Jesus Was Born In Bethlehem? Uh, Maybe Not.

Remember a few months back, when historian Reza Aslan — who happens to be Muslim — went on FOX News and tried to talk about his his book about Jesus, but was thwarted by repeated questions about why a Muslim should get to talk about Jesus anyway?

If you don’t, here’s a reminder.

Anyway, Aslan made big Internet news for the egg he threw in FOX’s face in this interview, and probably sold way more books than he otherwise would have as a result. But as any author knows, one appearance does not a book blitz make. Aslan showed up in the fall in a number of other places, including in a column for The Washington Post, where he sought to dispel five common myths about the titular figure of Christianity.

One such myth is seasonally appropriate. And that is the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem. At the very least, Aslan says, little more than a prophecy that may or may not have happened way before Jesus was born indicates that he was actually born there. Here he is in the Post:

As interest in the person of Jesus increased, the nascent Christian community tried to fill in the gaps of His youth to align His life and mission with the myriad, and often conflicting, prophecies about the messiah in the Hebrew scriptures.

One of those prophecies requires the messiah, as a descendant of King David, to be born in David’s city: Bethlehem. But Jesus was so identified with Nazareth, the city where most scholars believe He was born, that He was known throughout his life as “the Nazarene.” The early Christians needed a creative solution to get Jesus’s parents to Bethlehem so He could be born in the same city as David.

For the evangelist Luke, the answer lay in a census called by Rome in A.D. 6, which he claims required every subject to travel to his ancestral home to be counted. Since Jesus’s father, Joseph, was from Bethlehem, he and his wife, Mary, left Nazareth for the city of David, where Jesus was born. And thus the prophecy was fulfilled.

Yet this Roman census encompassed only Judea, Samaria and Idumea — not Galilee, where Jesus’s family lived. What’s more, since the purpose of a census was taxation, Roman law assessed an individual’s property in the place of his residence, not his birthplace.

Simply put, Luke places Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem not because it took place there but because that story fulfills the words of the prophet Micah: “But you Bethlehem . . . from you shall come for me a ruler in Israel.”

Playing with truth to fit a preferred narrative? Sounds a little like a certain network Aslan might have appeared on while promoting his book.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Aslan explains that this kind of mythbusting needn’t be considered a threat to people’s faith in Christianity, if that’s their bag. “The stories themselves are not and were never meant to be read as a literal historical account of Jesus’ birth,” Aslan says. “They are, instead, a theological argument about who Jesus was.”

Bonus: Aslan had a far more illustrative, far more civil discussion with a Catholic nun around the same time as the FOX appearance.

photo credit: Ewan Traveler, Creative Commons/flickr