Saturday, December 16, 2006

Jesus' Birthplace (Part 2): Prophecy And Honesty

What sort of influence would the prophecy of Micah 5 have had on Christian claims about where Jesus was born? Raymond Brown wrote:

"It is probably true that many Jews of Jesus' time expected the Messiah to be born at Bethlehem, but we must be aware that our chief evidence for this is Christian, not Jewish....Without reference to Micah 5:1, Bethlehem appears as the birthplace of the Messiah in passages like TalJer Berakoth 5a, and Midrash Rabbah 51 on Lam 1:16. As for Micah 5:1 (RSV 5:2), L. Ginzberg, Legends, V, 130, traces the messianic interpretation of the passage back to relatively old rabbinic traditions....I mentioned in the previous Appendix (footnote 6) the expectation of a hidden Messiah who would appear suddenly, without people knowing where he came from. (This expectation is described in John 7:27, in contrast to 7:42 which involves the expectation of the Messiah's birth at Bethlehem.) If Jesus had not been born at Bethlehem, why could Christians not have been content to present him as the hidden Messiah, who made his appearance at the Jordan to be baptized?" (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], p. 513, n. 2 on p. 513, p. 514)

The early Christians did have other options available to them, as John 7:27 reflects. However, the Bethlehem view seems to have been more popular in ancient times, and it makes the most sense of the Old Testament data.

As I mentioned yesterday, much of what’s recorded in the gospels concerning the Bethlehem birthplace is of a significantly public nature. If the gospel authors or their sources were fabricating their material, and they were trying to portray the events as occurring outside of the public view, so as to explain the lack of evidence for them, they surely wouldn’t have constructed the accounts as they are in Matthew and Luke. A Bethlehem birth could have been claimed without involving Herod the Great or a census. If there was dishonesty among the early Christians on this subject, it was dishonesty to an unnecessary and counterproductive degree and had to have involved many people in either dishonesty or a high degree of carelessness.

We don’t have any reason to conclude that the early Christians were dishonest about Jesus’ birthplace. Those who want us to believe that they were need to present evidence to that effect. The early Christians had high moral standards, and the earliest extant references to Jesus’ birthplace are in documents written in a historical genre, which would invite historical scrutiny.

The early opponents of Christianity wouldn’t have knowingly gone along with Christian dishonesty. They, like Christians, had the human faculty of memory and had access to sources with relevant information. They would have had access to Jesus and His initially unbelieving relatives (Matthew 13:53-58, Mark 3:20-35, Luke 8:19-21, John 7:5), and they would have had access to other relevant sources, such as the people of Bethlehem and historical records and memories pertaining to the census mentioned by Luke. They would have known what the earliest Christians were claiming and would have been able to compare it to later claims.

Jesus’ public ministry didn’t begin until He was about thirty. What did people believe about His birthplace prior to that time? Any argument for later widespread dishonesty or carelessness among the early Christians would have to address what was believed about Jesus’ birthplace prior to that time and how the prior belief was replaced by the later claim.

Given factors such as the other options available to the early Christians (as reflected in John 7:27), the public nature of the accounts involving the Bethlehem birthplace, the motives the early Christians had for being honest, the presence of many hostile sources (including some unbelieving relatives of Jesus), and how late in His life Jesus began His public ministry, we would expect the Bethlehem claim to be widely disputed if it was false. The more widespread belief in a Bethlehem birthplace is, the more difficult it is to maintain that Jesus was born somewhere else. Over the next few days, I’ll be addressing what the earliest Christian and non-Christian sources believed about the subject.

12 comments:

  1. You might as well tell us what the Ephesians believed about Artemis as far as I'm concerned, or the universe, or Noah's Flood, or Jonah's prophecy.

    But we've had this conversation before. No, you haven't sufficiently answered me, because these kinds of superstitious beliefs can be seen throughout the Bible. And even if these people had evidence for their beliefs, that says nothing much to me today. Even if these events really happened, I have no reasonable way to assess whether or not they did. Which means if God chose history to reveal himself he chose a poor medium to do so.

    Again, it's not about more and more knowledge. It's about seeing the knowledge you already have in a different light.

    But don't let me stop you. Carry on.

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  2. why don't the t-bloggers try to "resolve" these:

    http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2006/12/discussing-with-inerrantist.html

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  3. John Loftus wrote:

    "But we've had this conversation before. No, you haven't sufficiently answered me, because these kinds of superstitious beliefs can be seen throughout the Bible."

    What's the logical connection between the presence of what you call "superstitious beliefs" and your conclusion? Billions of people in today's world have what you would call "superstitious beliefs". Do we therefore reject what modern people report about where a person was born? Since you live in a world with so much "superstitious belief", why should we believe what you write?

    You write:

    "Even if these events really happened, I have no reasonable way to assess whether or not they did."

    Then why does your blog so often have articles evaluating whether it's historically probable that the resurrection or other events mentioned in the Bible occurred? If there's "no reasonable way" to assess such issues, then why does your blog so often assess them? Are New Testament scholars and historians who study the ancient world mistaken in thinking that they can conclude that particular events are historically probable? Since the modern scholarly world disagrees with you, why should we believe you instead? If you had evidence that favored your conclusion, then we could believe you because of that evidence, but you aren't providing us with such evidence.

    You write:

    "Again, it's not about more and more knowledge."

    I agree that your conclusions aren't about "more and more knowledge". But people who are more honest and reasonable than you are do have more concern for knowledge than you do. Maybe historical evidence for a Bethlehem birthplace doesn't have any effect on whether you believe that Bethlehem was Jesus' birthplace. For those who are more honest and more reasonable, though, the evidence does matter.

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  4. Jason, while I believe more knowledge isn't what's needed, I do think that the knowledge available is good enough to show you false. I wrote this for you.

    Now you will dispute what I wrote, I'm sure, but when taken together with my first comment above, you can easily see why I think the way I do, correct?

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  5. John Loftus writes:

    "Jason, while I believe more knowledge isn't what's needed, I do think that the knowledge available is good enough to show you false."

    Yet, you wrote earlier today in this thread:

    "Even if these events really happened, I have no reasonable way to assess whether or not they did."

    You haven't been consistent in posts written less than two hours apart from each other.

    You write:

    "Now you will dispute what I wrote, I'm sure, but when taken together with my first comment above, you can easily see why I think the way I do, correct?"

    No, that's not correct. Your article largely repeats arguments I addressed earlier. The article makes many assertions that aren't supported with any evidence. You read concepts into passages like Matthew 2:21-23 and Luke 2:39 that the text itself doesn't mention, and you give us nothing outside of the text that would lead us to your conclusions. I don't see any attempt you've made to interact with the problems with your arguments that I discussed with you earlier. You say nothing about most of the evidence that can be cited in support of a Bethlehem birthplace.

    Here are some recent threads in which I've responded to claims like the ones in your latest article. Notice that you either are a subject of or participated in these threads:

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2006/11/some-common-objections-to-infancy.html

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2006/11/why-are-infancy-narratives-so.html

    Notice that you selectively dismiss an article supporting Jesus' Bethlehem birthplace at one point by saying that "if these events really happened, I have no reasonable way to assess whether or not they did", but at another point write your own article on the same subject in order to support the opposite conclusion. At one point, you tell us that "it's not about more and more knowledge" in the process of dismissing arguments for the Bethlehem birthplace, but at another point you include some pieces of knowledge in your own article on the same subject in order to suggest that Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem. Either you need to be more consistent or you ought to try to express your views more coherently, if not both.

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  6. You haven't been consistent in posts written less than two hours apart from each other.

    Try to harmonize what I said just as you harmonize the statements in the Bible, okay? You do know what I mean, don't you? If you can harmonize all of the statements in the Bible, then why don't you try to harmonize my statements?

    Go ahead try. I think you can do it.

    I'll be waiting. I see no contradiction in what I said.

    Take a shot at it. Come on, you can do it. ;-)

    I shouldn't have to. You can. You have the skills to do so. I see them every time you deal with the discrepancies in the Bible.

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  7. John Loftus said:

    "Try to harmonize what I said just as you harmonize the statements in the Bible, okay? You do know what I mean, don't you? If you can harmonize all of the statements in the Bible, then why don't you try to harmonize my statements?"

    I did try to harmonize them, and I ended my post by referring to the possibility that you just didn't write as coherently as you could have. But I don't have evidence for your reliability that's comparable to the evidence I have for the Divine inspiration of scripture. If you think I misunderstood you, then explain what you supposedly meant.

    As I told you in another thread, in which you gave the same sort of unreasonable response while ignoring most of what I'd said, the fact that Biblical passages can be harmonized doesn't logically lead to the conclusion that every set of statements you make can and should be harmonized. But I'm willing to accept a harmonization of your comments if you want to offer one that makes more sense than my reading. As I said in my last post, your problem here may be more with your writing than with your thinking, or it may be both.

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  8. If you think I misunderstood you, then explain what you supposedly meant.

    Ha. We've been here before too!

    As I said, I don't have to. If you cannot do it, then no one can, right? Maybe someone else will? That will make such a person better than you are at harmonizing statements, but surely you don't want them to beat you to the punch do you?

    A harmonization is obvious from my perspective, even if I myself didn't write those statements. That's why it's funny to see you continue to ask me what you know is obviously the case.

    But then, I think you dismiss the obvious in your favor so much that you cannot be trusted when trying to harmonize the Bible either.

    Go ahead. Do the obvious. Until you try to do elementary exegesis I will no longer consider you to be an exegete to be trusted, okay? And I'll let others judge this case. Good luck, my friend.

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  9. John Loftus wrote:

    "And I'll let others judge this case."

    That's another line that allows you to avoid justifying your claims. You tell us that "if these events really happened, I have no reasonable way to assess whether or not they did". You tell us that "it's not about more and more knowledge". You tell us that your critics should harmonize your claims rather than expecting you to harmonize them. What all of these things allow you to do is avoid discussing the evidence when it isn't going your way.

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  10. This is fun. One more time. I wrote:

    1) Even if these events really happened, I have no reasonable way to assess whether or not they did.

    Later I wrote:
    2) Jason, while I believe more knowledge isn't what's needed, I do think that the knowledge available is good enough to show you false.

    a) What's the context of each statement, that is, what am I referring to in each statement?

    b) What is the most reasonable way to define the key words in each statement? [Hint: Key words: "these" "reasonable" "believe" "knowledge"]

    c) When it comes to knowing whether or not something happened in exactly the same way as it's recorded, does that mean we cannot exclude some possibilities? Maybe we just cannot reconstruct the event, if there was one? Maybe, right?

    Anyway, you are such the exegete! I stand in awe. YOU should teach hermeneutics!

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  11. John Loftus said:

    "When it comes to knowing whether or not something happened in exactly the same way as it's recorded, does that mean we cannot exclude some possibilities? Maybe we just cannot reconstruct the event, if there was one?"

    Earlier, you said:

    "Jason, while I believe more knowledge isn't what's needed, I do think that the knowledge available is good enough to show you false. I wrote this for you."

    This is a thread about Jesus' birthplace. You said that the evidence "shows me false". You then linked to an article of your own that's also about Jesus' birthplace. Now you refer to "excluding some possibilities" and "reconstructing the event". Nobody has argued that we can or need to reconstruct every historical detail relevant to Jesus' birthplace. We can conclude that the Bethlehem birthplace is probable without knowing all of the related details. If "the knowledge available is good enough to show me false", as you claimed, then one of the "possibilities" you're "excluding" is the historicity of that about which you supposedly "showed me false". Yet, you wrote:

    "Even if these events really happened, I have no reasonable way to assess whether or not they did."

    Now you're telling us that the evidence is good enough to "show me false", and the implication of your first post in this thread and the title of the article at your blog is that Jesus' Bethlehem birthplace is historically unlikely. If you're going to claim that you weren't saying that the Bethlehem birthplace has been shown to be historically unlikely, then why did you post your comments in a thread on that subject, why did you title your own article "Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?", and how have you "shown me false" on some other subject? How was I supposed to know what other subject you supposedly had in mind? And if the historical evidence is sufficient to "show me false" on other matters of Biblical history, then why are we supposed to believe that "if these events really happened, I have no reasonable way to assess whether or not they did"?

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  12. John Loftus said:

    "Again, it's not about more and more knowledge. It's about seeing the knowledge you already have in a different light."

    Quite. Therein lieth the whole of the matter.

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