2018-11-16

Questioning the apologetic argument for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Let’s assume, as is commonly argued within mainstream biblical scholarship, that there was a very small town of Nazareth in Galilee at the supposed time of Jesus’ birth and let’s assume that the reason Jesus was called “Jesus of Nazareth” was because he grew up in Nazareth, and that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are awkwardly contorted to have Jesus of Nazareth somehow also born in Bethlehem because all the Judeans of the day knew and expected that that’s where the Messiah was to be born. The concocted narratives of Jesus being born in Bethlehem are even pulled out as evidence for the very existence of Jesus since the evangelists were oh so embarrassed that he came from Nazareth in reality.

After reading some sections of Richard A. Horsley‘s The Liberation of Christmas: the Infancy Narratives in Social Context, I think we have some problems that seem so obvious in hindsight that I have to pinch myself for not noticing them before. Our attention will be primarily on Matthew’s birth narrative rather than Luke’s in this post.

Part of Horsley’s discussion begins on page six and seven:

Recognition of Matthew’s distinctive use of “formula quotations” (“this was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet… ”) led to the claim that Matthew 2 (which contains several such quotations) “is dominated by geographical names,” which are “what is really important to him.”21 The purpose of Matthew in Chapter 2 was apologetic: how did Jesus the messiah come from Nazareth in Galilee and not from Bethlehem, the village of David, as it said in Scripture, according to the questioning in John 7:41-42.22

21. K. Stendahl, “Quis et Unde? An Analysis of Mt 1-2,” in Judentum, Urchristentum, Kirche (Festschrift J. Jeremias; ed. W. Eltester; Berlin: Topelmann, 1964; reprinted in Interpretation of Matthew [ed. G. N. Stanton; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983], 56-66), 97. Stendahl’s article is important and influential and is followed with further refinement by Brown (BM, chaps. 1 and 5).

22. Stendahl, “Quis et Unde?” 98; Brown, BM, 179-80.

That’s the common understanding. Now Horsley begins to notice some problems with it:

However, the claim that the geographical names, even as emphasized by the formula quotations, dominate Matthew 2 seems highly questionable. What dominates the narrative is clearly the conflict between the newborn king of the Jews and the reigning king, Herod. The threatened Herod figures directly or indirectly at every point in the narrative except the actual visit of the Magi in verses 9—11 and the naming in verse 23.23 Moreover, the notion that Matthew is pursuing an apologetic purpose is derived not from Matthew but only from the dispute in John 7.

23. As Stendahl himself points out, the text mentions “Herod’s name 9 times, and at all points of progress in the account” (“Quis et Unde?” 99).

Yes, of course. The only reason we know there was supposed to be a problem with Jesus not really being born in Bethlehem are the narrative dialogue in one of the latest canonical gospels. We do not find supporting evidence in any earlier or independent records.

From the lack of textual evidence, we are increasingly aware that at the time of Jesus there were almost certainly no standard or widely acknowledged “Jewish expectations about the Messiah” such as birth in Bethlehem, about which Matthew or other followers of Jesus of Nazareth would supposedly have been embarrassed.24 Just because the followers of Jesus early on applied to their “messiah” phrases from psalms that stemmed originally from the established Davidic royal theology (esp. Pss. 2 and 110) does not mean that they were defensively oriented toward some hypothetical established view of the proper pedigree of the messiah. Indeed, the royal Herodian and aristocratic priestly families that dominated Jewish Palestinian society would hardly have been entertaining messianic expectations, which could only have been threatening to their own position. Precisely that is the principal point of Matthew 2! The popularly acclaimed “kings” among the Jewish people who were active around the time of Jesus’ birth surely did not have Davidic pedigrees.25 There is little in the Gospel of Matthew itself or in the Palestinian Jewish milieu out of which the traditions he used emerged to suggest an apologetic motive. The typical early Christian concern to interpret Jesus according to fulfillment of biblical promise and prophecy (and prototype) would appear to be the operative motive in Matthew’s use of the formula quotations to embellish the significance of the events narrated in chapter 2.

24. Cf. Brown, BM, 180; but Brown himself points out in Appendix 3 that expectation of the messiah’s birth at Bethlehem is not attested “until considerably later in Jewish writings.”

25. For a sketch of these popular Jewish kings and their movements, see R. A. Horsley and J. S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (Minneapolis: Winston- Seabury, 1985), chap. 3.

Discussions of the various so-called messianic pretenders in Horsley’s book, Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs can be accessed here.

Now why didn’t I notice that before! Of course, all those supposed messianic pretenders that we read about in Josephus — I have argued that I don’t believe Josephus thought they were actual messianic pretenders, but the focus of this post is Horsley’s argument — were almost certainly not born at Bethlehem themselves but that didn’t stop masses following them in the conviction that they were the supposedly long-awaited messiah, as Horsley and others often claim.

As Tim has several times pointed out in his posts on this blog, too often we read a particular criterion or line of argument being used to support A in one context, but then being quietly dropped when it would falsify A in another context.

Notice that Horsley reminds readers that we have no evidence outside (relatively late) Christian sources that there was a general anticipation of a coming messiah among Jews at the time of Jesus. And I can’t deny I find it somewhat encouraging reading the details of Horsley’s thoughts that I have argued in the past that Matthew’s birth narrative actually presupposes that there was no such widespread hope at that time.

Let’s have a look at his Raymond Brown reference.

It is probably true that many Jews of Jesus’ time expected the Messiah to be born at Bethlehem, but we must be aware that our chief evidence for this is Christian, not Jewish. Expectation of the Messiah’s birth at Bethlehem is attested in the NT independently in Matt 2:4-5 and John in 7:41-42, but not until considerably later Jewish writings.2

2. Without reference to Micah 5: 1, Bethlehem appears as the birthplace of the Messiah in passages like TalJer Berakoth 5a, and Midrash Rabbah 51 on Lam 1:16. As for Micah 5:1(RSV 5:2), L. Ginzberg, Legends, V, 130, traces the messianic interpretation of the passage back to relatively old rabbinic traditions. Origen, Against Celsus, I, 51, charges that Jewish scholars, lest they live comfort to Christians, suppressed tho expectation that the Messiah would be born at Bethlehem.

So “probably true” means we have no independently supported evidence for it, and certainly no contemporary evidence for such expectations. (I think some scholars would also question the independence of Matthew and John insofar as several Matthean images and expressions are to be found in John’s gospel.) Yes, the evidence is late. Origen even has to explain away the absence of early evidence by resorting to a conspiracy theory.

But I think this paragraph from Brown is especially interesting, BM p. 514:

It is often claimed that the creation of the story of Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem was by way of apologetics against the Jewish ridicule of a Messiah who came from Nazareth (John 7:41,52). But would the invention of the Bethlehem tradition really have met the objection? After all, the Bethlehem story made its appearance in a rather late stratum of NT writing, when Jesus of Nazareth had been proclaimed as the Messiah for some fifty years. So far as we know, he had been preached and accepted by many without the slightest awareness of his being born at Bethlehem. Birth at Bethlehem could never be more than a very secondary motif in the royalty of him who died as “Jesus the Nazorean, King of the Jews.”

To significant points so far:

  • Matthew’s narrative is primarily interested in the conflict between the two kings, Jesus and Herod, and the birth place is only a backdrop
  • The assumption that there was a Jewish expectation that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem finds no evidence in Jewish sources around that time and only first appears in later Christian texts.
  • If we accept that there were various Jewish messianic pretenders at that time then we must conclude that a Bethlehem birth was not a pre-condition for qualification as a messiah.

We may fairly conclude that Matthew’s birth narrative was not an apologetic attempt to rewrite history and have Jesus born at Bethlehem in order to conform to widespread expectations that the messiah was to be born at Bethlehem. The reason he had both Nazareth and Bethlehem feature in the narrative was because he could find two neat prophecies for Jesus to fulfill and he found a way to make the most of both. Nazareth, he said, was to explain the prophecy that Jesus was called “of Nazareth” (though originally the word we translate as “of Nazareth” more likely referred to a sectarian sobriquet such as Nazorean), and Bethlehem was introduced because he could find a neat prophecy in Micah, too.  The birth narrative in Matthew is far more interested in the story of a conflict between the newborn king of the Jews and King Herod for its own sake.


Brown, Raymond E. 1993. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Updated edition. New York: Anchor Bible.

Horsley, Richard. 2006. The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context. Reprint edition. Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock.

The title of RH’s book alerts you to his bias. H’s larger argument is that the gospel of Jesus has real socio-political implications and cannot be confined to mere theological idea removed from practical real-world consequences.


 

Related Posts on Vridar

Rabbinic Traditions that the Messiah was to Suffer... Image of cover of Barry Holtz's historical survey of Rabbi Akiba Before addressing some of the modern criticisms of Joachin Jeremias's arguments w...
Jewish Pre-Christian Prophecies of Suffering Serva... So far we have presented the following seven witnesses to a Jewish, pre-Christian, belief in a Suffering Messiah: Ecclesiasticus, Interprete...
Modern Scholars on Pre-Christian Jewish Beliefs in... I am currently sharing the evidence for a pre-Christian Jewish beliefs in a suffering servant, even dying, messiah set out by Joachim Jeremias, but in...
Jewish Understandings of a Suffering Messiah befor... A free Vridar plug for a Rob Levinson book The witnesses to a Jewish, pre-Christian, belief in a Suffering Messiah that we have heard from so far:...
The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

10 Comments

  • Malcolm Grant Hutton
    2018-11-17 00:50:12 UTC - 00:50 | Permalink

    Nazareth did not exist at that time, so it is pointless supposing something which is nothing more than more of the same ‘Harry Potter’ fantasy.

    The Franciscan Brothers have the rights to all archaeological digs around where Nazareth exists today, so some years ago I emailed them because of a certain claim that had been made about a find there. They replied to me and confirmed that it just wasn’t true as nothing that ancient has every been found in any dig – just 3 or 4 kilometres from the Roman Capital City of Galilee then named Sepphoris.

    Just ask yourself how it is that there is no mention of Sepphoris in the Bible when it was so close to the supposed birthplace of an entity that never existed anyway?

    It is very simple. The gospels were plagiarised from the stories of an Ancient Egyptian ‘Jesus’ more than 3 centuries after the setting and date of the fairy tales by Greek Egyptian Copts who had never heard of the Roman name that long before their time, and in a far away country at that.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-11-17 03:30:37 UTC - 03:30 | Permalink

      The reasons I classify your brand of mythicism as “Type 2” are encapsulated in this comment.

      1. You begin with a dogmatic assertion that something is true despite knowing that many others are not convinced it is a fact.
      2. You begin also with a claim that any thesis that does not recognize the truth of that dogmatic assertion is pointless.
      3. You rely upon a rhetorical question to make an argument (third para),
      4. Your alternative theory rests upon numerous unsupported assumptions and assertions about the evidence.

      As for one: I also do not think Nazareth existed in the early part of the first century but it only indicates an unwillingness to listen and respect other viewpoints to make a dogmatic point about it.

      As for two: If you are only interested in convincing yourself with your own arguments then it is indeed pointless attempting engage with alternative perspectives and scholarship that is based on different assumptions and interpretations. But if one wishes to engage with the broader community then it is far from pointless to propose how certain arguments work within their own frameworks.

      As for three: One of my favourite quotes is by Dan Dennett who pointed out that rhetorical questions tend to paper over the cracks in one’s arguments.

      As for four: Correlations between some narratives or themes or sounds of words between Egyptian and Jewish sources do not necessarily mean that the Jews were adapting the Egyptian sources in order to write the gospels. More than correlations, one needs to be able to point to evidence that supports how something was borrowed from another source. I have not seen Gerald Massey (your authority, I think) present that argument though I have seen abundant evidence that the gospels were sourced primarily and directly from non-Egyptian literature. There appear to have been some Egyptian influences but that’s all that the evidence allows us to say. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation or direct borrowing.

    • Matt Cavanaugh
      2018-11-17 17:01:00 UTC - 17:01 | Permalink

      Nazareth was, however, populated possibly as early as c. AD 70, and almost certainly by the early 2nd Century — thus when Matthew was written. Whether the town existed earlier is irrelevant to the question of the motive(s) behind the evangelist’s birth narrative.

  • proudfootz
    2018-11-17 01:41:14 UTC - 01:41 | Permalink

    This is an excellent observation. Thanks for writing about this.

  • MrHorse
    2018-11-17 06:04:06 UTC - 06:04 | Permalink

    Neil (i) quotes Richard Horsley and Horsley’s citation of Raymond Brown thus –

    “From the lack of textual evidence, we are increasingly aware that at the time of Jesus there were almost certainly no standard or widely acknowledged “Jewish expectations about the Messiah” such as birth in Bethlehem, about which Matthew or other followers of Jesus of Nazareth would supposedly have been embarrassed.[24]”

    24. cf. Brown, B.M., 180; … expectation of the messiah’s birth at Bethlehem is not attested “until considerably later in Jewish writings.”

    Then (ii) quotes Brown thus –

    It is probably true that many Jews of Jesus’ time expected the Messiah to be born at Bethlehem, but we must be aware that our chief evidence for this is Christian, not Jewish. Expectation of the Messiah’s birth at Bethlehem is attested in the NT independently in Matt 2:4-5 and John in 7:41-42, but not until considerably later Jewish writings.[2]” [bolding mine]

    2. Without reference to Micah 5:1, Bethlehem appears as the birthplace of the Messiah in passages like TalJer Berakoth 5a, and Midrash Rabbah 51 on Lam 1:16. As for Micah 5:1 (RSV 5:2), L. Ginzberg, Legends, V, 130, traces the messianic interpretation of the passage back to relatively old rabbinic traditions. Origen, Against Celsus, I, 51, charges that Jewish scholars, lest they live comfort to Christians, suppressed tho expectation that the Messiah would be born at Bethlehem.

    Brown somewhat contradicts Horsley. And, of course, our chief evidence would be Jewish: Christians would hardly have been keen to dilute the primacy of their messiah.

    Moreover, a key issue is when gospel books such as the Gospel of Matthew, or even chapters or sections of chapters such as the pertinent parts of Matt. 2, were written or finalised. If the propositions of scholars such as Jason BeDuhn, Markus Vinzent and Matthias Klinghardt that the canonical gospels were not finalised until the mid 2nd century are true, then “Jesus’ [alleged] time” may be far less relevant to chronology and the roles of theology such as that of TalJer Berakoth 5aand Midrash Rabbah 51, and the commentary of Ginzberg, Legends, V, 130 might be more pertinent.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-11-17 06:15:36 UTC - 06:15 | Permalink

      Yes, Horsley notes explicitly where he disagrees with Brown, while at the same time pointing to details in an appendix by Brown that support his own conclusions.

      • MrHorse
        2018-11-18 11:37:25 UTC - 11:37 | Permalink

        Aspirations for a Jewish Messianic were greater after the fall of the Temple than before.

  • Pingback: Questioning the apologetic argument for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem — Vridar | James' Ramblings

  • Christine
    2018-11-20 00:03:26 UTC - 00:03 | Permalink

    The Mandaeans claim John was born into the Nazarite tribe. Somewhere and somehow scholars will gather information to prove that John was born in Bethlehem, as it says in the fourth Gospel, John. Jesus was born outside of history.

  • Pingback: A Response to Dr Sarah, Geeky Humanist, on the Jesus Question |

  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.