O Little Town of Bethlehem - or not

Why scepticism over the Gospels' claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem may not be well founded.

Sceptics like to dispute the Gospels’ claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but their scepticism is not as well founded as often imagined.

The story told in Matthew and Luke smacks of pious myth, for some. In one of his less measured moments John Shelby Spong declares: “Was Jesus born in Bethlehem, the city of David? The answer is a very simple ‘no’.[1] There is almost no possibility that this claim is a fact of history.” He goes on to explain that the Bethlehem reference was written into the story of Jesus decades after his death. It was designed, he says, to enhance Jesus’ credentials, casting him as the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy in Micah 5:2, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.”

In this sense, Spong follows the approach of Ernst Käsemann and others (1950s-60s) who reasoned that if something in the Gospels sounds too Jewish it is likely to be an attempt to portray Jesus as the fulfilment of Judaism. However, it is one of the real advances in Jesus studies since the 1970s—when Spong did his theology—that most scholars now recognize the obvious historical point that whatever else the Jesus story is, it is a Jewish story.

Three things can be said in response to scepticism about Bethlehem. Firstly, Jesus’ birth there is mentioned in two of our sources. The ‘infancy narratives’ (as they are called) of Matthew and Luke were written independently of each other—neither had access to the other—so their naming of Bethlehem as the starting point of the Jesus story must be taken seriously: this is the criterion of multiple attestation.

Secondly, that the other two Gospels, Mark and John, make no mention of Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem is not as significant as the sceptic might think. Neither Gospel says anything about Jesus’ birth or childhood; they pick up the story in Jesus’ adulthood. Their silence about the early years tells us precisely nothing. Perhaps they knew the Bethlehem story; perhaps they did not. We would be wrong to think silence means ignorance. The constraints of the papyrus scroll meant that each Gospel writer had to be selective in his choice of material. As the Gospel of John tells us at the end of the work: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book” and with a little hyperbole, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”[2] Were infancy stories among these “many other things”? We just do not know.

Thirdly, the silence of Mark and John about Jesus’ Bethlehem origins may in fact bolster the claim in Matthew and Luke. How so? The chief argument against Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is that it smacks of prophecy fulfilment: one Old Testament text (Micah 5:2) speaks of a ruler coming out of Bethlehem; thus, Matthew and Luke place Jesus there in order to confirm his messianic credentials. However, that Mark and John make no mention of a birth in Bethlehem in fact proves that the connection with this town was not considered necessary to advance the claim that Jesus was the Messiah. Put another way, if a birth in Bethlehem was important enough to inspire two Gospel writers (independently of each other) to create the story out of thin air, why do the other two Gospel writers remain silent on the matter? The observation is significant. If a birth in Bethlehem was not key to the Christian presentation of Jesus as the Messiah, the chief argument against the historicity of Matthew’s and Luke’s claim is significantly weakened.

One cannot prove historically that Jesus was born in Bethlehem; that is not my claim. And the most detailed study of the topic to date, Raymond E. Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah, leaves it as an open historical question.[3] What is clear is that dogmatic scepticism about the issue is misplaced; “the complexities of the situation,” notes Brown in his typically understated way, “demand more nuance.”[4]

Dr John Dickson is an author and historian and the Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

[1] John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious. HarperCollins, 2007, 15.

[2] John 20:30; John 21:25.

[3] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah. Cassell & Collier Macmillan 1977. See pages 513-516, in particular.

[4] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah. Cassell & Collier Macmillan 1977, 513.