To Bethlehem or Not to Bethlehem (I)

To Bethlehem or Not to Bethlehem (I) November 24, 2020

[Excerpted from my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination (UK), which has just received a reprint to clear up a few bits and pieces, long overdue. Please grab a copy!]

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 that 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.

As such, 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 that 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 that 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 that 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.

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!

To be continued…

The Nativity: A Critical Examination (UK)


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