Where was Jesus born? In Bethlehem, of course, in a manger, because there was no room for Joseph and Mary at the local inn. That’s what all the Christmas carols say. And that’s what the Gospels say, too.
Or is it?
Once we begin to examine the gospel stories carefully, we find that the answer to this simple question is not so, well, simple. Passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that describe Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem have been seamlessly woven together in modern-day Christmas pageants, but the Gospels of Mark and John leave the reader with the distinct impression that Jesus was born not in Bethlehem after all, but in Nazareth.
For the historian, these inconsistencies pose a challenge.1
The historian is a time detective, whose task is to raise a specific question about the past, to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to support a probable solution, and finally, to demonstrate how such a solution explains the evidence. Whichever hypothesis most adequately explains the variety of independent evidence becomes a “historical fact”—at least until a better hypothesis comes along.