Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?

Road to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, 18th century

Luke begins his story of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2) with important historical dates. Jesus was born in the days when Caesar Augustus, ruler of the Roman world, ordered a census of the whole world. The Romans saw Augustus a  “savior,” a “god,” who brought peace and prosperity to the Roman world during his long reign. The world became one under him. It was a “Golden Age,” the Roman Poet Virgil said.

For Luke, though, Jesus is the real savior who brings peace to the earth and promises a greater “Golden Age.”  When this Child was born, God blessed the whole world, beginning with the Jewish world. Augustus, for all the honors paid him, was only an agent in God’s plan preparing for the coming of the Son of God. 

Luke’s second historical reference–“…the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:2)– has been questioned by some in our time. See the notes to Luke’s Gospel in the New American Bible. https://bible.usccb.org/bible/luke/2?1 . Early Christian sources like Justin Martyr  and Origen– and the evangelists themselves– closer to his time than modern scholars, uphold Bethehem as his birthplace.  

The historic reliability of the gospels is important. Just as important is their theology. God comes humbly into our world, Luke’s Gospel says. That’ s the lesson Jesus’ birth teaches.

Mary, who was with child, and Joseph come to Bethlehem from Nazareth, at least a three day’s journey away, to take part in a government census. They’re ordinary people among many others.  When they get to Bethlehem, there’s no room for them except a stable that’s been carved out from a hillside cave, and there Jesus is born.

Angels announce his birth and sing his praises in Luke’s story, but Jesus is born in the humblest way. “There is nothing glorious about the circumstances of the Messiah’s birth,” a recent commentator on Luke’s gospels says, and that’s what Luke wants to show. “God’s fidelity is worked out in human events, even when appearances seem to deny his presence and power.” ( Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina, Collegeville, Minn. 1991, p 52.) 

“Even when appearances seem to deny his presence and power,” even when there are no angels singing in the night, God is with us. That’s what the mystery of the Incarnation teaches. There were no angels singing in the night when Jesus spent years living unknown in Nazareth as he grows in wisdom and grace. No angels singing when he was opposed and rejected and shunned in his ministry, when he was arrested and cruelly put to death on Calvary. Jesus took human form, the form of a slave, and went to death on a Cross. And from death God raised him to life.

The shepherds go in search of the sign. “It is not a “sign” in the sense that God’s glory would be rendered visible, so that one might say unequivocally: this is the true Lord of the world. Far from it. In this sense, the sign is also a non-sign. God’s poverty is his real sign. But for the shepherds, who had seen God’s glory shining in their fields, this is sign enough. They see inwardly. They see that the angel’s words are true. So the shepherds return home with joy. They glorify God and praise him for what they have heard and seen (cf. Lk 2:20).” (Pope Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives . The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.) 

We share this mystery with the shepherds. We may not see his power and his presence, but he is with us and we are with him. The mystery of his birth, the mystery of his Incarnation, is our mystery too.

For the history of Bethlehem, the caves where Jesus was born, the ancient church of the Nativity,  see  The Holy Land. An Oxford Archeological Guide.  Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP. New York 2008)

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