This came up in conversation and so I will present the issues concerning Bethlehem in the nativity accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. These posts concerning the nativity sit alongside my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination.
Bethlehem is a very important place for the average Christian. It is the birthplace of Jesus. But it is more than that, it is the birthplace of the predicted Messiah, whether Jesus existed or not. For Jews and Christians alike, Bethlehem was touted as ‘the place to be born’ if you had any hopes of achieving Messianic greatness. For an evangelising writer who believes and / or wants other people to believe that Jesus is the one to follow, the one Messiah that everyone had been waiting for, then Bethlehem is a prerequisite for being the birthplace of Jesus. Through the announcements of the Bible itself, Jesus has to be born in Bethlehem or the prophecies are wrong, or indeed Jesus is invalidated as the true Messiah. Having said this, a case can be made for the fact that this Bethlehem prophecy may just be a contrived and poor reading of the Old Testament. We shall return to this later.
So what are these prophecies? The main offending verse is Micah 5:2 which states:
“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.”
Let us remind ourselves of how this fits in with what Luke says of Bethlehem (2:4):
Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David…
1 Samuel 16 tells of how Samuel, a prophet, went to Bethlehem to anoint the king-to-be, on the behest of God. Samuel doesn’t expect it to be the youngest of the children of Jesse, a mere shepherd, but David it was and he was to be the great king. Jesse, being a ‘Bethlehemite’, would imply that David was one too.
The first issue with the Micah quote is that it is a mistranslation to claim that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem since the context and the grammar actually mean that one should conclude, as D.F. Strauss in The Life of Jesus (1860, p. 159) does, as follows:
…the entire context show the meaning to be, not that the expected governor who was to come forth out of Bethlehem would actually be born in that city, but only that he would be a descendent of David, whose family sprang from Bethlehem.
So Matthew and Luke, in using this as a prophetic basis for establishing Davidic heritage, mistranslate the prophecy and feel that they need to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem so that Jesus could be born in the place so apparently prophesied. If Jesus had been born in Nazareth, he still would have fulfilled the prophecies utilised by the Gospel writers.
If we look at the potential theological contrivances in the fulfilment of the prophecy that sees the Messiah being born in the ‘city of David’ in light of the added evidence of the genealogies, then it is hard not to be cynical. With a faulty and clearly manufactured set of family trees which rely on some dodgy usages of the Old Testament and genealogy, a shadow is cast upon the idea that Bethlehem, as a birthplace, is not only prophesied, but seemingly fulfilled.
It is not only the apparent shoehorning of Jesus into a Bethlehem prophecy but the plethora of other issues that cause a sceptic to doubt the veracity of Bethlehem being Jesus’ birthplace. Let us look at all of the evidence which points to the notion that Jesus might well have been born elsewhere.
Firstly, there is a serious lack of mention of Bethlehem in any other writing in the New Testament. Although absence of evidence is often claimed (by Christians) as not being evidence of absence, it is hard to deny the force of the lack of mention of Bethlehem. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are the only places in which it is mentioned. Neither do Mark, John, and importantly, nor does Paul corroborate the claims of the other two. It gets slightly more problematic for those who are pro-Bethlehem in that it seems that Jesus was born in Nazareth.
Paul is at times understood to be writing, in his letters, to people very interested in the Jewishness of Jesus. If he knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and of the Davidic line, you would have thought this would have been a superb mechanism which Paul could have used to argue such Jewishness. Sadly, this evidence is lacking.
The Gospel of Mark seems to indicate that Jesus was born in Nazareth. Mark makes no mention, other than Jesus being from Nazareth, of any other place that Jesus could be associated with in the whole of his Gospel. Mark 1:9 declares, “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Throughout the Gospel, when visiting elsewhere, such as Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28), he is referred to as Jesus of Nazareth. More damaging, perhaps, is the idea in Mark 6 where he returns to Nazareth and this is referred to as his “hometown” (6:1). This is compounded as later in that same episode Mark has Jesus himself saying (6:4), “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household.” There seems to be little dispute in Mark’s writing that Jesus hailed from Nazareth.
Jesus of Nazareth
In common vernacular and biblical terms, it is no coincidence that Jesus is known famously as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ and not ‘Jesus of Bethlehem’! It seems to me that it is more probable that Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth before the Gospels were written so that this title could not realistically be dropped. But since the writers needed Jesus to be born in Bethlehem it was a case of either getting him (i.e. Joseph and Mary) from there to Bethlehem and back again or living in Bethlehem at the birth and then moving to Nazareth, Luckily, the Gospels have both options. Nothing like covering all the bases!
Matthew vs Luke: The Contradiction
As ever with the nativity, the big issues surround the contradictions between the two source accounts: the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Luke has Joseph and Mary living in Nazareth, but in order to fulfil that prophecy, he needs to get them to Bethlehem. The Roman census of Quirinius does the trick for him, and he has them travelling down to Bethlehem to take the census (more on that in many other posts).
Matthew, on the other hand, has Joseph and Mary seemingly already living in Bethlehem. There is no census, not even a mention of it. After Herod (who is not mentioned in Luke) chases the family away, killing innocent babies in so doing, the family move to Egypt, probably for a couple of years, and return “out of Egypt” when it is safe and Herod has died, to leave his son in charge. The family then and for the first time move to Nazareth:
So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
It is clear that the family had not before lived in Nazareth, directly contradicting Luke.
It’s as simple as that. To get around the problem that Jesus is known as “Jesus of Nazareth” both writers need him being born on the Messianic prophetic town of Bethlehem but later living in Nazareth. Luke has the family already living in Nazareth, born in the Bethlehem by randomly going to a census he didn’t need to go to (more on that later) to return immediately via the Temple in Jerusalem (more on that later) to Nazareth. Matthew has them already living in Bethlehem, born there, and then fleeing to Egypt to return some two years later to Nazareth where they had not previously lived.
The tangles Christians get into to explain away this issue…!