Sunday, December 05, 2021

How difficult was it to determine Jesus' birthplace?

I've argued that Micah 4-5 is an eschatological, messianic passage that predicts the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem. Issues like whether that prophecy has been fulfilled and whether it's been fulfilled by Jesus in particular are important, but they're rarely discussed in much depth. One of the subjects that doesn't get much attention is what access the relevant historical sources had to information on Jesus' place of birth. How well could they have judged the subject? Were they in a position to pass on reliable information to future generations?

Not enough consideration has been given to how Jesus' birthplace is connected to other issues. His birthplace wasn't an isolated issue about which people either were ignorant or had the most direct, explicit sort of knowledge. Rather, it's a subject with a lot of connections to other topics, so that people could discern Jesus' place of birth and corroborating evidence for it by a large variety of direct and indirect and explicit and implicit means.

For example, Mary couldn't help but be where Jesus was when he was born. So, knowledge of where Mary was during the relevant timeframe would give you knowledge of where Jesus was born. Her relatives, neighbors, and others could have recalled facts such as where she lived during the relevant time.

Or think of Joseph's involvement. He didn't have to be where Jesus was born in the way Mary had to be there, but he probably would have been nearby. So, people could discern Jesus' birthplace and other information relevant to it by means of information they had about Joseph.

A significant example is Joseph's career as a builder. If he'd never worked outside of the Nazareth area, other builders and customers of builders would have been in a good position to know that. Builders and their customers in the Bethlehem area would have been in a good position to know whether Joseph had ever done building work in their region. Notice that though such details about Joseph's career are different than the issue of where Jesus was born, they have implications for his birthplace.

Another example is the traveling the family did in the context of religious observances (Luke 2:41). The relatives, neighbors, and others who traveled with them, as we see in the passage at the end of Luke 2 just cited, would have been in a good position to know whether they always traveled with the family from Nazareth, for example. Or if there were one or more years when the family didn't travel with them from Nazareth, and especially if there was a memory that the family traveled from Bethlehem instead, that could easily stand out in people's minds. Think about how many passages in the gospels, Acts, and elsewhere are about people traveling for religious observances, not just at the end of Luke 2. People often retain memories of such things.

Consider the memories of the people living in relevant locations. What if you lived in Bethlehem and had memories of Jesus' birth there and interacting with him, his parents, etc. shortly after his birth? Or if he was born in Nazareth, what if you had such memories about that location? What if you had memories of the family moving to your city and whether they had any children at the time? And so on.

Modern critics of Christianity often fail to notice a connection between Jesus' conception and his birth. Because of the conception's premarital timing, something the early Christians are unlikely to have made up, the circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth are more likely to have been remembered. An unusual, scandalous conception makes the birth that followed more likely to have been remembered, including where the birth occurred. The skeptical notion that Jesus' birthplace wasn't remembered or wasn't remembered much is problematic accordingly.

Keep in mind, too, that our focus in the context of Jesus' conception should be on when people found out about the premarital timing of the conception, not when the conception occurred. Mary's pregnancy wouldn't have been visible initially. People wouldn't have noticed the pregnancy in that manner until well after the conception. The time between when the conception was noticed and when the birth occurred would have been shorter than nine months accordingly. And the shorter the amount of time between when people found out about the conception and when the birth occurred, the more likely the events surrounding the birth are to have been remembered because of their connection with the conception.

We need to keep in mind how common it is for memories associated with a birth to be recalled even decades later. We forget a lot about our childhood, but we often remember who lived in the area at the time, which children we interacted with in the neighborhood, etc. And there usually would be some events about specific people that we would remember: a comment somebody made, traveling somewhere with somebody, some trouble somebody got into, a type of clothing a person often wore, etc. How likely is it that no such memories existed relevant to Jesus' birthplace among any of the relevant sources? All it would take would be a memory that Joseph and Mary moved to Nazareth before Jesus' birth and were in the city ever since (if Jesus was born in Nazareth), a memory of Mary referring to Bethlehem as Jesus' birthplace in a conversation at some point (if he was born in Bethlehem), a memory of Jesus mentioning his birthplace at some point, a relevant memory related to Joseph's career, or whatever else. It seems highly unlikely that no such memories existed during the relevant timeframe.

And it bears repeating, since people discuss the subject so little, that Jesus had opponents within his own birth family and in Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6, John 7:5, etc.). We don't know much about how Bethlehem reacted to Jesus during his adulthood, but it's highly unlikely that every relevant person there was a Christian at the time. There surely were some people, probably many, in both Nazareth and Bethlehem and in other places of relevance, who had lived in places like Nazareth and Bethlehem during the timeframe in question and had significant memories of what happened. Some of those people were non-Christians, which means that early beliefs about Jesus' birthplace were formed by both friendly and hostile sources. It's important to emphasize the fact that the involvement of hostile sources (and neutral sources, if you want to classify some non-Christians as neutral) isn't just a matter of speculation. It's highly probable that non-Christians were involved in the process. Any claim to the contrary needs to be argued for rather than just asserted, since, for reasons like those outlined above, it's so likely that non-Christians would have had some knowledge about Jesus' birthplace and would have participated in discussions of the topic.

Jesus was only about 30 years old when he started his public ministry. At that point, there would have been many people still alive who had been alive at the time of his birth and had relevant memories and/or had relevant memories from later years (e.g., memories of people like Mary and Jesus discussing his birthplace). That probably continued to be true for some double-digit number of years after Jesus' lifetime. When early Christian beliefs about Jesus' birthplace were being formed and initially disseminated, those processes occurred in the context I've outlined above.

Even in contexts in which witnesses like the ones I've referred to were no longer alive, the information other people had gathered from such witnesses could have been gathered recently enough to be significantly credible. For example, if a neighbor of Jesus' family in Nazareth died in, say, 20 A.D., his children could have highly reliable memories of relevant information he'd reported. Getting the information through his children isn't as valuable as getting it directly from him, but it doesn't follow that being informed by his children has no value.

And Christians wouldn't have been the only people gathering information about Jesus' background. 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], 207)

That sort of mindset would especially be applied to somebody whose followers thought of him as the Messiah, God incarnate, and so on. It's implausible to suggest that Jesus' opponents among the Jewish authorities went to the trouble of carrying out lengthy public disputes with him, having him executed, beating and imprisoning his followers, and so on, but didn't look into his background much and didn't care much about what was believed on a subject as significant as his fulfillment of Micah 5:2.

People in ancient times had a wide range of motives, just as people in the modern world do. Even people who didn't care much about something like the fulfillment of Micah 5:2 or religious issues more broadly could have a variety of reasons for wanting to gain favor with the religious authorities, disliking Jesus or one or more of his followers, etc. If Jesus was born somewhere other than Bethlehem, there was a lot of potential for a lot of people with significant knowledge of the subject to talk about it.

I'll be discussing what the early sources say about Jesus' birthplace in an upcoming post. But it's important to have background information like what I've discussed in this post in mind beforehand. Critics of the Bethlehem birthplace often suggest that the early sources wouldn't have had much access to information on Jesus' place of birth, that Jesus' opponents wouldn't have looked into the subject much, and so on, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

Something else we should consider in this context is the degree to which factors like the ones I've discussed in this post are relevant and what that degree implies. Matthew has the family in Bethlehem until Jesus is close to two years old (Matthew 2:16). As I've argued elsewhere, Luke has them in Bethlehem for at least close to half a year after they go there for the census. Not only do Matthew and Luke agree that the family was in the city for such a large amount of time, but they also refer to related factors that the public would have had significant access to (Joseph's Davidic ancestry, his residence in Bethlehem prior to the birth of Jesus, the census, the events involving the shepherds, the events involving the magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents). As I've argued in the post linked above, Luke refers to Joseph's residence in Bethlehem prior to Jesus' birth, which makes Joseph's connection to the city even more falsifiable. (And a residence of Joseph in Bethlehem increases the plausibility of Jesus' birth there.) You don't place Jesus and his family in Bethlehem for so long and have the family's residence there connected to so many public events if you're making up a Bethlehem birthplace and want it to be highly unfalsifiable. The early Christians could have claimed that Joseph and Mary were traveling for some reason (to visit relatives, for a religious observance, or whatever) and that Mary happened to give birth in Bethlehem along the way, which involved their being in the city for some short period of time without the sort of public connections we see in Matthew and Luke. The degree to which multiple early Christian sources put Jesus' birth in Bethlehem in a falsifiable context reflects well on their honesty, their confidence about the birthplace, the significance of the lack of dispute over the Bethlehem claim, and the significance of the corroboration of the claim from non-Christian sources.

People sometimes make false claims in a highly falsifiable way, but that doesn't overturn the general principles I just referred to. We should be cautious about the possibility that sources like Matthew and Luke were making false claims in such falsifiable ways. But the possibility that they were making false claims doesn't remove the significance of the fact that they made their claims in such a falsifiable manner.

The factors I've discussed in this post have their highest significance in the earliest years of Christianity. Over time, memories would fade, people would die, etc. But if there had initially been a belief in a Nazareth birthplace, for example, which was gradually replaced by belief in a Bethlehem birthplace later in the first century, we'd expect some Christians and many heretics, Jews, and pagans to want to retain and promulgate the Nazareth tradition. If there was a Nazareth claim prior to a Bethlehem claim - especially if the Nazareth claim came from significant sources and was widely disseminated and accepted by influential people, like the brothers of Jesus, Paul, and the authors of the gospels of Mark and John - we'd expect the Nazareth claim to leave explicit traces in the historical record and to leave traces in many contexts.

There are two issues the skeptic of the Bethlehem birthplace needs to address, then, and those issues need to be kept distinct. How do you explain the testimony for the Bethlehem birthplace? And how do you explain the absence of an alternative claim?

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