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Birth of Jesus and the Christmas Story

The Birth of Jesus and the Christmas Story
Pagan and Unhistorical-By Vexen Crabtree 2000 Oct 22

1. The Virgin Birth

The Prophecy of the Virgin Birth appears in Matthew 1:22-23. Matthew wrote this seventy years after Jesus Christ was born (35-40 years after he died). Up until that point no other text mentions Jesus' virgin birth. He quotes Isaiah 7:14 which was written 700 years before Jesus was born - thus claiming it was a sign, a prediction of the messiah's virgin birth.

But there is a serious problem. Matthew states that, due to prophecy, it is true that Jesus was a male line descendant of King David, and presents a genealogy at the beginning of his gospel tracing Jesus' lineage through Joseph. Matthew, apparently, like Luke and Paul and the rest of the early Christians, did not believe in a virgin birth. There are two theories that explain how this contradiction occurred. (1) A Septuagint mistranslation of the word "virgin" instead of "young woman" caused the discrepancy. The original prophecy is not that someone called Immanuel will be born of a virgin, but merely that someone called Immanuel will be born. In the original context of the story, this makes a lot of sense. (2) Matthew, writing for a Roman gentile audience in Greek, included popular myths surrounding sons of gods, who in Roman mythology were frequently said to be born of virgins. In either case, it is clear that Matthew's prophecy of a virgin birth was a mistake, and modern Bible's actually include a footnote in Matthew pointing out that the virgin birth is a Septuagint mistranslation.

"The Gospel of Matthew, the Fraud!: 2.1. There Was No Virgin Birth" by Vexen Crabtree (1999)

2. The Roman Census, Bethlehem and Nazareth

Many authors have already written about the Roman Census, Bethlehem and other aspects of the "Christmas Story" of Jesus' birth. Some elements derive completely from folklore and aren't even mentioned in the bible, other important bits are only mentioned by one gospel writer but not by others, and all of them include historical errors. Prof. Richard Dawkins provides one the best summaries as to why the authors of the gospels would want to believe there was a reason for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem:

Book CoverWhen the gospels were written, many years after Jesus' death, nobody knew where he was born. But an Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2) had led Jews to expect that the long-awaited Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. In the light of this prophecy, John's gospel specifically remarks that his followers were surprised that he was not born in Bethlehem: 'Others say, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ shall cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?'

Matthew and Luke handle the problem differently, by deciding that Jesus must have been born in Bethlehem after all. But they get him there by different routes. Matthew has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem all along, moving to Nazareth only long after the birth of Jesus [...]. Luke, by contrast, acknowledges that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born. So how to get them to Bethlehem at the crucial moment, in order to fulfil the prophecy? Luke says that, in the time when Cyrenius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria, Caesar Augustus decreed a census for taxation purposes, and everybody had to go 'to his own city'. [...]

Except that it is historical nonsense, as A.N. Wilson in Jesus and Robin Lane Fox in The Unauthorized Version (among others) have pointed out. David, if he existed, lived nearly a thousand years before Mary and Joseph. Why on earth would the Romans have required Joseph to go to the city where a remote ancestor had lived a millennium earlier? [...] Moreover, Luke screws up his dating by tactlessly mentioning events that historians are capable of independently checking. There was indeed a census under Governor Quirinius - a local census, not one decreed by Caesar Augustus for the Empire as a whole - but it happened too late: in AD6, long after Herod's death.

"The God Delusion" by Prof. Richard Dawkins (2006)1

The historical evidence is examined further by Prof. Victor Stenger, who comes to the same conclusion as historians:

Book CoverHistory does not support Luke's Christmas story about a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the Roman world was required to go to their place of origin to be "taxed" (King James Version) or "enrolled" (Revised Standard Version). Surely such a vast undertaking would have been recorded. History does record a census affecting only Judea and not Galilee, but this took place in 6-7 CE, which conflicts with the fact that Jesus was supposedly born in the days of Herod, who died in 4 BCE.


"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist"
Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)3

A. N. Wilson's analysis of the New Testament and other historical material leads him to conclude that the birth in Bethlehem is more mythology than truth, contrasting the 'real' Jesus of Nazareth to the mythology of him as recorded in folklore and in the Bible:

The story of the baby being born in a stable at Bethlehem because there was no room for him at the inn is one of the most powerful myths ever given to the human race. A myth, however, is what it is. Even if we insist on taking every word of the Bible as literally true, we shall still not be able to find there the myth of Jesus being born in a stable. None of the Gospels state that he was born in a stable, and nearly all the details of the nativity scenes which have inspired great artists, and delighted generations of churchgoers on Christmas Eve, stem neither from history nor from Scripture, but from folk-lore. [...] Which is the more powerful figure of our imaginations - the 'real', historical Jesus of Nazareth, or the divine being, who in his great humility came down to be born as a poverty-stricken outcast?

"Jesus" by A. N. Wilson (1993)4

Within his nativity story Luke also tells us that Caesar, the famous Roman Emperor, called for a census and Joseph and Mary had to return to their town of origin, Bethlehem, until the census was complete. The Roman Empire is well documented, including documentation of the Romans taxation laws and system which was based on property and wealth. At no point did the Romans require people to return to their place of birth for a census. Luke was clearly wrong about the census, the reasons for Joseph and Mary being in Bethlehem, and wrong on his opinion that Jesus' birth was of a virgin.

Matthew, the only other gospel to include information on this, does not include any of these aspects of Jesus' birth, and merely states that he was born in Bethlehem, whilst Herod was king. All of Luke's insertions about singing angels, barns, mangers and virgin birth are not mentioned in Matthew's version.

Despite the long-winded and desperate attempts to get Jesus from Nazareth into Bethlehem, it may be that they did not read Micah 5:2 correctly in the first place, and all their efforts have been misguided.

Since the early Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah, they automatically believed that he was born in Bethlehem. But why did the Christians believe that he lived in Nazareth? The answer is quite simple. The early Greek speaking Christians did not know what the word "Nazarene" meant. The earliest Greek form of this word is "Nazoraios," which is derived from "Natzoriya," the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew "Notzri." (Recall that "Yeishu ha-Notzri" is the original Hebrew for "Jesus the Nazarene.") The early Christians conjectured that "Nazarene" meant a person from Nazareth and so it was assumed that Jesus lived in Nazareth. Even today, Christians blithely confuse the Hebrew words "Notzri" (_Nazarene_, _Christian_), "Natzrati" _Nazarethite_) and "nazir" (_nazarite_), all of which have completely different meanings.

"The Historical Basis of the Jesus legend" by Hayyim ben Yehoshua

How can it be that even early Christians did not know where Jesus' parents lived? Some conclude that it is because the entire story is merely a re-write of earlier, pagan god-man myths and that a historical Jesus never existed.



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3. When Was Jesus Born?

3.1. What Year Was Jesus Born?

Problems exist in the contrasting Luke/Matthew accounts of Jesus' birth. Luke claims that Jesus was born when Quirinius, a roman official, was the governor of Syria. This happened during or shortly after 6ad. Matthewhowever, claims that Jesus was born whilst Herod the Great reigned over Judea, and Herod died in 5 or 4 BC. There is a huge 10/11 year gap between these two dates, and either Luke or Matthew was wrong. Given Luke's track record, and that fact that historians accept the date of 4ad for Jesus' birth, it is likely that Luke was (once again) wrong.

The Date of the Nativity in Luke: irreconcilable date contradiction 4BC or 6AD by Richard Carrier - this is a much more detailed essay about the Matthew/Luke contradiction. "Out of the two accounts, one of them simply has to be wrong."

3.2. On What Day of the Year Was Jesus Born? December 25th?

Christians for a few hundred years did not celebrate Christmas and didn't know when Jesus was born. Early Christian fathers note that only pagan sun-worshippers celebrate on the 25th of December (by our calendar). Sun worshipping religions have worshipped on Sundays, and on the Winter Solstice, for many hundreds of years before Christianity took up the practice. Jesus was not born in December, or in January. Luke 2:8 states that shepherds were out watching their flocks by night. No flocks would have been out, during winter! The average winter temperature in Israel is 5 or 6 degrees Celsius. Farmers in Israel did not allow their flocks out during such cold nights.

Book CoverEarly Christian tradition preserved no knowledge of [the date at which Christ was born], and different writers made different guesses, most preferring dates in the spring. The first absolutely certain record which places it upon 25 December is the calendar of Philocalus, produced in 354 and apparently in Rome. From there it seems to have spread to Constantinople, Antioch, and Bethlehem by the end of the century, although it is not recorded at Jerusalem for almost two hundred more years and was never recognized by the Armenian church. The reason for the choice of this date, and the success of it, was stated with admirable candour by a Christian writer, the Scriptor Syrus, in the late fourth century:


It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.

"The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain" by Ronald Hutton (1996)6

It was emperor Constantine who transferred imperial sponsorship of the day, in 323, to Christianity, from the cult of Sol Invictus. The confusion between pagan sun-god religions and their celebrations on the 25th, and the later attempts of Christians to separate themselves from Pagans, led to many Christian condemnations of the festivities of that period.

"Augustine of Hippo and Pope Leo the Great, the most famous Fathers of the fifth-century western Church, both felt compelled to remind people that Christ, and not the sun, was being worshipped then. By contrast Maximus of Turin, in the same century, exulted over the appropriation of a pagan festival of sun-worship for Christian use"6.

The Romans were unsure on exactly what day the days started getting longer, 23rd, 24th, 25th, 26th were common guesses and the Pagan solstice was flanked by various sun festivals. "Saturnalia, in the days after 17th December, the latter the New Year fear, the Kalendae, from 1 to 3 January. [...] The moment at which the strength of the sun was perceived to be returning was an even more powerful, and universal one, and from 153 BCE the Roman year had officially commenced upon 1 January"6. The Kalendae was sacred to Janus, marked by feasting and merry-making, and the exchange of gifts. "The new Christian feast of the Nativity extinguished or absorbed both of them, and a string of other holy days sprang up in its wake"6.

The pagan elements of Christmas were so strong and apparent that the founders of modern Christianity who wanted to separate themselves from its own paganism, often complained about Christmas activities. "Among those who attacked them were some of the most renowned Fathers of the early medieval Church, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and John Chroysologus. Especially concerned, and voluble, were Maximus of Turin, Chrysologus of Ravenna, Caesarius of Arles, and Pacian of Barcelona. In the eleventh century the denunciations had ended with these southern regions, but they were repeated by Burchard of Worms, writing in more recently evangelized Germany. More interesting for the purposes, they were still being issued in England"6.

4. Who Was Jesus's Father?

4.1. King David and Joseph

The gospel of Matthew doesn't contain the prophecy of the virgin birth as discussed above, and indeed, this accords with much of the rest of early Christian writing.

The Old Testament - the Jewish Scriptures - prophesize that the Messiah will be born of the male line of King David. Multiple New Testament authors go out of their way to point out that this was indeed the case.

  1. The GenealogiesMatthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 both list long family genealogies in order to prove that Jesus was descended from David via Joseph. Matthew's is introduced with the words 'Jesus Christ, a descendant of David, a descendant of Abraham'.

  2. Jesus as the Son of Joseph: In the Gospel of Luke a Jew called Simeon praises the child of Joseph and Mary; Luke 2:33 and Luke 2:48 both call Jesus the ordinary, flesh-and-blood son of Joseph and Mary (or rather, they did so in the original versions, but later edited versions did not say so!).

  3. Jesus was 'of the seed of David' as prophesizedActs 2:30 says "God hath sworn with an oath to [David] that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne".Romans 1:3 says with much clarity: "Jesus Christ our Lord which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh". Jesus is called the son and the seed of David in Matthew 1:1Matthew 9:27Luke 1:32John 7:41-3Acts 13:232 Timothy 2:8Revelations 5:5 and Revelations 22:16.

To say that Jesus was born of a virgin as Christians did in later centuries is to say that some significant Old Testament prophecies were wrong, and that Jesus's father was God, and therefore that Jesus had no male bloodline at all.

4.2. The Genealogies Are Mythological

Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 both list long family genealogies in order to prove that Jesus was descended from David via Joseph, however, the authors appear to have actually made the details up. Luke's genealogy is completely different to Matthew's, giving 43 generations from David to Joseph (in contrast to Matthew's 28) and using an entirely different set of names. It was tradition only to list family members that are thought important... but surely Matthew and Luke would have at least picked one in common?



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5. The Guiding Star

One of Matthew's plotlines is the three visitors from the East who visit the newborn Jesus. They say that a star came up in the East, however no other people in the story appear to notice this. It must have been a relatively unnoticeable event, a fairly faint star, only noticed by people who study the stars. The three visitors are called 'Star Readers' in Matthew 2:1. However no other astrologers across the world at that time document this phenomenon.

We have no historical mention of a star lighting up the sky, although spectacular astronomical events such as comets and supernovae were frequently recorded in ancient times.

"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" by Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)3

The language used in the Bible indicates that this element of the story was taken from Zoroastrianism, as the magi are given Zoroastrian titles and bear the same gifts as stated in Zoroastrian myth.

6. King Herod: The Killing of Every Male Baby

The next part of Matthew, two, tells us of King Herod's anger at the three wise men and then of the killing of every child. Surely, the slaughter of every male child (Matthew 2:16-17) in Bethlehem, Ramah, and the surrounding area would have got mentioned in many places, such as Josephus' detailed accounts of the times, in fact it would likely cause the downfall of such an immoral, monstrous leader who issued such orders! Incidentally, the other 'great' leader in the Bible to issue such orders was Moses, Numbers 31:17-18Joshua 6:21-24, in both cases killing all the women/young/old in a city in two separate occasions.

Surely there would have been a record of Herod's slaughter of innocent children - had that really happened. The Jewish scholars Philo (c.50) and Josephus (c. 93) described Herod as murderous and killing some family members to keep them from challenging his throne. Yet neither mentions the slaughter of the innocents.

"God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist" by Prof. Victor J. Stenger (2007)3

Many other myths, including more ancient Roman ones, had an event where all the male children were killed, and the famous Romulus and Remus story is (once again) a good, famous example.

It is likely that Herod's orders to kill all those children, and the star that went noticed by all except three astrologers from "the East", did not actually happen. Both Luke and Matthew appear to, well, make things up, and none of these things are mentioned in the other two gospels, nor in the recovered Gospel of Thomas.

There are no birth records for Jesus, nor any first hand accounts of his life, so that these two contradictory and inaccurate accounts are the only snippets of information that we have. It is possible that Matthew/Luke were referring to a myth when they talked of Jesus' and his early life. It seems highly likely that Luke, when writing of the events that surrounded Jesus' birth, was thinking of the famous Roman myth (that was around well before the Jesus' myth) of Romulus and Remus - who also were born by a virgin, and also had a king ordering the slaughter of all the other children in the same area.

7. Modern Christmas is Eclectic, Multicultural, Secular and Religious

Some other elements of Christmas bare no resemblance to either pagan religions, historical events, or Biblical exegesis.

Christmas is a multicultural, multi-religious festival. It combines sun worship, polytheism, pagan nature religions, Christianity and other myths and traditions. When Christians complain it is too pagan, or when lay folk complain it is too religious, or when both groups complain it is too commercial, they are all in need of realizing that Christmas is a commercial fusion of nature-based festivals. Agents of the Politically Correct complain it is too culturally or religiously homogenous. In reality, the date of the 25th accords with Sun Worship thousands of years old, the Christmas tree and some of the decorations are pagan, the Nativity stories are pagan, Mithraistic, Roman and Christian. In addition to all of its rich history, Christmas has now become largely a secular holiday and a commercial enterprise with many tacky, mass-produced, plastic and branded items such as Santa Claus's red uniform, designed by Coca Cola. The non-religious can celebrate the commercial and social event, Christians can pretend Christmas has something to do with Christ, pagans can celebrate nature, and all can be happy. The critics largely concentrate of the portions of Christmas they don't like, and claim that those portions ruin the rest of it. As long as no-one tries to "capture the flag" and exclude others - and as long as councils

The paganism inherent in Christmas, such as decorating trees, is warned against in the Bible; and there are no Christian birthday celebrations in the Bible either. These, combined with the fact that early Christians celebrated Christmas in April or May until it was changed to match with 25th of December, a major pagan holiday. Emperor Constantine, who effected this switch, done so in order to harmonize Christianity with paganism. It is almost certain that Christians should not attempt to celebrate Jesus' birthday, and they certainly shouldn't do so at Christmas.

"Christmas: Paganism, Sun Worship and Commercialism"
Vexen Crabtree

8. Conclusions

Mostly derived from pagan myths, Jesus' birth stories are very dubious, and it very likely that all such beliefs were written retrospectively by the Roman gospel writers, or were assumed from the outset. There is no evidence or reason to believe that they actually occurred. Events such as King Herod's killing of every male child simply could not have gone unnoticed, these pagan myths were however assumed of all god-man saviours. Modern Christmas is a combination of pagan and ancient practices. Its eclectic nature makes it a multicultural event suitable for appropriation by nearly anyone, including staunch secularists. Jesus' existence remains a mystery, we cannot validate even the simplest facts about his birth, and this fact has led some scholars to cast doubt on Jesus' entire existence.

Read / Write Comments  |  By Vexen Crabtree 2000 Oct 22


References: (What's this?)

Book Cover

Book Cover

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Crabtree, Vexen
"The Gospel of Matthew, the Fraud!" (1999). Accessed 2012 May 28.
"Jesus Did Not Exist" (2007). Accessed 2012 May 28.
"Christmas: Paganism, Sun Worship and Commercialism" (2008). Accessed 2012 May 28.

Dawkins, Prof. Richard
The God Delusion (2006). Hardback. Published by Bantam Press, Transworld Publishers, Uxbridge Road, London, UK.

Hutton, Ronald
The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (1996). 2001 re-issue. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Jehovah's Witnesses, The. Publications by their publishing company, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, New York, USA.
What Does the Bible Really Teach (2005). Taken from a 2006 print.

Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist(2007). Published by Prometheus Books. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.

Wilson, A.N.
Jesus (1993). Flamingo Press, Harper Collins, Fulham Palace Road, London, UK. First published in UK in 1992.


  1. Dawkins (2006) p93-94.^
  2. Dawkins (2006) p93-94.
  3. Stenger (2007) p178. Added to this page on 2010 Feb 16.^^^
  4. Wilson (1993) p ix.^
  5. Wilson (1993) p ix.
  6. Hutton (1996) p1-7.



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Historical Jesus FAQ

Jorn Barger January 2002 (updated Feb2002)

related pages: Judaism : Crossan : Yeshua : Bible : Church


Antipas's Galilee is yellow; Roman roads are brown [main source] (some roads are probably post-30AD) [more] [relief map] ditto [satellite] [NT maps] [climate]

Estimated populations (very uncertain): Jerusalem 30k, Tiberias and Sepphoris 15k, Capernaum 5k, Nazareth <1k


         GALILEE       SAMARIA        JUDAH
1050BC?               Canaanites       Saul
1000BC?   David         David         David
 937BC?   Israel        Israel        Judah
 722BC:   Assyria      Assyria      independent
 586BC:                              Babylonia
 520BC:    Persia       Persia        Persia
 332BC:  Macedonia     Macedonia     Macedonia
 323BC:  Seleucids?    Ptolemies     Ptolemies
 200BC:  Seleucids     Seleucids     Seleucids
 142BC:                             independent
 134BC:                              Seleucids
 129BC:   Judah         Judah       independent
  63BC:   Rome          Rome           Rome
  47BC:   Herod        Hyrcanus      Hyrcanus
  42BC:   Herod         Herod        Hyrcanus
  40BC:   Parthia      Parthia        Parthia
  37BC:   Herod         Herod          Herod
   4BC:  Antipas      Archelaus      Archelaus
   7AD:  Antipas     procurators    procurators
  25AD:  Antipas        Pilate        Pilate

Pix: Nazareth/SepphorisGalilee from TabormiscSamariaScythopolissatelliteIsrael-misc


What was Galilee like when Jesus was growing up there?

By the time of Herod the Great's death in 4BC, his forceful personality (and his secret police!) had dominated Galilee for the last 44 years. Herod had come from a line of Arab rulers [info] who had been compelled to convert to Judaism by the Maccabees only around 130BC, but by 67BC Herod's (very rich) father [Josephus on Antipater] had zeroed in on a vulnerability in the Maccabee dynasty-- Hyrcanus II, by name-- winning the role of his prime minister. A timely alliance with Julius Caesar then increased his clout enough to place 25yo Herod as governor of Galilee in 48BC.

Galilee had been seized from the Syrians and itself forcibly converted to Judaism only around 103BC, the Maccabees viewing this as a rightful restoration of part of the ancient kingdom of Israel, wiped out by the Assyrians six centuries earlier. The Jewish population of Galilee had been gradually rebuilding since that time, though many had had to be evacuated in 163BC in the face of Seleucid antisemitism.

Rome had defeated the Maccabees in 63BC and returned much of that newly-conquered territory to Syria (now itself under Roman control), but Galilee was left under Hyrcanus II, whom the Romans demoted from king to 'ethnarch'.

Herod's first act as governor was to crush a band of Jewish nationalists who'd been fighting to reclaim some of 'their' lost territory, east of Galilee. Herod efficiently tracked down and killed these rebels, led by Hezekiah, and then dramatically faced down the Jewish court in Jerusalem when they accused him of executing Jews without a trial. [Josephus on Hezekiah] He maintained this firm extrajudicial grip for the rest of his career-- with the help of a secret police force who caused troublemakers to quietly disappear. [Josephus on Herod] [revisionism]

But after Herod's death this same Hezekiah's son rose up for long-delayed revenge and captured (briefly) the Galilean capital, Sepphoris, from Herod's son Antipas. [coins] This was just a few miles from Nazareth, so that tiny community must have been traumatised when Roman troops from the north razed Sepphoris and sold this new generation of Jewish-nationalist rebels into slavery. [Josephus on Judah]

Josephus claims that in 6AD a Galilean named Judas founded a sect that refused to pay taxes to Rome, on the grounds that taxes infringed on their god-given liberty. [Josephus] [more]

Galileans spoke Aramaic with a barbarous accent, and had a reputation as good fighters but often troublesome to deal with. The southern half (Lower Galilee) was comparatively prosperous and populous, with a good climate for agriculture. [more]

There's a parallel group to the Jesus Seminar, called the 'Context Group', that specialises in applying the social sciences to biblical settings. [background]

general: GrantCrapo


How Jewish was Jesus?

Galilee had hosted a mix of Jews and gentiles (Aramaeans, Itureans, Phoenicians, and Greeks, some with antisemitic tendencies) until annexed by Aristobulus I in 103BC and forcibly converted to Judaism. [overview] That Rome left Galilee under Jewish control in 63BC implies it was predominantly Jewish by that date.

Judaism itself had many 'dialects' at this time, possibly including: Ebionites, Hellenists, Hemerobaptists, Herodians, Essenes, Pharisees, Galileans, Genists, Masbateians, Merists, Nazarenes, Sadducees, Samaritans, and Scribes. [cite]

Archeologists estimate that Nazareth was founded about 200BC, and the style of tombs suggest it was always predominantly Jewish. [hj16] The men of Nazareth probably met for sabbath observances, but didn't have a dedicated synagogue. (Sepphoris was too far away to be visited on the sabbath-- 2000 cubits or about 3000 feet was the longest trip allowed.) [later synagogues of Galilee]

Sepphoris was rebuilt by Antipas as his capital after 4BC (and renamed Autocratoris), but seems to have been predominantly Jewish, though with definite Graeco-Roman sympathies.

Jesus was surely circumcised. [weirdness]


Who were Jesus's parents?

If James was indeed Jesus's brother (or even a cousin), he could have been an extremely reliable source about Jesus's family background.

But Mark 6:3 refers to Jesus as 'son of Mary' instead of 'son of Joseph' which would normally imply his father was unknown. [info] (Mary was said to come from Sepphoris.) An illegitimate child would have been ostracised as a 'mamzer' at this time. [info]

The Talmud claims Jesus's actual father was a Roman soldier called 'Panthera', but this tradition is unattested before 150AD [etext] (and it's debatable whether a different Jesus-- Jesus the Egyptian-- was intended). [info][debate] (It's easy to imagine that Mary might have been raped by a soldier when Sepphoris was razed in 4BC.)

Another tradition claims Joseph had a first wife before Mary. [info] And Joseph is believed to have died before Jesus was 12.

"Joseph was the second most common male name and Mary the most common amongst women" [cite]


When was Jesus born?

The 25December date was first cited around 335AD (so it's not remotely credible). [cite]

The gospels of Matthew and Luke date his birth to the time of Herod, ie before 4BC, but there's no reason to credit this. Luke adds that Quirinius held a census around the time of Jesus's birth, but that census was really in 6AD, and the connection is even less credible than the reference to Herod. [debate]

If we guess he died around 30AD (+/-5), and we guess he was around 30yo when he died (+/-5), then he was likely born between 10BC and 10AD.


Was Jesus born in Bethlehem?

Crossan thinks not-- this story was added much later to 'fulfill' biblical prophecies. [arguments]


Was Jesus from Nazareth?

Crossan accepts this; Grant [jrw107] thinks maybe not; but even Grant accepts he was from Galilee-- maybe Capernaum.

Nazareth is suspiciously unmentioned even in records that should know of it (eg Josephus), and it's possible the term 'Nazarene' had another origin altogether. The word 'Nazarite' is similar in English but not in Hebrew (Netzarim instead of Natzrat: cite). [info] [KJV]. The term 'Nazorean' might have meant 'guardian': cite)


What name was Jesus given?

"Yeshu'a is the Aramaic corruption of Hebrew Yehoshu'a (YHWH saves) which the English mispronounced as Joshua... Galileans had a tendency to drop initial and final vowel sounds. So Elazar was pronounced Lazar and Yeshu'a was shortened to Yeshu (ye-SHOO)... The final 's' was originally added as the normal Greek ending of any Semitic masculine name that ended in a vowel sound, since in Greek only feminine names end in a vowel. The 'J' was introduced as the standard long form 'I' in the gothic script of the high medieval period." Mahlon Smith [cite]

"Yeshua was the fifth most common Jewish name, 4 out of the 28 Jewish High-Priests in Jesus' time were called Yeshua." [cite]


Did Jesus have siblings?

The evidence for a brother James is pretty clear (though he may have been a cousin, or just a symbolic 'brother'), plus a cousin Simeon and uncle Cleophas. Mark 6:3 claims three other brothers: Joseph, Jude and Simon[debate]


What sort of education did Jesus have?

Supposedly, universal education for Jewish boys from age six wasn't initiated until 63AD, by Joshua ben Gimla. So Jesus's early education was probably mostly in the hands of his father, and the other men of the village. Nazareth had a single spring for water that must have been an important meetingplace. [cf review]

The men would discuss the weather, the crops, their herds, politics, religion, and history. They would pass on the sayings they'd heard, many from the Old Testament. Jesus would have learned early versions of the Kaddish (mourner's prayer) [etext] and the 18 blessings. [etext]

Sepphoris was only an hour's walk away, and Jesus would often have accompanied his father when he had business there, or religious observances. But on the sabbath that trip was too far to go.

The Dead Sea Scrolls may give an indication of how well-known various Jewish texts were around this time-- Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah rating highest. [summary]

The leading Pharisee, Hillel, probably died around 10AD, so Jesus was probably very familiar with his (liberal) teachings. The teachings of Jesus ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus or Sirach) were also popular. [cite] [etext]



What language(s) did Jesus speak?

Aramaic would have been Jesus's native tongue. But Greek was almost as popular and he was likely bilingual, Aramaic and Greek. [cite] (The Romans used Greek not Latin in most of their territories.) Hebrew might have been a third, learned language.

All early Christian testimony was in Greek, with only occasional quotations in Aramaic. [cite]

Since Greek was more common than Hebrew, Jesus should have been more familiar with the Greek translation of the Old Testament-- the 'Septuagint'-- than the Hebrew original.


Did Jesus know Jerusalem?

The roundtrip from Galilee to Jerusalem for special occasions like Passover would have required at least a week of travel. It seems unlikely that the whole family could have gone, but Jesus might well have made the trip once or more.


Was Jesus a carpenter?

Crossan [boc349] points out that Matthew 13:55 shifts Mark's 6:3 'tekton' onto Joseph, which might indicate embarrassment (ie authenticity). The Greek word could also refer to building with stone (wood was scarce in the region). [lex]

It's been suggested he built or repaired boats by the Sea of Galilee, or plows and yokes for farmers.

Nazareth was probably too small to support any sort of fulltime tekton, so Jesus and/or Joseph may have travelled to Sepphoris to find work or sell their crafts.

Antipas financed a major construction project at Tiberias around 15-19 AD, which could have provided work for most of the tektons in Galilee, including Jesus. He would have been paid very little-- at most 2 sesterces per day. [boc179] (The equivalent purchasing power today might be around $1.75 per day.)

There was some controversy because of an ancient burial ground on the site. [jrw103] When the city was completed, the local job-opportunities for tektons would have plummeted-- Jesus and his co-workers would have been thrown upon their own limited resources.

[social class]

"Geza Vermes highlights an Aramaic use of the term carpenter/ craftsman (naggar) to metaphorically describe a 'scholar' or 'learned man'." [cite]


What did Jesus know of the Greco-Roman world?

He may have seen Greek theater performed at Sepphoris.

Sepphoris [info] [info] [archeo]

Tiberias [visualisation]


What model might the Greco-Roman Cynics have provided?

"Both are populists, appealing to the ordinary people; both are life-style preachers, advocating their position not only by word but by deed, not only in theory but in practice; both use dress and equipment to symbolize dramatically their message. But he is rural, they are urban; he is organizing a communal movement, they are following an individual philosophy; and their symbolism demands knapsack and staff, his no-knapsack and no-staff. Maybe Jesus is what peasant Jewish Cynicism looked like." [jarb122] [essay]

"The Cynics... were itinerant preachers of a philosophy of freedom from every constraint and a life lived with minimal requirements 'according to nature.' Flouting social convention, they derived their name (kynikoi,"dog-like") from an epithet applied to one of their founders, "the Dog" Diogenes (of Sinope, 4th-cent. BCE), who went about Athens doing in public everything that a dog might do, all the while hurling insults on his contemporaries... One time while masturbating in the market place he said, 'Would that it were possible to relieve hunger simply by rubbing the belly'" [cite]


What other religious and political rebellions were taking place around this time in Galilee and environs?

Crossan lists about 30 cited by Josephus, sorted into four categories: [hj451] (dates unreliable/approximate)


47BC: banditry of Ezekias et al
37BC: banditry of Galilean cave bandits
37BC-4BC: (reign of Herod)
4BC: protest to Archelaus about taxes and prisoners
4BC: messianic claims of Judas in Galilee, of Simon in Perea,
  and of Athronges in Judea
26AD: protest to Pilate about icons
c30AD: protest to Pilate about use of Temple funds
c30AD: prophetic claims of John the Baptist
35-55AD: banditry of Eleazar
36AD: prophetic claims of 'Samaritan Prophet'
40AD: protest to Petronius about statue in Temple
45AD: prophetic claims of Theudas
45AD: banditry of Tholomaeus et al
50AD: protest to Cumanus about soldiers' impiety
50AD: banditry near Beth-horon
c55AD: prophetic claims of unnamed prophets
c55AD: prophetic claims of 'Egyptian Prophet'
61AD: prophetic claims of unnamed prophet
61AD: banditry of unnamed bandits
65AD: protest to Cestius Gallus about governor
65AD: banditry of unnamed bandits
66AD: banditry of Josephus et al in Galilee
66AD: banditry of 'Jesus' near Ptolemais
66AD: messianic claims of Menahem
68AD: banditry of Zealots in Jerusalem
69AD: messianic claims of Simon
70AD: prophetic claims of unnamed prophet
73AD: prophetic claims of Jonathan the Weaver

other magicians: [skeptic] Crapo


What was Jesus's relationship to John the Baptist?

Crossan thinks Jesus was indeed baptised by John, and followed him for some time before starting his own ministry. [PBS] Josephus concurs that John was beheaded, but the date is very uncertain (24-37 AD). [Josephus]

The biblical precedent for baptism in the Jordan was 2Kings 5 (Elisha healing Naaman's skin condition, aka 'leprosy'). [KJV]

Crossan thinks Jesus ultimately rejected John's eschatology. [counter-arguments]


"What was special or particular about John the Baptist in comparison with all other water purifications in contemporary Judaism was that he had to do it to you, you did not do it to yourself..." [JDC]


Was Jesus an Essene?

This is widely argued, but implausible.

The Essenes were extreme Jewish fundamentalists who had rejected the Hasmonean dynasty around 140BC, leaving Jerusalem to settle near the Dead Sea. (The Hasmoneans were not traditionally qualified for the high priesthood.) There's no credible link with the teachings of Jesus.



Was Jesus a magician?

Morton Smith argues that Jesus fits easily into the contemporary pattern of miracle-working magicians, healing by 'casting out demons'. The Talmud identifies him with Jesus the Egyptian, who studied magic in Egypt and had magical words tattooed on his skin. (Smith thinks this possible, and points out that Paul may also have had these tattoos.)

An early form of kabbalah-magic had emerged before Jesus's time, termed 'merkabah' (or merkevah), or meditation upon the chariot throne of God. [cite] [info] [context]

A healer? [review]

A contemporary instance of magic: In 19AD, just 250 miles north of Galilee, the emperor's adopted son Germanicus, age 34, was hastened to his grave by malicious sorcery, according to Tacitus: "...there were found hidden in the floor and in the walls disinterred remains of human bodies, incantations and spells, and the name of Germanicus inscribed on leaden tablets, half-burnt cinders smeared with blood, and other horrors by which in popular belief souls are devoted to the infernal deities." [etext] (See also Graves's "I, Claudius" ch20.)

Jewish views on magic: [1883 book]


Where did Jesus teach?

"The geographical information we have, such as it is, suggests that Jesus restricted his activity for the most part to the Jewish villages of rural Galilee." [cite]

Capernaum synagogue? [archeo]

If he'd had a lot of followers, they probably would have been quickly suppressed by Antipas in Galilee, but they weren't (so far as we know) so he probably didn't.

Some of his Galilean followers may have ventured north into Syria after his death.


What did Jesus teach?

Crossan triangulates the oldest teachings as the 'Common Sayings Tradition'-- those shared by the Gospel of Thomas [etext] [alt] [links] and the 'Q Gospel' [etext] [info][more]


Seek and ye shall find; The kingdom is within you; There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed; I have come to cast conflicts upon the earth: fire, sword, war; You see the sliver in your friend's eye, but you don't see the timber in your own eye; What you will hear in your ear, in the other ear proclaim from your rooftops; No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, nor does one put it in a hidden place-- rather, one puts it on a lampstand so that all who come and go will see its light; If a blind person leads a blind person, both of them will fall into a hole; Do not fret, from morning to evening and from evening to morning, about what you are going to wear-- you're much better than the lilies, which neither card nor spin; Whoever has something in hand will be given more, and whoever has nothing will be deprived of even the little they have;

Whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven, either on earth or in heaven; A slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honor the one and offend the other; Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven's kingdom; Whoever does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters, and carry the cross as I do, will not be worthy of me; Congratulations to you when you are hated and persecuted; Congratulations to those who go hungry, so the stomach of the one in want may be filled; Seek his treasure that is unfailing, that is enduring, where no moth comes to eat and no worm destroys; Foxes have their dens and birds have their nests, but human beings have no place to lie down and rest; If you have money, don't lend it at interest-- rather, give it to someone from whom you won't get it back;

When people take you in, eat what they serve you and heal the sick among them; I will give you what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard; Heaven's kingdom is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky; If the owners of a house know that a thief is coming, they will be on guard before the thief arrives and will not let the thief break into their house and steal their possessions-- as for you, then, be on guard against the world, prepare yourselves with great strength, so the robbers can't find a way to get to you, for the trouble you expect will come; The Pharisees and the scholars have taken the keys of knowledge and have hidden them-- they have not entered nor have they allowed those who want to enter to do so;

Grapes are not harvested from thorn trees, nor are figs gathered from thistles, for they yield no fruit-- good persons produce good from what they've stored up; bad persons produce evil from the wickedness they've stored up in their hearts, and say evil things, for from the overflow of the heart they produce evil; From Adam to John the Baptist, among those born of women, no one is so much greater than John the Baptist that his eyes should not be averted-- but I have said that whoever among you becomes a child will recognize the kingdom and will become greater than John; Two will recline on a couch; one will die, one will live; The crop is huge but the workers are few, so beg the harvest boss to dispatch workers to the fields;

Why have you come out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind? And to see a person dressed in soft clothes, like your rulers and your powerful ones? They are dressed in soft clothes, and they cannot understand truth; Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Don't you understand that the one who made the inside is also the one who made the outside?; The Father's kingdom is like a woman. She took a little leaven, hid it in dough, and made it into large loaves of bread; The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine and looked for the one until he found it. After he had toiled, he said to the sheep, 'I love you more than the ninety-nine.'

A person was receiving guests. When he had prepared the dinner, he sent his slave to invite the guests. The slave went to the first and said to that one, 'My master invites you.' That one said, 'Some merchants owe me money; they are coming to me tonight. I have to go and give them instructions. Please excuse me from dinner.' The slave went to another and said to that one, 'My master has invited you.' That one said to the slave, 'I have bought a house, and I have been called away for a day. I shall have no time.' The slave went to another and said to that one, 'My master invites you.' That one said to the slave, 'My friend is to be married, and I am to arrange the banquet. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me from dinner.' The slave went to another and said to that one, 'My master invites you.' That one said to the slave, 'I have bought an estate, and I am going to collect the rent. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me.' The slave returned and said to his master, 'Those whom you invited to dinner have asked to be excused.' The master said to his slave, 'Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.' Buyers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father.

cf Jesus Seminar


Did Jesus's teachings about wealth imply a personal background of poverty?



"Seek his treasure that is unfailing, that is enduring, where no moth comes to eat and no worm destroys."

"A slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honor the one and offend the other."

"Do not fret, from morning to evening and from evening to morning, about what you are going to wear-- you're much better than the lilies, which neither card nor spin."

"Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven's kingdom."

"Buyers and merchants will not enter the places of my Father."

"Congratulations to those who go hungry, so the stomach of the one in want may be filled."

"If you have money, don't lend it at interest-- rather, give it to someone from whom you won't get it back."

"Foxes have their dens and birds have their nests, but human beings have no place to lay down and rest."

"Whoever has something in hand will be given more, and whoever has nothing will be deprived of even the little they have."

Crossan argues that Antipas's building projects in Sepphoris and Tiberias must have drained and even displaced Galilean peasants, but I don't think the historical record supports this. [background] [anti]


Did Jesus respect traditional Jewish law?

This can be argued either way, but the nays seem to have a stronger case: "his disobservance of the purity-code... his sabbath-breaking, his rejection of the lex talionis [eye for an eye], his abrogation of the dietary laws, his teachings against divorce, his interference with a stoning, and his declaration the law and the prophets are now old news, replaced by the preaching of the kingdom of God." [cite] [more]

The Common Sayings Tradition is notably missing the classic Jewish obsessions-- Temple, Land, and Torah. [cite]

But Crossan has reportedly shifted from denying to accepting this. [cite]


['yes' analysis]

Geza Vermes finds strong parallels to Jesus's teaching especially in Honi the Circle-Drawer (60-50BC)and Hanina ben Dosa (40-70AD).

References to touching the hem of his garment may refer to traditional 'tzitzit' [info] The rule about head-covering was apparently not enforced in Jesus's time. [cite] He might have learned an early version of the Eighteen Blessings. [info]

After the age of 20, Jewish law would have required Jesus to pay one-half shekel per year as Temple tax (less than a week's wages for an unskilled laborer, maybe $5 in today's purchasing power? cf boc179).


Was Jesus a rabbi?

The gospels show Jesus being called 'rabbi' twelve times. The term would normally imply a Pharisee who has studied under another Pharisee, and now has students of his own. [cite]

But more generally, it could just mean 'teacher': [PBS]

Jesus as Pharisee [essay]

But the oldest layers of the gospels seem to single out the Pharisees for condemnation. (Morton Smith argues most of these still postdate 70AD.)

Pharisees: [notes] more[essay] ditto [scholarly]


Was Jesus an outsider, or charismatic, or both?

Morton Smith finds it credible that Jesus was considered insane by his family, and rejected by his neighbors in Nazareth. If he'd attracted a large following-- as the gospels all agree-- the authorities would have intervened very quickly, so this phase was probably very brief. 


Who was Pontius Pilate?



prefect not procurator [info] [context]


What happened in Jerusalem?

Crossan accepts that Jesus caused a disturbance in the Temple, but Paula Fredriksen argues that the moneychangers occupied an isolated spot within the huge Temple plaza [pic?], and knocking over the tables would have been noticed by at most a few dozen people.

The outer courtyard was 1500 by 900 feet. [3D QuickTime] [model] [description] [Jerusalem]

[overview] [Crapo]

Crossan speculates he may have been crucified during the week before Passover to impress the crowds. [JDC]

crucifixion: [detailed]


Did the sky darken when Jesus died?

There's no real evidence of this. [detail]


How did Jews react to Jesus and the Christian movement?

[essay] [Crapo]

Before the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, there's some evidence that James, supposedly the brother of Jesus and leader of the Christian movement in Jerusalem, was still on good terms with Jewish leaders.

Morton Smith argues that most of the tensions with the Pharisees date to after 70AD.

Between 70 and 100AD, a curse was added to the weekday prayer (the 18 blessings), perhaps: "And may the apostates have no hope, and all the Christians perish instantly." But there's considerable debate about whether Christians were the specific target at this time. [cite] [prayer] [more] [defense] [info]

According to the Mishnah, around 120AD Rabbi Shimon ben Azai [info] cast doubt on the parentage of Jesus. [cite] [ditto] His contemporary Aqiba ben Joseph (Akiba, Akiva) [info] was also anti-Christian. Around 130AD, the standard Greek translation of the Old Testament (the 'Septuagint') was replaced with a new translation by Aqiba's student Aquila that (supposedly) altered or dropped many passages the Christians had begun citing as predicting the Christian Messiah. [info] [examples] [table]

The Talmud accepts that Jesus was crucified at the request of the Jewish court.

[etexts] [info] [Talmud]



Who was Paul?

Between the years 37AD and 57AD (approximately), a Jew named Saul (his Hebrew name) or Paul (his Latinised name) travelled around the northeastern Mediterranean preaching Christianity. He had been born 500 miles north of Jerusalem in Tarsus, to a father who was (supposedly) a Roman citizen, and he was (supposedly) trained as a Pharisee. He was converted to belief in Christ on the road to Damascus, where he had (supposedly) been sent by Jerusalem's high priest, to persecute the new Christian community there.

bios: KJV-ActstablesCathPBSGrant

He may have been distantly related to the Herods: [info]

Seven of the New Testament letters that are attributed to Paul are likely really his: 1 ThessaloniansGalatians1 Corinthians2 CorinthiansRomansPhilippians, and Philemon[analysis]

Paul's approach to Christianity is so divergent from the Common Sayings Tradition (above) that his 'mission' is highly controversial. [critical quotes] [overlaps]



What was the Didache?

The Didache (Greek 'the training') is a rulebook for some early Christian communities, discovered in 1873 in a monastery library in Constantinople. [etext] [DMoz] Supporting fragments dated to before 400AD have also been discovered in Egypt.

Crossan believes parts may date from c50AD, representing a very close approximation of Jesus's historical teachings as in Galilee. [JDC]



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Problem: Matthew and Luke's nativities are totally different 
Verses: Matthew 1:18-2:23, Luke 2; Status: Serious

This is the nativity story according to Matthew 1:18-2:23:

  • An angel appears to Joseph to reassure him, and so he marries Mary.
  • Jesus is born in Bethlehem.
  • Perhaps two years later (or perhaps not), wise men see his star. They come and inform Herod.
  • The wise men - bringing gifts - find Jesus in Bethlehem.
  • Warned in a dream, Joseph and family flee from Bethlehem to Egypt.
  • Herod commences the massacre of the infants.
  • Herod dies. Informed in a dream of Herod's death, Joseph takes the family back.
  • But he is afraid to go to Judea, and so makes his home in Nazareth, Galilee.

This is the nativity story according to Luke 2:

  • A census requires Joseph and Mary to go from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem.
  • Jesus is born in Bethlehem.
  • There is "no room in the inn"; Mary places Jesus in a manger.
  • Nearby shepherds are told of these events by angels.
  • The shepherds visit the family.
  • After about a month or so, Jesus is taken to temple in Jerusalem.
  • There, Simeon and Anna praise Jesus.
  • Soon after, Joseph and Mary return to their home in Nazareth.

The first thing to say is that these are obviously different stories. There is just no overlap between them except for the fact that they feature the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and end up in Nazareth. Even if the two accounts had no explicit contradictions, it's decidedly odd that almost nothing that occurs in Matthew is mentioned in Luke, and vice versa.

But there are contradictions...

Where was the home of Joseph and Mary?

Before anything happened, where was the home of Joseph and Mary? Luke 2:4 and 2:39 are perfectly clear: it was in Nazareth, Galilee. On the other hand, Matthew doesn't explicitly say. But he seems to place it in Bethlehem, Judea. Firstly, he never describes any journey to Bethlehem (presumably because Joseph and Mary were there already). Secondly, when Herod dies and Joseph is taking his family back home, it seems he meant to go to Judea (where Bethlehem was), but was afraid to do so. This is Matthew 2:22-23:

But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: "He shall be called a Nazarene." (ESV)

This is not quite conclusive. Just as a matter of geography, one would generally want to pass through Judea in order to get from Egypt to Nazareth, and so when Matthew tells us they avoided Judea, he might just be discussing the route they took on their journey, rather than their intended destination.

However, I find it very telling that Joseph "withdrew" to Galilee, as if that wasn't his original destination. The Greek word is anechoresen, which does indeed carry this meaning. And these verses definitely give the impression that Nazareth was a new home for Joseph and Mary - not the place where they started. This problem I consider Serious.

How long were they in Bethlehem?

Another problem is this. Matthew's gospel tells us that the family had to flee from Bethlehem and hide in Egypt for a while. In Luke, however, once the month-old Jesus had been presented at the temple, and all legal requirements had been fulfilled (see Leviticus 12), the family simply returned to Nazareth without incident. This is Luke 2:39:

And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. (ESV)

This is hard to reconcile with Matthew, who says they did nothing of the sort, but rather fled to Egypt. Also, Matthew 2:16 seems to imply that the family was in Bethlehem for about two years before they had to make their escape, whereas Luke has them stay in Bethlehem only a short while.

The Tektonics website tries to solve both problems at once, by suggesting that the family went to live in Nazareth (as Luke says), but just happened to be visiting Bethlehem for unrelated reasons when the wise men went there looking for them. Quite a coincidence! But, there's nothing in Matthew to indicate that Joseph and Mary left Bethlehem prior to the wise men finding them (which makes a lot of sense if Matthew thought their original home was there).

Looking Unto Jesus suggests that the family did indeed go to Nazareth after about forty days, and then fled from Nazareth (not Bethlehem) to Egypt some time later. This just about works, except that it's now hard to understand why the family had to flee at all: if Herod was looking for Jesus in Bethlehem, there would be little reason to flee from Nazareth, which is quite far from Bethlehem - about 70 miles or so. However, I suppose there would be a risk that word of Jesus' location would reach Herod, so this solution has some potential.

Still, it seems to me that Matthew intends the reader to understand that Jesus was found by the wise men in Bethlehem, and then the family had to flee from Bethlehem to avoid Herod's wrath. That's the overall impression given in Matthew 2. But this part of the problem is perhaps Minor.

The "house" (is not in itself a problem)

There is one more thing I would like to quickly dismiss. Luke says there was no room at the inn, whereas Matthew 2:11 puts Joseph and Mary in a house. This is often commented on, but I just don't see the problem. Matthew doesn't appear to be talking about the very same date as Luke. Presumably Joseph and Mary were only "sleeping rough" for a short period.

So what's going on?

What was actually going on in the minds of the authors of Luke and Matthew? It seems that everyone knew that Jesus came from Nazareth, a town not mentioned in the Old Testament. However, an important Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2) placed the birth of a great King of the Jews in Bethlehem. It seems that both Luke and Matthew wanted to resolve this little problem, but did so in very different ways.



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O Little Town of…Nazareth?

Where was Jesus born? In Bethlehem, of course, in a manger, because there was no room for Joseph and Mary at the local inn. That’s what all the Christmas carols say. And that’s what the Gospels say, too.
Or is it?
Once we begin to examine the gospel stories carefully, we find that the answer to this simple question is not so, well, simple. Passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that describe Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem have been seamlessly woven together in modern-day Christmas pageants, but the Gospels of Mark and John leave the reader with the distinct impression that Jesus was born not in Bethlehem after all, but in Nazareth.
For the historian, these inconsistencies pose a challenge.1
The historian is a time detective, whose task is to raise a specific question about the past, to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support a probable solution, and finally, to demonstrate how such a solution explains the evidence. Whichever hypothesis most adequately explains the variety of independent evidence becomes a “historical fact”—at least until a better hypothesis comes along.
Applying historical analysis to the earliest Christian writings, most of which are in the New Testament, is not a casual exercise. These are not only the most familiar documents from Western antiquity; they are also revered as scripture by millions of Christians around the globe. Interpreters tend either to overlook ordinary historical questions when reading them or, in some cases, to overcompensate by an unusually aggressive dismissal of their claims. Nevertheless, if the “history” of Christian origins is to mean anything, we should not simply abandon ourselves to inherited traditions; we should not switch off our normal thought processes when we contemplate Christian beginnings. Instead, we must strive to analyze these texts with the same discipline we use in reconstructing the past behind the narratives of ancient historians such as Livy, Josephus and Tacitus. I realize that some readers consider it inappropriate to apply common historical principles to these texts, and I respect that position. Obviously, I take a different view, which is why I would like to address the question of Jesus’ birthplace.2
To try to establish where Jesus was born, the historian must examine all the relevant evidence—whether material artifacts, such as coins, pottery and stone inscriptions, or ancient literature, such as the Gospels, the letters of Paul and the Roman histories and other extrabiblical texts.
In our study of Jesus’ birthplace, we can review the archaeological evidence quickly, because there is none: We have no material remains bearing on Jesus’ birthplace. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, for example, was not built because of any local memory of Jesus’ birth there; it is a much later memorial, constructed on the site of a fourth-century church erected by the emperor Constantine when Christianity received state recognition. Constantine probably selected the spot based on the then-famous stories recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
That leaves us with the texts.
Not one of the first- and early-second-century A.D. non-Christian authors who mention Christians in passing—the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the Romans Tacitus and Pliny—provides us with any helpful information about Jesus’ birthplace. We have only the earliest Christian texts, written by the first three generations of Jesus’ followers, from the time of Jesus’ death in about 30 A.D. to roughly 150 A.D. These writings—and only these writings—are the sources we must examine.
The only texts that are dated with some confidence to the first Christian generation (about 30 to 65 A.D.) are the New Testament letters genuinely attributed to Paul. From the second generation, we have the four canonical Gospels. The Gospels are generally dated to between 65 and 100 A.D., with Mark being the earliest and Matthew and Luke dating to the end of that period. John may fall almost anywhere within this range.3
But what did these writers really know about Jesus’ birthplace? And what motivated them to speak of Jesus’ birth at all?
Let’s begin with our earliest source, Paul.
In all of the letters that we have, Paul never mentions any geographical location in connection with Jesus.
This absence can be explained in several ways: Such references may have been irrelevant to his purposes; or he may have assumed that his (converted) readers already knew of these traditions and therefore that he didn’t need to mention them; or he may not have known much about the geography of Jesus’ life. Admittedly, much can be attributed to the first category (irrelevance), since Paul was primarily concerned with Jesus’ status between his crucifixion and his return from heaven, and not so much with the mundane details of Jesus’ life. When he referred to Jesus’ betrayal and described the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23), for example, he almost certainly knew that these events took place near Jerusalem, but he had no reason to bring it up.
Did Paul know any tradition about the place of Jesus’ birth? Since he does not mention one, we cannot be certain. But there is another way to approach this question, which is to ask whether it would have helped Paul’s arguments—or those of his correspondents—to mention Jesus’ birthplace if he did know about it.
Paul wrote letters, not essays, and he was in frequent debate with other Christians whose views differed from his own. His letters preserve not only his own perspectives, therefore, but also traces of his correspondents’. For example, many of Paul’s gentile converts were attracted by Judaism; some of the males were even willing to undergo circumcision (Galatians 4:215:2–12). So Paul discussed circumcision at several points, even though he probably would not have raised the subject if he were simply presenting his own views. So, we can ask not only whether Jesus’ birthplace was an issue for Paul, but whether his letters indicate that it was an issue for any first-generation Christians.
Paul mentions Jesus’ ancestry only twice, and then incidentally. The first time, he is writing to some gentile converts in Galatia, trying to discourage them from their zeal to adopt Judaism. Just as Jesus, though he had been born “under the law” and “of a woman,” achieved spiritual sonship and freedom from the law (Galatians 4:4), so also the Galatians, who have achieved spiritual sonship, must not regress by enslaving themselves to a physical regimen (as Paul characterizes the Jewish calendar and circumcision).
The second time Paul mentions Jesus’ birth, he is addressing converts in Rome. In this context, he concedes to his readers Jesus’ physical ancestry from David, but he highlights Jesus’ designation as “Son of God” for all humanity (Romans 1:4).
Scholars differ significantly in their understanding of Paul’s motives,a but I would argue that even if he had known of the Bethlehem tradition, it would not have served his interests to mention it. Among his gentile converts, attraction to Judaism was an ongoing phenomenon. Paul’s consistent line was to draw them back to the “new creation” that he believed had supplanted Judaism (2 Corinthians 5:17;Galatians 6:15). A birth in Bethlehem, King David’s home, would naturally cement Jesus’ Jewish-messianic affiliation,4 which Paul was trying to move beyond. Thus it is not surprising that Paul might not have mentioned Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem even if he knew about it, for mentioning Bethlehem would only have given fuel to his Jewish Christian opponents. First, in Romans 1:3, Paul does concede Jesus’ Davidic descent: Although he was son of David “according to the flesh” (a negative category for Paul), he became son of God (much grander, no?) by his resurrection from the dead—from the physical to the spiritual. Second, although someone else might argue that Davidic ancestry would increase Jesus’ appeal for Paul and his readers, I cannot see that. Paul is in a dire struggle with the Jewish Christians precisely because he has been preaching to gentiles a dying and rising savior—Jesus denuded of Jewish connections. It would only help his opponents to emphasize Jesus’ Davidic ancestry. For Paul, that is more or less irrelevant: Jesus is the son of God, for all nations alike, without any special Jewish connection. Judaism has, for Paul, ended.
More telling, perhaps, is that Paul’s correspondents did not seize upon Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, if they had known about it, as evidence of the Jewish nature of Jesus. From Paul’s letters, we know that his correspondents quoted copiously from Jewish scripture (including the terms of the covenant with Abraham and Moses) and that they appealed to the examples of Jesus’ own brothers and students, who no doubt spoke of Jesus’ Jewish practices (2 Corinthians 11:5–29Galatians 1:6–112:11–213:6–21). They marshaled arguments for Jesus’ Jewish context, and Paul was forced to reply to them in some detail. But as far as we can tell, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth never came up. If Jesus was known to have had a miraculous birth in the auspicious village of Bethlehem, wouldn’t someone in this first generation have made some sort of appeal to it? Yet, in the end, we are left with complete silence about Jesus’ birthplace from the time of Jesus’ death to about 65 A.D.
The Gospels are at least a generation removed from Jesus’ birth. It is extremely unlikely that any of these authors was an eyewitness to Jesus’ life. They all relied on oral and written sources. Indeed, the author of Luke freely admits at the outset that the events he describes “were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:2). The Fourth Gospel concludes with a similar disclosure (John 21:24).5 Further, all four Gospels are anonymous texts. The familiar attributions of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John come from the mid-second century and later, and we have no good historical reason to accept these attributions.
Although we cannot identify the authors or the precise dates of the Gospels, we can say something about the literary relationship of the first three Gospels (the Synoptic Gospels).b The dominant hypothesis today is that Mark served as a source for both Matthew and Luke and that the extensive material common to Matthew and Luke but not paralleled in Mark comes from another shared source (called Q for convenience), which is now lost.c I make no use of Q here, though I do assume for argument’s sake that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source.6
Did the author of Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels, know anything about the place of Jesus’ birth?
Unlike Luke and Matthew, which include the familiar birth stories, Mark opens with Jesus as an adult, who simply emerges from Nazareth: “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (Mark 1:9). When Jesus moves to Capernaum, everyone continues to address him as a Nazarene. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” ask the locals in the Capernaum synagogue (Mark 1:24; see also 10:4714:6716:6). When Jesus returns to his “hometown” (Greek patris, “ancestral home”), he goes to Nazareth (Mark 6:1). When he teaches in the Nazareth synagogue, the locals are offended at his pretensions because they have long known him, his mother, his brothers and his sisters (Mark 6:1–3). Although the author does not say “since birth,” that seems to be assumed. Jesus responds famously: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, among their own kin, and in their own home” (Mark 6:4).
The author of Mark is not simply silent about Bethlehem; he appears to assume that Jesus was born and raised in Nazareth. Anyone who read Mark alone, without benefit of Matthew or Luke (which Mark’s first readers would not have known), would receive that impression. Mark makes no effort to explain any other origin.
But does this mean that Mark knows nothing of a Bethlehem birth? Or might Mark, like Paul, have had strong motives to deny any connection between Jesus and that town?
Mark’s story is very much in the tradition of Paul’s: The Gospel portrays Jesus as the dying and rising savior, who will return shortly to save his followers, represented by all nations. In Mark, Jesus is fundamentally, indeed fatally, alienated from Judaism. “What is this? A new teaching!” his Jewish listeners gasp (Mark 1:27). Jesus’ Jewish family, students and hometown folk are major disappointments to him because they do not understand him. Later in Mark, it is the Pharisees (members of a Jewish sect) who will conspire with Herod to murder Jesus (Mark 3:6). Even if the author of Mark had known about a Bethlehem birth, he, like Paul, may have had reason to suppress that information in order to disassociate Jesus from Jewish categories.
In keeping with this dislocation from Judaism, Mark’s Jesus directly challenges the notion that the Messiah should be a descendant of David: “While Jesus was teaching in the Temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David?…David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his [David’s] son?’” (Mark 12:35–37). If Davidic descent itself is unimportant in Mark, birth in David’s hometown is irrelevant.
On the other hand, at least one passage in Mark indicates that the author, rather than trying to hide the traditions surrounding Jesus’ birth, truly did not know about them: Once, when Jesus returns home and a crowd gathers around him, his family and friends go out to seize him, thinking that he is “out of his mind” because of his behavior (Mark 3:21). If the author of Mark (or his Christian readers) had known about the heavenly revelations to Mary and Joseph, about the shepherds and the Magi, and about the great celebration at the time of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, would he not have mentioned this?
Although both Matthew and Luke appear to have drawn on Mark, these later Gospels often disagree significantly with their source. The authors of Matthew and Luke were especially concerned with re-establishing Jesus within Judaism to some degree. And the story that they had heard about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem helped them do so.
Matthew’s intentions are clear from his opening lines, which firmly establish Jesus’ Jewish roots: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Matthew goes on to list the generations from Abraham to Jesus—including 14 from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the Exile and a final 14 from the Exile to Jesus. Only then does Matthew describe the birth: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). An angel encourages Joseph not to abandon Mary:
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet [quoting Isaiah 7:14d]: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Only then are we given the time and location of the birth: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’”
Frightened, Herod calls together his chief priests and scribes and asks them where the Messiah was to be born. Quoting the prophet Micah (see the first sidebar to this article), they reply: “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel’” (Matthew 2:5–6).
In Matthew’s account, Jesus’ parents initially live in Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1,11). It is only when a paranoid King Herod massacres the newborns in that region (Matthew 2:16) that the family flees to Egypt. Although the new parents wish to return home to Bethlehem in Judea after Herod’s death, they receive divine instruction to settle in “a town called Nazareth” (Matthew 2:23), which is introduced at the end of Matthew’s birth narrative. Each of the family’s movements, the author repeatedly points out, “fulfills what was spoken through the prophet” (Matthew 1:222:515,1723), quoting Isaiah, Micah and perhaps other prophets. Clearly, Matthew wants to show that Jesus stood in continuity with his Jewish past.
Matthew’s allusions to Micah and other prophets raise a crucial question: Is it more likely that the author included a Bethlehem birth for Jesus because he knew that this had in fact happened or because he knew of the passages in scripture and thought it important to describe Jesus’ career in the language of the prophets? This may seem cynical, but it is an unavoidable issue for the historian. Later in Matthew, we find the author clearly adjusting the story of Jesus’ life to match the Old Testament record. For example, in Mark, when Jesus enters Jerusalem, he rides on a donkey colt (Mark 11:2). The author of Matthew parallels Mark’s story almost verbatim, except that he has Jesus riding on both a donkey and its colt (Matthew 21:27). The author explains that this action fulfills Zechariah 9:9, according to which the king of Israel should come riding on a donkey and a colt (Matthew 21:4–5).e
Has the author of Matthew similarly manipulated the birth account?
Matthew’s infancy narrative can be suspiciously formulaic, beginning with the neat division of Jesus’ genealogy into three sets of 14 generations, which do not accord with the Old Testament parallels or even with the text of Matthew itself.7 Such patterns suggest that the author is not simply reporting on events.8
Further, despite Matthew’s efforts to construct neat literary patterns, the Bethlehem story is not well incorporated into the rest of the text. Immediately following the birth narrative, Matthew appears to revert to Mark’s version of events. In chapters 3 to 28 of Matthew, which paraphrase Mark extensively, Jesus speaks of Nazareth as his ancestral home or birthplace (Matthew 13:57) and Jesus is said to be “from Nazareth” (Matthew 21:1126:71). Joseph, a central figure in the birth narrative, disappears entirely (in keeping with Mark, which never mentions Joseph), and the birth story is nowhere recalled in later chapters of Matthew. Curiously, Matthew even preserves Jesus’ challenge to the Messiah’s descent from David (Matthew 22:41–45).
Finally, there are obvious historical difficulties with Matthew’s birth narrative, including the mysterious star that somehow identified a particular house in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:9–11) and Herod’s slaughter of children—an event that is not recorded in any other first-century A.D. source. Matthew’s contemporary Josephus wrote several volumes excoriating Herod for his violations of Jewish custom.9 It seems highly unlikely that if a slaughter of babies had taken place near Jerusalem, Josephus would not have heard about it and used it as an example of Herod’s heinous crimes.
The most serious doubts about the historicity of Matthew’s Bethlehem story, however, come to light as we compare his text with Luke’s.
Luke’s Bethlehem story is not complementary to Matthew’s, filling in the gaps, as is often assumed. Rather, it is an irreconcilably different account from beginning to end: in story line, supporting characters, geographical and historical detail, and style. Both accounts explain that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth, but that is all they share.
The Gospel of Luke opens with two birth narratives—John the Baptist’s and Jesus’—claiming that the two men were relatives (Luke 1:5–2:21, esp. 1:36–45). We first read of how John’s elderly parents, late in life, will give birth to a son; then we read of the annunciation to Mary. Next we’re told the circumstances of the birth and infancy of John and then of Jesus.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth opens with Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth (not Bethlehem, as Matthew has it). Near the end of Mary’s pregnancy, during the rule of the emperor Augustus and the Syrian governor Quirinius, the couple must travel to Bethlehem for a worldwide census (never mentioned in Matthew), which requires people to return to their ancestral homes (Luke 2:1–5). Joseph goes to Bethlehem because he belongs to the “house and ancestry” (oikos kai patria) of King David, who lived a millennium earlier. Jesus is born just after his parents arrive in Bethlehem. There is no room for them at the inn, so he is born in the local manger (Luke 2:7), where he is adored by the local shepherds. Once Mary’s 33 days of purification are over (Luke 2:22; cf. Leviticus 12:4), she presents Jesus in the Temple with an appropriate sacrifice; then she and Joseph return home to Nazareth (Luke 2:39; in Matthew, they only settle in Nazareth after traveling to Egypt).
The author of Luke, like the author of Matthew, wishes to establish Jesus within Judaism.10 Does he mention Bethlehem simply to strengthen his argument?11
Just as Matthew’s account presents historical problems, so does Luke’s. The census, mentioned only by Luke, provides the historical context for Luke’s birth narrative. We do have outside corroboration of a census of the Jews under the Syrian governor Quirinius, when Judea was directly annexed to Rome as a province: This census plays a significant role in the histories of Josephus because it reportedly sparked a popular revolt.12
Luke’s effort to link Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem with the census is, however, plagued by historical inconsistencies and improbabilities.13 The census described by Josephus occurred in 6 A.D., several years after Jesus’ birth (see the second sidebar to this article). It was not a worldwide census, although it apparently included Syria along with Judea. And requiring people to travel far away from where they were living would defeat the purpose of a Roman census, which was to assess current property for taxation. Moreover, only the household head would need to report to a local administrative center. Finally, it would be absurd to require all the thousands of descendants of David, who had lived a thousand years earlier, to return to his birthplace. David himself moved to Jerusalem after conquering the city, and so a descendant of David would also be a descendant of many others—from Jerusalem.
These are not the only problems with Luke’s narrative: Following the initial account of Jesus’ birth in Luke, the remarkable Bethlehem story plays no further role (just as in Matthew). Significantly, the author describes Nazareth as “the place where Jesus was raised” (Luke 4:16) rather than as Jesus’ native town (cf. Mark 6:1), but Jesus continues to be identified as “Jesus of Nazareth” or “the Nazarene” (Luke 4:3418:3724:19Acts 2:223:64:106:14 et al.). Further, when Jesus comes to trial, Luke—alone—insists that because he was a Galilean by origin, Jesus had to be tried by Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee who was visiting Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 23:6–7). There is no remembrance of Bethlehem as Jesus’ ancestral home.14
The Gospel of John offers no account of Jesus’ birth, but the text nevertheless reveals many early Christian assumptions regarding Jesus’ birthplace.
Most tellingly, in John 7:40–44 a crowd is debating whether Jesus is a prophet or the Messiah; some of the people object, saying: “The Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Didn’t the scripture say that the Messiah comes from the seed of David, from Bethlehem—the village where David was from?” No one says, “Wait a minute. Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem!” The author of John does not seem to know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Similarly, when the disciple Nathanael is told that Jesus is the one described in the Law and Prophets and comes “from Nazareth,” Nathanael retorts, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:45–46).
The contrast between what Jesus appears to be (human) and what he really is (divine) is a theme found throughout the Gospel: Similarly, Jesus appears to die miserably, as any man would, when hoisted on the cross, whereas in reality the cross marks his exaltation and the completion of his mission (John 12:3219:30). It fits with John’s entire approach, therefore, to use Jesus’ humble birth in Nazareth as a counterpoint to his heavenly origin.
Let us return to our “simple” question: Where was Jesus born? Does any hypothesis concerning Jesus’ birthplace explain the evidence?
If Jesus was born in Bethlehem and this was widely known among his followers, then Jesus’ distinguished place of birth must have been regarded as irrelevant to any early Christian discussion that has left traces in Paul’s letters. This would be surprising, though not entirely improbable.
Similarly, the author of Mark might have suppressed this information, while at the same time implying that Jesus was from Nazareth, out of a desire to separate Jesus from Jewish traditions.
The author of John, too, may have concealed the Bethlehem tradition; this, however, is more difficult to explain, because if it was widely known that Jesus was from Bethlehem, that knowledge would have undercut the author’s use of irony based on Jesus’ ignominious origins as a Galilean and, more specifically, a Nazarene.
Even harder to explain are the extensive disagreements and numerous historical improbabilities in the only two texts that posit a Bethlehem birth: Matthew and Luke. Neither narrative indicates that its author knew the circumstances of Jesus’ birth.
Finally, if Jesus’ birth in Davidic Bethlehem was widely known among early Christians, why didn’t this knowledge have a greater effect on the thinking of the first four generations of Christians, who were most exercised to prove Jesus’ messiahship to doubting Jews?
If the Bethlehem hypothesis does not explain the evidence very well, would another site, such as Nazareth, work better? Perhaps, but our survey of the evidence suggests that early Christians simply did not know much about Jesus’ birth. This is only to be expected, since Jesus’ main significance for many of his earliest followers had to do with his teaching, death, resurrection and expected return. When Jesus began his ministry as an adult, he was known to his followers as “Jesus of Nazareth”—a title that persists in all the second-generation texts. Christians throughout the first generation reasonably assumed, as did the later authors of Mark and John, that Jesus was born and raised in Nazareth. It was fairly late when some Christians first became more interested in the question, and this accords with a demonstrable tendency in later Christian history to cultivate information about Jesus’ birth and early years. Even by the time of Matthew and Luke, reliable information about Jesus’ birth was no longer available. These authors took the basic proposition (probably from an earlier, now-lost source) that Jesus, the son of David, had been born in Bethlehem before Joseph and Mary had become intimate. This proposition could easily have originated in reflection upon Micah 5:2 and developed from there. That would explain why their stories fit their respective literary proclivities so well. It was only in the mid-second century, after their accounts were in wide circulation, that Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the city of David, would capture the Christian imagination. Only then did the Bethlehem birth become a significant argument for Jesus’ messiahship and the evolving doctrine of the incarnation—of God becoming man.
Where was Jesus born? Was it Bethlehem or Nazareth or even Sepphoris, Tiberias or Jerusalem? We cannot know for sure because the early Christians themselves apparently did not know.



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Bethlehem in the Bible
Sidebar to: O Little Town of…Nazareth?
If the gospel writers were drawing on Old Testament references to Bethlehem to bolster Jesus’ identification as the Messiah, they certainly had plenty of passages to choose from. Bethlehem (the name means “House of Bread”) appears almost 50 times in more than ten books of the Hebrew Bible.
The city, just 5 miles south of Jerusalem, is first mentioned in conjunction with the death of the matriarch Rachel. “So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)” (Genesis 35:1948:7).a
More important to our story, Bethlehem is also where Ruth and Boaz meet, marry and bear their son Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of King David. God sends the prophet Samuel to Bethlehem to find the new king, saying, “I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided myself a king among his sons” (1 Samuel 16:1). Bethlehem remained a city of significance throughout the stories of David’s life and reign; while fighting the Philistines, who had a garrison at Bethlehem, David requests water from the well of Bethlehem (2 Samuel 23:15).
And there’s more. The Book of Micah, written around the time of the Assyrian siege of Samaria in the late eighth century B.C., looks forward to a new day when Israel will be led by a ruler from Bethlehem (perhaps a ruler “from David’s line”):
But you Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
the least of the clans of Judah,
from you will come for me
a future ruler of Israel
whose origins go back to the distant past,
to the days of old.
Hence Yahweh will abandon them
only until she who is in labor gives birth,
and then those who survive of his race will be reunited to the Israelites.
He will take his stand and he will shepherd them
with the power of Yahweh,
with the majesty of the name of his God,
and they will be secure, for his greatness will
extend henceforth to the mose distant parts of the country.
He himself will be peace!
It is this prophecy of Micah that will be quoted by Matthew as evidence of Jesus’ messiahship.
The next (and last) references to Bethlehem in the Hebrew Bible record how many of the city’s residents returned from the Babylonian Exile: 123, according to Ezra 2:21 (see also Nehemiah 7:26).
Following the birth narratives in the Gospels, Bethlehem is never again mentioned in the New Testament. Thenceforth Jesus is known as Jesus of Nazareth, and it is this town, 15 miles west of the Sea of Galilee, that becomes a fixture of the New Testament. Unlike Bethlehem, Nazareth is not mentioned once in the Old Testament; the village was not occupied until the second or first century B.C.
When Was Jesus Born?
Sidebar to: O Little Town of…Nazareth?
Not only is there a problem determining where Jesus was born—pinpointing when he was born presents a challenge, too. Despite all the festivities celebrating New Year’s 2000 as the 2,000th year since Jesus’ birth, most scholars are certain that he was not born in that hazy period between 1 B.C. and 1 A.D. (remember, there is no year 0). In fact, he was probably born several years before then—a seeming paradox if ever there was one! But remember that “Before Christ” was a term established several centuries after Jesus.
The current dating system, which places January 1, 1 A.D., a week after Jesus’ birth, was established in about 525 A.D. by Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little), a Scythian monk, who hoped to repair a division in the church over the dates of Easter by preparing a new calendar. Rather than use the then-standard Diocletian system (counting the years since the reign of this late-third-century emperor, who had persecuted the Christians), Dionysius decided to count from Jesus’ birth. To do this, he used an earlier calendric system, which dated to many centuries before Jesus’ time—a Roman system based on the establishment of Rome. He fixed Jesus’ birth date as December 25, 753 A.U.C. (Ab Urbe Condita, from the founding of the city of Rome). It is not known how Dionysius chose that date. One theory is that he based it on the Book of Luke, which states that “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work” (Luke 3:23) and that this occurred “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius” (Luke 3:1). Tiberius’s reign began around 767 A.U.C., or 14 A.D., so 754 A.U.C. became 1 A.D. Dionysius’s system of counting years gradually caught on: Charlemagne made it nearly universal in the ninth century, and the calendar we use today maintains Dionysius’s calculations, with a few adjustments made by Pope Gregory in 1582. (Why December 25th was accepted as Jesus’ birthday is even more obscure; it may be related to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was celebrated on that date. It may also be related to the Jewish tradition of performing circumcisions one week after a birth—in Jesus’ case, on January 1.)
But Dionysius had miscalculated. As Matthew’s Gospel tells us, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. Herod died in 4 B.C., as is known from outside sources, such as Josephus, and from the dates of contemporaneous Roman leaders. This means that Jesus must have been born before 4 B.C. Various calculations, based on astronomy, history and the Bible, have come up with dates between 7 and 4 B.C.—which means that we are already a few years into the second millennium! But that won’t change anyone’s plans, or their calendars. The year 2000 it is, and 2000 it shall remain.

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