“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.’” (Matthew 2:1)
Was Jesus born in Bethlehem of Judea? As a person convinced of the historical accuracy of the Bible, the question seems almost silly. After all, both Matthew and Luke clearly identify Bethlehem as Jesus’ place of birth. The Internet, however, is awash with webpages and bulletin boards populated with skeptics claiming Jesus was born in Nazareth instead of Bethlehem in Judea. Thus, I thought it worth examining these arguments to determine if they are sound.
But rather than pull something off a bulletin board or webpage that may or may not represent the standard of scholarship on this question, I grabbed an apparently scholarly book by Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, two New Testament scholars and professors at the University of Heidelberg, unimaginatively entitled The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (hereinafter, “The Guide”). As part of this book, these two scholars explain why they conclude that Nazareth was Jesus’ birthplace. I will use the argument found in The Guide to explore this question.
Before continuing, let me be clear on my approach evaluating these arguments. I begin with the belief that the best information available about the events of and surrounding Jesus’ life (including his place of birth) are found in the Gospels and Epistles which are contained in the New Testament. I am open to the idea that the Bible could be wrong, but the person who takes that position bears the burden of showing that the weight of evidence makes it more probable than not that the particular Biblical account in question is wrong.
(Obviously I am aware of the existence of other books such as The Gospel of Philip and The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, but these alternative Gospels are not and never have been accepted as authoritative by the early church fathers or any significant portion of the early church. Thus, in my view, if the church fathers declined to accept these alternative Gospels and if the historic church refused to grant them authority, they should not be granted any measure of authority or be seen as reliable sources of information about Jesus then are found in the canonical Gospels. Nevertheless, I will address these other Gospels in part IV and examine what they have to say about Jesus’ birthplace.)
With respect to the birth of Jesus, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke clearly identify the place of Jesus’ birth as being Bethlehem of Judea. (Matt. 2:1 and Luke 2:1-20) Thus, the person who argues that Jesus was born in Nazareth bears the burden of demonstrating that a birth in Nazareth is more probable than the straight-forward testimony of two of the books of the New Testament.
Brief Summary of the Argument for Nazareth
The argument from The Guide stands on two legs. In the first leg, the authors argue that Mark and John, the two Gospels that do not have birth accounts, imply that Jesus was born in Nazareth primarily because of references to Jesus as being “from Nazareth” or as “the Nazarene”, and due to the reference in Mark 6:1 to Nazareth as Jesus’ “ancestral home.” In the second leg, they contend that the direct references to Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace in Matthew and Luke were inserted into the text not because Bethlehem was actually Jesus’ birth place, but rather to allow Jesus to fulfill the prophesy of Micah 5:2 that the long-awaited messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judea. In other words, the two Gospels inserted Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace (knowing fully that it was not Jesus’ birthplace) simply to give Jesus the “Messiah” credentials.
I am going to examine these arguments in reverse order from The Guide. Here’s my reason for doing so: if the identification of Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace in Matthew and Luke was not the result of theological insertion but resulted from a belief that Bethlehem was truly Jesus’ birthplace then the argument that we should accept the implication over the direct statement concerning the place of Jesus’ birth has a much tougher road. In other words, if we have two Gospels testifying that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and the two other Gospels don’t specifically identify the place of Jesus’ birth but by reading between the lines one may be able to discern where Mark and John implied that he was born in Nazareth then the implication is easily the weaker evidence.
Thus, in the next posting, I will begin with the second leg of the argument: Was the identification ofBethlehem in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke inserted for theological reasons?