This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 5 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Micah prophesied that the birthplace of Messiah would be Bethlehem. Not just any Bethlehem but Bethlehem Ephrathah on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Not Bethlehem in Zebulunite territory, eleven kilometers northwest of Nazareth. “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 old, from ancient times” (Mic. 5:2).1 Had Jesus been born anywhere other than Bethlehem Ephrathah, Micah’s prophecy and consequently the whole of biblical prophecy would have been disqualified as distinctly divine as opposed to merely mortal in origin. Instead, in concert with the Scriptures, Jesus was born precisely where predicted.
Dr. Luke, ever the meticulous historian, pinpoints the precise circumstances surrounding the birth of the babe of Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus had just issued a decree that a census be taken of the entire Roman world. This was when Quirinius was governor of Syria. As a result, Joseph left Nazareth in Galilee and went to Judea, to Bethlehem, because he belonged to the house and line of David. Had he not belonged to the lineage of David, he would most certainly have ended up somewhere else. So it was, that while Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, “the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6–7).
Moreover, the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy is not attested to by Luke only. It was an expectation for all of Israel. When King Herod asked Jews where Jesus would be born, they replied without hesitation: “In Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel’” (Matt. 2:6, emphasis added). Thus the prophecy of Micah 5:2 was directly and specifically fulfilled with the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. It was there that the singular superstar of human history was born in the fullness of time. It was there that a star, hundreds of times larger than the Earth, stopped over the birthplace of Messiah. It was there that Herod gave orders to have all the boys in Bethlehem and vicinity who were two years old and younger ruthlessly murdered (Matt. 2:16). And it was there, Bethlehem Ephrathah, that the word of the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled —“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15)2 — a gruesome reality that even the wrath of man will please God’s purposes.3
Given the significance of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, it should come as no surprise that details surrounding the fulfillment of this extraordinary prophecy are continually under attack. First is the contention that only two Gospels deal with Christ’s birthplace, and do so quite differently. Luke says Jesus was born in a manger, while Matthew says Jesus was born at home. Further, it is argued that there is no record outside the Gospels that Caesar Augustus ordered a worldwide taxation. Therefore, there was no need for Mary and Joseph to register in Bethlehem. Finally, it is suggested that people were known by the place where they were born. Since Jesus is known as Jesus of Nazareth, He must have been born there — not Bethlehem.
Marcus Borg of the highly influential Jesus Seminar consistently championed the notion that Matthew and Luke provide different (i.e., contradictory) information concerning Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. Luke says Jesus was born in a manger (2:6–7), Matthew, at home (1:24–25); therefore, neither can be trusted.4 Matthew, of course, says nothing of the sort — Borg simply fabricates the notion. Far from being contradictory, differences between Gospel accounts are complementary. Luke adds details to Matthew’s account, such as Christ’s birth taking place in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Such differences actually augment authenticity. In the words of historian Dr. Paul Barnett, “The differences in the narratives indicate that not only were Matthew and Luke isolated from each other when they wrote, but also that the sources on which they depended were quite separate. Yet from these underlying source strands we have detailed agreement about where Jesus was born, when, to which parents, and the miraculous circumstances of his conception.”5
Furthermore, dogmatic assertions by John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, Bart Ehrman, and other fundamentalist scholars that there is no record outside of the Gospels that emperor Caesar Augustus ordered a worldwide taxation are also patently false.6 In truth, Caesar Augustus was famous for his census-taking — so famous, in fact, that credible historians do not even debate the issue. The Jewish historian Josephus, for example, refers to a Roman taxation of AD 6,7 which likely took a lengthy period to complete. It no doubt began with Caesar Augustus around 5 BC and was completed a decade later. Luke notes that the census was completed when Quirinius was governor of Syria. As noted by historian Paul Maier during a live Bible Answer Man broadcast, “The Romans took 40 years to get a census done in Gaul. For a province 1,500 miles away from Rome in Palestine to take a decade is pretty quick. And since that census would finally come in under Quirinius’s administration, it would be called correctly by Luke his census.”8 Given Luke’s impeccable credentials as a historian, it would be far more circumspect to give him the benefit of the doubt. One need only remember the experience of the brilliant archaeologist Sir William Ramsay, who set out to disprove Luke’s historical reliability. Through his painstaking Mediterranean archaeological trips, he discovered that, one after the other, the historical allusions of Luke proved accurate. If, as Ramsay points out, Luke does not err in referencing a plethora of countries, cities, and islands, there is no reason to doubt him concerning this census.9 The common contention that men were taxed where they lived and women didn’t count is also spurious. Maier cites a first-century Roman census in Egypt, in which taxpayers living elsewhere were ordered to return to their homelands for registration.10 Moreover, a Roman census from Bacchius, Egypt, dated AD 119, historically documents that women and children were registered by their husbands or fathers.11
Finally, a word about the misguided conviction that Jesus was born in Nazareth — or in the vernacular of Borg: “The fact that Jesus is known as Jesus of Nazareth points very, very heavily to Nazareth being his birthplace. People in that world were known either as son of so-and-so, or by the village in which they were born.”12 Countless counterexamples undermine this hypothesis. For instance, Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 140–200) was probably a native of Smyrna, where as a boy he studied before moving to Lyons;13 Lucian of Antioch (c. 240–312) was born at Samosata but completed his education and eventually led the theological schools at Antioch;14 Paul of Constantinople (d. c. 351) was a native of Thessalonica and became bishop of Constantinople.15 These men were born in one place but later moved to the places with which their names became associated, as did Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem but lived the vast majority of his life in Nazareth. History shows that, in the broader context of people’s lives, there are several factors that influence how they are identified. More importantly, because the Bible says Jesus was born in Bethlehem, we can rest assured that He was born in Bethlehem! Like the choice between Bart and the Bible, the choice between the Bible and Borg is not difficult to make. Borg’s dogmatic assertions are consistently suspect, biblical prophecies consistently correct.16 —Hank Hanegraaff
Hank Hanegraaff is president of the Christian Research Institute and host of the Bible Answer Man daily broadcast and the Hank Unplugged podcast. Hank has authored more than twenty books, including The Complete Bible Answer Book — Collector’s Edition, revised and updated (Thomas Nelson, 2016) and M-U-S-L-I-M: What You Need to Know about the World’s Fastest-Growing Religion (Thomas Nelson, 2017).
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from NIV (1984).
- NIV (2011).
- See discussion of this prophecy in Hank Hanegraaff, Has God Spoken? Memorable Proofs of the Bible’s Divine Inspiration (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 138–40.
- Marcus Borg interview in Peter Jennings Reporting: The Search for Jesus, ABC, aired June 26, 2000.
- Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? A Look at the Historical Evidence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 119.
- See Peter Jennings Reporting: The Search for Jesus, ABC, aired June 26, 2000; Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know about Them) (New York: Harper One, 2009), 32; Robert Funk, The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 520.
- Josephus, Antiquities 1.1–2.
- Paul Maier, interview on the Bible Answer Man broadcast November 12, 1999. Dr. Maier further explained, “Quirinius took a census in AD 6 rather than at the time of Christmas, and critics say Luke made a bad error here [in Luke 2:2]. We’re not sure that he did. It could be a translation problem. The first reading ideally would be that this is the first census when Quirinius is governor of Syria, in which case we’re ten years off. However, the word protos in Greek can also be translated as follows: ‘This was before that census taken by Quirinius that everyone knew about.’ That’s one translation. The one I prefer is, ‘This census was first completed when Quirinius was governor of Syria.’”
- See William M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1953); William M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1962).
- Paul L. Maier, In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1991), 4–5.
- Maier, In the Fullness of Time, 4–5.
- Marcus Borg interview in Peter Jennings Reporting: The Search for Jesus, ABC, aired June 26, 2000.
- Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 251.
- J. D. Douglas, gen. ed., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 607.
- Douglas, New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, 756.
- Article adapted from Hanegraaff, Has God Spoken?, 190–94.