“O Little Town of…Nazareth?”

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?


  1. You’re completely ignoring the 2nd rate anti-Mormon accusation that we really believe Jesus was born in Jerusalem:

    And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God. Alma 7:10

    You’ll totally confuse the anti crowd if they start wondering if we believe Jesus was born in Nazareth.

  2. Mark B – Nice! :)

    Interesting question, but ultimately, not important. So I guess I’m agnostic like yourself Kevin.

    With Mark 6:1, well, Jesus was raised in Nazareth, so it would be natural for people to assume he was from there, even if he had been born somewhere else. That would be the weakest evidence that is mentioned above.

    As far as the archaeology of Bethlehem, do you mean that there is no evidence of it’s existence?

  3. I think he means there is no evidence of its being occupied by residents during the period under discussion.

  4. Thanks, Brad. I was thinking that after I had posted, but I’ve been roming elsewhere for a little bit.

  5. Well, as someone who counts the hours spent in a tiny prop airplane while 7 months pregnant with twins (is it really necessary for the seats to be smaller, just because the airplane is smaller?) as some of the most miserable of my life, I’m simply delighted to hear that Mary may not have had to make that donkey journey. I certainly thought sympathetically of her a great deal during my pregnant journeyings.

    But are you saying the whole stable thing most likely didn’t happen? That would be sad. I rather liked the idea of resting on the hay and all that. Something so cozily earthy about it; for me, it evokes all the best connotations of the birth experience. Is there some reason for Jewish cleanliness laws or whatever, that she would have been sent out to a stable? Why include that part of the story?

  6. My sense of the story is that, regardless of whether or not such events actually took place as depicted, the idea was not warm and cozy, organically comfortable, etc. Jesus was born in squalor — the worst of the basest possible circumstances. A manger (which now is associated in our minds with the warmest fuzziest of images) was basically a trough out of which animals ate and drank. I think her being sent there to sleep/birth was merely a function of there being no room in places with more accommodating facilities.

    But all things considered, if we take the story seriously, even if we question some of the details, it was meant to convey Jesus being born into the most abject, impoverished of earthly circumstances. A less dignified set of material circumstances can scarcely be imagined.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Mark B., for mentioning that. I actually thought of mentioning it, but the post was already too long. (I agree with you that the anti take on it is quite silly.)

    blah 2, I think it’s most likely that, if we assume the lucan account is basically historical, the “inn” was the upper guest chamber in a relative’s house (it wasn’t Motel 6), and they were relegated to a lower room where the animals were kept.

    You might think that some gallant, chivalrous man would allow the very pregnant Mary room in the guest chamber and take the undesirable space himself. But remember that this is basically an out of wedlock pregnancy, which would not have been looked on kindly by Joseph’s relatives.

  8. By the way, good post, Kevin. It brings to mind a bigger question, which I am sure scholars on the New Testament have spent lifetimes studying, but that is the provenance of the infancy narratives. Who were the sources for Matthew and Luke? Was it Mary? John the Baptist passing on stories his mother told him to his disciples who became disciples of Jesus?

    Obviously, neither of them was eyewitness to the events.

  9. A manger (which now is associated in our minds with the warmest fuzziest of images) was basically a trough out of which animals ate and drank.

    Well, yeah. But it doesn’t look like that in my imagination. ;-)

  10. I think you should stay away from my house during Christmas, can sing in tune with my CD Christmas carols , or have fudge.

  11. Kevin, I enjoyed your scholarly note/question, and I share your agnosticism (focusing on the literal “without knowledge” meaning).
    I’m just now reading Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. He doesn’t discuss this issue, but your post reminds me of his style in that book, which is to briefly introduce lay readers to some of the interesting complications with a particular NT text.

  12. #10: that unless you can sing….

  13. Here is a challenge for you. The Book of Luke states that everyone had to return to their hometown of ancestry in order for the world wide census to be done. Well the Roman’s did not conduct any census in the way the Bible tells it. Now the challenge – name two Spanish Jews who ttravelled all the way – thousands of miles from Roman occuped Spain to Roman occupied Palestine to be registered under the Census. Tell us about them – the adventures they had along the way. You won’t be able to do it.

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