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Jesus' rejection at Nazareth and Miracles at Capernaum

Here is a lovely undesigned coincidence that was not included in Hidden in Plain View that answers multiple attempted objections to Luke's accuracy.

We begin first with the allegation that Luke has "moved" Jesus' rejection at Nazareth to the beginning of Jesus' ministry. The claim here is that there was only one time when the people in Jesus' hometown grumbled about him, considering the son of the carpenter to be getting uppity, and refused to give him the honor he deserved. As the claim goes, this rejection is recorded later in Jesus' ministry in Matthew 13 and Mark 6, but Luke 4 records it in a way that gives the impression (whether intentionally or unintentionally) that it occurred earlier in Jesus' ministry. Some more conservative scholars will mean this "moving" achronologically. The idea there is that it is just an accident that it appears to us that this occurs early in Jesus' ministry in Luke; Luke wasn't trying to place it chronologically. Other scholars, including Mike Licona, have argued that Luke moved the rejection dyschronologically. That is, Luke really deliberately locates the rejection at Nazareth early in Jesus' ministry though in the world of space and time it happened later. In both cases the scholars reject the claim that something similar occurred twice in Nazareth. (See Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 194).

This insistence on only one rejection at Nazareth ignores the differences between the two accounts, which are quite consonant with the chronological implication that they are two different events. For example, in Luke 4 the crowd attempts to throw Jesus off a cliff, whereas Matthew and Mark mention no such incident. Nor do they mention any of the specifics of Jesus' preaching on this occasion; Luke gives a full account of what Jesus said, including the remarks that angered the crowd. Mark and Matthew also summarize his visit by saying that he did not do many mighty works because of unbelief, which (if we are speaking of impressions) would naturally give the impression that Jesus did not have to hurry out of town, whereas in Luke the natural impression is that Jesus left immediately after the attempt to kill him. If we had strong other reason to think that these were the same event, these differences could be reconciled into a single event. But as it is, the prima facie chronological case from the Gospels is that these are different events, and the differences in the reports fit very well with that implication. So both sets of evidence point in the same direction--to two different events. The insistence on one event arises from only general similarities, not uncanny similarities--e.g., the fact that the people complain on the grounds that they know Jesus' parents and Jesus' wry quotation of a proverb that a prophet does not receive honor in his own home. These then combine with the almost pathological allergy that New Testament scholars have to believing that something generally similar happened more than once. They may give lip service to the possibility but in practice treat it as a desperate, religiously motivated maneuver rather than the reasonable historical inference that it often is.

But someone who claims that Luke has moved the rejection in Nazareth chronologically does have one more argument that he can try. In the teaching that Luke records at Nazareth, Jesus says,

No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’ (Luke 4:23)

But it is only in Luke 4:31 that the narrator says that Jesus came down to Capernaum. How could Jesus have already done impressive wonders at Capernaum if he hadn't even gone there yet?

Perhaps this is a tip that Luke knew that the event really took place later in Jesus' ministry and that he has moved it to earlier.

It's important to note first, in response, that this teaching of Jesus is unique to Luke. Luke isn't getting it from Mark or Matthew. So it would be very odd for Luke to "move" Jesus' rejection at Nazareth and then deliberately to insert, perhaps even to invent (!), totally unique material that makes it appear that Jesus had already been to Capernaum before giving this teaching. Since this teaching doesn't occur in any other Gospel, this cannot even be a case of so-called "editorial fatigue" (which is an unconvincing claim in other cases anyway)--namely, that Luke copied some material from Mark or Matthew, meaning to change the facts in some way, and then accidentally left in a clue as to its original context. One could conjecture that only if one said that the "editorial fatigue" occurred while modifying some now-lost tradition source about Jesus' teaching when he was later rejected at Nazareth! And at that point we really would be flying blind and just making stuff up, quite blatantly.

Still, the mention of Capernaum in Luke before Luke mentions that Jesus goes to Capernaum does appear to be an anomaly, and someone might try to use it to say that Luke is recording a teaching that really occurred later and is moving it.

This supposed anachronism in Luke did not go unnoticed by T.R. Birks, the editor of one edition of Paley's Horae Paulinae. Birks appended his own shorter work, the Horae Apostolicae, to his edition of Paley, and it has a lot of great material. (You can get a copy of the Horae Apostolicae here, though with different page numbering.) Here is Birks:

And first, the statement in St. Luke belongs to our Lord's visit to Nazareth, before he went down to Capernaum, and there began his public ministry. It thus appears to involve a strange oversight and complete anachronism; for if our Lord had not yet removed to Capernawn, or opened his public ministry, which seems to have begun in his own city by that solemn appeal to prophecy, how could the Nazarenes make that appeal to him, "Whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country." Now here the Gospel of St. John supplies an indirect but complete answer. We are there [John 4:46ff] told that our Lord returned first to Cana in Galilee; that while at Cana, a nobleman of Capernaum came to him and entreated that he would heal his son; that the cure was wrought by Jesus, without his going to that city in person, and led to the conversion of the whole household. Here, then, was a cure wrought in Capernaum, even before Jesus himself had taken up his residence in that city, exactly of the kind which might elicit the request of the Nazarenes ; for it was plainly a miracle of healing which they demanded from him. (Birks, pp. 385-386)

In other words, John explains Luke. Take this as the question: To what action in Capernaum does Jesus refer when he anticipates in Luke 4:23 that the people in Nazareth will ask him to do what he has done in Capernaum? How is this possible, since Luke records that Jesus went to Capernaum after this incident and does not record any earlier ministry in Capernaum?

A very plausible answer is that Jesus here refers to his having healed the son of a nobleman who was from Capernaum. According to John 4, Jesus was in Cana himself at the time but healed the nobleman's son at a distance. John records that the nobleman and his whole household believed. If he was a prominent man (as he seems to have been), Jesus' action could very well have become widely known. And Jesus himself could have suggested that the people in Nazareth might want him to do some such sign there in Nazareth. The healing, though carried out at a distance, could well have been thought of as a mighty deed which "was done" at Capernaum and of which they might have heard.

At this point, however, someone may raise the fact that NT scholars debate whether the event in John 4 is really the same as an event recorded in Luke 7--the healing of the centurion's servant. There are even quite conservative scholars who think that they are the same. For example, Craig Blomberg (in The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel) leans toward thinking that they are the same, and he specially notes that in his opinion the timing of the two is compatible, since both John 4 and Luke 7 record events taking place relatively early in Jesus' ministry, though after Jesus has gone north into Galilee. So Blomberg isn't trying to say that anybody moved anything here. He just thinks that they are different accounts of the same healing, told with somewhat different emphases. However, if these are the same healing, then on a straightforward reading of Luke that cannot be what Jesus is referring to in Luke 4, since the healing of the centurion's servant has not yet occurred.

But here I must disagree with Blomberg and agree instead with D.A. Carson, Ben Witherington and others in thinking that the two healings at a distance are distinct. I want to be extremely explicit here. I am not in any way suggesting that Blomberg on this point is suggesting any sort of fictionalizing change in the Gospels. It is simply that I disagree with him in identifying these two healings at a distance.

To my mind there are numerous clear indications that these are two healings. Perhaps the strongest of these is that the royal official in John 4 expressly begs Jesus to "come down" and heal his son (John 4:47-49), whereas the centurion described in Luke 7 is quite explicit that he knows that Jesus is able to heal at a distance (Luke 7:6-8). He even sends a second set of servants to tell Jesus not to bother to come to his house.

The chronology is also not very reconcilable, for Luke 7:1 is quite explicit that this healing takes place when Jesus comes to Capernaum shortly after the Sermon on the Level Place. And earlier chapters of Luke have made it clear that Jesus has already had a ministry in Capernaum prior to this healing. The Sermon on the Level Place certainly does not seem to take place in Judea. But John 4:54 is fairly explicit in stating that the healing of the royal official's son was performed right away after Jesus came out of Judea into Galilee and was the second sign (the first being turning water into wine at Cana) that Jesus did upon an occasion when he came from Judea into Galilee.

The healing in Luke 7 quite clearly takes place when Jesus himself is in Capernaum (Luke 7:1-2), as is the centurion. But John's narrative is clear that Jesus himself is in Cana and heals the royal official's son from there. We can see this from the repeated references to "coming down" or "going down." The official asks Jesus to "come down" (i.e., from Cana to Capernaum), vss. 47, 49. The official himself not only personally comes to Jesus but has to travel back himself, going down from Cana to Capernaum (John 4:51). This is a note of geographic realism and knowledge in John, since it really is "down" from Cana in the hills to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. Compare John 2:12, which uses the same expression for the same journey. In fact, the official has such a long walk to get home after speaking to Jesus that the servants who meet him report the healing time as having been the previous day (John 4:53), which the official recognizes as the time when he was talking to Jesus. There are even more contrasts (such as that Jesus speaks as if he is reluctant to heal the royal official's son but seems to agree readily to heal the centurion's servant), but these are the biggest ones.

In contrast, the similarities between the two healings are not very striking. The two men are both fairly prominent. Jesus heals at a distance. The person healed is in a dependent position upon the one who requests that Jesus heal him. And that's about all. I think we can conclude with confidence on grounds quite independent from the coincidence with Luke 4 that the healing in John 4 is not the healing in Luke 7.

And that returns us to the undesigned coincidence: The healing in John 4 that Jesus performed in Capernaum while he himself was in Cana could well be what Jesus refers in Luke 4. That provides a simple answer to an attempted argument that Luke is recording a later visit to Nazareth and moving it to an earlier point in his Gospel. The two places where we can quite sensibly see two generally similar events (the rejections at Nazareth and the healings at a distance) are thus intertwined. In each case, there is independent reason to think that the evangelists are recounting two separate occasions. And those conclusions are mutually supportive.

Comments (5)

Nice post Lydia!

You said:

"Perhaps the strongest of these is that the royal official in John 4 expressly begs Jesus to "come down" and heal his son (John 4:47-49), whereas the centurion described in Luke 7 is quite explicit that he knows that Jesus is able to heal at a distance (Luke 7:6-8)."

I have a maybe stupid sugestion. Since you seem to sugest that the healing in John is precedent to Luke's story with the centurion, this could also be a kind of a very weak UC. Since the centurion lived in Capernaum as well as the nobleman, he could have heard that Christ has the ability to heal at a distance because Christ healed the nobleman's son while not being himself present in Capernaum, and this is maybe the reason why the centurion did not insist that Christ should come to his house and see the person he is supposed to heal.

It is a weak UC because there could be other reasons why the centurion believed that Christ could heal at a distance. Also, a sceptic could assert that John made up the healing in Capernaum so as to "fit" with Luke's story with the centurion, but this seems unlikely to me.

Anyway, I hope it does not sound nonsensical.

That's actually very interesting. I had not thought of that, but it is a very sensible suggestion. One might even conjecture a little farther that the prominence of both men might lead them to move in some of the same circles, making it even more likely that the centurion would have heard of the incident. I should add that the nobleman in John 4 may have been a Jew. There is a lot of uncertainty about what a "royal official" means here. Still, they could potentially have been acquaintances.

Ouh, good then lol I was thinking for some time should I even post the comment above or not because I didn't want to sound stupid... The nobleman and the centurion could be in the same circles, or the centurion could simply have heard of what had happened, since, well, 1st century Capernaum was a fishing village having less than 2000 inhabitans permanently living in it.

As I said, it's a weak UC because there could be other reasons why the centurion believed that Christ could heal at a distance. But, it's somehow realistic, at least to my naive imagination, that rumours of Christ's healing abilities would have been spread all over such a small geographical area. It's also interesting that Luke does not know, apparently, about the healing in John.

When it comes to your UC, a sceptic would maybe claim that John invented the healing at a distance in order that it might "fit" with Luke 4:23. Could you please elaborate a bit more why this would be implausible?

As with all such conjectures, it's implausible because of casualness and because of the fact that it would fail with most readers. Consider what has in fact happened. 2,000 years have passed. Both Luke and John have been available to millions of people, many of whom have studied them with (metaphorically speaking) a magnifying glass and with great devoutness. Clever scholars have said that Luke moved the rejection and messed up. People like me have written books on undesigned coincidences--on that very topic!--that don't include it. I don't think it's in JJ Blunt, either. Birks noted the connection. For all I know, he may be the only person to do so previously. I think it's fair to say that he's rare. For John to have invented such a thing for such a reason would have been a waste of time. It would not have succeeded in its purpose of making people think that his story was more plausible, because it is just too subtle. This is the case with pretty much all undesigned coincidences. They are too subtle and casual to serve the purpose of fakery.

Thanks Lydia. I agree, it would be obvious to John that, if he was intending to fabricate stories in order to "fit" with Luke, this attempt would be simply too subtle.

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