Friday, December 17, 2021

National Geographic's Reconstruction Of Christmas

National Geographic just published an article by the New Testament scholar Antonio Pinero on the events surrounding Jesus' birth. The article often refers to scholars and scholarship without naming names or citing the percentage of scholarship holding a particular view. The author favors liberal conclusions and sometimes mentions views that are only held by a minority of scholars without indicating how unpopular those views are. People often write without providing the sort of information I just referred to, for the sake of saving space, to make an article more readable, or for whatever other reason, but the information is worth noting when responding to an article like Pinero's. It's common for people to think a source like National Geographic or a scholar like Pinero who's writing in such a context is representing more of scholarship and better scholarship than he actually is.

Evidence For Jesus' Genealogies

Peter Williams makes some good points about Jesus' genealogies in the New Testament:

In terms of the different accounts of Joseph’s father, it’s not difficult either today or back then to imagine that someone might have a legal father other than his biological one, especially if Joseph’s biological father disowned him over the shame of Mary’s irregular pregnancy. But there are a few other interesting things to notice about the genealogies. First, though they give different grandfathers for Jesus, the name of his great-grandfather in both genealogies is almost identical: Matthan in Matthew and Matthat in Luke. The only difference is in the final consonant, and this is of a kind that is readily explicable: these names reflect two Hebrew words — mattan and mattat — both of which mean “gift”.

Secondly, taking our cue from this name, we see that a number of the names in Luke’s genealogy share a single root. The name Matthat along with five other names in the genealogy after David come from the Hebrew three-consonant root NTN which means “give”. (Sometimes the Ns are hidden by turning into Ts.) These are Mattathias (3:25), Mattathias (3:26), Matthat (3:29), Mattatha (3:31), and Nathan (3:31). This makes some sense as this is the genealogy through David’s son Nathan. The root for “give” was used to form some of the most popular names of Nathan’s descendants. As is common in families, names are repeated. There are three Josephs, two Levis, two Melchis, and the name Er (3:28), which is only ever attested for the tribe of Judah (see Genesis 38:3). These are features we might expect in a true narrative. We may also note that the genealogy doesn’t blunder by having any of the popular Greek names, such as Philip or Herod, for the period before Alexander the Great.

Thirdly, in both Matthew and Mark we’re told the names of Jesus’s brothers: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas (Matthew 13:55) or James, Joses, Judas, and Simon (Mark 6:3). These differ only in the order of the final two names and in the adaptation of the Hebrew name Joseph to a Greek ending in the form Joses in Mark. However, these names also link with the genealogy in Matthew. Boys were often called after their grandfathers (a practice known as papponymy) and sometimes after their father (patronymy). If Jesus’s name was indeed given by the angel as stated in Matthew 1:21, then neither the father’s nor the grandfather’s name was an option. However, we see both these names used in the family. James is usually understood to be the first son born to Joseph and Mary after Jesus’s birth. He was therefore called James, or strictly Jakobos, ie his grandfather’s name Jacob with the Greek noun ending -os. Jakobos evolved into English as James through centuries of sound changes. The next son after Jakobos was named after his father Joseph.

Thus we can see in the names of Jesus’s brothers a tiny coincidence which supports Matthew’s genealogy.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

A Geographical Argument For Christmas

A concise, memorable way to begin a case for a traditional Christian view of Jesus' childhood is to focus on geography. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He was raised in Nazareth. He chose to live in Nazareth for a while as an adult. He then moved to Capernaum. During his public ministry, he became closely associated with Galilee more broadly. Since then, he's become highly influential among the Gentile nations. That series of events lines up well with the geography of Micah 5:2 and Isaiah 9:1. (It's also a significant fulfillment of other passages referring to a Jewish messianic figure who will become highly influential among the Gentiles. For discussions of the significance of the reference to Gentiles in Isaiah 9:1 and references to influence over the Gentile world elsewhere in Isaiah, see here and here.) Jesus' living in Nazareth and Capernaum as an adult and his giving so much attention to the region of Galilee in general during his public ministry were things he could have done by normal means without significant difficulty. They were prophecy fulfillments he had a lot of control over by natural means rather than having little or no control. Still, his deciding to do those things provides evidence that he viewed himself as the figure of Isaiah 9:1-7. That's significant in light of what the passage says about that figure's Davidic ancestry, Messiahship, and deity. And being born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth from so young an age and becoming so influential among the Gentiles weren't things he had that sort of control over.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Why Nazareth?

I've written about the significance of Jesus' upbringing in Nazareth as a fulfillment of Isaiah 9:1. It should be kept in mind that other cities in the region of Zebulun could have been chosen if the early Christians were fabricating the claim about where Jesus was raised. There was another Bethlehem in the region of Zebulun, for example (Joshua 19:15). Or Cana could have been chosen. It doesn't seem that such alternatives had the bad reputation of Nazareth (Matthew 2:23, John 1:46). The best explanation for why the early Christians claimed he grew up in Nazareth and was there so long (thus making the claim more falsifiable if it wasn't true) is that he did grow up there and was there so long. Earlier this year, I wrote about how the nature of Luke's material on Nazareth and other issues suggests the material is unlikely to be fabricated, which supports some kind of family background in Nazareth:

The scenario I've just outlined is large and complicated, but the evidence warrants a large and complicated explanation. It's not the sort of situation the early Christians are likely to have made up if they were free to have made up whatever they wanted. When the pregnancy is premarital, Mary lives in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, Joseph is in Nazareth shortly before the wedding in spite of having a home in Bethlehem, etc., the early Christians probably were operating under significant historical constraints that prevented them from giving an account that was as simple and easy as they would have preferred.

See here for an acknowledgment of the significance of one of my points about Nazareth from Christopher Hitchens. Bart Ehrman has gone as far as to refer to Jesus' upbringing in Nazareth as "certain": "Little can be known about Jesus' early life, but one thing that can be said for certain is that he was raised in Nazareth, the home village of Joseph and Mary." (The New Testament [New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012], 269)