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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