Editorial by John Ziegler

The Comedy Within The Tragedy

4/10/2002 1:09:56 AM

The Comedy Within a Tragedy

One of the most remarkable aspects of last week's escalation of hostilities between Palestinians and Israelis was the bloody battle over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The image of Jews and Muslims fighting to the death in and around the site where so many believe Jesus Christ was born will be a difficult one for anyone to forget and is already serving as a symbol of the struggle's mystifying nature.

For several days, newscasters dramatically punctuated their stories of the fighting at the Church of the Nativity with a fascinating array of descriptions of the site's historical and religious meaning. While a few outlets described the church as simply, "The birthplace of Jesus Christ," some were slightly more reserved in their reporting. "The traditional site of Jesus' birth," "The place where Jesus Christ is said to have been born," "The place where the bible says Jesus was born," "The church, above the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born," were some of the more common news media attempts at straddling religion and reality.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described the conflict at the church this way: "What more blasphemous spectacle could there be than Palestinian gunmen hiding in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, and Israeli tanks laying siege to the manger?"

What exactly is the phrase "traditional birthplace" supposed to mean? For something to be a "tradition" it has to have happened at least twice and be of a recurring character. Are Dowd and others suggesting that Jesus Christ is continually being reborn in that Bethlehem church?

I doubt it. Instead, this appears to be a classic case of the media either being ignorant of the facts, or terrified of telling people something that they might not want to hear. The term "traditional birthplace" (along with most of the others I previously listed) is really a crafty euphemism for "the place where people who have not studied the issue would like to believe that Jesus was born."

The truth is that almost no one who is an expert on such matters thinks that there is much chance that Jesus of Nazareth was born anywhere within Bethlehem. Not even the three branches of Christianity that run the Church of the Nativity claim that it is the exact location of his birth.

The Church of the Nativity is actually part of a series of sites designed for tourists that have been built and rebuilt many hundreds of years after the birth of Jesus. Along side the church is also the Grotto of the Nativity, the Cave of the Nativity, and Manger Square. I think of it as kind of like Disney World for devout Christians.

If you doubt the commercial nature of these "holy sites," consider that for years local TV stations across the country have been running an hour-long infomercial (hosted by Ricardo Montalban) that brazenly sells "Nativity Cross" necklaces with a "Nativity Stone" from the Cave of the Nativity mounted on them. Montalban explains that the stones are from the cave where Jesus was born. While he does point out that stones in question were left over from the cave's reconstruction a few years ago, the clear implication is that these stones come from a place of great significance.

I have tried for years, without success, to find any objective scholar to tell me that there is any evidence that Jesus might have even been born in the city where these sites are located. While there is, understandably, great hesitancy to say so publicly, the overwhelming sentiment among the academic community is that Jesus of Nazareth was (surprise!) probably born in Nazareth.

"There is no good historical evidence that Jesus was born in Bethlehem," says Mark Wallace, who is a scholar of Christianity and an Associate Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College. "Scholars see this belief as a reflection of the expectation that the Messiah be born in Bethlehem, which is a circular kind of belief system."

But what about the Bible itself? Well, the story of Jesus' birth is told in only two of the four Gospels and both those narratives are inconsistent and full of historical problems. Foremost among several matters of concern, Jesus' parents had no reason to attend the census in Bethlehem because they were not Roman citizens and there is no record of any census taking place in any of the years in which Jesus could have been born.

But more than gaps in the historical record give a thinking person doubts about the credibility of Bethlehem's claim on Jesus' birth. After all, if that fanfare really DID take place with three Kings under a star in Bethlehem, why is it that no one bothered to keep track of Jesus again until he was thirty years old? Logic dictates that, since the prophet Micah had already predicted the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the writers of the Gospels (not unlike our modern-day news reporters) were just giving their readers exactly what they wanted.

While none of this necessarily says anything about the potential divinity of Jesus Christ, it should provide some insight into the absolute absurdity of the current crisis.

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