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Bethlehem and Nazareth in Matthew

In my last post I showed why it is virtually certain that Jesus’ home town was Nazareth.   All of our sources agree that he was from there, and it is very hard to imagine why a Christian story teller would have made that up.    But now the question is whether that was also his place of birth.

The only two accounts we have of Jesus’ birth, Matthew and Luke, independently claim that even though he was raised in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem.   So isn’t that the more likely scenario?  Born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth?   You might think so, given the fact that this is what is stated in our only two sources of information, and that they independently agree about the matter (based on their own sources, the no longer existing M – Matthew’s source or sources – and the no longer existing L – Luke’s source or sources).

But there are reasons for thinking that we cannot trust these accounts, for three reasons:


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Bethlehem and Nazareth in Luke: Where Was Jesus Really Born?
Was Jesus From Nazareth?



  1. Avatar
    yes_hua  March 5, 2015

    So glad you got your power back! So, why did it matter that Archelaus was in power? Wouldn’t he have thought that the ‘slaughter’ had worked? Or was it just because he was an awful person? Then, why would they travel *out of Judea*, through Samaria, and then into Galilee, the so-called land of Gentiles, in order to settle, not in a large town with opportunities but in some backwater that was probably made up of an overgrown local tribe? Am I missing a prophecy here or is it just that the known title, ‘of Nazareth’ must be explained? Seems to me they go a long way to place them in Bethlehem but that causes the implausibilities.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2015

      Great questions! The texts don’t say!

    • Avatar
      billgraham1961  March 7, 2015

      I wonder if the answer to your question is that the author of Matthew realized that he could only stretch the implausibilities so far, and that he had to get Jesus back to Nazareth before he got too much older and people of that caught on to the historical problems.

  2. Avatar
    wmr333  March 5, 2015

    In a future post, please elaborate on this point:

    “Most people never read Matthew for what Matthew has to say”

    After reading many of your books, I still don’t understand how regular Christians read and use the bible. I think I understand how you as a research and historian read it, but not others. It is like they just randomly pick a verse or a page and never think about the whole book or the stories across books.

  3. Avatar
    toejam  March 5, 2015

    Do we have any reason to think M actually existed as a source and is not just the imaginations of the redactor who was splicing together Mark and Q?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2015

      It’s possible that Matthew made up all these stories himself, but since he uses sources for most of his other accounts, I think you’d have to have some reason for thinking that he was just inventing accounts without having heard anything about them before.

  4. Avatar
    hgb55  March 5, 2015

    This is Part 2 of my critique of Chapter 13 of Frank Zindler’s book, “Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus,” where Mr. Zindler, a well-known Jesus mythicist and publisher, argues that Nazareth and Jesus never existed. Here Mr. Zindler is attempting to prove that Nazareth, a fictional town, was inserted into Mark 1:9 in order to give a fictional Jesus a hometown so people would be fooled into believing that Jesus had been a real person.

    Next, Mr. Zindler does a Bayesian analysis on Mark 1:9 to reinforce his conclusions that the word Nazareth in that verse is an interpolation, a forgery, not originally in the Gospel of Mark. He learned this mathematical strategy by reading Richard Carrier’s book titled “Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus.” Zindler tries Bayes’ theorem and calculates there is a only a 1 in 21,000 chance that the missing definite article (the word “the”) in Mark 1:9 is due to a scribal or editing error. In other words, he thinks there is a near certain probability that a forgery is involved in that verse.

    But there is a huge problem with Mr. Zindler’s use of Bayes’ theorem. He is required to use a prior probability in his calculations. Where does he get his prior probability? He makes it up by assuming that there is a 72/73 (98.6%) chance of a forgery or interpolation when the name Jesus is written without a definite article in the Gospel of Mark. (This happens only once in the 73 verses that mention Jesus in Mark and where the definite article would be possible, which happens to be Mark 1:9. This is where the 72/73 probability that Zindler used came from.) But, importantly, the 1 in 21,000 probability that Mr. Zindler obtained using Bayes’ theorem is bogus if the 72/73 probability is bogus, which it is.

    Still not satisfied (he seems to admire his ability to crush his opponents who disagree with him), Mr. Zindler combs through 67 Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark in Reuben Swanson’s “New Testament Greek Manuscripts: Mark.” He finds 5 out of 117 verses that mention Jesus but have a missing “the” that should be present. Using this new information, Mr. Zindler does an updated Bayesian analysis. Shockingly, he discovers that there is now only a 1/400,000 chance that the missing “the” in Mark 1:9 is due to scribal error. In other words, he believes he has scientifically demonstrated that there is essentially a 100% probability that Mark 1:9 contains a forgery, specifically the part containing the word Nazareth. He thinks this is strong evidence that the author of the Gospel of Mark knew nothing about Nazareth and that it is only present in Mark because someone inserted it much later, after seeing Nazareth mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. Hence, Zindler concludes the town of Nazareth very probably never existed if the author of Mark never knew about Nazareth.

    All this, of course, is silly since all the probability calculations are bogus. The second Bayesian analysis is especially kooky since Mr. Zindler uses the corrupted 1/21,000 probability he obtained in his first Bayesian calculations as the prior probability in his second Bayesian analysis. Not to mention that no one can do Bayesian analysis this way with words that show dependency, a common blunder made by amateurs attempting to use Bayes’ theorem.

    And one should wonder why, as Mr. Zindler concludes, someone would need to forge Mark 1:9 in order to make it look like an imaginary, mythical person named Jesus was a real person who walked on earth? There are numerous towns and geographical locations mentioned in Mark where Jesus visited, places like Capernaum, Jerusalem, Galilee, the Jordan River and so on. Why forge another town? (Mr. Zindler has a one option he uses here. He says Capernaum and some other places also never existed when Jesus would have lived.)

    These demonstrations of shoddy and makeshift scholarship and outlandish conclusions should be quite embarrassing to Jesus mythicists, who strongly argue that they are dispassionate truth seekers who are simply practicing the highest standards in skeptical philosophy and logic. And that they are highly qualified scholars who have been wrongly ignored, stereotyped and belittled by those in power, including Bart Ehrman.

    Hobart Baker

  5. Avatar
    billgraham1961  March 6, 2015

    I was in Nazareth back in 1984. By then, of course, it was nothing like the one-dog hamlet it must have been in Jesus’ time. The most distinctive thing I remember about that experience was the murals of Jesus in one the churches there. Jesus appeared in a number of ethnic identities. In a sense, I think that is just as legitimate as anything we’d call historical Jesus. We simply don’t know who that person was.

    It is not reasonable to act as if Jesus never existed. Of course he did, but we have no way to know exactly what he originally said or even thought of himself, even with the biblical record. That came decades after his crucifixion. Even the most conservative, fundamentalist Christian transforms Jesus into something that fits his mold.

    If we knew the real, historical personality, Jesus of Nazareth, I have to think we’d be very uncomfortable with him today and he probably would not accept our culture and lifestyles. I suspect that he would have a particular distaste for jingoism and imperialism in any form. On the other hand, people will see Jesus in a way that appeals to them, historical or not. In fact, it does little good to tell them otherwise until they are ready to get beyond their own point of view and take the chance on discovering something that blows away all their previous ideas. It took me well over 20 years to reach that point, and I’m still on my journey.

  6. Avatar
    J.J.  March 6, 2015

    Just curious… what’s your take on the independence or interdependence of Mt 1-2 and Lk 1-2. Do you think Luke’s infancy narratives are based on Matthew’s? Or vice versa? Or on some other unknown earlier common source? Or neither and they’re both independent?

    It sounds like you’re advocating independence. But if they are separate and independent, then we have to account for common elements in the two. Some commonalities are easier to explain (e.g., location in Bethlehem [Micah 5.2]; mother’s name Mary [Mk 6.3]), but others less so (e.g., both have the same name Joseph for Mary’s husband even though that name is not in Mark or Q; both have the unexpected and unprecedented miracle story of a virgin birth). Thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 7, 2015

      I think they’re independent. Maybe I’ll say something about your query in a post.

      • Avatar
        SteleDan  March 7, 2015

        This seems odd to me also.

        Has anyone investigated the possibility that “Q” opened with a short narrative? Something along the lines of, ” These are the sayings of Χριστός, Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Joseph, descendant of David, born of a virgin, Mary, in Bethlehem, who died on a cross for the reparation of sinners”, Yada yada yada? Maybe an early creed which contained Bethlehem and virgin birth, from which both Matthew and Luke expanded on for their own theological reasons?

        You say above that because Matthew and Luke uses sources for other stories and that they are independent, that you think they did not make them up. However, they both use the birth narrative to set the scene for the entire Gospel. Every part of the birth narrative in Matthew, is connected to the OT, which is a major theme (if not the theme) in his Gospel. It feels (from a lay perspective) too snug a fit as a compilation of sources and more like an invention from basic source information, which seems like the same basic source as Luke.

        Any thoughts?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 9, 2015

          Yes, it is certainly possible that Q started with a narrative. But since we don’t have the document, most *anything* is possible about it. And so it is probalby best to figure out what is more probable, and to come up with reasons for thinking so.

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