CONCLUSION via AP – Every Christmas, a relatively small town in the West Bank will be at its peak: Bethlehem. Jesus, according to some Christian biblical sources, was born in this city about two thousand years ago.
But the Gospels of the New Testament do not agree on the details of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. There are some who do not mention Bethlehem or the birth of Jesus at all.
It may be difficult to reconcile the differing views of the Gospels. But as a New Testament scholar, what I argue is that the Gospels offer an important insight into Greco-Roman views of racial identity, including genealogy.
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Today, genealogy may provide a greater awareness of a person’s family medical history or help in the tracing of missing family members. In Greco-Roman times, birth stories and genealogical claims were used to establish rights to govern individuals and connect them to a claimed ancestral grandeur.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the first Gospel was in the New Testament language, 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 that they interpret as a sign of the birth of a new king.
He then describes their meeting with the local Jewish king named Herod, and they ask about where Jesus was born. The Gospel says that the star of Bethlehem then leads them to a house – not a bush – where Jesus was born to Joseph and Mary. Rejoicing, they worship Jesus and display gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These were valuable gifts, especially frankincense and myrrh, which were expensive fragrances that had a medicinal use.
The Gospel explains that, after their journey, Joseph has a dream in which he is warned about Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus’ child. When the wise men went to Herod with the news that a child had been born to become the king of the claims, he made a plan to kill all the young children in order to remove the threat to his throne. He then recounts how Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus leave for Egypt to escape King Herod’s attempt to murder every young child.
Matthew also says that after Herod dies of illness, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus will not return to Bethlehem. Instead, they travel north to Nazareth in Galilee, which is in Nazareth today in Israel.
The Gospel of Luke has a different version of the birth of Jesus, an account of the life of Jesus written at the same time as the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel of Luke begins with Joseph and Mary, who are pregnant in Galilee. They travel to Bethlehem in response to an account that the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus needed for all the Jews. Because Joseph was a descendant of King David, Bethlehem was the home town where he was asked to enroll.
The Gospel of Luke includes no flight to Egypt, no paranoid King Herod, no murder of children and no wise men visiting the baby Jesus. Jesus is born in a closet because all the passengers were crossing the guest rooms. After the birth, wise men visit Joseph and Mary but shepherds, who were also very happy at the time of Jesus’ birth.
Lucas says that these shepherds were informed of Jesus’ situation in Bethlehem by angels. There is no guiding star in Luke’s story, and the shepherds do not give gifts to the baby Jesus. Luke also mentions that Joseph, Mary and Jesus left Bethlehem eight days after his birth and traveled to Jerusalem and then to Nazareth.
The differences between Matthew and Lucas are almost impossible to reconcile, although they are similar. John Meier, a scholar of historical Jesus, explains that “the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is to be taken not as a historical fact” but as a “divine confirmation put in the form of a narrative similar to history. In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
Raymond Brown, another scholar of the Gospels, also says that “not only are the two statements different – they are contradictory in many details.”
The Gospels of Mark and John
What makes it more difficult is that the other Gospels, Mark and John, do not mention the birth of Jesus or his connection with Bethlehem.
The Gospel of Mark is the earliest account of Jesus’ life, written around 60 AD. Mark’s opening chapter states that Jesus is from “Nazareth of Galilee.” This has been repeated throughout the Gospel several times, and Bethlehem is never mentioned.
A blind beggar in Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus as both of Nazareth and the son of David, second king of Israel and Judah between 1010–970 BC. But King David was not born in Nazareth, or associated with that city. He was from Bethlehem. But Mark does not recognize Jesus by the city of Bethlehem.
The Gospel of John, written about 15 to 20 years after Mark, also does not link Jesus to Bethlehem. Galilee is the home of Jesus. Jesus found his first disciples, performed many miracles and had brothers in Galilee.
This is not to say that John was ignorant of the importance of Bethlehem. John refers to a debate in which some Jews referred to the prophecy that the Messiah would be a descendant of David and descended from Bethlehem. But according to the Gospel of John, Jesus is never associated with Bethlehem, but with Galilee, and especially with Nazareth.
The Gospels of Mark and John show that they had difficulty either associating Bethlehem with Jesus, did not know the place of his birth, or did not care about this city.
Those were not the only ones. The Apostle Paul, who wrote the earliest documents of the New Testament, considered Jesus a descendant of David but does not associate him with Bethlehem. The Book of Revelation also confirms that Jesus was a descendant of David but does not mention Bethlehem.
During Jesus’ life, there were many visions of the Messiah. In one stream of Jewish thought, the Messiah was expected to be an everlasting ruler from the descendants of David. Other Jewish texts, such as the book 4 Ezra, written in the same century as the Gospels, and Qumran Jewish sectarian literature, written two centuries earlier, also reflect this belief.
But within the Hebrew Bible, a book of prophecy called Micah, thought to have been written around 722 BC, prophesies that the Messiah would come from David’s hometown of Bethlehem. This text is repeated in Matthew version. Luke mentions that Jesus is not only genealogically related to King David, but also that he was born in Bethlehem, “the city of David.”
Genealogical claims were made for important former founders and political leaders. For example, Ion, the founder of the Greek colonies in Asia, was thought to be of Apollo descent. Alexander the Great was said to be the son of Hercules, who reached the empire from Macedonia to India. Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was proclaimed a descendant of Apollo. And a Jewish writer named Philo, who lived in the first century, wrote that Abraham and the Jewish priest and prophets were born of God.
Whether or not these claims were accepted at the time were true, they shaped racial identity, political status, and claims of honor. As the Greek historian Polybius explains, the famous deeds of ancestors “are part of the tradition of the ages.”
Matthew and Luke in the city of Bethlehem added that Jesus was the Messiah of David’s descendants. They made sure that readers were aware of Jesus’ genealogical connection to King David with reference to this city. Birth stories in Bethlehem confirmed the claim that Jesus was a legitimate descendant of King David.
So today, when the importance of Bethlehem is heard in Christmas hymns or displayed in Nativity scenes, the city’s name connects Jesus to an ancestral line and the prophetic hope for a new leader like King David.