I put forward my thesis for the relocation of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem: the motivation of shame. Regardless of Mary’s guilt or innocence in the matter, she would have faced social opprobrium for an ill-timed pregnancy. Neighbors would assume that she had conceived Jesus apart from her betrothed. I survey the topic of illegitimacy in Greco-Roman and Jewish milieus. Then I examine the specific evidence for shame and apparent illegitimacy in the case of Jesus. Regardless of how Jesus’ conception occurred, Mary would have faced ostracism and Jesus would have faced significant obstacles if it were common knowledge that Joseph was not his biological father. The evidence for this is mostly implicit, but is found in all four Gospels as well as later Christian texts. Rabbinic writings, although they are much later, also reflect calumny about Jesus’ parentage.
There are two indisputable facts about the birthplace of Jesus. The only explicit biblical statements about his birth locate that event in Bethlehem, but the adult Jesus is consistently associated with Nazareth. A survey of scholarly views shows that, while the opinion is not unanimous, a broad range of scholars asserts that Jesus was born in Nazareth.
I return to the conflictual evidence about Jesus’ Bethlehem birth vs. his later association with Nazareth. I dispute that this is a problem at all, based on (1) the commonsense observation that families are mobile; (2) the semantics of πατρίς (homeland); (3) historical, philosophical, and poetic reflections on the fluidity of the concept of “homeland”; and, most importantly, (4) several examples of ancient persons who were associated with two or more places.
Luke accounts for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem by reference to a census under Quirinius that required Joseph and Mary to return to their ancestral home. The difficulties with Luke’s account are well-known. According to Emil Schürer’s classic treatment, there are five significant problems: (1) Apart from Luke 2:1 there is no record of an empire-wide census in the time of Augustus. (2) A Roman census would not have required Joseph to travel to Bethlehem. (3) It is unlikely that a Roman census would have been conducted in Palestine during the reign of Herod. (4) Josephus says nothing about a census in Palestine during the reign of Herod. (5) A census held under Quirinius could not have taken place in the reign of Herod, for Quirinius was not governor of Syria during Herod’s lifetime. In sum, the problems with Luke are considerable. Finally, a grammatical solution that would translate Luke 2:2 as “This was a/the census before Quirinius was governing Syria” is shown to be highly unlikely.
Many scholars regard the Bethlehem birth as a non-historical, theologically driven narrative based on Micah 5:2. According to this view, the messiah had to be born in Bethlehem. But this theologoumenon theory at best applies to Matthew, not Luke, who neither quotes nor alludes to Micah 5:2. More importantly, the messianic interpretation of Micah 5:2 derives from Christian texts, not early Jewish ones. There is scarcely any evidence that Jewish exegesis in the 1st century read Micah 5:2 as affirming that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. The five key Jewish texts that make this connection are too late and too tenuous to account for Matthew’s exegesis of Micah 5:2. The New Testament evidence faces the challenge of divining Jewish views from Christian sources. In sum, Matthew appears to be driven to Micah 5:2 rather than driven by it.