When and where was Jesus born?

What I aim to do is to jettison the last 2000 years of dogmas and creeds and to try to take an ‘unbaggaged’ look at Jesus. If we do this, it must immediately strike us that Jesus wasn’t a Christian – there weren’t any until around 45 CE. He was a 1st century Palestinian Jew, living at a time when the Roman Empire ruled the roost. He attended synagogue, believed in the Jewish God, knew and upheld the Jewish scriptures, and attended set festivals in the Temple in Jerusalem. 

When and where, then, was he born? If his birth was in the days of King Herod the Great, then 4 BC is the latest possible date which means, of course, that Jesus was born ‘Before Christ’! As to where he was born, the first writers to address this question, Matthew and Luke, were faced with a problem. They had come to regard Jesus as the promised Jewish Messiah, but whereas there were pointers in the Hebrew Bible to Bethlehem as the likely birthplace, he was known to be Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew and Luke clearly felt the need to come up with a Bethlehem linkage, and they both did so, but in contradictory ways. 

In Luke, Jesus’ parents’ house is in Nazareth, so somehow the author had to get Jesus to Bethlehem, and he came up with the idea of an Empire-wide census. History records no such event, which is just as well, because with everyone travelling to the place of their family’s origin, the Empire would have ground to a standstill. After Jesus’ birth and circumcision, and his mother’s “purification” in the Jerusalem Temple, the family went back to Nazareth, the whole expedition having thus taken no more than 6 weeks. 

In Matthew, however, Jesus’ parents’ house is not in Nazareth, but in Bethlehem, and that’s why he’s born there. To escape King Herod’s supposed ‘slaughter of the innocents’, the parents and child shelter for an unknown length of time in Egypt (but certainly longer than 6 weeks), after which they naturally head back to their house in Bethlehem. En route, however, they decide that it’s still unsafe there, so they make for Galilee instead, and find and set up a new home in Nazareth.

This is an example of what I noted in my last post – that the Gospel authors don’t write history in our sense of the word. We could call this ‘sacred history’. They write these stories to convey their belief that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah. It is not any ‘facts of history’, but that belief itself which is important. It gives us some insight into how Jesus might have been regarded by his fellow Jews, as well as into how he might have come to understand himself and his mission.

Should we, then, dismiss the Gospels as ‘fairy stories’? Should we deride Christmas ‘nativity plays’ which pleasingly combine, into one, the two contradictory nativity stories? Of course not! We should simply read and enjoy these captivating tales. They are colourful and dramatic, and are full of human interest, both heart-warming and heart-stopping. I unashamedly love them, and find much in them that can be applied to human life and relationships in every age.

Jesus, then, was a Jewish man, born in or before 4 BCE, in the village of Nazareth, who suddenly emerged from that obscurity on or before 30 CE …..

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