Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Bethlehem Birthplace Outside Of Matthew And Luke

Critics of the traditional Christian belief that Jesus was born in Bethlehem often object that Jesus' birth there is only mentioned in two New Testament sources, Matthew and Luke. And they sometimes cite John 7:42 as evidence against Bethlehem as Jesus' birthplace.

But where else would we expect Jesus' place of birth to be mentioned? The large majority of the New Testament consists of documents like Romans, Philemon, and 3 John, where we wouldn't expect to see any discussion of the subject. And two New Testament sources that mention the traditional view of Jesus' birthplace would be better than the zero that mention Nazareth or some other alternative of the critic. But there are more than two New Testament sources that identify Bethlehem as Jesus' birthplace in some manner.

Regarding John 7:42:

"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)

While discussing the use of irony in Josephus, the Josephan scholar Steve Mason cites the example of irony in John's gospel:

"The most famous example is probably the Gospel of John, which includes an authoritative divine prologue (1.1-18) concerning Jesus' heavenly origin (cf. John 3.11-21; 5.19-47; 6.35-58; 8.12-58; 10.1-38). The repeated claims of ignorant characters in the story to certain knowledge of Jesus' origins (John 1.45-6; 6.42; 7.41-3) are devastating because the audience - any audience at any time - knows otherwise." (Josephus, Judea, And Christian Origins [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009], p. 74)

In what sense is John 7:42 ironic? Probably in the sense that Jesus had a Heavenly origin that was even more significant than the earthly origin His critics were focusing on. But the passage probably is also ironic in the sense that Jesus' critics were ignorant of the fact that He did meet the qualifications they were asking of Him. (At such an early date, some people would have been aware of Jesus' ancestry and birthplace, but others still would have been ignorant or more skeptical of that information.) Keep in mind that John 7:42 addresses two subjects, not just one. In addition to Jesus' birthplace, it addresses His ancestry. Just as John's audience would have known that these critics of Jesus were ignorant of His Davidic ancestry, a widely known and affirmed concept in early Christianity (Romans 1:3, Mark 10:47, Revelation 5:5, etc.), the implication is that they also knew that the critics were ignorant of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. In other words, the Bethlehem birthplace is accepted by John and his readers. Matthew and Luke aren't the only New Testament sources to refer to it.

Further confirmation of that conclusion is seen in the widespread affirmation of Jesus' Davidic ancestry and/or birth in Bethlehem among early sources who were close to John and the churches among which he worked. The book of Revelation refers to Jesus as a descendant of David. Papias accepts the gospel of Mark, which refers to Jesus as a descendant of David. Ignatius refers to Jesus' Davidic descent and uses the gospel of Matthew, at one point referring to the star of Bethlehem, including when writing to Johannine churches. Justin Martyr refers to Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. So does Irenaeus. Etc. Many early sources who were historically close to John affirmed Jesus' Davidic ancestry and Bethlehem birthplace. That fact adds more weight to the reading of John 7 that I'm suggesting.

And Paul seems to refer to Luke's gospel as scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18 (George Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000], pp. 233-235; cf. Paul's application of an introductory formula to texts mentioned second or later in Romans 15:10-12 and 2 Timothy 2:19). Thus, Paul indirectly affirms the Bethlehem birthplace as well.

1 comment:

  1. Interestingly, Michael Shermer argues almost all the time that the gospels contradict each other on the birthplace of Jesus. Even after being corrected by Witherington that no gospel says he was born in Nazareth. I think Shermer has yet to provide a verse that supports him.