Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Evidence For Jesus' Galilean Background And Its Usefulness

In other posts, I've discussed the evidential significance of Jesus' background in Galilee and Nazareth. Critics of Christianity make much of Jesus' Galilean background, often his residence in Nazareth in particular. That's probably because there's such good evidence for those aspects of Jesus' life, critics don't perceive those characteristics of his life as much of a threat, and they view his background in Nazareth as a means of undermining belief in his Bethlehem birthplace. Because of Micah 5:2 and its use over the centuries as evidence for Christianity, critics have given a lot of attention to trying to undermine the Christian use of that passage.

But they're repeating a mistake that's been perpetuated from the time of Jesus down to our own day. As I wrote in another post:

They [Jesus' opponents in John 7] object to his association with Galilee (7:41). They object that the Messiah should be a descendant of David from David's city, Bethlehem (7:42). Jesus' supporters are condemned as ignorant of the scriptures (7:49). Search the scriptures and see that no prophet is to come out of Galilee, the region Jesus was associated with (7:52).

Jesus then identifies himself [in 8:12] as the light of Isaiah 9, who shines upon those walking in darkness in Galilee. The passage simultaneously answers all of the objections and puts Jesus on the offensive while his opponents retreat. (For more about their retreat in chapters 8 and 9, see my discussion of the passage here.) Not only is there an Old Testament prediction about a figure associated with Galilee (Isaiah 9:1), contrary to what Jesus' opponents suggested in the closing verses of John 7, but this figure also is a descendant of David, the Davidic Messiah (Isaiah 9:7), with the implication that he'll come from David's city, Bethlehem. (Jesus' opponents connect Davidic ancestry and the Bethlehem birthplace in John 7:42, and the connection between the two is common elsewhere, as we see in Psalm 132, Micah 5, and Matthew 2, for example. For more on this subject, see the relevant section here.) So, Jesus' opponents were wrong on all counts in John 7. He is a descendant of David, he did come from Bethlehem, his association with Galilee is a good thing rather than a bad thing, the Galilean association is predicted in the Old Testament, and Jesus' opponents are the ones who are ignorant of the scriptures.

Many other opponents of Christianity down through the centuries have acknowledged Jesus' Galilean background, including his background in Nazareth in particular, often without recognizing the significance of it, apparently. For example:

- The New Testament documents often refer to the acknowledgement of Jesus' Galilean background, including his residence in Nazareth, on the part of his opponents (e.g., Matthew 26:71, Mark 1:24, Luke 4:23-24, 22:59, 23:6-7, John 7:41, 7:52, 18:5, 19:19, Acts 6:14, 24:5, 26:9). Notice how widespread these accounts are and how the corroboration of Jesus' background in Nazareth and Galilee is attributed to so many sources.

- Justin Martyr cites a first-century Jewish reference to Jesus as "a Galilean deceiver" (Dialogue With Trypho, 108). See here for a discussion of the evidence for the first-century dating of the material Justin cites.

- In the second century, there's a probable reference to Christians as "the Galileans" in section 4:7 of the Discourses attributed to Epictetus.

- Celsus, who wrote in the second century and consulted at least one non-Christian Jewish source before writing his treatise against Christianity, refers to Jesus as "the man of Nazareth" (in Origen, Against Celsus, 7:18).

- Tertullian refers to how the Jewish opponents of Christianity in his day called Christians "Nazarenes" (Against Marcion, 4:8).

- In the fourth century, Julian the Apostate derisively gave his anti-Christian work the title Against The Galileans.

- In our day, critics of Christianity still make much of Jesus' Galilean background, often emphasizing how he was known as Jesus of Nazareth, contrasting that with the expectation that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. Terms like "Galilean" or "of Nazareth" will often be included in the titles of books and articles about Jesus written from a non-conservative perspective (e.g., the subtitle of Bart Ehrman's How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation Of A Jewish Preacher From Galilee [New York, New York: HarperCollins, 2014]).

These aspects of Jesus' background have been widely acknowledged by non-Christian sources from the first century onward. Furthermore, W.D. Davies and Dale Allison note, "There is no evidence of a first century Jewish eschatological expectation centering on Galilee" (Matthew 1-7 [New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010], n. 60 on 380). The significance of Isaiah 9:1 seems to have been largely overlooked or underestimated at the time, so it's not as though Jesus and the early Christians were under a lot of cultural pressure to claim Galilean connections for Jesus. To the contrary, those Galilean connections seem to have caused them a lot of trouble. See here. And even if they had wanted to claim a Galilean background for him, they didn't need to trace it back to shortly after his birth, which is what they did. Not only would placing him in Nazareth for so long be unnecessary in order to give him some connection to Galilee, but it also increased the problems posed by a Galilean background, as discussed in my article linked above, and increased the potential for falsification, since a fabrication of a lengthier stay in Galilee would be easier to refute accordingly. Then there's the fact that it's not just Jesus who's said to be from Galilee, but also so many of his relatives (e.g., Mark 6:1-3). Were all of their Galilean associations fabricated as well? For reasons like these, it's highly probable that Jesus did have the Galilean background under consideration here.

It's useful to be able to make a concise argument for a traditional Christian view of Jesus' childhood. We don't always have time to go into a lot of depth. And it's good to have something you can communicate briefly that will get people's attention and be memorable. Last year, I wrote about some approaches that can be taken to summarize the evidence for a traditional Christian view of Jesus' childhood. Another approach you can take is to bring up Jesus' background in Galilee and Nazareth, perhaps including his later residence in Capernaum as well. We have good evidence for those facts, they're widely accepted even among non-Christians, and the facts are important in the context of Isaiah 9:1 and in other contexts.

1 comment:

  1. An added point: Nathanael's negative reference to the fact that Jesus is from Nazareth (and I believe this isn't the only verse that indicates that geographic prejudice) constitutes an unexplained allusion. We really can only conjecture what it was that people disliked so particularly about Nazareth. It can't have been an anti-Galilee prejudice per se, since Nathanael himself was from Bethsaida. Could it be solely the smallness of Nazareth? That seems a little insufficient to explain what Nathanael says. And John's initial readers in Asia Minor wouldn't have had any way of confirming that people talked that way about Nazareth in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. It seems to be just a report of what people actually said.