- Rodolfo Galvan Estrada
- The Conversation*
Every Christmas, a relatively small town in the West Bank becomes the center of attention: Bethlehem.
And it is that according to biblical sources, Jesus was born there two millennia ago.
But the New Testament gospels do not agree on the details of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Some don’t even mention Bethlehem or the birth of Jesus.
The different perspectives of the gospels may be difficult to reconcile. But as a New Testament scholar, I argue that the gospels offer important Greco-Roman insights into ethnic identity and genealogy.
Today, genealogy offers more insight into a family’s medical history and helps uncover missing family members. In the Greco-Roman era, birth histories and genealogical claims were used to establish rights of government and link individuals to some supposed ancestral greatness.
Gospel of Matthew
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the first in the New Testament, Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. The story begins when three wise men arrive in Jerusalem following a star that they interpreted as the sign of the birth of a new king.
He goes on to describe his encounter with the Jewish King Herod, who is asked about the birthplace of Jesus.
The gospel says that the star of Bethlehem led them to a house – not a manger – where Jesus had been born with Joseph and Mary.
They gave Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were valuable presents, especially frankincense and myrrh, considered expensive fragrances with medicinal use.
The Gospel explains that, after Joseph’s visit, he dreamed that he was being warned that Herod wanted to kill Jesus.
When the wise men came to Herod with the news that the King of the Jews had been born, he planned to kill all the children to eliminate the threat to his throne. Then it tells how Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus flee to Egypt escaping from Herod’s attempt to kill all the children.
Matthew also narrates that, after Herod’s death from illness, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus do not return to Bethlehem. Instead, they travel north to Nazareth in Galilee, which is now modern-day Nazareth in Israel.
Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of Luke, an account of the life of Jesus written around the same time as the Gospel of Matthew, has a different version of the birth of Jesus.
His gospel begins with Joseph and Mary pregnant in Galilee. The trip to Bethlehem was due to a census that the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus ordered for all Jews.
Joseph was a descendant of King David and Bethlehem was his place of registration. Luke does not include a trip to Egypt, nor the paranoid King Herod or his attempts to murder children. The wise men do not visit the baby Jesus in their version either.
Jesus was born in a manger because the travelers had occupied all the rooms of Bethlehem. After the birth, Mary and Joseph are visited only by shepherds, who are also happy about the birth of Jesus.
Luke relates that angels appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. There is no guiding star, and the shepherds do not bring gifts to the child.
Luke mentions that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph leave Bethlehem eight days after birth and travel to Jerusalem and then to Nazareth.
The differences between Matthew and Luke are almost impossible to reconcile, although they share similarities.
John Meier, a scholar of the history of Jesus, explains that “the birth in Bethlehem is not part of a historical event” but from a “theological statement written in the form of a historical narrative.”
In other words, that the belief that Jesus is a descendant of King David led to the unfolding of the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
Raymon Brown, another gospel scholar, notes that “the two narratives are not only different, but contradictory in a number of details.”
The Gospels of John and Mark
What makes the story even more difficult to know is that neither the Gospels of Mark and John mention the birth of Jesus or his connection to Bethlehem.
The Gospel of Mark is the oldest on the life of Jesus, written 60 years after Christ.
The first chapter says that Jesus is from “Nazareth in Galilee.” This is repeated several times during the gospel and Bethlehem is never mentioned.
A blind beggar in Mark’s gospel describes Jesus as from Nazareth and son of David, the second king of Israel and Judea between 1010 and 970 BC.
But King David was not born in Nazareth or related to that city. It was from Bethlehem. Even so Mark does not identify Jesus with that city.
The Gospel of John, written some 15 or 20 years after that of Mark, also does not associate Jesus with Bethlehem. He speaks of Galilee as the people of Jesus. In fact, he meets his first disciples, performs miracles and has brothers in Galilee.
This does not mean that John was not aware of the meaning of Bethlehem. The evangelist mentions a debate where some Jews refer to a prophecy that claims that the messiah would be a descendant of David and would come from that place.
However, in the Gospel of John Jesus is never associated with Bethlehem, but with Galilee and specifically Nazareth.
The Gospels of Mark and John reveal that they were unable to link Jesus to Bethlehem or that they did not know he was born there.
They were not the only ones. The apostle Paul, who wrote the first documents of the New Testament, considered Jesus a descendant of David but did not associate him with Bethlehem.
The Book of Revelation also states that Jesus was a descendant of David but does not mention Bethlehem either.
During the life of Jesus there were many perspectives on the Messiah.
A Jewish current of thought indicates that the Messiah would be the eternal ruler from the line of David.
Other Jewish texts, such as Book 4 Ezra, written in the same century as the Gospels, and the Qumran literature, written two centuries earlier, agree on the same belief.
But within the Hebrew bible, a prophetic book called Micah, believed to have been written around 722 BC, prophesies that the messiah would come from Bethlehem, the town of David.
This text is repeated in the Matthew version. Luke mentions that Jesus is not only genealogically connected to King David, but was also born in Bethlehem, “the city of David.”
Genealogical claims were created for important longtime founders and political leaders. For example, the founder of the Greek colonies in Asia was considered a descendant of Apollo.
Alexander the Great, whose empire stretched from Macedonia to India, was hailed as the son of Hercules.
Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was also proclaimed a descendant of Apollo. And a Jewish writer named Philo who lived in the first century wrote that Abraham and the Jewish father and prophets were born of God.
Regardless of whether such claims were then accepted as true, they constituted a person’s ethnic identity, political status, and right to honor. As the Greek historian Polybius explained, the well-known wanderings of the ancestors are “part of the heritage of posterity.”
That Matthew and Luke included the city of Bethlehem contributed to the claims that Jesus was the Messiah born of the line of David. Both evangelists made sure readers were aware of Jesus’ genealogical connection to King David with the mention of this city.
So today, when the importance of Bethlehem is heard in the Christmas carols or shown in the nativity scenes, the town’s name connects Jesus with an ancestral lineage and the prophetic hope of a new leader as the king of David was in his time.
Rodolfo Galvan Estrada is an adjunct professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary.
This article is published in The Conversation and was translated by BBC Mundo. click here to read the original version in English.
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