O Little Town of ... Nazareth? Scholars Debate Jesus' Birthplace

Where was Jesus born--Nazareth, Bethlehem of Judea, or Bethlehem in Galilee?

WASHINGTON, Dec. 18 (RNS) -- The story, immortalized in pageants and song, is afamiliar one. A messiah, sent to redeem humanity. Son of the peasantgirl Mary, and Joseph, a widowed carpenter. Born in Bethlehem.

Or was he?

While evidence has been unearthed that verifies the existence of ahistorical figure named Jesus, material shedding light on thecircumstances of his birth is relatively scarce outside the Gospels ofMatthew and Luke. Both, with varying discrepancies, pinpoint Bethlehemas Jesus' birthplace.

But as the quest for the historical Jesus continues, scholars aredivided over whether the biblical account is accurate.

"Aside from Matthew and Luke, we have no information about Jesus'birth from any other source that we would regard for a moment ashistorical," said N. T. "Tom" Wright, canon theologian of WestminsterAbbey in London and author of several books on Jesus and the NewTestament. "So as ancient historians we're inclined to say it looks asthough we've got the truth with Bethlehem."

Not all have been so inclined, however.

New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan believes the Bethlehemstory is a symbolic one, never meant to be taken literally. He said theaccount hearkens back to a passage from the Old Testament book of Micahwhich declared that from Bethlehem would come "one who will be rulerover Israel."

"If I were to say to you `Neither of those candidates was born in alog cabin,' you would understand that to mean that neither is as good asLincoln," said Crossan, professor emeritus of religious studies atDePaul University in Chicago and co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, agroup of biblical scholars. "In the same way, in certain religiouscontexts in the first century, `born in Bethlehem' was coded to mean theawaited Davidic messiah."


Wright rejects that idea. "Just because we have discovered a motive why the early Christiansmight have wanted to say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem doesn'tnecessarily mean that was the case," he said. "It's much more likelythat early Christian writers were highlighting something that wasalready established rather than inventing the Bethlehem story fromscratch."

For Episcopal priest and religion professor Bruce Chilton, thequestion isn't whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but rather whichBethlehem.

In his recently published "Rabbi Jesus"(Doubleday), Chilton deflatesthe theory that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. He argues theGospel writers that town with another Bethlehem in Galilee whoseexistence has been proven by recent archaeological discoveries. "Because of oral traditions the Gospel writers knew Jesus' birthplacewas Bethlehem, and so when they looked in the Old Testament and saw thatMicah talks about Bethlehem of Judea, the inclination was to link thosetwo together," said Chilton. "That's exactly what happened in Matthew."

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