‘O little town of Bethlehem’

This is my favourite Christmas carol, though I’m no longer ‘traditionally’ religious, and believe Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. Why, some might ask, do I find this carol moving and meaningful? The reason is that its words and music symbolise and energise deep-seated archetypal contents in my psyche, which have profound meaning irrespective of specific religious or other beliefs. Some people will understand this; others won’t.

To ‘prove’ Jesus was the expected Jewish Messiah, despite being executed by the Romans, Matthew and Luke needed to link him to that paradigmatic monarch (and therefore ‘Son of God’) King David. My previous post dealt with Matthew’s contrived genealogical ‘solution’ to that problem. His ‘backup’ was this supposed linkage to Bethlehem, King David’s birthplace. His problem was Nazareth, and how to square that with Bethlehem?

Matthew decided Jesus’ parents already lived in Bethlehem, where they had a “house”, pinpointed by a ‘star’ for the visit of the ‘wise men’. He now had to relocate them to Nazareth, hence the drama of King Herod’s ‘slaughter of the innocents’ and the family’s escape to Egypt. Once they find out Herod is dead, they can leave Egypt. They discover, however, that Herod’s son Archelaus is now king in Judea. After the scare they’ve had, they don’t trust him, and decide to find a new home up north in Galilee. Nazareth has a vacant property suitable for a home and carpenter’s business. 

Luke decided Jesus’ parents already lived in Nazareth. He therefore had to relocate them to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth, and came up with the idea of an Empire-wide census requiring registration at people’s place of ancestry. Unfortunately, the only census on record took place in 6 CE, when Jesus would have been around 10 years old. It wasn’t Empire-wide! Herod Archelaus, King of Judea, had been deposed by the Emperor, to be replaced by a succession of governors. These new circumstances required a census that applied only to Judea and, therefore, to no-one living in Nazareth in Galilee. 

Common sense should tell us people’s property would be registered where they lived, not in any place (irrelevant to the Romans) of ancestry. There was no need for all the Empire’s roads to be blocked, and its business brought to a halt, while its citizens travelled all over the place, all at the same time. No census of that magnitude would have gone unrecorded in history.

This blog won’t go down well with Bethlehem’s shopkeepers and hoteliers, nor with pilgrims to the Shepherds’ Field, Manger Square, and Church of the Nativity, where people can kiss ‘the exact spot’ where Jesus’ eyes first opened on the world. No Bethlehemite is going to accept that Jesus wasn’t actually born there, any more than any of my fellow Scots are likely to accept that there’s no ‘Nessie’ hiding in the depths of Loch Ness. Good stories are for enjoying as such, and if they help people earn a living, good luck to them. 

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