Saturday, December 07, 2013

Jesus' Childhood Outside The Infancy Narratives (Part 7): The Letters Of The New Testament

In previous posts, I've addressed the gospels, Acts, and Revelation. Here I want to discuss the remainder of the New Testament, the letters.

Because those documents are letters, we should adjust our expectations accordingly. Letters aren't biographies, a work of historiography, like Acts, or an apocalypse. And they're letters written well into the second decade after Jesus' death or later, written to individuals and groups who had already been introduced to Christianity. The letters were written under particular circumstances to address particular issues. It's not as though we'd expect a lot of comments about Jesus' childhood in a context like Paul's correspondence with the Corinthians or Peter's correspondence with some suffering Christians.

We need to avoid the mistake of expecting a reference to Jesus' childhood in a context just because such a reference would be possible, beneficial, or ideal. If Paul is telling children to submit to their parents, or is telling parents how to raise their children, for example, then an illustration from Jesus' childhood would be possible, beneficial, and in some sense ideal. But there are other factors involved. Paul may not want to cite any illustration to support his point, whether an illustration from Jesus' childhood or something else. He may want to avoid using an illustration in order to save time, to save space, because he doesn't think his audience needs an illustration, or for some other reason. If an illustration is used, it may not be one that's taken from Jesus' life. Because of Jesus' deity, some other difference in Jesus' context (in comparison to the context of Paul's audience), or another factor, Paul may want to avoid an illustration from the life of Jesus. Or the option of discussing Jesus may not come to mind, so some other illustration that's more prominent in Paul's thinking (for whatever reason) will be used instead. Or maybe Paul and other Christians have good reason to believe X about Jesus' childhood, but Paul doesn't mention X when writing to a certain audience, since he doesn't know how familiar they are with it. When modern Christian parents are teaching their children, they sometimes cite Jesus, but they cite other figures on other occasions. Sometimes children can relate better to other examples, the variety involved in citing more than just Jesus is a more effective way to communicate (because of the benefits of variety), etc. Just as we don't expect modern Christians to comment on Jesus' childhood every time it's possible, beneficial, or ideal in some way to do so, we also shouldn't expect ancient Christians to do it.

In the New Testament letters, Jesus' birth is referred to as a normal birth into a Jewish home (Galatians 4:4), as in the infancy narratives. As I've mentioned before, the ordinariness of Jesus' birth in the New Testament stands in contrast to the embellishments of later apocryphal documents and other sources.

Jesus is a descendant of Judah (Hebrews 7:14) and David (Romans 1:3, 15:12, 2 Timothy 2:8). Keep in mind what I said earlier about the connection between Davidic ancestry and the Bethlehem birthplace.

He's sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, 7:26, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5).

He has multiple brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5). One of them is named James (Galatians 1:19).

Old Testament passages relevant to Jesus' childhood may be or are cited or alluded to. "He himself is our peace" in Ephesians 2:14 is reminiscent of Micah 5:5, a passage about the Davidic Messiah from Bethlehem. Some passages apply Isaiah 11 to Jesus (Romans 15:12, 2 Thessalonians 2:8). And Isaiah 11 refers to a Davidic Messiah (verses 1 and 10) and is associated with other Christmas material in Isaiah (e.g., Isaiah 9:6-7). Other Messianic passages in Isaiah are frequently applied to Jesus (Romans 10:16, 15:21, 1 Peter 2:22-25). It's unlikely that those who applied passages like Isaiah 49 and 52-53 to Jesus would have thought a Christmas passage like Isaiah 9 wasn't applicable.

Paul seems to refer to Luke's gospel as scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18. For a discussion of the evidence, see George Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000), 233-235 and Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012), 205-207. Notice that Paul not only cites Luke as scripture, but even does so without any apparent expectation that such a citation would need to be explained or defended. His citation of Luke as scripture has implications for his view of Luke's infancy material, and the manner in which he cites Luke has implications for the views of his audience.

2 Peter 3:15-16 refers to Paul's letters as scripture. Note which and how many of Paul's letters contain material relevant to Jesus' childhood (Romans, Galatians, etc.). It's unlikely that 2 Peter 3 was referring to some collection of Pauline letters that excluded all of the ones with relevant content.

My next post will move on from the New Testament documents to extrabiblical sources. Before I do that, I want to emphasize a theme I've occasionally touched upon in previous posts.

I've not only been citing original sources to support my conclusions, but also have provided some examples of corroboration of my conclusions from non-conservative scholarship. I'll close this post with what two very liberal scholars wrote about some of the issues under consideration:

Since Matthew and Luke agree independently on those two points about Jesus - that he was descended from David's lineage and born in David's city - those must come from an earlier tradition than either of their Christmas stories. And, in fact, we find both of those points elsewhere in the New Testament.

First, Paul, in opening his letter to the Romans, speaks of "the gospel concerning his [God's] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh" (1:3)....This [John 7:41-42] is a typical instance of Johannine irony. He presumes that Jesus was born at Bethlehem and, therefore, the crowd's ignorance confirms what they deny. Jesus is the Messiah, and he was born in Bethlehem. Paul and John indicate that common Christian tradition that Jesus was the Davidic Messiah and was - whether literally or metaphorically - born in Bethlehem. (Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas [New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007], 130)

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