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.