Sunday, December 17, 2006

Jesus' Birthplace (Part 3): Matthew, Luke, And Other Early Christian Sources

If the first and third gospels were written by Matthew and Luke, as the evidence suggests (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), then their testimony about Jesus’ birthplace is highly significant. Matthew was in contact with Jesus, His immediate family, and the other apostles (John 2:1-12, Acts 1:13-14), and Luke had access to James (Acts 21:18) and probably would have had access to at least one other brother of Jesus and some of the Twelve, as his companion Paul did (1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:18-19, 2:9-11).

However, critics often object that the two gospels contradict each other about where Joseph and Mary lived, and it’s often suggested that neither gospel has much concern for historical accuracy. I’ve addressed issues of general historical trustworthiness elsewhere, such as here. Matthew and Luke acknowledge that Jesus grew up in Nazareth. If the historical record was as malleable as critics often suggest, then why didn't the early Christians just claim that Jesus had lived in Bethlehem until His public ministry? As I mentioned in a previous article, critics often overestimate the differences between the infancy narratives. The two gospels agree on Jesus’ birthplace, and none of the objections critics raise on other issues make the reported birthplace unlikely. Considering the many possible ways the gospels could have contradicted each other on this issue, the fact that they both have Jesus born in Bethlehem, then going to Nazareth shortly thereafter, has to be explained. If it’s going to be argued that it was widely known that Jesus was in Nazareth during His early childhood, so that Matthew and Luke knew that they had to place Him there at that time, then why should we believe that His birthplace wasn’t also widely known?

Sometimes it’s suggested that early references to Jesus as "Jesus of Nazareth" are evidence that He was born in Nazareth. But while a person could be named by his birthplace, people were sometimes given a place name for some other reason. Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17:34), for example, presumably was so named because he was associated with the Areopagus, not because he was born there. The second century bishop often referred to as "Irenaeus of Lyons" seems to have been born in Smyrna, but was bishop of a church in Lyons. In the Jewish context in which Jesus lived, a person could be named according to "their place of origin or dwelling" (Richard Bauckham, Jesus And The Eyewitnesses [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006], p. 81). The evidence suggests that Jesus was named after the place where He grew up and spent most of His life, not His birthplace.

Matthew and Luke, who refer to Jesus as born in Bethlehem, also refer to Him repeatedly as "Jesus of Nazareth" (Matthew 26:71, Luke 24:19, Acts 10:38, etc.). It can't be argued that they used the term only because Mark used it, and that they were relying on Mark, since they also use the term in material that isn't paralleled in Mark. Even in the passages that are paralleled in Mark, why would they repeat the term if it's as problematic for Jesus' Bethlehem birthplace as some critics suggest? The idea that two first century writers would fail to realize that the term "Jesus of Nazareth" would communicate Jesus’ birthplace to their readers or to people who had lived a few decades earlier, not recognizing that the term therefore contradicted their previous accounts of a Bethlehem birthplace, followed by the readers of those documents also failing to see the contradiction, is implausible. If the phrase "Jesus of Nazareth" identified Jesus’ birthplace, it’s doubtful that Matthew, Luke, and the readers who lived in that early Jewish context would have failed to realize it.

The historian Paul Maier, during an interview on the December 3, 2003 broadcast of the "Bible Answer Man" radio program, commented:

"Jesus spends, probably, not more than 50 days in Bethlehem. For all I know, He never visited the city again, except on the way back from Egypt, and then briefly. He spends all of His childhood in Nazareth. He spends His early ministry in Nazareth. He grows up in Nazareth. And so He should now be called 'Jesus of Bethlehem'? I mean, this is ridiculous! I just have very little patience with this sort of sloppy, avant-garde, sensationalist, revisionist scholarship."

And I would repeat something I said earlier. If critics want to argue that the term "Jesus of Nazareth" was meant to identify Jesus’ birthplace in Mark’s gospel, then there’s a price to pay for using that argument. If Mark’s gospel is going to be dated to the sixties, as it commonly is, then the implication of arguing that Mark identified Nazareth as Jesus’ birthplace is that the belief continued to be prominent at least as late as the sixties. So, where is it reflected in the later sources who comment on Jesus’ birthplace? Keep this issue in mind as we look at the beliefs of later Christian and non-Christian sources in the coming days.

If Matthew and Luke could use "Jesus of Nazareth" without the intention of communicating His birthplace, then, in all likelihood, so could Mark. Even if we assume late dates for the first and third gospels, the timespan separating them from Mark is still small. It’s unlikely that the understanding of the term "Jesus of Nazareth" changed so much in that timeframe. It’s also unlikely that the understanding of the term changed much from the time of Jesus to the time of Mark. Some of Jesus’ contemporaries would still be alive when Mark wrote, as well as when Matthew and Luke wrote, and Mark’s initial readers could easily have lived long enough to read Matthew and Luke as well. Mark surely viewed Jesus as a descendant of David (Mark 10:47-48, 11:1-11), as other early Christian sources did, so it would make sense that he would accept the related Davidic concept of a Bethlehem birthplace.

Some critics cite John 7:42 as evidence that John must not have believed that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Otherwise, wouldn't he have corrected the misconception he reports? Actually, the passage probably is another example of John's use of irony:

"John is perfectly capable of leaving unanswered a foolish objection by Jesus' opponents or interrogators because he knows that that Christian reader will see the fallacy (cf. 4:12) - a technique that creates problems for the modern reader who has to guess how much John's readers knew." (Raymond Brown, The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], n. 6 on p. 516)

"Many ironies in Greek tragedies did not need to be spelled out because the story was already well known to the audience. The independent infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke - the only two extant first-century gospels with infancy narratives - both attest that many Christians accepted this tradition before John's time, and at least by the time of Hadrian in the early second century even non-Christian residents of Bethlehem recognized a long-standing tradition of the site of Jesus' birth in a particular cave there. The tradition was probably sufficiently widely circulated to be taken for granted by John's audience." (Craig Keener, The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], pp. 730-731)

And there’s something in John 7:42 that people often overlook. Jesus’ birthplace isn’t all that’s mentioned. His ancestry is mentioned as well. There’s widespread scholarly support for Jesus’ Davidic ancestry. The claim of Davidic descent is early, widespread, and unchallenged. So, if the people in John 7:42 could have been ignorant of Jesus’ Davidic descent, which even non-conservative scholars accept as historical, why couldn’t they have been ignorant of the birthplace as well? The ignorance of the questioners in John 7:42 is inconclusive. The people in John 7 are portrayed as putting forward a series of often ignorant and inconsistent arguments. Just as John doesn't comment on the remarks of verse 42, he also doesn't comment on the contradictory remarks of verse 27. John's silence can't be taken as evidence that he agreed with what these people were saying. He sometimes lets false assessments of Jesus pass without comment, as we see earlier in the same chapter (verses 12, 27, 35-36, etc.).

We have widespread evidence outside of the fourth gospel that the sentiments of John 7:42 don't represent John's views. If John wrote the fourth gospel and Revelation, as I believe, then Revelation 5:5 and 22:16 would demonstrate that John didn't agree with the comments in John 7:42. Many early sources close to John and Johannine churches either directly or indirectly affirm that Jesus was a descendant of David, that He was born in Bethlehem, or both (Matthew in Matthew 1:1, Peter in Acts 2:30, Paul in Romans 1:3, Ignatius of Antioch in Letter To The Smyrnaeans 1, Irenaeus in Against Heresies 3:16:4, etc.). Every source we know of who was close to John and comments on the issues discussed in John 7:42 disagrees with the sentiments expressed in that passage. It's highly unlikely that John agreed with those sentiments, yet left no trace of such beliefs in the historical record, such as among the many individuals and churches he influenced. John and the Johannine documents cast a large shadow over the second century church. Irenaeus repeatedly refers to disciples of John who lived into the second century and had widespread influence, and traces of the Johannine documents and traditions related to John are found across a wide spectrum of sources from the early second century onward (Papias, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, etc.). The concept that John or some other influential figure or community behind the fourth gospel believed in a non-Davidic, non-Bethlehemite Messiah, yet that belief not only left no trace in the historical record, but also was eclipsed by belief in a Davidic Messiah born in Bethlehem among the people and churches closest to John and most influenced by the Johannine documents, is unlikely.

The same can be said about the other early leaders of the church. If people like James, Paul, and Peter had said for decades that Jesus was born in Nazareth or somewhere else other than Bethlehem, why doesn't such a tradition show up among their companions and their churches?


  1. :::YAWN!!!:::

    kill me now!!! The sheer droning of this article is worse torture than hell itself!

  2. This view is very interesting. I read it though and some of the info was useful for some ideas (not yours exactly) for my midterm paper.