Continued from Responding to standard arguments for Jesus’ historicity (1)
(ii) he was from Nazareth
. . . . Not only is the fact that he was from Nazareth a feature of all versions of the stories but Nazareth itself appears, with Jesus being scorned and rejected there. This was clearly a problem for the gospel writers, because the Jewish expectation was that the Messiah was going to come from Bethlehem. So the writers of Matthew and Luke both tell stories to “explain” how a man who was known to be and who was depicted as being from Nazareth could actually have been born in Bethlehem. The problem is (i) their stories are riddled with historical problems that show they are inventions and (ii) they don’t just totally contradict each other, they are set ten years apart and are mutually exclusive.
Again, this all makes perfect sense if he did exist and he was from Nazareth. They would need to “explain” how someone from a tiny, insignificant village in Galilee could actually have fulfilled the prophecy about Bethlehem. But it makes no sense at all if he was an invention or myth. If that is the case, why is Nazareth in the story at all? The only logical explanation is that it’s there because that is where he was from.
Coached witnesses are not multiple witnesses
Also featuring in “all versions of the stories” is the ability of Jesus to produce 12 baskets of food scraps after feeding 5000 with a few fish and loaves; and a resurrected person leaving a tomb. So we can see the relevance of a “fact” appearing in all four gospels. Even though scholars are very aware of at least Matthew and Luke being dependent on Mark as a source, and some also believe John to be derivative from Mark, too, they are not beyond the tendentious assertion that this or that detail is found in “all four witnesses”.
(But there is in fact reason to doubt that Nazareth does appear in all gospels, at least in their original versions. Nazareth is found in only one verse in Mark’s gospel. The Gospel of Matthew copies most of the text of the Gospel of Mark, sometimes adding new material to it. The author of Matthew’s gospel also copied Mark’s scene of Jesus coming to be baptized by John. However, the word “Nazareth” in Mark’s gospel does not appear in the copied verse of Matthew’s gospel. This suggests it was not there in the version of Mark’s gospel that was known to the author of Matthew’s.)
Self-testimony can never be enough
A narrative cannot testify to its own historicity. External controls are always needed. No-one can pick up a story and, without any idea of its context, decide if it is a true tale or not. The mere fact that a story has a coherent plot is no more a verification of its historicity than if it is told less coherently.
To accept as “true” any document or text on the basis of its self-testimony alone, without any reference to external context, is simply naive. Valid historical method does not work that way.
Awkward facts or circular reasoning?
It is said that Nazareth is one element in the gospel narrative that is “clearly awkward for the gospel writers”. I don’t see any awkwardness about its mention at all. It seems no more awkward than the mention of any other place: Capernaum, where Jesus preached; Bethany, where Jesus stayed by night while preaching in Jerusalem by day; Tyre, when he left Galilee altogether at one point. The awkwardness seems to be in the minds of modern readers who seem to be able to read the minds of the ancient authors and psychically see them somehow struggling over how to write about this particular place. Or maybe it is simply a matter of plain old circular reasoning: awkwardness in the narrative is presumed because we “know” in advance it was an awkward matter facing the authors.
I am sure most lay Christians would be surprised to learn that their beloved nativity stories had “problems” with these two places. They are anchors of a beautiful and dramatic simple story told and reenacted every Christmas.
The awkwardness is seen by the apparent “fact” that Nazareth does not fit the Jewish expectation that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem. There is simply no evidence that there ever was such an expectation. Yet there is evidence against it. This “fact” is nothing more than a backward projection by later Christians.
The myth of the general Jewish messianic expectation
In my earlier post I cited discussions in Fitzmyer and Thompson (historians of the Messiah concept at this time) and noted their lack of support for the common assertion that Jews were generally expecting a Messiah at this time, least of all one from Bethlehem. Yes, I have read Horsley’s bandits etc. and the rest. We can cheat a bit and superimpose messianic notions on some of these, but not one has the slightest hint of a whisper about a “general expectation”, let alone a Bethlehem birth.
The narrative contradicts this common assumption
The author of Matthew’s gospel writes a narrative that contradicts the assumption that there was any such Jewish expectation. The wise men were not very wise or knowledgeable at all if they were not aware of what every Jew was supposed to have believed — that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. In Matthew’s narrative they have to go to the royal court to ask the King to consult the wisest of the wise to decipher and deliver this information. Not even the King of the Jews, Herod, knew of it.
And his Jewish attendants didn’t stop to tell him not to bother the priests, because everyone in town knew the answer to that one. Word got around that the magi were looking for a baby messiah and “all Jerusalem was troubled”. They didn’t all flock to Bethlehem, as would have been expected had they all expected that would be the place of the Messiah’s birth.
Herod had to ask his wise men to find the answer. It could hardly, then, be said to have been an expectation in the heart of every Jew.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
Of course this has all the ring of a fairy story. But if we are to interpret this as some late development of a historical core, then we are reading how astrologers are unable to learn from general public knowledge about the place of the Messiah’s birth, and how they must resort to a special audience with the king. What’s more, we then read that that King had to shrug his shoulders and say he hadn’t a clue. He had to call in his wise men and pose the question to them.
The so-called prophecy in Micah that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem was invented by the author of Matthew’s gospel to fit his narrative. The original passage in Micah 5:2 certainly meant no such thing to its original Jewish audience. It refers, rather, to a clan or individual named Bethlehem, a son of Ephratha. (1 Chron 4:4). It is one of many similar prophecies about a future Davidic king coming from the tribe of Judah (c.f. 1 Sam.17:12).
So rather than being perplexed over how to reconcile apparent facts with beliefs, the author of Matthew’s gospel actually manufactured the “belief” that was supposed to have caused him so much difficulty!
The gospel of Matthew’s author himself was the one who twisted the meaning of a verse that originally referred to personal or clan names and forced it to mean, instead, the town of Bethlehem. He wanted from the beginning to create a Bethlehem story. He was not “forced into it” so that he then had somehow to struggle to reconcile it with his Nazareth account.
Literary contortions or routine visions and travels?
It is also usually claimed that the authors of Matthew and Luke go to contorted or contrived lengths in their narratives to find ways to get Jesus from a birth in Bethlehem to his hometown in Nazareth. Again, I find such a claim to be without any foundation at all. Both authors use the simple and easy techniques used throughout the Old Testament narratives. It was never a problem for God to get Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or the millions of the tribes of Israel in Sinai from one place to another. Tossing in visions, dreams, sending a plague or curse of some kind in one place, and offering a carrot somewhere else — all these techniques were familiar enough and are repeated routinely in the Matthew and Luke narratives that move Jesus from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Awkwardness again? Not at all.
If that is the case, why is Nazareth in the story at all? The only logical explanation is . . . .
My “logical fallacy antennae” start buzzing whenever I hear the phrase “the only logical explanation is that”. ONLY? Is the writer veering towards that logical fallacy of the “false-dilemma”, the “either-or” fallacy?
A wisdom-pearl in Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea reminded me of a host of gossamer arguments regularly touted by fundamentalists (not only Christian or religious fundamentalists, either).
I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (p. 178)
And “If that is the case, why is Nazareth in the story at all?” is a typical argument by rhetorical question found in the literature about the Bible.
We enter here the fallacy of personal incredulity. The same fallacy is actually called the “divine fallacy” when its logic is used to “prove” God or psychic powers. “How ELSE can you explain X?” “I can see no other possible or reasonable explanation. Therefore, there is no other possible explanation . . . . !”
From the Skeptic’s Dictionary:
The divine fallacy, or the argument from incredulity, is a species of non sequitur reasoning which goes something like this: I can’t figure this out, so God must have done it. Or, This is amazing; therefore, God did it. Or, I can’t think of any other explanation; therefore, God did it. Or, this is just too weird; so, God is behind it.
This fallacy is also a variation of the alien fallacy: I can’t figure this out, so aliens must have done it. Or, This is amazing; therefore, aliens did it. Or, I can’t think of any other explanation; therefore, aliens did it. Or, this is just too weird; so, aliens are behind it.
Another variation of the fallacy goes something like this: I can’t figure this out, so paranormal forces must have done it. Or, This is amazing; therefore, paranormal forces did it. Or, I can’t think of any other explanation; therefore, paranormal forces did it.this is just too weird; so, paranormal forces are behind it.
But really why?
But isn’t the fact that Nazareth is such a nothing-place mentioned at all in connection with Jesus evidence for the historicity of the claim? Why would anyone make it up if it were not an historical reality that the authors were forced to deal with?
Other evidence about Jewish Christian sects and terms related to “Nazarenes” does suggest to modern readers that Matthew’s reference to “Nazarene” indicates that he was creating the story about Nazareth to explain this epithet. Was he attempting to create an alternative (more “proto-orthodox”?) origin for this epithet? Matthew is attempting to tie the word to a passage in Isaiah meaning the Branch. Some scholarly discussions of early Jewish sects link the word to a meaning like ‘guardians’ or ‘keepers’. We no longer know its origins, or how it came to be associated with Jesus and some of his early devotees.
Fact 1: No sect is ever named after the hometown of its founder. That is not the way sects or philosophies of any sort are labelled. It is a senseless notion. Yet the Nazarene label was applied to the earliest followers of Jesus, just as Jesus was said to be a Nazarene himself. The fact that the term Nazarene is a sect name is evidence that it does not, and never did in historical fact, relate to a town Nazareth.
Fact 2: There is every reason for an author to invent the idea of a hero hailing from a very modest background. This was/is a very familiar trope found throughout a whole spectrum of mythological tales. Heroes from Sargon to Cinderella have been rejected or cast out or mislaid so that a peasant farmer or villager would bring them up until their day of destiny arrived. It is a common enough trope in the prophetic literature of the Bible, as well as in the narratives of the patriarchs and Kings Saul and David. Sometimes, as with Moses, the theme is reversed, and the one raised in a palace must return to his humble beginnings, only to rise to even greater heights subsequently.
Humble origins and rejection by family and neighbours are both standard tropes in literature. They are used to dramatize the uniqueness of the hero, his special relationship with God, and his heroic longsuffering. It is a trope as old as the stories of Abel, Jacob, Joseph, the prophets, David. These are not historical facts in the Jesus narrative any more than they are historical facts in any of these and other comparable nonbiblical tales. They are standard literary tropes that function to exalt the unique greatness of the hero, and audience sympathy for him or her.
Point 3: As he did with the Bethlehem prophecy, the author of Matthew forces and contorts another Old Testament verse into a “fulfilled prophecy” to explain Jesus hometown of Nazareth. This, along with Fact 1, suggests that the author is attempting to change the meaning of the sect name, Nazarene. He wishes to deny the term (as it was used to apply to the head of the sect, Jesus) its original meaning, perhaps because of theological differences he had with this sect. The fact that in Matthew we read of a contorted invention of a prophecy (as was also done in the case of Bethlehem) suggests that the author is, once again, inventing the idea that the home of Jesus was Nazareth.
It looks to me like the author has created a prophecy to justify his invention of the Bethlehem tale, and then must manufacture another prophecy to justify his denial of the original meaning of “Nazarene” through his invention of Jesus’ home in Nazareth. Once he did it for Bethlehem, it was even easier to repeat the trick for Nazareth. Just like he crafted prophecies out of the Psalms and elsewhere to add more details to the crucifixion at the end. The same reinterpreted use of Old Testament passages was used to portray Jesus as another Moses, another Elijah and Elisha, and as a source of detail with which to construct the Passion Narrative.
(The original context of the summary cited here, by Tim O’Neill, can be found here.)
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- Imagining an Alternative to Human Rights - 2022-08-09 13:17:59 GMT+0000
- “Some Underlying Tradition” — a review of Writing With Scripture, part 10 - 2022-08-06 14:23:27 GMT+0000
- How (and Why) Jewish Scriptures are used in Mark’s Passion Narrative — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 9 - 2022-08-05 18:30:35 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!