Why Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?

At this time of year we sing the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. Everyone knows that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and “laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn.” Almost every word of that phrase has been exploded into a plot point for Christmas pageants. We imagine Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary arriving in Bethlehem just as she is about to give birth, only to be told that every hotel room in the city is full. A kindly innkeeper (dressed in your uncle’s bathrobe and sandals) allows the couple to give birth in his barn.

Bethlehem

But Bethlehem was no sprawling metropolis. It is doubtful there was an inn, and if there was it was the only inn in the tiny village. The image of Mary going into labor in the lobby of the local Comfort Inn is pure fantasy. The village was still quite small and unimportant in 6 B.C. But there are other reasons why it was important for Jesus to be born in the “little town of Bethlehem.”

First, the Messiah was to be the son of David, the first King of Israel. David was from the village of Bethlehem, a son of Jesse. Jesse was a wealthy land owner in Bethlehem, a “sheep rancher” rather than a Bedouin with a few herd animals. He is described as a town elder, and therefore a more politically powerful man than a “lowly shepherd.”

Bethlehem is only 5 and a half miles from Jerusalem, and 3 miles from Gibeah. While the town was likely small, it was well within the range of Saul’s capital; elders from Bethlehem would have been well aware of court politics.  That Bethlehem is so close to Jerusalem may explain David’s interest in taking the city after he becomes king. When he is anointed the city is controlled by the Jebusites, prompting some scholars to wonder if David was a Jebusite himself!

The image of David when he begins his career is of a boy-shepherd who was at the same time a warrior capable of defeating great enemies because the Lord is with him, and he is committed to the Lord.

Second, the Messiah was to be in the line of David (2 Sam 7:12; Psalm 2, 110). The Davidic covenant describes the son of David, Solomon, in terms which cannot be fully applied to Solomon. He will reign forever!

Psalm 2 is a text which was originally used at the enthronement of a king, but the Psalm cannot describe any single human; that the nations will be ruled by a son of David who sits on the throne with the Lord himself goes well beyond an enthronement text. Likewise, Psalm 110 describes the victory of the son of David in battle in cosmic terms which go well beyond the hopes of any given king of Israel.

The messiah is therefore thought to be the ultimate fulfillment of the “son of David” prophecies. God would send someone to solve the problems of Israel who ultimately fulfilled the role of David in that he liberate the nation from their oppressors and prepared the way for true worship in the Temple. What was not expected is that this person would be quite literally God’s son!

The birth in Bethlehem therefore meets the expectation that the messiah would be from the line of David as well as from the town of Bethlehem.

12 thoughts on “Why Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?

  1. “Inn” — kataluma = “guest room.” (Luke 2:7 and 22:11 and Mark 14:14) Bethlehem, “3 miles from Gibeah”? Gibeah is north of Jerusalem, and thus more than 5 miles away from Bethlehem.

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    • From Patrick Arnold, ABD, “The location and modern identification of Gibeah is a long-disputed issue.” Gibeah is commonly identified as modern Jabaʿ is 9 km, so about six miles, suggested by Robinson; Albright suggestsed Tell el-Ful, 5 km north, a bit over 3 miles; Paul Lapp excavated there as well and raised doubts, “A preliminary archaeological survey of Jabaʿ (Kochavi 1972: 183) indicated Iron Age and Persian remains at the site, though more precise archaeological investigations are needed” (Arnold).

      So I have old data there, and I do not have your atlas handy to check…!

      NB: Working with Logos on an iPad so, pages no page numbers…we both need a better way to spend Christmas Eve!)

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  2. A careful reading of the birth narrative produces a different picture from the traditional Christmas plays. The Bible does not say that Jesus was born on the night that Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, it mostly indicates that he was born sometime during their stay there. “ And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” ( Luke 2:6) As you talk about in this post the image of Mary going into labor and trying to get into the inn but it isn’t enough room so she has to give birth in a barn is fantasy. But I must admit I enjoyed and I was intrigued by your three reasons why it was important for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. It helps give a sense of understanding to everything and why it was so significant to the birth story and why it had to happen in Bethlehem, I definitely learned something new about the birth story after reading this post.

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  3. To the people of the time the Gospels were written, it would have been much more important to them that Jesus’s birth fell in line with Divinic prophecies, verses us today, who may not see this fact as important. Strauss mentions that some scholars think that the Gospels included that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to simply fulfill the Divinic prophesies, but was not necessarily the real place Jesus was born (2020). However, this view does not hold true considering the validity of the Gospels and the truth of the Bible, but can definitely be a common conclusion if you don’t understand the validity of the Gospels. It may seem like too much of a coincidence to some more subjective scholars.

    While I think for the audience of the time it was important to note the actual birthplace of Jesus, I don’t feel as though for todays audience it holds much purpose. While it is fun to know the birth place of Jesus and write songs about it, it doesn’t define our belief or relationship with God the way it may have to the much earlier audience’s of Matthew and Luke’s time.

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  4. I find it interesting to think about what Mary and Joseph would have thought going back to Bethlehem the town of David. Strauss says in Chapter fourteen; we have reason to believe that “Jesus’ family had an awareness that they were descendants of David” (414). For Joseph and Mary going to their ancestor, King David’s, birth town must have at least brought up some interesting conversations along the way. I wonder if it ever clicked for them later in Jesus’ life when he was doing that their son’s birth in Bethlehem was significant not only in location but in relation to his Davidic lineage. I doubt the full complexity and importance of these events would have been immediately present to Joseph and Mary, but I like to ponder if it was ever a discussion around the dinner table or if it is only something we have the privilege of understanding now that we see the whole story.

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  5. According to Four Portraits, One Jesus by Mark L. Strauss, “Bethlehem’s theological significance is as the birthplace and hometown of David, Israel’s greatest king and the prototype of the Messiah” (Strauss, 2007, p. 416). As you said Dr. Long, the Messiah was to be the son of David, the first King of Israel and so that is why it was important that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David. When looking at the story of how Jesus was born, including the journey of Mary and Joseph, it was easy to see how God’s plan unfolded for Jesus. Often times, people forget about the significance of Jesus born in Bethlehem and focus too much on where he was born specifically—a manager—as we see in Christmas plays and skits, just as Jarmichael stated in his blog post as well. So, I agree with him on that.

    According to Strauss, Luke said that a census “conducted by the emperor Caesar Augustus” (Luke 2:1) is what brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem (2007, p. 416), but Strauss clearly states that there is just not enough evidence to confirm or refute Luke’s claim. But, I do not believe that the “how” on Mary and Joseph getting to Bethlehem holds major significance but that they did arrive and give birth to Jesus there as God said they would in Micah 5:2, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (ESV). Jesus was the “new David” the “great ruler” that would come from Bethlehem and bring peace and security to all the nations (2007, p. 416).

    Dr. Long, I love your points on the importance of Jesus being born in Bethlehem. Honestly, I was one who focused on the minor details of the birth of Jesus, growing up and watching it played out in skits and plays for Christmas and so I neglected to think about the “why” like why Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem and why that was so significant to God’s plan and for Jesus throughout his life and ministry. When we are able to look at the “why” of Jesus and his birth place, we are able to fully see God’s plan and watch how it unfolds from the birth of Jesus to the end.

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  6. Growing up I was taught in church and at home that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem because of a census and they needed to be counted. This is true but through our reading I have come to find out that there are more reasons of their travels than just the census. According to Strauss, “Bethlehem’s theological significance is as the birthplace and hometown of David. Israel’s greatest king and the prototype of the Messiah” (Strauss, p. 504, 2007). Strauss is discussing a topic that is predicted in Micah 5:2-5; a might ruler, meaning Jesus, will be born in Bethlehem, someone who is considered to be the new David, and will bring life and security to the nation (Strauss, 2007). Although Jesus was not officially from Bethlehem, because he was from Nazareth, the prophecy was being fulfilled and proven to be accurate.

    One aspect I thought about a lot was the fact that the census was problematic according to Strauss. Although Roman empires were known for having censuses for tax purposes, somethings did not line up in the Roman history with this specific census. First, there has been no record of a nation-wide census. Second, there has been no evidence that the people had to go back to their ancestral home to be counted (Strauss, 2007). Although these points are not super crucial to finding out why Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it is still interesting to think that God made it so that the prophecy would be proven to be true. The census could have taken place right there in Nazareth but then the prophecy would not be accurate and would not set things up for other parts of the Bible.

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  7. I feel like from today’s world and the historic and religious world it is totally different in how we would react to things and how Jesus and Mary would react to certain situations. I would never think that the place of birth would impact Jesus until the way you described in your post. I connected better in reading it and got a better understanding of Jesus and Mary life style compared to my life style.

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