Birth Stories — Why Bethlehem?

Luke and Matthew are the only two Gospels that have a birth story. They both link Jesus’ birth to late in the reign of King Herod, which would put it around 4 BCE. Both Gospel writers also felt compelled to connect Jesus’ birth to Bethlehem (it’s complicated and has to do with the Old Testament prophecies and the lineage of King David). But they go about it in different ways.

  • Luke says Mary and Joseph were originally from Nazareth. Luke gets them to Bethlehem by creating a census (there’s no independent record of a census ‘of the whole world’ or even in the area in that time period). After the birth, they have him circumcised, go to the Temple in Jerusalem down the road, and return to Nazareth a few weeks later. No flight to Egypt. No wise men. 
  • Matthew says that Mary and Joseph were originally from Bethlehem. No census. Wise Men, but no stable. And there is a flight to Egypt and a return back to a different town — Nazareth. So in both accounts (and in Mark), Jesus starts his ministry from Nazareth.
  • Why the inventions? The Gospels are not intended to be read as historical accounts. The authors were creating mythical birth stories about their Messiah 50 years after his death. This was not an unusual practice in many religious traditions. 

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