5 - To Bethlehem or not to Bethlehem…
Bethlehem is a very important place for the average Christian. It is the birthplace of Jesus. But it is more than that, it is the birthplace of the predicted Messiah, whether Jesus existed or not. For Jews and Christians alike, Bethlehem was touted as ‘the place to be born’ if you had any hopes of achieving Messianic greatness. For an evangelising writer who believes and / or wants other people to believe that Jesus is the one to follow, the one Messiah that everyone had been waiting for, Bethlehem is a prerequisite for being the birthplace of Jesus. Through the announcements of the bible itself, Jesus has to be born in Bethlehem or the prophecies are wrong, or indeed Jesus is invalidated as the true Messiah.
So what are these prophecies? The main offending verse is Micah 5:2 which states:
“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.”
Let us remind ourselves of how this fits in with what Luke says of Bethlehem (2:4):
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,
1 Samuel 16 tells of how Samuel, a prophet, went to Bethlehem to anoint the king-to-be, on behest of God. Samuel doesn’t expect it to be the youngest of the children of Jesse, a mere shepherd, but David it was and he was to be the great king. Jesse, being a ‘Bethlehemite’, would infer that David was one too.
If we look at the potential theological contrivances in the fulfilment of the prophecy that sees the Messiah being born in the ‘city of David’ in light of the added evidence of the genealogies, then it is hard not to be cynical. With a faulty and clearly contrived set of family trees which rely on some dodgy usages of the Old Testament and genealogy, a shadow is cat upon the idea that Bethlehem is not only prophesied, but seemingly fulfilled.
It is not only the seeming shoehorning of Jesus into a Bethlehem prophecy but the plethora of other issues that cause a skeptic to doubt the veracity of Bethlehem being Jesus’ birthplace. Let’s look at all of the evidence which points to the notion that Jesus might well have been born elsewhere.
Firstly, there is a serious lack of mention of Bethlehem in any other writing in the New Testament. Although absence of evidence is often claimed (by Christians) as not being evidence of absence, it is hard to deny the force of the lack of mention of Bethlehem. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are the only places in which it is mentioned. Neither Mark, John, and importantly, nor Paul corroborate the claims of the other two. It gets slightly more problematic for those who are pro-Bethlehem in that it seems that Jesus is born in Nazareth.
Paul is often seen to write, in his letters, to people very interested in the Jewishness of Jesus. If he knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and of the Davidic line, you would have thought this would have been a superb mechanism in which Paul could have argued this. Sadly, this evidence is lacking.
The Gospel of Mark seems to indicate that Jesus was born in Nazareth. Mark makes no mention, other than Jesus being from Nazareth, of any other place that Jesus could be associated with in all of his Gospel. Mark 1:9 declares, “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Throughout the Gospel, when visiting elsewhere, such as Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28), he is referred to as Jesus of Nazareth. More damaging, perhaps, is the idea in Mark 6 where he returns to Nazareth and this is referred to as his “hometown” (6:1). This is compounded as later in that same episode Mark has Jesus himself saying (6:4), “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household.” There seems to be little dispute in Mark’s writing that Jesus hailed form Nazareth.
In common vernacular and biblical terms, it is no coincidence that Jesus is known famously as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ and not ‘Jesus of Bethlehem’! It seems to me that it is more probable that Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth before the Gospels were written so that this title could not realistically be dropped. But since the writers needed Jesus to be born in Bethlehem it was a case of either getting him (i.e. Joseph and Mary) from there to Bethlehem and back again or living in Bethlehem at the birth and then moving to Nazareth, Luckily, the Gospels have both options. Nothing like covering all the bases!
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. This 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, show 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 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.
Another tack is that just because Behtlehem 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 evidence 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 enter Jerusalem on a donkey and a colt, Matthew sees that this must be fulfilled by Jesus, and as a result (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 (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 (as in, entered Jeruslaem 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 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 the defendents of Jesus’ birth (narratives) appear to be oblivious to this.
Other attempts to harmonise the problematic accounts include claiming that Matthew didn’t explicitly say that Bethlehem was always their home, and that they could have lived elsewhere before. This is possible to grant, but the fact that they then decided to move to Nazareth after Egypt clearly shows that they hadn’t lived in Nazareth before. So the contradiction with Luke remains unanswered.
Another claim is a result of the tradition that Jesus was born in a cave close to Bethlehem. The earliest extant proof of this comes from 2nd Century Justin Martyr’s writing. He put forward that after finding no space in the inn’s of the village, Jesus was born in a nearby cave. Again, in his Dialogue with Trypho (chapter LXXVIII):
Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.
The tradition is still alive and kicking as there is now The Church of the Nativity built over the supposed cave. The idea is that there must be some basis for this tradition, and that basis could well be the truth of the claim. Critics claim that it was invented by Martyr who could have been basing it on an obscure Isaiah passage (33:16):
He will dwell on the heights, His refuge will be the impregnable rock; His bread will be given him, His water will be sure.
The ‘impregnable rock’ referring to the cave. The counter-claim is that the reference was too obscure and that Martyr was too good an apologist for that, with no interest in having Jesus born in a cave, being that it was dangerously close to the birth legend of Mithra, as discussed. On the other hand, this could be precisely why he might want that in order to trump Mithraism.
There is an early Armenian version of Matthew which includes the cave, as do many early writers after Martyr, showing it as a popular belief. Perhaps, it has been claimed, this represented the original story which was later adapted to avoid confusion with Mithraism.
Early church father Jerome claims that the cave became a shrine to Adonis after it was thought to be the birthplace of Christ. The Romans, he claims, did this to annoy the Christians. However, more critical scholars think the opposite:
Modern mythologists, however, reverse the supposition, insisting that the cult of Adonis-Tammuz originated the shrine and that it was the Christians who took it over, substituting the worship of their own God.
In effect, the two biblical accounts hardly give us reason enough to conclude without some serious doubts that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It fit into some neat prophecies, and caused the two accounts to diverge somewhat critically. The best defence seems to come from a later writer, Martyr, for which we have no source, and which involves counter-claims. The ice, it seems, is getting thinner upon which the narratives stand.
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Tags: "25 reasons to disbelieve the nativity" bethlehem
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