Monday, December 23, 2019

The Light Of The World, In Word And Deed

One way to judge the historicity of something is by whether it's reported in multiple types of contexts. For example:

"Multiple forms. This criterion should not be confused with multiple attestation. Instead of appealing to a similar episode in independent traditions (à la multiple attestation), the criterion of multiple forms appeals to similar content that is featured in different kinds of genre. If similar content appears in a saying and also in a parable, or if similar content appears in the narration of Jesus' actions and also in dispute dialogue, this criterion is warranted. For example, Jesus' respect for John the Baptist appears both in logia and in the narration of his baptism. This, of course, does not speak to the historicity of the final form of these sayings/stories, it merely indicates that such respect was remembered of Jesus' historical life and ministry." (Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus [Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2009], 89-90)

I've said a lot over the years about the significance of Isaiah 9 and how the passage is applied to Jesus in Matthew 4 and John 8. Notice that both Jesus' words and his actions are involved, in multiple contexts addressed by multiple authors writing so independently of one another.

Matthew's comments (4:12-16) about Jesus' fulfillment of Isaiah 9:1-2 are often underestimated. Since Jesus is God and is portrayed as such in Matthew's gospel, he would have, in that sense at a minimum, been aware that his actions were fulfilling the prophecy. But even on a human level, it's unlikely that Jesus would have taken a course of action so closely aligning with Isaiah 9 - residing as an adult in Nazareth, which is in the region of the tribe of Zebulun, then residing in Capernaum, which is in the region of the tribe of Naphtali, and doing so in the same order as found in Isaiah - without having fulfillment of Isaiah's passage in mind. Furthermore, Matthew was in a good position to have known not only what Jesus did, but also his intentions. As I've argued extensively elsewhere, we have good reason to think the gospel was authored by the apostle Matthew. He knew Jesus. And Matthew apparently worked, and likely lived, in Capernaum or nearby (Matthew 9:1-9; the pairing of the call of Matthew with the healing of a paralytic in all of the Synoptics, with the healing being set in Capernaum in Matthew and Mark). That puts Matthew in an even better position to have known of Jesus' actions and motives related to moving to Capernaum and to have discussed such issues with Jesus. So, there's good reason to think Matthew 4:12-16 gives us an example of Jesus' application of Isaiah 9 to himself by means of his actions.

Jesus' living in Nazareth and Capernaum is also credible in that Galilee was often looked down upon at that time and was a cause of derision from Christianity's enemies for centuries. I discussed the subject in a post yesterday. For more on that topic, see Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999) 145-46; W.D. Davies and Dale Allison, Matthew 1-7 (New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 379-80. And in the work just cited, Davies and Allison note, "There is no evidence of a first century Jewish eschatological expectation centering on Galilee" (n. 60 on 380).

Jesus' living in Nazareth, then Capernaum is corroborated by other sources (Mark 2:1, Luke 4:23, John 2:12). I should explain and expand upon the passages I just cited. There's a large quantity and quality of evidence that Jesus lived in Nazareth, and few people dispute that fact, so my focus here will be on Capernaum.

Notice, first of all, how frequently all four gospels have Jesus going to Capernaum. And there are references to his staying in a house there and staying overnight, not just walking around the city briefly and moving on to another location. Jesus' singling out of Capernaum in Luke 4:23 while addressing the people of Nazareth makes the most sense if Capernaum, like Nazareth, was one of the places where Jesus lived. The presence of Jesus' family at the wedding in John 2 makes the most sense if it was a wedding affiliated with Jesus' relatives. If it was a wedding affiliated with one or more of Jesus' disciples, for example, but not his family, why would Jesus' relatives be attending? And if it was a wedding associated with Jesus' family, then their going to Capernaum afterward makes more sense if Jesus and/or his relatives had a home or some other type of property there. John 6 says a lot about Capernaum and refers to Jesus' being there, and the opening of John 7 has Jesus interacting with his brothers while in Galilee. (Later in this article, I'll address why John refers to Galilee in John 7:1 rather than specifying Capernaum.) Again, if Jesus and his brothers are referred to as being in Galilee just after there's been so much focus on Capernaum and Jesus' presence there, then there seems to be some sort of family home or other property in Capernaum. There's no reason to doubt what Matthew reports in Matthew 4:13 about Jesus' Capernaum residence, and the other gospels corroborate it.

As I mentioned earlier, Jesus' living in Nazareth and Capernaum as an adult, when he had so much of a choice as to where he lived, makes more sense if he was intentionally fulfilling Isaiah 9 than if he wasn't. So, the other sources who confirm that he lived in those locations and in that order don't need to cite Isaiah 9 the way Matthew did in order for the implications referred to above to follow. Jesus' choosing where to live in order to align himself with Isaiah 9 isn't just implied by Matthew, but by other sources as well.

As I've argued elsewhere (such as here and here), Jesus applies Isaiah 9 to himself by means of his comments in John 8:12. I won't repeat everything I said in those previous posts, but I want to expand upon what I said there by noting that Jesus also associates himself with Isaiah 9 by means of his actions in the context surrounding John 8:12. He had set out for Jerusalem, then for the temple in particular, in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles (7:8-10, 7:14, 7:37), and as Craig Blomberg notes:

"Every night of the feast, four huge lamps were lit to accompany joyful singing and dancing. On the last night the main candelabrum was deliberately left unlit as a reminder that Israel had not yet experienced full salvation (cf. esp. Sukk. 5.2-4). But Jesus speaks up and declares himself to be that salvation, 'the light of the world'." (The Historical Reliability Of John's Gospel [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001], 141)

The "last night" of the feast Blomberg refers to is referenced in John 7:37, shortly before Jesus' comments in 8:12. Craig Keener notes, regarding the reference in 8:20 to how Jesus was in the treasury:

"If the Feast of Tabernacles is at all relevant to the image, as many commentators suggest, light was also associated with the torchlight ceremony in the court of women in the temple during that festival. Jesus apparently uttered this declaration near the court of women, for the temple treasury (8:20) was adjacent to it." (The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], 739)

And let's return to an issue I raised earlier. Notice the wording of John 7:1. Why does John refer to Galilee rather than Capernaum in particular? Maybe because Jesus was traveling around multiple locations within Galilee, though I suspect he was based in Capernaum and largely spent his time there. I suspect John also refers to Galilee, instead of specifying Capernaum, because Isaiah 9 refers to more than Capernaum and because the objections of Jesus' opponents that John is about to address are focused on Galilee in general, not just Capernaum. But the wider context suggests that 7:1 was centered around Capernaum (all of the references to Capernaum in John 6, John's comments in 2:12, what the other gospels tell us about Jesus' relationship with Capernaum), even though John wants us to think more broadly of Galilee at that point. Notice, too, that in 7:1, John refers to how Jesus is walking in Galilee, which is reminiscent of Isaiah 9 and what Jesus' opponents and Jesus will say later in chapter 7 and in 8:12. In fact, the next reference to walking, after 7:1, is in 8:12. All of these references to Capernaum, Galilee, and walking provide some significant context.

And I've argued, in previous posts about chapters 7-9 in John (here, here, and here), that 8:12 is tied to other portions of what we find in those chapters as well. So, there's a lot of context that's connected to 8:12 in one way or another. The passage can't easily be dismissed. It's associated with a lot of other words and actions in the surrounding context. 8:12 isn't something you can easily dismiss as some fabrication never spoken by the historical Jesus.

In addition to that contextual evidence from the gospel of John, think about the implications of Matthew 5:14. That passage has Jesus using the phrase "the light of the world". Jesus is describing his followers there, but it would be absurd to claim that he thought his followers were the light of the world while he thought he wasn't. If the disciples are a light, how much more so the master? He would be a light in a greater way, like the Divine and salvific sense of John 8:12, but Matthew 5:14 provides evidence that Jesus was thinking in terms of being a light and even used the specific phrase "the light of the world". That adds further credibility to John 8:12.

And take note of how often the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and Jesus' comments in those gospels refer to light in one way or another. Jesus is sometimes referred to as a light in some way, he calls on his followers to be lights, and he refers to lights in his teaching. Jesus' interest in light in John's gospel is corroborated by the other gospels.

Notice, also, that Matthew (in 4:12-16) and John both have the opening of Isaiah 9 being applied to Jesus in his adulthood. Even though the passage in Isaiah mentions the figure's childhood (along with his adulthood), Matthew 4 and John 8 agree in having Jesus apply the passage to himself in the context of his adulthood. So, Matthew and John not only agree in applying the Isaiah passage to Jesus, but also agree in applying it to him in a particular way, in the sense that Jesus is the light of Isaiah 9 in his adulthood. (And that doesn't deny that he was the light in his childhood as well. The issue here is whether he functioned as the light in his adulthood also.) They also agree in focusing on Jesus' role as a light in the context of the gospel and redemption, not some other context, like military victory or the status of Israel as a nation. So, there are multiple ways in which Matthew and John not only have Jesus applying Isaiah 9 to himself, but even have him doing so in the same manner. That adds credibility to their accounts.

This combination of Jesus' words and actions found in Matthew and John, partially corroborated by Mark and Luke, should be supplemented by the comments of Zechariah in Luke 1:78-79. (For multiple lines of evidence for the historicity of Zechariah's comments, see here.) It seems that Zechariah is citing Psalm 107:10, but what he cites is somewhat similar to what we see in Isaiah 9:2. So, some of the concepts of the Isaiah passage are being applied to Jesus, even though the focus is on another passage. Though Zechariah's comments don't come from Jesus, they add credibility to the notion that Jesus would have viewed himself as the light of Isaiah 9. Not only would he have been familiar with Isaiah 9 itself, but there also was talk early in his life of his fulfilling the concepts involved in the passage.

And I've argued elsewhere that the figure in Isaiah 9 is identified with the figure described in other passages in Isaiah, like the Servant Songs. So, evidence for Jesus' application of those other passages to himself adds some weight to the conclusion that he viewed himself as the king in Isaiah 9.

Jesus' application of Isaiah 9 to himself has important implications in a lot of contexts. It implies that he viewed himself as God, the Messiah, a descendant of David, and as having been born in Bethlehem, as I've argued in posts like the ones linked above. It also refutes the popular skeptical notion that there are no traces of the most controversial material in the infancy narratives in the records of Jesus' adulthood. If Jesus considered himself the fulfillment of Isaiah 9 as an adult and during his public ministry - especially in a context like the one surrounding John 8:12, where issues like Jesus' ancestry and birthplace are under consideration (John 7:41-42) - then that's a substantial contradiction of the position of the skeptics I'm addressing here. And notice that the contradiction comes from multiple, significantly independent sources (the gospels of Matthew and John, with corroboration elsewhere).

Think of what it would take for critics to get around the core of my argument. Even if you disagree with me about, say, the historicity or implications of Matthew 5:14 or Luke 4:23, some of what I've argued would be much harder to reject. Consider how large of a portion of the gospels, early non-Christian responses to Christianity, etc. involves facts like Jesus' Galilean background and his residence in Nazareth and Capernaum in particular. Dismissing those is significantly harder than dismissing something like my view of Luke 4:23. The structure of Jesus' life, even widely accepted facts like his living in Nazareth and Capernaum, suggests a significant connection to Isaiah 9. If Jesus structured his life that way, choosing his bases of operation in Nazareth and Capernaum to align with Isaiah 9, then that's a major connection between the infancy narratives and Jesus' adulthood. Remember, as I mentioned earlier and have documented in other posts, Isaiah 9 is about more than issues like Messiahship and Deity. It's also about issues like Davidic ancestry and the Bethlehem birthplace.

Even for somebody like a radically liberal Jesus mythicist, dismissing the historicity of every New Testament passage I've cited isn't enough. You have to go on to address issues like what the New Testament claims and what evidence Christians are claiming for their views, even though you disagree with them. What the New Testament says about the issues surrounding Jesus' childhood and what Christians can cite to support their conclusions on those issues are much wider and deeper than people typically think (including the large majority of Christians).


  1. I've expanded upon my comments above in other posts. On the importance of Jesus' being raised in Nazareth, see this post. For more about the significance of Capernaum and Jesus' relationship with the city, see here. Regarding the lack of references to light in Mark's gospel, which isn't exclusive to a lack of reference to the light of Isaiah 9:2, go here. And you can find other relevant posts by searching the archives.

  2. Here's a post that discusses more of the evidence for Jesus' Galilean background, particularly from non-Christian sources.

  3. Go here for a discussion of how Jesus' identifying himself as the figure of Isaiah 9 makes better sense of the resurrection material in the gospels as well.