Part Three: ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ — Was Jesus Really Born There?

The following is the third of a five-part series. Read Part Two: Making Sense of the Census

By Robert Stackpole, STD

Each year at Christmas time, Christians throughout the world celebrate the wondrous story of the journey of St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary to Bethlehem. As the story goes, when they arrived there was no room for them in the inn. Instead, Mary had to give birth to the Savior in a lowly cattle stall; she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger. 

Preachers and homilists delight in reminding us from the pulpit each year that Bethlehem in Hebrew literally means “house of bread,” and that a manger is a feeding trough for animals. Thus, He who is the true Bread of Life was received into the lowliness and poverty of our human condition in the traditional town of the descendants of King David, “the house of bread.” From the very first hours of His life, He signified His mission to the world by being laid in a manger, a place of nourishment for God’s creatures. 

According to historians, the town of Bethlehem in those days, as today, was surrounded by low hills in which there were many caves, and owners of sheep and livestock would often use those caverns as makeshift shelters for their animals. Moreover, it makes sense that the travelers’ “inn” would have been full in Bethlehem at the time, since many of the descendants of David had to return to their ancestral city in order to register for the Roman Census. Thus far, the story all makes perfect sense.

Skeptics Assail the Bethlehem Tradition

Nevertheless, in recent years many skeptics have made bold attempts to cast doubt on this beloved aspect of the Christmas story.

For example, in his book The Historical Jesus (2008), Princeton New Testament historian James Charlesworth raised the question of whether or not Jesus was really born in Bethlehem at all. He argues that Jesus is never called “Jesus of Bethlehem” in the Gospels, but always “Jesus of Nazareth.” The normal Jewish custom was to name someone after their hometown. Moreover, St. Mark’s Gospel, perhaps the first to be written, clearly states “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee” (Mk 1:9), and Mark nowhere mentions Bethlehem. From this, Charlesworth concludes that “If Jesus came from Nazareth, he may have been born there” (p. 67; cf. Mt 21:11, Mk 6:1, Jn 1:45-46). 

The only other evidence Charlesworth presents is that according to St. John, “Nicodemus is unable to reply to the charge that Jesus cannot be a prophet or the Messiah, because no prophet is to come from Galilee, which includes Nazareth” (p. 66; cf. Jn 7:52). Evidently, Nicodemus was unaware of any tradition that Jesus actually was born in Bethlehem in Judea. (But at that point in the Gospel story, Nicodemus was a relatively new follower of Jesus, so he might not have been instructed yet by the apostles about our Lord’s actual birthplace).

In the book, The First Christmas: the story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition, historian Steve Mason points to the same chapter of St. John’s Gospel as evidence of early Christian confusion about the birthplace of Christ: 

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. 

Charlesworth concludes, “It is impossible to be certain where Jesus was born … but the vast amount [sic] of independent evidence … indicates that Jesus most likely grew up and was born in Nazareth, the home of his fathers” (p. 73). In this regard, Charlesworth quotes with approval an assessment of the evidence from the Gospels by one of his students:

If we try to understand Matthew’s mentality, we come to know that Matthew has a special intention and motivation for his writings. He strives to inform his readers that Jesus fulfilled everything that is written in the Old Testament. So he claims that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to fulfill Micah 5:1. John and Mark, in contrast, are more coherent in their teachings and theology than Matthew, so it seems to me that Nazareth is the more probable place of his birth.” [Charlesworth writes]To what extent did this student show amazing honesty with history without sacrificing theology and Christology? (The Historical Jesus, 66)

This student may indeed have shown “amazing honesty” and sincerity — but only by attributing amazing dishonesty to the author of St. Matthew’s Gospel. The student also does not exhibit knowledge of all the pertinent facts. For example, that St. Matthew was under no pressure to invent a birth of Jesus specifically in Bethlehem is abundantly clear from the very next sentences in Charlesworth’s book (although Charlesworth fails to make the connection himself):

An examination of early Jewish texts indicates that the Messiah may be born in Bethlehem or elsewhere. He may even come directly from heaven or some other region. Certainly the Messiah does not have to be born in Bethlehem. (66)

Reza Aslan came to a similar conclusion about this issue in his book Zealot:

The passage from the gospel of John [Jn 7:25-44] … is a perfect example of the general confusion that existed among the Jews when it came to the messianic prophecies. For even as the scribes and teachers of the law confidently proclaimed that Jesus could not be the messiah because he is not, as the prophecies demand, from Bethlehem, others in the crowd argue that the Nazarean could not be the messiah because the prophecies say “When the messiah comes, no one will know where he is from” (Jn 7:27). (p.32)

Thus, according to chapter seven of St. John’s Gospel, it was the Jews at the time who were confused about the birthplace of the Messiah; like St. Mark, St. John simply kept silent about what the apostles themselves believed in this regard (and silence does not necessarily bespeak ignorance on their part of where Jesus was actually born). In any case, the whole passage (verses 25-44) is about the ultimate, heavenly origin of Jesus wrangling about his earthly birthplace. The Jews completely missed the deeper truth that Jesus was trying to teach them about His divine origin: 

So Jesus proclaimed, as he taught in the temple, “You know me and you know where I come from? But I have not come of my own accord; he who sent me is true, and him you do not know. I know him, for I come from him, and he sent me.” (Jn 7:28-29)

The Case for the Bethlehem Tradition
As we have seen, many Jews at the time did not believe that the Messiah had to come from Bethlehem, so St. Matthew was under no pressure to fabricate a tale that Jesus was born there. Most likely, Matthew knew from other sources that Jesus actually was born in Bethlehem, and Matthew simply searched the Scriptures to find a prophecy that pointed in that direction.

Moreover, St. Matthew is not the only Evangelist who reports that Jesus was born in Bethlehem: St. Luke attests to this fact as well, and in Luke’s Gospel the designation of Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace is not tied to any fulfilment of prophecy. Given that all New Testament historians agree that St. Luke’s tale of the Nativity comes from a completely different source than St. Matthew’s account, here we have two independent Gospel witnesses, Matthew and Luke, to the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. 

According to St. Luke, Bethlehem was only the temporary residence of Mary and Joseph, who had journeyed there for the Roman census. This explains why even St. Matthew and St. Luke, although they both report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, continue to call him “Jesus of Nazareth” throughout their Gospels: because it was surely not the Jewish custom to name a person after a birthplace that was merely en route. Names reflected the permanent family home, which in this case, as all four Gospels agree, was Nazareth. 

Saint Luke informs us that the original hometown of Mary and Joseph was Nazareth, and that they returned there sometime after their sojourn in Bethlehem for the census. Matthew makes no mention of Nazareth as their original home base, but begins the story from Bethlehem. The Holy Family must have remained in Bethlehem for quite a while after the birth of Jesus. This is indicated in Matthew 2:11, where we are told that Wise Men from the east found Mary and the Christ child in a “house” (and not in a stable). It only stands to reason: Joseph and Mary would not have risked the hardships of an immediate return to Nazareth with a newborn infant, unless compelled by circumstances beyond their control to do so. Saint Joseph probably found some temporary work to do as a carpenter in Bethlehem, and thereby provided a proper house for Mary and her child to live in while the infant was growing stronger. Soon, however, they were indeed compelled by circumstances beyond their control to undertake an arduous journey with their little child: they had to flee to Egypt, to escape the wrath of King Herod (see article 5 coming up in this web series). Later, upon hearing that King Herod was dead, St. Joseph’s first thought was to return the Holy Family to Bethlehem rather than to Nazareth (Mt 2:22-23) — perhaps in Bethlehem he had an open-ended offer of work waiting for him.

In any case, along with the joint testimony of St. Matthew and St. Luke, a crucial argument in favor of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus is that none of the early Jewish polemicists (who attacked the veracity of so many other aspects of the Gospel story) cast doubt on his birth in Bethlehem. New Testament historian Ethelbert Stauffer put it this way in his classic work, Jesus and His:

The decisive factor in favor of Bethlehem is … the absence of discussion. Jewish writings never asserted that Jesus was born in Nazareth, nowhere denied his birth in Bethlehem. On the contrary as [the early Christian writer] Origen states, the Jews after the birth of Jesus were prone to pass over the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. … Jewish polemicists could not deny the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and therefore expunged any mention of Bethlehem in connection with the Messianic prophecies, in order not to foster belief in Jesus, the child of Bethlehem. (20)

Finally, the clinching evidence in this case comes from archaeology: the actual site of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Jerome Murphy O’Connor of the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem, sums up this fascinating part of the Bethlehem story:

The key factor in determining where the church [of the Nativity] should be built was a venerated cave, which lies behind the apse of the church today. … The cave is not mentioned either by Matthew or by Luke but appears in several other early Christian texts. According to the Christian apologist Justin Martyr (100-165 AD), when Joseph could not find room at the inn, “he moved into a certain cave near the village, and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed him in the manger.” Justin’s information must derive from a specific Bethlehem tradition, which as a native of Palestine (he was born about 40 miles to the north, in Flavia Neapolis, modern Nablus), Justin was in a position to hear. … Justin would never have created a story that might lead his readers to conflate Jesus with the pagan deity Mithra, who was said to have been born from a rock and was worshipped in cave temples throughout the Roman world …. Elsewhere, Justin shows that he is fully aware of the danger of parallels being drawn between Jesus and Mithra. 

The tradition of Jesus’ birth in a cave was also known independently to the anonymous second-century AD author of the Protoevangelium of James. …

That the cave had become a focus of [early Christian] pilgrimage is confirmed by the early church father Origen (185-254 AD), who reports that “there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where he [Jesus] was born.” The cave apparently attracted regular visitors, including Origen himself sometime between 231 and 246 AD.

It is difficult to imagine that the Bethlehemites invented the cave tradition (Chapter 2 of St. Luke’s Gospel tells us that the shepherds who visited the Holy Family on that first Christmas night made known in the area all that they had seen and heard, “and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds had told them,”) [T]here is reason to suspect the cave was not always accessible to Christians in the days of Justin and Origen. According to the early church father Jerome (342-420 AD), who lived in Bethlehem from 386 until his death, the cave had been converted into a shrine dedicated to Adonis: “From Hadrian’s time [135 AD] until the reign of Constantine, for about 180 years … Bethlehem, now ours, and the earth’s most sacred spot … was overshadowed by a grove of Thammuz, which is Adonis, and in the cave where the infant Messiah once cried, the paramour of Venus was bewailed.”

Local Christians were probably not permitted to worship regularly in what had become a pagan shrine. The fact that the Bethlehemites did not simply select another site as the birth cave suggests that they did not feel free to invent. They were bound to a specific cave. To preserve a local memory for almost 200 years implies a very strong motivation that has nothing to do with the Gospels. (Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Where Was Jesus Born? Bethlehem … Of Course” in Murphy, editor, The First Christmas, p. 50-51)

In fact, it seems likely that the Romans built the pagan shrine to Adonis in that cave around 135 AD precisely to deter the early Christians from turning it into a shrine of their own. There must have been a strong local tradition, and plenty of Christian pilgrimage to that site to lead the Romans to take such a defensive measure.

In short, the preponderance of the historical evidence still supports Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. We can sing our Christmas carols without fear of being misled by any alleged myths or legends in this regard. 

In addition, the historical fact of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem provides support for one of the central themes of the Gospel: that to accomplish His most important purposes in this world, God often chooses the most insignificant places, and the most poor and humble people as his chosen instruments. As Mary sang in her Magnificat, God has “scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” (Lk 1:51-52). One proof for this claim is that at the turning point of the whole history of God’s dealings with the human race, He sent his Son to be born in a remote country of the mighty Roman Empire, in an obscure village, among an outcast race of people … in fact, He was born to a poor peasant girl and a carpenter who had no bed for him at first but a manger in a cattle stall. No place on earth is too lowly to be the theater of the coming of God’s Kingdom, and no family is too lowly to be the instrument of his saving love. 

Next Time: “Behold, a Virgin shall Conceive and Bear a Son”

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers.

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash.

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