Christian tradition tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a small hamlet about five miles south of Jerusalem. This is one of the oldest and most well-known details of Jesus’ life. One would be hard pressed to be a Christian of any persuasion and not be familiar with this traditional idea of Jesus’ origins. To this day, Bethlehem is a pilgrimage site for many Christians, and there are numerous Christian churches there. One of these churches – the famous Church of the Nativity – actually claims to be built over the very site of Jesus’ birth itself, and it has an underground room where the faithful can visit and touch the rock upon which Mary actually gave birth.
But does the textual and historical evidence support this assertion that Jesus was born in Bethlehem? A consideration of a number of textual clues and historical facts leads to the very strong conclusion that Jesus was, in fact, not born in Bethlehem.
To begin, it is important to note that in the entirety of the New Testament, only two texts tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. These are the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, both written some time in the 9th and 10th decades of the Common Era – meaning about 50 to 60 years after Jesus’ death, and nearly 100 years after his birth. Our earliest Biblical accounts – such as the epistles of Paul, the anonymous epistle to the Hebrews, and the Gospel of Mark – do not mention any Bethlehem origins for Jesus. Mark tells us explicitly that Jesus was from Nazareth, and that this was his hometown. Furthermore, our latest Gospel – the Gospel of John – written after Matthew and Luke, also does not mention any Bethlehem birth traditions. In fact, in that Gospel, Jesus is twice referred to as the “son of Joseph,” implying no knowledge of a virgin birth story either. This essay does not seek to discuss the validity of the virgin birth stories, but as they are tied inextricably to the Bethlehem birth tradition, it is important to note that John omits both, despite writing after a time when we know that the traditions were in existence.
It is also important to point out that it appears to have been widely known and remembered in the days of early Christianity that Jesus came from the rural Galilean town of Nazareth. Nazareth was very small, with a population in Jesus’ time possibly as low as 300 or 400. It is significant to note that no reference to Nazareth is ever found in the Old Testament, and it is not ever mentioned in any Jewish writings at all until the 3rd century C.E. Furthermore, while some prehistoric and pre-Jewish archaeological evidence has been found in the area, no archaeological evidence has ever been uncovered from Nazareth during the period when the ancient Jews inhabited Galilee, up to and including the Roman era and the time of Jesus. This has led some scholars to suggest that Nazareth itself did not exist in Jesus’ day, but most scholars reject this based on the textual evidence of the New Testament. Clearly by the time the Gospels were written, the town of Nazareth was known to exist.
Nazareth was so insignificant in the time of Jesus that it appears to have been a source of embarrassment for early Christians. The author of John includes a story where Jesus’ authority is questioned based on the very fact that he was from Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” the skeptic is made to say. A modern parallel can be drawn from state rivalries in the U.S. “Could anything good come out of Indiana?” a lifelong Kentuckian might say. Nazareth, then, appears to have been a sore spot for some Christians, but because it was so widely known and remembered that Jesus was a Nazarene, his city origins could not be denied. Jesus is referred to numerous times in the New Testament as hailing from Nazareth.
Matthew, as alluded to above, is our earliest source for a Bethlehem birth tradition, most likely written around 85 C.E. It is uncertain exactly where Matthew’s Bethlehem story came from since none of our earlier sources mention it. It is possible that Matthew had access to a text that discussed the Bethlehem story but which is no longer in existence. It is also possible that Matthew based his story on some local oral tradition. Finally, the possibility exists that the writer of Matthew himself developed the story, based on his studies of Jewish scripture. By the time the Gospels were being written, interpreting the life and death of Jesus against Jewish scriptures and religious rituals was well-established. Even as early as the time of Paul, Christians had already scoured their scriptures (that is, the Christian Old Testament) to find places where Jesus’ life and death mirrored either prophecy or religious ritual. As such, by the time of Matthew, it was well-established within Christianity that Jesus had been the Jewish messiah, and that his death and resurrection had functioned symbolically as atonement for sin, an idea drawn from the rituals of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Matthew, however, seems to have especially been interested in how Jesus fulfilled Jewish messianic prophecies, and his text is full of references to the Jewish scriptures.
In all likelihood, Matthew was probably not the first Christian to discover the fact that one of the many Jewish messianic prophecies suggested that the messiah would come from the city of David – that is, Bethlehem. Others had simply bypassed it, because it was widely know that Jesus was from Nazareth, not Bethlehem. But where others ignored it because they knew it did not fit, Matthew – with a special interest in how Jesus fulfilled Jewish prophecy – seems not to have been able to resist connecting Jesus to this messianic tradition.
He was faced with a serious problem, however. As I have already made clear, it was widely known and remembered that Jesus was from Nazareth. It was even a sore spot that could not be denied. How, then, was Matthew going to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem in order to have Jesus born there? Simple: he merely asserts that Joseph and Mary were living in Bethlehem at the time. Mary, a virgin, becomes pregnant, and gives birth there in Bethlehem to Jesus. Herod, who was king of Judea at the time, finds out about this miraculous birth of a supposed future king, and is furious. He orders all Jewish males less than two years of age to be slaughtered. Joseph is warned about the coming slaughter in a dream, and is instructed to take the family to Egypt. Thus, Jesus lives for a few years in the land of the pharaohs. After Herod dies, Joseph is once again visited in a dream and told that it is safe to return. Upon the family’s return from Egypt, they first plan to go back to Bethlehem – their hometown. But when they find out that Herod’s son is now in charge of Judea, they choose instead to go north to Galilee, where they settle on Nazareth as a new hometown. This, Matthew tells us, fulfills the scripture that says the messiah “will be called a Nazarene.” Incidentally, no one is quite certain exactly what prophecy Matthew is referring to here. There is nothing in the Old Testament about the messiah, or anyone else, being called a Nazarene.
We have seen now how Matthew contrived to get Jesus – a known Nazarene – into Bethlehem for his birth, and then subsequently back into Nazareth. It is notable that Matthew is the only New Testament writer to tell us anything about Jesus ever living in Egypt, or anything about Herod getting word of his birth and ordering the slaughter of all Jewish males less than two years of age. For what it is worth, there is certainly no secular or Jewish record of Herod ever ordering such a thing, and one would have to expect the Jews to have recorded such a horrifyingly significant event in their history.
So now we turn to the only other source in the New Testament for the Bethlehem birth tradition, the Gospel of Luke. The fact that Luke also includes a Bethlehem birth tradition, despite that he almost certainly did not have Matthew’s text as a source, is a strong indication that Matthew probably was not the first person to conceive of the idea. It is entirely possible that Luke and Matthew, independently, both decided to try to connect this known messianic prophecy to Jesus, where others had simply ignored it because of the knowledge that Jesus was from Nazareth. However, might these independent attestations of Luke and Matthew indicate that the Bethlehem birth tradition was, in fact, real history? Multiple independent attestations are, after all, one of the criteria that scholars look for when trying to determine whether a story is historical or not. I will get to that question shortly, after we look at Luke’s method and how his story matches up with known historical facts.
Luke clearly was not using Matthew, or a possible source of Matthew, as his basis for the Bethlehem birth tradition, because his story is completely and in every way different from Matthew’s. When we, as Christians, consider the birth of Jesus, we tend to merge both Matthew and Luke’s account into one, effectively creating a third account which neither Luke nor Matthew, nor any other Biblical source, gives us. Thus, we tend to imagine three Oriental kings, a group of shepherds, heralding angels, a massive glowing star over a stable, and offerings of frankincense and myrrh. In fact, there are no kings at all in either of the stories – the idea of three kings comes from a popular Christmas song, not from the Bible. The Bible tells us they were “Magi,” or magicians, not kings, and it does not tell us there were three of them, it simply tells us that “Magi from the east” came to find Jesus. Furthermore, neither story tells of a glowing star over a stable – those are two concepts merged from Matthew and Luke, creating an image that neither account gives. In Luke’s account there are no Magi, exotic gifts, or glowing stars, and in Matthew’s account, there is no stable, no angels singing praises in the heavens, and no shepherds. Furthermore, Matthew specifically calls the place where the Magi see Jesus a “house,” and if one tries to connect this to Luke’s account, it does not fit because for Luke, Mary and Joseph never lived in Bethlehem at all, and would not, therefore, have been in a house.
Luke tells us that, rather than already living as citizens in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph are actually from Nazareth. To get Mary and Joseph into Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us that Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to register for an empire-wide census, and it just so happened that while they were in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor. This may seem, to some skeptics, a bit too convenient. And probably for good reason. Can you imagine a man taking his wife who was “great with child” on a long, arduous eight or nine day journey from Galilee, far south into Judea?
Unfortunately, Luke – in an effort to work what he apparently thought were historical facts into his account – got his details wrong. Luke tells us, first of all, that there was an empire-wide census (“all the world should be taxed”). However, secular records from ancient Rome, which are extensive, never give any indication whatsoever that any empire-wide censuses ever took place. When a census was taken in ancient Rome, it was done regionally, not empire-wide. Secondly, Luke tells us that this was the first census taken after Quirinius became governor of Syria. Here, it is important to stop our discussion briefly to discuss Jesus’ age.
Our common dating system presupposes that the birth of Jesus took place in 1 C.E., and that we are, today, 2008 years removed from that event. However, scholars have long suspected that the early Church leaders, when reconfiguring their calendar around Jesus’ birth, miscalculated slightly. Both Luke and Matthew tell us that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod the Great. As we have seen, a great majority of Matthew’s birth narrative is centered on the supposition that Jesus was born during Herod’s reign. Herod, however, is known to have died in 4 B.C.E. Therefore, if Jesus was born during Herod’s reign, it would have to have been at least as early as 4 B.C.E., and possibly earlier.
However, as I am attempting to argue in this essay that much of what Matthew and Luke wrote about Jesus’ birth cannot be viewed as literal history, it would be inconsistent of me to base the dating of Jesus’ birth solely on what is said by Matthew and Luke – and they are the only two who mention Jesus being born during Herod the Great’s reign. So therefore we look at the next piece of evidence, and that is the death of Jesus. All four Gospels, as well as countless other early Christian sources that are not included in our Bible, agree that Jesus was crucified during the time that Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. I know of no scholar who argues that Jesus was not crucified under the government of Pilate. We know that Pilate ruled in Judea from 26 C.E. to 36 C.E. There is also a lot of textual corroboration to suggest that Jesus was in his early 30’s when he died. Finally, there is at least one piece of textual evidence that suggests Jesus’ crucifixion occurred sometime after an uprising against Pilate in 29 C.E. In the famous story where Pilate offers to release either Jesus or Barabbas, Barabbas is described as a murderer who had killed someone in the uprising. This is presumably a reference to the uprising of 29 C.E. (Interestingly, in another Gospel, Barabbas is described as a “bandit,” not a murderer.) Putting all these clues together, most scholars believe Jesus was born in about 5 or 4 B.C.E., and was executed in Jerusalem in about 29 or 30 C.E.
Now, back to our discussion of Luke’s birth account. Luke tells us that the census that sent Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was the first census taken after Quirinius became governor of Syria. The only problem with this statement is that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 C.E., ten years after the death of Herod, and far too late to have been governor at the time of Jesus’ birth, assuming we can rely on the fact that Jesus was in his early 30’s when he was executed. If he had been born as late as 6 C.E., he not only could not have been born during Herod’s reign, but he also would have been only 29 or 30 at his death, and that would have been during the very final year of Pilate’s governorship in Judea. If he was executed around 30 C.E., that would have made him in his early to mid-20’s. For this reason, and because Jesus cannot possibly have been born during the time of both Herod and Quirinius (as Luke asserts), most every scholar agrees that Luke simply made an error here. Interestingly, Quirinius is known to have conducted a census after he came to power in Syria, as was the custom for any new governor in ancient Rome. It seems that Luke knew something of this account, but simply got his years mixed up.
The problem is, Luke’s apparent errors do not stop there. I have already pointed out that there was no such thing as an empire-wide census in ancient Rome. Furthermore, Luke, in using this census to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, tells us that Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census because he was from the “house and line of David.” In other words, this census required the citizens to register not in the cities in which they lived, but in their ancestral homes. The very idea of such a thing is counter-intuitive. In fact, there is not a single known instance, in all of world history – much less Roman history alone – in which a census was taken requiring the citizens to register in their ancestral homes, rather than the cities where they lived. A modern equivalent would be like having to file your taxes every year in the European or African or Asian country where your ancestors came from, rather than in your home state. How would you decide which ancestor to follow? Is three generations enough, or does it have to be ten? What about folks who do not have any record of their ancestors? It would have been as nonsensical in the 1st century as it would be today. Furthermore, King David, who had been one of the earliest patriarchs of the Hebrew people, had been king of Israel around 1000 B.C.E. By the 1st century, an enormous portion of the Hebrew population in Roman Palestine could have traced their lineage through David’s many, many descendents. As such, the concept that these hundreds of thousands of people would have been descending on the little village of Bethlehem is mind-boggling. No room in the inn, indeed! A 1st century Woodstock, multiplied many times over. There would not have been a pothole free to void in, with so many people packed into such a small place. The idea that Joseph would have been required, in a census, to return to his ancestral home to register, is simply not supported by any evidence, either subjective, objective, or intuitive.
The point in detailing all this evidence is that by collecting this evidence, a very clear picture begins to emerge of how Luke and Matthew developed these stories as fiction, rather than telling objective, literal history. In no way do I suppose that Matthew and Luke were simply liars trying to delude people. Their reasons for writing these stories were varied, but primarily they were attempting to show, in their own way, the special power of presence met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Entire books have been written on these subjects, and this essay is not the place to go into further detail about it. I simply want to make clear that my motivation here is not to call Matthew and Luke liars, and not to destroy the importance of the Jesus story.
As I mentioned earlier, multiple independent attestations in the Biblical texts is one criterion scholars use to determine whether a story is likely to be historical, or likely to be fictional. By “multiple independent attestations” I am referring to places in the Bible, and within other non-Biblical early Christian writings, where two different authors, writing independently of one another, tell the same story. Some scholars even go so far as to base all their conclusions only on texts that have multiple attestations, because the single attestation texts, simply by virtue of being the only account of a certain event, cannot be relied upon for firm historical conclusions, whether they happen to be accurate or not.
So in the Bethlehem stories of Luke and Matthew, we have two independent attestations, because Luke clearly was not copying Matthew’s account. Therefore, should we assume that these stories are historically accurate, rather than fictional? For reasons that I hope I have already made clear, I think the answer to that question is no. When you look at the entire body of evidence – how the stories were crafted and how they differ in dramatic ways, the irreconcilable errors within some of the facts (such as Luke’s assertion that Jesus was born during the reign of Quirinius in Syria but also during the time of Herod), the lack of Bethlehem traditions in any other Biblical texts, and the lack of corroboration of important events (such as Herod’s slaughter of Jewish male babies) within secular records – it seems clear that despite having two independent attestations, these stories cannot be considered historically true.
Here is the key, and the basis of my entire thesis: if it was a simple fact that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, but later moved to Nazareth, it would have been an easy thing for Luke and Matthew to simply tell the story and move on. The fact that their stories are so wildly divergent, and the fact that they clearly went to great lengths to come up with creative ways to get Jesus the Nazarene into Bethlehem for his birth, and then back to Nazareth – this is strong evidence in and of itself that there was no historical knowledge of Jesus being born in Bethlehem.
Traditionalists, including some traditionally-leaning Biblical scholars, will argue that these stories do represent literal history, and if Luke and/or Matthew got a few facts wrong, and contradicted each other in a few places, that does not mean that the story of Jesus being born in Bethlehem is, itself, fictional. They will argue that many of the contradictions between the two accounts are not contradictions at all, but are simply emphases among the two writers on different events. Thus, they will argue that Luke gives us the account of the night of Jesus’ birth – heralding angels, shepherds, and a stable – whereas Matthew skips that and instead gives us the account of what happened in the days, weeks, and months after Jesus’ birth – namely, the wise men showed up and offered gifts to Jesus, and then eventually Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt. Skeptics will point out that Matthew refers to the wise men visiting Jesus in a “house,” and yet Luke, in telling us that Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth, never makes mention of them staying at a house in Bethlehem. Traditionalists will counter this by saying that clearly Joseph and Mary, in Luke’s story, did not return immediately to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth. They could not have traveled with a newborn infant, and Mary would have been in no condition to travel immediately after giving birth (one would have to wonder, however, how she could have traveled nine months pregnant in the first place). Furthermore, Luke tells us explicitly that Mary and Joseph hung around the Jerusalem area for a while, because Jesus is shown being taken to the temple after forty days for consecration and circumcision. Therefore, the traditionalists will assert, it is logical to assume that they left the stable and moved in temporarily with a family member in Bethlehem, which is the “house” Matthew refers to in his wise men story.
On the surface, these attempts at reconciling the two accounts seem logical and sound. I will certainly give credit where credit is due. But as I have already pointed out, one must look at the overall body of evidence. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many scholars, the overall body of evidence that these stories are fictional in nature (a body of evidence that I have just spent several thousand words detailing) far outweighs the pleasant reconciling that traditionalists attempt to give the stories. Furthermore, no matter how nicely some of the facts of the two stories can be comfortably merged, there still remain many irreconcilable differences. For instance, Matthew tells us, explicitly, that Joseph and Mary were from Bethlehem. There is never any mention of Nazareth until the family returns from Egypt, and at that time, they choose not to return to Bethlehem only because an angel warns Joseph in a dream to get out of Judea for good. Then, and only then, does Nazareth come into play. Additionally, when reading the passage where the wise men visit Jesus in a “house,” no, Matthew does not explicitly say that this was Joseph and Mary’s house, as opposed to, say, a family member’s house, but if you are reading Matthew’s text without reading it through the lens of Luke – as we must do for any text of the New Testament – there is no reason whatsoever to suppose Matthew is implying that the house in question does not belong to Joseph and Mary. He has already made it clear, after all, that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem. It must, therefore, have been their house in Matthew’s mind – not the house of a family member, as is required by the traditionalist reconciliation.
On the other hand, Luke tells us, again very explicitly, that Joseph and Mary were, in fact, from Nazareth, not Bethlehem. They go to Bethlehem only because of the census. They certainly would not have had a house there. After the ritual purification time of about 40 days, Luke tells us they returned to Nazareth. How, therefore, can Matthew’s story of the escape to Egypt, and subsequent return, be reconciled into this Lukan account? The answer is, it cannot. Furthermore, as we have already seen, the facts Luke lists for his census are simply wrong.
Despite the fact that some details in the stories can be merged seamlessly together, there are as many details that cannot be reconciled, on top of blatant contradictions and factual errors, and combined with the knowledge that no other Biblical text tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and added to the contrived nature of the passages which seem to find creative, and yet naturally different, ways to get the known Nazarene Jesus into Bethlehem for his birth. Taken all together, I believe the evidence for the Bethlehem stories being fictional is overwhelming. One final bit of evidence, just as a side note, about the fictional likelihood of the Bethlehem story, came in a 2005 issue of Archaeology magazine, where archaeologist Aviram Oshri points out that there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that Bethlehem was even inhabited at the time of Jesus. Take that piece of evidence as you will (and thanks go to Wikipedia for that reference).
To end, I want to make the important point that none of this has any bearing on a Christian’s decision to believe in the virgin birth and the divinity of Jesus. Even if our accounts of the Bethlehem birth of Jesus are fictional, that does not have to mean that Jesus could not have been born of a virgin, as the divine son of God. Maybe the Bethlehem messianic prophecy was simply one that the divine Christ did not happen to fulfill. That is a decision believers must make on faith, and has little relevance to historical analyses like the one I have illustrated in this essay. Naturally, I have very strong opinions on the historicity of the virgin birth stories, and I do believe they, like anything else in the Bible, can be subjected to the investigative process, but this essay is not the place for that.
Stay tuned for Part II, discussing Jesus' hometown.