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Matt J. Rossano

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Why the Birthplace of Jesus Matters

Posted: 12/16/10 07:00 PM ET

For Matthew, Jesus' birth in Bethlehem was a necessity. For Luke, it was a necessary absurdity.

For the past 25 years or so, the "Third Wave" of historical Jesus scholarship has been in full swing. Scholars such as John Meier, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and Bart Ehrman have published book after book exploring the history behind the gospels. While theories vary on who the "historical" Jesus really was -- for Crossan, he's best understood as a Jewish Cynic sage, while for Ehrman he's an apocalyptic prophet -- there's general agreement that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem. He was after all, Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Bethlehem. Furthermore, Jesus' birth was probably no more eventful than any of the other innumerable, anonymous, back-water peasant births of the time. Which leaves us with an interesting question to ponder this Christmas season -- why was it so important for the gospel writers to claim Bethlehem as Jesus' birthplace?

Of the four canonical gospels only two provide birth narratives: Matthew and Luke (both of whom, by the way, compiled their works some 80 or so years after Jesus' birth). For Matthew, the answer to the "Bethlehem question" is pretty straightforward. As best as we can tell, the gospel writer called Matthew (who probably was not Jesus' tax-collecting disciple) was an educated Jew, keen to show that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah; the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Jewish prophecy appears to identify Bethlehem as the Messiah's birthplace (Micah 5:2), so Matthew needs to get him there to fulfill the prophecy. It was a necessity.

For Luke, however, the Bethlehem question is more complicated. By tradition, the gospel writer Luke was a gentile doctor -- but hardly one running in the same circles as Galen. Instead, Luke was more of a "doctors without borders" doctor; the jaded, straight bourbon guy running the free clinic in south-central. Luke had a special affinity for society's outcasts. In his hands, Jesus of Nazareth became the universal savior -- champion of the weak, the marginalized, the poor, widows and orphans.

Both Matthew and Luke have Jesus reciting the Beatitudes, but they aren't the same. Matthew's Jesus spiritualizes them: Blessed are poor in spirit ... ; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake ... Luke will have none of this. His Jesus focuses squarely on the bodily human condition: Blessed are the poor -- period, end of sentence. Blessed are the hungry -- period, end of sentence. Luke's Jesus remains an undeniably Jewish prophet, but his message is for all humanity, especially the vast hordes of humanity who struggle, suffer, and scrape by as best they can.

So why then does Luke bother to have Jesus born in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth? One possibility is that for Luke, it is not so much the place that is important but the journey. The story starts, in true Lukan fashion, with one of life's timeless impositions on the under-classes: taxes. From the leafy Roman hills, The August One decrees that all must return to the home of their ancestors to be enlisted onto the tax rolls. Thus are Mary and Joseph compelled to make a perilous journey. As if a cold, bone-jarring donkey ride in the later stages of pregnancy is not punishing enough, they are humiliatingly denied entry at the inn and forced to take refuge among livestock, giving birth in a smelly stable.

Is Luke giving us literal history? Probably not. For most historians, the specifics Luke provides ("while Quirinius was governor of Syria") don't match well with the historical record. Nor does Caesar's decree make much sense given what we understand about Roman taxation. Local authorities took care of taxes. Caesar just wanted his money; underlings sweated the details.

So if neither literal history nor the fulfillment of Jewish prophesy, then what is Luke up to? Again, the journey is the critical thing. The holy couple are pawns shoved about at Caesar's pleasure. They are powerless expendables -- the very folk that so absorbed Luke's attention. The mighty and meek are sharply contrasted in Luke's narrative. The world trembles below Caesar's outstretched hand, and thousands of miles away an average Joe and his "any day now" espoused wife must pack up and move just to put their names on a list. To a first-century audience choking under the Roman imperial boot, Luke's story was all too familiar: The Romans call the shots while we bleed and ache.

But then Luke's story takes a baffling theological twist. He eyes you directly with a radical challenge. Angels sing and trumpets blast declaring an utterly incomprehensible message. The Divine, they say, has made an appearance in the world. Nothing shocking there, muses the typical first-century reader. Caesar is divine. He's a god on earth. That's why he's so powerful. No! Luke chides. All your ideas about the Divine are wrong. Caesar is a man, nothing more. God rejects all earthly notions of power. Divinity's home is with the weakest of the weak. His intimates are animals and outcasts; his abode a dank stable.

This, of course, is nonsense. A weak god is an absurdity. The whole point of being a god is to be powerful, immortal, adored -- feared. One can only imagine Luke nodding his head. "You're right," he might say as he recedes into the mist, "It makes no sense." But the question hangs in the thick air behind him -- stubbornly, annoyingly. It won't leave until you answer. "Where do you find your God? Among the haughty and high or among those so puny and inconsequential that beasts share their shelter? Choose."

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!