Today we are in Nazareth, a city of Arab Christians. Nazareth is crowded and dirty. It is unappealing. The traditional sites are uninteresting to me because nothing of Yeshua’s time remains.
Some of the Christians here have put together a biblical village experience. That is where we come. Here we get a sense of daily life in Yeshua’s time.
My thoughts are carried to a subject not immediately apparent to this location. My thoughts are on reason versus faith, how we know history and how we believe the sacred story. Nazareth represents reason and Bethlehem faith.
I say this because historians are apt to say that Yeshua did live in Nazareth but that the Bethlehem birth story is mythical. History derived by reason will at times conclude that a Nazarene man, whom others saw as Messiah, needed a fabricated Bethlehem story to legitimize his messiahship.
In A Marginal Jew, historian and person of faith, John Meier, talks about the separation between history and faith. If I understand him correctly, he is saying that history is limited to what we surmise by evidence. Faith includes what we believe for other reasons, in this case belief in an inspired text.
So, Nazareth is history and Bethlehem faith. Why? Because our historical sources, the gospels, say Yeshua grew up in Nazareth. But they also say he was born in Bethlehem, so why is that more to be doubted by reason?
There are several reasons. First, Matthew and Luke’s accounts are hard to match up. Luke doesn’t mention Yeshua’s sojourn into Egypt. Maybe these are variant traditions that can only doubtfully be harmonized.
Second, Luke mentions a census as the reason Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem. Yet other historical sources place the census at a different time. Luke’s account cannot be confirmed by other sources.
Third, Bethlehem is relegated to the ahistorical ash heap for a more basic reason: naturalism or rationism, the persistent modern aversion to any cause not explainable by natural causation. Bethlehem is the place predicted for Messiah. It fits too neatly and arouses suspicions of a contrived story. It is the place of the virgin birth, a story outside the realm of nature.
Yet, as I see it here in Nazareth, we should be more skeptical of rationalism than of faith. Maybe prophecies really do come true. Maybe our reason has bigger limits than we admit. After all, if our minds weren’t made by God, if they’re simply molecules without a purpose, why trust them? Random molecules hardly inspire confidence. I rather prefer prophecy.
I choose faith and history. When they can’t be harmonized, I suspend judgment, but I don’t stop believing. I choose Nazareth and Bethlehem. And somehow this doesn’t see at all naïve.