As I reflect on my time in Nazareth and Bethlehem approaching Christmas, I find that my views of Jesus' birth have changed. In talking to people in Bethlehem, who can claim a 2000 year connection to the first Christians, the tradition of Jesus' birth is very much alive and well. Shepherd's Field is recognised, albeit in a couple of different places. It is the tradition of Mary, Joseph and Jesus that is very present.
When I was in seminary I learnt the historical-critical method of Biblical interpretation. We also learnt about the Jesus Seminar, which takes this method of Biblical criticism and applies it to a quest to find the historical Jesus. The Biblical interpretative method I learnt dismissed the birth of Jesus as mere mythology, linking the birth of Jesus as Messiah to the appropriate Hebrew Scripture texts. Jesus was a child of David, so he had to be linked to Bethlehem, David's home town. Bethlehem was the least of the cities, but from Bethlehem would come the Messiah. The visit of the Magi and the gifts given is from Isaiah. All of these links, so scholars affirmed, pointed to the fact that Jesus' birth probably took place in Nazareth and theologically, a case needed to be made for a miraculous birth that was connected to Bethlehem.
After being in Bethlehem and talking to people, I don't see why both a theological reading of the birth stories of Jesus and an historical connection to Bethlehem can't be made. People who live in Bethlehem talk about how their ancestors walked everywhere to visit neighbours or to make journeys for trade and economic prosperity. Is it such a stretch to think that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem for some reason or other. I realise that there was no census recorded in Roman histories and that the historical links at the beginning of the birth story in Luke have problems. Perhaps the census was something less important. Is it so far-fetched to think that Mary and Joseph did end up in Bethlehem and stayed there for a period of time, maybe even fleeing to Egypt for some reason?
The theological linkages can still be made, but maybe there is something to base these linkages on historically. Maybe there were visits from Magi of some sort who saw something in the stars. Maybe the first message went to shepherds, the lowest of the low, as a sign that this Messiah will be a special champion of the poor and the oppressed.
I find that sometimes our European and North American academic hubris prevents us from connecting to people who have lived on the land for centuries. We want to be purely rational in thinking through the biblical stories and remove other interpretive criteria that are less rational... like oral tradition that extends back 2000 years.
While I'm not going to abandon historical-critical Biblical interpretation, I want to be more open to the tradition of the people of Bethlehem and Nazareth who have lived in the places where Jesus walked, taught, preached and lived, including Mary and Joseph and their families.