When you ask most anyone where Jesus came from, they will say he was born in Bethlehem. The reason is not hard to find: the only references to Jesus’ birth in the New Testament squarely place his birth in Bethlehem. There are, as many of you know, only two passages of the New Testament that narrate the events surrounding Jesus’ birth: Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. And they both agree in placing it in Bethlehem. (Neither of the other Gospels says anything about it, nor do any of the other 23 books of the New Testament.)
And yet there are compelling reasons for questioning that view, so that a large number of critical scholars – even prominent Roman Catholic scholars – think that it is more likely that Jesus was born in Nazareth. Let me explain why.
The first thing to stress is that all four Gospels – including Matthew and Luke – agree that Jesus came from Nazareth. That is to say, Nazareth (not Bethlehem) was his hometown. In my view, that tradition is rock-solid historical, for two interlocking reasons.
As many of you know, there are disputes and disagreements about which criteria are most fruitful for historians who are trying to establish what probably happened in the past. This applies not only to historians of early Christianity, but to all historians of any kind – whether they are trying to figure out what actually happened in the life of Napoleon, Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, or … Jesus.
When historians try to establish the past, they obviously need sources of information. Without sources of information, there is no access to past events. And so the question always is: what kinds of sources are most useful for historians (or for anyone else) who want to know what happened? Well, there are a number of things on a historian’s wish list when it comes to sources. The historian wants:
- Lots of sources – the more the better (one source is good; twenty sources are fantastic);
- From about the time of the person/event under investigation (hopefully contemporary sources; if not that, the earlier the better)
- Hopefully from eyewitnesses (this would obviously not guarantee the accuracy of a report. But it’s better than second-hand or thirty-third hand reports.)
- Which are not obviously biased toward the subject matter, but are – in one respect or another (hopefully lots of respects) — disinterested
- Which corroborate one another’s reports (so that basically they give the same account)
- Without having collaborated with one another (that is, they are independent witnesses, not influenced by what the others have said, and yet give the same basic account).
When it comes to the historical Jesus, in light of this wish list, there is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that we do not have any eyewitness reports – not a single one – from Jesus’ day; the reports come to us from decades later; the accounts are all written by people who deeply and vigorously believe that Jesus is the Son of God who was raised from the dead (they are not disinterested authors); some of them utilized one another (i.e., they “collaborated” in a sense: Matthew and Luke both used Mark and Q, e.g.); and they are often at odds with one another (so there are lots of their reports that are not corroborated)
But from the half-glass-full-good-news perspective is this: we do have multiple sources, from within 70 years of Jesus death, some of which are independent with one another (either in toto or in part – e.g., Mark did not know Q; John did not know Matthew; Paul had not read the Gospels; etc.); that sometimes (not that often: but *sometimes*) report information that appears disinterested; and that in many instances (maybe not the majority, but in many) corroborate what one another has said.
So we have a mixed bag when it comes to our sources of information about Jesus. But if we can find reports in these sources that are made multiple times, by independent sources (e.g., reports in Mark, and M, and John, and Paul), in which there seems to be *disinterested* reporting (where the author has nothing to be gained by saying something in particular about Jesus) – then we are probably hearing something that is historical, as opposed to something that has been “made up” by one Christian author or another.
The report that Jesus came from Nazareth passes these historical tests.
- It is independently attested in multiple sources (Mark; M; L; and John). That means that no *one* of them made it up – since none of them got it from the other, and they are not dependent on the same sources, the report goes way back, long before any of them wrote it down.
- And it is a surprisingly disinterested report. No one gets any Christian “mileage” out of claiming that Jesus came from Nazareth. Why would a Christian make up *that* report? Nazareth was a little one-horse town (it wasn’t even a one-horse town; more like a one-dog town) that was completely insignificant and trivial. It is not mentioned in the Jewish Scriptures or in Josephus. The first time its name appears is in the New Testament. As we know from the archaeological digs at the site, it was a little backwoods hamlet, thoroughly impoverished, with no sign of any wealth or any culture. No school. No synagogue. No nuttin’. About fifty very primitive houses and very primitive and rather vile living conditions.
If someone wanted to *make up* a place that Jesus had come from, would it be *that* place? Evidence that Christians were puzzled by the fact that Jesus came from there is found throughout the New Testament. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). It was a genuine question. It was not that everything that came from Nazareth was *bad*. It was that it was completely *insignificant*. And people had trouble believing that an important figure would come from there. Which shows they didn’t invent the idea that their important figure came from there.
That is to say, if Christians wanted to invent a place of origin for Jesus, would it be such a dirt-poor rural uncultured no-place? More likely they would pick somewhere *significant*: Bethlehem (whence the Messiah was supposed to come, Micah 5:2); Jerusalem (the capitol of Judea); Rome (the capital of the world), etc.
And so the conclusion seems very strong indeed. That Nazareth was Jesus’ hometown is attested abundantly, throughout our sources, independently of one another; and it appears to be a completely disinterested report. So Jesus really came from Nazareth. But was he *born* there? I’ll continue my reflections in my next post