Myths of the Nativity: Bethlehem vs. Nazareth

stained glass nativityFor part 2 of this series, I want to step back slightly from what we discussed last time, and plug ourselves back into the Nativity story as recounted in Scripture. Specifically, today we are thinking about where Jesus was born. No, I don’t mean whether or not he was in a manger, I speaking of what city, and what significance that had. Whether you agree with my conclusions about the parentage of Jesus or not, I think the arguments I make here about the place of birth will hold true.

The story of Jesus’ place of birth is really only told in Luke’s Gospel. The second chapter of that book recounts the birth this way:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

So, Jesus’ family travels out from Nazareth for the census towards Bethlehem, where they arrive just in time for Jesus to be born. While this seems pretty straight forward, there is a lot to unpack here. Something just doesn’t make sense. I’ll let Reza Aslan explain, from his book Zealot:

Luke’s suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family in order to travel great distances to the place of his father’s birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for month, for an official to take stock of his family and possessions, which, in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous.

Preposterous is perhaps an understatement about the possibility of this happening. It becomes even more inconceivable when you realize there is no outside historical recounting of an event that surely would have been quite important and disruptive to the Roman empire. There is no record of any census of any kind of the Roman world happening around 4 BCE, when Jesus is expected to have been born. Here is Aslan again on the historical situation:

Luke is right about one thing and one thing only: Ten years after the death of Herod the Great, in the year 6 CE, when Judea officially became a Roman province, the Syrian governor, Quirinius, did call for a census to be taken of all the people, property, and slaves in Judea, Samaria, and Idumea – not “the entire Roman world,” as Luke claims, and definitely not Galilee, where Jesus’ family lived.”

Finally, one last point from Aslan to move us forward:

What is important to understand about Luke’s infancy narrative is that his readers, still living under Roman dominion, would have know that Luke’s account of Quirinius’ census was factually inaccurate.

So, why would Luke include a detail that is factually inaccurate, and that his readers would know was factually inaccurate. The answer is found if we look back at Matthew’s only mention of Jesus’ birthplace, in 2:1:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. They told him, “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[d] my people Israel.’”

The Gospel writers, in attributing Jesus’ birth to Bethlehem, were once again writing to fulfill Messianic prophecies from the Hebrew Bible. Bethlehem held great significance in that it was the hometown of King David. So by having Jesus be born there, they are tying him again to Israel’s greatest hero, and fulfilling prophecy. The story of the census is a simple literary device used to make the story plausible. The fact that readers of the time would have known the timing to be wrong was unimportant; the Gospel writers were well ensconced in a literary tradition that did not value historical accuracy higher than the greater message they were trying to convey.

In all likelihood, Jesus was born in Nazareth, the hometown of his family. If we accept the parental situation I proposed in my last post as being true, this becomes even more likely. Mary, a young, unwed, pregnant woman, would not have had the means or ability to make the long arduous journey to Bethlehem at this late stage in her pregnancy, had she even had some incomprehensible reason for doing so. Instead, she probably gave birth in the home of her father, in the small, inconsequential village of Nazareth.

Nazareth really is a provincial backwater, in every sense of the term. Besides the Gospels, Nazareth is never mentioned ever in any other writing. None of the books of the Hebrew Bible mention it, nor does contemporaneous Jewish writers Josephus or Philo. Archaeological records show a tiny hamlet, home perhaps 4 or 5 families, with no significant buildings or landmarks (And certainly not a synagogue, as the story of Jesus’ rejection by his hometown in Mark 6 would have you believe. Nazareth was located near to the royal city of Sepphoris, just six miles south of Herod’s great city. Working men like a young Jesus would have traveled to that city for work, as Nazareth would have offered nothing in the way of opportunity.

Today, Nazareth is a good sized town, with tourist attractions centering around the Church of the Annunciation, the purported site of the angel Gabriel’s visit to a pregnant Mary, and the largest Roman Catholic church in the Middle East. All of Nazareth’s size and importance happened long after the life of Jesus, as Christians recognized it’s importance and turned it into a site of pilgrimage.

Jesus coming from Nazareth holds great significance, perhaps greater than Jesus coming from Bethlehem would have. As we already identified last time, the idea of Jesus being born as an illegitimate child to a young, unwed peasant girl magnifies the glory of Jesus’ life and importance. His Nazareth origin only adds to the idea of an insignificant beginning. There would be nowhere more out of the way, more forgotten, more ignored, more unexpected for the Messiah to rise from. Again, God is shown to work through the least and the lowly. The small mustard seed, the tiny yeast, produces great results again.

Understanding the situation of Jesus’ early life, his family situation, his status as a child with no father, and his inconsequential hometown, we can begin to make sense of why Jesus was so committed to the worst and most forgotten of society. I think we often think of Jesus as one high and mighty, deigning to stoop down and notice these people. But in reality, Jesus was one of those people. He wasn’t crossing class lines; he was standing with his people, with the ones he grew up around, the ones he most understood. Jesus identified with the oppressed because he was one of the oppressed. The great teacher, the Messiah and inspiration for the world’s  largest religion, was no more than provincial trash, worth no more than he could produce for the empire.

This Jesus, the illegitimate Nazarene, is not a comfortable figure, the kind of guy you would rub shoulders with at the best parties. Instead, he was lowly. And so, in our quest to become more like Jesus, we need to understand these origins and also become lowly, become provincial and illegitimate and from a forgotten place. Only then can we understand how to serve those who need us most.

In this, we find more majesty and importance than any link to Bethlehem, the city of David, could ever evoke.

2 thoughts on “Myths of the Nativity: Bethlehem vs. Nazareth

  1. So…….God was not capable of putting together a proper story, so you (other men of your belief) needed to step in and rewrite His word. Using ‘historical context’ to create the more plausible set of events. Oddly enough, they fit perfectly into your social justice, heaven on earth narrative. Who needs salvation from sins when we can create a peace on earth utopia ourselves. While your at it, cross out Mark 6:1-6 from your Bible.

    What is really shocking is that in this instance you deny both the record of the Bible and the increasing archaeological record. We have evidence of nation wide census. We have evidence that people were required to travel to their home town. Not to mention, we have documentation of many times that Caesar took enrollments of the empire in order that the populace swear an allegiance to him. In fact, we have records of 3 census that were taken around the time of Christ’s birth. One in 8BCE, 2BCE and 6AD. Not to mention we have good reason to believe that Quirinius would have put in charge of one of those census.

    Obviously, we have no exact record of the world events surrounding Christ’s birth. However, there is a reasonable amount that we do know to suggest that Luke (as he did elsewhere in his writing) kept careful record of the events.

    Now on to Nazareth. Recently a Roman bath and Jewish synagogue were discovered in the Nazareth area. Which would appear to invalidate your statement above.

    It seems that as you continue to write about these ‘myths’, it is your readers that are required to use ‘historical context’. We must read these through a progressive lens in an attempt to reveal the truth.


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