Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

msgrliptak tnQ. Isn’t there disagreement on the part of scholars as to whether Jesus was born at Bethlehem? Could his birthplace actually have been Nazareth? Doesn’t the place of Jesus’ birth have consequences with respect to Old Testament prophecies; e.g., Micah’s?

A.  Pope Benedict XVI, a universally acknowledged scholar, discussed this very issue in his trilogy, Jesus of Nazareth, The Infancy Narratives (2012). His conclusion, precisely as a theologian, grants that there are two traditions concerning Jesus’ Nativity. One is reflected in the Gospel According to Luke; the other, in the Gospel According to Matthew. Both traditions are distinct (i.e., one is not dependent on the other). Indeed, even some historical details differ. Luke records that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth, from which both Joseph and Mary came, following Jesus’ birth. But both traditions agree that Jesus was born at Bethlehem. Hence, if we study both Luke and Matthew, we learn that Jesus was born at Bethlehem and that he was raised in Nazareth. (See Luke 2, 65 sqq.)

The Old Testament prophet Micah does, of course, foretell a Messiah’s arising from Bethlehem (5:1-5). Isn’t this what a prophet is supposed to do? It seems to me that, where Sacred Scripture is involved, objections as to what is really obvious are often protected and promulgated moreso than basic facts.

Furthermore, read the Infancy Narratives in the two key Gospels here: Luke and Matthew. According to Luke, Saint Joseph “went up from…the town of Nazareth … to the City of David that is called Bethlehem… [and] while they [Saint Joseph and Mary] were there, the time came for her to have her child…” (2:4 sqq) And St. Matthew’s Gospel reads: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem…” (2.1. Italics added)

Interestingly, established sources regarding Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem confirm the Biblical account as to the place of birth. One is the testimony of the early church commentator, Origen (third century). Anyone looking for such extrabiblical “proof,” he wrote, “may observe that in agreement with the story in the Gospel…, the cave at Bethlehem is shown where he [Jesus] was born and the manger of the cave where he was wrapped in swaddling clothes…” (See The Truth of Christmas, René Laurentin, trans. Michael J. Wrenn et al.; Petersham, MA., St. Bede’s Pub., 1986.)

Q. Wasn’t Christmas originally a pagan festival marking the winter solstice?

A.  No, not really, as they say. The reason why Christmas is celebrated at the time of the winter solstice is true, however. The date, 25 Dec., is properly referred to as the liturgical date; the historical date is unknown. And the reason why 25 Dec. was chosen by the church as the liturgical  date is undoubtedly related to the winter solstice, since Christ is symbolized as the “Sun of Justice” (Mal., 4:2) and “Light of the World” (Jn 8:12).

Q.  Can we determine with accuracy the year of Jesus’ birth?

A.  The exact key to the year of Jesus’ birth lies somewhere in Luke’s reference to a Roman census of the inhabitants of the Empire. We know that a census occurred during the reign of King Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C., according to the calendar formulated by the sixth-century monk, Dionysius Exiguus. But his calendar is actually incorrect, at least by a few years. Pope Benedict XVI cites the famous Flavius Josephus, who held that the census would have taken place about 7-6 B.C., under the governor Quirinius. Chances were, however, that the census extended over several years, given the logistics. Another complicating factor is that the census was implemented in two stages.

The bottom line is that the precise date of Jesus’ Nativity continues to escape scholars, although the date can be calculated within the span of a few years; 7-6 B.C. seems accurate.