Was Jesus Really Born in Bethlehem? The Gospels Disagree.
MUSA AL SHAER / AFP via Getty Images
By Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III, Adjunct Assistant Professor of the New Testament, Fuller Theological Seminary.
Every Christmas, a relatively small town in the Palestinian West Bank takes center stage: Bethlehem. According to some biblical sources, Jesus was born in this city two millennia ago.
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The New Testament gospels, however, disagree on the details of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Some don't mention Bethlehem or the birth of Jesus at all.
The different views of the Gospels could be difficult to reconcile. However, as a New Testament scholar, I argue that the Gospels provide an important glimpse into Greco-Roman views of ethnic identity, including genealogy.
Today genealogies can raise awareness of family history or help reveal lost family members. In Greco-Roman times, birth histories and genealogical claims were used to establish the right to rule and associate individuals with alleged ancestral greatness.
Gospel of Matthew
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the first gospel in the New Testament canon, Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. The story begins with sages who come to the city of Jerusalem after seeing a star that they interpreted as a sign of the birth of a new king.
It further describes how they met with the local Jewish king named Herod, from whom they inquired about the place of Jesus' birth. The Gospel says that the Star of Bethlehem later leads them to a house - not a manger - where Jesus Joseph and Mary were born. Overjoyed, they worship Jesus and give gifts made of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These were valuable gifts, especially frankincense and myrrh, expensive fragrances that were used medicinally.
The Gospel explains that after their visit, Joseph had a dream in which he was warned of Herod's attempt to kill Baby Jesus. When the wise men went to Herod with news that a child had been born king of the Jews, he planned to kill all the young children to remove the threat to his throne. Then it is mentioned how Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus left for Egypt to escape King Herod's attempt to murder all the young children.
Matthew also says that Joseph, Mary and Jesus will not return to Bethlehem after Herod's death from an illness. Instead, they travel north to Nazareth in Galilee, now known as Nazareth in Israel.
Christ Child figurines will be on display in a shop in the city of Bethlehem in the biblical West Bank on December 22, 2018, three days before the Christmas celebration.
Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of Luke, an account of the life of Jesus written at the same time as the Gospel of Matthew, has a different version of the birth of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke begins with Joseph and a pregnant Mary in Galilee. You travel to Bethlehem in response to a census that the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus needed for the entire Jewish people. Since Joseph was a descendant of King David, Bethlehem was the hometown in which he had to register.
The Gospel of Luke does not include any flight into Egypt, no paranoid King Herod, no murder of children and no wise men visiting the baby Jesus. Jesus is born in a manger because all travelers have overcrowded the guest rooms. After the birth, Joseph and Mary are visited not by wise men, but by shepherds who were overjoyed about the birth of Jesus.
Luke says these shepherds were informed by angels of Jesus' location in Bethlehem. There is no guiding star in Luke's story, nor do the shepherds bring gifts to the Baby Jesus. Luke also mentions that eight days after his birth, Joseph, Mary and Jesus left Bethlehem and traveled to Jerusalem and then to Nazareth.
The differences between Matthew and Luke can hardly be reconciled, although they have some similarities. John Meier, a scholar on the historical Jesus, explains that "the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is not to be understood as a historical fact" but as "theological confirmation in the form of a seemingly historical narrative". In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about Jesus' birth in Bethlehem.
Raymond Brown, another Gospel scholar, also states that "The two narratives are not only different - they contradict each other on a number of details."
People walk past a Christmas tree in front of the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, on December 25, 2013 in Bethlehem, West Bank.
Mark and John's Gospels
What makes it more difficult is that neither the other Gospels, those of Mark and John, mention the birth of Jesus nor his connection to Bethlehem.
The Gospel of Mark is the earliest account of the life of Jesus written around AD 60. The first chapter of Mark says that Jesus comes from "Nazareth of Galilee". This is repeated several times throughout the gospel, and Bethlehem is never mentioned.
A blind beggar in the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus as both from Nazareth and as the son of David, the second king of Israel and Judah in the years 1010-970 BC. But King David was neither born in Nazareth nor associated with that city. He was from Bethlehem. But Mark does not identify Jesus with the city of Bethlehem.
The Gospel of John, which was written about 15 to 20 years after that of Mark, also does not link Jesus with Bethlehem. Galilee is the hometown of Jesus. Jesus found his first disciples, performed several miracles, and had brothers in Galilee.
This does not mean that John was ignorant of the importance of Bethlehem. John mentions a debate in which some Jews referred to the prophecy that the Messiah would be a descendant of David and come from Bethlehem. But according to the Gospel of John, Jesus is never associated with Bethlehem, but with Galilee and especially with Nazareth.
The Gospels of Mark and John show that they either had problems connecting Bethlehem with Jesus, did not know his place of birth, or were not concerned with this city.
These weren't the only ones. Apostle Paul, who wrote the earliest New Testament documents, viewed Jesus as a descendant of David, but does not associate him with Bethlehem. The book of Revelation also confirms that Jesus was a descendant of David, but does not mention Bethlehem.
An ethnic identity
During the time of Jesus' life there were several perspectives on the Messiah. In a stream of Jewish thought, the Messiah was supposed to be an eternal ruler of David's line. Other Jewish texts, such as the book of 4 Ezra, written in the same century as the Gospels, and the Jewish sectarian Qumran literature written two centuries earlier, also reflect this belief.
But in the Hebrew Bible, a prophetic book called Micah, which is believed to have been written around v. Was written. 722 prophesies that the Messiah would come from David's hometown, Bethlehem. This text is repeated in Matthew's version. Luke mentions that Jesus is not only genealogically connected to King David, but was also born in Bethlehem, the "City of David".
Genealogical claims were made for important ancient founders and political leaders. For example, Ion, the founder of the Greek colonies in Asia, was considered a descendant of Apollo. Alexander the Great, whose empire extended from Macedonia to India, is said to have been a son of Hercules. Caesar Augustus, who was the first Roman emperor, was proclaimed a descendant of Apollo. And a Jewish writer named Philo, who lived in the first century, wrote that Abraham and the Jewish priest and prophets were born of God.
Regardless of whether these claims were accepted as true at the time, they shaped a person's ethnic identity, political status, and claims to honor. As the Greek historian Polybius explains, the known deeds of the ancestors are "part of the legacy of posterity".
The inclusion of the city of Bethlehem by Matthew and Luke contributed to the claim that Jesus was the Messiah from a Davidic lineage. They made sure that by mentioning this city, readers knew about Jesus' genealogical connection to King David. Birth histories in Bethlehem confirmed the claim that Jesus was a rightful descendant of King David.
Today, when the meaning of Bethlehem is heard in Christmas carols or shown in manger scenes, the name of the city associates Jesus with an ancestral line and prophetic hope in a new leader like King David.
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