Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Epic Epiphanic Thoughts About Historicity of Gospel Birth Narratives

Readers may be familiar with the thought that either or both the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are creations of the authors with little to do with the facts of the matter (other than that Jesus Christ was born to a woman, as all humans are). It is not hard to imagine each author adding some colour to what they inherited from Mark (who begins the story of Jesus at his baptism). Eventually an eager public wants to know when and how their hero was brought up and so, in their own distinctive ways, Matthew and Luke supply the missing narrative (according to this hypothesis).

The invention hypothesis

Matthew takes the route of imagining Joseph's perspective and what a colourful perspective it is, with dreams in which God speaks, visits from exotic strangers bearing expensive gifts, and an exciting escape to a foreign land from marauding Herod. Matthew's "epiphany" has a (literally) "epic" quality!

Luke takes another route. The alternative to a Josephine perspective is a Marian perspective which Luke takes up with enthusiasm and he includes a bonus-for-his-readers, a second birth narrative, that of John the Baptist (who, we might recall, appears as a significant character just before Jesus makes his appearance in Mark's narrative). Luke has no dreams, no escapes and no sojourn in Egypt, but there are visitations by angels, theologically suggestive songs by leading characters (Zechariah, Mary, Simeon) and a bunch of bewildered shepherds turning up in the middle of the night. There is also an historically awkward presentation of Jesus in the Temple (awkward because it is not at all clear that it was what the law prescribed).

Oh, and to make the inventions of Matthew and Luke more plausible as an explanation of the origin of the narratives, there are the very inconvenient facts that Matthew's genealogy of Jesus does not tally with Luke's, that Luke may be simply wrong about the census under Quirinius (as previously posted here), and the geographical arc of each narrative reverses the other. Matthew's Jesus is born in Bethlehem to (it would appear) Bethlehem citizens but they choose to live in Nazareth after the return from Egypt, whereas Luke's Jesus is born to Mary who with her husband Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the birth and then return to Nazareth. Luke's "epiphany" involves no exotic wise men, just local congregants of the Temple, Simeon and Anna, and his "epic" journey is pretty straightforward and short, Bethlehem to Nazareth. (By contrast, John's Gospel's Prologue's "epic" journey begins before time and its "epiphany" is no less than the revelation that the light which enlightens everything has come into the world.)

Put like that, why would we have any regard at all for either Matthew or Luke's accounts of the birth of Jesus as historical narratives? Why not treat them as sheer fiction relative to the actual but unknown historical facts of Jesus' birth and as narratival theology on a par with the explicitly theological prologue of John's Gospel? And, of course, if we head towards the conclusion that the narratives are not historical, why not cast doubt on the miraculous conception of Jesus?

But let's not leap to an unwarranted conclusion

There are several reasons not to jump towards such a conclusion, at least not to jump to such a conclusion as the complete evaluation of the whole of each narrative.

First, our doubts largely arise because of the nature of the accounts themselves and not because we have an alternative set of facts with which to judge them. It is not as though there is a birth certificate for Jesus which states he was born in Hebron, nor a record of shepherd movements on the night when he was born which proves that all shepherds in the vicinity of his birthplace were sound asleep from dusk till dawn. Neither are there immigration records from Herod's kingdom which tell us the only Magi visiting Palestine in those years arrived from the North in 9 BC, five years too early.

True, there is considerable doubt as to whether Luke has got his facts straight about (a) a census being taken at the likely time of Jesus' birth and (b) such a census requiring people moving to their hometown, but that observation in itself does not rule out the possibility that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that Mary and Joseph did travel there (for some reason) in time for his birth. It is also true that there is an absence of confirmatory external historical records, notably for something as striking as a massacre of infants in and around Bethlehem, late in the reign of Herod the Great's rule, but absence of confirmation is not confirmation of absence. That is, with the exception of well-known difficulties squaring Luke's account of a census under Quirinius with what we know about Roman censuses in that era, we have no alternative proven historical facts which deny the historicity of either Matthew or Luke's birth narratives. In other words, if the accounts cannot be proven to be historical, neither can they be proven to be unhistorical.

That leads, secondly, to the possibility that there is an interweaving of history and theological interpretation of history going on in these stories, perhaps with more theological interpretation than history. Some interesting aspects of the two birth narratives are stubbornly common to both accounts. Jesus' mother is Mary, his step-father is Joseph. His conception is miraculous. His birth is in Bethlehem. His upbringing is in Nazareth. By themselves these observations do not constitute assured historical facts, but they do raise the possibility that they are facts which Matthew and Luke agree on because they are facts and they cannot be theologised into something else. (One of the oddest features of modern gospel scholarship is that the hypothesized source document Q - defined as the common source for non-Markan material in Matthew and Luke - does not include these common non-Markan aspects of their respective birth narratives).

Then, thirdly, we should consider the intrinsic possibility that a distinctive, indeed unique person such as Jesus Christ had unusual things happening in and around his conception, birth and infancy, even if they look like some kind of convenient theological fiction (written, e.g., as a presumed fulfilment of ancient prophecies, a particular possibility for Matthew's Gospel, or as a rewritten set of stories and songs from Israel's scriptures, a particular possibility for Luke's Gospel).

Moreover, all parents treasure in their hearts the circumstances of their children's coming into the world and early years. It would be historically unusual if Joseph and Mary had no memories of Mary discovering her pregnancy, carrying Jesus to term, his birth and his infancy and even more unusual if they never shared those memories with others and if close family members themselves had no memories of baby Jesus. Thus, why should Matthew not have had access to the Josephine version of events? Although Joseph is largely absent in the gospels beyond the birth and infancy narratives (and thus presumed to have died in Jesus' youth), there is nothing intrinsically improbable about his siblings and cousins, to say nothing of Jesus' own (perhaps older) siblings, having heard from him about Jesus' conception and birth, and told and retold what they heard so that Matthew drills into that particular rich ore of Jesus' personal history. Ditto, Luke drawing on a Marian ore of treasured memories (incidentally, conceivably from Mary herself, if Luke began his gospel investigations in (say) the late 40s and early 50s AD). In other words, there is potential complementarity rather than contradiction between Matthew and Luke's two approaches to telling the birth narrative of Jesus with important common details between the two narratives.

A fourth observation to make is that there is nothing intrinsically improbable within the historiography of Israel (as we understand it from the Old Testament) of a Joseph being communicated to by God through dreams, of angels making announcements to shepherds and of wise men interpreting unusual signs among the stars and the planets. (On the possibility that the star was a particular planetary appearance, see this). Indeed, to this day, the Middle East remains - in my personal experience - a region of the world where many people testify to experiences of divine communication through dreams and angels. Nor, for that matter, is there anything improbable in a Herod feeling threatened by news of a potential rival king and exercising subsequent tyrannical measures to ensure the rival never made it to adulthood. Again, observing these things does not conjure up facts where none actually exist, but such observations should caution those of us with mindsets tempted in a post Enlightenment Western manner to dismiss aspects of the narratives which do not fit the historiography we have developed.

My conclusion

To cut to a conclusion: yes, there are a significant number of reasons to wonder very loudly what is history and what is not in the birth narratives, and indeed to even wonder whether there is any sound history beyond the mere fact that a baby was born who became Jesus of Nazareth. But there are also significant reasons for not moving from wondering about these things to determining that we "know" there is little or no history involved in the narratives. We do not have facts at hand to make such determination. In the end, the narratives are the history of Jesus' birth and infancy we have as God's people. There is no other history available to us.

Postscript: a much better post (regarding detailed examination of the text in relation to the question of historicity) is here, by Ian Paul.


Andrei said...

I think you over intellectualize Peter

The writers of the Gospels will have different perspectives because of who they were and who they interacted with

St Matthew met Jesus Christ as an adult and was one of his disciples so what he knew of Jesus' childhood he will presumably heard from him

St Mark was younger and not within the inner circle during Jesus Ministry and much of his knowledge came from St Peter with his memories and perspective

St Luke would have had no direct contact with Christ himself but did with his mother the Virgin Mary and he will have learnt the details of Christ's birth from her we can assume

St John of course was close to Jesus as one of his disciples part of the inner core during his ministry

Of course if you are modern Bible Scholar you will dismiss all of the above as folk tales - whatever

The texts are roughly 2000 years old - you can read them with Faith or read them cynicism - either way nobody is really going to change their mind
and the average joe will walk away finding Kim Kardashian's butt more interesting

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Andrei
I could be over intellectualising, but others go there before me and thus (for some readers at least) a response might be useful.
You rightly point out that Matthew's Gospel is the gospel of a disciple of the Lord which is an important part of rebuttal of the gospel as some kind of folk tale.

Andrei said...

I could be over intellectualising, but others go there before me and thus (for some readers at least) a response might be useful.

Apologies Peter - I'm not getting at you - my comment had a deeper purpose

Rather in our post Christian society I wonder it is fruitful to devote our energies to these lines of inquiry

Remember this taxpayer funded atrocity which was originally scheduled to play on Good Friday, mercifully some decorum remains and it was held until after the Easter Festival

I grew up in a household where it was axiomatic the Gospels were true - indeed the phrase Gospel Truth! remains in idiomatic English to stress the absolute veracity of a statement

Philosophically speaking all we know of the past is from old texts whether they be the Gospels that reveal to us Jesus Christ or Plutarch's "Life of Alexander" to tell us what we know of Alexander the Great.

A great Churchill quote "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it"

Surely our Christian duty is to share the revelations of the Gospels and leave it NZ on Air to re-imagine them

Peter Carrell said...

No worries, Andrei!

Anonymous said...

Peter, (1) Are you familiar with Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses? (2) Could you hazard a guess about the basic difference in nature and purpose between Matthew and Luke and the so-called Infancy Gospels of the C2, especially the Protoevangelium of St James?

Bowman Walton

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bowman
Yes, I am familiar with Bauckham's Eyewitnesses. I think the question of a sceptical reader of Matthew and Luke is whether or not on the birth and infancy of Jesus they did in fact have eyewitnesses to consult, or, alternatively, whether eyewitnesses to the birth and early years of Jesus realised what they had witnessed and kept telling and retelling the stories.

I confess to ignorance of 2C "gospels": I should do some reading on them and their purposes.

liturgy said...

I actually think your post, Peter, is much better than Ian Paul’s.

Ian’s concluding historicity from his question, “if God in Jesus did not outwit Herod, on what grounds might we think he can outwit ‘the Herods of this world’?” is about the weakest argument for historicity I have ever encountered.

Following this he continues his poor logic with: “More fundamentally, Matthew and his first readers appeared to believe that the claims about Jesus were ‘parabolically true’ because these things actually happened. If none of them did, what grounds do we now have?”

No reputable historian would say that there is no history beneath Matthew’s gospel. Ian Paul is arguing that there are only two options: either all of the gospel of Matthew is historically accurate, or none of it is.

I think your own conclusion that we cannot, with the information we have, argue Matthew’s infancy narrative lacks historical basis, is a reasonable conclusion. Ian Paul’s is not.

I would see the infancy narratives as overtures for the greater work of art to follow. Many of Matthew’s themes are set up there – Jesus the new Moses (coming out of Egypt); Joseph the new Joseph (his father is Jacob, dreams, etc); the message for all nations (prefigured in the Magi); etc.

Although the apostle may undergird certain layers of the final text, I hold to the final document expanding Mark, and so cannot follow the authorship positions of the comments.



Anonymous said...

Peter, to make sense of some C14 Byzantine mariology, I have had to look at the same texts that you are considering, not to ask whether they were good journalism, but to ask what early authors of ancestry and infancy narratives of Jesus understood themselves to be doing. In Richard Bauckham's reconstruction of the intentions of Matthew and Luke, the evangelists prioritised, not just eyewitnesses, but those who had seen events unfold from beginning to end. Thus your earlier OP on the contrast between low-def infancy narratives (beginning with genealogies) and high-def ministry narratives (beginning with that of John the Baptiser) is very intriguing. It lends some support to Bosco's idea that it is an overture, which may in turn explain why the writing of infancy narratives could not only continue long after they could not possibly be good journalism-- Origen denies their historicity-- but could even, in the case of the Protoevangelium of St James, acquire a quasi-canonical status. Bosco has identified some of the themes, but the deep question remains: why did the evangelists and their later imitators connect those themes to the birth of Jesus rather than to some other inaugural account of, say, the Baptism of Jesus or the Wedding in Cana? In our own retrospective, we "know" the answer, just as certain Byzantines "knew" that Bosco's themes celebrate the victory of the Theotokos over the fault of Adam, enabling the birth of Christ. But it is always gratifying to see these things through apostolic eyes when we can.

Bowman Walton

Peter Carrell said...

You are very kind, Bosco!

Bowman: thanks for clarifying re other "gospel" birth narratives.