Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?

Let's take a look at a few details in the Gospels with regard to the birth of Jesus.

Consider the Star of Bethlehem:

Craig Chester, the President of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy, offers a detailed and elaborate understanding of the rising star in the Bethlehem sky at Jesus’ birth, in “The Star of Bethlehem” [Imprimis (Dec. 1993)]. He claims it was Jupiter, the planet known to represent kingship to astrologers in the ancient East, which came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, which is located in the constellation of Leo, also known as the constellation of kings. But think about this. E. P. Sanders asks, “Why take the star of Matthew’s story to be a real astral event and ignore what the author says about it?” [The Historical Figure of Jesus (p. 55)].
Matthew 2:9-10:After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
How is it truly possible for the star that Chester describes to lead the Magi from Jerusalem to a specific inn located in Bethlehem less than five miles away? H. R. Reimarus (A.D. 1768) observed long ago that even if it were some sort of comet with a tail, “it is too high to point to a specific house.” If it were a miraculous star, then why didn’t everyone in the vicinity see it? Pope Leo I (A.D. 461) proposed that the star was invisible to the Jews because of their blindness. But then why did it appear to pagan astrologers? Surely the whole reason Matthew believed stars/planets could move like this is because of how the ancients viewed the universe.

Consider the other problems inherent with the story:

Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, if Luke is taken literally, according to E. P. Sanders [The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin Press, 1993, pp. 84-91)]. What husband would take a nine-month pregnant woman on such a trek from Nazareth at that time when only heads of households were obligated to register for a census when the census would’ve been stretched out over a period of weeks or even months? But if he did, why did he not take better precautions for the birth? Why not take Mary to her relative Elizabeth’s home just a few miles away from Bethlehem for the birth of her baby? According to Luke’s own genealogy (3:23-38) David had lived 42 generations earlier. Why should everyone have had to register for a census in the town of one of his ancestors forty-two generations earlier? There would be millions of ancestors by that time, and the whole empire would have been uprooted. Why 42 generations and not 35, or 16? If it was just required of the lineage of King David to register for the census, what was Augustus thinking when he ordered it? He had a King, Herod. “Under no circumstances could the reason for Joseph’s journey be, as Luke says, that he was ‘of the house and lineage of David,’ because that was of no interest to the Romans in this context.” [Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Putting Away Childish Things, (p.10)]. The fact is, even if there was a worldwide Roman census that included Galilee at this specific time, there is evidence that Census takers taxed people based upon the land they owned, so they traveled to where people lived.

According to Robin Lane Fox, “Luke’s story is historically impossible and internally incoherent.” But he says, “Luke’s errors and contradictions are easily explained. Early Christian tradition did not remember, or perhaps ever know, exactly where and when Jesus had been born. People were much more interested in his death and consequences.” “After the crucifixion and the belief in the resurrection, people wondered all the more deeply about Jesus’ birthplace. Bethlehem, home of King David, was a natural choice for the new messiah. There was even a prophecy in support of the claim which the ‘little town’ has maintained so profitably to this day.” So, “a higher truth was served by an impossible fiction.” [The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible(Knopf, 1992), p. 31-32]. “Luke’s real source for the view that Jesus was born in Bethlehem was almost certainly the conviction that Jesus fulfilled a hope that someday a descendant of David would arise to save Israel,” because the Messiah was supposed to come from there (Micah 5:2). [E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (p. 87.)].

In many other places we read that the people of his time called him "Jesus of Nazareth" (Matthew 26:70-72; Mark 1:23-25; Mark 10:46-48; Luke 4:34; Luke 18:37; Luke 24:20; John 1:45; John 18:6-8; John 19:19; Acts 2:22; Acts 6:14; Acts 10:38; Acts 22:9; Acts 26:9), so scholars conclude it's more likely that Jesus was born and raised in Nazareth. They think this because the NT writers quoted OT verses from Psalms and the prophets out of context to point to Jesus. The NT writers were intent on making Jesus' birth, life, nature and mission to fit anything in the Old Testament that could be construed to speak of him, as proof he was who they claimed him to be. But any Christian today who uses the Bible to argue for their views without taking into consideration the context of the passages in question, would be laughed at even in their own academic circles! So I challenge Christians here. Use these same ancient hermeneutical standards (like pesher and Midrash), and see what happens? Go ahead. I dare you.

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth fares no better. Robin Lane Fox: “Bethlehem was not Jesus’ birthplace but was imported from Hebrew prophecies about the future Messiah; the Star had similar origins (Numbers 24:17). Matthew’s story is a construction from well-known messianic prophecies (Bethlehem; the Star), and the Wise Men (Magi) have been added as another legend.” “Where the truth had been lost, stories filled the gap, and the desire to know fabricated its own tradition."

There are even discrepancies between the Gospels themselves:

"Luke told a tale of angels and shepherds, bringing some of the humblest people in society to Bethlehem with news of Jesus’ future. Instead of shepherds, Matthew brought Wise Men, following a star in the East and bringing gifts…In one version, there are simple shepherds, the other, learned Wise Men: the contrast sets our imaginations free, and perhaps like the Wise Men we too should return by ‘another way.” [The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (Knopf, 1992), pp.35- 36].

Luke has Joseph and Mary living in Nazareth from where they traveled to Bethlehem for the Roman census (Luke 1:26; 2:4). After Jesus was born, Joseph took his family from Bethlehem to Jerusalem for up to 40 days (Luke 2:22), and from there straight back to Nazareth (Luke 2:39). But Matthew says Jesus was born in a "house" where Joseph’s family lived in Bethlehem. And after the birth of Jesus they lived there for up to two years (Matt 2:16)! After the Magi leave them, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt and stay there until Herod died (Matt. 2:15). After Herod died, Joseph was told in a dream to return to the land of Israel, and he headed for his home in Bethlehem of Judea. But since he was afraid to go there, he settled in Nazareth (Matt. 2:21-23), for the first time!

Consider the Date of the Nativity and the so-called Roman Census:

Richard Carrier deals with all of the above problems in a discussion of the date of the Nativity here.

First posted 12/16/06.