Where was Jesus born

This is of course something that most children, at least Christian children know. Jesus was born in Bethlehem! That's what The New Testament says. And it is. Unfortunately it's not so obvious if you look into it. For once the two gospels that have a story about the birth of Jesus agree on something, namely that he was born in Bethlehem. Unfortunately even if they do agree that he was born in Bethlehem, they do not agree on why. Modern day scholars have questioned whether Jesus could actually have been born in that town in Judaea, when he was supposed to have been a Galilean, and then other scholars have cast doubt on the arguments of the first scientists and so on.

Naitivity of Jesus, by Sandro Botticelli (around 1474). Columbia Museum of Art.

The best-known description of Jesus' birth is probably the one given in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2. In Denmark this chapter is known as Juleevangeliet or The Gospel for Christmas Day. This chapter begins like this: "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register." According to this story, everyone had to travel to the town which was native to their lineage to be counted. Joseph and Mary therefore travelled from Nazareth, where they lived, to Bethlehem, because Joseph was of King David's lineage. And in Luke that was the reason for Jesus being born in Bethlehem, despite the fact that the family lived in Nazareth.

In the article
When was Jesus' lifetime, I have already discussed the issue of the census during Quirinius taking place in 6 AD, and that Jesus was most likely born at least 10 or maybe 12 or more years before that census. Caesar Augustus had apparently also ordered a census taken in 6 BC but that was long before Quirinius, and this census didn't include the conquered provinces like Judaea. So Luke is definitely wrong in his assumption that this was the reason for Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. I believe, and many scholars with me, that Luke knew that a descendant of David, had to be born in Bethlehem and that the Messias was that descendant. He may also have heard stories (maybe from a lost part of Mark?) that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem. This may have confused the poor evangelist, as he also knew that Jesus was from Nazareth. He therefore had to come up with a story that could explain how a mother from Nazareth gave birth to a son in Bethlehem.

Also, when the census was taken in 6 AD, you did not have to travel to the home town of your ancestors. The Romans definitely didn't want a lot of people travelling all over the country, just to be counted. Quite the contrary. They wanted everybody to stay put and be counted, where they lived, as the census was all about getting a grip of how many and who lived where, so the authorities could apply the relevant taxes on the population. And by the way, Galilee was not included in the census in 6 AD, only Judaea. But there is no reason to believe that the census under Quirinius was the first ever in Syria. In Egypt for example, censuses was taken every 20th year, and maybe the same was the case in Syria, which had been a Roman province since 63 BC? If this was the case in Syria as well, a census of the province would have taken place in 8 BC, corresponding quite well with the estimated time of the birth of Jesus. But even then, people had to stay where they were and not plod around all over the land.

Of course, there may have been many other reasons than a census for the family to travel to Bethlehem, but several scholars question this whole travel story, believing that Jesus was simply born in Nazareth and that the whole story of his birth in Bethlehem was "invented" to support the claim that he descended from King David. And incidentally, the claim, that he was a decendant of David, made by the two evangelists is illogical, since it was Joseph, not Mary, who descended from David - and Joseph, according to the same evangelists, was not the father of Jesus at all - God was!

Also Matthew claims that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but in The Gospel of Matthew, it's for a different reason. According to Matthew, it was because the family simply lived in this town. The magi found Jesus in a house, not in a stable like in Luke. "On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him." (Matt. 2.11). When the magi had left, an angel appeared to Joseph and said "Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." (Matt. 2.-13). Because of this warning the family fled to Egypt. We don't know where they went, but there was a large Jewish population in Alexandria at the time, so that may have been their goal.

When Herod died, an angel once more appeared to Joseph, and this time it said: "After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matt. 2.19-20). When they returned, they learned that Herod's son, Archelaus, was now governing Judaea, and as he was even worse than his dad, the familiy decided to proceeed to Galilee. And only then did the familily settle in Nazareth.

If Luke used the story of the census to place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, Matthew may have invented the story of the escape to Egypt to explain how a boy from Bethlehem grew up in Galilee. This narrative, of course, has also been questioned by scholars - and for different reasons. The Jewish historian, Flavius ​​Josephus, who was at one time commander of Galilee, provides in one of his works, a list of the names of all the towns and villages of Galilee, and he does not mention Nazareth in this list. This has led some scholars to believe that Jesus can't have lived in Nazareth as a child, since the town did not exist then. Some scholars believe that the term "Nazarene", often used about Jesus, is a misinterpretation or deliberate paraphrasing of the word "Nazirite" or "Nasorene" The Nazirites were a religious/political group (or sect) that had existed for hundreds of years when Jesus was born. Samson, who is mentioned in the Old Testament (Judges, chapter 13 to 16) was such a Nazirite. The Nazirites did not shave or cut their hair, which harmonizes very well with the (later) notions of what both Jesus and John the Baptist looked like. The common custom for men at the time of Jesus was they they had short hair and were clean shaven! The tradition of men not cutting their sidelocks (payots) is from a later time.

But if Jesus did not grew up in Nazareth, where then might he have grown up? In this matter, the opponents of the Nazareth theory, believe that he may have grown up in one of the many towns on the shores of The Sea of Galilee, such as Capernaum, where he often visited as an adult. Some scholars belieive that the Bethlehem referred to, is the town that is today known as Bethlehem Zebulun, a town in Galilee, about six or seven miles northwest of Nazareth. This is for example suggested in The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. Those ho believes in the Nazareth theory, on the other hand, state that several places in the New Testament refer to Jesus as coming from Nazareth. This applies, for example to The Gospel of John: "“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked." (John 1.46) and similar quotes elsewhere in The New Testament. However, in my opinion, this is not a valid argument, because even though Jesus lived in Nazareth as an adult and is known for coming from there, it does not mean that he was not born elsewhere like in Bethlehem. I live and have lived in the Copenhagen suburb of Brøndby for more than 60 years, but I was not born here, as my parents moved here, when I was about 5. But if you ask people who know me, or know of me, everyone will probably tell you that I'm from Brøndby.

No matter if Luke or Matthew was right (if any of them), it doesn't seem like Jesus' parents were poor as later legends have made them. According to Matthew they owned a house in town, and according to Luke, they stayed in a stable, not because they were poor, but "...because there was no guest room available for them" (Luke 2.7), so they must have had money enough to pay for a room, had one been available. I will get back to the question of whether Jesus was poor or not in a later article.

My personal opinion is that Jesus was probably born in Bethlehem! And it was because the family lived there. Bethlehem was not far from Jerusalem, and many of Jerusalem's upper class had houses in the town like many wealthy New Yorkers have estates in The Hamptons on Long Island. Jesus' later association with many from this upper class does not indicate that he was a poor carpenter from the opposite end of the country. By contrast, a birth in a wealthy Bethlehem family could explain these connections. Later, Jesus' family may have traveled to Galilee and settled here. Whether it was because of persecution by Herod or his descendants cannot be said today, but it is not likely. I also believe in the "Nasziirite, not Nazarene" theory by the way, and also this question I will get back to in later articles.

The Massacre of the Innocents

Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (around 1566). The Royal Collection of the British Royal Family.

But how about the alleged Massacre of the Innocents that Herod ordered? This massacre is doubted by many scholars.

As a reason for their view, they typicaly state that the massacre is not mentioned in any historical sources, not even Josephus, who otherwise does not refrain from criticizing and attacking Herod, mentions the story. (Josephus had, at the time when he wrote his books, become a traitor, had joined the Romans and spent most of his time in the emperor's palace in Rome). Supporters of the fact that the massacre actually took place believe that the event was so cruel that not even Josephus could bring himself to mention it.

I don't agree with this point of view though. I believe that the event may have taken place, but it was so insignificant to contemporary writers, that none of them found it worth mentioning. Herod The Great's reign was a time of violence and betrayal, and the king is known to have murdered or have others murder anyone who could mean a threat to his power. Thus he got rid of some of his own children and other relatives as well as his wives and their relatives. So when some people believe that The Massacre of the Innocents ought to have been mentioned in at least some historical sources, it is often based on some very exaggerated notions of how many children were killed. Various sources from the Middle Ages mention horrific numbers, such as 14,000 children (Byzantine sources), 64,000 children (Syrian list of saints), and some sources even mention up to 144,000 killed boys. These figures are completely unrealistic though. Bethlehem was, at the time of Jesus, a small village with a few hundred inhabitants, and the number of boys under two years of age was probably no more than 4 to 6 in the whole village. Still a lot of children to kill at one time, but hardly anything that could have made a lasting impression at a time when violence and "elimination" of possible "competitors" were far more normal than it fortunately is today.

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