Friday, August 26, 2016

A Response To Annette Merz On The Infancy Narratives (Part 1)

As I mentioned in my Amazon review of The Star Of Bethlehem And The Magi (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015), I want to respond to one of the chapters here at Triablogue. The second-to-last chapter in the book was written by Annette Merz, a prominent New Testament scholar. Some of you may recognize her as the co-author, with Gerd Theissen, of an influential book, The Historical Jesus (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1998). Merz's chapter in the star of Bethlehem book provides an overview of the historicity of the infancy narratives. Her conclusions aren't just skeptical. They're radically skeptical, to the point of claiming that the infancy narratives have "totally different stories" that are "impossible" to reconcile (478), with "huge discrepancies" (492), that Nazareth is "far more" probable than Bethlehem as Jesus' birthplace, that "no one among his family or fellow villagers expected anything special from him", that we have "no historically reliable traditions of Jesus' childhood" (491), etc.

I don't know how many posts I'll be writing in response to Merz or when I'll finish them. But once they're completed, I'll put up a post linking all of them in one place.

Since Merz and other contributors to the book speak highly of Raymond Brown's work on the infancy narratives (n. 9 on 20, 63, n. 1 on 463), I should provide a link to a collection of my responses to Brown. As some of my posts there illustrate, Brown was significantly less skeptical of the infancy narratives than Merz is, and he provided some evidence and arguments that Merz either ignores or underestimates.

Near the beginning of her chapter, Merz uses a passage from the Infancy Gospel Of Thomas to illustrate what standards she'll be applying to the canonical infancy narratives. As Merz mentions (n. 8 on 466), the same passage from the Infancy Gospel Of Thomas is cited by Aaron Adair in his book on the star. Since I responded to Adair on that topic in my review of his book, I'll link interested readers to that section of my review. I do want to respond to some portions of what Merz says about the standards she's applying, however:

It [the passage in the Infancy Gospel Of Thomas] also contradicts the laws of nature that Jesus as a human person would have been subjected to according to critical historical evaluation. (466)

If Merz is appealing to naturalism, then she needs to justify it rather than merely asserting it. Agnosticism on paranormal phenomena, miracles, or whatever you want to call them would require evidence before we accept a miracle claim, but it wouldn't begin with a view that miracles don't occur. If Merz is appealing to naturalism, then she isn't suggesting that we be agnostic. She's going further than that.

My response to Adair linked above cites some resources that argue against naturalism. I could add many others, like the research Stephen Braude has done on the paranormal. See, for example, Braude's treatment of the D.D. Home, Eusapia Palladino, Leonora Piper, and Ted Serios cases in the following books:

The Limits Of Influence (Lanham, Maryland: University of America, Inc., 1997)
Immortal Remains (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003)
The Gold Leaf Lady (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Here's a video of Braude discussing some of those paranormal cases. And here's a discussion between Rupert Sheldrake and Richard Wiseman concerning scientific evidence for paranormal phenomena. Or see the veridical near-death experiences discussed in Janice Miner Holden, et al., edd., The Handbook Of Near-Death Experiences (Santa Barbara, California: Praeger Publishers, 2009).

Our conceptions of the laws of nature developed over time and continue to develop. All of us have gradually accepted laws of nature that we hadn't accepted previously. We learn more about the natural order in school, in articles and books we read on scientific issues, etc. We don't assume that what we currently believe about the natural order can never change. And we have no reason to think that the natural order is all that exists.

If Merz isn't advocating metaphysical naturalism, but instead is appealing to methodological naturalism, then that, too, would need to be justified. The methodology would only be as good as its underlying metaphysics. Those who are interested can search our archives for articles we've written about methodological naturalism. If miracles can and/or do occur in history, then by what reasoning can historians and other scholars exclude them? Surely Merz is aware that many Christian scholars and other scholars think that miracles are part of what a historian studies.

She continues:

That the story comes from a relatively late apocryphal gospel should not count as an (important) argument undermining its claim to factual accuracy. All sources, canonical and apocryphal, Christian and otherwise, must be taken into consideration. There are pious inventions to be found in the canonical Gospels and reliable historical data preserved in apocryphal sources. (466)

In a footnote, she adds the qualifier:

Relatively speaking, there is more potentially reliable material to be found in the canonical Gospels due to their earlier date of composition compared to most apocryphal texts. (n. 9 on 466)

If "there is more potentially reliable material to be found in the canonical Gospels due to their earlier date of composition", then what's the significance of her earlier claim that later dating "should not count as an (important) argument" against a document's claim to historicity? She goes on to say that "All sources…must be taken into consideration". Who denies that, and what relevance does it have to her claim that lateness "should not count as an (important) argument"? What's the relevance of her next comment, concerning error in the gospels and truth in apocryphal sources? Nothing she's saying justifies her claim that the dating of a source isn't important. If dating isn't important, then why doesn't Merz argue for her historical conclusions about Jesus' life on the basis of medieval sources and claims made about Jesus on internet message boards? Instead, she focuses on the earliest sources we have and doesn't cite any sources beyond a particular timeframe.

Even when the difference in date between two documents is only thirty, fifty, or a hundred years, that difference has some significance. It involves a difference in how many eyewitnesses were still alive, how strong people's memories were at the time, what written records and other resources they had access to (e.g., people writing before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. had access to more resources in that city than people writing afterward), etc.

She continues:

What is more relevant than age and provenance is the fact that we are dealing with a story from Jesus' youth - that is, from the time before he began his public career, as is also the case in the birth and infancy stories of the gospels. (466)

Notice that she brings in "provenance" without any supporting argument. She hasn't given us any reason to think that provenance is as unimportant as she suggests.

(Other parts in this series: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.)

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