Was Jesus Born In Nazareth or Bethlehem? Part IV - Jesus’ Birthplace in the Non-Canonical “Gospels”

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.


Metacrock said…
There's a lot of evidence now that some of those books are as older or older than the canonicals. More importantly there is Koster's thing about mutual sources such as the passion narrative as a shared source between the four canonical gospels and Gpete.

It's important to look at those non canonical versions, especially Egerton2 and Gpete. I agree that the canonicals are still the most authoritative source, but since we know they drew upon prior writings we (as Luke says) we might as well find out what they were.
Metacrock said…
I would not use any of the infancy Gospels as examples. They are interesting for the elements they clearly took from the canonical gospels, backing my argument about one story.

Yet, the really authentic sources that contian what might be common ancestors of the Gospels we know, are GThomas, Gpete, Egerton 2 and a couple of other in that vain. But those there in particular.

The Epistle of the Apostles is tantalizing becuase it's so orthodox and so in line with the canonical Gospels.No one really thinks it's not derivative of them.
Jason Pratt said…
From a source-critical perspective, I was impressed at how my harmonization project, testing a sorting of material by comparison of the relative strength of time/place cues (or a lack of them), resulted in much larger blocks of contiguous material than I was expecting.

Before I ran the experiment I hadn't seriously considered any theory of one or more extensive written narrative texts preceding the canonicals; afterward, I started paying attention to theories (including an ancient one about the composition of GosJohn) about the apostles or other disciples writing out early treatments to ensure they'd be in agreement with one another in evangelizing: not publicly available documents, exactly, but strongly authoritative ones.

Once the apostles and second generation disciples started dying off, those texts would be the natural sources to be mined for publicly disseminated texts, the "faithful deposit" of apostolic teaching to be handed down. It would also explain the popular prevalence in the 2nd century of suspicions that the apostles had 'secret' texts known only to elect initiates: they really did have such texts, for their own referential work, but the material was still made public in the oral teaching and eventually collected for public release, foremost in the canonical Gospels.

Such theories would also explain why the textual material points to 1st century (and even pre-70) composition, yet extracanonical Christian works through the 2nd century seem ambivalent about directly referencing them as textual sources per se: they were still in the process of early print dissemination, a process which would also naturally inspire the creation of 'secret' Gospels being brought to light simultaneously.


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