Perhaps no historical figure is more deeply mired in legend and myth than Jesus of Nazareth. Outside of the Gospels — which are not so much factual accounts of Jesus but arguments about His religious significance — there is almost no trace of this simple Galilean peasant who inspired the world’s largest religion. But there’s enough biblical scholarship about the historical Jesus to raise questions about some of the myths that have formed around Him over the past 2,000 years.
1. Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
The first Christians seem to have had little interest in Jesus’ early years. Stories about His birth and childhood are conspicuously absent in the earliest written documents about Him: the letters of Paul (written between A.D. 50 and 60) and the Gospel of Mark (written after A.D. 70). But 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’ 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’ father, Joseph, was from Bethlehem, he and his fiancee, 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’ 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.”
2. Jesus was an only child.
Despite the Catholic doctrine of His mother Mary’s perpetual virginity, we can be certain that the historical Jesus came from a large family with at least four brothers who are named in the Gospels – James, Joseph, Simon and Judas – and an unknown number of sisters. That Jesus had brothers and sisters is attested to repeatedly by the Gospels and the letters of Paul. Even the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus refers to Jesus’ brother James, who would become the most important leader of the early Christian church after Jesus’s death.
Some Catholic theologians have argued that the Greek word the Gospels use to describe Jesus’s brother – “adelphos” – could also mean “cousins” or “step-brothers,” and that these could be Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. While that may be true, nowhere in the New Testament is “adelphos” used to mean anything other than “brother.” So there is no rational argument for viewing Jesus as an only child.