WAS JESUS BORN IN BETHLEHEM?

Matthew and Luke composed the birth stories perhaps as much as eighty years after the event. They were writing from the perspective of the faith that developed after Jesus’s death. They had become convinced he was alive again and that he was their long-expected Messiah and their Saviour. They studied their Hebrew Scriptures to see what might have been written in connection with a restoration of the fortunes of the Jewish nation, especially if a Saviour figure or a Messiah was mentioned.

Look at Matthew’s account first. In terms of the literary techniques of what’s called Midrashic creation, he produced a good story. Jesus’s father Joseph was modelled on the Joseph of the book of Genesis who was a well-known dreamer and interpreter of dreams. According to Matthew, Jesus’s father similarly received messages from God through his dreams. In Matthew’s story, Bethlehem was their home, and it was only much later that Joseph and Mary went to settle with their son in Nazareth. Why did Matthew write that their home was Bethlehem? It wasn’t for historical reasons, but for his theological purposes. He was explaining his belief that Jesus was the anointed one, the Messiah, of Israel’s tribal God. He was the descendent of King David, whose home town had been Bethlehem. He was linking Jesus with ideas about how their God would restore Israel’s fortunes, as expressed by the visionaries in their Hebrew Scriptures. The new kingdom would be independent and free like David’s of old.

There is much more to Matthew’s use of themes from the history of his people as found in their Scriptures. For example, there was the fictional journey of the wise men who followed the guiding star and who represented the Gentile nations coming to pay homage to Israel’s deliverer. That is drawn from the book of Isaiah chapter 60. Then there was the family’s flight to Egypt and their eventual return, drawn from Hosea chapter 11 - another part of Matthew’s Hebrew Scriptures. None of this is taken to be historical by liberal scholars. These are fictional stories used to put over a theological point of view.

On the other hand, in Luke’s gospel, Joseph hardly features and there are no dreams. Instead angels are used as communicators for divine messages of which Mary is the recipient. The visits of angels were the main alternative to messages received in dreams in the Jews’ religious stories. Mary’s special song of praise, the Magnificat, is closely modelled according to Midrashic techniques on the prayer of Hannah in the book of Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some would call that plagiarism today; in fact, it was an accepted practice in those days.

In contrast to Matthew, Luke wrote that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth. Luke explained that they had to travel to Bethlehem for a population census, which the Romans had ordered to be undertaken. Historically, despite what Luke maintained, men did not travel to their ancestral homes for these purposes. As you can guess, Luke wanted a reason for why Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. In his story of Jesus’s birth, you’ll find that there are some Aramaic speaking angels, or perhaps angels are all multi-lingual, who appear to astonished shepherds out on the hillside. They give them the breaking news of a Saviour’s birth. In this way, Luke tells the reader who he believes Jesus is. As in Matthew’s gospel, fictional stories are used to put across the claims of religious faith.

Jesus was a Galilean from Nazareth, a village near Sepphoris, one of the two major cities of Galilee (Tiberias was the other). He was born to Joseph and Mary sometime between 6 BCE and shortly before the death of Herod the Great (Matthew 2; Luke 1:5) in 4 BCE.

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