CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth


In my time debating the truth of Christianity, I have observed some skeptics (not all) ask questions for the same end to which Rumpelstiltskin asked people to guess his name. They ask questions not expecting an answer, but rather to watch the people asked squirm; i.e., they ask questions with unwarranted confidence that the people asked will not have the answer. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that the questions they ask aren’t worth asking. Rather, the motivation is false; the questions are being asked not to get information to make an honest evaluation of the facts, but rather they ask because they want to hear the Christians stumble about trying to answer.

I heard one such Rumpelstiltskin call in to a talk radio program a few days ago. His words were something to the effect of: 
Hey, Jim, I can prove that God doesn’t exist. God’s omniscient, right? Well I’m an atheist and that means that God knew when he created me that I would be going to hell, right?
I have a question: what are the chances that this particular skeptic was looking for an answer to his question? This Rumpelstiltskin, like many of his kin, asks the question because he thinks that he alone, among the millions of skeptics who are collectively infinitely smarter than he, has found the Jenga block which, if removed, will cause the entire Christian edifice to collapse. So Rumpelstiltskin asks his question and laughs while the poor Christian stumbles about seeking the answer. He knows that the Christian will not have the answer because there is no answer – or so he thinks. But until he gets answered, he will run around spouting his question to unsuspecting Christians.

Let me be clear: the question Rumplestiltskin asked would be legitimate if asked honestly. Rumplestiltskin didn’t ask the question honestly seeking an answer. Rather, he used the question as a sword to slash at Christian belief. To that extent, responding to Rumpelstiltskin ultimately proves pointless because Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t want an answer. But what about the honest skeptic who wants to know if an answer to this question exists, or the church member who hears the question and wants to understand how the God who she knows exists could do such a thing? Should there be an answer for him or her? I will try to respond to this question not for the sake of Rumpelstiltskin, but rather for those who want to engage in real conversation.

First, let’s acknowledge that the answer to the question posed by Rumpelstiltskin is not easy. There is no single Bible verse of which I am aware that answers this question. The Bible is not intended to answer every question about God, but rather exists to tell us some of God’s attributes and to explain his plan of salvation. Keep in mind, God (assuming He exists) is not obligated to answer our every question. Rather, as Paul noted in Romans 9 and as the Book of Job points out, if God has chosen to not reveal detailed answers to man as to his reasons for doing things, mankind has no cause to complain. 
[W]ho are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?
This is similar to the answer that God gave to Job when he sought an answer to why he had suffered. In the final chapters of Job, God appears to Job, but rather than answer the question directly, God pointed out to Job that Job was not God. God, being God, can do as He pleases, and mankind does not have the right to question Him. As Isaiah 55:8-9 says, 
"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways," declares the LORD. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.”
Moreover, mankind’s thoughts are often flawed especially when it comes to the ways of God and the flaws are even more pronounced when trying to understand those things that God has not chosen to reveal. Consider the many disagreements that occur even within the Christian church about what He is like and what he desires or commands. Must baptism be full immersion or is sprinkling acceptable? The answer is disputed. Is communion symbolic, actual transformation or real presence? Again, it depends upon the denomination and the individual.  Will there be a rapture and if so will it occur pre-tribulation or post-tribulation? We don’t know. We can make arguments, but the simple answer is that we won’t know until God does it. So, when you hear a question like Rumplestiltskin’s, even when asked honestly, it appears that the answer can change depending from which tradition the answer comes.

Thus, anyone seeking to answer Rumplestiltskin’s question must approach it with humility and a willingness to admit the possibility that the proposed answer could be wrong. Those reading the answer I will propose and disagree: I ask that you approach my response with the understanding that I am making my best effort to answer a question which, to my knowledge, is not directly answered in the Bible. If I am wrong, I welcome appropriate and respectful critiques.

I will continue this in part 2

In looking at my Yahoo! mail page, I came across the article I expected to find much earlier in the month. It was entitled Whither the birthplace of Jesus? O little town of Bethlehem vs. the littler village of Bethlehem of the Galilee. The sum and substance of the article is that an Israeli archaeologist, Aviram Oshri, has made the claim that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem of Judea, as reported in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (and as alluded to in John). Instead, he argues that Jesus was born in a little town of Bethlehem of Galilee. The article quotes Mr. Oshri as saying:

I had never before questioned the assumption that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. But in the early 1990s, as an archaeologist working for the IAA, I was contracted to perform some salvage excavations around building and infrastructure projects in a small rural community in the Galilee. When I started work, some of the people who lived around the site told me how Jesus was really born there, not in the south. Intrigued, I researched the archaeological evidence for Bethlehem in Judea at the time of Jesus and found nothing. This was very surprising, as Herodian remains should be the first thing one should find. What was even more surprising is what archaeologists had already uncovered and what I was to discover over the next 11 years of excavation at the small rural site--Bethlehem of Galilee.
Since some people won't search back into the archives here at CADRE Comments, I point out that I have already made a rather detailed response to Mr. Oshri's claims in Part V of my series on whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem and Galilee. In sum, I think that Mr. Osrhi's claims are not well supported, and I invite the reader who is interested to read some of the evidence that Mr. Oshri seems to conveniently overlook.

With the recent school shooting in Connecticut, I wouldn't be surprised if Christmas sermons leaned a little more than usual this year on the incident of Herod slaughtering the baby boys in Bethlehem.

I would however be surprised if many Christian sermons bothered to talk about the Old Testament verses being referenced by Matthew (or whoever authored/compiled/redacted/whatever the Greek text of The Gospel According to Matthew--but for ease of reference I'll go with Matthean authorship hereafter).

That's because many Christian preachers would have good reason to be nervous about looking into why Matthew cites this incident as fulfilling a prophecy from Jeremiah.

I on the other hand think Matthew's reference is hugely important and relevant, not only in regard to Christian hope for innocent victims, but also in regard to Christian hope for those who slaughter the innocent!


...what? Hope in Christ, and in the grace of God, for Herod and for his murderous thugs?! Hope for modern murderers, too, even if they have already died in their sins?!?


If you aren't already tired of Christian preachers piggy-backing on horrible tragedy for our sermons, and want to read something you probably aren't going to hear from most of us this year (plus a few apologetics along the way in favor of the historicity of the Bethlehem Slaughter), click here on the jump to proceed!


First, a bit of catchup for those who don't have a Bible handy.

Herod the Great, probably in his final days of murderous paranoia, has heard from a group of (probably pagan) astrologers that the Messiah has recently been born. Naturally they thought they ought to check his palace first, but Herod's own wise men indicate the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem--either way, Herod is not of the line of Davidic kingship, but is actually an Idumean: basically he descends from Esau, the older son of the Jewish patriarch Isaac, not from Jacob Esau's (slightly) younger twin, much less from King David (descended from Judah, son of Jacob). So the news of the Branch of David having finally been born is something he would regard as a threat.

Allow me a moment of digression: the term "branch of David", sometimes used by the Jewish prophets to talk about God's coming Anointed King or King Messiah, is probably what Matthew is referring to when he connects Jesus growing up in Nazareth and being thereby called "a Nazarene" to Jewish prophecy: in Hebrew "branch" would be a pun for Nazarene. That's admittedly rather a stretch to find some way to fit the Messiah coming from Nazareth, but in terms of ancient Jewish "midrash" commentary it works well enough, and more importantly it indicates that the Gospel reports of Jesus coming from Nazareth weren't opportunistically invented to fulfill prophecy after the fact: it's an embarrassing historical detail the authors had to work around in various ways. This method of dealing with annoying historical details will come back soon in a far more important way!

Anyway, at this time, late in his life, Herod responds to threats by making sure those threats stop living: he has already slaughtered enough of his own friends and family (including his beloved wife) thanks to irrational paranoia, as we can discover from non-Biblical sources, so killing this baby fits his historical attitudes. He decides to use the Magi (the wizards, as we might call those astrologers) to find the child and report back so that he can come worship, too--except by 'worship' he really means 'kill dead'.

The Magi don't suspect foul play, but are later warned by an angel in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they leave the area by another route. Joseph, the father of the baby Jesus, is also warned about Herod in a dream, and flees with Jesus and mother Mary to Egypt.

By the time Herod realizes the Magi aren't coming back, Jesus is safely out of the way, but Herod doesn't know that. Since he doesn't know which baby to target, he tells a group of soldiers, most likely from his own court guard (thus fellow Jews, not part of the Roman cohort stationed in the region to support him), to go kill every boy in and around Bethlehem, from two years old down.

That wouldn't actually be many boys, considering how small Bethlehem was; and if Herod sends his own troops they could be easily disguised as Idumean raiders--thus explaining why only Matthew out of other surviving sources (even in other Gospels) records the raid. For non-Christian historians it might not be important enough to even have heard about; but even Christian historians would be edgy about including it, because innocent children died as an apparently unintended side-effect of the birth of the Messiah!

I'm not just speculating about Christian historians being uncomfortable about including it either. There's evidence in GosMatt itself that Matthew thought it was an embarrassing historical detail: he has to reach really reeeaaaally hard to find some way of demonstrating that the tragedy had some kind of meaningful purpose after all.

Specifically, Matthew thinks he can show that the Slaughter of the Innocents was allowed by God as another sign that the Messiah had at last been born. So he quotes Jeremiah 31:15 as a prophecy fulfilled by their deaths:

A sound in Ramah is heard! 
Lamentation and much anguish;

Rachel lamenting her children;
and she would not be comforted,
--_for they are not_.

That seems very impressive, right? And so, his purpose accomplished, Matthew moves along with his version of the Nativity story.

But there's a big problem.

That verse, and its surrounding prophecy, has less than nothing to do with mourning over innocent children slain unjustly by a murderer.

In fact, there's nothing in that prophecy specifically about the coming Messiah either.

Instead, that particular verse is about righteous Israel (poetically typified by Rachel, wife of the Patriarch Jacob) wailing in lamentation and anguish over the deaths of her rebel children slain in their sins by God in the Day of the Lord to come!

Now, one could argue that even this vastly huge difference would be par enough for the course by standards of Jewish midrash commentary. But on the other hand, vastly huge differences of this sort are why most Christians (and most non-Christians!) don't have a particularly good opinion of rabbinic midrashing.

I can guarantee this is one big reason why most of my readers won't be hearing about the Old Testament contexts of Matthew's application of the Slaughter of the Innocents as fulfilled Messianic prophecy. Not from Christian preachers or apologists anyway: it looks a lot more like evidence against taking Christianity seriously! A canonical author is willing to go this far off base in a desperate attempt to deal with a bothersome historical detail?!--how can we trust him to be fair and honest or even accurate about interpreting other historical details!?


But then comes a subtle and important corollary to that criticism:

It can't be made without acknowledging that Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and the subsequent slaughter of the baby sons in and around that town are at least most likely historical details!

You see, it's very popular among anti-Christian apologists to try to argue that Luke and Matthew invented the Bethlehem stories in order to fit a prophecy that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, not from Nazareth--a concept even John's Gospel seems embarrassed about.

This in itself would be strong internal evidence that Jesus not only existed but (at least) grew up in Nazareth!--thus also that Nazareth existed in some (apparently insignificant) form in those days. As I previously noted, we can see Matthew trying hard to make Nazareth fit prophecy somehow by appealing to a pun on one of the nicknames of Messiah Son of David.

But he has to try hard about such things, because Matthew regards the details of Jesus' childhood as facts he feels obligated to work with rather than ignore; thus if the facts are inconvenient, he does his best to provide them with a proper justification. This, by the way, is how prophecy-after-the-fact normally works: important historical events happen, and they're attached to prophecies after the fact. The more of a reach to fit the prophecies, though, the more likely we afterward can regard the disputed detail as being actually historical (where we don't have corroboration otherwise).

"He shall be called a Nazarene"?--definitely a reach to match a prophecy with an unexpected embarrassing historical fact: Jesus grew up in Nazareth. (Similarly, if Jesus is rejected by His fellow Nazarites in embarrassing ways, and bases His ministry out of Capernaum, that points toward His childhood in Nazareth and various embarrassments in His ministries there as annoying but historical facts.)

"Out of Egypt I shall call My Son"? -- that prophecy from Hosea 11 isn't at all about God calling the Messiah to come to Israel from Egypt, much less as God's son. It's about rebel Israel, typified as Ephraim, being called out of Egypt, and then being ungratefully treacherous and unjust, and then being handed over to the king of Assyria to be slain for his sins. Yet despite God outright promising to hand rebel Ephraim over to die in his sins, He also (in the same chapter) declares He still loves Ephraim and somehow won't kill him but will have mercy on him and restore him instead! This will be even more relevant later, but anyway it definitely isn't about the baby Jesus going to a Jewish colony across the Egyptian border to flee an insanely murderous king from Edom's heritage. It isn't a Messianic prophecy at all!--so why would Matthew have invented the flight to Egypt and call it a fulfillment of this prophecy?! Rabbis in the Talmud sure weren't impressed by the notion Jesus came from Egypt: they attribute His miraculous power to pagan magic learned there instead! It looks more like the shuffling to Egypt and back again, realistic enough in the confused and hostile political climate, was an embarrassing fact Matthew thought he ought to try to prophetically justify.

"Rachel lamenting her children, for they are not"? -- absolutely not about innocent children being slain by an unjust king instead of the Messiah while He escapes an otherwise helpless fate.


So what, then? Am I not sacrificing theological relevance for historical verification? And how does any of this amount to good news in God through Jesus for innocents unjustly slaughtered?!--much less for those who unjustly slaughter the innocent!

I did say the good news would be unexpected, didn't I?

You see, the story of Ephraim, rebel Israel slain in sin (and probably meant to recall King David's son Absalom, slain by a spear while hanging from a tree with a bleeding scalp, during an armed rebellion against his father), isn't over yet in that prophecy.

Rachel, righteous Israel who survives the coming of God in the Day of YHWH, refuses to be comforted concerning the death of Ephraim. Apparently she isn't comforted by explanations like how her children were warned they'd be zorched if they continued on, and they continued on, so God zorched them, and they were rightly zorched because they were evil unjust men and women, oppressors of the poor and weak, slayers of the innocent, ungrateful and treacherous. She isn't comforted that they got the punishment they deserved. How much less would a mother be comforted that her innocent children had been slain!

Would she be comforted by God telling her that her apparently innocent children were also sinners who deserved to die? That might in some way also be true, but what mother could be comforted by that?

Would she be comforted by God telling her that He had never had any intention of saving her wicked children from their sins to begin with?

Would she be comforted by God telling her that although He had intended to save them from their sins, that time is now forever gone, because He failed to get it done in time, or other people failed to get it done, or He had in fact never made any provision to get it done for them even though He had intended to save them, too?

Would she be comforted by God promising to give her new children better than those worthless (or innocent?) ones she has lost?

Maybe some mothers would be comforted by one of those things.

But God doesn't promise any of those things in that prophecy from Jeremiah.

What He does promise, is that He still does love rebel Ephraim, and still loves His rebel daughters, and that even though "they are not", Ephraim will finally learn repentance, and learn to do justice instead of injustice: God promises that Rachel's slain rebel children will one day be restored to her, no longer bad children, but good children instead.

That's how God comforts Rachel, weeping in anguish over her slain rebel children.


It's one thing to comfort someone over a lost child slain in their innocence (or their relative innocence), that they weren't bad children and so God will one day restore them to their mothers who love them. That may be true, but it doesn't help comfort the mothers of evil children, and anyway what does it do to offset the horrible fact that God allowed evil children to murder the good children!?

Okay, maybe God allowed it because He refuses to make His children into puppets, even when they make horrible contributions to the story of history. He lets them be bad children rather than not children at all. But if those bad children never learn better, then the good children were sacrificed for nothing!--less than nothing, because it turns out God didn't love the bad children enough to keep leading them to be good children. Or God never loved them at all to begin with, in which case this must all be some inscrutable plan for God to show off how powerful He is by providing Himself someone to punch on for doing bad things.

But if the bad children learn to do better someday: that's good news for everyone!

Or it's almost good news. God sits up high above and allows (or fosters?!) such tragedies for other people to suffer, the innocent suffering for the sake of the guilty?!

No. That might be some other kind of theism; that might even be a non-orthodox kind of Christianity.

But it isn't orthodox Christianity.

We think God voluntarily suffers with the innocent, too, in being victimized by the guilty.

We even think God Most High voluntarily suffers with the guilty, too, while they are being rightfully punished!

If we're right, that's the point of Immanuel: God being with us in and as Jesus Christ.

It's also something, if we're right, that undermines the one best argument of the unfaithful: that God, if He exists, is only a most powerful tyrant on high, imposing His will on those who are weaker than He is.

Instead, to help bring about the restoration of rebel Ephraim, justly slain, as well as innocents slain by the unjust....

...Jehovah has begotten a new thing in the earth:
a woman will encompass a man!

That is the riddle with which God ends the particular prophecy through Jeremiah, quoted by Matthew in regard to the slaughter of innocent children by guilty children in Bethlehem.

It's also probably why Matthew was inspired to refer to this as a Messianic prophecy.

Because on that day long ago, in historical Bethlehem, in a cave that was used as a manger stall...

God did something new in the earth
as a woman encompassed a man.


God's hope to all our readers around the world
this Christmas weekend
and every day
forever!


Jason Pratt
Dec 21, 2012

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 The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann is not a very Christmasy book. It has no mangers or babies wrapped in swaddling clothes. It's not about the birth of Christ but the death and resurrection. I always used to read it at Christmas, however, and I still think of it when Christmas comes around; I think the birth of Christ is about the death of Christ and the death is about the resurrection.

The Crucified God (Jürgan Motlmann). I haven't read it in a few years because in 2007 we had an apartment flood and I haven't seen my copy since. Last a mentioned this and a good friend sent me a new copy! I'm reading it again now. It's one of the best books to read for Christmas because it sets the atonement in context with the incarnation and orients it in Hegelian fashion toward the resurrection as a synthesis of incarnation by the father and rejection by the father.. This book has it all, moving passages that reflect for of and for Christ, and abstruse theological and philosophical points that only a seminarian could love, and a German cultural bias. Hot dog (Wienerschnitzel) it's just made for Christmas.

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 Moltmann

Christmas is about the baby Jesus and celebrating his birth. Yet lurking behind this innocent facade is the brunt of Christian Trinitarian theology. The whole point of baby Jesus is the cross and the empty tomb. Why did he manifest in hsitory as a man (beginning as baby) but to die on the cross for the sin of the world and raise from the dead. Why do that anyway? What's it all about. That's the true point of Christmas. The holiday is the hopeful side of it all because it starts with unfulfilled potential of the baby Jesus and looks forward to what he will do in the future when he grows up. The resurrection is positive but not hopeful because it's the fruition of the thing. It's not hoping in something; it's obtaining it. The Christmas story is hope because it looks to the future.

I am going to do at least two if not more summaries of Moltmann's book and I hope the reader will get hold of a copy. There is an online copy on Google books the reader can use now. It's not complete and I hope the reader will buy a copy or at least go to the library and get a copy.

The time I was leaving Perkins (school of theology SMU--1990) Moltmann was being called "the greatest living Protestant theologian." I don't know who get's that title today, as far as I know Moltmann is still alive. He was born in Hamberg in 1926. His family was secular. He grew up interested in German Idealism and philosophy. He was drafted at 18 in 1944 and taken prisoner at the end of the war. Those experienced started him on a theological search. He studied at Göttingen University under Barthian influenced teachers. Something of a rarity he is a Calvinist not a Lutheran. The kind of Calvinist he is I have only encountered in seminary. I would call thm "liberal." Predestination is not important to them. I guess they are neo-orthodox that's what Barth was. He was not a Calvinist.

Moltmann first gained recognition in the mid '60s with his ground breaking work Theology of Hope.(on line text). The Crucified God came out in 1968 it coincided with the times. 1968 was a seminal year for the counter culture and the political movements from Parish (May '68) to Mexico (the massacre of the students at the university in Mexico City), the the riots at Columbia (in New York). Not to mention the police riot at the Dem's convention in Chicago. The Crucified God served as a justification theologically for taking part in the protests. It served as a lunching pad for the liberation theology and the struggles of Latin America. Moltmann was no sooner hailed as a liberation theologian than he was denounced by those wishing to lead such movements and feeling their third world origins deprived them of leadership. They disparaged his contribution. Moltmann was undaunted because he didn't care about leading he cared about the struggle.

The reason the book serves in this way was a liberation is because of the new light it sheds on the atonement. Motlmann changes the focus on the meaning of atonement from the efficacy of the act itself to the meaning of the act and it's wider implications due to that meaning. This is not a spoiler.It is the crux of the book. You get this concept here you know what the book says it's still well worth reading in my opinion. This is no more a spoiler than revealing that the allies win in the movie The Longest Day. It's a concept I have called participatory atonement. I've talked about it on this blog I have a page about on Doxa, it's my view of the atonement.

The basic idea is that the atonement is not a commercial transaction or a work of magic. It's not because Jesus shed blood that it atones but because the act itself is a statement of solidarity. It is in creating a mutual solidarity between us and God that the ground for forgiveness is created. That means if we are in solidarity, we signify this by acceptance of God's statement of solidarity, that is by placing faith in Jesus act of atonement, we are in solidarity with God and we can't be held in condemnation.

To get to this point Moltmann begins by talking about Christian identity. He asks where should we find a Christian on Sunday morning? Should we find one in the pew doing the religoius thing? Or should we find one on the barricades fighting the government? He concludes we should find a Christian on the barricades (very '60s, you see). This is more than just a sense of identification "I am a Christian and I feel good about it." But the question of "what makes one a Christian?" Doctrine alone doesn't do it, he finds. Of course we know just taking part in ceremony and being present in church doesn't do it. Just touting a doctrine is not personal - it doesn't engage one's life. Moltmann finds that living God's love engages our lives in the sense of identity. We live that by taking God's act of solidarity into the world. So having solidarity with the poor ourselves is an expression of God's act of solidarity for all humanity.

There's a lot more going on here than just "live out your faith by being a protester." In this coming month I'll try to unpack it. I hope as the reader reads all of this that he/she will think about it in relation to Christmas as the celebration of all of Christ's work not just his birth. WE embrace the hope of the infant in the manger because we know how the story wound up.

Our old friend, the increasingly irrelevant Bill Maher, has said that Christianity uses the devil to scare people into church. Alan Shlemon of Stand to Reason has put up a short (5 minute) video responding to this claim. Rather than duplicate his effort, I just want to refer to Alan's video as a good response.


Remember the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”? A couple of months ago, Professor Karen King, from the Harvard Divinity School, announced she had discovered a tiny 4th century fragment of papyrus in Coptic language containing the phrase "Jesus said to them, 'my wife'", reports Vatican Insider.

***

Right from the start - as Vatican Insider wrote in a previous article on the subject - there were those who expressed their doubts about the authenticity of the fragment, pointing out a number of oddities. But now, Andrew Bernhard, an ancient Gospel scholar who studied at Oxford, goes much further, explaining that according to him “this fake” was forged. (How thefake papyrus on Jesus' 'wife' was created)

Doubts? I know that I had doubts when I reported on the fragment. But I thought that it had been put to bed that this particular “Gospel” was not authentic. But then, today, I was surprised to come across the article entitled Jan publication of Jesus' wife research unlikely
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard's divinity school says research purportedly showing some early Christians believed Jesus was married likely won't be published by its scholarly journal next month, as originally announced.

A spokesman says that tests aren't completed to authenticate a papyrus fragment containing Coptic text, in which Jesus is quoted using the words "my wife." The spokesman said Monday he didn't know when the tests would be done.

In September, Harvard said Professor Karen King's research would be published in January's Harvard Theological Review, the divinity school's quarterly, peer-reviewed journal.

But the journal's co-editors later said they'd committed to January publication only pending further verification of the fragment, including scientific dating.
King announced the research in Rome in September. But several scholars immediately expressed doubts.

Waitaminute, I thought, hadn’t this “Jesus’ Wife” papyrus been found to be an obvious forgery? So, I double-checked and came across  the following paper (HT: Patheos) By Andrew Bernhard, Master of Studies, Oxford University, entitled Notes on The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife Forgery which gave an excellent overview of the question of the authenticity of the fragment. As the title suggests, Mr. Bernhard doesn’t think much of the chances that the fragment is authentic. But he doesn’t just make a bald assertion: he backs it up.
I think it is now fair to begin openly describing [the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, “Gos. Jes. Wife”] as a modern forgery. Although it is admittedly a novel type of forgery, its text can be explained too easily and too completely as a “patchwork” of words and short phrases drawn from the Gos. Thom. by a forger relying on Grondin’s Interlinear. The possibility that Gos. Jes. Wife is a genuinely ancient writing seems extremely remote.

Gos. Jes. Wife is intended to appear as a basic dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, and the words of both Jesus and his disciples are introduced using the same words found in the basic dialogue of Gos. Thom. 12. Every word in Gos. Jes. Wife (except one) can be traced back to Gos. Thom., and every line of text in Gos. Jes. Wife contains words found in close proximity to each other in Gos. Thom. – even when there is no obvious relationship between them (e.g., line 3). Where a word might easily have been spelled differently in the different texts, both Gos. Jes. Wife and Gos. Thom. have the same spelling (i.e., NAEI). In addition, the forger’s redactional tendencies, namely switching third-person pronouns from masculine to feminine (lines 2, 5, 7) and attempting to invert affirmative / negative statements (lines 5 and 6), can be identified. The forger has also inadvertently included several tell-tale peculiarities in grammar and spelling that reveal the modern origin of Gos. Jes. Wife.

The forger’s “fingerprints” are discernible in every line of text that has more than one word in it. In line 1, the forger has reproduced a typographical error from Grondin’s Interlinear (the omission of a direct object marker) and a line break from NHC II. The second line has been copied verbatim from Gos. Thom. 12, except the forger has changed a third-person pronoun from masculine to feminine. In line 3, the forger has used a Coptic spelling for the name “Mary” that is barely attested in antiquity but could well be derived from the English translation in Grondin’s Interlinear. In line 4, the forger has omitted a conjunction (JE) that would ordinarily be expected, probably as the result of a line break in NHC II. Line 5 contains a simple inversion of a negative phrase found in Gos. Thom. 55, and the forger has switched its subject from masculine to feminine. Once the intended text of line 6 is recognized, it seems clear that a forger tried to compose the line of Coptic while thinking in English; relying on the translation in Grondin’s Interlinear, the forger attempted to transform an affirmative statement from Gos. Thom. 45 into a negative version but made a pair of grammatical errors in the process (i.e., two verbal prefixes modifying a single infinitive; a non-definite noun modified by a relative). In line 7, the forger has merely rearranged text from Gos. Thom. 29 and 30, switching a masculine pronoun to its feminine equivalent (for the third time in seven lines) in an effort to mask the identity of his or her source.

In the end, only a single Coptic word in Gos. Jes. Wife could not have been copied directly from Gos. Thom. This word, which instantly transformed Gos. Jes. Wife into an international sensation, appears near the center of the small papyrus fragment. It is a compound of a possessive article and feminine noun that could easily have been formed by anyone using Grondin’s Interlinear and the most widely available Coptic-English dictionary in the world: TAHIME (“my wife”).
So, what’s the game? The answer is that much as Mr. Bernhard’s arguments make logical sense, if the test of the papyrus fragment and the ink on the fragment date to the fourth century (as Dr. King believes it will), then we need to re-evaluate Mr. Barnhard’s arguments. But rather than waste too much time speculating, I simply note that I will await the results of the testing of the fragment to see if scientific study can fix an approximate date. 

But, just for the record, even if an early date is initially set by whoever is doing the test, some of us recognize that science can be used for political purposes. I, for one, will not immediately accept any pronouncement of ancient age without wanting a few questions answered.

One of the most popular posts on the CADRE Comments site is a short piece I wrote in February 2006 entitled Where did Jesus say, “It is better to give than receive”? This single post usually receives between 100 and 300 views each month. Since I first posted it, almost none of the more than 2000 visitors have posted a comment…until now. Anonymous (*sigh*) wrote:


Unfortunately, the Gospels do not report that Jesus ever said this expression. Only Paul, who never met Jesus at all, says that Jesus said these words. But Paul is not recorded anywhere in the Gospels as being a direct witness to anything Jesus said or did before the resurrection. In other words, Paul either made this up or is reporting what he heard from someone else. This is called hearsay.


But is Paul to be trusted? No he has been caught lying many times. For example, he claimed Christ abolished the Law (Romans 6:14, 7:4, Ephesians 2:15-16). Yet the Gospels say that Christ did not come to abolish the law at all (Matthew 5:17-20, 19:17, 28:20, Luke 16:17).

Paul says that it is ok to lie as the ends justify the means. "I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, that I might gain them that are without law. ... I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel's sake" (1 Cor. 9.19-23).
So, Anonymous (*sigh* -- I hate it when people don’t use their names in comments) believes that Paul’s quotation of Jesus (which I will reference as the “give/receive phrase”) should not be trusted for two reasons. First, Anonymous asserts that Paul was not an eyewitness to the saying because he did not meet Jesus and therefore his quotation of Jesus is hearsay. Second, he claims that the give/receive phrase is not reliable because Paul is a liar.

Did Paul Personally Witness Jesus say "It is better to give than receive"?

Based on the evidence available, I don’t disagree with Anonymous’ first claim, i.e., that Paul did not personally witness Jesus say the give/receive phrase. After all, it is clear from the Biblical account that Paul was not a follower of Jesus prior to his experience on the Road to Damascus, and so, assuming Jesus said the give/receive phrase prior to his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection, it is most probable that Paul is relating a quote from Jesus that he did not personally witness.

A. Possibly before Jesus' was crucified?

Having said the foregoing, Anonymous overstates his case. It is not necessarily the case that Paul never heard Jesus say those words personally. First, Paul was born a Jew who lived in the area of Jerusalem during the time that Jesus preached. Isn’t it possible that Paul heard Jesus speak during the time that Jesus came to Jerusalem during the week prior to his crucifixion? If so, isn’t it also possible that Jesus used the phrase during that week in the hearing of Paul? Alternatively, isn’t it possible that Paul who was a Pharisee might have been among the Pharisees who at one time or another confronted Jesus and tried to trap him? And if so, isn’t it possible that Paul could have heard Jesus use the give/receive phrase during one of those times? Keep in mind that I am not saying that I have any positive evidence demonstrating that Paul was actually present during either of those events. The point is that it is possible that Paul did hear Jesus use the give/receive phrase sometime prior to his ascension, so Anonymous’ assertion as an absolute statement is not necessarily accurate.

B. What about receiving the phrase from the Risen, Glorified Christ?

I am also sure based upon Anonymous’ language (he said, “Only Paul, who never met Jesus at all”) that he doesn’t agree that Jesus actually rose from the dead. I, as a practicing Christian who has examined and found the claims of Christianity to be both credible and probable, accept the accounts of the four Gospels that Jesus did bodily rise from the dead. Luke reports that Paul encountered the living Christ who spoke to him (the other’s travelling with Paul at the time hearing the voice of Jesus) on the Road to Damascus. So, I believe Anonymous is wrong in saying that Paul never met Jesus at all. But for purposes of this post, it’s important to note that this appearance on the Road to Damascus was not the only time that Jesus spoke to Paul. For example, in Acts 22:17-21, Paul recounts some additional words spoken to him by Jesus shortly after his conversion. This suggests that Paul had more words spoken to him by the risen Jesus than are contained in the New Testament. Note that neither Paul nor any of the other Epistle authors ever say that all of the words the resurrected Jesus spoke to Paul are set forth in Acts or Paul’s Epistles. Thus, it remains possible that Paul heard the give/receive phrase directly from Jesus after his resurrection.

Is it Hearsay? If so, so what?

While I don’t agree that Anonymous is necessarily correct, as I stated earlier, I believe it is likely that he is correct that Paul is not relating something he personally heard, but rather he is relating something that he was told Jesus said. Anonymous contends that such a situation makes Paul’s statement hearsay. To which I say, so what? Does that mean that he we are required to believe Jesus didn’t say the give/receive phrase? That is obviously what Anonymous would have us believe.

Anonymous’ conclusion suffers from several problems. For one, Anonymous shows that he completely misunderstands that doctrine of hearsay and its use with respect to this quote. Hearsay is a legal doctrine that prevents a statement made out of court to be admitted into evidence as proof of the matter asserted. If we were to apply the hearsay standard, note that the doctrine is designed to prevent the use of an out of court statement to prove the truth of the matter asserted. What is the matter asserted by the quote? The matter is that it is better to give than to receive. Paul isn’t using the give/receive phrase to prove that Jesus said it; rather he uses it to support the idea that it is better to give than to receive. So, does the hearsay doctrine apply to this quote? No, it doesn’t.

More importantly, the hearsay doctrine does not apply to this statement because this is not a courtroom; this is an historical investigation. There are lots of things that have been reported as being which are historically accepted which have not been said in court. History is littered with statements that people reportedly said, but the person reporting the saying did not personally witness the statement. For example, it is readily acknowledged that the Greek orator Demosthenes said, “Nothing is so easy as to deceive oneself; for what we wish, we readily believe.” What is the source of this quote? It appears that the source is unknown. Yet, there is really no disagreement historically that Demosthenes said this despite the absence of direct eyewitness testimony to his having said it. I am convinced that if I were to look I would find a lot of examples of statements made by historic figures that are known only because they were reported by a historian who lived well after the time the statement was made, but which statements are considered historically reliable.

Thus, while I generally agree that it is probable that Paul did not personally hear Jesus use the give/receive phrase, I am not certain I can take the absolutist position that Paul did not hear it. But even if he didn’t hear Jesus say it, it does not mean that Paul isn’t reporting an accurate statement by Jesus that he learned through his conversations with the Apostles on his two trips to meet with them after his conversion. (Galatians 1:18-19 and 2:4-10) In fact, during the second meeting, it is likely that he heard Jesus’ give/receive phrase from Peter, John and James because they spoke to him about remembering the poor (Galatians 2:10) – a natural place for them to share Jesus’ words that it is better to give than receive.

Is Paul reliable or is he a liar?

So, the question then becomes whether Paul is reliable. Anonymous’ second argument is that he is not reliable; rather, he is a liar.

A. Did Paul contradict Jesus on the law not being abolished?

He supports this conclusion first by saying that Paul contradicts Jesus when he says that “Christ abolished the Law” whereas Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law. Is that a contradiction? Well, using Anonymous’ paraphrase it is, but fortunately Christians don’t rely upon Anonymous’ version of the scripture. Here are the verses sourced by Anonymous in support of his argument about what Jesus said:

Matthew 5:17-20 - "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 19:17 – “Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved."
Matthew 28:19-20 – “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
Luke 16:17 - But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.
Here are the verses Anonymous cites in support of his version of what Paul said:

Romans 6:14 - For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
Romans 7:4 - For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.
Ephesians 2:14-16 - For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.
Okay, so Jesus said that he had come to fulfill the law. This has almost universally been understood means that the law requires certain behavior to be sin-free and able to enter into the Kingdom of God. However, we cannot fulfill the requirements of the law so we are all condemned under the law. Jesus, by living the perfect sin-free life, was not guilty before God and not deserving of death. Yet, he died on the cross to pay the penalty that comes with sin. Thus, Jesus fulfilled the law on our behalf. Does that mean that the law went away? No, because without God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ everyone would be judged under the law. Does this mean that Christians are not bound to the law? No, the law is binding on Christians, too; but those who accept the forgiveness offered by Jesus who paid the price for everyone will be forgiven of their violations of the law. It really is that simple.

So, with that understanding, where has Paul contradicted Jesus? I contend that there is nothing in what Anonymous cites which cannot be read consistent with Jesus’ sayings. Paul is saying that the law which was delivered to us to point out our sin is no longer our master because of God’s grace delivered through Jesus. The Ephesians verses, rather than contradicting the understanding above, actually clarify it. According to Jameson, Fausset and Brown’s commentary on these verses:

Christ has in, or by, His crucified flesh, abolished [the wall of enmity that separated Jew from Gentile and both from God], so far as its condemning and enmity-creating power is concerned ( Col 2:14 ), substituting for it the law of love, which is the everlasting spirit of the law, and which flows from the realization in the soul of His love in His death for us. Translate what follows, "that He might make the two (Jews and Gentiles) into one new man." Not that He might merely reconcile the two to each other, but incorporate the two, reconciled in Him to God, into one new man; the old man to which both belonged, the enemy of God, having been slain in His flesh on the cross. Observe, too, ONE new man; we are all in God's sight but one in Christ, as we are but one in Adam [ALFORD].
B. Did Paul say it was okay to lie to preach the Gospel?

Related to this is Anonymous second assertion that Paul said it is okay to lie to others to preach Christ in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. I don’t think these verses require a belief that Paul lied to the people to whom he was bringing the Gospel as Anonymous apparently assumes. As noted by Bob Deffinbaugh in his article When a Right May Be Wrong (1 Cor. 9:1-23):
It is vitally important for you to understand that in verses 19-23 Paul is not teaching: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Paul is not speaking about the sins of others with which he is willing to participate. Paul is talking about accommodating himself to the weaknesses of the lost, by surrendering any liberties which might prove offensive to them and thus hinder his preaching of the gospel. One might be invited to make a gospel presentation in a retirement home. One could go with drums, guitars, and an electronic keyboard. But it is possible that an organ or piano accompaniment would be received more readily. Why insist on your rights, when practicing them might needlessly alienate someone who is lost, keeping them from hearing the gospel? Paul is willing to sacrifice the free exercise of any liberty if doing so will further the gospel. Never will Paul think of committing a sin in order to identify with the lost. One does not need to win an alcoholic to Christ by getting drunk with him, or to convert a drug addict by getting high with him. It is one thing to commit a sin in the name of furthering the gospel; it is quite another to sacrifice a liberty for the sake of the gospel.
John Piper adds an interpretation which further clarifies the fact that Paul is not speaking about lying to bring people into the kingdom in his sermon Becoming All Things to All Men to Save Some:
As a Christian, I am not "under law" (v. 20)—that is, I am not bound to earn my salvation by the law, nor am I bound to live by the ceremonial, dietary, separation laws of the Old Testament (for example, circumcision, holy days, no ham and catfish, no mixed fibers, no meat offered to idols, and so on). I am free to go to the home of an animist and humanist and eat whatever they put before me in order to win them for Christ (1 Corinthians 10:27).

As a Christian I am nevertheless not without God's law (v. 21). In 1 Corinthians 7:19 Paul says, "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God." This is a remarkable verse! It says that circumcision, which was a commandment of God in the Old Testament is negligible for Christians, but the commandments of God are not negligible. This is why we distinguish between the ceremonial law and the moral law. As Christians we submit to the moral law of God. We are not without the law of God, as Paul says.

Which is defined for us in verse 21 as "the law of Christ." We are under the law of Christ. This is the law of love. In Galatians 6:2 Paul says, "Bear one another's burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ." The law of Christ is the law that fulfills all laws: Galatians 5:14, "The whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" This is called in James 2:8 the "royal law" and "the law of liberty" (1:25; 2:12). It's the law that free people submit to gladly because they are led by the Holy Spirit. That's what Paul means when he says in Galatians 5:18, "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law." Instead, you bear the fruit of love, and so submit gladly to the law of Christ, the law of love.

And What Does It Look Like?

In freedom, for love's sake, you try to overcome unnecessary, alienating differences that cut you off from unbelievers. In freedom, for love's sake, you learn the Maninka language and translate the Bible. In freedom, for love's sake, you eat dinner together the way they eat dinner. In freedom, for love's sake, you dress pretty much like the middle class American natives. In freedom, for love's sake, you get into their politics and their sports and their businesses.

And all the while you keep a vigilant watch over your heart to see if you are in the law of Christ.

No, I don’t agree that Anonymous has shown Paul to be a liar or not credible. Rather, Anonymous has shown a knack to read the Epistle in a shallow fashion and ignore the depth and richness of the teachings that lie behind and within the words that he quotes. In fact, in some cases, the verses he cites actually support the conclusion that Paul is being consistent with Jesus.

Conclusion

So, has Anonymous shown Paul to be a liar or that Jesus didn’t say “it is better to give than receive?” Not at all. Rather, Anonymous has shown that in his case Demosthenes was right: “Nothing is so easy as to deceive oneself; for what we wish, we readily believe.”


In parts I, II and III of this series, I introduced my approach and examined what the Bible had to say about Jesus’ birthplace. In part IV, I examined the non-canonical gospel claims about Jesus’ birth. Now, I turn my attention to one last area: what about the claim by archaeologist Aviram Oshri that Bethlehem of Galilee was the real birthplace of Jesus? According to the website Religious Tolerance:   

Aviram Oshri, a senior archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority wrote in Archeology magazine:

"'Menorah,' the vast database of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), describes Bethlehem as an 'ancient site' with Iron Age material and the fourth-century Church of the Nativity and associated Byzantine and medieval buildings. But there is a complete absence of information for antiquities from the Herodian period--that is, from the time around the birth of Jesus.

According to National Geographic:

"Many archaeologists and theological scholars believe Jesus was actually born in either Nazareth or Bethlehem of Galilee, a town just outside Nazareth, citing biblical references and archaeological evidence to support their conclusion. Throughout the Bible, Jesus is referred to as 'Jesus of Nazareth,' not 'Jesus of Bethlehem.' In fact, in John (7:41- 43) there is a passage questioning Jesus' legitimacy because he's from Galilee and not Judaea, as the Hebrew Scriptures say the Messiah must be. ..."

Aviram Oshri, a senior archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, says, 'There is surprisingly no archaeological evidence that ties Bethlehem in Judea to the period in which Jesus would have been born'."

I have searched the web for further support of this claim. I have found no details behind Aviram Oshri’s research and discoveries. Aviram Oshri’s website (www.bethlehem-of-galilee.org) is not functioning so I cannot see what evidence, if any, he has posted there is support of this assertion. But what I can gather from a number of other sites that reference his work is that Aviram Oshri is making the assertion based on three claims. First, there is no archaeological evidence that Bethlehem was occupied during the period that Jesus was born. Second, there is a little town called Bethlehem in Galilee (near Nazareth) that was occupied at the time that Jesus was born and some of the locals believe that Jesus was really born there. Third, he found the “remains of the strong fortification walls among olive trees on the edges of Bethlehem of Galilee, and he suggests early Christians built it to protect the real site of Jesus’ birth.”  

General Objections

Several points can be made in response to this. First, as a general matter I have found no other archaeologist making this same assertion. If Aviram Oshri is correct, he is the lone voice crying that Bethlehem of Galilee is the actual birthplace. So, there is certainly no reason to believe or accept that this is a mainstream position. Of course, many teachings both inside and outside the church have started out as minority positions, so this alone is not sufficient to holding Aviram Oshri to be wrong on this matter.  Additionally, I have found no early Christian tradition claiming Bethlehem of Galilee as the place of Jesus' birth. Rather, as shown by part IV, even the non-canonical gospels assert that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. In short, Aviram Osrhi’s claim cannot be confirmed or denied using resources available on the Internet, has apparently garnered little to no enthusiasm among archaeologists, and has no confirmation from the earliest traditions or histories in the church.

Did Bethlehem of Judea exists in 6 BC to 4 BC?

Second, the idea that Bethlehem of Judea was not occupied during the time of Jesus’ birth is a claim that, at best, stands on the proposition that we have no direct archaeological evidence that Bethlehem exited at the time of Jesus’ birth. In other words, he is correct in his claim that we don’t have direct physical, archaeological evidence of Bethlehem of Judea’s existence for the period around 6 BC to 4 BC when Jesus is believed to have been born. However, his claim falls under the old adage, “Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.” 

There is no question that Bethlehem existed as a functioning town as far back as 700 BC because a seal found in 2012 clearly identified Bethlehem as being a town in Israel during the First Temple period. (See, Oldest Extra-Biblical Reference to Bethlehem Found.)  It is also clear that Bethlehem exited after the time of Jesus as a church (the Church of the Nativity) was built on the location in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. According to Smithsonian Magazine, "The Church of the Nativity was built around A.D. 330 by the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine and was mostly destroyed—possibly during a Samaritan rebellion in A.D. 529—though parts of the original mosaic floor remain. Thus, it is clear from archaeological and historical evidence that Bethlehem was in existence prior to 330 AD." (See, Endangered Site: Church ofthe Nativity, Bethlehem).

Moreover, we know that the ancient church father, Jerome, lived in Bethlehem of Judea from 386 AD to his death in 420 AD. He reliably reports that the cave where Jesus was born (which is the site where the Church of the Nativity was built) had been used by those who worshipped the Roman Pantheon as a site for the worship of Adonis since 150 AD until taken by Constantine for the building of the Church of the Nativity. (See, Where Was Jesus Born? (And When?) Bethlehem…Of Course, by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor). Thus, we know that Bethlehem was in existence since at least 150 BC from extra-biblical historical evidence.

The Location of the Church of the Nativity and the Gospels ARE Evidence for Jesus' Birthplace

But as the article by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor quoted above notes, while the Church of the Nativity was only built in 330 AD, it is evidence for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem 330 years prior. He notes:

That the cave had become the focus of pilgrimage is confirmed by the early church father Origen (185–254 A.D.), who reports that “there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where he [Jesus] was born.”3The cave apparently attracted regular visitors, including Origen himself sometime between 231 and 246 A.D.

It is difficult to imagine that the Bethlehemites invented the cave tradition, particularly because, as there is reason to suspect, the cave was not always accessible to Christians in the days of Justin and Origen. According to the church father Jerome (342–420 A.D.), who lived in Bethlehem from 386 A.D. until his death, the cave had been converted into a shrine dedicated to Adonis: “From Hadrian’s time [135 A.D.] until the reign of Constantine, for about 180 years…Bethlehem, now ours, and the earth’s, most sacred spot…was overshadowed by a grove of Thammuz,b which is Adonis, and in the cave where the infant Messiah once cried, the paramour of Venus was bewailed.”4

Local Christians were probably not permitted to worship regularly in what had become a pagan shrine. The fact that the Bethlehemites did not simply select another site as the birth cave suggests that they did not feel free to invent. They were bound to a specific cave.5 To preserve a local memory for almost 200 years implies a very strong motivation, a motivation that has nothing to do with the Gospels. 

Additionally, as evidenced in Part II of this series, there is strong evidence from the fact that the Gospels themselves were written and being circulated by the mid-60s AD. It is almost impossible to imagine that the authors of Gospels would knowingly insert in the Gospels that Jesus was born in a town that did not exist (where many people would still be alive who would know that Bethlehem of Judea did not exist at the time the Gospel authors claimed Jesus was born). Talk about halting the then-infant religion in its tracks, such an obvious error would have been a death-knell for Christianity.

So, while I accept Aviram Oshri’s assertion that there is no direct archaeological evidence for the existence of Bethlehem in the time period of Jesus’ birth, I think that there is little doubt from the historical evidence that it did exist and that the archaeological evidence will one day be discovered.

Bethlehem of Galilee and the Fortress

Aviram Oshri’s second claim states that Bethlehem of Galilee did exist at the time of Jesus and a fortress outside of town in a grove of olive trees “strongly suggests” it was built to protect the site of Jesus’ birth. According to the abstract of his article “Where Was Jesus Born?” in Archaeology, Oshri says that when he was doing archaeological work in the area of Bethlehem of Galilee, “some of the people who lived around the site told me how Jesus was really born there, not in the south [at Bethlehem of Judea].”

Aviram Oshri, however, says that he cannot access the fortress site. According to Two Little Towns Of Bethlehem And A Nativity Riddle: Dominic Waghorn Explains:

The problem for Oshri is that the key piece of evidence has been destroyed. In the 1960s the Israelis built a road through the ruins of the early Christian church in the heart of his Bethlehem. The cave underneath the church was only partially damaged but he cannot get permission or funding to excavate it.

So, the evidence for his claim consists of stories told by unnamed individuals in the town of Bethlehem of Galilee about a fortress that was destroyed in the 1960s and which he cannot access. This has all of the earmarks of a conspiracy theory. The idea being that the powers that be (who really rule the Christian religions) have conspired to first destroy the site and then deny him access to protect the story of Jesus’ birth.

I’m sorry, but I’m not ready to buy that one in light of the rather clear history to the contrary. 



As I stated earlier, the Gospels found in the New Testament canon should be given pre-eminence in discerning what happened in the life of Jesus Christ. Yet, some people believe that these books of (often of doubtful authenticity) should be reviewed to determine what, if any, details they can add about Jesus’ life. Certainly, it is true that some of the earlier of the Gospels may have information that could be from independent witnesses, but there is usually more misinformation than real information in these so-called “gospels.” To that end, using the information provided on Please Convince Me as a jumping off point, I have done a brief examination of the various non-canonical Gospels.

If one were to look at the books that have been labeled as Gospels and Histories but which have been left out of the Canonical Gospels, one would discover that these non-canonical works do not tell a different tale about Jesus birth.

Infancy Gospel of James

One such Gospel is the Infancy Gospel of James. Alleged to have been written by James the Just, this Gospel shows signs that the author was insufficiently familiar with First Century Israel to have been written by someone who actually lived there. The earliest mentions of the Gospel (such as by Origin) find it to be “doubtful”. Yet, if it were to be trusted, we would see that it contains and reflects much of the information found in the Gospels. 

The entire account of this particular Gospel on the birth of Jesus is too long to put into this blog entry. It has been summarized by the author of the website Please Convince Me as follows: 

The text acknowledges the identity of Mary and Joseph as Jesus' parents and the sequence of events leading up to the birth of Jesus, including the angel's visit to Mary, the virgin conception of Mary, the angel's declaration of this fact to Joseph in a dream, and the census that caused Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem. It also affirms the arrival of the Magi, the sequence of events that led them to find the Christ child, and the response of Herod when the Magi did not return to him.  

In the Roberts-Donaldson English translation of this work, Bethlehem of Judea is clearly identified as the birthplace of Jesus. It notes in paragraph 17 that Joseph was called to go to Bethlehem as part of the census ordered by Caesar Augustus. In paragraph 18, he leaves Mary in a cave in Bethlehem to seek out a mid-wife to aid in the birth of Jesus. In paragraph 19, he finds the midwife who arrives in time to observe the Virgin Mary give birth to the baby Jesus. In paragraph 21, the magi arrive looking for the infant child and they leave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Paragraph 22 speaks of the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt.

The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour

Another non-canonical work that identifies Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus is the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour. This work is believed to have been written almost 500 years after Jesus’ birth, so it is of little historical value. But since some people (such as Gerd and Annette) want to include all of the early histories as having information that should be available on Jesus, an inquiry shows that this book has much the same information as the actual Gospels plus the mid-wife mentioned in the Infancy Gospel of James (discussed above).  According to the New Advent Encyclopedia translation of this book:

In the three hundred and ninth year of the era of Alexander, Augustus put forth an edict, that every man should be enrolled in his native place. Joseph therefore arose, and taking Mary his spouse, went away to Jerusalem, and came to Bethlehem, to be enrolled along with his family in his native city. And having come to a cave, Mary told Joseph that the time of the birth was at hand, and that she could not go into the city; but, said she, let us go into this cave. This took place at sunset. And Joseph went out in haste to go for a woman to be near her. When, therefore, he was busy about that, he saw an Hebrew old woman belonging to Jerusalem, and said: Come hither, my good woman, and go into this cave, in which there is a woman near her time.

Wherefore, after sunset, the old woman, and Joseph with her, came to the cave, and they both went in. And, behold, it was filled with lights more beautiful than the gleaming of lamps and candles, and more splendid than the light of the sun. The child, enwrapped in swaddling clothes, was sucking the breast of the Lady Mary His mother, being placed in a stall. And when both were wondering at this light, the old woman asks the Lady Mary: Are you the mother of this Child? And when the Lady Mary gave her assent, she says: You are not at all like the daughters of Eve. The Lady Mary said: As my son has no equal among children, so his mother has no equal among women. The old woman replied: My mistress, I came to get payment; I have been for a long time affected with palsy. Our mistress the Lady Mary said to her: Place your hands upon the child. And the old woman did so, and was immediately cured. Then she went forth, saying: Henceforth I will be the attendant and servant of this child all the days of my life.

Then came shepherds; and when they had lighted a fire, and were rejoicing greatly, there appeared to them the hosts of heaven praising and celebrating God Most High. And while the shepherds were doing the same, the cave was at that time made like a temple of the upper world, since both heavenly and earthly voices glorified and magnified God on account of the birth of the Lord Christ. And when that old Hebrew woman saw the manifestation of those miracles, she thanked God, saying: I give You thanks, O God, the God of Israel, because my eyes have seen the birth of the Saviour of the world.

Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew

Another ancient work that also speaks of Bethlehem is the Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. This work is even older than the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Saviour just discussed as it appears to have been written in approximately 750 to 850 AD.  This particular “gospel” is less clear about the birthplace but makes it clear that Mary and Joseph were on their road to Bethlehem for the census under Caesar Augustus at the time of the birth of Jesus.  According to the New Advent Encyclopedia’s translation, It appears from the text that the cave in Jesus was born according to this book was not in Bethlehem itself, but was just outside of Bethlehem because she took three days after the birth to come out of the cave and entered Bethlehem three days thereafter.  Still it includes the shepherds, magi, King Herod and the whole usual cast of characters associated with the Matthew and Luke accounts.

The History of Joseph the Carpenter

The History of Joseph the Carpenter, a work apparently written by Egyptians in around 400-480 AD, also reports quite clearly that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Thetranslation found in the New Advent Encyclopedia reads:

Some time after [Joseph was told by an angel to take Mary as his wife], there came forth an order from Augustus Cæsar the king, that all the habitable world should be enrolled, each man in his own city. The old man therefore, righteous Joseph, rose up and took the virgin Mary and came to Bethlehem, because the time of her bringing forth was at hand. Joseph then inscribed his name in the list; for Joseph the son of David, whose spouse Mary was, was of the tribe of Judah. And indeed Mary, my mother, brought me forth in Bethlehem, in a cave near the tomb of Rachel the wife of the patriarch Jacob, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin.

But Satan went and told this to Herod the Great, the father of Archelaus. And it was this same Herod who ordered my friend and relative John to be beheaded. Accordingly he searched for me diligently, thinking that my kingdom was to be of this world. John 18:36 But Joseph, that pious old man, was warned of this by a dream. Therefore he rose and took Mary my mother, and I lay in her bosom. Salome also was their fellow-traveller. Having therefore set out from home, he retired into Egypt, and remained there the space of one whole year, until the hatred of Herod passed away.

Now Herod died by the worst form of death, atoning for the shedding of the blood of the children whom he wickedly cut off, though there was no sin in them. And that impious tyrant Herod being dead, they returned into the land of Israel, and lived in a city of Galilee which is called Nazareth. And Joseph, going back to his trade of a carpenter, earned his living by the work of his hands; for, as the law of Moses had commanded, he never sought to live for nothing by another's labour.

The Gospel of Barnabas

The Gospel of Barnabas is a late Islamic forgery that was written to have Jesus prophesy about Muhammad. According to the Concise Encyclopedia ofIslam by Harper and Rowe,

As regards the "Gospel of Barnabas" itself, there is no question that it is a medieval forgery. A complete Italian manuscript exists which appears to be a translation from a Spanish original (which exists in part), written to curry favor with Muslims of the time. It contains anachronisms which can date only from the Middle Ages and not before, and shows a garbled comprehension of Islamic doctrines, calling the Prophet "the Messiah", which Islam does not claim for him. Besides its farcical notion of sacred history, stylistically it is a mediocre parody of the Gospels, as the writings of Baha'Allah are of the Koran.  (The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Harper & Row, 1989, p. 64)

Regardless of its legitimacy, The Gospel of Barnabas reports:

There reigned at that time in Judaea Herod, by decree of Caesar Augustus, and Pilate was governor in the priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. Wherefore, by decree of Augustus, all the world was enrolled; wherefore each one went to his own country, and they presented themselves by their own tribes to be enrolled. Joseph accordingly departed from Nazareth, a city of Galilee, with Mary his wife, great with child, to go to Bethlehem (for that it was his city, he being of the lineage of David), in order that he might be enrolled according to the decree of Caesar. Joseph having arrived at Bethlehem, for that the city was small, and great the multitude of them that were strangers there, he found no place, wherefore he took lodging outside the city in a lodging made for a shepherds' shelter. While Joseph abode there the days were fulfilled for Mary to bring forth.

The virgin was surrounded by a light exceeding bright, and brought forth her son without pain, whom she took in her arms, and wrapping him in swaddling-clothes, laid him in the manger, because there was no room in the inn. There came with gladness a great multitude of angels to the inn, blessing God and announcing peace to them that fear God. Mary and Joseph praised the Lord for the birth of Jesus, and with greatest joy nurtured him.

Summary

So there is no mistake, I will repeat what was said earlier. These non-canonical gospels are not and never have been considered authoritative on the life of Jesus. Thus, one should never read them for additional information about Jesus. Overall, I noted that these non-canonical works contained the usual characters and events that people associate with Christmas: the census, the shepherds, the star, the magi and the angels. But since these are all later copies, it can easily be assumed that they simply borrowed from and amplified the stories in the canonical Gospels.

Nevertheless, there is one main conclusion that can be drawn about the state of the knowledge about Jesus’ life from these non-canonical gospels. That conclusion is this: Nowhere in any of the non-canonical books I read did any of these “gospels” claim that Jesus was born in Nazareth. In other words, it does not appear from these non-canonical books that there was a competing tradition to the belief that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

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