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Answering the Bethlehem Skeptics

Skeptics say it's not Christ’s birthplace—but their reasoning falls short

Atheist Jonathan MS Pearce has written a skeptical series called Debunking the Nativity that includes the article “To Bethlehem or Not to Bethlehem.” Atheist John W. Loftus, author of multiple books and webmaster of the notorious Debunking Christianity website, wrote a post titled, “Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?

I will be responding to several sections of both articles.

Mr. Pearce writes:

If Jesus had been born in Nazareth, he still would have fulfilled the prophecies utilized by the Gospel writers.

This is untrue. The Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem, according to Micah 5:2:

But you, O Bethlehem Eph’rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

This was the consensus of Jews before Christ and of orthodox Christians ever since. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and was, in fact, born there.

The urge to deny that Micah 5:2 teaches a birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem has its origin in contra-Christian (after the fact) Jewish polemics. Theological liberals have utilized these strains, and atheists use the latter’s commentary to bolster their own skeptical ideology—all the way to a mythical Jesus.

Appeal to ‘Christian’ scholarship

It’s standard practice among atheists, Muslims, and heretics such as Jehovah’s Witnesses to cite theologically liberal self-identified “Christian” scholarship, because the latter no longer adheres to traditional orthodox interpretation.

Pearce writes:

[T]here is a serious lack of mention of Bethlehem in any other writing in the New Testament. Although absence of evidence is often claimed (by Christians) as not being evidence of absence, it is hard to deny the force of the lack of mention of Bethlehem. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are the only places in which it is mentioned.

Actually, it is also mentioned in John 7:42: “Has not the scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” But absence of further mention (minus one) is irrelevant. It’s mentioned where it makes sense: in the accounts of Jesus’ birth and a later reference back to his birth.

Mark’s account starts at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, which is about thirty years after his birth. And so it says that “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee” (1:9) because that was his hometown where he grew up.

The only place the Bible refers to Jesus’ birth is when it states that the birth was in Bethlehem:

  • Matthew uses the words “born in Bethlehem” (Matt. 2:1; cf. 2:1b-6, in which the wise men and Herod make reference to His birth there).
  • Luke has Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem (2:4), the “city of David” where Jesus was born: “And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son” (2:6-7a). In Luke 2:11, an angel proclaims: “for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

On the other hand, in all appearances of “Nazareth” in conjunction with Jesus, never once does it say that he was born there.

The Bible says:

  • He “dwelt” there (Matt. 2:23)
  • He was “from” there (Matt. 21:11;
    Mark 1:9)
  • He was “of” Nazareth (Matt. 26:71; Mark 1:24, 10:47, 16:6; Luke 4:34, 18:37, 24:19; John 1:45, 18:5, 18:7, 19:19; Acts 2:22, 3:6, 4:10, 6:14, 10:38, 22:8, 26:9)
  • He was “out of” Nazareth (John 1:46)
  • He was “brought up” there (Luke 4:16)
  • He called Nazareth “his own country” (Luke 4:23-24)
  • Both his parents lived in Nazareth before he was born and after (Luke 1:26 ff [the Annunciation], 2:4, 39, 51).

We can’t find a single word about being born in Nazareth in any of those twenty-eight references. Yet Pearce tells us that it “seems” that Jesus was born in Nazareth?

Pearce writes:

The Gospel of Mark seems to indicate that Jesus was born in Nazareth. Mark makes no mention, other than Jesus being from Nazareth, of any other place that Jesus could be associated with in the whole of his Gospel. Mark 1:9 declares, “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

Birthplace vs. hometown

This information proves nothing whatsoever. Mark starts out when Jesus was 30 years old. He’s simply saying that before his ministry began (initiated by his baptism), he lived in Nazareth; therefore, that’s where he “came from.” He went to John in the wilderness, from Nazareth; he was from Nazareth. That was his hometown. He never lived in Bethlehem, so why would anyone say that he was “from” there?

Take, by analogy, the artist Bob Dylan. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota, but lived in Hibbing, Minnesota, from the age of six. That’s where everyone who knows anything about him understands he was raised and spent his childhood there. Consequently, no one ever says that he is “from” Duluth or “of” Duluth or was “brought up” there. Even many avid Dylan fans don’t know he wasn’t born in Hibbing.

In referring to Dylan, all those things are said about Hibbing precisely as the Bible habitually refers to Nazareth in relation to Jesus. It’s talking about his hometown where he was always known to live prior to his three-year itinerant ministry. In the Bible, people were generally named after the locale from which they came.

Yet Pearce seems to expect that the Bible should say that Jesus was “of” or “from” Bethlehem rather than Nazareth because he was born in Bethlehem. It doesn’t. It says that he was “of” or “from” Nazareth because that was his hometown. And it says that he was born in Bethlehem, never that he was born in Nazareth.

The bottom line is that skeptics of the Bible almost invariably bring a double standard to it. What is standard usage of language anywhere else is somehow disregarded or ignored when it comes to the same sort of issue as related to the Bible, and this is because of the hostility and polemical agenda of the skeptic or atheist.

Disparate fictional accounts

We now move on to Loftus’s article. He writes:

What husband would take a nine-month pregnant woman on such a trek from Nazareth at that time when only heads of households were obligated to register for a census when the census would’ve been stretched out over a period of weeks or even months?

Obviously, there must have been some necessity for Mary to also be present. But that makes no sense to Loftus; he would rather impugn the character of the Gospel writers by having them drum up an account with a nearly-due pregnant wife subject to grueling discomforts that he can discount as implausible. Thus, recourse to disperate fictional accounts seems far more likely to Loftus than the first scenario.

Luke 2:3 refers to Joseph being “enrolled with Mary, his betrothed.” Perhaps the impending marriage was an additional factor requiring her to be there. The New Bible Dictionary states: “It is . . . widely agreed . . . that it could have involved the return of each householder to his domicile of origin, as Luke 2:3 states” (1962 ed., “Census,” 203).

Loftus:

But if he did, why did he not take better precautions for the birth? Why not take Mary to her relative Elizabeth’s home just a few miles away from Bethlehem for the birth of her baby?

Probably because God chose the baby to arrive at the time he did, when they were going to register for the census! I don’t see any basis for cynicism regarding this aspect of the story. Babies are born when the “time is right,” and often we have no idea when that will be.

Loftus writes:

In many other places we read that the people of his time called him “Jesus of Nazareth” (Matthew 26:70-72; Mark 1:23-25; Mark 10:46-48; Luke 4:34; Luke 18:37; Luke 24:20; John 1:45; John 18:6-8; John 19:19; Acts 2:22; Acts 6:14; Acts 10:38; Acts 22:9; Acts 26:9), so scholars conclude it’s more likely that Jesus was born and raised in Nazareth. They think this because the NT writers quoted OT verses from Psalms and the prophets out of context to point to Jesus. The NT writers were intent on making Jesus’ birth, life, nature and mission to fit anything in the Old Testament that could be construed to speak of him, as proof he was who they claimed him to be.

I think this utterly backfires as an argument. Why and how it does is almost so obvious that one could miss it. We have just been told (in the interim section of his article) that it makes sense to believe that the New Testament writers made up Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem because they were manipulating it to fulfill the prophecy of Micah 5:2, even though they knew it was untrue or didn’t know where Jesus was born.

What does ‘of Nazareth’ prove?

We are told that the title “Jesus of Nazareth” somehow suggests that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem because he was raised in Nazareth. That clearly in itself is a false premise.

But the extensive biblical use of “Jesus of Nazareth” actually works against Loftus’s argument because if the writers of the New Testament “were intent on making Jesus’ birth, life, nature and mission to fit anything in the Old Testament that could be construed to speak of him,” why would this title be featured since the messianic prophecy about birth was about Bethlehem?

The skeptic can’t have it both ways. If the writers were trying to lie and make out that Bethlehem was the place, then why was it mentioned so few times while Nazareth was mentioned many times? It makes no sense.

The mention of Nazareth is taken at face value (so it is concluded that Jesus not only lived but was born there), while the occurrences of “Bethlehem” are scorned simply because of the connection to Micah 5:2. Yet Nazareth is not even mentioned in the Old Testament!

Therefore, if they were trying to lie, this would be one of the last choices of location to use. Matthew 2:23 ties “Nazarene” to the prophets, but these prophecies were not in the Old Testament. They were either from an extrabiblical source or oral tradition. Therefore, if the goal was to find Old Testament references, “Nazareth” is an inscrutable choice, whereas Bethlehem is indisputably mentioned there and connected to the Messiah.

Loftus writes:

There are even discrepancies between the Gospels themselves:
“Luke told a tale of angels and shepherds, bringing some of the humblest people in society to Bethlehem with news of Jesus’ future. Instead of shepherds, Matthew brought Wise Men, following a star in the East and bringing gifts.
. . . In one version, there are simple shepherds, the other, learned Wise Men: the contrast sets our imaginations free, and perhaps like the Wise Men we too should return by ‘another way’” (The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible [Knopf, 1992], 35-36).

How is this a “discrepancy”? One simply mentions one thing, the other mentions another. Neither says they were the only people there (which would be required for an actual contradiction). But the wise men actually came two years later, according to most Bible scholarship (based on the evidence of Matthew 2:16), so it is talking about two different occasions anyway—all the more reason to deny the charge of contradiction.

Elementary errors

Many examples of this sort of nonsense can easily be located in the usual laundry lists of alleged biblical contradictions that appear in skeptical and atheist literature, often exhibiting the most elementary errors of fact or logic. Fair- and open-minded folks should be able to easily see through the shallowness of such alleged “proofs.”

When Christians seriously interact with their criticisms, they want no part of a dialogue, because that doesn’t advance their agenda, and so they almost always disappear (usually also with rank insults and ad hominem attacks). I am personally well acquainted with this dynamic, from my long experience in internet theological debate (going back to 1996).

Atheists such Mr. Pearce and Mr. Loftus have no interest in giving the Bible a fair shake. They want only to tear it down. They approach it like a butcher approaches a hog. Their interest lies only in embarrassing Christians and Christianity.

Sidebar: Further reading

For extensive scholarly commentary on the question of Christ’s birthplace, see Christology of the Old Testament and a Commentary on the Messianic Predictions, by E. W. Hengstenberg (translated by Theodore Myer; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, vol. 1 of 4, second edition, 1868). It’s available online at Gutenberg.org.

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