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

Or was he?

While evidence has been unearthed that verifies the existence of a historical figure named Jesus, material shedding light on the circumstances of his birth is relatively scarce outside the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Both, with varying discrepancies, pinpoint Bethlehem as Jesus' birthplace.

But as the quest for the historical Jesus continues, scholars are divided 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 as historical," said N. T. "Tom" Wright, canon theologian of Westminster Abbey in London and author of several books on Jesus and the New Testament. "So as ancient historians we're inclined to say it looks as though we've got the truth with Bethlehem."

Not all have been so inclined, however.

New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan believes the Bethlehem story is a symbolic one, never meant to be taken literally. He said the account hearkens back to a passage from the Old Testament book of Micah which declared that from Bethlehem would come "one who will be ruler over Israel."

"If I were to say to you `Neither of those candidates was born in a log cabin,' you would understand that to mean that neither is as good as Lincoln," said Crossan, professor emeritus of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago and co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, a group of biblical scholars. "In the same way, in certain religious contexts in the first century, `born in Bethlehem' was coded to mean the awaited Davidic messiah."

Wright rejects that idea. "Just because we have discovered a motive why the early Christians might have wanted to say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem doesn't necessarily mean that was the case," he said. "It's much more likely that early Christian writers were highlighting something that was already established rather than inventing the Bethlehem story from scratch."

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

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

Indeed, placing Jesus' birth in Bethlehem in Galilee seems to remove parts 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 journeys between the two as the Gospels tell us they do," Chilton said. "But getting from Nazareth to Bethlehem of Judea requires a journey by foot of more than 100 miles. That's why these foot voyages from Galilee all the way down to Bethlehem of Judea and then back again have appeared implausible to generations of scholars."

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

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

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

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

"I think one of the fundamental issues behind the question is what relationship does one find between the Old Testament prophetic texts and their realizations in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke," said Green, who is also a professor of New Testament interpretation and author of several books about the historical Jesus. "You get into questions like how Jewish was Jesus? How much of the Old Testament faith was he embracing?"

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

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

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