2017 December Issue
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A Christmas Controversy

LUKE 1:47-55

Where was Mary when the angel announced to her that she would bear the Messiah? Was she in Nazareth? Or was she perhaps in Jerusalem or Bethlehem? Today this is an issue being discussed among biblical scholars here in Israel. The Bible appears to be ambiguous on the issue with Luke affirming one position and Matthew implying another. This month's Lesson From the Land will deal with this new controversy in such a manner as to allow you to be a part of the current debate.

The Gospel of Luke, in today's Gospel lesson, informs us that Mary was living in Nazareth when the announcement of the birth of Jesus was revealed to her. Luke 1:26 states, "In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth" (NRSV). According to Luke's Gospel, Mary recites the beautiful "Magnificat" in Nazareth in response to the angel's announcement. Early church history and tradition hold that Mary's family were from Jerusalem. Mary's cousin, Elizabeth, and her family lived, according to church tradition, in Ein Karem, to the southwest of Jerusalem. How did Mary manage to be living in Nazareth? We do not know. But this seems unlikely. There is no reason for Mary being in Nazareth at this time. Therefore, Luke might be wrong in locating this announcement in Nazareth.

A more likely place for the announcement of Jesus' birth would be either Jerusalem or Bethlehem. Joseph's family, according to the gospels and Church tradition, lived in Bethlehem. The Gospel of Matthew provides a different view of the birth of Jesus and Joseph's location in Bethlehem. Matthew sets the story in Bethlehem. "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea...." (Matthew 2:1). Nazareth is not mentioned until much later when in Matthew 2:1923 we find, "When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, {20} "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." {21} Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. {22} But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. {23}

There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean." Joseph, according to Matthew, did not move to Nazareth until after the death of Herod the Great.

How do we explain the difference in Matthew's and Luke's versions of the story? Who is correct? There are several reasons for supposing that Matthew is correct. First, Joseph was a Judean. It would have been illogical for him to have settled in Galilee. Secondly, during this period when a man married he would usually bring his new wife to live in the home of his father where a new room would have been added to the house. Thirdly, as mentioned above, Church tradition holds that Mary's family lived in the Jerusalem area. Today, St. Anne's Church is said to be built over the traditional site of Mary's family home. Caves beneath the church are said to preserve the living quarters for Mary's family. Fourth, the Gospel of Luke reports Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth during their pregnancies (Luke 1:41 ff.). This would not have been possible if Mary had been living in Nazareth, because it would have been against the prevailing custom of the day to allow a woman late in pregnancy to make such a long and hard journey. However, the journey from Bethlehem to Ein Karem would have been short enough to make this trip practical and reasonable. Fifth, it makes sense that Joseph would have taken Mary to the stable in the family home for the birth of his child. If there were people crowding into the small village for a census, family members would have come to Joseph's father's house seeking lodging. Joseph would have sought a quiet place that would have been warm, dry, and relatively comfortable for the birth. The stable would have been located in a cave beneath the living quarters. This, too, corresponds to the earliest Church traditions of the birth of Jesus.

How do we explain Luke's story? We do not explain it. It is obvious that Luke's account of the annunciation was probably based on inadequate or false information, if we assume Matthew's account is the more accurate. Furthermore, Luke knew that Jesus had been raised in Nazareth and probably thought that this had been the hometown for one of Jesus' parents. There is no doubt whatsoever that Nazareth was Jesus' home village, that he spent his childhood and youth here. But, learning from the land has given us all an opportunity to have clearer picture of the circumstances surrounding his birth, early years, and the reason his father relocated the family to Nazareth while Jesus was still a toddler.

*Charles Page writes from the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies, an Interdenominational Study Center located in Israel, where he is the Academic Dean. For more information on the Jerusalem Center call (800) 9295327.