Was Jesus Really Born in Bethlehem? (Part 1)

It was brought to our attention by a reader in Africa that there had been a paper produced entitled, “Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem?  Why the Gospels disagree over the circumstances of Christ’s birth.” The paper was published in December of 2021 by Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III, Assistant Professor of the New Testament, Vanguard University.

He states that “Every Christmas, a relatively small town in the Palestinian West Bank comes center stage: Bethlehem. Jesus, according to some biblical sources, was born in this town some two millennia ago. Yet the New Testament Gospels do not agree about the details of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Some do not mention Bethlehem or Jesus’ birth at all.

“The Gospels’ different views might be hard to reconcile. But as a scholar of the New Testament, what I argue is that the Gospels offer an important insight into the Greco-Roman views of ethnic identity, including genealogies. Today, genealogies may bring more awareness of one’s family medical history or help uncover lost family members. In the Greco-Roman era, birth stories and genealogical claims were used to establish rights to rule and link individuals with purported ancestral grandeur.”

With these comments, the author implies that the four Gospel accounts cannot be relied upon as being factual, but that they just relate a “narrative” based on manufactured genealogies to establish Christ’s “right to rule” and His “ancestral grandeur.”

Let us, first of all, answer the supposed contradictions in the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. We have addressed this issue in our free booklet, “Jesus Christ—A Great Mystery” and also in our Q&A entitled: “Would you please explain the difference in genealogy in the records in Matthew 1 and Luke 3? What was the nationality of Jesus?” To quote briefly from this Q&A, we say the following:

“Matthew 1 and Luke 3 describe different lines. Matthew 1 describes Christ’s legal genealogy through Joseph. Luke sets forth Mary’s line.

“Matthew 1:16 tells us that Matthew’s record covers Christ’s lineage through His stepfather Joseph. It says ‘Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ.’

“A correct rendering of Luke 3:23 shows that Luke is setting forth Christ’s blood descent. However, the translation of the New King James Bible is misleading. It gives the impression that Joseph was the father of Heli, and that therefore, Luke is also setting forth Christ’s descent of Joseph. This is incorrect, as Joseph was not the SON of Heli, but of Jacob, as Matthew 1:16 points out.

“Luke sets forth Christ’s genealogy through His mother Mary, NOT through His stepfather Joseph. Accurately translated, Luke 3:23 should read: ‘Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age (being, as was supposed the son of Joseph), which was of Heli.’ The parenthesis should start with the words ‘being, as was supposed,’ and it should close after ‘the son of Joseph.’ The word ‘son’ in ‘son of Heli’ is not found in the original Greek. Jesus, who was supposed to be the son of Joseph, was, through Mary, a grandson of Heli. Heli was the father of Mary.”

It is interesting that this academic, Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III, tries to devalue the veracity of God’s Word and veers off on a tangent rather than trying to reconcile any differences that he might see. Surely, he must realise that if all the gospels were exactly the same, then one would be vitally important and the other three would be totally redundant.

From a human standpoint, we know, for example, that different witnesses of the same accident can often, seemingly, give different versions.   This may be due to a number of reasons; seeing an accident from a different angle; a good view of the incident rather than just a glance; one witness’ eyesight could be much better than another’s; problems with memory; maybe vested interests in the outcome, and more. This kind of argumentation has been used by some to criticize or question the accuracy of the four Gospel accounts, as the writers allegedly were suffering from faulty memory; vested interest in the outcome; a lack of thorough investigation or observation, etc.

As we will see, none of the following applies to the accuracy and reliability of the Gospel accounts, but strictly from a human standpoint, here is interesting information on the website where we read the following:

“Researchers investigate why two people who experience the same event often have different memories of what occurred. Does it ever strike you as odd that you and a friend can experience the same event at the same time, but come away with different memories of what happened?  So why is it that people can recall the same thing so differently?? We all know memory isn’t perfect, and most memory differences are relatively trivial. But sometimes they can have serious consequences.

“Imagine if you both witnessed a crime. What factors lead to memory differences and whom should we trust? There are three important aspects to memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding is how we get information into the brain. Storage is how we retain information over time. Retrieval is how we get information out of the brain.

“Differences in each or a combination of these aspects might help explain why memories differ from one person to another.”

This may sound pretty convincing for those who regard the four Gospel accounts, and for that matter, the entire Bible, only as uninspired writings by fallible human beings who tried to use their faulty memories, or even human traditions, to relate certain events.

However, interesting as it is when applied to human beings with faulty memories or observations, this is not the case with Scripture.

Jesus said: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, [it] will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26).

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible explains:

“… bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said to you; which through inattention, or want of understanding in them, had slipped their minds, and were forgotten by them. This accounts for it, how the evangelists some years after the death of Christ; at different times and places, and without consulting each other, could commit to writing the life, actions, sayings, and sermons of Christ, with all the minute circumstances attending them.”

Further, we read in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…”

Also, 2 Peter 1:20-21 tells us that “no prophecy [or inspired preaching] of Scripture is of any private interpretation [or origin; compare margin of the New King James Bible], for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”

Ecclesiastes 12:11 states: “The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails, given by ONE SHEPHERD.”

Barnes Notes on the Bible comments:

“One shepherd – i. e., God, who is the supreme Giver of wisdom, Proverbs 2:6, and the chief Shepherd, Jeremiah 23:1-4. Compare 1 Corinthians 2:12-13.”

Matthew Poole’s commentary says: “And this clause seems to be added partly as the reason of that admirable harmony and agreement which is amongst all the men of God in all ages and places, because they are all taught by one Master, and guided by the same hand; and partly to oblige us to the greater attention and reverence to all their doctrines and counsels, which we are to receive as the word of God, and not of men only, as it is said, 1 Thessalonians 2:13.”

In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, we find the following remarkable words by Paul:

“For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe.”

We can, therefore, safely appreciate that all of Scripture, including the four Gospel accounts, was authored by God, and written by men as they were led, not by their own faulty memory, but by God’s Holy Spirit.

As we know that the Holy Spirit guided the four different writers of the four Gospel accounts, we know that they will need to be harmonised; otherwise, we would not be able to trust the Bible to be true.   What we find in the different reports about the birth of Jesus and subsequent events is that they are complementary, not in competition.

In the paper that was written by the above-mentioned scholar disputing this fact, the following was an approving answer from another misguided scholar on the historical Jesus, John Meier, who wrote that: “Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem is to be taken not as a historical fact but as a ‘theological affirmation put into the form of an apparently historical narrative.’” In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of an invented story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

In addition, Raymond Brown, a Roman Catholic and another scholar on the Gospels, also stated erroneously that “the two narratives are not only different – they are contrary to each other in a number of details.”

However, the Hebraic Jesus scholar Geza Vermes, speaking of the Nativity narratives, has described Brown’s coverage as “the primary example of the position of having your cake and eating it” (Wikipedia Encyclopaedia).

(To be continued)

Lead Writer: Brian Gale (United Kingdom) and Norbert Link