By Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III, Assistant Assistant Professor of the New Testament, Complete Theological Seminary.
Every Christmas, a relatively small city in the Palestinian West Bank takes center stage: Bethlehem. Jesus, according to some biblical sources, was born in this city about two millennia ago.
Yet the New Testament Gospels do not agree on the details of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Some do not mention Bethlehem or the birth of Jesus at all.
The different views of the Gospels might be difficult to reconcile. But as a New Testament scholar, my contention is that the Gospels provide important insight into Greco-Roman views of ethnic identity, including genealogies.
Today, genealogies can raise more awareness of family medical history or help uncover lost family members. In Greco-Roman times, birth histories and genealogical statements were used to establish the rights to rule and connect individuals with so-called ancestral greatness.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the first Gospel in the New Testament canon, Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. The story begins with wise men who come to the city of Jerusalem after seeing a star which they interpreted as signaling the birth of a new king.
He goes on to describe their meeting with the local Jewish king named Herod, whom they learn about Jesus’ birthplace. The Gospel says that the Star of Bethlehem subsequently leads them to a house – not a manger – where Jesus was born to Joseph and Mary. Overjoyed, they worship Jesus and present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These were precious gifts, especially frankincense and myrrh, which were expensive perfumes for medicinal use.
The Gospel explains that after their visit, Joseph has a dream where he is warned of Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Jesus. When the Magi went to Herod with the news that a child was born to be the King of the Jews, he made a plan to kill all the young children to remove the threat to his throne. He then mentions how Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus set out for Egypt to escape King Herod’s attempt to murder all the young children.
Matthew also says that after Herod died from an illness, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus did not return to Bethlehem. Instead, they travel north to Nazareth in Galilee, which is present-day Nazareth in Israel.
Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of Luke, an account of the life of Jesus that was written during the same time period as the Gospel of Matthew, has a different version of the birth of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke begins with Joseph and a pregnant Mary in Galilee. They go to Bethlehem in response to a census that Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus demanded for all Jewish people. Since Joseph was a descendant of King David, Bethlehem was the hometown where he was to enroll.
The Gospel of Luke includes no flights to Egypt, no paranoid King Herod, no murder of children, and no sage visiting the infant Jesus. Jesus was born in a manger because all the travelers invaded the guest rooms. After the birth, Joseph and Mary did not receive a visit from wise men but from shepherds, who were also delighted with the birth of Jesus.
Luke says that these shepherds were informed of Jesus’ location in Bethlehem by angels. There is no guide star in Luke’s story, nor do the shepherds bring gifts to the baby Jesus. Luke also mentions that Joseph, Mary and Jesus left Bethlehem eight days after his birth and went to Jerusalem and then to Nazareth.
The differences between Matthew and Luke are almost impossible to reconcile, although they do share some similarities. John Meier, a specialist in historical Jesus, explains that “the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem should not be regarded as a historical fact” but as a “theological affirmation put in the form of an apparently historical account”. In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
Raymond Brown, another gospel scholar, also states that “the two accounts are not only different – they are contrary to each other in a number of details.”
Gospels of Mark and John
What makes it more difficult is that none of the other gospels, that of Mark and John, mentions the birth of Jesus or his connection to Bethlehem.
The Gospel of Mark is the first account of the life of Jesus, written around 60 AD. The first chapter of Mark says that Jesus is from “Nazareth of Galilee”. This is repeated throughout the gospel over and over, and Bethlehem is never mentioned.
A blind beggar in Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus as being both from Nazareth and the son of David, the second king of Israel and Judah during 1010-970 BC But King David was not born in Nazareth , nor associated with this city. He was from Bethlehem. Yet Mark does not identify Jesus with the city of Bethlehem.
The Gospel of John, written about 15 to 20 years after that of Mark, also does not associate Jesus with Bethlehem. Galilee is the birthplace of Jesus. Jesus finds his first disciples, performs several miracles and has brothers in Galilee.
This is not to say that John was not aware of the importance of Bethlehem. John mentions a debate where some Jews referred to the prophecy which claimed that the Messiah would be a descendant of David and would come from Bethlehem. But Jesus according to the Gospel of John is never associated with Bethlehem, but with Galilee, and more specifically with Nazareth.
The Gospels of Mark and John reveal that they had difficulty connecting Bethlehem to Jesus, did not know his place of birth, or were not concerned with this city.
They are not the only ones. The apostle Paul, who wrote the first documents of the New Testament, considered Jesus to be a descendant of David but did not associate him with Bethlehem. The book of Revelation also claims that Jesus was a descendant of David but does not mention Bethlehem.
An ethnic identity
During the period of Jesus’ life, there were multiple perspectives on the Messiah. In a current of Jewish thought, the Messiah was to be an eternal leader of the line of David. Other Jewish texts, such as Book 4 Ezra, written in the same century as the Gospels, and the sectarian Jewish literature of Qumran, written two centuries earlier, also echo this belief.
But in the Hebrew Bible, a prophetic book called Micah, believed to be written around 722 BC. AD, prophesies that the messiah would come from David’s hometown of Bethlehem. This text is repeated in Matthew’s version. Luke mentions that Jesus is not only genealogically related to King David, but that he was also born in Bethlehem, “the city of David”.
Genealogy statements have been made for important former founders and political leaders. For example, Ion, the founder of the Greek colonies in Asia, was considered a descendant of Apollo. Alexander the Great, whose empire reached from Macedonia to India, was claimed to be a son of Hercules. Caesar Augustus, who was the first Roman emperor, was proclaimed descendant of Apollo. And a Jewish writer named Philo who lived in the first century wrote that Abraham, the priest, and the Jewish prophets were born of God.
Whether or not these claims were accepted at the time, they shaped a person’s ethnic identity, political status, and honor claims. As the Greek historian Polybius explains, the famous acts of ancestors are “part of the legacy of posterity”.
Matthew and Luke’s inclusion of the city of Bethlehem helped affirm that Jesus was the Messiah of a Davidic line. They made sure that readers are aware of Jesus’ genealogical connection to King David with the mention of this city. The stories of birth in Bethlehem reinforced the claim that Jesus was a rightful descendant of King David.
So today, when the importance of Bethlehem is heard in Christmas carols or displayed in Nativity scenes, the city’s name connects Jesus to an ancestral lineage and the prophetic hope of a new ruler. like King David.
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