Born in Bethlehem?

Certain biblical scholars, including some Catholic ones, have a bad habit of claiming Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. The basis for such a claim? That Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth and, since everyone thought the Messiah would be from Bethlehem, Christian conviction that Jesus was the Messiah naturally led people to maintain, contrary to facts, that he was born in Bethlehem.This, you see, was a way of making a theological statement about Jesus, not a biographical one.

Now if you’re like many people–including many other biblical scholars, including some Catholic ones–you may wonder when evidence for this conclusion will be forthcoming. After all, just because as an adult Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t mean he wasn’t or couldn’t have been born in Bethlehem. And just because people expected the Messiah to be from Bethlehem and Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah doesn’t mean Christians simply made up the idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem or substituted a theological statement for a biographical one. After all, at least some of the things people expected of the Messiah must have been true of Jesus of Nazareth, otherwise how would people have come to think he was the Messiah to begin with? Just because it is theologically true that Jesus is the Messiah doesn’t mean it is biographically false that he was born in Bethlehem. Why would it?

In Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict states, “I do not see how a basis for this theory can be gleaned from the actual sources. As far as the birth of Jesus is concerned, the only sources we have are the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The two evidently belong to quite distinct narrative traditions. They are marked by different theological visions, just as their historical details are in some respects different … The two different strands of tradition agree on the fact that Bethlehem was Jesus’ birthplace. If we abide by the sources, it is clear that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth” (pp. 65-66).

In other words, the only places we can go for information regarding the birth of Jesus are the gospel accounts. They give no indication of Jesus having been born in Nazareth but they insist he was born in Bethlehem. They agree that Jesus grew up in Nazareth and explain that this is why he was later known as Jesus of Nazareth. It seems sound historical method to need some evidence for questioning these two independent sources and some basis, other than sheer speculation, for holding a contrary view. Where is the evidence? Answer: there isn’t any.

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About Mark Brumley 66 Articles
Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.