Sunday, November 26, 2023

Ephesian Sources On Jesus' Childhood

We're often told that the early Christians don't show much interest in Jesus' childhood outside the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke. Actually, there's more material on the subject elsewhere than is typically suggested. Some of those other sources are affiliated with Ephesus in one way or another, so we can summarize much of that evidence by referring to Ephesian sources. There's reason to think the Ephesian church was well informed about Jesus' childhood and was expected by other Christians to be well informed about the subject. What the sources writing to and from Ephesus tell us suggests that there was some interest in Jesus' childhood in Ephesus, and what's said about the subject corroborates and supplements what Matthew and Luke reported.

Last year, I wrote a post about the presence of John the son of Zebedee in Ephesus until around the end of the first century and the significance of Ephesus in early church history. I want to discuss some of the implications that follow for issues related to Christmas, then discuss some other Ephesian sources.

John's gospel has much more material on Jesus' childhood than people usually think. See here for an overview. Where did he get that information?

As I discussed in some posts a few years ago, John at least worked near Capernaum and probably lived there. He likely lived in or near the same town as Jesus for a while and would have had reason to discuss with Jesus his move from Nazareth to Capernaum and the Christmas-related issues surrounding that move (Isaiah 9:1). (See here for a further discussion of how John's gospel reflects such interests.) So, it's not just that John knew Jesus and was unusually close to him (one of the inner three in the Synoptics and the beloved disciple in the fourth gospel). Living in Capernaum with Jesus or nearby and having reason to ask him about his move to that town would also have put John in a better position to be well informed about Jesus' childhood.

And we should also take into account John's experience of living with Mary (John 19:25-27). We don't have much evidence to go by in judging whether she lived until the time when John went to Ephesus. I doubt that she did, for reasons explained here. But even if Mary didn't live until John's time in Ephesus, he would have taken his memories of her with him. So, she would have had a significant influence on the early Ephesian church either way, whether directly or indirectly.

My post on Ephesus provides some examples of the early prominence and influence of the church in that city. A significant line of evidence I address in another post is the large amount of influence Ephesus had on Ignatius and how much Ignatius interacted with the Ephesian Christians in the early second century. His letter to the Ephesian church, which likely reflects both Ignatius' views and what he expected his Ephesian audience to be familiar with and accept, corroborates what I've outlined above about John's access to information on Jesus' childhood. I think Ignatius' letter to the Ephesians has more material on Jesus' childhood than any other letter Ignatius wrote. He writes to them about the incarnation, Jesus as "God existing in flesh" (7) and as born of Mary, who's mentioned by name (7). Jesus was "conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost" (18). He goes on to discuss Mary's "virginity" and her "giving birth" (19). There's then a reference to a star associated with Jesus' being "manifested to the world" (19), a phrase best explained as referring to his entrance into the world in childhood, not some later event, like his resurrection or ascension. Ignatius goes on to associate the star with "God himself being manifested in human form" (19), once again suggesting that he likely has the star of Bethlehem in mind, not some reference to Jesus' being a star or being associated with one later in life. Ignatius doesn't just bring up the star of Bethlehem, which would be significant by itself, but even gives it a substantial amount of attention (a few sentences in a relatively short letter). He goes on in the next section (20) to refer again to Jesus' Davidic ancestry and two natures. Not only does Ignatius say so much about Christmas issues in his letter to the Ephesians, but he also mentions Mary in particular by name a few times, more than in any other letter and more than in all of his other letters combined. Again, notice how well Ignatius' attention to Christmas issues when writing to the Ephesians aligns with what other sources tell us about John's access to information on Jesus' childhood, John's residence in Ephesus, the material relevant to Jesus' childhood in the fourth gospel, etc.

Two other early Ephesian documents, 1 and 2 Timothy, have Paul writing to Timothy in Ephesus a few decades before John's death and affirming a traditional Christian view of Jesus' childhood in the process. See, for example, Paul's citation of Luke's gospel as scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18, which implies agreement with Luke's Christmas material, and the reference to Jesus' Davidic ancestry in 2 Timothy 2:8.

In a post a couple of years ago, I discussed some parallels between the second chapter of Paul's letter to the Ephesians and chapters 4-5 in Micah. Ephesians 2:14 is likely an allusion to Micah 5:5 and implies Jesus' Bethlehem birthplace. You can read my post just linked for further details.

As my post on Ephesus explains, it looks like the Ephesian church had a lot of contact with apostles and individuals close to the apostles for at least around half a century. That included people who knew Jesus and/or one or more members of his immediate family, and his mother seems to have either lived in Ephesus or lived with John before his move to that city.

I've explained elsewhere that John's gospel probably implies Jesus' Bethlehem birthplace. It also gives us a substantial amount of other information about Jesus' childhood. And Ignatius' letter to the Ephesians refers to the name of Jesus' mother, the virgin birth, the star of Bethlehem, etc. So, even though none of the earliest sources closely associated with Ephesus have anything like a biographical account of Jesus' childhood such as we have in Matthew and Luke, the Ephesian documents do refer to a large number and variety of aspects of his childhood, including some of the most significant and controversial ones.

What I've been discussing in this post has a lot of important implications for the unity of the early sources. I'll just address a few of those implications here.

Ignatius' comments on the star of Bethlehem are significantly different than Matthew's, such as how much more poetic and hyperbolic Ignatius' material is. That raises the possibility that his material is at least partly independent of Matthew's. Independence would raise the probability of the historicity of the star. But even if the accounts aren't independent, if Ignatius was just reframing something he derived from Matthew's gospel, for example, there would still be some significance in having another source, and one so early and well placed, accepting and disseminating what Matthew reported.

We're often told that the early Christians were highly disunified, with a Pauline community opposing a Petrine community, a Johannine community who disagreed with those other branches of Christianity, and so on. On Christmas issues, we're often told that Matthew and Luke are highly inconsistent, that the New Testament sources other than those two gospels show little interest in Jesus' childhood, that claims like the virgin birth and the Bethlehem birthplace are only found in Matthew and Luke, and so forth. But John 19:25-27, the evidence for John's residence in Ephesus, Ignatius' letter to the Ephesians, and the other evidence I've brought up in this post suggest that a traditional Christian view of Jesus' childhood is widely corroborated early on outside the infancy narratives. The beliefs in question weren't just Matthean and Lukan. They were also Pauline, Johannine, Ephesian, and more broadly Christian.


  1. I went and refreshed my memory of what exactly Ignatius said about the star of Bethlehem. I don't think that his comments are different in the way that we would expect them to be different if they actually came from an independent factual source. It may be that Ignatius is speaking in hyperbole about the extra-brightness of the star. Or it may be that his source for the information was simply inaccurate, engaging in embellishment. As I've argued elsewhere, independent *embellishment* of a central core doesn't constitute independent attestation to the event that is common to the different sources. This is because what we're looking for in multiple (independent) attestation is independent access to the facts of the matter, not independent use of the imagination based upon a plausibly common-to-both *single* report of the shared fact.

    So if you want to concede that Ignatius's mention of the star is just reframing something from Matthew's Gospel (or that his source was doing so, or that they were both derived from a common oral source, etc.), then it's hard to see what the "significance" is to Ignatius's statements about the star. Why then would they be important at all to our evaluation of the historicity of the star?

    The only thing I can think of would be that Ignatius's passage refutes the idea that Matthew's infancy narrative, including the star, originated later in time than the writing of Ignatius's letter! But that seems so obviously false that I doubt that we gain much by pointing it out.

    1. I was addressing possible scenarios behind Ignatius' comments, one in which he had information independent of Matthew and one in which he didn't. I don't know why you're saying that you'd expect his comments to be different if he had independent information. As far as I can tell, his comments are open to either scenario.

      There are multiple reasons why his comments have value if he's just doing something like expanding on what he derived from the gospel of Matthew. It does offer further evidence for an earlier date for Matthew's material, as you mentioned. There are critics who propose that Matthew's Christmas material was added to the gospel later, much as they sometimes suggest the same with Luke. And the relationship between Ignatius' comments on the star and his comments about other matters gives us evidence that he took the star to be historical, which is also significant, given how often critics assign a nonhistorical genre to the infancy narratives in general or portions of them. His comments also give us some indication of how he expected the star account to be received by the Ephesian Christians and how they likely did receive it. That's one of the points I was making in my post, the nature of early Ephesian Christianity. It's valuable to have evidence concerning how familiar the Ephesians were with Christmas issues, how receptive they were of material like the star account, and so on. Even if Ignatius was just expanding upon what he read in the gospel of Matthew, there is some evidential value in seeing such an early Antiochene source speaking so positively (and so extensively, as I pointed out) about the star and apparently expecting and getting a good reception to it in the Ephesian church (Antioch and Ephesus both being apostolic churches, among other reasons for their significance). Even apart from the Ephesian context, the fact that we have a source so early affirming the star account has some value, even if he's only expanding upon what he derived from the gospel of Matthew. It tells us something about how credible the account was considered to be early on and by such a significant source. Some of the ways we measure how confident a source is about a subject are his willingness to bring it up when he could easily have avoided doing so and how much attention he brings to it. Ignatius could easily have avoided mentioning the star, and, as I said in my original post, he gave a significant amount of attention to it. Those are some other reasons why his star comments are valuable.

    2. The genre point is a good one that I hadn't thought of.