The events about the place and date of birth of Jesus are more than 20 centuries old, and are still very controversial. Although the four gospel writers, and Paul, agree that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, only Luke and Matthew mention his place of birth, and they tell it differently. They provide different versions of the event without dates. Despite its importance, Paul, Marc and John didn’t know about it, or just neglected to write it. The written information about the Savior’s date and place of birth has been challenged by skeptics, historians, and theologians. Despite all these questions, the story of Jesus’ birth has been lovely told all over the world for more than 2000 years. There are good reasons for it, we are talking about God coming to earth in the form of a child.
The story began 700 years before Jesus’ actual birth with the prophet Isaias, who prophesied that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Isaias, however, was not the only prophet who spoke of a Messiah: Daniel, Jeremiah, Ezequiel, Zacharias, and Malachi were some of the others. One prophet, Micah, told us the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. Both versions of the birth of Jesus, the argument goes, are really inspired by the Old Testament where it is said that God would send a Messiah to liberate his people from the cruelty and injustices inflicted upon them by the Romans. The gospel writers – Luke and Matthew – sincerely believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and that he would be born in Bethlehem. Many scholars believe this is why; regardless of Jesus’ real place of birth, early Christians deliberately chose Bethlehem to demonstrate the fulfilling of the prophesy described there. Add the fact that the story came about many years after the death of Jesus; presumably as a challenge to Roman authorities who had many stories like that in their traditions.
Seven hundred years later, the Lord sent the angel, Gabriel, to deliver a message to a virgin named Mary, who was living in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee. The son of God has to be born from a virgin. Mary was pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. Luke wrote about a message with enormous implications for the people of Israel, and for the entire world. Gabriel – Luke continues – announced to Mary that she will conceive and deliver a son without human intervention. Based on Luke’s account, Jesus was conceived in Nazareth. Joseph had nothing to do with it.
Almost nine months later, Joseph takes his wife from the city of Nazareth up to Bethlehem to be taxed. Luke explains that Cesar Augustus decreed that all the world should be taxed, and all persons should go back to their places of origin. For some scholars, Luke’s Roman census never took place. There are no records of it; on the contrary, Roma’s records of its census, stipulated that a man should be counted, and taxed, in the place where he lived. Women were not taken into account. The trip and the census were entirely implausible; apparently to make Bethlehem Jesus’ place of birth. Jesus had to be born there no matter where he was born.
The Holy Book does not give a hint on why Joseph took Mary on this very difficult trip, possibly on the back of a donkey, through the desert, especially when she was on the last stage of her pregnancy. The Bible says nothing about Mary traveling on the back of a donkey, so we can’t be sure. It is left to our imagination to figure where they stay overnight. However, whether she traveled on the back of a donkey or not, it took a week to do the journey. The distance between Nazareth and Jerusalem, is 120 kilometers, and only 10 more to get to Bethlehem.
Nevertheless, this is the event that motivated Joseph to take his spouse, Mary, with him up to Bethlehem. Then, Mary gave birth to a son whom she had in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn. Please consider that this part of the story appears only in the Gospel of Luke. Contrary to popular belief, December 25 has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. This date was established by the early church fathers on 440 AD to conform to an existing celebration based on Babilonian traditions.
There are those who attest that he was born in Bethlehem basing their opinions on the writings of Matthew. This is the same story told by Luke, but in it, Matthew starts by what some scholars call the Annunciation to Joseph. Joseph’s reaction, according to Matthew, was that Mary was an adulteress. Although Matthew did not tell it in those terms, the common assumption here is that Joseph, who had not touched Mary, thought she had committed adultery. Because he was a merciful man, unwilling to put her to death, decided to send her away quietly. His decision nested in a couple of problems: If Mary had willingly committed adultery, she deserved to be stoned to death, the punishment mosaic law commanded.
Furthermore, to put Mary away when she was pregnant with the child of another man would do her immense harm and would expose her to much shame. Joseph did not want to cause either. Moreover, if he conceded that he was betrothed to a sinless woman who miraculously conceived a child, he could not fathom his role as the spouse of the mother of the Son of God. But then the angel came and made God’s will know to Joseph, who accepted his mission to take care of the boy. Matthew does not detail the lives of Joseph and Mary; he only says that they married after she gave birth to Jesus. Matthew says that Joseph was an obedient man who accepted to do what God commanded through the angel he saw in a dream. In Matthew, the family lived in Bethlehem and Jesus was born at home.
Matthew said that Jesus was the son of God. He wrote about the time when the wise men from the East came to worship “him that was born King of the Jews.” They brought expensive gifts to an unknown child. Please consider that this action takes place under the guidance of an intelligent star; so smart that it stopped his movement over a manger in Bethlehem. This is one of those parts of the story where most scholars challenge the veracity of the account. Many questions arise: Who were these wise men? Kings? Magi? Where did they come from? How did they get here? Why some important men from the East had an interest on what was going on in this part of the world? Why travel so far away from their places of origin? Additionally, Matthew told about a secret meeting between Herod and the wise men. During the meeting, the king asked them to find out where this new-born king was, so that he can go and worship him. Nobody knows when the magi arrived to worship Jesus. Some scholars believe it could have happened between ten months and two years after the birth of Jesus.
Matthew has the family fleeing Bethlehem only after Herod ordered all the baby boys massacred. He ordered his guards to look for them all over Bethlehem. To save the boy from a certain death, an angel told Joseph to take his family, and flee to Egypt. Because of that, Joseph left Bethlehem until the king died. This is the time when Joseph and Mary received instructions to return to Nazareth. Jesus must have been 4/7 years old.
In my book – Mary Magdalene: The Lord’s Wife – Alice McCallum who affirms she was Mary Magdalene in a past life, tells Donald Silverstein, the psychiatrist treating her for postpartum depression, that Jesus was born comfortably in his house in Nazareth. “He has never been to Bethlehem,” she said. Alice’s version of the birth of Jesus does not have a star, no three wise men, no census, no trip, etc. The child enjoyed the conveniences of a baby who was born rich in his house in Nazareth. Although I sympathize with Alice’s feelings about the entire saga, I don’t believe in reincarnation. To me, she is expressing a knowledge she shouldn’t have.
Joseph and Mary brought the infant Jesus to the Temple 8 days after birth to comply with Mosaic law, as required by the scriptures. Next time we heard from Jesus is when he is 12 years old and is found by his parents discussing with the rabbis at the Temple.
Regarding where Jesus was born, only two of the gospels talk about it. Although Luke and Mark tell the story very differently, they both wrote that he was born in Bethlehem. In Luke, they were living in Nazareth but had to go to Bethlehem because of the census decreed by Cesar Augustus. Luke talks about this trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem while Matthew says they were already living in Bethlehem, and only abandoned the city when Herod decided to massacre all baby boys.
One thing is certain; Jesus was a Jewish boy growing at a time of high political tensions. To get the full nativity scene that we are familiar with, you have to put the two versions together. Luke contributes the manger, the trip, and the angels, while Matthew supplies the kings and the star. The geographical and climactic information about the Bethlehem of those times does not support either of the two versions. Nevertheless, we have to believe the New Testament because the gospel writers were honest people who sincerely believed the reality of the events they were writing about.
The fact that Jesus was called Jesus of Nazareth points very heavily towards Nazareth being his birthplace. People of those times were called by the name of his father – Jesus, Son of Joseph – or by the village they were born in. To many scholars, however, it is more of an indication that he grew up there; the four gospels agree on that. It does not indicate that he was born there. But if he wasn’t born in Bethlehem why the gospel writers wrote that he was? The Jerusalem church, headed by James the Just, brother of Jesus, simply sustains that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, and was born naturally. When Constantine became a Christian, he sent the queen, his mother, to build churches. The people of Bethlehem happily told her the place where Jesus’ manger was located, and she built a church right there. Even today, as in the past, most people currently living there, firmly believe that Jesus was born there. This is a very active tourist center today.
There is no way to be sure when Jesus was born. For some, it derives from pagan traditions, and for others from Judaism. It is a fact that on December 25, Christians, all over the world, surrounded by gifts, special foods and carols, will gather to celebrate his birth. The Bible gives us very few clues. The Gospels or Acts did not mention the date or even the season. Extra-biblical evidence is of not much help. There are no indications, historical or otherwise, that Christmas was celebrated at all until more than three centuries after Jesus’ death. Later apocryphal writings tell us about his ancestry and education but make no mention of his place and date of birth.