By Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III: Adjunct Assistant Professor of the New Testament, Fuller Theological Seminary
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.
Gospel of Matthew
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the first Gospel in the canon of the New Testament, Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. The story begins with wise men who come to the city of Jerusalem after seeing a star that they interpreted as signaling the birth of a new king.
It goes on to describe their meeting with the local Jewish king named Herod, of whom they inquire about the location of Jesus’ birth. The Gospel says that the star of Bethlehem subsequently leads them to a house – not a manger – where Jesus has been born to Joseph and Mary. Overjoyed, they worship Jesus and present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These were valuable gifts, especially frankincense and myrrh, which were costly fragrances that had medicinal use.
The Gospel explains that after their visit, Joseph has a dream where he is warned of Herod’s attempt to kill baby Jesus. When the wise men went to Herod with the news that a child had been born to be the king of the Jews, he made a plan to kill all young children to remove the threat to his throne. It then mentions how Joseph, Mary and infant Jesus leave for Egypt to escape King Herod’s attempt to assassinate all young children.
Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of Luke, an account of Jesus’ life which was written during the same period as the Gospel of Matthew, has a different version of Jesus’ birth. The Gospel of Luke starts with Joseph and a pregnant Mary in Galilee. They journey to Bethlehem in response to a census that the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus required for all the Jewish people. Since Joseph was a descendant of King David, Bethlehem was the hometown where he was required to register.
The Gospel of Luke includes no flight to Egypt, no paranoid King Herod, no murder of children and no wise men visiting baby Jesus. Jesus is born in a manger because all the travelers overcrowded the guest rooms. After the birth, Joseph and Mary are visited not by wise men but shepherds, who were also overjoyed at Jesus’ birth.
Luke says these shepherds were notified about Jesus’ location in Bethlehem by angels. There is no guiding star in Luke’s story, nor do the shepherds bring gifts to baby Jesus. Luke also mentions that Joseph, Mary and Jesus leave Bethlehem eight days after his birth and travel to Jerusalem and then to Nazareth.
The differences between Matthew and Luke are nearly impossible to reconcile, although they do share some similarities. John Meier, a scholar on the historical Jesus, explains 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 a story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.