One of the earliest stories we must learn as Christians is the Christmas story — the story of the birth of the Saviour of the World. Nativity scenes plant the story firmly in our mind as children as historical fact. Increasingly, modern biblical scholarship is showing us that these stories were less about historical fact and more about theological lessons. But did we learn the real lessons? In today's commentary, Dr Ian Elmer takes us on a fascinating exploration of the stories the Gospel writers — particularly Luke and Matthew but with a little input from John — were endeavouring to relate in the accounts they wrote of the birth narrative of Jesus. This is a fabulous reflection for Advent and the lead-up to Christmas — adult spirituality at its best!
Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?
As we embark upon the Advent season our thoughts turn to the Christmas story. Gospel readings throughout the Sundays of Advent prepare us for the big event on Christmas Eve as the Nativity Narratives of Matthew and Luke are read in serial fashion during Eucharistic watches of the night, giving way to the majestic Johannine prologue during the "Mass of the Day".
John has no nativity narrative; neither does Mark. Both John and Mark begin their stories with Jesus' baptism. Only Matthew and Luke tell of Jesus' conception and birth. Yet their two accounts differ in significant ways. Matthew has Jesus born in a house, heralded by a star, visited by astrologers from the East and hunted by Herod. Luke has Jesus born in a field, acclaimed by angels, visited by shepherds and presented in the Temple.
The one detail upon which both Evangelists agree is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This would seem a curious facet of the story to survive amidst so much variety in the other details. Some have viewed Jesus' birth in Bethlehem as just one more fictional aspect of a story that is more fanciful than historical. But others have felt that there may be more to the Jesus-Bethlehem connection.
Courtyard of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. For more photos visit...
We might begin our discussion by asking, why Bethlehem? If Jesus' biographers wanted to make some issue of Jesus' birthplace why choose Bethlehem? If this detail was fictitious, it must have been invented for a reason.
First, we should note that in the Bible there are in fact two towns called "Bethlehem". There is a Bethlehem in Zebulun (Jos 19:15) eleven kilometres northwest of Nazareth. It was the home of the judge Ibzan (Jdg 12:8, 10); but it is not an important place in the Bible. The second town of note is the Bethlehem in Judah (Jdg 17:7), just a few kilometres south-southwest of Jerusalem, which is remembered for several reasons, many of them tragic.
According to Genesis 35:16-20 and 48:7 Jacob's wife Rachel was buried near Bethlehem in Judah. Even more notoriously, tragedy is linked to this small village in Judges 19, where a concubine from Bethlehem is ravished by Benjaminites until dead; a deed that leads Israel to war with Benjamin. Later, however, Bethlehem will spawn the greatest of Israel's kings, David; but even he will prove to be an ambiguous and tragic figure.
In both Matthew and Luke the tragic and royal associations of Bethlehem meet as the messianic Son of David. So, for example, Matthew 2:17-18 recalls Rachel's death by quoting Jeremiah 31:15 ("A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more"), associating Rachel's death with Herod's slaughter of the infants — and he does so despite the fact that Jeremiah 31:15 names not Bethlehem but Ramah (cf. 2 Sam 10:2).
More importantly, Bethlehem emerges as the birthplace of Jesus because of its association with King David. The history of David as told in the Hebrew Scriptures tells of the young David herding sheep outside Bethlehem (1 Sam 17:15) — which might put us in mind of the shepherds in Luke's Gospel. In Bethlehem, David has dealings with a Philistine garrison (1 Chr 11:15-19) — which may be echoed in the presence of the non-Jewish Magi at Jesus' birth in Matthew. Samuel anoints David king in Bethlehem while David is still only a young boy (1 Sam 16:1-13); Jesus is worshipped as the infant king of Israel, which is what captures the attention of Herod in Matthew.
Finally, David's association with Bethlehem leads the prophet Micah (5:2) to associate Bethlehem "little among the clans of Judah" with the messianic hope of a restored David monarchy in Israel. In Matthew 2:6, Micah's prophesy is quoted as affirming that Bethlehem is "by no means least among the rulers of Judah", since from her has come the long-awaited Messiah. His birth, however, is met by hostility: Herod orders the slaughter of all the male children in Bethlehem two years and under. And again Bethlehem witnesses death; death which prefigures the later saving death of Jesus.
Clearly, there is a good deal of artifice at work in Matthew's and Luke's Bethlehem stories. Both seem to be drawing heavily on the Hebrew Scriptures, echoes and allusions to which serve to emphasise the significance of Jesus' birth. But such artifice need not mean that the location of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem is equally fictitious.
While both Matthew and Luke claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, they each provide different reasons for this fact. In Matthew, Jesus' family are resident in Bethlehem at the time of his birth and are only forced to flee in the wake of Herod's slaughter of the innocents, eventually settling in Nazareth after Herod's death. In Luke, Jesus' parents are residents of Nazareth and are forced to travel to Bethlehem to be counted in an empire-wide census.
Can both these accounts be true? Can Jesus' hometown be both Bethlehem and Nazareth? It would seem unlikely at first sight. However, we should not overlook the fact that Bethlehem is cited as Jesus' birthplace in two traditions that are totally different from each other and, in all likelihood, independent of each other. On the basis of the historical criteria of "multiple attestation" (two or more independent witnesses) we might be inclined to accept that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
A possible third witness may be found in John 7:42, where skeptics question Jesus' messianic claims by asking: "Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?" Since irony abounds throughout John's Gospel, this passage should not be taken as indicating that the Fourth Evangelist knew nothing of Jesus' birth in the city of David. Rather, it testifies yet again to the intentional ambiguity found throughout John's Gospel; Jesus' opponents unintentionally witness to Jesus' messianic claims while trying to deny them!
To pursue the issue further, Luke's version of events need not contradict Matthew's version on all points. The matter of Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem during a tax census (Lk 2:1-4) would only be explicable if he had land holdings there. In fact, the Greek term usually translated as "inn", katalyma (Lk 2:7), can also mean "large room" or "guest room"; which might suggest that there was "no room" for Joseph and Mary in the family home when they arrived in Bethlehem.
Moreover, one must cast doubt on the idea that there would have been an inn in Bethlehem in Jesus' day. Bethlehem was not on any major road, and inns normally were to be found only on major roads, especially the Roman ones. Furthermore, when Luke wants to speak of a commercial inn he uses pandocheion; 10:34 refers to an establishment found on the major road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Also, when Luke uses the word kataluma in his Gospel (22:11 ; cf. 1 Kings 1:18), it clearly does not mean an inn but a guest room. It is also worth pointing out that the Arabic and Syriac versions of the New Testament have never translated kataluma as inn.
In reading Luke's version of the story with this particular translation of kataluma, therefore, we should probably envision Mary and Joseph staying in the home of relatives or friends; a home which was crowded due to the census being taken; and, moreover, a home where Luke tells us there was no longer any room in "the guest room".
Consequently, Mary gave birth to her child perhaps in the family room and placed the baby in the stone manger. This means that a good deal of the popular conception of this scene has no basis in the text. In particular, the idea of Mary and Joseph being cast out from civilized accommodation and taking up temporary residence in a barn is probably based on a misunderstanding of the text.
There is also a tradition cited in the second century by Justin Martyr (Dial. Tryph.79) that Joseph and Mary, being unable to find accommodation in Bethlehem, took up quarters in a cave near the village. This is a plausible conjecture, and in fact various peasants did make their homes in caves during the time of Jesus. There is one further remarkable piece of corroborating evidence that comes from historical events outside the Gospels.
The present Church of the Nativity, lying at the west edge of the hill that marked the old city of David, was erected over a large rock cave, some 12 x 3 metres in size. This cavern is one of several that were located near houses and served as stalls or for the storage of supplies (cf. Lk 11:33) in the first century. Early Christian geographical tradition, not directly dependent upon the Gospels, places Jesus' birth in one of these caves.
Already at the beginning of the second century, the local tradition was so well established that Hadrian (c. 135 CE) made the cave into a sanctuary to Adonis in order to eliminate veneration of it by Jewish Christians. According to Jerome the "manger" (phatnē) of Luke 2:7 was still visible in his time and consisted of a rock groove with plain clay walls in a side cave some 3 x 3 metres in size. Due to the marble paneling and rebuilding, today it is very difficult to envision the original appearance of this grotto.
Ultimately, it is impossible at this late stage in history to determine with any certainty the place of Jesus' birth. The Infancy Narratives in Luke and especially in Matthew contain so many echoes and allusions to messianic prophesies from the Hebrew scriptures that one could be forgiven for dismissing these two stories as more fictitious than factual.
In the narrative world of Matthew in particular, geography carried enormous theological baggage. No other section of the Gospels is so clearly linked to Old Testament prophecy as are the first two chapters of Matthew's Gospel. The way the author uses these prophetic pronouncements may reflect the midrash pesher technique, whereby a Jewish scribe would extrapolate and apply passages from scripture to present-day events. But , then again, what Matthew does with these Old Testament quotes is a very different matter than the suggestion that the author's very narrative is an exercise in creative midrash on the Hebrew Scriptures (Gundry, 1982).
Matthew's text for the story is not primarily the Old Testament, but a collection of traditions about Jesus' birth which he has reshaped and retold in the light of Old Testament prophecy. Moreover, various key details in Matthew's nativity stories are shared in common with Luke: such as the betrothed couple Mary and Joseph, the virginal conception, the Davidic descent of Joseph, the angelic revelation of the name "Jesus" and, most significantly, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great.
One can (and I would argue must) assume that both Matthew and Luke received a historical tradition or traditions about the circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth and then took that source material, wrote it up in their own manner so as to highlight the theological points that each wanted to make; and especially in the case of Matthew wrote it up so as to draw out potential links with the Old Testament. The very way that Matthew awkwardly works his scriptural formula citations into his narrative suggests he was working with one or several narrative sources to which he has added Old Testament quotations.
The weight of the evidence, therefore, suggests that the Jesus' birth in the town of Bethlehem is more likely to be a genuine historical reminiscence, rather than an innovative creation of Matthew and Luke. Indeed, the very fact that both authors working independently of each other note the same location for Jesus' birth is one of the most telling pieces of evidence.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
Brown, R.E. (1977). The Birth of the Messiah. London: Geoffrey Chapman.
France, R.T. (1981). "Scripture, Tradition and History in the Infancy Narratives of Matthew," in Gospel Perspectives, 2: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels, ed. R. T. France and D. Wenham. Sheffield: JSOT. 201-37.
Gundry, R. H. (1982). Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Ramsay, W.M. (1978). Was Christ Born in Bethlehem? Minneapolis: James Family Publishing.
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Dr Ian Elmer is the Lecturer in Biblical Studies at St Paul's Theological College, ACU (Australian Catholic University). He is also on staff at the CECS (Centre for Early Christian Studies), and a member of various professional associations, including ACBA (Australian Catholic Biblical Association) and SBL (Society of Biblical Literature). His research specialities are Paul and First-Century Christianity. He is the author of published articles in the Australian Ejournal of Theology (AJET), Prayer and Spirituality in the Early Church IV and V, and the Australian Biblical Review (ABR). His most recent publication is the monograph Paul, Jerusalem and the Judaisers, WUNT II.258 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).
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