Thursday, December 09, 2004

The first noel-2

" Traditionalists promote theories meshing Matthew's and Luke's versions. Says Paul L. Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University: 'Radical New Testament critics say it's a hopeless jumble. I myself do not think it's impossible to harmonize them.'"

So why doesn't van Biema proceed to tell the reader how Maier proposes to harmonize the two accounts? Didn't he ask him? If not, why not? If so, why didn't he include the explanation?

"Luke's description of an empire-wide census at the time of Jesus' birth, with Palestine's part conducted by the Syrian governor Quirinius, seems inaccurate. There is no other record of a census in Palestine at the time, and Quirinius was not yet governor. But he did administer an infamous census on Augustus' behalf some 12 years later, in AD 6."

i) This is an argument from silence.

ii) It presumes a standard of comparison. Why assume that Luke is less accurate than Tacitus or Josephus? Why is Luke erroneous, but Josephus is inerrant?

Isn't Luke a 1C witness to 1C history? Why is he deemed to be less reliable than Tacitus or Josephus--especially when he is closer in time to the events than either of them? Luke wrote in the early to mid-60s, Josephus in the mid-to-late 70s (The Jewish War) and early to mid-90s (Antiquities of the Jews), while the Annals of Tacitus date to the 2C.

iii) It is beyond the scope of my review to delve into the census of Quirinius. The reader should consult the relevant entries in the standard reference works (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4:12-13; The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 3:1308-11; The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 5:5-6) as well as excursus 2 of Bock's commentary on Luke, 1:903-09; Arndt's explanation in Bible Difficulties & Seeming Contradictions (Concordia 1987), 68-71; Cranfield's discussion in "Some Reflections on the Virgin Birth," On Romans (T&T Clarke 1998), 157-58, Barnett's discussion in Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity (IVP 1999), 97-99, chapter 11 of E. Martin's The Star that Astonished the World (ASK 1996), and B. Witherington's article on the "Birth of Jesus," in the Dictionary of Jesus & Yhe Gospels, J. Green et al. eds. (IVP 1992), 60-74.

To illustrate, let's summarize Martin's discussion. In a nutshell, his argument is as follows: based on interlocking sources of info from Josephus, Tertullian, Justin, Orosius, Moses of Khorene, and the Paphlagonian inscription, Martin argues that the census was not for purposes of taxation, but for the citizens for the Roman Empire to take a loyalty oath to Augustus as the Pater Patriae.

He also argues that, according to Josephus, there was a chronological gap between the governorship of Saturnius and the governorship of Varus. He then argues that Quirinius was the acting governor to fill this gap.

The gap took place during the summer break of 2 BC. He argues that the reason for the gap is that August was when Augustus celebrated his Silver Jubilee as well as the 750th anniversary of Roman, such that all the bigwigs would want to be in town at that time for the celebration.

"The blank space that Brown reported in the 1st century astronomical accounts where there should have been notice of Jesus' star has not prevented thousands of enthusiasts from attempting to locate it retroactively."

"Blank space?" "Enthusiasts"? Within the last few years, two professional astronomers independently published two book-length investigations of the Matthean account, both put out by academic publishing houses: Mark Kidger, The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer's View (Princeton U 1999); Michael Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi (Rutgers U 1999).

Once again, it wouldn't hurt van Biema to acquaint himself with the relevant literature before he advertises his ignorance to the world.

" In keeping with his view of Joseph and Mary as year-round residents, Matthew has the Magi visit a "house." Luke introduces the manger as part of his view of them as involuntary short-timers."

Van Biema reminds me of a conductor's quip about the great Heldentenor: "at least you knew where you stood with Melchior because he always made the same mistakes." Once Van Biema gets a bad idea fixed in his brain, he just keeps harping on it.

" How do the experts interpret these lines? As you might guess, they wonder where Luke got them. The first angel's language, some note, was less biblical than ... imperial. Brown called it 'a christology phrased in a language that echoes Roman imperial propaganda.'"

i) Maybe. But all the key terms ("sign") and titles (soter, christos, kyrios) have their antecedents in LXX usage, and the heavenly host is another OT motif. Van Biema should take a look at Fitzmyer's commentary (AB 28) on Luke, 1:409-12.

ii) In addition, the imperial cult antedated Luke on any dating scheme you please, whether early or late.

Moving on from Van Biema's hit-piece to Meacham's hatchet job, the subtitle is, itself, highly prejudicial: "how the gospels mix faith and history."

But why oppose faith and history in this invidious fashion? Doesn't Meacham have faith in what he's writing? Doesn't he want the reader to believe in the factual accuracy of his article? Isn't he writing to persuade as well as inform?

" The clash between literalism and a more historical view of faith is also playing out in theaters and bookstores."

Another false antithesis. Why posit a clash between what is literal and what is historical? Should the reader apply this disjunction to Meacham's own article?

" This is why modern, grounded, discerning people do make leaps of faith, accepting that, as the Gospel of John put it, 'the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.'"

Why equate Christian faith with a "leap" of faith? Why can't Christian faith be a reasonable faith?

" If we dissect the stories with care, we can see that the Nativity saga is neither fully fanciful nor fully factual but a layered narrative of early tradition and enduring theology."

Why should we "dissect" the Gospels? They were not put together to be taken apart. It isn't possible, at this distance, to reconstruct the editorial process.

Does Meacham's many-layered analysis represent the original viewpoint of the Evangelist, or an artificial grid imposed on the text by Meacham and his fellow sceptics?

"The first followers, we should always remember, believed that the Risen Lord was going to return and usher in a new apocalyptic age at any moment."

Did they? I've dealt with this bogus claim in my essay on hyperpreterism.

" As the years rolled by and the world endured, however, the Apostles and the first generations of church fathers realized they were not witnesses about to be swept up into heaven but earthly stewards of a message that had to be written down, explained and defended."

How does Meacham happen to know this? How do you document the existence of oral tradition? If it's oral, it doesn't leave a paper trail, right?

Meacham is regurgitating the old evolutionary theory of the Bible--an oral stage followed by a literary stage. Doesn't Luke indicate that there were many literary digests of the life of Christ at the time he put pen to paper (Lk 1:1)? Only Mark's effort has survived, but his was not the only one or even the first in line.

Doesn't this make sense? You use the spoken word when dealing with people face-to-face, and the written word when dealing with people at a distance. That is why the Apostles were avid letter-writers.

" To make their case in this congested theological universe, the Gospel writers collected traditions in circulation and told Jesus' story."

Isn't this an overstatement? It may apply to Luke. But does it apply to John?

"John P. Meier, a Roman Catholic priest and professor at Notre Dame, the author of a monumental series, 'A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus,' points out that there is no convincing evidence Jesus himself ever spoke of his birth."

And there is no convincing evidence that Jesus himself never spoke of his birth. An argument from silence is a doubled-edged sword.

"Neither Mary nor Joseph (who is not a figure in the years of Jesus' public life) appears to have been a direct source."

Once again, how is Meier or Meacham in a position to know that? Mary and Matthew both belonged to the church of Jerusalem (Acts 1:13-14). And Luke certainly had occasion of visit the church of Jerusalem, with or without Paul.

"In 1965, the Second Vatican Council held that while the Scriptures are ultimately "true," they are not necessarily to be taken as accurate in the sense we might take an Associated Press wire report about what happened at a school-board meeting as accurate. The council focused on the importance of paying attention to "literary forms" in Scripture. The Gospels are such a "literary form," and the accounts of Jesus in the canon are not history or biography in the way we use the terms. Classical biography, however, was a different genre. Writers like Plutarch invented details or embellished traditions when they were reconstructing the lives of the famous, and the Christmas saga features miraculous births, supernatural signs and harbingers of ultimate greatness similar to those found in pagan works. If we examine the Nativity narratives as classical biography, then the evangelists' means and mission—to convey theological truths about salvation, not to record just-the-facts history—become much clearer."

i) This is yet another fact-free assertion. To begin with, the Gospel-writers already had a preexisting tradition of historiography at their disposal--it's called the OT.

ii) In addition, Meacham is simply ignorant of the major literature on Greco-Roman historiography as well as the historicity of the Gospels and Acts.

He should read Keener's commentaries on Matthew and John, France on Mark, Bock on Luke, Witherington on Acts. He should read France on Matthew: Evangelist & Teacher. He should read Blomberg's commentaries on Matthew and John, as well as his book on Jesus and the Gospels--not to mention his book on The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. He should read Hemer on The Book of Acts In the Setting of Hellenistic History. He should read The Book of Acts in Its Ancient Literary Setting, Winter & Clarke, eds. He should read Stonehouse on the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels, as well as Barnett on Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity. That's just for starters.

As to comparative mythology, I've already made mention of Machen and Metzger. We could throw in Everett Ferguson on the Backgrounds of Early Christianity for good measure.

" The earliest and sparest Gospel, Mark's (circa AD 60), begins at Jesus' baptism by John as an adult, skipping the Nativity altogether. The latest and most philosophical, John's (circa 90), links Jesus with God at the very birth of the universe."

Where is the supporting evidence for this dating-scheme? I myself would date Mark to the 40s or 50s, and John to the 60s--after the demise of Peter.

" So we are left with Matthew and Luke, Gospels composed between AD 60 and 90."

Between 60 and 90? That's quite a spread! If he dates their composition to after the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70), then this comes into conflict with his thesis about the imminent return of Christ. Matthew and Luke could not very well believe that Jesus would return with the sack of Jerusalem if they were writing after the sack of Jerusalem. So something has to give. Which is it?

" By asserting Mary's virginity, Matthew and Luke are taking the device of the miraculous conception farther than any other Jewish writer had before."

"The device?" In what sense is the virgin birth a device? I've heard of a birth-control device, but not a virgin-birth device!

" If the virginal conception were a historical fact, however, it is somewhat odd that there is no memory of it recorded in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry or in the Acts of the Apostles or in the rest of the New Testament."

i) Why is it odd? It occurs where we would expect it to occur--in the gospels, which are a biographical genre. There is no expectation that it would crop up in a non-biographical genre.

ii) What would occasion its introduction in the ministry of Christ?

iii) Actually, Cranfield, for one, finds further allusions to the Virgin Birth in Mk 6:3, Jn 1:13; 6:41f.; 8:41; Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4, & Phil 2:7. Ibid. 153-54. And, of course, there's Isa 7:14 hovering in the wings.

" It is also striking that in parts of the Gospels Mary herself appears unaware of her son's provenance and destiny."

Her incomprehension would be the same apart from the particulars of the Virgin Birth.

" If Jesus had been conceived by a human father before Joseph and Mary had begun their lives together as husband and wife (either by Joseph himself, a soldier or someone else), then the Holy Ghost would have provided a convenient cover story for the early church."

i) "A cover story"? But just a few paragraphs before, Meacham told his readers that "The last thing the Christians wanted was to appear to be yet another mythological cult, worshiping some kind of demi-god; their deep Jewish faith in the commandment to have 'no other gods before me' foreclosed that possibility. 'Incredible tales' were for the idolatrous." Does Meacham listen to his own words?

ii) And a few more paragraphs before that, Meacham told his readers that " Miraculous conceptions have deep roots in Jewish tradition: the aged Sarah bearing Isaac, the barren wife of Manoah bearing Samson, the barren Hannah bearing Samuel (and, according to Luke, Mary's kinswoman Elizabeth, both aged and barren, bearing John the Baptist just before Mary conceived Jesus)."

All true. But if preternatural pregnancies enjoy such precedent in OT history, how is the Virgin Birth a convenient cover story?

" Matthew makes an even more explicit connection with the Jewish past, stating outright that Jesus is answering ancient expectations. Citing Isaiah 7:14—'Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us'—the evangelist writes: 'Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet.' A problem with this elegant passage from Isaiah is that it may have long been mistranslated and misinterpreted."

It should be needless to say that the exegesis of Isa 7:14 is well-trodden ground. For a defense of the traditional interpretation, the reader should consult: M. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Baker 2003), 3:17-32; 199-210; J. Motyer, "Content and context in the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14," TynB 21 (1970); E. Young, Studies in Isaiah (Eerdmans 1954).

"What is clearer is that the visit of the Magi came to be seen as a fulfillment of Psalm 72…There is no historical evidence of such a visit, but the symbolic significance is obvious."

"History records no such Herodian slaughter…"

i) Of course, ancient historians only write about the rich and famous. By that standard, there's no historical evidence that more than a few hundred people ever existed in the ancient world. There is no historical evidence of trees in the state of Georgia in 1066. There is no historical evidence that fish were swimming in the Columbia River in 1492. In fact, there is no historical evidence that the Columbia River even existed in 1492. At least, I know of no period historian who has recorded the presence of trees and rivers and fish at this place and time. Is it therefore reasonable to conclude that although Alexander the Great was a real person, since historians wrote about him, that Alexander never had a great-grandfather, if no historian wrote about his great-grandpa? Is it reasonable to conclude that there were no trees in Georgia or fish in the Columbia River absent a written record to that effect?

There are no written records for most of the things that ever were or ever occurred in the past. Is it reasonable to conclude from this that most of the time, nothing at all took place? That the timeline consists of long stretches of nothingness punctuated a little blips of being?

ii) Notice the perversely tendentious character of Meacham's denial. If Cicero or Tacitus or Josephus say that something happened, then we have a historical record of the event; but of Matthew or Luke or John say that something happened, then there's absolutely no evidence that it ever happened!

The chief value of corroboration is not to confirm every detail, which is unrealistic to expect, but to attest the trustworthy character of the reporter. If what he says holds up on the points at which it can be tested, then that carries a presumption of fidelity on the points at which it cannot be tested.

And a disagreement between two sources is not, of itself, prejudicial to one source over against another.

" There is, of course, no way to know whether Luke's story of the heavenly host announcing Jesus' arrival to the shepherds really happened; one has to believe in angels, and explain away the fact that the Gospels fail to note any ensuing communal or individual recollection of this spectacular birth, one witnessed by the rustics (in Luke) and the Magi (in Matthew), in the years of Jesus' public life."

i) Of course, should you operate under Meacham's rules of evidence, then if the Gospels did record an ensuing recollection of this event, that would be further evidence that it never occurred!

ii) To say that there's no way of knowing assumes that you can only know something directly. But if you know someone who knows it, if you know that your source of knowledge is reliable, then you know whatever it tells you to be true.

"In the gnostic 'Gospel of Philip,' Pagels points out, the Gospel author reinterprets Jesus' birth, suggesting that while Jesus was born biologically to Mary and Joseph, he was reborn spiritually as the son of God…Such a view prompted a fierce counterattack from Irenaeus, a late-second-century church father who believed that Jesus was utterly unique—that he had been born in a unique way and had been raised from the dead in a unique way."

i) The Coptic Gospel of Philip dates to the 4-5C. I'd like to see the steps by which Elaine Pagels is able to trace this back to the time of Irenaeus or before.

ii) How is it that liberals make so much of the very brief interval between the life of Christ and the canonical Gospels, but so very little of the far wider interval between the life of Christ and the Gnostic gospels?

When all is aid and done, the question is not how an inspired book which was written 2000 years ago could confront a modern reader with a few obscurities; no, the real question is how an uninspired book which was written 2000 years to could confront a modern reader with so few obscurities. It is the low view of Scripture, and not the high view of Scripture, which cries out for a special explanation. It takes less faith to be a believer than an unbeliever.


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