CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

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.


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 ( 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.


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.

Since I do not believe that The HistoricalJesus: A Comprehensive Guide (hereinafter, “The Guide”), written by New Testament scholars Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, has come anywhere close to establishing that Matthew and Luke are “religious fantasies” when they report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, they have a definite uphill battle in making the case that the “implications” of Mark and John somehow outweigh the direct testimony of Matthew and Luke. So, what does The Guide say is the compelling reason to believe that Mark and John show that Jesus was born in Nazareth? Here’s what The Guide says in support of this position (editing out only the Greek words).

Throughout the Gospel tradition Nazareth is regarded as Jesus’ home town. Mark and John implicitly presuppose that Jesus was also born there.

·         In Mark, Jesus is emphatically called ‘the Nazarene’(Mark 1.24, 10.47, 14.67, 16.6), and Nazareth itself is referred to with the designation ‘his ancestral city’ (Mark 6.1). Luke avoids the obvious association that he was also born there by calling Nazareth the city in which Jesus grew up (Luke 4.16).

·         John still indicates that Jesus’ origin from Nazareth in Galilee, which was known to all, made the Christian message of his messiahship unbelievable. When Philip told Nathanael that Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph, was the one of whom Moses and the prophets had written, the latter replied, ‘Can any good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1.45f.) Nicodemus had to be reprimanded in a similar way: ‘Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee (John 7.52).

“The Nazarene” or “Of Nazareth”

Okay, so let’s look at the references in Mark to Jesus as being “of Nazareth.” As noted in The Guide, Mark has several references to Jesus being “of Nazareth.” The two Greek words translated as “of Nazareth” in all four of the references mentioned can both mean “an inhabitant” or “resident” of Nazareth.” John also calls Him “Jesus of Nazareth” in John 1:45, 18:5, 18:7 and 19:19 using the same words. So, arguably, while these references could be seen as a reference to Jesus being born in Nazareth, they can also equally simply mean that he lives in Nazareth.

The problem with the theory presented in The Guide is that the use of the phrase “the Nazarene” or “of Nazareth” is found in all four Gospels. Matthew, who specifically identifies Jesus’ birthplace as being Bethlehem, refers to Jesus being “of Nazareth” in Matthew 26:71 during the account of Peter’s denial of Jesus when one of the people accuse Peter of being with “Jesus of Nazareth”. Luke, who also very explicitly identifies Bethlehem in Judea as the place of Jesus’ birth, also describes Jesus as being “of Nazareth” twice in his Gospel at Luke 18:37 (when Jesus passes by the blind man who seeks healing) and 24:19 (when Jesus is speaking with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus).  But Luke is also the author of the Acts of the Apostles, and in that book he refers to “Jesus of Nazareth” in seven different verses.

Born in both Bethlehem and Nazareth?

This leads to a question: if Matthew and Luke both relate that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, how is it possible that the references to him as being “of Nazareth” are intended to mean he was born in Nazareth (as The Guide would have us believe)? There are only a few possible answers. First, it could be that Matthew and Luke were hopelessly confused – they believe that Jesus was both born in both Nazareth and Bethlehem. Second, The Guide’s explanation is true, i.e., that Matthew and Luke both really understood Jesus to have been born in Nazareth but only reported the birth in Bethlehem to fulfill a religious motif. Third, the phrase “of Nazareth” or “the Nazarene” does not necessarily mean that Jesus was born in Nazareth.

I believe that the first of the three possibilities can be dismissed out of hand. When reviewing an argument, it is crucial that the argument observe what I call the rule of courtesy, i.e., do not assume that people are irrational by assuming that they would contradict themselves without exhausting other possible interpretations that resolve the contradiction. This is not a new idea, but as far back as Aristotle in Poetics, Part XXV, Aristotle stated:

Things that sound contradictory should be examined by the same rules as in dialectical refutation – whether the same thing is meant, in the same relation, and in the same sense. We should therefore solve the question by reference to what the poet says himself, or to what is tacitly assumed by a person of intelligence.

Thus, if it appears that Matthew and Luke are saying both that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that he was born in Nazareth, the ordinary understanding of being born (as opposed to the theological concept of being “born again”) permits Jesus to have been born only in one of the two places and they would thus be are making contradictory claims about Jesus’ birth. Under the rule of courtesy, we should not assume that they are being contradictory if either of the other two possible explanations can remove the contradiction. In this case, one (and arguably both) of them do (or does) remove the inconsistency.

I have already spent a lot of time in responding to the second idea – which is, of course, the idea adopted by The Guide. I believe that I have demonstrated, at minimum, that there is no compelling reason to believe that The Guide’s conclusion is correct. But The Guide’s reasoning has two deeper flaws.

First, The Guide’s argument assumes that Luke and Matthew both knew that Jesus was really born in Nazareth but they (or later redactors) added the birth in Bethlehem for theological reasons. But if that is true, it would require us to believe that Matthew and Luke, both of whom I believe I have demonstrated appear to be honest and make the claim to be accurate, intentionally added a story that they knew was not true to make Jesus something that he plainly was not. In other words, to believe The Guide’s argument, it would require that Matthew and Luke be named as liars. Is that what we ought to expect from the early Apostles who were willing to risk death in standing by such radical truth as they were proposing?

Also, why did they both leave in other references to Jesus of Nazareth if it was 
understood that the phrase “of Nazareth” necessarily meant that Jesus was born there? In Luke’s case, over the course of his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, he has multiple references to Jesus “of Nazareth.” Matthew also recognizes that Jesus was referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth” in 26:71. Were Luke and Matthew really so disconnected from their own writings that they would just add this reference without recognizing that it contradicted what they had earlier written? Does that make sense?

The more likely explanation is that the four Gospel authors understood that the Greek words translated as “the Nazarene” or “of Nazareth” only meant that it was the place where Jesus lived or Jesus grew up. This is consistent with how we still understand associating a person’s hometown with where she grew up – which can be different than where the person was born. As an example, I was born in a place I will call “Northtown.” I lived in Northtown only until I was four years old, at which time I moved to “Southtown.” I spent the next 17 years of my life in “Southtown.” People who know me would not say I was from “Northtown,” a place that I barely remember, but rather that I was from “Southtown” because that’s where I spent my formative years. Likewise, if Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it appears that he spent no more than two years in Bethlehem before the family returned to Nazareth. Given that his parents lived in Nazareth, temporarily moved to Bethlehem only for the census, and returned to Nazareth where Jesus spent the next 28 years of his life, is there any wonder that he was said to be “of Nazareth”?

Jesus’ Hometown in Mark 6:1

The Guide argues that Mark 6:1 explains shows that Jesus’ birthplace was Nazareth because that verse refers to Jesus’ “Ancestral Home.” That verse reads (in the New American Standard version):

Jesus went out from there and came into His hometown; and His disciples followed Him.

The word translated by The Guide as “ancestral home” but translated as “hometown” by the NASB is πατρίς (patris), which is defined as follows:

1) one's native country
a) one's fatherland, one's own country, a fixed abode or home
b) one's own native place i.e. a city

In reviewing a number of other versions of the Bible (the ESV, NIV, NKJV, RSV), it appears that most scholars translate πατρίς as either “hometown” or “his country.” The translation as “ancestral home” is certainly within the range of the language, but it is not a common understanding of the word. As the definition above shows, it is certainly within the meaning of the word to say that Jesus’ πατρίς was Nazareth because he had a fixed abode or home in that city.

But even if we accept The Guide’s argument that πατρίς means “ancestral city,” does that necessarily mean that it is the place where Jesus was born? The ancestral city could be the place where his ancestors were from. But the question is which ancestors does this reference? Is the “ancestral home” the long-ago ancestors of Jesus (such as King David) or the more recent ancestors (such as Joseph, his father) or something in between? Why should I assume that the phrase is intended to show that Jesus must have been born in Nazareth?

Quite simply, in light of the clear identification of Bethlehem in Matthew and Luke, I see no reason to accept the idea that Jesus was born in Nazareth based solely on the references to Jesus as being “of Nazareth” and the reference to πατρίς in Mark 6:1. Nor is there anything in the references to Jesus as "the Nazarene" or being from Nazareth that is any different from what I have just examined in Mark. 

But what about the non-canonical gospels? Do they give a different story? While I don’t think much of these "gospels" as authoritative sources for valid information on Jesus’ life, in part IV I will examine the non-canonical references to Jesus birthplace. 

In The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (hereinafter, “The Guide”), New Testament scholars Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz make the argument that Matthew and Luke did not identify Bethlehem in Judea because they believed it to actually be Jesus’ birthplace. Rather,  the authors of these two Gospels make that identification only to meet the Old Testament prophesy that the Messiah would be born there. The Guide’s view of the Bible as being formed to meet theological needs falls short of being more probable than not.

So I am not accused of mischaracterizing the argument found in The Guide, the argument on this point, quoted in its entirety from The Guide, is as follows:

[T]he independent traditions of Matt. 2 and Luke 2 report that Jesus was born in the city of David, in Bethlehem. In both cases the tradition is steeped in belief in the Davidic sonship of Jesus as the Messiah.

·         The birth narrative in Luke is shaped with motifs from the Davidic tradition. Joseph comes from the house and family of David (2.4). Because of a tax assessment ordered by the emperor, he went with Mary to the city of David, in which according to the promise of Micah 5.1 the Messiah was to be born (cf. Luke 2.11). Thus the evangelist achieves a close connection between world history and salvation history and at the same time explains how it was that Jesus was not born in Galilee. The shepherd motif also recalls David.

·         Matthew also offers elements of the Davidic tradition in the narrative about the veneration by the Magi: the motif of the star perhaps comes from the messianic prophesy in Num. 24.17. As the magi do not find the ‘newborn king of the Jews’ at the court of Herod, the scribes investigate where the Messiah was to be born; they come upon Micah 5.1 and send the wise men to the city of David.

Our conclusion must be that Jesus came from Nazareth. The shift of his birthplace to Bethlehem is the result of a religious fantasy and imagination: because according to the scripture the messiah had to be born in Bethlehem, Jesus’ birth is transferred there.

Essentially, The Guide argues that the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth (the actual birthplace of Jesus according to The Guide) was added to the text to make sure that Jesus fulfilled all of the prophesies of the Old Testament of which the prophesy that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem was one. I do not find this convincing for several reasons.

Matthew and Luke as Witnesses

First, while scholars can and do debate whether the New Testament texts were actually written by the Apostles as claimed by conservative Christian scholars and they also debate how the Gospels were formed, a strong case can and has been made that the authors of the Gospels are exactly the individuals to whom authorship of the books have traditionally been ascribed, i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The scholars who assert that the Bible was written much later by people who didn’t know Jesus have yet to establish that proposition with a high degree of certainty. Second, for the argument in The Guide to be accepted, one would have to believe that the people who wrote Matthew and Luke (presumably Matthew and Luke but arguably later Christian followers of Matthew and Luke) were willing to lie about Jesus – a rather suspect claim. In fact, good solid evidence and argumentation supports the view that Matthew and Luke (or their followers) were the authors of the Gospels and that they intended to be truthful.

Some Evidence for Apostolic Authorship

A complete defense of authorship for both Luke and Matthew of the Gospels bearing their names is beyond the scope of this blog entry. A good online source for the basic internal and external evidences supporting the traditional authorship of the four Gospels is The article showing the support for Luke’s authorship of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles is found in “Luke: Introduction, Outline, and Argument” by Daniel B. Wallace. Dr. Wallace also has published a second online article similarly entitled “Matthew: Introduction, Outline and Argument” which shows the internal and external evidence for the authorship of Matthew by the Apostle of that name.

As the scholars who support Apostolic authorship point out, Luke’s authorship of the Gospel that bears his name (and the accompanying authorship of the Acts of the Apostles) is attested to both by the undisputed identification of Luke as the author in the ancient literature and by the internal evidence found in both Luke and Acts (the “we” passages and the sudden ending of Acts). The evidence strongly leads to the conclusion that Luke/Acts was written between the late 50s and early 60s – well within the lifetime of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life.

Church history also, without exception, identifies Matthew as the author of the first Gospel in the New Testament. In fact, church history identifies Matthew’s Gospel as the earliest written although many today point to Mark as being the first Gospel written. But even those who believe that Mark has priority in time, date Matthew no later than Luke which (as has already been discussed) was completed no later than the early 60s. Thus, Matthew was also completed within the lifetime of witnesses to the life of Jesus.

The Accuracy of Matthew and Luke

It is also apparent that Luke and Matthew both reported information that they considered factual. At the outset of this Gospel, Luke makes it clear that he has carefully investigated what he relates in his writings.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

Moreover, Luke has proven to capably and accurately recount historical events. According to F.F. Bruce in his book The NewTestament Documents: Are they Reliable? as quoted in Evidence for the Historical Jesus by Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, Luke has proven to be very accurate in those matters that we can check. The argument follows, if Luke is accurate in those things that we know or can test, why shouldn’t we trust that he is accurate in those things we don’t know or can’t test?

Now all these evidences of accuracy are not accidental. A man whose accuracy can be demonstrated in matters where we are able to test it is likely to be accurate even where the means for testing him are not available. Accuracy is a habit of mind, and we know from happy (or unhappy) experience that some people are habitually accurate just as others can be depended upon to be inaccurate. Luke’s record entitles him to be regarded as a writer of habitual accuracy.

In reviewing websites that argue against the historicity of Matthew, I note that few websites point to historical errors in that Gospel. Those that do allege historical errors usually point to three particular errors: (1) Jesus’ birth during the reign of King Herod, (2) the Slaughter of the Innocents and (3) the darkness and earthquake at the time of the resurrection. Yet a closer examination shows that these allegations are largely unfounded.

The claimed falsity with the birth of Jesus under the reign of King Herod generally ties into the question of how that event could have occurred in light of Luke’s claim that Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem to participate in the enrollment of Caesar Augustus that occurred while Quirinius ruled Syria. Since this objection is mostly based on a claim in Luke (Matthew only refers to the fact that the birth occurred during the reign of King Herod without reference to Quirinius or the enrollment), I will not respond to it here. (My fellow blogger Layman has written an excellent piece on this question in a post entitled “Luke, the Census, and Quirinius: A Matter of Translation”, and I refer the readers interested in this particular issue to that post for further details.)

The claimed falsity of the Slaughter of the Innocents arises not because there is positive evidence that it didn’t happen, but because there is no direct secular confirmation that it absolutely occurred. Since this issue is also beyond the scope of this blog post, I point out simply that articles exist on this blog that demonstrate that the historicity of the Slaughter of the Innocents is quite plausible. I recommend reviewing “The Plausibility of the Slaughter ofthe Innocents” and checking out the links for further information.

The account of darkness and earthquakes at the crucifixion is usually accompanied by claims that there are no secular histories that confirm the darkness or the earthquake. However, as Daniel Anderson at Creation Ministries in an essay entitled “Darknessat the Resurrection:  metaphor or realhistory?” evidence from ancient secular sources does exist for both of these events. He writes;

Thallus wrote a history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Trojan War. Thallus wrote his regional history in about AD 52.6 Although his original writings have been lost, he is specifically quoted by Julius Africanus, a renowned third century historian. Africanus states, ‘Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me.’ Apparently, Thallus attempted to ascribe a naturalistic explanation to the darkness during the crucifixion.

Phlegon was a Greek historian who wrote an extensive chronology around AD 137:

In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e., AD 33) there was ‘the greatest eclipse of the sun’ and that ‘it became night in the sixth hour of the day [i.e., noon] so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea.’

Phlegon provides powerful confirmation of the Gospel accounts. He identifies the year and the exact time of day. In addition, he writes of an earthquake accompanying the darkness, which is specifically recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 27:51). However, like Thallus, he fallaciously attempts to interpret the darkness as a direct effect of a solar eclipse.

Since corroborating secular accounts exist, it seems apparent that the ultimate objection to these events is not based on historical objection, but rather on the inability to accept that the events could have occurred as recorded by Matthew.

In fact, all of these objections constitute historical errors only because of excessive skepticism about the Bible. Such skepticism is certainly understandable since Matthew’s Gospel (as do all of the Gospels) reports miracles. However, if a report of something that is not readily scientifically understandable immediately makes the account unbelievable, then any claim of a miracle (or anything else outside of the expected) is rejected a priori. This approach does not lead to truth, but rather leads only to excluding any possible evidence for a miracle.  

No, the better way is to accept the evidence (even if it includes miracles) if the source appears credible, and it is clear that Matthew has made no errors in his factual reporting. Thus, I conclude that Matthew, like Luke, is quite accurate.

The Timing of the Gospels

For most of history, Matthew has been seen as the earliest of the Gospels. St. Augustine reported in his work, The Harmony of the Gospels, wrote: "Now, those four evangelists whose names have gained the most remarkable circulation over the whole world, and whose number has been fixed as four, …are believed to have written in the order which follows: first Matthew, then Mark, thirdly Luke, lastly John." Thus, assuming the priority of the Gospel of Matthew as the earliest of the four Gospels, it makes the case that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem constituted part of the earliest teachings about Jesus.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the belief that Matthew and Luke were written after Mark and were created largely from copying from Mark and a source called Q or Quelle. If that is true, is it significantly more likely that Matthew and Luke were developed to place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to make a theological point? I don’t believe so for a couple of reasons.

First, Mark does not contain a birth account for Jesus at all (much less an account of a birth in either Bethlehem or Nazareth). Thus, if Matthew and Luke both used source material it would have had to have been the mysterious and elusive Q or other external sources. However, it is apparent that Matthew and Luke did not gather their information from the same source because their birth accounts are very different. Matthew’s account includes the star, the wise men, Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt and the Slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem. Luke’s account includes none of those items, but rather includes the census, the inn, the manger, the shepherd and the angels (all of which are excluded from Matthew’s version). Therefore, it can be safely assumed that Matthew and Luke did not obtain their birth information from the same source.

Since many acknowledge that Luke’s many references to the thoughts and actions of Mary the mother of Jesus strongly suggest that she was one of the sources for his information about the birth, this lends strong credibility that the birth did take place in Bethlehem. (After all, to quote the old Beatles song, when it comes to your birthplace, “Your mother should know.”) Meanwhile, Matthew reports different events, such as the Slaughter of the Innocents, so it appears that he used a different, independent source for his information – but a source that still placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in Judea.

But even if Mark preceded Matthew and Luke, it is clear that since Matthew was completed by the early 60s and Luke by the mid-60s, they both confirm that the account of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem was part of the Jesus narrative within 30 years of Jesus’ death. These accounts must come from different sources and they both are quite early in the history of the church.

Did Matthew and Luke fabricate the Story?

Another aspect of The Guide’s theory is that they necessarily have to believe that Matthew and Luke (or their later editors) were willing to lie to make Jesus the Christ.  In other words, knowing that Jesus did not actually fulfill the prophesies about him, they had to fabricate facts to make him fit into the mold to be the Messiah. Is that plausible? I will explore that more fully in the next post: Do Mark and John Imply a Birthin Nazareth?

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