The following thoughts of mine were in reply to the atheist John Loftus: very active online as the webmaster of the notoriously dishonest and intellectually dubious site, Debunking Christianity:
According to biblical critics, the texts regarding Jesus’ birth came about because of wishful thinking and the desire of the writers to cynically, deceitfully align with Old Testament messianic prophecy. But how does one possibly prove such an outlandish accusation? There is no hard (let alone indisputable) evidence for such a thing. Our choice is to believe that:
1) The New Testament writers believed Jesus was born in Bethlehem because in fact He was born there, and they had evidence to substantiate the fact.
2) The New Testament writers knew that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem because they had no evidence to substantiate the fact, but they “wrote it in” anyway because of the need for Jesus as Messiah to fulfill Old Testament prophecy that named the town (Micah 5:2).
3) The New Testament writers mistakenly but sincerely believed Jesus was born in Bethlehem and reported this as fact, even though they had no hard proof of it.
Now, how would one go about proving the second or third scenarios? If in fact the New Testament writers were lying through their teeth and didn’t believe their own words, how in the world would one establish that?
If indeed Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as a point of actual fact (asking atheists to grant that for a moment), and if indeed the New Testament writers knew He was born there, and reported it, then there would be no deception, and this would in fact be a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (for the person who believes in faith that Jesus is the Messiah, based on many considerations).
It all comes down to what is deemed to be fact and of dubious historicity (from the historiographical perspective). But we can’t simply pull skeptical ideas out of a hat and assert them as if there is good reason to state such scenarios of alleged deliberate lying.
I can just as well fault skeptics who argue in such a way (that I think is circular special pleading) because they don’t believe in prophecy in the first place. An atheist obviously does not and cannot, since there is no God to give the revelation that is prophecy. If the thing is impossible, then obviously an alleged “fulfillment” of it is a sham as well.
So (given that hostile premise) it is thought that the Gospel writers were simply playing games by naming Bethlehem because of Micah 5:2: wholly apart from real knowledge of the event. But all they had to do was ask Jesus about it, or His parents. They were there. They knew what happened. They can’t change or manufacture their own lineage, which is why they were in Bethlehem in the first place. Even Jesus can’t change who His earthly parents were, as a point of fact.
It gets rather silly. As an analogy, to illustrate the foolishness of such “argumentation,” take the famous case (for baseball fans) of Babe Ruth calling (predicting) his home run in the 1932 World Series. The fact is that he hit a home run in that game, and eyewitnesses swear to the fact that he “called the shot.” Now, let’s go ahead 2000 years from now and imagine how a skeptic would “reason”. The choices are again as follows:
1) The sportswriters believed Babe Ruth called and then hit the home run because in fact he did do both, and they had eyewitness evidence to substantiate the fact.
2) The sportswriters knew that Babe Ruth didn’t call and then hit the home run because they knew it didn’t actually happen, but they “wrote it in” anyway because of the need to create the myth of Babe Ruth as the greatest baseball player ever: larger than life.
3) The sportswriters mistakenly but sincerely believed that Babe Ruth called and then hit the home run and reported this as fact, even though they had no hard proof of it.
Now, would someone 2000 years later be acting reasonably in believing #1? Yes. Could they reasonably take position #2? Yes, provided they produced some documented evidence for the assertion. They could also believe #3, but would need evidence for that, too. But the problem is that biblical critics don’t require (let alone use or produce) any hard evidence to start questioning anything in the Bible.
They could simply deny that Babe Ruth called the home run. Or they could deny that he actually hit it. Why believe 50,000 spectators in the park and the box scores? They could all have been made up for the purpose of myth-making. If 500 eyewitnesses in the Bible can make up a Resurrection appearance, why can’t 50,000 make up a legend of Ruth predicting his homer?
So that is how they would reason, if they were subject to the irrationalism of a pitiable multitude biblical skeptics. But the fact remains that the home run was hit, and that (by most accounts) it was called. And Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem can just as easily and conceivably also be a fact. Why should the Bible lie about it? It was to dishonestly fulfill prophecy: so we’re told, but that reasoning is ultimately circular: assuming without argument or evidence what it needs to prove.
Atheists also “argue” that the title Jesus of Nazareth somehow suggests that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem because He was raised in Nazareth. That clearly doesn’t follow. My father lived in the Detroit area for over sixty years. But he was born in Canada.
But if the writers of the New Testament were determined to (dishonestly) associate Jesus with Bethlehem because of the prophecy in Micah 5:2, why in the world would the Nazareth title be featured? The skeptic can’t have it both ways. Why was Bethlehem mentioned so few times, while Nazareth was mentioned many times?