Earlier today, Steve Hays wrote a response to an article by John Loftus on the subject of the New Testament's treatment of Biblical prophecy. Steve and the commenters in that thread made some good points, but I want to address an issue that they didn't discuss and that was mentioned only briefly in Loftus' article.
He referred to "Luke’s concoction of a census in order to get Mary to Bethlehem so that Jesus could be born there, according to 'prophecy'". That sort of dismissive comment about the Bethlehem birthplace is common in skeptical circles, but it's never accompanied by any good evidence.
I'm not aware of any credible early rival tradition to the Bethlehem account. Dozens of ante-Nicene sources either directly or indirectly comment on Jesus’ birthplace. It was commonly discussed. Justin Martyr and Origen mention the inclusion of the subject in debates between Christians and Jews and Christians and pagans. They refer to non-Christian Jewish and pagan sources corroborating the Bethlehem birthplace. As Raymond Brown wrote:
"If there is any truth in Origen's charge of suppressed references to the Messiah's birth at Bethlehem (footnote 2), such suppression would represent a tacit acknowledgment of Christian tradition concerning the birthplace of Jesus." (The Birth of the Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1993], p. 514)
Eusebius, who had access to many documents no longer extant, wrote that "all agree that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem" (Demonstration of the Gospel, 3:2). If the early Christians and their early enemies were agreed that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, why are we supposed to believe that He wasn't born there?
Jesus' birthplace would have been an issue of interest and an established fact before Jesus' death. If Jesus and His relatives and perhaps others (neighbors, etc.) had believed for decades that Jesus was born somewhere other than Bethlehem, how could that non-Bethlehem tradition have been universally lost and universally replaced with a Bethlehem tradition without leaving any trace in the historical record? Nobody can accuse people like Jesus’ parents and neighbors of being motivated by a Christian bias in claiming Bethlehem as the birthplace prior to Jesus’ earthly ministry. How could they have known that Jesus would claim to be the Messiah later in His life? If Jesus was born somewhere other than Bethlehem, there surely would have been a non-Bethlehem tradition for decades prior to the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and Jesus probably would have discussed that non-Bethlehem tradition with His disciples and with His enemies. The lack of any trace of such a tradition in the historical record needs to be explained.
The suggestion in the gospel of John that people were interested in Jesus' background and His birthplace in particular (John 7:42) is likely to be true. Thus, not only would Jesus' birthplace have been an issue discussed by Him and among His relatives and other people close to Him, but it also would have been discussed by the early opponents of Christianity. Skeptics sometimes suggest that the issue of Jesus' birthplace would have gone undiscussed for decades, followed by people guessing and making up stories about His birth late in the first century. But such a scenario is highly unlikely. It's probable that an issue such as His birthplace would have been discussed widely long before the time when the gospels of Matthew and Luke were written.
The objection that early references to Jesus as "Jesus of Nazareth" are evidence that He was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, is untenable. While a person could be named by his birthplace, people were sometimes given a placename other than their birthplace. Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17:34), for example, was so named because he was associated with the Areopagus, not because he was born there. The second century bishop Irenaeus of Lyons seems to have been born in Smyrna, but was bishop of a church in Lyons. Luke, who refers to Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, also refers repeatedly to Jesus as "Jesus of Nazareth" (Luke 24:19, Acts 10:38). The historian Paul Maier summarized the issue well during an interview on the December 3, 2003 broadcast of the "Bible Answer Man" radio program:
"Jesus spends, probably, not more than 50 days in Bethlehem. For all I know, He never visited the city again, except on the way back from Egypt, and then briefly. He spends all of His childhood in Nazareth. He spends His early ministry in Nazareth. He grows up in Nazareth. And so He should now be called 'Jesus of Bethlehem'? I mean, this is ridiculous! I just have very little patience with this sort of sloppy, avant-garde, sensationalist, revisionist scholarship."
Skeptical appeals to John 7:42 are likewise dubious. See here and here for an explanation.
What are we left with, then? Why are we supposed to doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem? Information about Jesus' birthplace would have been easily attainable, the earliest Christians (who were in contact with Jesus for a few years and were in contact with His relatives for several decades) unanimously report that the birthplace was Bethlehem, they seem to have been corroborated on the issue by multiple early non-Christian sources, and there's no trace of a credible rival tradition in the historical record. If skeptics want us to think that it's unlikely that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, then they need to present evidence to that effect rather than just telling us that they doubt He was born there or that it's possible that He was born somewhere else. If we judge this issue as we would any other historical issue, the weight of probability is heavily in favor of Bethlehem as Jesus' birthplace.