Was Jesus Born in Nazareth or Bethlehem? - Part II: Was Bethlehem Named for Theological Reasons?

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 Bible.org. 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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