There is perhaps no story so well beloved as the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. But every year we are told on television or in news magazines that we cannot believe the nativity story, that Matthew and Luke contradict each other, and that “scientific” criticism has dissolved the story of the virgin birth into a pious myth. Why do they say this? Could a story of a virgin birth have been invented by an imaginative adaptation of prophecy? Are Paul and John really unaware of the virgin birth? What is the truth, and why does it matter anyway?
We could do worse than to start with the only explicit location given in the Gospels as the birthplace of Jesus: Bethlehem, a small hamlet almost due south of Jerusalem, high in the mountains to the west of the Dead Sea. Matthew states it very matter-of-factly:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, … (Matt. 2:1)
Luke is equally explicit:
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son … (Luke 2:4-7a)
One would think that when two sources as obviously independent as these birth narratives agree on a point like this, their combined evidence would carry considerable weight. But in some circles, explicit statements from primary sources are viewed with a curiously jaundiced eye. Thus, Michael Grant, in his book Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977), pits Matthew and Luke on the one hand against John on the other:
There is also a notorious difficulty about determining Jesus’ birthplace. For whereas Matthew and Luke name it as Bethlehem, which the Christian world has accepted, the Gospel of John takes a different view. The Messiah, it concedes, was expected to come from Bethlehem in the Roman province of Judaea, because that place, according to the First Book of Samuel, had been the home of David’s father Jesse, and the prophet Micah had declared that it would provide ‘a governor for Israel.’ Nevertheless, John continues, Jesus was not born there at all, but came from Galilee. (Grant, p. 72)
Really? John “continues” …? Turning to the endnotes on p. 216, we find in note 30 a set of references, but only one from John: “Jn. 7.41f.” Let’s take a look, starting a verse back to get the context:
When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there was a division among the people over him. (John 7:40-43)
It is a hard thing to have to say of a man who has passed to his reward and can no longer speak for himself, but Grant has egregiously misread this text. John is not saying here that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem. He is reporting a disagreement, in the terms in which it was actually set; some people said that Jesus was the Messiah, while others objected that he did not come from the place where the Messiah ought to have come from. If the former group had knowledge of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, John does not record their answer; given only what we have here, we should probably at least provisionally conclude that they were stumped. But what follows from that?
It hardly follows that John himself did not know better. Indeed, as it is pretty plain that John has an intimate knowledge of the Synoptic Gospels, it is nearly a certainty that he knew what Matthew (at least) had said about Jesus’ birth. It would have been easy enough for him to deny it, if he knew for a fact that it was false. But this he does not do. He merely reports the disagreement, and a little later, a testy exchange between Nicodemus and the chief priests and Pharisees:
Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” (John 7:50-52)
Again, it may be the case that Nicodemus did not have an answer to this objection. But the very fact that John does not bother to resolve it suggests that both he and his readers already knew the truth. And by no legitimate process of reading can John’s depicture of this set of exchanges be twisted into an assertion that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.
“Ahh,” some critic might say, “but John does more than that. Continue the quotation from Grant a bit further and you will see!” I am glad to oblige. Picking up precisely where we left off:
The same Gospel also indicates that his place of origin in that country [Galilee] was Nazareth. Mark seems to imply agreement, and according to Luke Nazareth had been Joseph’s home before he and Mary came to Bethlehem. (Grant, p. 72)
Here endnote 31 refers us to John 1:46, Mark 1:9, and Luke 2:4. Again, let’s look at the passage in John starting just one verse earlier:
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1:45-46)
Note what this passage says – Philip refers to Jesus as being “of Nazareth” – and what it does not say – that Jesus was born in Nazareth. The distinction makes a difference. Luke himself, who meticulously and explicitly records Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, reports the use of the same phrase in telling of an event in Jesus’ life:
“Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” (Luke 4:34)
And in the book of Acts, certainly also written by the same author, we find the disciples constantly referring to “Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 2:22, 6:14, 10:38, 22:8, 26:9).
Nor is this just a slip of the mind on Luke’s part. Matthew, who also explicitly places Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, records the use of the phrase in the memorable scene where Peter is ashamed to acknowledge his connection with Jesus:
And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” (Matthew 26:71)
In the face of this usage in both Matthew and Luke, the only reasonable conclusion is that Jesus was known for the town where he grew up. There is nothing unusual or strained about this sort of reference; many of us were born in one town or state and grew up in another, and it is wholly natural to refer to someone as coming from the place where he was raised from a very young age to adulthood. It would appear that the story of Jesus’ real birthplace was not widely known among his broader circle of followers during the three years of his ministry. But that is, in the nature of the case, precisely what we would expect. Why would Jesus or his disciples have broken off from their urgent message of repentance, the Kingdom of God, and coming judgment to the throngs who witnessed his works and hung on his words in order to deliver a discourse about the location of his birth?
If the textual arguments fall flat, what is left? Only the suggestion that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was an invention prompted by the prophecy in Micah 5:2:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
In his book Jesus, Interrupted (New York: HarperOne, 2009) Bart Ehrman insinuates the idea in a specious enough manner:
And why did he have to be born in Bethlehem? Matthew hits the nail on the head: there is a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Micah that a savior would come from Bethlehem. What were these Gospel writers to do with the fact that it was widely known that Jesus came from Nazareth? They had to come up with a narrative that explained how he came from Nazareth, in Galilee, a little one-horse town that no one had ever heard of, but was born in Bethlehem, the home of King David, royal ancestor of the Messiah. (Ehrman, p. 35)
Ehrman here claims that the narratives in Matthew and Luke are fabrications, made up to accommodate the prophecy. Such an assertion requires significant argument to make it plausible, and though Ehrman has tried his best in the preceding three or four pages to raise problems for the narratives, I do not think he succeeds. But more significantly, the explanation cannot work unless the prophecy really would have given rise to this sort of story. And inconveniently enough, the prophecy in Micah does not merely state that the promised one will be from Bethlehem: it also portrays him as a ruler in Israel. Here James Orr, in his book The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), puts the problem very cogently:
The passage might suggest a birth in Bethlehem, but it would certainly not suggest the kind of birth we have described in Matthew and Luke. The prophecy in Micah speaks of a prince, a ruler, going forth from David’s city. How different the picture in the two Evangelists of the lowly Babe, cradled in a manger, because there was no room for Him—not to speak of a palace—even in the common inn! The prophecy was fulfilled, in God’s good providence, as Matthew notes; but it was not fulfilled in the way that human imagination, working on the prophet’s words, would have devised. Is the story one that human imagination, granting it a free rein, would naturally have devised at all for the advent of the Messiah? Here again it is to be noted that Luke, who gives the most detailed account of the birth at Bethlehem, has no suggestion of a connection with prophecy. (Orr, p. 131)
The critic cannot have it both ways. If the claim is that the prophecy inspired the story, then the story ought to reflect an imaginative setting for the prophecy as a whole and certainly for what were, to the Jewish mind, its most important parts. But the story in Matthew does not; and the story in Luke is, as Orr notes, told wholly without connection to Micah’s prediction.
It does not appear, then, that there is any good reason for doubting the explicit testimony of both Matthew and Luke that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. What we should make of other parts of the Christmas story is an interesting question that will take us deeper into the primary sources and further back into the Old Testament for an adequate answer.