Friday, October 07, 2016

A Response To Annette Merz On The Infancy Narratives (Part 7)

(Previous parts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.)

Though Merz doubts that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, she writes:

All of the canonical and extracanonical reports on Jesus' birth transmit Bethlehem as his place of nativity. (476)

She thinks some sources in the New Testament imply that Jesus was born somewhere other than Bethlehem. But she doesn't cite any extrabiblical sources in support of a non-Bethlehem birthplace. Eusebius, who had access to many sources no longer extant, wrote, "all agree that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem" (Demonstration Of The Gospel, 3:2). Jesus' birthplace isn't an issue of dispute in the earliest extrabiblical exchanges between Christians and their Jewish and pagan opponents, and the Bethlehem birthplace seems to have been widely accepted among the earliest opponents of Christianity. That support for a Bethlehem birthplace in the extrabiblical sources is highly significant.

Merz writes:

Outside the Matthean and Lucan birth narratives, Jesus is known as Jesus of Nazareth, and Nazareth is called his [hometown], which in the oldest source (Mark 6:1) must be understood as a designation of his origin and thus (by implication) as his birthplace….

Luke changes Mark's expression [in Luke 4:16]…obviously to exclude the most natural understanding of Nazareth being Jesus' birthplace. (476, n. 37 on 476)

A person's hometown would normally be his birthplace. However, sometimes a person will be born in one location, but have some other place identified as his hometown, since he lived there for so long. Terms often have more than one meaning, and we look at the context to see which meaning is warranted in a given case.

Let's say you possess several letters exchanged between an older man and a younger one. In those letters, the men refer to each other as "father" and "son", respectively, dozens of times without further qualification. What would be the most natural way to interpret their relationship? Most likely, they have a biological relationship as father and son. The son was produced through the father's sexual intercourse with a woman. But what if a third party came along, one with a credible claim to possessing relevant information about the two men who wrote the letters, and he told you that the men's relationship is adoptive rather than biological? You'd probably change your view of those dozens of phrases used by two sources that are earlier on the basis of that one comment made by one third-party source who's later. Why? Words like "father" and "son" are highly flexible, more flexible than the credibility of such a third-party source. Though "father" and "son" usually refer to a biological relationship, it doesn't take much evidence to overcome that linguistic tendency.

In an earlier post in this series, I cited an illustration involving similar reasoning from Merz herself. She lets Mark's gospel qualify what Paul tells us about Jesus' brothers. If you only had Paul's comments to go by, you wouldn't conclude that Jesus' brothers opposed him during his public ministry, that James didn't become a believer until he experienced a resurrection appearance of Jesus, etc. Normally, brothers are more supportive of one another. You'd expect James to have been a follower of Jesus before 1 Corinthians 15:7, as were Peter, John, etc. But, like Merz, we let other sources qualify what Paul tells us.

If a passage like Mark 6:1 were all we had to go by, we'd conclude that Jesus was born in Nazareth. But we have far more to go by. And it doesn't take much to overcome the tendency for "hometown" to refer to a birth location. Referring to a town other than one's city of birth as a hometown is reasonable enough and common enough to require only a small amount of evidence to justify interpreting "hometown" that way. That interpretation of Mark's use of the phrase makes far more sense when we consider what the Old Testament says about the ancestry and birthplace of the Messiah, Mark's high view of the Old Testament, his affirmation of Jesus' Davidic ancestry, the early Christian tendency to tie Davidic ancestry and the Bethlehem birthplace together, Mark's close relationship with Luke (Colossians 4:10-4, 2 Timothy 4:11, Philemon 24), Matthew and Luke's high view of Mark's gospel reflected in their use of so much of his material, the widespread affirmation of the Bethlehem birthplace among Mark's contemporaries and later generations, and the absence of any evidence of other sources being led to believe in a Nazareth birthplace under Mark's influence.

Merz appeals to the absence of the term "hometown" in Luke 4:16. She doesn't realize that she's weakening her argument rather than strengthening it. Luke's account of Jesus' visit to Nazareth is substantially different than Mark's. Compare Mark 6:1-2 to Luke 4:16. The two passages use significantly different wording. It's not as though Luke just removed the term "hometown" and kept everything else the same. Rather, he's writing an account that's substantially independent of Mark's and uses a lot of different wording than Mark's in a lot of places. There's no reason to expect Luke 4:16 to align with Mark 6:1. Worse for Merz's argument, though, is the fact that Luke goes on to use the term "hometown" to refer to Nazareth twice later in the passage (verses 23-4). Verse 23 involves a use of the term that has no parallel in Mark, so Luke is even adding the term where Mark doesn't have it. In his parallel account, Matthew uses the term twice as well (13:54, 13:57). Merz doesn't mention any of those four uses of the term by Luke and Matthew. John uses the term also (4:44), to refer to Galilee, and he affirms the Bethlehem birthplace. The fact that Matthew, Luke, and John use the term, alongside their references to Bethlehem as Jesus' birthplace, does more to undermine Merz's argument than the absence of "hometown" in Luke 4:16 does to strengthen her case.

She tells us:

In John 7:41-42, we find an unmistakable proof that people in Jerusalem presupposed Jesus' Galilean descent and had never heard of Bethlehem as his place of birth…Later on, in 7:52, the argument is reused against Nicodemus…As the evangelist does nothing to correct the view by adding other information, the most likely interpretation is that, to the author of John's Gospel, the Galilean provenance of Jesus was a given, and the author was aware that it formed a point of criticism against Christian convictions. According to the Fourth Evangelist, the misunderstanding lies in the fact that those who stumble over the Galilean origin of Jesus have not understood his true provenance from above, from the Father….

I am not convinced by this interpretation [that John and his early readers knew of the Bethlehem birthplace and perceived Jesus' critics in John 7 as ignorant]. It remains an important piece of historical information that the Davidic descent of Jesus and his birth in Bethlehem were explicitly denied by Jews in Jerusalem and that the author of the gospel let this pass unchallenged. (476-7, n. 39 on 477)

Most of what needs to be said in response to Merz's argument above has been covered in my reply to her on Jesus' Davidic ancestry. I'll summarize what I said in that post, then supplement it.

John portrays Jesus' critics in John 7 as ignorant, self-contradictory, and having bad motives. Jesus begins rebuking and correcting their false claims about his origins in 7:28-9 and continues doing so in 8:12 and 8:14. As Jesus advances his argument, his critics retreat in chapters 8 and 9. It's highly misleading for Merz to focus on the comments of Jesus' critics in chapter 7, ignore their comments in the two chapters that follow, and cite only a portion of Jesus' response while neglecting what he says in 7:28, 8:12, and 8:14.

Merz never explains why she accepts the historicity of the relevant passages in John 7. Given her low view of the historicity of the gospels in so many other contexts, you wouldn't expect her to be so accepting of the historicity of so many details in the latest gospel. Given how radically skeptical she generally is about what the early sources say concerning Jesus' childhood - often rejecting even material that meets the criterion of embarrassment, is corroborated by hostile sources, etc. - it would have been helpful if she'd explained why she accepts this material in John. It's reminiscent of appeals to Acts 26:19 and other details in Acts by skeptics of Jesus' resurrection, even though those skeptics are so dismissive of Acts' reliability in other contexts.

Then there's Merz's unjustified confidence in her conclusions and her exaggerated language: "unmistakable proof", "had never heard of Bethlehem as his place of birth", etc. She seems to be much more critical of her opponents' positions than she is of her own.

Merz refers to John's theme of Jesus' "true provenance from above, from the Father". But that's only part of what John and Jesus are addressing in John 7-9. They're also addressing Jesus' earthly origins. We could summarize these two themes by saying that Jesus' spiritual (heavenly, from the Father) and physical (ancestry, birthplace) origins are being addressed.

John 7:28-9, 8:12, and 8:14 come just after the comments on Jesus' physical origins in 7:27, 7:41-2, and 7:52. It would make sense for Jesus to address the physical aspect of his origins, then, since he was responding to claims about that subject. And his critics reply as if he is addressing that subject, since they retreat in chapters 8-9 from their previous claims in chapter 7.

In my last post, I cited 9:29 as evidence of that retreat. But what if 9:29 is addressing Jesus' spiritual origins rather than his physical origins?

The Pharisees would be more likely to express agnosticism on where Jesus came from physically than where he came from spiritually. The latter would be a bigger concession on their part and, thus, is less likely to be what they meant. They're frequently referring to Jesus as demonic, a sinner, etc. in chapters 8 and 9, leading up to 9:29. In 9:16, they explicitly deny that Jesus is from God. By contrast, they haven't repeated their reference to Jesus' Galilean background since chapter 7, and they don't have anything significant to say about physical origins in response to Jesus' comments in 8:12 and 8:14. So, 9:29 seems to be contrasting Moses' trustworthiness to Jesus' untrustworthiness as somebody whose physical origins aren't even known.

I think the best objection that could be raised against my interpretation is found in 9:33. In that verse, the man healed of blindness affirms that Jesus is "from God", which could indicate that he interpreted "where he is from" in verse 29 as addressing Jesus' spiritual origins. But the language of the Pharisees is ambiguous enough that the individual who was healed may have misunderstood them or may have used their ambiguity as an opportunity to make a different point. And citing 9:33 doesn't address the evidence I've cited in support of my view of 9:29. 9:33 is a significant piece of evidence against my interpretation of 9:29, but, on balance, I think my reading of the verse makes the most sense.

Besides, even if I'm wrong about 9:29, what I've said about the retreat of Jesus' critics in chapter 8 remains true. The issue here is whether that retreat extends into chapter 9. It probably does, but there is a retreat either way.

In 8:12, Jesus alludes to Isaiah 9, which addresses physical origins, including Davidic ancestry (9:7; cf. 11:1, 11:10) and its implication of a Bethlehem birthplace. So, though Jesus addresses his spiritual origins in his exchanges with these critics, he also addresses his physical origins.

The ignorance, misinformation, and inconsistencies we see among Jesus' critics in John 7-9 are common in other contexts as well. Think of the recent controversies in the United States related to alleged police abuses. When a police officer shoots somebody who's a member of a racial minority, for example, we often see a lot of ignorant, misinformed, and inconsistent claims circulating for a while. It may take weeks, months, or years for some of the misconceptions to get corrected on a large scale. Similarly, there were a lot of false claims circulating about Osama bin Laden's death shortly after it happened. There's been some clarification since then.

There's value in getting early reports, like the comments on Jesus' background in John 7. But there's also value in examining the credibility of the sources who provided those early reports and the credibility of the claims they made, and there's value in examining how those early reports held up over time. Merz underestimates the credibility problems with Jesus' critics in John 7 (their ignorance, inconsistencies, and bad character), she's wrong about how Jesus and John responded to those critics (they affirmed Jesus' Davidic ancestry and Bethlehem birthplace), and she doesn't say enough about how the critics' claims held up over time (they retreated from their claims in John 8-9, and Jesus' Davidic ancestry and Bethlehem birthplace were widely accepted in the years that followed, including among Jesus' relatives, the apostles, and opponents of Christianity).

She writes:

John also shows the way in which the theologoumenon of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem most probably came into being. As Christians were convinced of the messiahship of Jesus, they concluded that he surely had been born in Bethlehem and eventually created birth stories localized in Bethlehem. (477)

That's very unlikely, for a lot of reasons:

- Recall what I said in a previous post about the earliness of Matthew and Luke's gospels. It's not as though Matthew and Luke were written in the second or third century or even a couple or a few decades after Mark. Most likely, the Synoptics were written within months or years of each other, not a decade or more apart. There wasn't much time for development between Mark and the other Synoptics. Even the last Synoptic gospel was published when many eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Jesus were still alive.

- As Raymond Brown noted:

"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], 514)

Since there's such good evidence that the Old Testament anticipates a Davidic Messiah who's from Bethlehem, and there seems to have been more expectation in ancient Judaism of that sort of Messiah than the sort Brown refers to, it would have been an uphill battle for the early Christians to have taken the sort of approach Brown describes. But it was an option for them. A century after Jesus, Simon Bar Kokhba was thought to be the Messiah without a Bethlehem birthplace being claimed for him. The same can be said of the related concept that Jesus was a descendant of David. Craig Evans comments, "there were other would-be royal deliverers of Israel who did not claim Davidic descent" (Matthew [New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012], 64).

- More importantly, Merz alleges that the early Christians did initially claim a birthplace other than Bethlehem. Why would they have changed course? Continuity is more likely than discontinuity. If a Nazareth birthplace was already accepted and was being taught or implied by Jesus, his relatives, his opponents, the author of Mark, the author of John, etc., why would the early Christians have wanted to take the risk of changing their position on the subject?

- If that sort of change did occur, with the Nazareth birthplace still being prominently taught as late as the closing years of the first century (the probable date of the gospel of John), why did that change leave so little trace in the historical record? For example, John and his gospel had a lot of influence on second-century Christianity. The individuals and groups closest to John seem to have accepted Jesus' Davidic ancestry, the virgin birth, and other aspects of the infancy narratives. We see that in Ignatius' interactions with Johannine churches, Papias, Polycarp, Irenaeus, etc. For a discussion of how widely the virgin birth, for example, was accepted among Johannine and other early sources, see here. And here's a post about an early patristic tradition concerning John's high view of the infancy narratives. As the posts I've just linked and many others in our archives demonstrate, the individuals and groups closest to John held a high view of documents that affirm Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, and they often directly affirm concepts closely related to the Bethlehem birthplace, like Davidic ancestry, or the Bethlehem birthplace itself. The early extrabiblical sources who directly or indirectly affirm the Bethlehem birthplace are large in number and highly diverse in their locations, personalities, backgrounds, etc. None of the early extrabiblical sources affirm a Nazareth birthplace. The extrabiblical evidence is a major problem for Merz's hypothesis. If the scenario Merz is suggesting happened, you'd expect those events to have cast a large shadow over the second century and beyond. There is no shadow.

- Why would the early opponents of Christianity, especially, have not noticed a change in the Christian position on Jesus' birthplace or have gone along with that change? See here for some of the evidence that the early heretical, Jewish, and pagan opponents of Christianity accepted the Bethlehem birthplace.

- To get an idea of how significant the absence of early opposition to the Bethlehem birthplace is, think of the many thousands of pages of literature closely related to Christianity that are extant from the ante-Nicene era alone. Men like Irenaeus and Origen give us a lot of information about a lot of individuals and groups and their claims, including groups that were miniscule in their size and influence. Other aspects of the infancy narratives are disputed, and sometimes disputed prominently, in the orthodox, heretical, Jewish, and pagan sources. The lack of controversy over Jesus' birthplace is very significant.

- The earliest authors to report a Bethlehem birthplace were in contact with sources who would have had reliable information on the subject, such as Jesus and his relatives. Matthew and John knew Jesus, were in contact with his family, and spent time in Nazareth and other locations where there would have been other individuals who had reliable knowledge about Jesus' place of birth. John even lived with Mary for a while (John 19:25-7). Paul and Luke had met James, the brother of Jesus, and they knew a significant amount about at least one other brother of Jesus who was a prominent leader in the church (Acts 1:14, 1 Corinthians 9:5). Paul was closely following James' activities and was frequently in contact with him, as we see in Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians. Luke couldn't have written a book like Acts without knowing a lot about James.

Merz would deny that the gospels of Matthew and John were written by those apostles, she would deny that the Bethlehem birthplace is affirmed in John's gospel, and she probably would reject my position that the Bethlehem birthplace is affirmed by Paul. She may also reject some of the other claims I've made in these last several sentences. But she would agree with some of what I've said. Besides, I've argued for all of my positions in this paragraph, in this series and elsewhere. Merz doesn't have to agree with my views in order for those views to be correct and significant. Even if we were to reject something like Matthew's authorship of the gospel named after him or John's authorship of the fourth gospel, those gospels could still have a close connection with those men or other important sources. For example, if the fourth gospel wasn't written by the figure referred to there as the beloved disciple, but instead only records that individual's testimony (a position I reject and have argued against), that scenario would still give the fourth gospel a lot of value in this context. Just denying that the gospel was written by John wouldn't be enough to sustain Merz's position. Given the early prominence of Jesus, his relatives, and other sources who would have had reliable information on Jesus' birthplace, it's unlikely that the authors of documents like Matthew and Luke would have been as ignorant and flexible about Jesus' birthplace as Merz suggests.

- We know a lot about what authors like Matthew, Luke, and John were trying to accomplish when they wrote, and their objectives are inconsistent with Merz's position. The gospels are Greco-Roman biographies. That's a historical, non-fictional genre. The opening of Luke's gospel, which expresses concern for history, accuracy, research, and eyewitness testimony (1:1-4), comes just before Luke's material on Jesus' childhood. If Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, as most scholars believe, then their conservative use of Mark's material reflects well on their concern for history and their use of sources in general. Craig Keener writes:

"Because Matthew follows Mark and Q closely (by ancient literary standards) where we can check him, the assumption held by many scholars that he simply invents material where we cannot check him (traditionally loosely called 'M' material, though no longer held to represent a single source) appears to be simply imagination run amuck. His basically conservative editing at most points will impress one if one begins with neither a thoroughgoing skepticism nor a naive fundamentalism, but the standards of ancient texts in general." (A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999], 9-10)

One of the reasons why scholars think Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source and refer to the three gospels as the Synoptics, while faulting John for being so different than the other three, is that the Synoptics are so similar to each other.

Keener has recently published a four-volume commentary on Acts that's around five thousand pages long and argues in depth for the historicity of Luke's material. See here for my review of Keener's commentary, including many citations from it.

- Think of the number of sources involved in affirming the Bethlehem tradition, both the number of individuals and the number of accounts. Matthew is one individual who wrote one gospel, but that one gospel has many different accounts within it that are relevant to a Bethlehem birthplace. If Matthew's infancy material came from multiple sources, as many scholars believe, then it's not just a matter of what view Matthew held. His material on Jesus' Davidic ancestry, which has implications for a Bethlehem birthplace, is widespread outside of the first two chapters of his gospel and comes from multiple sources. Similarly, Luke reports events involving Jesus and his family in Bethlehem that aren't in Matthew's gospel, John's material on Jesus' birthplace in John 7-9 isn't found in Matthew or Luke, patristic reports of a Roman census record mentioning Jesus' birthplace come from a source(s) other than the gospels, etc. Merz has to argue that a lot of sources in a lot of contexts with a lot of independence from one another were all wrong about the Bethlehem claim.

- Notice the prominence of the Bethlehem tradition and related material, like Jesus' Davidic ancestry. Paul opens his letter to the Romans with a citation of an early tradition identifying Jesus as both Son of David and Son of God (1:3-4). 2 Timothy 2:8 refers to Davidic ancestry as a defining component of the gospel, along with Jesus' resurrection. Two of the gospels open with accounts of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, and another has a lot of material on early disputes about Jesus' ancestry and place of birth (John 7-9). Given how prominent that sort of material was in the early decades of Christianity, it's highly unlikely that James, Jude, other relatives of Jesus, and others who were knowledgeable about Jesus' birthplace would have been unaware of or apathetic about the claims that were circulating.

Merz's view of the infancy narratives and other early sources that support a Bethlehem birthplace is, as Keener puts it, imagination run amuck. The justification she cites for doubting the Bethlehem birthplace is paltry, and she ignores most of the counterarguments.

(Other parts in the series: part 8, part 9.)


  1. Jason, you have so much great material. The only problem is not many people know about the wealth of information and great ARGUMENTS you've produced and organized (i.e. themed blogposts with links to other blogposts).

    Maybe you engaging in a public debate (with at least audio) might be the perfect advertisement to attract both Christians and non-Christians to your materials. Materials which are useful against both atheist and Muslim criticisms. Two main apologetical fronts in the 21 century.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement!

    2. I echo AP's sentiments. Your in-depth work is greatly appreciated, Jason.

  2. What's hilarious about scholars like Mertz is that whenever you have claims like the virgin birth or something to that effect, they'll wax lyrical about how the "earliest sources don't have it" or how it's "absent in Mark" and John in "unreliable" but then when it's useful they all of a sudden start ascribing history to Johns gospel for their pet theories.