Saturday, December 24, 2005

"Mystery And Faith" In The Shadow Of Micah 5

I watched "In the Footsteps of Jesus: The Lost Youth of Jesus" on The History Channel tonight. The show addressed more than Jesus' youth, such as His baptism and the location of His tomb, so I don't know why they gave the program the title they gave it. But some of the program did discuss Jesus' youth, including His infancy. Some of the other portions of the program were interesting, but I'm only going to respond here to the portions about Jesus' infancy, namely His birthplace.

The program focused on archeology, though it also mentioned Josephus and other non-archeological sources at times. But when the birthplace of Jesus was discussed, not many non-archeological sources were mentioned. The viewer isn't told that all of the early sources to comment on the subject name Bethlehem of Judea as the place of Jesus' birth. None of the early sources name the two alternatives discussed on the program, Nazareth and another Bethlehem in Galilee. The program also didn't tell us about the evidence we have for early non-Christian acknowledgment of the Bethlehem birthplace. Instead, we're just given references to Matthew and Luke and vague references to later traditions passed on to the people who led Constantine's mother to build a church on the purported site of Jesus' birth.

Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, one of the scholars interviewed, explained that we have evidence for first century use of the caves associated with the Church of the Nativity. Murphy-O'Connor also mentioned that traditions about Jesus' birthplace had been passed down, but he didn't name any of the sources he could have named, such as Justin Martyr and Origen. Murphy-O'Connor made some good general points in favor of a Bethlehem birthplace, but far more could have been said.

While some scholars are interviewed saying that they don't think that the archeological evidence for Bethlehem is convincing, archeological evidence isn't all that we have to go by, and the alternatives to Bethlehem have nothing of comparable evidential value to offer. One segment of the program addresses Bruce Chilton's theory that Jesus was born in another Bethlehem, one in Galilee. We're told that the Bethlehem in Galilee would "make more geographical sense", since it's closer to Nazareth. And we're told that Chilton's theory is supported by evidence for first century Jewish occupation of that other Bethlehem. So, we're being asked to overlook the large amount of evidence we have for Bethlehem in Judea in favor of Bethlehem in Galilee, since the Bethlehem in Galilee is closer to Nazareth and was occupied by Jews in the first century. That's a weak argument, and the arguments for Nazareth are similarly weak.

Like the other History Channel program I reviewed earlier today, this program treated faith as something that doesn't concern itself with evidence. After ignoring much of the evidence for the traditional Bethlehem account, and after telling us about the far less plausible Bethlehem of Galilee theory, the narrator comments that Jesus' birthplace remains a matter of "mystery and faith".

Somebody who knew Jesus and members of His immediate family, somebody who is known to have been careful in using the sources he relied on, reports Bethlehem in Judea as the birthplace of Jesus (Matthew). Somebody who was in contact with at least one member of Jesus' immediate family and is a demonstrably reliable historian names Bethlehem in Judea (Luke). We also have evidence for other first century sources in contact with Jesus and/or members of His immediate family affirming Bethlehem of Judea as the location (see here). No trace of an early rival birthplace tradition can be found in the historical record, and we have evidence from multiple sources that Jesus' birth in Bethlehem of Judea was acknowledged by multiple early non-Christian sources. Yet, we're supposed to believe that Jesus' birthplace is a matter of "mystery and faith" (with "faith" being defined as something that doesn't concern itself with evidence)? A unanimous historical tradition beginning in a community that was in contact with Jesus and His immediate family, a tradition corroborated by early non-Christian sources, is a matter of "mystery and faith".