On several occasions on the blog I have discussed the similarities and differences between the accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke (Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2), most recently, I think, two years ago at this time (check out the archives for December 2020). I won’t go over all that turf again just now, but I do want to hit several of the key points because I think the *discrepancies* between the two accounts that appear irreconcilable tell us something significant about the birth of Jesus. I think they help show that he was actually born in Nazareth.
Both accounts go to great lengths to show how Jesus could be born in *Bethlehem* when everyone in fact knew that he *came* from Nazareth.
It is a particular problem for Matthew, because he points out that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Micah 5:2 , that a great ruler (the Messiah) would come from Bethlehem (Matthew 5:2). If you read the account carefully, you’ll see that Matthew explains it by indicating that Joseph and Mary were originally from Bethlehem. That was their home town. And the place of Jesus’ birth. Joseph and Mary are there to begin with in the Gospel; Jesus is born; they flee to Egypt a year or so later (the wisemen tell Herod they have been following the star and “according to the time” they tell him, Herod orders all boys “two years and under” to be slaughtered. So this is taking place when Jesus is a toddler, not a new-born). When they return the only reason they can NOT return to Bethlehem in Judea is because now Arcelaus is ruling there, and he’s worse than his father Herod!
And so, it was two or more years after Jesus’ birth that the family relocated to Nazareth in Galilee, over a hundred miles to the north, to get away from the rulers of Judea who were thought to be out to kill the child. (That in itself, I hardly need to say, seems completely implausible, that a local king is eager to kill a peasant child out of fear that he will wrest the kingdom away from him….)
Luke has a completely different account of how it happened. In Luke, Bethlehem is decidedly not Joseph and Mary’s home town. The whole point of the story is that it is not. They are from Nazareth. But then how does Jesus come to be born somewhere else? In the most famous passage of the birth narratives, we are told that it is because of a “decree” that went out from the ruler of the Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus. “All the world” had to be “enrolled” – that is, there was a world-wide census. We are told that this was the “first enrollment” made when Quirinius was the governor of Syria (for what it’s worth, we have solid historical evidence for the rule of Quirinius in Syria: was ten years after the death of King Herod.)
Since Joseph is “of the house and lineage of David,” and since David (his ancestor from about 1000 years earlier) had been born in Bethlehem, Joseph had to register for the census in Bethlehem. In other words, everyone in the Roman empire is returning to the home of their ancestors (from a 1000 years earlier??? Really? “the entire world?” And everyone in the Roman empire is doing this? How are we to imagine the massive shifts of population for this census? And no other source even bothers to mention it???) (But pursue the questions further: why does Joseph have to register in the town of his ancestor [David] from 1000 years before? Why not an ancestors from 1200 years earlier? or 700 years earlier? or 100 years earlier? Does this even make sense? Why David in particular?).
In any event, since Joseph has to register in Bethlehem, and since Mary is his betrothed, they make a trip to Bethlehem. And it just so happens that this is when Mary goes into labor. So she gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. Since there is no room for them in the inn, they lay the child in a cattle manger, and the shepherds come to worship him.
Six weeks after that “when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth” (this is a reference to Leviticus 12; the woman who gives birth needs to perform a cleansing ritual 40 days later; Mary does that, and then they go back home)
So even though Jesus was raised in Nazareth (starting when he was just under two months old), he was born in Bethlehem.
But what about the wise men from Matthew who come to find them in a house in Bethlehem, over a year later? Moreover, if Luke is right that they return to Nazareth a month after Jesus’ birth, how can Matthew be right that they fled to Egypt (they’re obviously doing this on foot, so it would, well, take a while), and that they don’t return until much later after Herod dies?
So what’s going on here? What’s going on is that both Matthew and Luke want Jesus to be born in Bethlehem even though they both know that he came from Nazareth. Both accounts are filled with implausibilities on their own score (a star leading “wise men” to the east – they wouldn’t be very wise if they thought that a star could lead them in a straight line anywhere — and stopping over a house; a census of the entire Roman world that could not have happened); and they contradict each other up and down the map.
My view is that neither story is historical, but that both have an ultimate objective to explain how Jesus could be the messiah if he was from Nazareth instead of Bethlehem. So they (or their sources) came up with stories to get him born in Bethlehem. These stories are meant to show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Micah 5:2, and Matthew himself indicates in clear terms, by quoting the very prophecy.
And so what conclusion can we draw? To me it seems all fairly straightforward. Jesus was not really born in Bethlehem.
OK then, if not there, where? He came from Nazareth. I can’t think of a single good reason to think he wasn’t born there.