). Jesus was called a Nazarene, and never Jesus of Bethlehem.
- The archaeology of Bethlehem isn’t promising for Herodian period occupation (there is occupation from 1200 to 550 BCE and then again starting in the fourth century CE).
For these reasons, many scholars conclude that the more natural assumption is that Jesus was born in Nazareth, and the stories about his birth in Bethlehem grew to prop up his claims to be the Messiah. An alternative view suggests that he may have been born in Bethlehem of Galilee (much closer to Nazareth) rather than in Bethlehem of Judea.
I personally am agnostic, but open minded, on this particular question.
What do you think?