To Bethlehem or Not to Bethlehem (II)

To Bethlehem or Not to Bethlehem (II) November 27, 2020

[A second post on Bethlehem 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! It is worth reading the first post for this to make much sense.]

And this leads us onto another issue: Luke and Matthew differ on where Joseph and Mary lived before the birth of Jesus.  As Luke 2:3-5 says:

And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. 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, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.

 Clearly, Luke has Jesus living in Nazareth and having to go to Bethlehem as a result of it being “his own city” (more on this later) and having to attend a census (more on this later, too!). Matthew, on the other hand, has this to say (Matthew 1-2):

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…

So, although there is no explicit explanation of where they lived, it is implied by the manner in which the account is given. However, the admission that they had not lived in Nazareth before comes in Matthew 3:21-23 after the family have lived in Egypt for what was probably a couple of years:

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.”

This spells out a clear contradiction between Matthew and Luke—they could not agree on where Joseph and Mary lived before the birth. Both writers had to harmonise two points: that Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem, and that he had to live in Nazareth. And they both do this in completely different ways. Luke uses a census and a need to go to the town of one’s ancestors, whilst Matthew uses an escape to Egypt and the notion that Bethlehem was too dangerous to live in, and the need to fulfil the ‘Nazarene’ prophecy. It is worth noting here that another of Herod’s sons was ruling Galilee, and yet this did not stop the family moving there. Is this a case of double standards? The difference between the two Gospels is one of those contradictions that, to me, is fairly terminal for the narratives as a whole. Such a fundamental difference, and such dichotomous mechanisms for getting Jesus from A to B, shows at least one, and probably both, accounts to be indefensibly spurious. As Foster, (2007, p. 60) says:

The discrepancies [between Luke and Matthew] are real and dramatic. That means that it cannot be argued with a straight face that Matthew and Luke collaborated or had a common source.

This implies that many apologists don’t argue many of their harmonisations with a straight face. With the mounting evidence, I can see why. Apologists do, however, use various methods to get themselves out of this corner.

To begin with, apologists will tackle the absence of evidence claim (from the writings of John, Mark and Paul) as not proving anything, per se. Furthermore, it is claimed that Paul would be trying to play down the Jewishness of Jesus in dealing with the many Gentiles in the growing religion. The absence from the other two Gospels is often put down to the notion that writers simply did not have the same source(s) as Matthew and Luke, or themselves did not want to play to Jesus’ Jewishness.[1]

Another tack is that just because Bethlehem offers itself as a very important theological device in validating Jesus’ authentic Davidic and Messianic qualities does not mean that it is not true that he was born there. Maybe that theological detail isn’t true, or maybe it is, but that does not, by default, make the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem false. Well, no, but on balance of evidence, the probability is very low. Taking into account the many inconsistencies between the Gospels, and the places in which there is at least one of the accounts telling a falsity, it does push the conclusion towards the improbable end of the spectrum.

Foster analogises a liberal approach to Matthew’s use of prophecy fulfilment by using Matthew 21. In this account, since the prophet Zechariah in the Old Testament had prophesied that the king was to enter Jerusalem on a donkey and a colt, Matthew sees that this must be fulfilled by Jesus, and as a result states (Matthew 21:6-7):

The disciples went and did just as Jesus had instructed them, and brought the donkey and the colt, and laid their coats on them; and He sat on the coats.

However, Mark and Luke see this as nonsense and have him only riding on a donkey. Foster argues that it is obvious that Matthew is factually wrong here, since Jesus wouldn’t have been riding two animals at once, but does it mean he didn’t enter Jerusalem at all? Foster says a resounding no (2007, p. 61-62). The problem with his analogy is this. Firstly, he shows corroborating evidence that Matthew’s factual claims (at least of prophecy fulfilment) are simply wrong. They didn’t happen as was claimed. Matthew is playing fast and loose with facts here; as mentioned before, where else is he doing this where it is not so obvious? Secondly, and more importantly, it is a false analogy. The point is not to say whether Jesus was born at all[2] (as in, entered Jerusalem in Matthew 21), but to say he was not born in the way claimed (as in, he did not enter Jerusalem in the way claimed).

Thus, Foster fails in defending the genealogies and birth narratives in the way intended. What Matthew’s inconsistent writing does seem to evidence is that Jesus was not born in the way claimed by Matthew (and Luke). It seems Jesus was not born a virgin, did not have a genealogy routed through David, was not born in Bethlehem and so on. What we could have left is this: Jesus was born. But many proponents of the ‘truth’ of the narratives of Jesus’ birth appear to be oblivious to this.

[1] Foster (2007, p. 60)

[2] Though one can argue for the entire mythology of Jesus, I am not doing so here.


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