Monday, December 18, 2006

Jesus' Birthplace (Part 4): Other Early Christian Sources

The gospels of Matthew and Luke, which claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, were widely accepted as authoritative by sources who lived in the first century. See, for example, Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Regarding the gospel of Matthew, Clayton Jefford writes:

"it is clear that the Gospel of Matthew, both as a literary source and as a foundation for faith, gained an early status as the most widely known and utilized of our gospel texts through the churches of the early Christian world. The apostolic fathers attest to this fact on a wide scale. Connections to Matthew are evident in the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, throughout the letters of Ignatius, in 1-2 Clement, and in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. This suggests that the text of Matthew circulated quickly around the Mediterranean and gained an authoritative status quite readily among disparate churches in different locations." (The Apostolic Fathers And The New Testament [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006], pp. 142-143)

Martin Hengel writes:

"the First Gospel [Matthew] already established itself quickly and tenaciously in the church at the beginning of the second century" (The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], pp. 71-72)

For more examples of how these gospels, the events surrounding the Bethlehem birthplace, and the birthplace itself are found among the earliest post-apostolic sources, see here and here. Many of these early sources lived in multiple locations and were in contact with apostolic churches and companions of the apostles. For example:

"Irenaeus was born in Smyrna, Asia Minor, where he knew bishop Polycarp and from him learned of the Johannine tradition. He studied and taught at Rome before going to Lyons. As a presbyter, he went on a mission to bishop Eleutherus of Rome to urge toleration with regard to adherents of Montanism in Asia Minor. On his return to Lyons, he was made bishop." (Mary Clark, in Everett Ferguson, editor, Encyclopedia Of Early Christianity [New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999], p. 587)

Other early sources who directly or indirectly refer to Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace had similar qualifications. If you combine all of the sources who support the Bethlehem birthplace in one manner or another, we have a belief "widely known…through the churches of the early Christian world…among disparate churches in different locations", as Jefferson Clayton writes about the gospel of Matthew above.

Apparently, the account of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem was so well known in the early second century that not only was the Roman emperor aware of the birthplace, but he also was aware of the specific location of the cave within Bethlehem. Early in the second century, the emperor Hadrian planted a grove of trees in honor of the god Adonis at the location of Jesus' birthplace, as a deliberate insult to Christianity:

"Both Jerome and Paulinus of Nola provide evidence that the cave in Bethlehem, under the present Church of the Nativity, was identified as the birthplace [of Jesus] before the time of [the Roman emperor] Hadrian - thus almost into the first century. Hadrian (117-38) marked the site by planting a grove of trees there in honor of the Roman god Adonis." (John McRay, Archaeology & The New Testament [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 2003], p. 156)

Commenting on the significance of the tradition surrounding this cave, Jerome Murphy-O'Connor writes:

"That the cave had become the focus of pilgrimage is confirmed by the early church father Origen (185–254 A.D.), who reports that 'there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where he [Jesus] was born.' The cave apparently attracted regular visitors, including Origen himself sometime between 231 and 246 A.D. It is difficult to imagine that the Bethlehemites invented the cave tradition, particularly because, as there is reason to suspect, the cave was not always accessible to Christians in the days of Justin and Origen. According to the church father Jerome (342–420 A.D.), who lived in Bethlehem from 386 A.D. until his death, the cave had been converted into a shrine dedicated to Adonis: 'From Hadrian’s time [135 A.D.] until the reign of Constantine, for about 180 years…Bethlehem, now ours, and the earth’s, most sacred spot…was overshadowed by a grove of Thammuz, which is Adonis, and in the cave where the infant Messiah once cried, the paramour of Venus was bewailed.' Local Christians were probably not permitted to worship regularly in what had become a pagan shrine. The fact that the Bethlehemites did not simply select another site as the birth cave suggests that they did not feel free to invent. They were bound to a specific cave. To preserve a local memory for almost 200 years implies a very strong motivation, a motivation that has nothing to do with the Gospels."

Dozens of ante-Nicene sources, representing many thousands of people, either directly or indirectly refer to Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace. Eusebius, a church historian who had access to many documents no longer extant, wrote:

"all agree that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem...And to this day the inhabitants of the place, who have received the tradition from their fathers, confirm the truth of the story by shewing to those who visit Bethlehem because of its history the cave in which the Virgin bare and laid her infant" (Demonstration of the Gospel, 3:2, 7:2)

There is no comparable rival tradition:

"Some critics doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and argue instead for Nazareth or elsewhere. Such opinions, however, are based only on scholarly conjecture, and no source has been discovered to date that disproves Jesus' birth in Bethlehem." (Paul Maier, The First Christmas [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2001], p. 40)

"The place where Jesus was born has never been seriously disputed....The tradition that Jesus' birth took place in Bethlehem is long and solid. There appears little reason to doubt its essential trustworthiness." (John McRay, Archaeology & The New Testament [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 2003], pp. 156-157)

"There's only one tradition, concerning Jesus' birthplace, and that's Bethlehem." (Stephen Pfann, Director, Jerusalem School for the Study of Early Christianity, from a videotaped interview, "A Response to ABC's The Search for Jesus, Part I: Questions About His Birth", Program 2, "The John Ankerberg Show")

1 comment:

  1. Just finished reading a review by Christopher Howse. He makes the point that Lloyd George, one of the most famous Welshmen of the last century, was born in Manchester. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Pembrokeshire. However, Lloyd George is associated by all with Llanystumdwy in Caernarfonshire, where he grew up, was educated, and where he is buried.

    Indeed, adopting the character of a 'revisionist' historian of 2600AD, I shall make the following argument:

    "David Lloyd George, 'the Welsh Wizard' is a character shrouded in mystery, as befits a man who seems to have claimed magical powers. The last Liberal Prime Minister of Great Britain, we know very little of his actual early life. His early biographers tell many stories about his childhood and his place of birth. According to these accounts, Lloyd George was born in Manchester, England and spent the earliest years of his life in Pembrokeshire.

    "Yet this is too convenient. Manchester is a city associated with Free Trade and Liberalism. Lloyd George was a prominent Free-Trader and the last Liberal Prime Minister. It is more likely that the early writers had Lloyd George born in Manchester to bolster his Liberal credentials (in the early years of his political career, Lloyd George's Liberalism was doubted) than that this most Welsh of politicians was actually born in Manchester. Further, Dafydd Wigley, leader of the Welsh Nationalist Party, Plaid Cymru, was born in Manchester, so this may be a mistake on the part of historians, confusing the two politicians, both of whom represented Caernarfonshire.

    "As for having spent the early part of his life in Pembrokeshire, since Lloyd George's descendants would settle in South-West Wales, and his son, Gwilym, represented Pembrokeshire, as did his ally, Wynford Philipps. South Wales was the most powerful part of Wales, so, further, this may have been an attempt to provide Lloyd George with a claim to lead all of Wales, not simply the North.

    "Given that all of the formative events in Lloyd George's youth took place in Llanystumdwy, and there is no evidence that he moved beyond Caernarfonshire until he was in his twenties, those who posit a Mancunican birth, and an infancy spent in Pembrokeshire are, in my opinion, merely falling for myths that built up around the powerful figure of Lloyd George."

    See, easily done.