Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Jesus' Birthplace (Part 5): Early Non-Christian Sources And Conclusion

The early enemies of Christianity were far from apathetic about the religion. They crucified Jesus. They followed and opposed Paul as he traveled. Justin Martyr refers to how the leaders of Judaism "sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world" to oppose Christianity (Dialogue With Trypho, 108). This sort of activity is reflected in many sources and in many contexts from the earliest generation of Christianity onward. Issues surrounding Jesus’ infancy, including His birthplace, were of interest to Christianity’s enemies and were discussed by them. Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho and Origen’s Against Celsus, for example, repeatedly discuss such issues. Some of the arguments used by modern critics of Christianity on issues like the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 and whether Jesus was born of a virgin were used in the earliest generations of Christianity by the critics of that era.

According to ancient Jewish tradition:

"If a man is suspected of apostasy, the circumstances of his birth are to be investigated. For the mamser (bastard) is inclined toward rebellion and blasphemy. (Lev. 24, 10 ff.; Targum same place; S. Lev. 24, 10 ff.; Kalla 41 d. The mamser must be distinguished from the beduki and the shethuki. The beduki is a child whose birth still requires investigation [Kid. 4, 2; B Kid. 74 a; J Kid. 4, 65 d]. The shethuki is a child whose father can no longer be determined [Kid. 4, 1; B Kid. 69 a; 73 a; Yeb. 100 b].)" (Ethelbert Stauffer, Jesus And His Story [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960], p. 207)

A mindset similar to what's reflected in these Jewish traditions probably would have existed among the earliest Jewish opponents of Christianity. The suggestion in the gospel of John that people were interested in Jesus' background and His birthplace in particular early on (John 7:42) is likely to be true. Thus, not only would Jesus' birthplace have been an issue discussed by Him and among His relatives and other people close to Him, but it also would have been discussed by the early opponents of Christianity. Skeptics sometimes suggest that the issue of Jesus' birthplace would have gone undiscussed for decades, followed by people guessing and making up stories about His birth late in the first century. But such a scenario is highly unlikely. It's probable that an issue like His birthplace would have been discussed widely long before the time when the gospels of Matthew and Luke were written.

People knew who Jesus’ relatives were (Mark 6:2-3). The Jewish leadership probably would have had an interest in influencing and gaining information from Jesus’ unbelieving relatives, and the Jewish leaders and Jesus’ unbelieving relatives probably would have had some overlapping interests (Mark 3:21-22). Many of the people in Nazareth would have been willing to cooperate with the Jewish leadership (Mark 6:3-6), and so would other sources with information relevant to Jesus’ birthplace. If some of the events associated with the Bethlehem birthplace, such as the Slaughter of the Innocents and the census, didn’t occur, then critics of Christianity could have refuted or raised doubts about those claims without much difficulty.

But it seems that the early enemies of Christianity believed that Jesus was born in Bethlehem:

"Contemporary Judaism had not forgotten Micah’s indication that the Messiah would hail from Bethlehem (Jn 7:42; Edgar 1958: 48; cf. Jeremias 1969: 277; Justin 1 Apol. 34); those who later polemicized against the Christian appeal to the Bethlehem prophecy did so on other grounds (Gen. Rab. 82:10; cf. Herford 1966: 253-55; Bagatti 1971:15). Nor did Matthew’s opponents deny that Jesus had been born there (Stauffer 1960: 20); as early as the second century Bethlehemites knew the exact cave where Jesus had reportedly been born in Luke’s manger (cf. Jerome Letter 58 to Paulinus 3; Paulinus of Nola Epistle 31.3; Stauffer 1960: 21; Finegan 1969: 20-23)." (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], p. 103)

"The decisive factor in favor of Bethlehem is once again the absence of discussion. Jewish writings never asserted that Jesus was born in Nazareth, nowhere denied his birth in Bethlehem. On the contrary, as Origen states, the Jews after the birth of Jesus were prone to pass over the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. To be sure, we find the rabbis discussing this point in a commentary to Micah 5, 1, the basis of which probably goes back to pre-Christian times; but in later commentaries they let fall only an occasional isolated remark about it. Origen’s explanation appears logical: Jewish polemicists could not deny the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and therefore expurgated any mention of Bethlehem in connection with the Messianic prophecies, in order not to foster belief in Jesus, the child of Bethlehem." (Ethelbert Stauffer, Jesus And His Story [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960], p. 20)

Raymond Brown, though he raised some doubts about whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem, acknowledged:

"If there is any truth in Origen's charge of suppressed references to the Messiah's birth at Bethlehem (footnote 2), such suppression would represent a tacit acknowledgment of Christian tradition concerning the birthplace of Jesus." (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], p. 514)

It’s likely that Origen was correct, given the reasons Stauffer mentions, the ease with which Origen could attain such information about Jewish responses to Christianity, Origen’s claim that there was corroboration of the Bethlehem account from the people of Bethlehem and other non-Christians, and the indications of no Jewish opposition to the Bethlehem claim in sources prior to Origen (the New Testament, Justin Martyr, etc.).

Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue With Trypho, mentions many Jewish arguments against Christianity, such as the argument that Jesus' disciples stole His body from the tomb and Jewish responses to Christian usage of Old Testament prophecies. But Justin shows no knowledge of a Jewish denial that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. As he recounts his debate with Trypho, he describes an exchange in which he refers to Jesus’ being born in Bethlehem, and Trypho responds by accusing Justin of misrepresenting Old Testament prophecy (Dialogue with Trypho, 78-79). It seems that Trypho doesn't argue for a different birthplace, nor does Justin seem to be aware of any rival tradition. Origen accuses the Jewish leaders of trying to avoid discussing Micah's prophecy, and he mentions that both the people of Bethlehem and present day non-Christians refer to Bethlehem as Jesus' birthplace (Against Celsus, 1:51).

Justin Martyr (First Apology, 34) refers to a census record that corroborates Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, and Tertullian refers to such a document (Against Marcion, 4:7). "Finally, though never at Rome, on authority he [John Chrysostom] knows that the census papers of the Holy Family are still there." (Catholic Encyclopedia) We know that census records were kept, but it's possible that Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and John Chrysostom were all mistaken. Perhaps they were just repeating unreliable accounts they had heard. But they, or one or two of them, may have been correct. I would assign some weight to this evidence, but not a lot. At the least, it demonstrates that the early Christians were so confident of the Bethlehem account that they thought it was corroborated even by the Roman government.

The lack of controversy over the birthplace should be seen in light of the presence of so much controversy on so many other issues. Documents like Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho and Irenaeus’ Against Heresies address hundreds of individuals and groups and what they believed, including many individuals and groups of only minor significance. If the Bethlehem birthplace was significantly disputed, we would expect to see that dispute reflected in the historical record, much as we see disputes over issues like the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 and whether Jesus was born of a virgin.

We don’t know what would have convinced the early enemies of Christianity that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. They would have had access to a lot of relevant sources, and any one of them or combination of them may have been most influential. If they were undecided or skeptical on the issue, they could have said so.

To summarize what we’ve seen over the past few days:

- Jesus’ birthplace would have been known to and discussed by people prior to His public ministry.

- His birthplace would have been of interest to the earliest Christians and their earliest enemies.

- Many sources likely to have relevant information, both Christian and non-Christian, would have been available for decades. In some cases, they would have been available for several decades.

- Both the early Christians and their early enemies had motives for being honest on this subject, and there are indications within the Bethlehem accounts suggesting that the claims were being made honestly.

- Disagreements on other issues, including other issues surrounding Jesus’ infancy and disagreements of a minor nature, appear in the historical record, often in multiple places. Significant disputes over Jesus’ birthplace seem unlikely to have existed without leaving traces in the historical record.

- The Bethlehem account was accepted early and widely and doesn’t seem to have been significantly disputed by Christians or non-Christians. Some non-Christian sources didn’t just refrain from disputing it. They affirmed it.

If we judge this issue as we judge other historical matters, we ought to conclude that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

"in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light" (Phillips Brooks, "O Little Town of Bethlehem")

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