I grew up singing a traditional Spanish Sunday school song, which translated, says:
Blessed and divine
Is the land of Palestine
Where Jesus was born
But was Jesus born in Palestine? It seems like an odd question to ask. Of course he was! Right?
The answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, Jesus was born in the geographical area that some people now call Palestine. On the other hand, to say that Jesus was born in “Palestine” is an anachronistic statement. Simply put, in biblical times, Palestine was not known as Palestine; it was known as Judea: “Bethlehem of Judea” (Matt. 2:1). Some people may perceive this point as making a big deal out of nothing, but let me explain why Judea over Palestine is an important distinction to make.
Saying that Jesus was born in Palestine is historically inaccurate
First of all, distinguishing Palestine as the birthplace of Jesus is historically erroneous. Bethlehem was not associated with Palestine during biblical times. In fact, until A.D. 135 – approximately 135 years after the terrestrial life of Jesus – Palestine as a geographical location encompassing all of Israel never existed. Here is a brief history lesson about how the name Palestine came about:
The temple in Jerusalem – the Jewish people’s holiest site – was destroyed in A.D. 70. But the Jewish people themselves were not completely decimated, and nationalistic aspirations still lingered among them. After numerous uprisings (115–117 A.D.), an exceptional military and political leader named Shimon Bar Kokhba rose up and led the Jewish people to a great revolt against the occupying Roman forces (132–135 A.D.). Scholars call this uprising the Bar Kokhba Rebellion.
It is unknown whether Bar Kokhba himself made any messianic claims, but many in his day certainly suspected him to be the Jewish Messiah. For example, Bar Kokhba (originally Bar Kosiba) was a name given to him by Rabbi Akiva, a highly respected religious teacher who proclaimed that Shimon was “the star” (in Hebrew, Kokhba) that “shall come out of Jacob,” a quote from Numbers 24:17, a text understood to have messianic implications.
Despite Bar Kokhba’s courageous efforts, he and his rebels were no match for the Roman forces’ ruthlessness. The Romans completely subjugated the rebels, and consequently, the rest of the Jewish people paid a very high price.
After claiming victory over Bar Kokhba and his rebels – and making note of the many uprisings that had taken place before – the Romans decided to end the insurrection once and for all. They understood how important the land was to the Jews. So, in an effort to (as the saying goes) hit them where it hurts, they decided to disperse the Jewish people from the region and erase all Jewish identity to the land – by removing the name Judeaand renaming the region after their historical, mortal enemies: the Philistines, using the Latin derivative Palestine. And so, for the very first time, Judea was called Palestine.
For that reason, although saying that Jesus was born in Palestine is not entirely false, it is not entirely true, either. Positively put, it is historically inaccurate. And if it is historically inaccurate, it is also exegetically dishonest.
Saying that Jesus was born in Palestine is exegetically dishonest
If you employ the historical-grammatical method for interpreting Scripture, I commend you. As a student of the Bible, I too believe this method to be the most helpful approach when interpreting Scripture. The whole point of this method is to discover the original intention of a particular text to its original audience in its original context. So, if you happen to be preaching on Matthew chapter 2 and you look over the fact that verse 1 says, ”Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,” (emphasis added) and you have the word “Palestine” in your sermon outline, you are being exegetically dishonest. Therefore, in my opinion, the people listening to your sermon have a right to question your integrity as a serious and consistent expositor of God’s word.
It is very simple. The Bible does not say Palestine. It says Judea. While many people today may refer to the region as Palestine, if the church is to properly understand the historical and socio-political context of the time of Jesus and if we want to be honest expositors of Scripture, perhaps it would be more helpful to preface statements by saying, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, which is commonly known today as Palestine – or the West Bank(if we care to be even more accurate, but that is for another article).”
Suffice it to say, for now, that Judea – not Palestine – was contextually the birthplace of Jesus. We should not be ashamed of Jesus’ Jewishness. He certainly was not. There are fundamental prophetic significance in the mere fact that he was a Jew. And being born inJudea (a very Jewish name) is a very Jewish thing to do. Moreover, it only makes sense that Jesus, the Bread of Life (John 6:35), would be born in Bethlehem (Hebrew: בית לחם beit-lechem), the “House of Bread.” This is partly why Micah prophesied that it will be in “Bethlehem, in the land of Judah” (emphasis added) from which the “ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” would be born (Micah 5:2; Matt. 2:6).
Saying that Jesus was born in Palestine is politically motivated
Lastly, not only is saying that Jesus was born in Palestine historically inaccurate and exegetically dishonest, it is also politically motivated. We can give most people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are unaware of this fact. But as preachers – unless we desire to be prejudicial and favor one group of people over the other – we are responsible to keep our pulpits politically neutral.
Much as the Romans attempted to remove Jewish identity from the land of Judea by renaming it Palestine, calling Jesus a Palestinian divorces him from his Jewishness and imposes a nationalistic identity that would have been foreign to him. For modern political means, some circles call Jesus a Palestinian to divide the church’s support over Israel versus Palestine, as if the church does not already have enough issues to be divided about. And as if transferring support from one cause to another is going to solve the problem.
The Gospel is not about decreasing or increasing support; neither is it about division. The Gospel is about truth and reconciliation. It is about what Christ has done on behalf of creation, to reconcile creation unto God. I recently heard a pro-Palestinian Christian say, “To support a Jewish State goes against the Gospel.” Really? But supporting a Palestinian State – which currently oppresses its own people and suppresses freedoms of expression and religion – doesn’t go against the core message of the Gospel? Can a Palestinian Christian preach the Gospel as freely under Hamas or the Palestinian Authority as it can under Israeli sovereignty? Not really.
Let’s be clear: The Gospel is not about supporting either state. In fact, the Gospel commands those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus to love our enemies – whether we identify those enemies as Jews or Palestinians.
To say that Jesus was born in Judea is irrelevant to my being pro-Israel. I am not anti-Palestinian. I have Palestinian friends who would tell you the same thing. In fact, I have probably spent more time with Palestinians in the Middle East, supporting Palestinian causes, than most pro-Palestinian advocates themselves. I just care about being historically accurate, exegetically honest and politically neutral as a leader who will be held responsible by God for how I lead his people. And guess what? God’s people consist of both Jews and Palestinians who believe. I want to be sensitive to the pain and struggle both experience. But I also want to be informed and truthful.
I admit that this is a very difficult thing to do. It is like walking a tightrope. If you hold to this position, it will not make sense to some people. Some will accuse you of being anti-Palestinian, and others will say that you are being anti-Israel. What can I say? Welcome to the ministry! But I encourage you to walk this tightrope with me, as well.
This article originally appeared on Philos Project and reposted with permission.