Questions Surrounding Jesus’ Birth/Part 3

By: Dr. John Ankerberg with various Scholars; ©{{{copyright}}}
Where Was Jesus Born?

Ed. note: This article is based upon the transcript from programs produced by the John Ankerberg Show. Additional material has been added for this print version.

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Where Was Jesus Born?

Dr. John Ankerberg: If the four Gospels are anchored in real historical events, what about the birth of Jesus? At Christmas, Christians around the world look to Bethlehem as the place where He was born. But during the ABC Special, some scholars cast doubt on whether Jesus was ever born there. So next, we will travel to Bethlehem to investigate this question.

We’ve come to Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity. This is the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Some scholars claim that Jesus wasn’t really born here and we wanted to get a second opinion. Others claim Matthew tells us Jesus was born in Bethlehem, while Luke implies He was born in Nazareth. Who is right?

First, let’s look at the material that is questioned. In the Gospel of Matthew, we are told, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king.” Then, in the Gospel of Luke we read: “And Joseph also went up from Galilee from the city of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was with child. And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth; and she gave birth to her firstborn Son.” Now, doesn’t it seem that both Matthew and Luke clearly state Jesus was born in Bethlehem?

Dr. Darrell Bock:[1] I think He was born in Bethlehem. In fact, again, let’s take the alternative. What evidence is there that He was born in Nazareth and my response would be, “Silence.” There is none.
Mrs. Claire Pfann:[2] I think based on the Gospel accounts we can be sure of the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This is evidenced in Matthew, in Luke, and also by implication in the Gospel of John. The opponents of Jesus in John, in their smug attitude, say, “How can this possibly be the Messiah? Jesus is from Nazareth in the Galilee. We know that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.” And within John’s Gospel, rather than answering that argument, he remains silent because his readers already know the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a fact that his opponents, for all their smugness, are unaware.

Dr. John Ankerberg: One who disagrees about where Jesus was born is Marcus Borg, the founder of the Jesus Seminar. He thinks Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, since in the Gospels He is called Jesus of Nazareth.

Dr. Claire Pfann: Well, I think that that’s pretty much a silly observation. The fact that Jesus was called “Jesus of Nazareth” tells us less about where He was born than about where He came from as a young adult when He started His ministry. It tells us that He was known as Jesus of Nazareth because that’s where He lived during His adolescence. It doesn’t tell us where He was born. He was born in Bethlehem.
Dr. Ben Witherington:[3] Well, the only Gospel that actually makes a point of telling us exactly where Jesus was born is the first Gospel in the canon, Matthew’s gospel, who tells us that a pilgrimage was made, by the family of Joseph, Joseph and Mary, to Bethlehem, to be registered in a census in Bethlehem, and that this was where Jesus was born. Only Matthew really makes a point of that. Luke does not say, “And by the way, Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.” He doesn’t say that. I mean, it’s an argument from silence to say Luke proves that Jesus was born in Nazareth. Silence can be read in a lot of different ways. The question is whether the silence is pregnant, or whether the silence really is just silence and you shouldn’t read too much into it.

Dr. John Ankerberg: To get the whole story of Christmas, we do have to put the two accounts together. Matthew and Luke each present additional facts about what happened. But because they supply additional facts that are different, should we conclude that we have two contradictory reports?

Dr. Darrell Bock: Well, the key combination is the idea: “Different equals Contradictory.” And that’s not the only way to look at it. You can have different accounts of the same event and they can have differences in them and not be contradictory at all. I often joke with my kids that if you listen to my wife and I tell a story about the same event, we’re not going to pick the same details. Now, some of it will overlap and some of it will be different. And part of what she tells you is going to be part of the story and part of what I tell you is going to be part of the story, too. And actually, there’s great value in having those different accounts because they each penetrate the story at a different angle and in that difference of penetration you get more insight into the character and into the event. And it’s not contradictory at all.
Dr. Claire Pfann: I think, again, we have to remember that Luke and Matthew are each choosing what they want to tell about Jesus. Very important in Luke’s Gospel is the fact that Jesus is coming to be the shepherd of the sheep, and he is coming, in particular, to call people who are poor and outcast and marginalized in society. And in his day, shepherds were looked down upon. They were marginalized people. So how significant in the Gospel of Luke that the first people who should hear the good news of the birth of the Lamb of God, happened to be shepherds, sitting in their fields by night. It’s such an important moment in the Gospel of Luke that there’s an angelic announcement. What is happening is so important for salvation history that, for a brief moment, heaven breaks forth into the earthly sphere and we get to see a glimpse of this ladder between heaven and earth, of the angels announcing the good news of the Lamb of God, who will one day be the shepherd of the sheep. It’s a beautiful, poetic, way of depicting a theme that will run through Luke in terms of Jesus’ care for the poor and downcast.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Is there anything we can know for sure about the birth of Jesus?

Dr. Claire Pfann: Well, I think I would say the things I’m certain about concerning the birth of Jesus are certainly the things that both Matthew and Luke share in common and tell us. He was born of the family of David. He was born to a woman named Mary who was a virgin, betrothed (or engaged) to a man named Joseph, and yet who had not yet come to live with him. His birth was announced through an angelic visitation. His conception was unique and divine in human history. His birth took place in Bethlehem. It was accompanied by unique signs. And the family later moved to Nazareth and made their home there.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Now, Peter Jennings stated that much of the information we have from this part of the world does not support either Matthew or Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. We wondered if scholars agreed.

Dr. Claire Pfann: I don’t agree. I don’t think that the Gospels present a false picture of Jewish life in the first century in the Holy Land. I think, if anything, Luke in particular endeavors to show us the norms of Jewish life.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Luke presents both John the Baptist and Jesus as children who are circumcised on the eighth day in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. Mary and Joseph are pictured as observant, pious Jews who bring Jesus up according to the Law of Moses, and present Him in the temple. Luke also tells us that, as a family, they went up to the great pilgrimage feasts in Jerusalem, such as the time of Passover.

Dr. Claire Pfann: Later in Jesus’ life, it’s reiterated time and again, that it was his practice to go to the synagogue on Shabbath, on the Sabbath, and that he was pious and observant of Jewish traditions. I think that we see an enormous amount of material that authentically reflects Jewish life in the first century in the Holy Land in the Gospels.

Dr. John Ankerberg: We asked archaeologist Dr. Magen Broshi if he thinks information from this part of the world supports what the Gospel writers say.

Dr. Magen Broshi:[4] On certain things, they fit very well of what we know about the first century Palestine. They fit very well because they give us a good picture of what was happening here, and archaeology can prove it.
Dr. Craig Evans:[5] Now, archaeology doesn’t prove that Jesus was really God’s Son. Source critical work and all that stuff doesn’t prove those things. But what it does is, it shows that there is a historical foundation on which confessions of faith…or in the light of which confessions of faith make perfectly good sense.

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  1. Dr. Darrell L. Bock: Research Professor of New Testament Studies and Professor of Spiritual Development and Culture, Center for Christian Leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas. Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland. He is author of a two-volume commentary on Luke in the Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series and of the Luke volume in the NIV Application Commentary series.
  2. Mrs. Claire Pfann: Faculty member, Center for the Study of Early Christianity, 1988-present. Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs, University of the Holy Land, 1998-present. Contributor, The Comprehensive Concordance to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Production Editor, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert XXVII . Contributor, The Illustrated Dictionary and Concordance of the Bible. Contributor, Hebrew University Bible Project: “The Alignment of the Aramaic and Greek Texts of Ezra and Daniel.” An expert on Jewish birth practices and culture of Bethlehem during the time of Jesus.
  3. Dr. Ben Witherington: Ph.D. from University of Durham, England; currently Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary. Author of The Jesus Quest, The Christology of Jesus and Jesus the Sage.
  4. Dr. Magen Broshi: Former curator of the Shrine of the Book–Museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jerusalem. He is a recognized archaeologist and scholar on the Second Temple period, having excavated the most recent discovery of caves at Qumran. He has authored numerous articles in journals on the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian connections. Excavated first-century level at the Church of the Holy Selpulchre and defends it as most reasonable place for crucifixion of Jesus.
  5. Dr. Craig Evans: Ph.D. in New Testament from Claremont Graduate School and is the Director of the Graduate Program in Biblical Studies at Trinity Western University, where he has taught since 1981. He has lectured at Cambridge, Durham, and Oxford. Co-editor of Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds, Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research and Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Author of Jesus and His Contemporaries.

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