The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Get the Book!

The Birthplace of Jesus

Both Matthew and Luke stated that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. But the ways both gospels connect Jesus' birth to that Judean town are contradictory and immediately arouses suspicion.

  • Matthew made Bethlehem the home town of Mary and Joseph from the beginning.
  • Luke made Nazareth their home town and they had to move to Bethlehem because of the census.
  • Other earlier traditions speaks against Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus.
  • The reason why Bethlehem was the place chosen by later tradition (and used by Matthew and Luke) was that it was prophesied in the Old Testament.

In conclusion the tradition of Jesus birth in Bethlehem is, at best, of dubious historicity.

Matthew: Joseph's and Mary's Hometown was Bethlehem

In Matthew, the impression we get is that both Mary and Joseph were already living in Bethlehem during the time of the annunciation and the conception:

Matthew 1:24-2:1
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea...

Note that no mention is given of any travelling between Joseph taking Mary home as his wife and the birth of Jesus. In fact anyone reading the nativity story in Matthew alone will conclude that Joseph and Mary were natives of Bethlehem as is confirmed by the passage below (after the flight of Joseph and his family to Egypt):

Matthew 2:19-23
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly 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 seeking the child's life are dead." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth

Especially in the view of the earlier passage, the one above gives definite proof that Joseph wanted to return to his home town of Bethlehem but was prevented from doing so by the fact that Archelaus was the new tetrarch. His making Nazareth a home came after this.

Back to the top

Luke: Joseph's and Mary's Hometown was Nazareth

In Luke, however, we are told that both Mary and Joseph were living in the Galilean town of Nazareth before the annunciation:

Luke 1:26-27
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.

So Luke makes Mary and Joseph natives of Galilee. The event that made them travel to Bethlehem was the Roman census under Quirinius. According to the evangelist, the Roman census require everyone to register in the town of their ancestor. Since David was from Bethlehem, Joseph had to travel Judea to register himself.

Luke 2:1-7
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. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Luke's version is historically suspect for many reasons. While there was nothing unusual per se about a Roman census (in fact Josephus corroborates the fact that there was a census in Judea when Quirinius was governor of Syria), the method of taking the census, by herding everyone to register in the towns of their ancestors, is unheard of in the history of the Roman Empire. The Roman censuses were always taken for economic purposes, to determine the amount of taxable income of the residents of their provinces. The Romans had always taken the census at the place of residence and not in their ancestral hometown.

Furthermore, the census, if conducted in the manner described by Luke, was extremely impracticable: each and every Israelite will have to recall the residence of their ancestors who lived when Joshua partitioned the land of Palestine among the twelve tribes, i.e. an event that occurred more than one thousand years before the census!

And finally why would Joseph haul Mary along with him to Bethlehem, when she was already in an advances stage of pregnancy. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about one hundred kilometers and would have taken an exhausting ten days or so on donkey-back. The fact that Mary was not even required for the census further compounds this problem. [1]

In short, Luke's whole scenario is unconvincing and , especially his description of the method of the Roman census, without any historical support.

Back to the top

Earlier Traditions Do Not Support Bethlehem as the Birthplace

Our suspicion as to the basic unhistoricity of the account of the birth in Bethlehem is further aroused by the fact that apart from the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke, there is no evidence elsewhere in the New Testament to support it. We find in Mark, the oldest of all the gospels, passages that seem to imply the birthplace of Jesus as Nazareth in Galilee:

Mark 6:1
He [Jesus] left that place and came to his hometown...

The original Greek of the italicised words in Mark 6:1 is patrida autou which means one's homeland, native country or hometown. Thus there is no reason to quibble with the translation provided by the NRSV. The whole section covered in the early chapters of Mark show Jesus preaching in the towns and villages of Galilee. So Mark 6:1 is telling us that Jesus' hometown, or native place, must be a town in Galilee. In the first verse referring to Jesus in Mark, this is how he was introduced:

Mark 1:9
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

Anyone reading these passages in Mark, without any references to Matthew or Luke will doubtless conclude that Jesus was born in Nazareth in Galilee. Furthermore we find that in all the three synoptics, Jesus was henceforth referred to as "the Galilean" or "the Nazarene" with no further reference being made to his birth in Bethlehem.

There is even one passage in John where, had the evangelist been aware of the tradition that Jesus was born in Bethlehem would certainly have inserted it here:

John 7:41-43
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?" So there was a division in the crowd because of him.

Surely John would have shown that the Jews' doubts were based on their own ignorance about Jesus ancestry and place of birth had he believed that Jesus was of the house of David and born in Bethlehem. The above passage strongly suggests that John was relying on a tradition about Jesus that included neither the descendence from David nor the birth in Bethlehem. [2]

Back to the top

Old Testament Prophecy

Assuming, of course, that Luke does not have the audacity to invent his whole account of the Nativity, it is probable that both Matthew and Luke received different and, perhaps still amorphous, traditions regarding the birth of Jesus. For instance, it is possible that the tradition stated only that Jesus was born in Bethlehem not how his parents got there. Thus both Matthew and Luke simply added details to the story as they see fit. Could this tradition of the birth in Bethlehem be based on historical fact? It is not impossible, of course, that the tradition could have been grounded on historical fact. But I think it unlikely. For one thing it obviously reached both evangelist in different or indefinite forms, had it been historical one would expect more "meat" in the story. Secondly the birth in Bethlehem supposedly fulfilled an Old Testament passage. This is explicitly stated in Matthew:

Matthew 2:4-5
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 was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet...

Matthew was quoting from Micah 5:2. What is wrong with this? Let us listen to what theologians Don Cuppitt and Peter Armstrong said in their book, Who Was Jesus?:

So our first principle of historical criticism must be: be wary of any details in the gospels which have close parallels in the Old Testament. [3]

The reasoning is simple. The early Christians, not having access to information about the early life of Jesus and not knowing where he was born, searched, or rather ransacked, the Old Testament to look for references to Jesus. And having found the verse in Micah concluded that Jesus must have been born in Bethlehem. The fact that the birth in Bethlehem fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy, therefore makes the whole tradition of doubtful historicity. We will see more of this later.

Back to the top


1.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p44
Guignebert, Jesus: p30-32
2.Guignebert, Jesus: p90
3.Cuppitt & Armstrong, Who Was Jesus?: p45

Back to the top

[Home] [The Central Thesis] [Christianity] [The Bible] [Jesus] [Paul] [God] [History] [Pascal's Wager] [Bibliography] [Links]
© Paul N. Tobin 2000

For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin
Hosted by