Issues pertaining to Jesus’ background would have been known to and discussed by Jesus, His relatives, and other people prior to Jesus’ public ministry. Once the public ministry began and as Christianity grew, interest in such issues would have grown, as the gospels suggest (Matthew 2:4-6, Mark 6:2-3, Luke 20:41-44, John 7:41-42). Jesus’ birthplace would have been one of the issues of interest, not only for the same reasons why anybody’s birthplace would be of interest, but also because of what people believed about Jesus in particular. The background of somebody perceived to be the Messiah, including his birthplace, would be of interest to people.
Many potential sources of information relevant to Jesus’ birthplace would have been available to the early Christians and their enemies (Jesus, Mary, Jesus’ siblings, other relatives, the people of Nazareth, the people of Bethlehem, census records, people associated with Herod the Great around the time of Jesus’ birth, etc.). Though some of the purported events surrounding Jesus’ birth were of a less public nature, some were more visible, such as the Slaughter of the Innocents and the census. Luke’s infancy material comes just after his comments about what was handed down and his concern for eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4). His comments in passages like 1:1-4, 1:65-66, and 2:17-18 don’t suggest that he was addressing issues that hadn’t been discussed before, nor does it seem that he was trying to explain why the information had previously been unknown. Whatever details Luke was adding, the general outlines were already well known, and much of what he was discussing was of a significantly public nature. Matthew and Luke both associate the Bethlehem birthplace with multiple public events, involving both believers and unbelievers (the visit of the magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents, the census, etc.). Each of these events, if it occurred, would offer more potential sources of evidence for the Bethlehem birthplace.
As I’ve discussed in previous posts (here and here, for example), reliable sources on Jesus’ birthplace were available to the early Christians and their enemies for decades. Most likely, Jesus would have discussed His birthplace with His followers. Those followers, such as the apostles, lived well beyond the time of Jesus’ death. Jesus' relatives surely would have had family accounts concerning His birthplace. Some of His relatives were active in church leadership for decades (Acts 21:18, 1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:19). Hegesippus, writing in the second century, tells us that relatives of Jesus also had leadership positions in the church beyond what’s addressed in the New Testament. He writes:
"They [relatives of Jesus] came, therefore, and took the lead of every church as witnesses and as relatives of the Lord. And profound peace being established in every church, they remained until the reign of the Emperor Trajan [late first and early second centuries], and until the above-mentioned Symeon, son of Clopas, an uncle of the Lord, was informed against by the heretics, and was himself in like manner accused for the same cause before the governor Atticus." (cited in Eusebius, Church History, 3:32:6)
Notice that these relatives were given positions of leadership "as witnesses and as relatives of the Lord". They didn’t just happen to be witnesses and relatives while attaining church offices only because they met the general qualifications for church leadership. Rather, they were sought out because of the additional qualifications they had as witnesses and relatives of Jesus. Hegesippus’ comments are another example of the early Christians’ concern for eyewitness testimony and sources close to others who were eyewitnesses. For more on this subject and many examples of how widespread this interest in such sources was in early Christianity, see Richard Bauckham’s Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006).
As I discussed previously, the apostle John apparently lived until late in the first century. Papias and Quadratus refer to other people who had met Jesus who lived until around the same time (Eusebius, Church History, 3:39:3-4, 4:3:2).
Earlier sources would have had influence on later sources. Christians passed down information from one generation to another, and so did their enemies. If Jesus was viewed as having been born in Nazareth during the decades leading up to His public ministry, and the same belief continued thereafter for a few decades, then a Bethlehem account was fabricated late in the first century, we would expect to see reflections of such a change and the variety of beliefs it would produce in the historical record.
We need to ask not only what the early sources reported, but also where they lived and how they presented what they reported. Is a report accepted across a wide geographical spectrum? Is it presented as if it’s commonly accepted? Do the early Christians show knowledge of and interact with objections from their opponents on the subject? Are they interested in evidence and corroboration from non-Christian sources? I’ll be addressing these and other issues in more depth in the coming days.