Where Was Jesus Born? (And When?)
O Little Town of Nazareth?
Where was Jesus born? In Bethlehem, of course, in a manger, because there was no room for Joseph and Mary at the local inn. Thats what all the Christmas carols say. And thats what the Gospels say, too.
Or is it?
Once we begin to examine the gospel stories carefully, we find that the answer to this simple question is not so, well, simple. Passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that describe Jesus birth in Bethlehem have been seamlessly woven together in modern-day Christmas pageants, but the Gospels of Mark and John leave the reader with the distinct impression that Jesus was born not in Bethlehem after all, but in Nazareth.
For the historian, these inconsistencies pose a challenge.1
The historian is a time detective, whose task is to raise a specific question about the past, to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support a probable solution, and finally, to demonstrate how such a solution explains the evidence. Whichever hypothesis most adequately explains the variety of independent evidence becomes a historical factat least until a better hypothesis comes along.
Applying historical analysis to the earliest Christian writings, most of which are in the New Testament, is not a casual exercise. These are not only the most familiar documents from Western antiquity; they are also revered as scripture by millions of Christians around the globe. Interpreters tend either to overlook ordinary historical questions when reading them or, in some cases, to overcompensate by an unusually aggressive dismissal of their claims. Nevertheless, if the history of Christian origins is to mean anything, we should not simply abandon ourselves to inherited traditions; we should not switch off our normal thought processes when we contemplate Christian beginnings. Instead, we must strive to analyze these texts with the same discipline we use in reconstructing the past behind the narratives of ancient historians such as Livy, Josephus and Tacitus. I realize that some readers consider it inappropriate to apply common historical principles to these texts, and I respect that position. Obviously, I take a different view, which is why I would like to address the question of Jesus birthplace.2
To try to establish where Jesus was born, the historian must examine all the relevant evidencewhether material artifacts, such as coins, pottery and stone inscriptions, or ancient literature, such as the Gospels, the letters of Paul and the Roman histories and other extrabiblical texts.
In our study of Jesus birthplace, we can review the archaeological evidence quickly, because there is none: We have no material remains bearing on Jesus birthplace. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, for example, was not built because of any local memory of Jesus birth there; it is a much later memorial, constructed on the site of a fourth-century church erected by the emperor Constantine when Christianity received state recognition. Constantine probably selected the spot based on the then-famous stories recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
That leaves us with the texts.
Not one of the first- and early-second-century A.D. non-Christian authors who mention Christians in passingthe Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the Romans Tacitus and Plinyprovides us with any helpful information about Jesus birthplace. We have only the earliest Christian texts, written by the first three generations of Jesus followers, from the time of Jesus death in about 30 A.D. to roughly 150 A.D. These writingsand only these writingsare the sources we must examine.
The only texts that are dated with some confidence to the first Christian generation (about 30 to 65 A.D.) are the New Testament letters genuinely attributed to Paul. From the second generation, we have the four canonical Gospels. The Gospels are generally dated to between 65 and 100 A.D., with Mark being the earliest and Matthew and Luke dating to the end of that period. John may fall almost anywhere within this range.3
But what did these writers really know about Jesus birthplace? And what motivated them to speak of Jesus birth at all?
Lets begin with our earliest source, Paul.
In all of the letters that we have, Paul never mentions any geographical location in connection with Jesus.
This absence can be explained in several ways: Such references may have been irrelevant to his purposes; or he may have assumed that his (converted) readers already knew of these traditions and therefore that he didnt need to mention them; or he may not have known much about the geography of Jesus life. Admittedly, much can be attributed to the first category (irrelevance), since Paul was primarily concerned with Jesus status between his crucifixion and his return from heaven, and not so much with the mundane details of Jesus life. When he referred to Jesus betrayal and described the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23), for example, he almost certainly knew that these events took place near Jerusalem, but he had no reason to bring it up.
Did Paul know any tradition about the place of Jesus birth? Since he does not mention one, we cannot be certain. But there is another way to approach this question, which is to ask whether it would have helped Pauls argumentsor those of his correspondentsto mention Jesus birthplace if he did know about it.
Paul wrote letters, not essays, and he was in frequent debate with other Christians whose views differed from his own. His letters preserve not only his own perspectives, therefore, but also traces of his correspondents. For example, many of Pauls gentile converts were attracted by Judaism; some of the males were even willing to undergo circumcision (Galatians 4:21, 5:212). So Paul discussed circumcision at several points, even though he probably would not have raised the subject if he were simply presenting his own views. So, we can ask not only whether Jesus birthplace was an issue for Paul, but whether his letters indicate that it was an issue for any first-generation Christians.
Paul mentions Jesus ancestry only twice, and then incidentally. The first time, he is writing to some gentile converts in Galatia, trying to discourage them from their zeal to adopt Judaism. Just as Jesus, though he had been born under the law and of a woman, achieved spiritual sonship and freedom from the law (Galatians 4:4), so also the Galatians, who have achieved spiritual sonship, must not regress by enslaving themselves to a physical regimen (as Paul characterizes the Jewish calendar and circumcision).
The second time Paul mentions Jesus birth, he is addressing converts in Rome. In this context, he concedes to his readers Jesus physical ancestry from David, but he highlights Jesus designation as Son of God for all humanity (Romans 1:4).
Scholars differ significantly in their understanding of Pauls motives,a but I would argue that even if he had known of the Bethlehem tradition, it would not have served his interests to mention it. Among his gentile converts, attraction to Judaism was an ongoing phenomenon. Pauls consistent line was to draw them back to the new creation that he believed had supplanted Judaism (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). A birth in Bethlehem, King Davids home, would naturally cement Jesus Jewish-messianic affiliation,4 which Paul was trying to move beyond. Thus it is not surprising that Paul might not have mentioned Jesus birth in Bethlehem even if he knew about it, for mentioning Bethlehem would only have given fuel to his Jewish Christian opponents. First, in Romans 1:3, Paul does concede Jesus Davidic descent: Although he was son of David according to the flesh (a negative category for Paul), he became son of God (much grander, no?) by his resurrection from the deadfrom the physical to the spiritual. Second, although someone else might argue that Davidic ancestry would increase Jesus appeal for Paul and his readers, I cannot see that. Paul is in a dire struggle with the Jewish Christians precisely because he has been preaching to gentiles a dying and rising saviorJesus denuded of Jewish connections. It would only help his opponents to emphasize Jesus Davidic ancestry. For Paul, that is more or less irrelevant: Jesus is the son of God, for all nations alike, without any special Jewish connection. Judaism has, for Paul, ended.
More telling, perhaps, is that Pauls correspondents did not seize upon Jesus birth in Bethlehem, if they had known about it, as evidence of the Jewish nature of Jesus. From Pauls letters, we know that his correspondents quoted copiously from Jewish scripture (including the terms of the covenant with Abraham and Moses) and that they appealed to the examples of Jesus own brothers and students, who no doubt spoke of Jesus Jewish practices (2 Corinthians 11:529; Galatians 1:611, 2:1121, 3:621). They marshaled arguments for Jesus Jewish context, and Paul was forced to reply to them in some detail. But as far as we can tell, the circumstances of Jesus birth never came up. If Jesus was known to have had a miraculous birth in the auspicious village of Bethlehem, wouldnt someone in this first generation have made some sort of appeal to it? Yet, in the end, we are left with complete silence about Jesus birthplace from the time of Jesus death to about 65 A.D.
The Gospels are at least a generation removed from Jesus birth. It is extremely unlikely that any of these authors was an eyewitness to Jesus life. They all relied on oral and written sources. Indeed, the author of Luke freely admits at the outset that the events he describes were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2). The Fourth Gospel concludes with a similar disclosure (John 21:24).5 Further, all four Gospels are anonymous texts. The familiar attributions of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John come from the mid-second century and later, and we have no good historical reason to accept these attributions.
Although we cannot identify the authors or the precise dates of the Gospels, we can say something about the literary relationship of the first three Gospels (the Synoptic Gospels).b The dominant hypothesis today is that Mark served as a source for both Matthew and Luke and that the extensive material common to Matthew and Luke but not paralleled in Mark comes from another shared source (called Q for convenience), which is now lost.c I make no use of Q here, though I do assume for arguments sake that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source.6
Did the author of Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels, know anything about the place of Jesus birth?
Unlike Luke and Matthew, which include the familiar birth stories, Mark opens with Jesus as an adult, who simply emerges from Nazareth: In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan (Mark 1:9). When Jesus moves to Capernaum, everyone continues to address him as a Nazarene. What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? ask the locals in the Capernaum synagogue (Mark 1:24; see also 10:47, 14:67, 16:6). When Jesus returns to his hometown (Greek patris, ancestral home), he goes to Nazareth (Mark 6:1). When he teaches in the Nazareth synagogue, the locals are offended at his pretensions because they have long known him, his mother, his brothers and his sisters (Mark 6:13). Although the author does not say since birth, that seems to be assumed. Jesus responds famously: Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, among their own kin, and in their own home (Mark 6:4).
The author of Mark is not simply silent about Bethlehem; he appears to assume that Jesus was born and raised in Nazareth. Anyone who read Mark alone, without benefit of Matthew or Luke (which Marks first readers would not have known), would receive that impression. Mark makes no effort to explain any other origin.
But does this mean that Mark knows nothing of a Bethlehem birth? Or might Mark, like Paul, have had strong motives to deny any connection between Jesus and that town?
Marks story is very much in the tradition of Pauls: The Gospel portrays Jesus as the dying and rising savior, who will return shortly to save his followers, represented by all nations. In Mark, Jesus is fundamentally, indeed fatally, alienated from Judaism. What is this? A new teaching! his Jewish listeners gasp (Mark 1:27). Jesus Jewish family, students and hometown folk are major disappointments to him because they do not understand him. Later in Mark, it is the Pharisees (members of a Jewish sect) who will conspire with Herod to murder Jesus (Mark 3:6). Even if the author of Mark had known about a Bethlehem birth, he, like Paul, may have had reason to suppress that information in order to disassociate Jesus from Jewish categories.
In keeping with this dislocation from Judaism, Marks Jesus directly challenges the notion that the Messiah should be a descendant of David: While Jesus was teaching in the Temple, he said, How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his [Davids] son? (Mark 12:3537). If Davidic descent itself is unimportant in Mark, birth in Davids hometown is irrelevant.
On the other hand, at least one passage in Mark indicates that the author, rather than trying to hide the traditions surrounding Jesus birth, truly did not know about them: Once, when Jesus returns home and a crowd gathers around him, his family and friends go out to seize him, thinking that he is out of his mind because of his behavior (Mark 3:21). If the author of Mark (or his Christian readers) had known about the heavenly revelations to Mary and Joseph, about the shepherds and the Magi, and about the great celebration at the time of Jesus birth in Bethlehem, would he not have mentioned this?
Although both Matthew and Luke appear to have drawn on Mark, these later Gospels often disagree significantly with their source. The authors of Matthew and Luke were especially concerned with re-establishing Jesus within Judaism to some degree. And the story that they had heard about Jesus birth in Bethlehem helped them do so.
Matthews intentions are clear from his opening lines, which firmly establish Jesus Jewish roots: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Matthew goes on to list the generations from Abraham to Jesusincluding 14 from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the Exile and a final 14 from the Exile to Jesus. Only then does Matthew describe the birth: Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18). An angel encourages Joseph not to abandon Mary:
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet [quoting Isaiah 7:14d]: Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means God is with us. When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Only then are we given the time and location of the birth: In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
Frightened, Herod calls together his chief priests and scribes and asks them where the Messiah was to be born. Quoting the prophet Micah (see the first sidebar to this article), they reply: In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel (Matthew 2:56).
In Matthews account, Jesus parents initially live in Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1, 11). It is only when a paranoid King Herod massacres the newborns in that region (Matthew 2:16) that the family flees to Egypt. Although the new parents wish to return home to Bethlehem in Judea after Herods death, they receive divine instruction to settle in a town called Nazareth (Matthew 2:23), which is introduced at the end of Matthews birth narrative. Each of the familys movements, the author repeatedly points out, fulfills what was spoken through the prophet (Matthew 1:22, 2:5, 15, 17, 23), quoting Isaiah, Micah and perhaps other prophets. Clearly, Matthew wants to show that Jesus stood in continuity with his Jewish past.
Matthews allusions to Micah and other prophets raise a crucial question: Is it more likely that the author included a Bethlehem birth for Jesus because he knew that this had in fact happened or because he knew of the passages in scripture and thought it important to describe Jesus career in the language of the prophets? This may seem cynical, but it is an unavoidable issue for the historian. Later in Matthew, we find the author clearly adjusting the story of Jesus life to match the Old Testament record. For example, in Mark, when Jesus enters Jerusalem, he rides on a donkey colt (Mark 11:2). The author of Matthew parallels Marks story almost verbatim, except that he has Jesus riding on both a donkey and its colt (Matthew 21:2, 7). The author explains that this action fulfills Zechariah 9:9, according to which the king of Israel should come riding on a donkey and a colt (Matthew 21:45).e
Has the author of Matthew similarly manipulated the birth account?
Matthews infancy narrative can be suspiciously formulaic, beginning with the neat division of Jesus genealogy into three sets of 14 generations, which do not accord with the Old Testament parallels or even with the text of Matthew itself.7 Such patterns suggest that the author is not simply reporting on events.8
Further, despite Matthews efforts to construct neat literary patterns, the Bethlehem story is not well incorporated into the rest of the text. Immediately following the birth narrative, Matthew appears to revert to Marks version of events. In chapters 3 to 28 of Matthew, which paraphrase Mark extensively, Jesus speaks of Nazareth as his ancestral home or birthplace (Matthew 13:57) and Jesus is said to be from Nazareth (Matthew 21:11, 26:71). Joseph, a central figure in the birth narrative, disappears entirely (in keeping with Mark, which never mentions Joseph), and the birth story is nowhere recalled in later chapters of Matthew. Curiously, Matthew even preserves Jesus challenge to the Messiahs descent from David (Matthew 22:4145).
Finally, there are obvious historical difficulties with Matthews birth narrative, including the mysterious star that somehow identified a particular house in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:911) and Herods slaughter of childrenan event that is not recorded in any other first-century A.D. source. Matthews contemporary Josephus wrote several volumes excoriating Herod for his violations of Jewish custom.9 It seems highly unlikely that if a slaughter of babies had taken place near Jerusalem, Josephus would not have heard about it and used it as an example of Herods heinous crimes.
The most serious doubts about the historicity of Matthews Bethlehem story, however, come to light as we compare his text with Lukes.
Lukes Bethlehem story is not complementary to Matthews, filling in the gaps, as is often assumed. Rather, it is an irreconcilably different account from beginning to end: in story line, supporting characters, geographical and historical detail, and style. Both accounts explain that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth, but that is all they share.
The Gospel of Luke opens with two birth narrativesJohn the Baptists and Jesusclaiming that the two men were relatives (Luke 1:52:21, esp. 1:3645). We first read of how Johns elderly parents, late in life, will give birth to a son; then we read of the annunciation to Mary. Next were told the circumstances of the birth and infancy of John and then of Jesus.
Lukes account of Jesus birth opens with Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth (not Bethlehem, as Matthew has it). Near the end of Marys pregnancy, during the rule of the emperor Augustus and the Syrian governor Quirinius, the couple must travel to Bethlehem for a worldwide census (never mentioned in Matthew), which requires people to return to their ancestral homes (Luke 2:15). Joseph goes to Bethlehem because he belongs to the house and ancestry (oikos kai patria) of King David, who lived a millennium earlier. Jesus is born just after his parents arrive in Bethlehem. There is no room for them at the inn, so he is born in the local manger (Luke 2:7), where he is adored by the local shepherds. Once Marys 33 days of purification are over (Luke 2:22; cf. Leviticus 12:4), she presents Jesus in the Temple with an appropriate sacrifice; then she and Joseph return home to Nazareth (Luke 2:39; in Matthew, they only settle in Nazareth after traveling to Egypt).
The author of Luke, like the author of Matthew, wishes to establish Jesus within Judaism.10 Does he mention Bethlehem simply to strengthen his argument?11
Just as Matthews account presents historical problems, so does Lukes. The census, mentioned only by Luke, provides the historical context for Lukes birth narrative. We do have outside corroboration of a census of the Jews under the Syrian governor Quirinius, when Judea was directly annexed to Rome as a province: This census plays a significant role in the histories of Josephus because it reportedly sparked a popular revolt.12
Lukes effort to link Jesus birth in Bethlehem with the census is, however, plagued by historical inconsistencies and improbabilities.13 The census described by Josephus occurred in 6 A.D., several years after Jesus birth (see the second sidebar to this article). It was not a worldwide census, although it apparently included Syria along with Judea. And requiring people to travel far away from where they were living would defeat the purpose of a Roman census, which was to assess current property for taxation. Moreover, only the household head would need to report to a local administrative center. Finally, it would be absurd to require all the thousands of descendants of David, who had lived a thousand years earlier, to return to his birthplace. David himself moved to Jerusalem after conquering the city, and so a descendant of David would also be a descendant of many othersfrom Jerusalem.
These are not the only problems with Lukes narrative: Following the initial account of Jesus birth in Luke, the remarkable Bethlehem story plays no further role (just as in Matthew). Significantly, the author describes Nazareth as the place where Jesus was raised (Luke 4:16) rather than as Jesus native town (cf. Mark 6:1), but Jesus continues to be identified as Jesus of Nazareth or the Nazarene (Luke 4:34, 18:37, 24:19; Acts 2:22, 3:6, 4:10, 6:14 et al.). Further, when Jesus comes to trial, Lukealoneinsists that because he was a Galilean by origin, Jesus had to be tried by Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee who was visiting Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 23:67). There is no remembrance of Bethlehem as Jesus ancestral home.14
The Gospel of John offers no account of Jesus birth, but the text nevertheless reveals many early Christian assumptions regarding Jesus birthplace.
Most tellingly, in John 7:4044 a crowd is debating whether Jesus is a prophet or the Messiah; some of the people object, saying: The Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Didnt the scripture say that the Messiah comes from the seed of David, from Bethlehemthe village where David was from? No one says, Wait a minute. Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem! The author of John does not seem to know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Similarly, when the disciple Nathanael is told that Jesus is the one described in the Law and Prophets and comes from Nazareth, Nathanael retorts, Can anything good come from Nazareth? (John 1:4546).
The contrast between what Jesus appears to be (human) and what he really is (divine) is a theme found throughout the Gospel: Similarly, Jesus appears to die miserably, as any man would, when hoisted on the cross, whereas in reality the cross marks his exaltation and the completion of his mission (John 12:32, 19:30). It fits with Johns entire approach, therefore, to use Jesus humble birth in Nazareth as a counterpoint to his heavenly origin.
Let us return to our simple question: Where was Jesus born? Does any hypothesis concerning Jesus birthplace explain the evidence?
If Jesus was born in Bethlehem and this was widely known among his followers, then Jesus distinguished place of birth must have been regarded as irrelevant to any early Christian discussion that has left traces in Pauls letters. This would be surprising, though not entirely improbable.
Similarly, the author of Mark might have suppressed this information, while at the same time implying that Jesus was from Nazareth, out of a desire to separate Jesus from Jewish traditions.
The author of John, too, may have concealed the Bethlehem tradition; this, however, is more difficult to explain, because if it was widely known that Jesus was from Bethlehem, that knowledge would have undercut the authors use of irony based on Jesus ignominious origins as a Galilean and, more specifically, a Nazarene.
Even harder to explain are the extensive disagreements and numerous historical improbabilities in the only two texts that posit a Bethlehem birth: Matthew and Luke. Neither narrative indicates that its author knew the circumstances of Jesus birth.
Finally, if Jesus birth in Davidic Bethlehem was widely known among early Christians, why didnt this knowledge have a greater effect on the thinking of the first four generations of Christians, who were most exercised to prove Jesus messiahship to doubting Jews?
If the Bethlehem hypothesis does not explain the evidence very well, would another site, such as Nazareth, work better? Perhaps, but our survey of the evidence suggests that early Christians simply did not know much about Jesus birth. This is only to be expected, since Jesus main significance for many of his earliest followers had to do with his teaching, death, resurrection and expected return. When Jesus began his ministry as an adult, he was known to his followers as Jesus of Nazaretha title that persists in all the second-generation texts. Christians throughout the first generation reasonably assumed, as did the later authors of Mark and John, that Jesus was born and raised in Nazareth. It was fairly late when some Christians first became more interested in the question, and this accords with a demonstrable tendency in later Christian history to cultivate information about Jesus birth and early years. Even by the time of Matthew and Luke, reliable information about Jesus birth was no longer available. These authors took the basic proposition (probably from an earlier, now-lost source) that Jesus, the son of David, had been born in Bethlehem before Joseph and Mary had become intimate. This proposition could easily have originated in reflection upon Micah 5:2 and developed from there. That would explain why their stories fit their respective literary proclivities so well. It was only in the mid-second century, after their accounts were in wide circulation, that Jesus birth in Bethlehem, the city of David, would capture the Christian imagination. Only then did the Bethlehem birth become a significant argument for Jesus messiahship and the evolving doctrine of the incarnationof God becoming man.
Where was Jesus born? Was it Bethlehem or Nazareth or even Sepphoris, Tiberias or Jerusalem? We cannot know for sure because the early Christians themselves apparently did not know.
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