Where Was Jesus Born? (And When?)
Bethlehem Of Course
Steve Mason has probably made the best case possible that we should adopt an agnostic position regarding the birthplace of Jesus. But although Mason has examined the literary data with exemplary care, he has failed to demolish the Gospels conviction that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the days of Herod the king. He has not even succeeded in bringing it into doubt.
Mason begins by saying that all the available evidence relating to the place of Jesus birth must be taken into consideration before any location can be identified. I could not agree more. But the way Mason applies this principle does not inspire confidence. The archaeological evidence he presents is inadequate and dismissed far too quickly: There is none, Mason claims. The Church of the Nativity, which still stands in Bethlehem, is irrelevant to Mason, who claims that Constantine probably selected the site of the church on the basis of the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke. But this is certainly wrong: We do have archaeological evidence from the Church of the Nativity.
The key factor in determining where the church should be built was a venerated cave, which lies beneath the apse of the church today (see the photos contained in the sidebar to this article). The cave is not mentioned either by Matthew or by Luke but appears in several other early Christian texts. According to the Christian apologist Justin Martyr (100165 A.D.), when Joseph could not find room at the inn, he moved into a certain cave near the village, and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed him in a manger.1 Justins information must derive from a specific Bethlehem tradition, which as a native of Palestine (he was born about 40 miles to the north, in Flavia Neapolis, modern Nablus), Justin was in a position to hear.
Some might argue that Justin invented the cave to fulfill a prophecy of Isaiah: He [the Lord interpreted by Christians as the Christ] shall dwell in a lofty cavern of a strong rock (Isaiah 33:16). But it is improbable that Justin invented the tradition. Justin would never have created a story that might lead his readers to conflate Jesus with the pagan deity Mithra, who was said to have been born from a rock and was worshiped in cave temples throughout the Roman world in Jesus time.a Elsewhere, Justin shows that he is fully aware of the danger of parallels being drawn between Jesus and Mithra.
The tradition of Jesus birth in a cave was also known independently to the anonymous second-century A.D. author of the Protoevangelium of James. According to this noncanonical gospel, Joseph and a pregnant Mary were traveling to Bethlehem when Mary cried, Take me down from the ass, for the child within me presses me, to come forth.
Joseph asked, Where shall I take you and hide your shame? For the place is a desert. Joseph guided Mary into a nearby cave, where she gave birth. Later, a brilliant star directed the Magi to the cave.2
The Protoevangelium authors ignorance of the geography of Palestine (for example, he thought the cave was outside Bethlehem) suggests that he was a native of, perhaps, Egypt or Syria. He must have heard about the cave from returning travelers.
That the cave had become the focus of pilgrimage is confirmed by the early church father Origen (185254 A.D.), who reports that there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where he [Jesus] was born.3 The cave apparently attracted regular visitors, including Origen himself sometime between 231 and 246 A.D.
It is difficult to imagine that the Bethlehemites invented the cave tradition, particularly because, as there is reason to suspect, the cave was not always accessible to Christians in the days of Justin and Origen. According to the church father Jerome (342420 A.D.), who lived in Bethlehem from 386 A.D. until his death, the cave had been converted into a shrine dedicated to Adonis: From Hadrians time [135 A.D.] until the reign of Constantine, for about 180 years Bethlehem, now ours, and the earths, most sacred spot was overshadowed by a grove of Thammuz,b which is Adonis, and in the cave where the infant Messiah once cried, the paramour of Venus was bewailed.4
Local Christians were probably not permitted to worship regularly in what had become a pagan shrine. The fact that the Bethlehemites did not simply select another site as the birth cave suggests that they did not feel free to invent. They were bound to a specific cave.5 To preserve a local memory for almost 200 years implies a very strong motivation, a motivation that has nothing to do with the Gospels. With this in mind, let us evaluate the texts cited by Mason.
All that Mason says about the silence of Paul, Acts, Mark, John and some Jewish and Roman historians who fail to mention Jesus birthplace is irrelevant. Deductions from silence will appeal only to those who have already made up their minds. The most that we can derive from these sources is that Jesus was believed to have come from Nazareth. Therefore, we must focus exclusively on those two writers who do mention his birthplaceMatthew and Luke.
Mason has well brought out that Matthew and Luke offer us irreconcilably different accounts of Jesus birth: For Matthew, the story begins in Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph live; Herods slaughter of the innocents forces the family to move to Egypt, then on to Nazareth. In Luke, however, the family lives in Nazareth and only travels to Bethlehem for a census, at which time Jesus is born. What Mason fails to appreciate, however, is that Matthew 12 and Luke 12 are completely independent witnesses. One does not borrow from the other, nor do they both draw on a common source. This only enhances the reliability of the points on which they agree. According to Matthew, Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king (2:1). Luke mentions the days of Herod, king of Judea (1:5) as the period of the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist, which was separated from that of Jesus by only a few months. Jesus birth took place after a journey to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (2:4). The two evangelists, therefore, independently confirm each other as to the time and place of Jesus birth.
With regard to Matthews birth narrative (Matthew 12), Mason asks whether the evangelist might have written Jesus story in a way that makes it seem to fulfill Old Testament prophecy. Mason points out that at the end of each movement in Matthews birth narrative we find a quotation from the Old Testament introduced by a formula emphasizing the idea of fulfillment: All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet (Matthew 1:22, 2:5, 15, 17, 23). Mason asks: 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 passage in scripture [But you, O Bethlehem, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel (Micah 5:13 = Matthew 2:6)] and thought it important to describe Jesus career in the language of the prophets? Mason invites the reader to accept the second option by showing (quite accurately) how, later in the gospel, Matthew tends to adjust the story of Jesus life based on certain Old Testament prophesies. For example, Matthews version of Jesus entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and its colt (Matthew 21:19) is strongly influenced by the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 (Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey).
But does this mean that Jesus never rode into Jerusalem? Of course not! Matthews primary source for the episode of the entry into Jerusalem is Mark 11:110, which describes Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt. It was this story in Mark that led Matthew to use Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9 to bring out the significance of the event. In other words, an event evoked the prophecy; the prophecy was not the source of the event, even though it did influence the way it was presented in Matthews later gospel.
This example of Matthews literary technique establishes the way each of the fulfillment prophecies in the first two chapters in his gospel must be approached. Matthews source(s) triggered recollections of Old Testament prophecies, which Matthew then incorporated when he rewrote the story. One cannot seriously imagine an evangelist thumbing his way through his sacred scriptures in search of quotations on which to embroider a story. Simple common sense tells us it was much more a question of Hey! That reminds me of something in Isaiah!
For the sake of argument, I will accept Masons claims that the episodes involving the mysterious star guiding the Magi (Matthew 2:112) and Herods massacre of the innocents (Matthew 2:1618) are not historical.6 But what has this to do with the gospels unequivocal and unexceptional assertion that Jesus was born in Bethlehem? Mason invites his readers to assume that all the details in Matthews birth narrative are fabricated simply because these two episodes are fabricated. But falsehood is not a toxic gas that affects everything around it.
Now let us turn to Luke. Mason recognizes (as do all scholars) that the census mentioned in Luke (2:12) took place in 6 A.D., which is far too late to be of any relevance to the birth of Jesus in the days of Herod the king (374 B.C.): In other words, Joseph and Mary could not have been traveling to Bethlehem for this census. Thus, the linchpin of Lukes narrative slips out, and the story fragments into a number of individual, unrelated elements. But the fact that Luke is wrong on X (the census) does not necessarily mean that he is wrong on Y (the location of Jesus birth).
Finally, we come to Masons conclusions. Masons reason for evoking New Testament documents such as Mark and Paul, which say nothing about the birthplace of Jesus, only now becomes apparent. In Masons view, the silence of these writers indicates that it was fairly late when some Christians first became more interested in the question [of where Jesus had been born]. Now, it might be fairly late when some Christians wrote about the birthplace of Jesus, but that says nothing about when they first became interested in or knowledgeable about the subject.
Mason continues, Even by the time of Matthew and Luke, reliable information about Jesus birth was no longer available. Nothing in his article lays the ground for such a statement. Matthew and Luke are unreliable on some points, but Mason has not demonstrated that the birthplace of Jesus is one of them.
Assuming that reliable information was unavailable to Matthew and Luke, Mason postulates that one of their sources created the story: These authors [Matthew and Luke] 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.
The idea that birth narratives as different as those of Matthew and Luke could go back to a common source boggles the mind. It would have been most interesting to see Mason even begin to attempt to outline the contents of such a source. Matthew, as we have seen, did not generate events on the basis of prophecy. On the contrary, he used prophecies to bring out the meaning of events otherwise attested. There is no hint that Micah 5:2 was of any importance for Luke. It is implausible, therefore, to infer that he derived his choice of Jesus birthplace from this prophecy. Nor did he derive it from Matthew, whose version of the childhood of Jesus he did not know. The one option left is that Luke knew it for a fact.
One concluding observation: Mason claims that establishing some kind of connection with David might have been critical for a messianic figure in Jesus time. He writes: A birth in Bethlehem, King Davids place of origin, would naturally cement Jesus Jewish messianic affiliation. But during Jesus lifetime, belief that he was the Messiah did not require seeing him as the son of David (and therefore did not benefit from any connection with Bethlehem). In this period, the Davidic Messiah was not the only type of Messiah hoped for. Priest, prophet and teacher figures were also expected.7 It would have been much easier for a contemporary to have fitted Jesus into any one of these categories. (Remember, his mother was related to Elizabeth, a descendant of Aaron, the first priest [Luke 1:5, 36].) None of these other messianic categories had any connection with Bethlehem. In consequence, Jesus could have been thought of as a Messiah without any reference to Bethlehem.
Furthermore, of the many different categories of Messiah, that of Davidic Messiah would have been the least likely match for Jesus in the eyes of his contemporaries. Indeed, Jesus behavior was the antithesis of that of a son of David, who was expected to be a warrior king who would rule with supreme authority. This hope is expressed most vividly in the first-century B.C. Psalms of Solomon:
See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the Son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God. Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from Gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potters jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth.8
Jesus, on the contrary, was the friend of tax collectors and sinners. He made no move against the Roman occupiers or the absentee landlords. He had no political agenda, and his compassion for the poor and disadvantaged was individual, not national. Moreover, he seems to have reacted against the idea of a royal Messiah.9
If the early church thought of Jesus in terms of Davidic messianismand it certainly did10it was not because of anything he said or did but because of who he was and where he came from. And he came from Bethlehem.
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