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."

Indeed, placing Jesus' birth in Bethlehem in Galilee seems to removeparts of the Gospels that have troubled scholars, said Chilton.

"Bethlehem in Galilee was only seven miles northwest of Nazareth,so you don't have difficulty imagining Mary and Joseph making journeysbetween the two as the Gospels tell us they do," Chilton said. "Butgetting from Nazareth to Bethlehem of Judea requires a journey by footof more than 100 miles. That's why these foot voyages from Galilee allthe way down to Bethlehem of Judea and then back again have appearedimplausible to generations of scholars."

Whether the Gospel writers confused Bethlehem of Judea withBethlehem of Galilee makes little difference to scholars like Crossanand his Jesus Seminar colleague, Oregon State University religionprofessor Marcus Borg, who believe Jesus was probably born in Nazareth.

In either case, trying to identify Jesus' birthplace is a steepplunge into thorny theological territory -- more than "a simplehistorical question of `a' or `b,"' said Crossan.

"What underlies the debate are subterranean issues, like thequestion of whether the Bible is literal or symbolic," he said. "You getinto a lot of tricky issues when you start looking at the subject."

Joel Green, dean of the School of Theology at Asbury TheologicalSeminary in Kentucky, agreed.

"I think one of the fundamental issues behind the question is whatrelationship does one find between the Old Testament prophetic texts andtheir realizations in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke," said Green, whois also a professor of New Testament interpretation and author ofseveral books about the historical Jesus. "You get into questions likehow Jewish was Jesus? How much of the Old Testament faith was heembracing?"

Where Jesus was born is only a "secondary issue" anyway, saidWright, far from "the heart of Christianity."

"What's at the heart of Christianity is what Jesus did and said whenhe grew up, what happened to him when he died and rose again," saidWright. "It's skewed now in our modern culture in the West. We've made abig festival out of Christmas, and Easter is sort of secondary. But hisbirth is really secondary to the message of his life and his teachings-- that's what we tend to forget."