Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
The Birth of Jesus

The Christmas story has been placed at the centre of popular Christian religion only in the past couple of centuries. Before that it was not so important. As Westerners have moved away from allegiance to the Church, so has the Nativity been increasingly linked to commerce and family solidarity.

If the truth were told, the baby Jesus is now recognised as mythical, in the same way as is Santa Claus (St Nicholas). A few determined fundamentalists insist that the tale in Matthew's Gospel is literally true. They spend considerable energy trying to prove that the star which led the Magi was a certain comet or supernova, and that the author of Matthew got his dates correct.

At the same time, largely in the hallowed halls of academia and in the semi-secret theological books on clergy bookshelves, the conclusion is clear: The Nativity accounts in the gospels are not history but fable.

Many have noted, for example, that Chapter 2 of Matthew's Gospel seems to begin a new account - almost as though Chapter 1 wasn't there. One might suppose that a detail like this wasn't important to the author. This is probably correct. This is because he would not have thought about continuity and historical accuracy in the same way we do. His main purpose was to show not what Jesus did or said, but what he meant to the early Christian community of which he was a member. 

We tend to think is terms of what is good or bad history, and then go on to base our conclusions about people and events on the basis of what we think probably really happened. 

We might speculate, for example, that if Jesus had been born and brought up in Rome instead of in a tiny village called Nazareth, he would probably have spoken Greek and Latin. And if his background had been Roman, perhaps the Christian faith today would have looked very different.

But this is not how either Jesus or his contemporaries would have thought. It's worth noting that history as we know it, and therefore the way we think of the past, wasn't invented until modern times. 

In line with our knowledge that the author of Matthew wrote to make theological points about Jesus (rather than deliver history) we should query Bethlehem as the actual place of Jesus' birth. There are two main reasons:

  1. Bethlehem is where David was chosen and anointed king of Israel (1 Samuel 16.12). There is also a "prophecy" in Micah 5.2 which promises a ruler for Israel from Bethlehem. 

    So it's likely that the author of Matthew's Gospel is using the Old Testament to demonstrate that Jesus is David's successor -an important theological point if one thinks that Jesus is the Hebrew Messiah ("Christ" in Greek). Everywhere else in all the Gospels Jesus is "of Nazareth" and most scholars now think that's where he came from.

  2. The text of the gospels, apart from these opening accounts, assume that Jesus came from Nazareth. He is called the "Nazorean" or "of Nazareth" in all four gospels. 

    The author of Matthew seems to have known this. He explains the contradiction by recounting a story which said that Joseph settled in Nazareth because he was afraid of Archelaus, Herod's son, who had taken over Judea at his father's death (Matthew 2.23). 

    The problem with accepting this as good history is that the author or Luke's Gospel presents exactly the opposite sequence of moves. Mary and Joseph start off from Nazareth, move to Judea to visit Elizabeth, and then return to "her house" in Nazareth. The two are in Bethlehem only for a census taken when "Quirinius was the Governor of Syria" (Luke 2.2). 

    Quirinius was indeed Governor in the year 6. But his census was conducted in Judea and not in Galilee - so there was no need for the family to move to Bethlehem in the first place. In addition, Mary would not have had to go with Joseph because only men were registered.

The Roman Catholic scholar John P Meier points out that

... the Infancy Narratives stand in relative isolation; they are distinct compositions stemming from traditions different from those found elsewhere in the Four Gospels - and indeed the rest of the [New Testament]. [1]

There has long been controversy about the date of Jesus' birth. This is in part because biblical scholars want to be accurate about history. But another reason relates to the date of the crucifixion of Jesus.

The Herod mentioned in Matthew 2.1 was Herod the Great. We know from other sources that he ruled Palestine from 37-4bc under Roman supervision. This means that Jesus was born at the latest around 4ad and this date seems to have been accepted by a majority of scholars now. 

If Jesus was about 30 when he died then the date of the crucifixion could have been as early as 26ad. Pontius Pilate arrived in Jerusalem (according to Josephus) in 26ad. He was removed as "Praefectus Iudaeae" at the latest in 37ad

So if Jesus was born in 4ad then he definitely died before about 36ad at the age of nearly forty. If he died at the age of about thirty-six, then what is usually called his "ministry" was about six years long - not three as some suppose. Luke 3.23 mentions that "When Jesus began his work he was about thirty years old". But even if Luke was trying to be accurate about this, his information was likely to have been too uncertain for us to take as historically accurate.

The fact is we don't know about any of these dates for sure. The best we can do is to go with the maximum possible length of Jesus' life and ministry. We can't, after all, know what the minimum period was, so it makes sense to work with the longest rather than the shortest.

Luke's Gospel agrees with Matthew's Gospel that Herod the Great was ruler of Palestine when Jesus was born. That two authorities should agree makes the case somewhat stronger. Luke and Matthew agree about this and

  • that Joseph and Mary had not begun to live together, although they were engaged to be married. 

    This is not necessarily significant. We tend to project our own social standards onto first-century Palestine. In fact, as in Africa to this day, a Hebrew girl might live in her husband's home (with his mother, father, siblings and all) for a year or more before the marriage was finalised.

  • They also agree that Joseph was not Jesus' father. Some scholars think that the evidence for the historicity of Joseph is slight and that Jesus may have been a bastard. If so, his mother would have been something of a social outcast. She certainly would not have been respectable;

  • The two authors also agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem - though, as we have seen, this is one case where the agreement of two sources is almost certainly unhistorical.</>

But in every other respect the two authors differ. 

This indicates that they either composed their narratives independently or used entirely different sources. The points of agreement, on the other hand, were probably derived from a common source - perhaps an early oral tradition.

In summary:

  • Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem. But the weight of all the other references in the Gospels falls heavily on the side of Nazareth being his home town.

  • Jesus was born no later than 4bc and died no later than 37ad (because we are reasonably sure that Pilate ordered his execution) at the age of no more than about 40 years old.

The chief importance of this information is to demonstrate that the dates a majority of scholars derive for Jesus' life are consistent with good history and the external sources available to us. 

There is no point in bothering too much about a lack of absolute certainty in this respect, for we know little about the birth, infancy and early years of even the most famous people in the ancient Mediterranean world. The information we have about famous figures such as Alexander the Great or the Roman Emperor Octavian, for example, is mixed up with legend and myth. It can be a painstaking business to unravel fact from fiction even when our sources are reasonably extensive.

Jesus of Nazareth, unlike Roman emperors and Alexander, remained almost completely unknown to the Roman Empire for more than 200 years after his death. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that our information about him turns out to be scetchy at best.
[1] A Marginal Jew: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Doubleday, 1991

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