Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?
Luke and Matthew both place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. These are the only references in the New Testament to Bethlehem as Jesus’ place of birth. There are problems with those claims and I’ll come back to them in a moment. First, let’s look at Mark, the first gospel written, and John, the last gospel written.
Mark has no information about where Jesus was born. In fact, there is some question as to whether Mark knows where Jesus grew up. At Mark 1:9, the gospel says, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” When Mark says “in those days” he indicates that his only knowledge of any connection between Jesus and Nazareth is one that connects the two to the time frame of John the Baptist meeting with Jesus. While Mark knows Jesus is referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth,” he doesn’t seem to know anything about where Jesus came from prior to the time that John baptized him.
John 7 contains several passages in which the Jews argue among themselves about whether Jesus could be the messiah. Some say yes and some say no. But John 7:41–42 records one particularly interesting attack on Jesus’ messianic credentials.
Others said, “This is the Messiah.” But some asked, “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?”
John never offers a rebuttal to this attack. It very likely reflects the sort of arguments he heard from personal experience or tradition. Theologically, John doesn’t care about Jesus’ birthplace because Jesus came from Heaven, sent by the Father to deliver the gospel. But, this suggests an historical tradition among Jews of the first century that Jesus came from Galilee and was not born in Bethlehem, and therefore, the argument goes, he couldn’t be the Davidic messiah.
John is not concerned about Jesus having a Davidic pedigree because John’s authority comes from the Father, not scripture. Mark also rejects a Davidic pedigree for Jesus, furthering the separation of Jesus from Bethlehem. At Mark 12:35, Jesus asks, “While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David?” Jesus then offers an argument proving that the messiah is not from the Davidic line.
Back now to Matthew and Luke. We have traditions indicating that these gospels, written between Mark and John, faced a question about where Jesus was born and how could he be the messiah if he came from Galilee. Matthew and Luke were firm believers in a Davidic messiah and they needed to prove that by providing a link to Bethlehem. So they added birth stories to their gospels that presented a Davidic pedigree. But the stories contradicted each other in almost every significant detail, so at least one can’t be true.
Luke, apparently well aware that Jesus came from Galilee, had to get him to Bethlehem for his birth. So he created a story that says the Romans were conducting a worldwide census, and everybody in the empire had to go back to their ancestral cities. “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.” (Luke 2:4.) Luke says this census in the region was administered by Quirinus, the governor of Syria, who had Jurisdiction over the territory of Judea.
Putting aside the absurdity that everyone in the empire had to go to their ancestral home (by what generational ancestor?) the historical claim about the census is wrong. The only census associated with Quirinus, was a census of Judea, ten years after the death of Herod the Great, and took place after the removal of Herod’s son from the kingship over Judea. Luke very likely came up with the census by misreading the account of this event in Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote some time in the late 90s of the first century. So Luke leaves us with evidence that, yes, Jesus was from Galilee, and it is only because of an historical accident (which event never happened) that Jesus, during these few days of this census period, could claim a Bethlehem birth.
This leaves us with Matthew’s version. Matthew challenges Luke’s claim that Jesus came from Galilee and just happened to be born while passing through. Matthew’s birth account shows Jesus living in Bethlehem, with no indication he came from Galilee or had just arrived. In fact, the story details indicate Jesus could have been living there for as much as two years after his birth. And, instead of going to Galilee after the birth of Jesus, God warned the family to go from Bethlehem to Egypt and wait until after Herod dies.
Matthew’s birth story is essentially a rewrite of the Exodus story of the birth of Moses. A wicked king wants to kill the children of Israel (Herod’s infamous slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem) to keep a future leader of the nation from rising up against him and the child miraculously escapes death with the help of god. In Matthew, the family escapes to Egypt; in Exodus the family is already in Egypt. Herod corresponds to the Pharaoh. The story is obviously a fantasy version of the birth of Jesus unknown to any of the other gospel writers or the Jews of Judea in the time of Jesus.
So, the evidence strongly suggests that Jesus was born in Galilee and had no Davidic roots. This undermines Matthew and Luke but presents no problem to Mark ort John, neither of whom care about Davidic genealogy.