Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Jesus' Birthplace Outside Matthew And Luke

Among the earliest sources, the place of Jesus' birth is discussed most explicitly in Matthew and Luke. But his birthplace is implied elsewhere in the New Testament and is discussed in the early patristic literature, and those other sources get much less attention in modern considerations of where Jesus was born. The evidence from ancient non-Christian sources has been neglected as well. What I want to do in this post is address some of those sources outside Matthew and Luke.

For some important background to this post, see my article on Micah 4-5 and my article on how difficult it would have been for people to determine where Jesus was born. You don't need to read those in order to understand what I'm arguing here, but those other posts will help you understand the larger significance of this one.

- People who are skeptical of a traditional Christian view of the infancy narratives often claim that different portions of the narratives came from different sources. Raymond Brown, for example, thought the authors of Matthew and Luke drew from multiple sources, and Brown offers reconstructions of what he thinks those earlier sources consisted of. Matthew and Luke wouldn't have been present during the events of the opening chapters of their gospels, so nobody should object to the idea that they used sources in that context. And given the quantity and diversity of material involved, they could easily have used, and probably did use, multiple sources rather than just one. So, whether you hold a view like Brown's or a more conservative view, Matthew and Luke's use of sources should be acknowledged. And as Charles Quarles has noted:

"That allusion or affirmation of the virginal conception appears in multiple pre-Matthew sources should make one pause before dismissing it too lightly." (in Robert Stewart and Gary Habermas, edd., Memories Of Jesus [Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2010], approximate Kindle location 4168)

The same reasoning applies to the Bethlehem birthplace. Since Bethlehem is so prominent in the material about Herod and the magi in Matthew 2 and in other relevant contexts in Matthew and Luke, it makes more sense for Bethlehem to have been present in Matthew and Luke's sources than for it to have been absent. Brown thought there was affirmation of the Bethlehem birthplace in multiple sources used by the authors of Matthew and Luke, in addition to the affirmation of that birthplace by the authors of the two gospels (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], 109, 117-18, 192, 228-29, 421-24, 514-15). The more critics cut up Matthew and Luke's Bethlehem material into pieces, attributing different pieces to different sources, the more sources we have for the Bethlehem birthplace.

- I've argued at length that the Bethlehem birthplace is implied in chapters 7-9 of the gospel of John. See, for example, here and here. You can find many other examples by searching this blog's archives. I'll just summarize some of the more significant points:

* Jesus' critics in John 7 keep objecting to his Galilean background and his alleged lack of Davidic ancestry (verses 27, 41-42, and 52). Though John 7-9 addresses both Jesus' physical origins (e.g., ancestry, birthplace) and spiritual origins (e.g., whether he came from God the Father, whether he was demonic), there's a lot of attention given to his physical origins in chapter 7, especially in the closing verses.

* Since 7:53-8:11 wasn't part of the original gospel, 8:12 originally came after 7:52. In 8:12, Jesus cites Isaiah 9:1-7 in response to his critics. That passage in Isaiah addresses issues related to Jesus' physical origins and geographical associations (his association with Galilee, the Davidic ancestry implied in Isaiah 9:7; cf. Isaiah 11:1 and 11:10 for further evidence that Davidic ancestry is in view). So, both the nature of the comments of Jesus' critics in John 7 and the nature of the passage in Isaiah that Jesus cites in John 8:12 suggest that Jesus is addressing his physical origins and geographical issues at that point.

* The context Jesus was addressing, the context provided by his critics, involved the connecting of David, Davidic ancestry, and a Bethlehem birthplace (John 7:41-42), and Jesus doesn't do anything to discourage the drawing of those connections. Furthermore, it was common practice in the Old Testament, in the Judaism of Jesus' day, and among the early Christians to connect David, Davidic ancestry, and a Bethlehem birthplace the way they're connected in John 7 (see my post about Micah 4-5 regarding the Davidic associations of Micah's material; the prominence of Davidic ancestry in Matthew 1 and the combination of Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2 in Matthew 2:4-6; Luke 2:4-7). Notice that there's a fourfold line of evidence here. It's unlikely that Jesus was departing from the Old Testament material connecting Davidic ancestry and a Bethlehem birthplace, what contemporary Judaism said about the issue, how his critics framed the issue in John 7:41-42, and what his earliest followers would believe about the subject. In other words, it's more likely that Jesus was consistent with the Old Testament, contemporary Judaism, the framing of the subject in John 7, and his earliest followers than that he was inconsistent with all four. And since the Isaiah 9 passage Jesus cited in John 8:12 includes Davidic ancestry, the Bethlehem birthplace associated with it (in John 7 and elsewhere) was likely something Jesus meant to imply.

* Jesus probably was implying a series of conclusions against his critics by citing Isaiah 9. He is a descendant of David (contrary to 7:42), he did come from Bethlehem (contrary to 7:27, 7:42, and 7:52), his association with Galilee is a good thing rather than a bad thing (contrary to 7:42 and 7:52), the Galilean association is predicted in the Old Testament (contrary to 7:52), and Jesus' opponents are the ones who are ignorant of the scriptures (contrary to 7:49 and 7:52). Not all of those conclusions Jesus is implying are directly relevant to my focus in this post. But notice the pattern. Jesus seems to be arguing widely against what his opponents said in chapter 7. He isn't just disputing one or two points. In that sort of context, it's more likely that he intended to dispute their denial of his birth in Bethlehem than that he accepted it.

* Jesus goes on, in 8:14, to say that "you do not know where I come from". He made that comment just after both he and his opponents had commented on his physical origins. So, Jesus is more likely to be focused on his physical origins than his spiritual origins at that point, even though he does address his spiritual origins as well in these chapters in John's gospel. Notice that Jesus' comment in 8:14 raises the question of what the alternative is, if Jesus didn't come from Galilee. Was there some third location he came from, which nobody in history recorded? Bethlehem is the best explanation for what Jesus had in mind as the alternative in John 8:14. If Jesus rules out Galilee, as he seems to in 8:14, that forces critics of the Bethlehem birthplace into the very weak position of arguing for some third location.

* In one of the posts I linked earlier, I argued that Jesus' critics retreat from their earlier claims after Jesus' comments in 8:12-14. They stop making the Galilee allegations after chapter 7, they resort to the allegation of Samaritanism in 8:48, and they acknowledge that "we do not know where he is from" in 9:29. That comment in 9:29 is more likely to be about Jesus' physical origins than his spiritual origins. You can read my post just linked for further details. The retreat of Jesus' opponents suggests that they perceived he was challenging them about his physical origins in 8:12-14. And that reinforces my point that modern critics who deny that John 7-9 implies the Bethlehem birthplace need to argue for a third location for his birth (not Bethlehem and not Galilee).

* The early sources most associated with John and his gospel support the Bethlehem birthplace (Papias, the churches Ignatius wrote to, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, etc.). They did so either by directly affirming that Jesus was born in Bethlehem or by indirectly implying it (e.g., by advocating a high view of the gospel of Matthew, a document that affirms the Bethlehem birthplace). The early and widespread support of the Bethlehem birthplace among the earliest Johannine sources makes more sense if John, his gospel, and his initial audience supported the Bethlehem birthplace than if one or more of them didn't. Notice that the prominent discussion of issues like Jesus' ancestry and birthplace in John 7-9 raises the probability that some kind of belief about his birthplace was held by John and his initial audience and that the issue was widely discussed in Johannine circles as early as the first century. The idea that no view on the subject was disseminated in such a context is very unlikely. So, if the view that was disseminated was something other than the Bethlehem birthplace, why is the Bethlehem birthplace so popular among the earliest Johannine sources while no alternative is advocated by any of them?

I should add that some of the evidence for acceptance of the Bethlehem birthplace among the earliest Johannine Christians is seldom discussed. Do a Ctrl F search for "neglects" here for discussion of a passage in Papias that implies that he knew of and thought highly of the gospel of Matthew. (It's a different passage than the one typically discussed when Papias' view of Matthew is addressed.) And I respond to some objections to my interpretation of the passage in Papias in the comments section of the thread here. For a short summary of my view of the subject, do a Ctrl F search for "ends" here. See here regarding some evidence from Clement of Alexandria suggesting that John held a high view of the Synoptics, with the material on Jesus' childhood emphasized, which implies John's acceptance of the Bethlehem birthplace. It should be noted that even if somebody rejects Clement's report as unhistorical, we still have to ask what the best explanation is for such a belief about John's view of the Synoptics. As the evidence from Papias and other sources suggests, it's likely that John held a high view of the Synoptics, even if Clement's report is wrong about one or more of the details. Furthermore, the grouping of the fourth gospel with the other three early on makes more sense if John and his earliest followers had a higher rather than a lower view of the Synoptics. They probably would have discouraged the grouping of the fourth gospel with the others if they held a significantly low view of those other gospels. For evidence of the grouping of the gospels from the early second century onward, see here, section 103 of Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho, etc.

- Ephesians 2:14 refers to Jesus as "our peace". That's reminiscent of Micah 5:5. The unusualness of referring to how somebody is peace is highlighted by Paul's reference to Jesus in that verse as "he himself", suggesting that Paul wants to emphasize the fact that Jesus himself is our peace. The use of such an unusual way of referring to somebody (referring to somebody as "our peace"), an unusualness Paul seems to be aware of, is better explained if he's taking the idea from another source. A scenario in which Paul and some other source independently arrived at that concept is less likely. And the best candidate for where he got the idea is the Old Testament. Judges 6:24 refers to how Gideon named an altar "The Lord Is Peace", but Paul is more likely to have drawn the theme from Micah than from Judges, given the greater similarities between Micah's context and Paul's. And those similarities make it even more unlikely that Paul was thinking independently of Micah. Paul goes on, in the remainder of Ephesians 2:14, to refer to how Jews and Gentiles are united in Christ (the Messiah). Micah's context surrounding 5:5 is highly Messianic, as I've argued elsewhere, and he refers to the future unity of Jews and Gentiles in following the God of Israel (4:1-4). Just before the reference to the Messiah being "our peace" at the opening of Micah 5:5, verse 4 ends with how he'll be great "to the ends of the earth", implying his greatness among the Gentiles as well, not just the Jewish people. Thus, both the language and the themes of Ephesians 2:14 are highly similar to what's in Micah's passage and its nearby context. Though Micah is largely addressing another type of peace than what Paul has in mind, as the material following the opening of Micah 5:5 illustrates, the peace Paul is referring to is relevant to Micah's context. Though Micah addresses peace in military contexts, he's also addressing how both redeemed Jews and redeemed Gentiles will relate to God in the future era he's addressing, as the opening verses of Micah 4 demonstrate. We have to explain both the defeated Gentiles mentioned in Micah 4-5 and the redeemed Gentiles referred to in Micah 4:1-4, who would need a redeemer. More than military redemption is in view for both the Jews and the Gentiles Micah addresses (5:12-14). The peace Micah is addressing goes beyond what Paul is focused on, but it includes what Paul is addressing. Paul probably was applying Micah 5:5 to Jesus, and that makes it likely that he thought 5:2 was applicable as well.

Earlier in this post, I discussed how Davidic ancestry and the Bethlehem birthplace seem to have been connected in the thinking of Micah, the Jews of Jesus' day, and the earliest Christians. Paul affirms Jesus' Davidic ancestry elsewhere (Acts 13:22-23, Romans 1:3, 15:12, 2 Timothy 2:8), and he does so in a normal historical sense. That gives us reason to think he'd hold a similar view of the Bethlehem prophecy, which is closely associated with Davidic descent.

It should be noted that Ephesians 2:14 isn't comparable to passages in which somebody in the New Testament applies to Jesus an Old Testament passage the New Testament source considered to be about somebody other than Jesus in its original context (e.g., applying a portion of a psalm about David to Jesus, even though another portion of that psalm mentioning David's sinfulness isn't intended to be applied to Jesus). As I've argued elsewhere, Micah 4-5 is eschatological and Messianic in its original context. When an Old Testament passage about somebody other than Jesus is applied to Jesus in a typological or secondary way, that typological or secondary nature of the application overrides the usual implication that the remainder of the passage is also applicable to Jesus. There is no such overriding factor in the context of Ephesians' use of Micah.

It should also be noted that Paul didn't need to cite anything from Micah, much less chapter 5 in particular, much less a portion of Micah 5 so close to verse 2. If Paul thought Jesus was born somewhere other than Bethlehem, was agnostic about his birthplace, or believed in the Bethlehem birthplace without much confidence, he could easily have avoided using Micah 5:5. Paul's willingness to use a passage like that one when he could so easily have avoided doing so is best explained if he didn't think there was any significant problem with seeing Jesus as the figure of Micah 5, including that figure's association with Bethlehem.

- 1 Timothy 5:18 probably refers to Luke's gospel as scripture. For further details, see here. A reference to Luke as scripture implies agreement with what Luke says about the Bethlehem birthplace.

If critics want to attribute Ephesians and 1 Timothy to different sources, contrary to the traditional view that Paul wrote both documents, then it follows that we have an additional early source affirming the Bethlehem birthplace. Not only did the author of Ephesians affirm it, but so did the author of 1 Timothy.

- For a summary of what ancient non-Christian sources believed about Jesus' birthplace, see here. But I want to expand on what I said there about Origen, then add something about another source.

I described what Origen reported about non-Christian corroboration of the Bethlehem birthplace in section 1:51 of Against Celsus. Something I didn't mention, though, is that Origen's discussion of Jesus' fulfillment of Micah's prophecy is the first example he cites in his discussion of prophecy fulfillment in response to Celsus. For the larger context, see 1:49-50. For Origen's reinforcement of the fact that he's citing the Bethlehem prophecy as his foremost argument, see 1:52-53. Shortly after, at the opening of section 1:55, he refers to how he'd discussed matters of Jesus' fulfillment of prophecy with "some whom the Jews regard as learned", an apparent reference to rabbis. Similarly, he refers in 2:31 to how he had "met with many Jews who were alleged to be wise". John McGuckin notes, "When Origen was resident in Palestine, he consulted on several occasions with famous rabbis. He tells us in the preface to his Commentary on the Psalms that some of his ideas came from a consultation with the rabbinic patriarch Ioullos. Talmudic texts also have Origen in discussion with the Caesarean Jewish scholar Hoschaia Rabba." (The Westminster Handbook To Origen [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004], n. 62 on 11) Elsewhere, McGuckin refers to "the apologetic exchanges between the Christian and Jewish scholars of the respective Caesarean schools" (27). (Though I'm focused on Origen here, notice that Origen wasn't the only Christian involved in these interactions with Jews. He wasn't the only one who had such firsthand knowledge of what Jewish opponents of Christianity believed and argued.) And keep in mind that though Origen's interactions with Jews as an adult Christian occurred in the third century, he was responding to second-century sources (Celsus and at least one Jewish source Celsus consulted) in his treatise Against Celsus. So, Origen's confidence about the Bethlehem birthplace and non-Christian corroboration of it occurred in a context in which he'd interacted with many well-informed Jews, including on matters related to Messianic prophecy, and was responding to a work reflecting the views of multiple second-century Jewish and pagan sources. It's significant that Origen thought so highly of the fulfillment of Micah 5:2 and was so confident about it. The prominence he gives to the fulfillment of that prophecy is itself an indication that there was no significant argument against that fulfillment from non-Christians.

And I should note that there's an important passage in Eusebius not discussed in the article I've linked above. He had access to many sources no longer extant and read widely in the process of preparing his Church History and other works he published. He wrote, "all agree that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem" (Demonstration Of The Gospel, 3:2).

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