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Was Jesus From Nazareth?

QUESTION:

Do you think Jesus was born in Nazareth? A few weeks ago I went to both Bethlehem and Nazareth. I always thought Jesus was born in Nazareth but most there focused on Bethlehem as Jesus’s birth place. Is there strong evidence for either?

 

RESPONSE

Yes, when you visit Israel today, or when you ask any Bible-believing Christian, or when you ask most any Christian, or most any other human being, you will hear that Jesus 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.

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

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Bethlehem and Nazareth in Matthew
More on the Name “Nazareth”

34

Comments

  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 4, 2015

    “No synagogue” – is it known how people in small hamlets like that worshipped? Would they have had a rabbi? What would have been his qualifications? Would services have been held in his home, rotating among all the homes, or outdoors? Or might one rabbi have “made the rounds” among several small communities?

    And if everyone was poorly educated, how would children – including the young Jesus – have been taught about Judaism?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2015

      I don’t think we know. My guess is they would have met in a home, or in different homes, and there probably was some kind of leader — possibly with Torah scrolls? I wish we knew! Jesus must have learned something about the Scripture from someone….

      • Avatar
        Pawel  March 6, 2015

        Well, Jesus seemed not only to know ‘something’ about the Scripture, but to be a quite smartass about it. At least when compared to others villagers.
        The essene background (that he stayed in an esene comunity for a while as a child) hypothesis would be a nice answer….

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 4, 2015

    Say, I’ve had an idea – not on this topic – that I can’t resist passing on. I’m *not* trying to urge others to accept my view that reincarnation is probably a fact. But it’s occurred to me that if one *does* accept it as probable fact, it may help to explain something else.

    When Bart was discussing “bereavement visions,” I mentioned that eight and a half months after my mother’s death, I had what I still think was a very real dream about her. In the dream, she told me that she had died…but in a sense, she was still alive. And then, she let me hold a *baby*. I was sure the dream meant that she was about to reincarnate in the baby.

    Other points: My mother was a Catholic who had not, in life, believed in reincarnation. I’d been experiencing guilt feelings about her…solely because I’d reacted badly when I saw her in “normal” dreams, thinking, “No! Mom can’t be here – she’s dead!” and then immediately waking up. Finally, I found *this* dream much more believable than I would have a waking “vision.”

    Here’s what I’m getting at. If *Jesus* survived death *in the sense we all do if we’re going to reincarnate* – a portion of the psyche, perhaps, slipping into another dimension – *he* may really have visited his disciples in dreams, to tell them he was “still alive”! They would have been experiencing guilt feelings because they’d fled; and if dreams of this type are real, the deceased person has sensed those guilt feelings and wants to alleviate them. Jesus would have died so recently that he probably wouldn’t have understood that he’d eventually reincarnate. He would simply have assured the disciples he was “alive,” and they would have interpreted it in terms of the beliefs they already held.

  3. Avatar
    nichael  March 4, 2015

    Yet another “We have no way of knowing for sure, but it makes you wonder” question:

    Concerning Luke’s birth story: Although Jesus (presumably) really came from Nazareth, I understand why Luke had to alter the story so that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But my question is, why did Luke go to all the trouble of making up the “census” story?

    In particular, as Dr Ehrman and others have pointed out, there are a lot of problems with the story; not the least of which is that even if the gospel was written around 70CE, there were surely people still alive who would have been perfectly aware that nothing like the “world-wide census” had ever taken place.

    Why not just add a sentence about Joseph attending a family reunion? Or that he was away on a long term job-site? (If traveling with Mary was a problem, then just explain that this was before he know Mary was pregnant, or that they expected to be back in Nazareth long before the due date.)

    This might sound a bit strange to our modern ears. But certainly it would have been less of a problem than to risk being caught out in the obviously lie of the census.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2015

      I think it may be because it was known that there *was* a local census when Quirinius was the governor of Syria (ten years after the death of Herod)

  4. Avatar
    nacord  March 4, 2015

    Forgive my ignorance–I’m aware of ‘Q’, but what are sources ‘M’ and ‘L’? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2015

      M is the hypothetical source(s) behind Matthew’s distinctive material; and L the source(s) behind Luke’s.

  5. Avatar
    hgb55  March 4, 2015

    Folks, here is part 1 of my critique of Chapter 13 from Frank Zindler’s book, where he attempts to refute Bart Ehrman and other historians about the historicity of Nazareth. Frank Zindler is one of the top Jesus & Nazareth mythicists and editor of American Atheist Press.
    ————-

    In the book, “Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth,” Frank Zindler presents his “scientific and hopefully convincing” evidence that Nazareth was interpolated into Mark 1:9. This was done, he concludes, by a redactor or scribe in order to make people believe that a mythical or fictional Jesus had a physical body and a real home town called Nazareth.

    Zindler notes that the name Jesus occurs 73 times where it is grammatically possible to have the word “the” as a definite article before Jesus, such as in “the Jesus. ” But in only one instance is it lacking in the Greek manuscript he consulted, which is in Mark 1:9, where “Jesus from Nazareth of the Galilee” occurs. The style of Mark is thus to always write “the Jesus.” The absence of the definite article in Mark 1:9 implies, says Zindler, that that verse, or part of it, including Nazareth, is a forgery and was not originally in Mark.

    Zindler happily notes that the only verse in Mark where Nazareth occurs in his Greek manuscript is also absent the definite article (apparently the Greek word “ho.”) Zindler writes: “There are 666 verses in the Gospel of Mark, so the chance of Nazareth occurring in any one of them is 1/666. The combined frequentist probability that Jesus without the definite article should be found in the same sentence as the name Nazareth is, therefore, 1/(73 X 666) = 0.00002 – about one in two hundred thousand.” (pages 373-74.)

    Or if we use the number of chapters in Mark instead of verses, Zindler says, we get a probability of 0.00086 – about one in 86,000.

    These extremely low probabilities seem astounding and shocking to Zindler. He thus concludes, based on these findings, that “it is extremely unlikely that the absence of the definite article in Mark 1:9 is due to a scribal deletion.” (pg. 374.) Hence, he concludes, it must be a forgery, an interpolation, used to insert the words “Nazareth of the Galilee” into Mark. He believes “Nazareth from the Galilee” in Mark 1:9 was forged by a scribe or redactor who took that phrase from Mathew 22:11.

    What is really astounding is how anyone like Mr. Zindler, who claims to be practicing the highest levels of unbiased scholarship, skepticism, science and reasoning, could come to the strong conclusions he did. He really believes he is practicing high-quality scholarship and critical thinking. Let’s look at what’s wrong with his arguments.

    First, it’s absurd to think that one could use probability the way Mr. Zindler does. He seems to think that the words in Mark are like cards in a deck of cards. They are not. Each word is placed where it is because the author or editors wanted it there. And these words and sentences are not independent events and occurrences. As an example, the words Jesus and Nazareth or Nazarene are almost always linked together in the same verse. One can only perform a frequentist probability analysis if the items tested are independent, and of course they are not in the Gospel of Mark for the words he is testing.

    Second, Zindler provides no independent evidence or proof that he has the ability or skills to distinguish a scribal error from an interpolation or forgery or any other event that could have led to the absence of a definite article in Mark 1:9. He simply stipulates that he has this ability and that Mark 1:9 is a forgery. In truth, what happened is that he started out with a belief, a bias, namely that Jesus and Nazareth are mythical, and he concluded that Jesus and Nazareth are mythical. This, of course, is circular reasoning or begging the question – confirmation bias – since his method is bogus.

    Third, we have the problem of small numbers. Mr. Zindler is simply looking at the presence or absence of one word in the Gospel of Mark, out of perhaps more than 6000 words. Any good scholar would be aware that it is extremely risky to conclude much at all in statistics and probability when only one variable is tested.

    Forth, very rare and improbable events and coincidences happen every second, millions of times a day. People are especially prone to finding rare probabilities when they go looking for them. That’s one reason many people believe in haunted houses, ESP, faith healings from prayer and so on.

    It is well known in judicial history and mathematics that many people have been falsely accused or convicted of crimes simply because of the very low probabilities that have sometimes been perceived as being spectacular and astonishing. The case of Janet and Malcolm Collins is a well-known example. Witnesses said an interracial couple with a blond ponytail and beard and driving a yellow car were the robbers. The police discovered an interracial couple who happened to have some of the features of the robbers. The Collins’ were arrested and prosecuted for robbery simply because the prosecutor argued that the probability of a random couple being an interracial couple in a yellow car, with the black man having a beard and mustache and the white woman having blond hair and a ponytail, was estimated to be only a 1 in 12 million probability. With those kind of odds the prosecutor said the Collins’ had to be the robbers. But they weren’t. This type of fallacious argument should sound familiar to people who read Zindler’s book.

    And it’s amusing that Zindler himself commits a typo in Mark 1:9 (on page 369 of his book) while he argues that Mark 1:9 can’t be a scribal or editing error. Zindler writes: “And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth, of Galilee, and was baptized of John of Jodan.” Jodan? I wonder what are the odds that “Jodan” is a forgery in Mr. Zindler’s book?

    Hobart Baker

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 4, 2015

    I have been thinking some more about those who criticize you personally. I don’t like than much, but I guess, at least, it means that you are writing about something about which many people really care a great deal. That’s small consolation I guess. I still wish your critics would focus on critically examining historical issues and not on attacking you as a person.

    I also think we can all (fundamentalist, conservative, liberal, agnostic, atheist, and none of the above) agree on the last part of the 25th chapter of Matthew about feeding the hungry, etc….. which your blog, of course, does. Hang in there! It looks like I can hit a few golf balls this afternoon. Yippee!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2015

      Hope you got the golf in yesterday, because today it’s *miserable*.

  7. Avatar
    stmaher  March 4, 2015

    I think I’m still stuck on the fact that many of the sources are so long after Jesus. Are there other historical figures that are believed to be historical who are not mentioned until far later? I seem to remember hearing that Plato never wrote anything down, and it’s his student Aristotle who describes him. Is this a similar situation?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2015

      Oh yes, we have numerous people from antiquity who are known only from sources centuries later.

  8. Avatar
    MikeyS  March 4, 2015

    Bart, if Nazareth was that small and insignificant and probably no schools or synagogues then how did Jesus become so articulate, learned and one of the world’s greatest philosophers? ie I suppose he could have been born there and then his parents sent him off somewhere for the next 30 years then to appear at the River Jordan one day?? Of course he may have told his friends all of this stuff but as we know it was not passed on to the future writers of the Gospels or what we would call just ‘chit chat’.

    One alternative is that he was the eternal Son of God full who knew everything, even the laws of gravity and thermodynamics! Red meat for Christians hey! 😉

    Another one is the Greek Christian writers were VERY liberal and VERY imaginative! Far more likely imo.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2015

      I wouldn’t say that Jesus was a great philosopher. He had a rather simple message, based on an understanding of the Torah. So he must have learned Scripture somewhere from someone!

      • Avatar
        jhague  March 5, 2015

        If Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist, could he have learned Scripture and his beliefs from John?
        Then the next question, where and how was John taught?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 6, 2015

          It’s possible, but it’s usually thought that he had been thinking about these things before being baptized. We don’t know anything about where or how John was educated.

          • Avatar
            Scott  March 6, 2015

            I am intrigued by what Mark says about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (and Matthew after him) :

            Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God

            To me, this implies a deeper tie between Jesus and John than merely Baptiser and Baptisee

          • Avatar
            jhague  March 6, 2015

            Isn’t possible that Jesus was being taught by John before he was baptized and then decided to be baptized?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 7, 2015

            Absolutely. But we know nothing about John as a teacher or about Jesus’ earlier association with him.

          • Avatar
            jhague  March 7, 2015

            What’s your educated guess on where Jesus learned Scripture?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 9, 2015

            A local adult who was intimately familiar with Scripture, would be my guess.

  9. cheito
    cheito  March 4, 2015

    YOUR COMMENT:

    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);

    DR Ehrman:

    The author of 1 john claims to be an ‘eyewitness’…why do you assert that we do not have any eyewitness reports from Jesus’ day? This author is reporting that he saw Jesus with his own eyes…

    1 John 1:1-4

    1-What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—

    2-and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—

    3-what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.

    4-These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 5, 2015

      Yes, there’s a very large different between claiming to be an eyewitness and being an eyewitness. I deal with the prologue to 1 John in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.

  10. Avatar
    Jason  March 5, 2015

    Did they really have dogs in places like first century Nazareth?

  11. Avatar
    JBSeth1  March 5, 2015

    Hi Bart,

    I have a question.
    Let’s say that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem, but for some reason, his family moved to Nazareth permanently, when he was very young. As a result of this, Jesus grew up in Nazareth, even though he was born in Bethlehem. If this actually occurred, isn’t it likely that most people would have referred to him as “Jesus of Nazareth”?

    John

  12. Avatar
    Jacobus  March 5, 2015

    Prof Ehrman, what is your take on the word “patris” (usually translated “hometown” – If I remember correct the Louw-Nida dictionary warns that it should not be translated with “town of birth”)? In German it is “heimat” which can include the meaning town/place of birth (Afrikaans, either “geboortedorp/-stad” or “tuisdorp/-stad”). In Mark 6:1-6 it seems quite important to understand this word, especially in terms of the “conflict” between Jesus and his relatives. In Latin, as far as I can ascertain, your “patria” generally refered to, was your place of birth, the place towards which you had an important responsibility and where you might even want to contribute to the building of a civil structure to enhance your fame. Could you at some point enlighten me about this.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2015

      I’m afraid I don’t have any special wisdom. The word is related to “father,” and refers to one’s “father-land” or country. I suppose if ancient people considered their hometurf not to be a country but a city, then it would mean “hometown.”

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 7, 2015

    A great review of the six things a historian seeks in a source. Thanks.

  14. Avatar
    Philbert  March 20, 2015

    Thinking about Jesus of Nazareth…

    It seemed there was a problem with false teachers and preachers running around with a gospels to preach(see Didache)

    If I was to elevate a man to a messiah I would write a gospel about my messiah and he would be from a town nobody ever heard of and who’s population was completely destroyed by war(after 70 ad) for miles around- so nothing could be fact checked or family & friends interviewed.

    Apostle Paul also has an unverifiable past. Luke his “friend” out’s him by telling everyone who he really is in Acts when he slips and says “Saul of Tarsus”. IMHO I don’t think author of Acts was his friend at all. Three Damascus road conversions all a little different as Paul can’t get his story straight? What was author of Acts really trying to say in all the contradictions. Sorry off topic.

    Dr. Bart- please your thoughts what am I missing? Thank You

    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2015

      The problem is that this messiah was “invented” no later than the early 30s — many decades before the destruction of the temple. But I agree that Luke was not a companion of Paul.

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