I try not to get into religious issues too often on this site, because I cannot claim exceptional expertise on the subject. But I have read one time too many this Christmas season the argument that Jesus was born in Nazareth and not in Bethlehem, and I am getting tired of it.
I am not a Biblical literalist. I do not think the world was made in 6 days, or that Noah really had 2 of every creature on earth in his ark. But I am a scientist by training, and I do think that if the best evidence we have says something happened a certain way, then we should accept it as having happened.
There are 4 Gospels, or accounts of Jesus' life, in the Bible. Some critics argue that a 5th account, the Gospel of Thomas, also has some claim to authenticity. This is debatable, but even if true, it still means that only 2 of the 4 or 5 accepted gospels recount the birth of Jesus. Only Matthew and Luke tell the Nativity story; John, Mark, and Thomas completely omit it.
The two Nativity stories have some variation in their accounts, with Luke telling the story mainly from Mary's point of view and Matthew using the Joseph perspective. But both agree that the birth of Jesus occured in Bethlehem.
Scholars base their argument that Jesus was born in Nazareth on two points. First, they say that all biblical references to Jesus refer to him as Jesus of Nazareth instead of Jesus of Bethlehem. Usually, they posit, when a location is used in a person's proper name during Jesus' lifetime, it refers to the person's place of birth. If Mark and John thought Jesus was born in Bethehem, they would not have repeatedly called him Jesus of Nazareth.
The second point scholars make is that the reason for the trip to Bethlehem is historically unclear. Matthew and Luke say Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to register for a census. Unfortunately, there is no historical record of any such census during Jesus' childhood. It would be strange for a man to take his pregnant and about-to-deliver wife on a walking trip of over 100 miles for no particular reason. Certainly, they argue, Mary and Joseph would have stayed home during her pregnancy, rather than risk the safety of both mother and child on an arduous journey in the desert. Especially if there was no census, as the scholars seem to think.
These arguments make logical sense. The problem with them is that they are unsupported by evidence. What the scholars are saying is that probably Jesus was not born in Bethlehem because probably there was no census and probably if the other gospel writers thought Jesus was born in Bethlehem they would have said so. That's a lot of probablys in an argument that is supposed to be scientific.
The truth is, we have no proof that Jesus was born in Bethlehem except that Matthew and Luke say so. We also have no proof he was born in Nazareth, except for the arguments of probability.
Making assumptions from probabilities can get you in trouble in a hurry. The two most common causes of death in America are heart disease and cancer. If I read an obituary in the paper about a poor soul who died in a house fire, I could say to myself, "No, in America fire is an uncommon cause of death. He probably died of cancer or heart attack." Probably. Except he didn't.
We can probably ourselves from California to Calvary about Jesus, but we only have two accounts of his birth, and both of them say he was born in Bethlehem. If you argue otherwise, you are saying the Gospel writers made things up. They could have, but without a third source to dispute them, all doubt is conjecture.
Jesus is a very distant and shadowy figure, from a strictly historical point of view. Almost all of what we know of him is from Christian tradition and the Gospel accounts. The rest is filled in by Christians through faith. But scholars, who claim to be searching for truth through facts, need to stop this stupid oddsmaking. If they have an account, or physical evidence that points to Jesus' birth in Nazareth, then out with it. Otherwise, they need to be quiet.
Because this is a external link to my site, I have copied the story to this website. I am afraid that, eventually, the newspaper will erase the file, and I want to keep the copy available for my readers. Here it is:
Like every victim of Hurricane Katrina, I can divide my life into two parts -- before and after the storm. This begins as a before-the-storm story.
Two Christmases ago, in the days when St. Bernard Parish was whole, I was a member of a three-person medical practice in Chalmette. It was there, at Chalmette's Lifecare hospital, that I had the opportunity to care for an elderly patient I will call Miss Shirley.
Miss Shirley was a frail woman. She was originally admitted to Chalmette Medical Center in October for pneumonia, but her recovery was slow and she was transferred to Lifecare for prolonged treatment. She had emphysema and a history of stroke, which further compromised her recovery.
She was on my rounds twice a week, and she always greeted me with the same question: When will I go home? Though she was receiving aggressive treatment, Miss Shirley, like many chronically ill elderly people, was having great difficulty shaking off her infection. Still, she didn't look that bad, and I was optimistic that a month's stay would do the trick.
The weeks dragged on. October yielded to November, and Miss Shirley began asking if she would be out by Thanksgiving. At first I thought so, but her progress was very uneven. One week she seemed to move ahead, then the next she would slip back. Thanksgiving passed, and she was still in the hospital.
As often as I saw Miss Shirley, I never saw any family. She had no children and was long since widowed. She had taped pictures of a niece and nephew on the wall next to an image of Jesus. Other than that, her room was devoid of personal affects. There was not even a Bible. I suspected Ms. Shirley was very poor and very alone.
But she looked forward to being home for Christmas. It was all she asked about, every visit.
It was my turn to do the rounds at Lifecare on Christmas Eve. Of course Miss Shirley was there and not well enough to go home any time soon. I entered the room, did a perfunctory exam, and then told her I was sorry she was not going home. I knew how disappointed she was, I said, but I did not see any alternative.
She did an odd thing. Rather than speaking, she motioned with her finger for me to move closer. When I leaned directly over her, she kissed me on the cheek and said, "Have a Merry Christmas, doctor, and thank you for coming."
I left the room vaguely feeling that I had been stood on my head. I was the doctor and felt I was the one who was supposed to do the caring. I had everything, the education, a lovely home, good wife and beautiful children. She had nothing, not even her health. Yet she was wishing me happiness.
Then I realized I was mistaken in thinking she had nothing. She did have one thing to give me -- her caring. And she had given it, freely.
In that moment, after our brief encounter, I came to grips with one of the most important beliefs I have. There is no one who is so rich and able that he cannot be given a gift. And there is no one so poor and helpless that she has nothing to give.
Miss Shirley left the hospital in January and died later the same year. I never took care of her again. Since that time I, too, have learned what it means to have nothing.
After Katrina took my home and medical practice, I spent weeks living with relatives with all I owned in the world sitting in two duffel bags on a bedroom floor. I bought a new house, started a new job and uprooted my family from a home I never wanted to leave. My wife and I have had many hard moments, but through it all I hold that core belief, taught to me by a special patient: You always have something to give. No matter how much you think you have lost.
I once had a patient, Dan (not his real name), who lived with a woman and her two twin daughters. The daughters were terribly spoiled and gave Dan a miserable time. They wouldn't listen to him, they trashed his house, and refused to show him any respect. After about a year of living with the three of them, he got sick of the insolence, flew into a rage, and threw them out.
A few days later his girlfriend called him. "You need to tell your doctor when you see him that your Zoloft isn't working."
"My Zoloft is working fine," he said. "I threw all three of you out and I don't give a s**t."