Several months ago, before I really cared that much about the issue I would have conceded that there more than likely was a historical figure behind Christianity. Recently though, in one of those YouTube suggested video clicking journeys I winded up on a talk by Richard Carrier* who rather eloquently put forth the argument that Jesus was a mythical figure who was later written into history (euhemerism). I originally dismissed this idea because the field is so fully of quackery and conspiracy (see Zeitgeist), but Carrier highlighted another more scholarly and well reasoned side of the movement. I am far from having made my mind up on the issue, and I have a lot of reading to do, but something about the question has piqued my interest and I wanted to share with you my findings on the quest for the historical Jesus as they arise and the conclusions that I draw from them in a series of blog posts on the subject.
If you were to have asked me previously why I thought that Jesus was a historical figure I would have probably paraphrased the argument that the late Christopher Hitchens made in God Is Not Great:
“[…] the jumbled “Old” Testament prophecies indicate that the Messiah will be born in the city of David, which seems indeed to have been Bethlehem. However, Jesus’s parents were apparently from Nazareth and if they had a child he was most probably delivered in that town. Thus a huge amount of fabrication—concerning Augustus, Herod, and Quirinius—is involved in confecting the census tale and moving the nativity scene to Bethlehem (where, by the way, no “stable” is ever mentioned). But why do this at all, since a much easier fabrication would have had him born in Bethlehem in the first place, without any needless to-do? The very attempts to bend and stretch the story may be inverse proof that someone of later significance was indeed born, so that in retrospect, and to fulfil the prophecies, the evidence had to be massaged to some extent.”
God Is Not Great page 114-115
This does at first glance seem rather convincing. Why on Earth would both Matthew and Luke go to great lengths to get Jesus of Nazareth to Bethlehem? A plausible explanation is that it was a response to criticism, that people looked at the scriptures and noted that if Jesus—a known Nazarene—was the Messiah he would have been born in Bethlehem not Nazareth. From this we can derive the conclusion that Jesus was a historical individual. For the interests of clarity I shall henceforth refer to this as the Nazarene argument.
Before discussing this further let us establish some facts that pertain to this argument. With one fact in particular that impacts how we perceive the conclusion of the argument.
Matthew refers to a prophecy about Nazareth
Matthew 2:23 states:
and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Scholars are unsure as to which prophecy this refers
Though there are plausible contenders (of which one I shall posit is a likely explanation) there is no definitive agreement as to which (if any) prophecy the above verse refers.
Matthew mentions a prophecy with regards to Jesus being a Nazarene, but we have no idea to what he is referring, though there are some candidates. This is all we can legitimately say that we know with regards to the term being applied to Jesus in the notoriously unreliable Gospels. Although the term is used in Mark which pre-dates Matthew, Matthew is heavily derivative of Mark and it could be that Mark used to term assuming that the reader already knew the prophecy to which Matthew refers.
Let’s now look at hypotheses as to why Matthew refers to a prophecy about Nazareth in light of the fact that people can’t seem to agree on what he is referring to:
1. Matthew could simply be fraudulently claiming there to be a prophecy that did not exist.
This is plausible, but it is unlikely considering the motive ascribed by the Nazarene argument. If the author of Matthew was addressing criticism about a Messiah claim not fulfilling prophecy, this critique is likely to have been delivered by people who were aware of scripture and prophecy. Thus we are required to believe that Matthew boldly claimed there was a prophecy when his critics would easily have retorted that there wasn’t. If there was no prophecy and Matthew knew this, there is no motive for making it up (at least in the context of addressing a criticism) he might simply have said “he was born in Bethlehem as spoken by the prophets, then he lived in a town called Nazareth which is why he is known as a Nazarene.” I don’t think this completely rules out this possibility, Matthew may have been extremely bold, or fabricated it with a different motive. However, I find this an unconvincing hypothesis as any criticism would be sufficiently addressed by the narrative without a fabricated prophecy, if anything a fabricated prophecy would make his case weaker (if we assume that the Nazarene argument is true).
This hypothesis explains the lack of consensus as to where this supposed prophecy lies, but it ignores the complications associated with positing a fraudulent claim.
2. Matthew was referring to a known prophecy
As mentioned previously there are possible candidates for verses that were interpreted as a prophecy about Nazareth. He may have been referencing a line in Isaiah 11:1 which in English reads as:
“Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.”
In Hebrew the word for branch is ne-tzer . Hebrew, being a consonantal language—with vowels not being indicated in ancient text—it may have been possible to read this word in Greek as Nazarene. The significance of this being that the branch (Nazarene) was symbolic of being descended from Jesse, father of David. Indeed the prophecy was popular in the New Testament era, being referenced by both Romans 15:12 and Revelation 5:5. We also know that it was popular for Jews to look for hidden messages and prophecy in their texts in this manner, so it is not beyond question that at the time the author of Matthew was writing this passage in Isaiah was interpreted as a prophecy.
Given the aforementioned popularity of the Isaiah verse, and the propensity in Jewish culture to look in their texts for coded messages, I think that this is a very plausible candidate for the prophecy that Matthew was referring to. Not only does it hint at a geographical location, but it also hints towards a lineage that goes back to David, a double whammy that I can imagine would have been viewed as being significant.
I cannot see any other relevant reasons as to why Matthew would refer to a prophecy in the text, although I am open to suggestions in the comments, and will amend this article accordingly. I sincerely apologise if it seems that I am positing a false dilemma.
I would posit, given the facts that 1 is less likely that 2, but neither is entirely conclusive. Thus we are led to more than one possible outcome. Either the Nazarene argument is true and there was a historical Jesus and the Gospels contrive a story to fix fact with prophecy. Matthew either conveniently discovered that Jesus was actually from one of the places mentioned by the prophets (unlikely), or he fabricated a prophecy to make his case seem a bit more legit (plausible, but questionable). It is either that or Matthew was not drawing on a historical figure at all (or if he was the actual historical facts did not factor into the story), and was simply contriving a mythical story that would hit as many prophecies as possible. This is supported by the fact that Matthew has Jesus et al go to Egypt until Herod died (Matt 2:15) (to avoid a massacre that never happened) just to get another ding on the prophecy-o-meter. In fact the whole first couple of chapters in Matthew read very much in this fashion with prophecies being reeled off here there and everywhere.
In this instance I have to say that I changed my mind. I am no longer convinced that the Nazarene argument provides a convincing case for the historicity of Jesus. The idea of Nazarene being symbolic of a descendent of David and also interpreted as a reference to a Galilean town seems plausible to me. If the Gospels are allegorical myths, full of references to the Old Testament, this is exactly the kind of multi-layered reference we would expect to find. This makes sense when you look at the parallels that Matthew so clearly makes to Exodus with the slaughter of the innocents in his nativity story. It works when you look at it like that. It might not make narrative sense, and it may seem highly contrived, but that’s kind of the point; it is.
On the other hand the Nazarene argument would have us believe that either Matthew fabricated a prophecy—when it didn’t make a great deal of sense to do so—to bolster the claim that it was totally fine for the Messiah to be from Nazareth and Bethlehem. Or Jesus was actually born in a town that happened to possibly be the subject of a multi-layered prophetic reference to his Davidic heritage and Matthew capitalized on this, but decided it wasn’t enough and wanted him to get to Bethlehem as well. The latter seems highly improbable, and the former is plausible, but in my opinion doesn’t work as well because it raises questions as to what his motives for lying were.
I couldn’t say with certainty that this is evidence of a mythical Jesus, but I do not see it as evidence for a historical Jesus. It might be the case that the Gospels were heavily mythologised but there still was a figurehead behind it all—about whom very little in the gospels accurately portrays. It may also be the case that the Nazarene argument is true, but I believe it would require some corroborative evidence to back it up.
* Note: I apologize, but I forget the exact video that I saw, however I can recommend searching his name in YouTube as much of his talks cover the same topics and are all equally fascinating.