What If Jesus Wasn’t Born in Bethlehem?

December 6, 2012 — 2 Comments

I don’t know if you happened to catch the CBS special on the birth of Jesus a few years ago. What I wanted to address in this post is the objection it raised concerning Jesus birth in Bethlehem. John Dominic Crossan, a one-time Catholic monk now turned Christian-skeptic, states,

Born in Bethlehem… nobody else seems to know anything about it in the New Testament…. It doesn’t seem, for example, that John, in John’s gospel, has any idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Crossan is referring specifically to John 7:40-44 which states,

Some of the multitude therefore, when they heard these words, were saying, “This certainly is the Prophet.” Others were saying, “This is the Christ.” Still others were saying, “Surely the Christ is not going to come from Galilee, is He? “Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there arose a division in the multitude because of Him.

Since John doesn’t say anything more on the subject, Crossan concludes that John, like the multitude, isn’t aware of Jesus birth in Bethlehem. And many scholars agree with him.  Among them is Mark Goodacre who addresses this issue in this installment of his popular NT pod.

Does John think Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem?

But is this the point that John is making. Does John want us to believe that Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem? Crossan assumes that if John knew of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem he would have corrected the people’s error. What he fail to recognize, however, is that beneath the text John is implicitly judging the people for their failure to know the scriptures. 

If we continue reading John 7:45-52, we find the emphasis on Jesus coming from Galilee. 

The officers therefore came to the chief priests and Pharisees, and they said to them, “Why did you not bring Him?” The officers answered, “Never did a man speak the way this man speaks.” The Pharisees therefore answered them, “You have not also been led astray, have you? “No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he?  “But this multitude which does not know the Law is accursed.” Nicodemus said to them (he who came to Him before, being one of them), “Our Law does not judge a man, unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?” They answered and said to him, “You are not also from Galilee, are you? Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.”

Everyone knows that Jesus came from Galilee and based upon this they conclude that Jesus cannot be the Messiah – the descendant of David. The Pharisees are so bold in this assertion that they challenge Nicodemus to “search” the scriptures to “see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.”

What do we actually find in scripture?

We find that Galilee is only mentioned six times in the Old Testament. And one of these six instances is the well-known prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-7.

But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them… For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.

Does this verse have any connection with John? Absolutely!! The very next verse after John 7:52 should be John 8:12. Remember, John 7:53-8:11 is a later addition which all modern Bible translations recognize.  In John 8:12, Jesus declares,

I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.

On the surface, John never mentions Isaiah 9. However, if we listen to John’s contextual clues we see what John is saying.

John is building into this scene a great deal of dramatic irony.  He’s reminding his informed audience of Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy and as and the same pointing out the pride and ignorance of Israel’s supposed scriptural authorities.

Just as the Prophets proclaimed Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, so they also prophesied his coming from Galilee. If John points to Jesus’ fulfillment of this Isaiah prophecy, how can we suggest that John doesn’t believe Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Micah too?

But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.” Therefore, He will agive them up until the time When she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of His brethren Will return to the sons of Israel. And He will rise and shepherd His flock In the strength of the LORD, In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. And they will remain, Because at that time He will be great To the bends of the earth. And this One will be our peace.

Sounds a lot like Isaiah 9.  

John implicitly points to Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah 9:1-7.  He says nothing about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Crossan, like the multitudes, however,  looks at the surface and fails to recognize its true significance. 

Matthew Scott Miller

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