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BETHLEHEM may have been a code

(Article published in the Dec 21,2005 issue of Manila Standard Today)

          Long before Raymond E. Brown, of the Society of St. Sulpice, and other bible scholars, maintained that not all the cherished details of the Christmas story are completely historical, Horacio V. De la Costa, of the Society of Jesus, had already challenged the idea that the Three Kings, now downgraded to just wise men, were Persians.

           As a Jesuit scholastic, studying philosophy at the Sacred Heart Novitiate, then in Novaliches, Quezon City, the young Horacio one Christmas wrote:

“I do not think the Three Wise Men

Were Persian Kings at all;

I think it much more likely they

Set sail out of Manila Bay

to follow the starry call

And though the good Abbé Fouard

May stare at me and frown,

I still maintain the Three Wise Kings

Were Kings of my own town.”

           He then, with the countless parols or star lanterns that blossom in our country on yuletide nights as his evidence, proceeded to surmise, as poet and not as historian, that 

“…when the Kings came home again

From Bethlehem afar,

They lost their camels in the sea

And they forgot the Christmas tree,

But they brought home to you and me

The secret of the Star.”

           Today, though a most unworthy intellectual progeny (Fr. Horacio almost sent me out of the room more than 45 years ago for chatting with seatmate Edgar Francisco while he was giving to our Freshman class a lecture on The History of Europe), I push the envelope with the claim that the magi just might have never gone to Bethlehem at all.

           It is significant to note that only two of the four Gospels, Matthew’s and Luke’s, contain an  infancy narrative, i.e. story of Jesus birth and early childhood. Both appear to say that Bethlehem was where Jesus was born. But more significant is that, beyond the unision in the name of the place,  the gospels are in true disarray on other matters relating to Christ’s place of birth.

           In the first place, Matthew and Luke do not agree on why Jesus’ parents were in Bethlehem when He was born.  Matthew, in 2:11, said that they were residents of Bethlehem. Luke, for his part, says in 2:4 that although they lived in Nazareth, Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem in obedience to the census purportedly called by Caesar Augustus requiring the father of the family to return to his own city to register.

           Many scholars today opine that the mention of Bethlehem in Matthew was to convince the Jews that Jesus was the fulfillment of their expectation that the Messiah would come from the House of David who was anointed by Samuel as king in the town of Bethlehem.  They also believe that Luke, on the other hand, in putting the presence of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem in the context of an imperial edict, wanted to assure the Romans that the followers of Jesus, like his parents, were not trouble makers, but instead law-abiding taxpayers.  This datum about a world-wide census, by the way, is considered dubious on almost every score.

          Secondly, the rest of the gospels, in those places where Jesus’ origins was material, showed no awareness of where He was born.  For instance, in Mark in 6:1,4, the hearers of Jesus’ words who claimed to know the members of Jesus’ family said nothing of where he was born. Also, in John 7:41-42,52 the crowd was precisely questioning Jesus’ credibility precisely because they seem to assume that he was from Galilee in the north and not from the town of Bethlehem at the south.  How could the people of Nazareth (who were most likely as prone to chismis as their  local counterparts) not have known of the birth of Jesus elsewhere if the three, as per Matthew, settled in the small town initially as strangers, or, as per Luke, came back as three after leaving as two only a short time before?  My jaded nose smells a cover-up.

           It is likely to me, therefore, unless I am to consider the gospel writers as pre-figurations of our beloved Toting Bunye, that “Bethlehem” is a veritable code, meant by Matthew and Luke, to stand for something else.  And this code can today be unravelled by a comparison of  what the chief priests and scribes answered when Herod asked where, the prophets had said, the Messiah was to be born.  Combining Micah 5:1 (In the Revised Standard Version of the bible, Micah 5:2) with II Samuel 5:2, they said to Herod: 

“And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,

for from you will come forth a ruler

who will shepherd my people Israel.” (Bold supplied)

           Herod took this to mean literally Bethlehem.  What he did not know was that his informers were not too accurate in reciting Micah.  The Septuagint Greek Translation of the Old Testament has Micah saying “And you, O Bethlehem, house of Ephrathah, are too small to be among the thousands of Judah”. Bold supplied.  Similarly, the standard Hebrew Bible says “And you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, small to be among the clans of Judah.  (Bold supplied)  In other words, they, who sensed that Herod would not stop at anything just to stay in power, turned Micah around obviously to mislead the ruler who was afraid that his reign would be cut short.  They hid the true expectation that the savior was to be born in a town “too small among the thousands”, or “too small among the clans”.

           What town is that?

           I give you one chance to name the place we know that is too insignificant to matter.  The Philippines is one among how many in the so-called underdeveloped countries of the United Nations?  Where do we rank in terms of corruption and good governance?  Why was there no dancing in the streets when they announced that the peso was the best performing currency in the world? Even Garci would be willing to answer that, and answer correctly.

           If then, as per Fr. Horacio, the wise men were Filipinos and they, as per my humble inebriated self, visited the Holy Family in Manila, the only question that remains is how come Jesus grew up in Nazareth.  The answer is simple.  Joseph, a skilled carpenter, was an OFW who found work in the Middle East.  He was with his wife and new-born child when the shepherds first came (Luke 2:16) but had been recruited and had left for work abroad by the time the magi came (Matthew 2:11).  When he got settled in his job, he petitioned them both and brought them to Nazareth.  Hence, Jesus was known as the “Nazaroan” And the rest is rock-hard gospel.

           What are we to do with this hidden and forbidden knowledge?  Fr. Horacio ends his inspired poetry and I my spirited prose, as follows:


“…if through the quiet evening streets

We follow the Wise King’s Star,

Where it beckons and swings from the sills of the poor,

It may lead us yet through a low church door

Where we too may knell, as the Kings long before,

Where the Child and His Mother are”


          That “low church door”, I submit, lies in the heart of hearts of the poorest of the poor in the dirtiest of our slums.

           Merry Christmas to you all who have read this far as well as those who were too cerrado to.