Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Birthplace Of Jesus Of Nazareth

TWH: People have fought about Jesus from the very outset of his life and ministry. He is the person in history who has brought the most people together and at the very same time the person over whom the most people have fought. And, believe it or not, his place of birth has been a significant point of contention over the years. Skeptics and unbelievers alike have approached the biblical texts from a particular presupposition that calls into question their divine origin and inerrancy. That's not very surprising. I get it. The objections that arise have to be dealt with and Christians need to be able to respond to any question in a well-reasoned and sensible way. The birthplace of Jesus, as I said earlier, has been one of those areas of interest.

Bethlehem is mentioned by name five times in Matthew 2 (vv. 1, 5, 6, 8, 16), twice in Luke 2 (vv. 4, 15), and once in John 7 (v. 42):
"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his start in the east and have to worship him.' When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea. For this is what has been written by the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of your shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.' Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and search carefully for the child; and when you have found him, report to me, so that I too can come and worship him. . . . Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time that he had determined from the magi." (Matt. 2:1–8, 16)
"Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David . . . [and following the appearance of the angels to the shepherds outside Bethlehem] the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us go straight to Bethlehem then and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.'" (Luke 2:4, 15)
"Some of the people therefore, when they heard these words, were saying, 'This certainly is the Prophet. Others were saying, 'This is the Christ.' Still others were saying, 'Surely the Christ is not going to come from Galilee, is he?' 'Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the descendants of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was?' So a division occurred in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to seize him, but no one laid hands on him." (John 7:40–44)
It's quite interesting, isn't it, that there is not a single reference to Bethlehem in the Gospel of Mark. For some, this might be considered evidence against Bethlehem as the actual birthplace of Jesus. Part of this is tied to the view that the Gospel of Mark was written before the other canonical Gospels, a position to which I do not ascribe. The Gospel of Mark also says nothing directly about Jesus' life prior to the beginning of his ministry, following his baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, only a reference to his "hometown" (a point to which we shall return at the end of this post). People who support Markan Priority––and I should mention that I am in the minority by not doing so––argue that these details about Jesus' early years developed many years after Jesus' death. As time passed, more and more attention was devoted to the early years of Jesus' life. And since they weren't documented immediately, there was more time for legends and myths to cloud the historical record. Matthew and Luke are believed as history to varying degrees by those who hold to Markan Priority. In my opinion, though, the Gospel of Mark does not focus on these early years for a different reason and it is connected to Peter's preaching in Rome, after the composition of both Matthew and Luke.

The chief priests and the scribes of the first century answered Herod's question with a reference to Mic. 5:2:
"But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to e among the clans of Judah, from you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity . . ." 
There are numerous connections to Isaiah 7 in this Micah passage. Michael Rydelnik writes the following:
"Both Micah 5 and Isaiah 7 refer to the Messiah's birth; both refer to the pregnant woman giving birth; both allude to His divine nature (Micah saying He comes from long ago, and the days of eternity, and Isaiah calling Him Immanuel, Mighty God, and Eternal Father); both Micah ('He will stand and shepherd them in the strength of Yahweh,' 5:4) and Isaiah (9:7; 11:1–10) refer to the glorious reign of the Messiah; both point out that Messiah will be the source of peace for Israel ('He will be their peace,' Mic 5:5; 'He will be named . . . Prince of Peac,' Isa 9:6)." (The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Really Messianic?, 161)
And he goes on to call this the earliest recorded interpretation of Isa. 7:14. That's extremely important. The answer provided by the chief priests and the scribes is one that the Jewish people were comfortable with and would have expected to hear in the first century. While the birthplace of the Messiah was not narrowed down for Isaiah––only that he would be born the descendent of Judah (but that was already well established through the prophets, from the Pentateuch onward)––it was revealed to Micah. The specific town of Judah was named. We have no direct non-Christian record of an interpretation of Mic. 5:2 during the first century. But, given the nature of the Gospels in their preservation of historical details in their narratives, we can rest assured that the interpretation of the Jews presented by the Gospel authors accurately reflects their position. Whether there was more than one interpretation is up for debate I suppose. There never seems to be a single interpretation for anything. My guess is this text is probably no different, though we have no record of a divergent interpretation in any of the data we possess relative to the first century.

More difficult, I suppose, is the way John intended for us to understand the questions concerning the Messiah in John 7. In John 7:41 we find the first question during this deliberation. "Surely the Christ is not going to come from Galilee, is he?" The way the question is asked, the expected answer is "No, he most definitely will not come from Galilee." This supports Bethlehem as the expected birthplace of the Messiah. The second question states exactly that. The problem, though, is if Jesus was born in Bethlehem and everyone knew it, then why would they ask such a question as the first one? I think there is a simple explanation for this. Jesus probably spent very little time discussing the details of his birth with people. He was focused on the mission and he was focused on explaining the kingdom of God and calling people to repentance, among other things. Only a sliver of Jesus' life was spent in Judea (and only a sliver outside Israel altogether). When he returned to Israel following the family's time in Egypt, his family returned not to Bethlehem, but to Nazareth. Later he would call his home Capernaum, the city that would serve as his home base as he traveled back and forth throughout all of Galilee. Because of this, it seems reasonable to think that people, unfamiliar with the details surrounding his birth, associated his birthplace with the region he spent most of his time. Of course, we might ask why Jesus never pointed to his birth in the city of David as evidence of his being the Messiah. That's a great question, but one very easy to answer: Why would anyone point to his place of birth as the Messiah if he could perform the miracles that only the Messiah could perform?

Someone is bound to say something about how it looks as if Jesus did complicate things a little when he taught in Nazareth: "Jesus said to them, 'A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household'" (Mark 6:4). The "hometown" (πατρίς) of Jesus need not refer to his place of birth. Given what we know about Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, we have a really good indication that this word has a wider semantic range than simply the place of one's birth, regardless of whether the word is used in such a way with other persons elsewhere. And so he is referred to as Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Bethlehem. But it is not because he was not born in Bethlehem. He was. It's because Nazareth was considered his "home," by others––such as those in John 7––and by him––as we see in Mark 6. In the same way, I was born in one city, but grew up all my life in another, I have very seldom referred to the former as my "home." That's pretty normal, if you ask me.

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