Bethlehem of Judea, where Jesus was born. Or perhaps not. We learn of these events within the canonical books of the Christian ‘New Testament’, implausibly credited with authorship by early followers of Jesus called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
These Gospels are biographical works on Jesus; written not less than half a century after his departure. They are collectively called the Gospels, the etymological root of the word being “good news” in Greek.
Yet, this care to find a special name for the four books reflects their peculiar nature. Biographical works were not so rare in the ancient world and the Canonical Gospels do have many features in common with non-Christian examples. The Gospels are an unusually duff variety of biography, in their relation of events, in which ordinary people reflect on their experience of Jesus, where it is often the miskeen, the ill-educated, and the louche who lead the narrative and whose account with Jesus are often vividly described.
It is important to note that the book of good news is not the same as straightforward and structured reported news.
This nativity narrative is commemorated through an annual rendition of the events, which would obviously suggest to a layman that the details enshrouded in this celebration of the ‘nativity’ are reliable and authentic. Hence why laymen Christians are so accepting of the plot, without even consulting the account in their scripture, and are disposed to accept the portrayal as an incontrovertible accurate retelling.
Only two out of four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, have narratives of this birth in Bethlehem at the end of the reign of King Herod the Great [73 – 4 BCE], and outside those narratives, there is much to direct the alert reader to a contrary story.
John’s Gospel is most explicit when it records arguments among people in Jerusalem, once Jesus had grown up and his teaching was making a stir; some sceptics pointed out that Jesus came from the northern district of Galilee, whereas the prophet they were told to expect, foretold by Micah, would come from Bethlehem in Judea, in the South.
The other three Gospels – even the Gospels with narrations about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem – repeatedly refer to Jesus as coming from Galilee, or more precisely from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. In fact, outside the text of the two birth narratives, the Gospels do not refer to Jesus being born in Bethlehem, nor does any other book of the New Testament.
Luke’s birth narrative, the more elaborate, explains that Maryam [Jesus’s Mother – peace be upon them both], travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’s birth because they had to comply with the residence terms of a Roman imperial census for tax purposes. “Census” for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is an official count of the population.
Implausible. The idea is based on Luke’s ancestor list for Jesus, designed to show that Jesus was linked to King David a thousand years before, which was a matter of no concern whatsoever to Roman bureaucrats. Implausibilities multiply: the Roman authorities would not have held a census in a client kingdom of the empire such as Herod’s, and in any case there really is no record elsewhere of such an empire-wide census.
Numerous difficulties attend Luke’s reference to the first census ordered by Caesar Augustus. The difficulties may be summarised as follows:
- According to Matthew 2:1 – Jesus was born “in the days of Herod”; if this is Herod the great, the dude whom I briefly mentioned earlier, it is an established fact that he died in 4 B.C. [Yes, i’m obliged to stick with the dating terms. We’re arguably still in 2014.]
- There is no record of a census ordered by Augustus at this time. [It’s acceptable to assert that of course not everything in history has been preserved, but…] It is hard to imagine that in all of the ancient histories, there is not even a single reference found to an empire-wide census.
- You would not be required to travel in order to register for tax purposes. It would be taxation officers who would travel (because they had to link the property to their owners).
- Joseph mentioned here, resident of Galilee and not Judea, would NOT have been affected by the census in any case.
There is, however, record of a census ordered during the time when Quirinius was governor of the Levant [Bilad ash-Sham], but this was in 6–7 CE / AD.
Apologists can argue: that Luke’s usage of the term “Protos”, translated in the excerpt I shared above as “First”, literally implies “Before” – and that is a valid argument, because it is a legitimate and acceptable meaning of ‘Protos’.
…and because there is some evidence to suggest that because of strained relations between Augustus and Herod in the latter’s years the Roman Emperor demanded that Herod’s subjects swear an oath of allegiance to him, and during the relatively brief and incompetent rule of Herod’s son, a census was ordered. It may be that Luke viewed the entire sequence as a single episode.
In the sense of “this was the census before the one issued when Quirinius was governor of Syria” in an effort to differentiate between the census to which he refers in 2:1-2 and the better known census taken in 6–7 CE / AD.
But this just doesn’t quite cut it. Why? because this entire suggestion and retort is challenged and troubled by Luke implying no such differentiation when he explicitly refers to one census in Acts 5:37, and by the proposed translation of 2:2 in the argument which renders the term “Protos” in an unusual way.
What does this establish?
The story seems to embody a confusion with a well-attested Roman imperial census which did happen, but in 6 CE / AD, far too late for the birth of Jesus, and long remembered as a traumatic event because it was the first real taste of what direct Roman rule meant for Judea.
The suspicion then arises that someone writing a good deal later, rather hazy about the chronology of decades before, has been fairly cavalier with the story of Jesus’s birth, for reasons other than retrieving events as they actually happened. The suspicion grows more when one observes how little the birth and infancy narratives have to do with the later story of Jesus’s life, which occupies all four Gospels; nowhere do these Gospels refer back to the tales of birth or infancy, which suggest that the bulk of their texts were written before the infancy narratives. Remember these are written accounts, penned decades after, by humans with deep convictions.
What would motivate these particular unknown authors to add these strange details into their accounts? One motive for locating the birth in Bethlehem might be precisely to settle the argument noted in John’s Gospel about Jesus’s status as Messiah of his people Israel. It answered the sceptics who pointed out the problem with Micah’s prophecy [in the excerpt above].
But there is much else to these stories. We must conclude, though, that beside the likelihood that Christmas did not happen at Christmas [deserving of a separate article], it probably didn’t happen in Bethlehem.
Allaah knows best.
→ Abu Dawūd [Mustafa b. Saalih] al-Hushayshi