Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Jesus was not born in Bethlehem

The Biblical passage Micah 5:2 which reads like this:

"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

This passage is universally understood to prophesize that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wasn’t he? We’ve all seen the Christmas pageants and heard the Christmas songs such as “Away in a Manger”. Surely this prophecy came true, didn’t it?

Actually, Jesus of Nazareth probably wasn’t born in Bethlehem. Most certainly he was not born under the circumstances described in the Bible.

As most of us are aware, Jesus is said to have been born in Bethlehem because his adoptive father, Joseph, was a descendent of King David and had to go to Bethlehem in order to be counted as part of a census that the Romans conducted.

Here are some of the specific Biblical passages that describe this. They are from Luke 2:1-2:

[1]In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. [2](This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)

Of course the entire point of doing a census is to document data. The Romans were very good at documenting things. Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria in 6 AD[1]. There was indeed a census held soon after he became governor. That census in 6 AD was also intended for the “entire Roman world”. That is generally interpreted to mean that everyone was to be included in the census, not just Roman citizens.

But there is an inconsistency here. As described in the book of Matthew, King Herod heard that the messiah had been born. He made plans to kill Jesus and all male infants two-years-old or younger. Joseph had a dream telling him to escape to Egypt until Herod died. The deaths of kings are well documented in any society. King Herod died in 4 BCE[2].

The problem is that, according to the Bible, the census took place before the birth of Jesus and is the very reason that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But the brutal murders of the male children sanctioned by King Herod took place after the birth of Jesus. Yet the historical records tell us that the actual chronology is backwards. In fact they are backwards by quite a number of years – nearly a decade. Quite frankly these dates cannot be reconciled[3].

The main argument that creationists make against this problem with the census is that there were other Roman censuses held in the Middle East while Herod was alive. They insist that Luke speaks of one of these censuses.

The problems are that none of those censuses were held while Quirinius was Governor. An equally significant problem is that no other sources mention a world-wide (or more accurately, "the world under the authority of Roman") census prior to 6 AD. Joseph was not a Roman Citizen so the previous censuses wouldn't have applied to him anyway[4]. Therefore Joseph (and his pregnant wife Mary) would have had no reason to go to Bethlehem to be counted.

There are other problems with the census.

First of all there is no Roman record of people being required to return to their ancestral homes to be counted in a census. Historically, on occasion, people have been asked to return to the place of their own birth for a census. But there is no independent record of anyone ever being asked to return to the home of a distant ancestor for the purpose of a census.

Moreover, it doesn’t make any sense that they would be asked to do so. For one thing, it would surely cause chaos. It also raises numerous questions, such as which ancestral home do you return to? If your great-grandfather was born in Bethlehem, but your grandfather was born in Jerusalem, which city is your ancestral home? That problem is particularly perplexing if there are no kings among your ancestors.

Besides, if you can go back 28 generations to find which ancestral home to go back to, it would often be the case that you and your family are now far away from that ancestral home. Moreover, since the purpose of the census is to count people – all people – those people who already had families at the time of the census would be required to bring those children with them back to that ancestral home in order to be counted.

So the Roman World would have been filled with people hauling their entire families, in some cases undoubtedly consisting of a number of children, back to ancestral homes that they had never visited and which were often far from where they lived at the time.

But the primary reason this suggestion is nonsensical is that the purpose of a census – then as now – is to see who is living where at the time of the census! When the US Government takes its next census, they want to know where I am living at that time. They surely don’t care that my father was born in North Dakota or that my great-grandfather was born in Pennsylvania. Not at all. Instead they are performing the census to see what sorts of population-size-dependent services are needed in each part of the country.

The Romans were renowned for their efficiency. A census such as that described in the Bible would have been the height of inefficiency.

The final argument against the story of the Roman census is that Joseph had what could only be called a distant relationship with King David.

Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 list contradictory genealogies linking Joseph to King David. Luke’s genealogy lists 26 generations and Matthew lists 40. Even if we take the shorter of the two lists from Luke, it is difficult to see how Joseph could have really even known that he was related to King David.

In the 21st century we have birth records and birth certificates and even the Internet to help us trace our ancestors. But even with those tools, the people who can trace their family tree back through 28 generations are few and far between. My guess is that all of them are members of one Royal Family or another.

But back during the centuries prior to the birth of Jesus, there were no birth certificates. How could anyone have possibly traced their family tree back so far?

Moreover, over that many generations, the number of people as closely related to King David as was Joseph would be immense!

Imagine that you have two children and each of them have two children as well. You then have four grandchildren.

Then imagine that those four grandchildren have two children each. You will then have eight great-grandchildren.

So using the reasonable average of two children per generation, the total number of people descended from you after N generations is 2**N people.

If you imagine that each person descended from King David had two children, on average in each generation, then the total number of people as closely related to King David as Joseph was would be 2**28. That’s a total of nearly 280 million people. No wonder there was no room at the Inn!

Of course there would have been some inbreeding – third or fourth or fifth cousins marrying for example – but however you calculate things, over 28 generations, just about the entire population of the Middle East would have had to go to Bethlehem because they would have been related as closely as Joseph was to King David.

For all of these reasons, it is very unlikely that the account of why Jesus was born in Bethlehem is valid.

If Jesus was born in Bethlehem for some other reason, then there would be no reason to make up such a story.

Therefore we can reasonably say that there is about a 99.9999% chance that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.

It is worth noting that both Luke and Matthew are independently self-consistent. Luke doesn’t mention King Herod, so the census in 6 AD doesn’t cause any chronological problems (though the other problems with the census remain). Similarly Matthew doesn’t mention the census while that book does mention King Herod. So Herod’s death in 4 BC does not cause a problem. It only when you try to reconcile Luke’s account with that of Matthew that this chronological problem becomes apparent.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Census_of_Quirinius, referenced on July 29, 2008
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_the_Great, referenced on July 29, 2008
[3] If you read the accounts of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke you see very different stories. In Matthew the family of Jesus lived in Bethlehem, which is why he was born there. But the family left Bethlehem, ultimately settling in Galilee by way of Egypt, because of Herod’s threat. Luke, on the other hand, clearly describes the family of Jesus living in Galilee, moving temporarily to Bethlehem for the census and then returning to Galilee.
[4] Gleason L. Archer, "Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties", p. 365

No comments:

Post a Comment