Was Jesus Born in Nazareth or Bethlehem? Part III - Do Mark and John Imply a Birth in Nazareth?

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. 


Jason Pratt said…
Great holiday series, Bill!

No one would ever refer to me as being "from" anywhere other than Dyer, TN. It's even an ancestral home to me, because my mother and her family come from here, and her family's family on either side of her parents grew up in the region of West Tennessee since the days of the first white settlers. (My father, by contrast, moved here from south-central Florida, and his parents and their families come from French Canada. While technically French Canada might also be considered my ancestral home, no one would think of me in connection to it.)

Nevertheless, it's a historical fact that I was born in Memphis, TN, where my mother and father worked at the time; and I lived my first couple of years in Hernando, MS, just south of the city, where they lived. Dad could have just as easily had family there as in Florida and Canada.

Anyway, I wouldn't have any trouble with the idea that the two Johns (if they are not in fact the same John after all {g}) never even heard of Jesus being born in Bethlehem and so never talked about it for that reason; no more than they directly talked about Him being born in Nazareth (which would have been apologetically embarrassing.) On the other hand, it's somewhat debatable that we're missing the first (and last) page of GosMark, so we should be careful drawing conclusions on what he might or might not have known about Jesus' life prior to His baptism.


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