Merz raises a common objection to the infancy narratives, one that's frequently cited against other parts of the Bible as well. Supposedly, the accounts are too similar to what we find in other sources:
The whole infancy story bears numerous traces of legendary retelling of scripture, especially using elements of the Moses haggadah and texts dealing with messianic expectations of a renewed Davidic kingship….
Mark D. Smith has rightly emphasized that Herod the Great is an indispensable asset to the typological parallel between Jesus and Moses, which is the central theological theme of Matthew's infancy narrative. (470, 479)
Unusual parallels do lessen the probability of historicity. But that principle has to be accompanied by a consideration of other factors involved.
Sometimes two individuals or events are unusually similar, yet both are commonly accepted as historical (e.g., the similarities between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy). Or something commonly accepted as historical is unusually similar to a fictional account (e.g., the similarities between the sinking of the Titanic and the earlier fictional account of the sinking of the Titan). Though unusual parallels might lead us to reject the historicity of something like some of the details of Kennedy's life or the sinking of the Titanic if we didn't have so much other evidence to go by, we do have that other evidence, so we accept the claims about Kennedy and the Titanic as historical. The Kennedy/Lincoln and Titanic/Titan parallels don't provide enough contrary evidence to outweigh the evidence we have for the historicity of the relevant claims about Kennedy and the Titanic.
People who accept the historicity of parallels like the ones I just referred to offer different explanations for those parallels. Sometimes a paranormal explanation will be suggested (e.g., Stephen Braude, The Gold Leaf Lady [Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2007], 127-52). Or a naturalistic explanation will be offered (e.g., David Hand, The Improbability Principle [New York: Scientific American, 2014]; this Snopes article on the Lincoln/Kennedy parallels mentioned above).
So, naturalism, which I discussed in an earlier response to Merz, is relevant again. Just as an author of fictional literature can choose to draw parallels between two or more individuals or two or more events, so can God or some other supernatural agent. Unless we have reason to believe in atheism or some equivalent, we have to be open to the possibility that supernatural parallels will occur in life.
But whether we attribute parallels to something natural or supernatural, parallels do often occur. And the extent to which alleged parallels in Matthew and Luke's infancy narratives require an explanation of some sort depends on how much those narratives actually have parallels. The weaker the parallels, the less of an explanation is needed.
We can measure the supposed parallels by looking at their quantity and quality. Let's start by considering what's offered by Merz and her colleagues.
In the book to which Merz is contributing, Matthew 2 is paralleled to Alexander the Great's interactions with Chaldeans (217-30), Tiridates' visit to Nero (286-7), the visit of some magi to Sulla (587), a Roman decree to execute male children around the time of Augustus' birth (623-4), etc. Alleged parallels to Matthew 2 are cited in a vast number and variety of Old Testament passages (Numbers 9:17, 24:17, 1 Kings 10:1-13, Psalm 72:10-1, Isaiah 58:10, 60:1-6, etc.).
In The Birth Of The Messiah (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999), which Merz cites as the standard work in the field, Raymond Brown will suggest that one part of the infancy narratives may have been derived from one portion of the Old Testament, then appeal to a different portion of the Old Testament to explain another part of the infancy accounts. He'll parallel the patriarch Joseph from the book of Genesis with Jesus' father Joseph (111-2), then he'll acknowledge that the patriarch could be paralleled with Jesus himself in another context (n. 32 on 112). The prophet Samuel will be compared to John the Baptist, then will be compared to Jesus (450-1). Brown has to appeal to a wide range of Old Testament sources in his attempt to explain much of the infancy narratives as something other than an effort to convey history. See, for example, the large number of Old Testament figures and events cited on pages 268-71. On page 193, we're told about a wide range of possible sources for the material in Matthew 2, including "the combined story of Joseph in Egypt and Moses...the stories of the birth of Abraham, the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, and the struggle between Laban and Jacob...the most likely background is offered by the episode centered on Balaam in Num 22-24...The Matthean Herod resembles both the Pharaoh and Balak." After citing such a diverse array of possibilities, Brown assures us that he's omitted any mention of other parallels that are "too tenuous" (n. 40 on 193).
I prefer his advice elsewhere that "one should be cautious in drawing an identification from such echoes of an OT scene." (344) He argues against the Old Testament parallels drawn by other scholars on the basis that those parallels are inconsistent in some of their details (for example, n. 15 on 482, 490). But many of Brown's proposed parallels are inconsistent as well.
Charles Quarles writes:
"In a doctoral seminar the present writer used the loose criteria of the midrash critics to 'prove' that an unnamed document was a midrash based on OT texts appealing to coincidental thematic and verbal parallels between the OT and the document. After the students were thoroughly convinced of the literary relationship of the document to the OT, they were shocked to discover the identity of the mystery document - an encyclopedia article on the life of Abraham Lincoln." (Midrash Criticism [Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1998], n. 53 on 100)
Anthony Le Donne comments:
"All history, whether salvation history or otherwise, borrows language, categories, and types from previous eras….Meyer and Wright both emphasize that there must be a reciprocal relationship between the real object (which exists independently from the knower) and the mind that knows the thing. Both seek to contextualize the knowing process within the knower's perspective and worldview. Wright's contribution to this discussion is his emphasis on the important role that stories play in creating a worldview and the way that the knower is inclined to understand his own story within the framework of larger stories….As such, pasts worth remembering are so because they bear resemblance to interesting plots, characters, and settings in our mind's eye….The climactic moments of our lives are measured against, and interpreted by, the climactic moments of great stories and, indeed, history itself. Peter Burke observes, 'In early modern Europe, many people read the Bible so often that it had become part of them and its stories organized their perceptions and their memories.'" (The Historiographical Jesus [Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2009], 5, 9, 55)
Similarly, our experiences with our parents shape what we expect from and notice and remember about other parents, what we know of past political leaders shapes our expectations for and memories of current political leaders, and so forth. If my evaluation of a presidential candidate is influenced by what I think of Ronald Reagan, if I tend to notice and emphasize parallels between that presidential candidate and Reagan, etc., it doesn't follow that other people should think I'm making up stories about that candidate in an attempt to create a fictional parallel to Reagan. Rather, they should consider the possibility that my view of Reagan influences what I notice in presidential candidates, what I remember about them, how I describe them to other people, and so on.
Merz brings up the alleged parallels between Moses and Jesus, which she calls "the central theological theme of Matthew's infancy narrative". Critics especially highlight verses 13 to 21 in Matthew 2.
Merz comments that "Herod the Great is an indispensable asset to the typological parallel between Jesus and Moses". We're often told that Herod's execution of the Bethlehem children is too reminiscent of Pharaoh's execution of the Israelite children in Exodus 1-2. But how much does Herod parallel Pharaoh? Pharaoh was a foreign ruler who was concerned about the whole Jewish population for ordinary reasons (Exodus 1:9-10), so he issued a general and public edict prior to Moses' birth. Matthew 2 involves a ruler in Israel who was concerned about one individual as a result of a supernatural revelation communicated to him by the magi, so he acted in one city without a public edict after Jesus' birth. Those are just several differences among more that could be cited from the alleged Pharaoh/Herod parallel alone.
Then there are all of the other contexts in which Matthew rejects potential parallels and, instead, portrays Jesus as different than Moses (Jesus doesn't have older siblings, even though older siblings had such a significant role in Moses' life; Jesus was raised in an ordinary lower-class home, even though Moses was raised in Pharaoh's household; etc.). Read the first two chapters of Exodus. There are so many people and events Matthew could have paralleled or could have paralleled much more closely, but didn't. As George van Kooten notes elsewhere in the book to which Merz is contributing, a closer parallel can be drawn between Jesus and Augustus than Jesus and Moses in some ways (623-4). If Matthew was as free and willing to invent material as critics like Merz suggest, then he should have created a far closer parallel to Moses.
Merz approvingly quotes Mark Smith:
If Matthew was to make his parallel with Moses work […] he needed a tyrannical king willing to kill babies. […H]is parallel will not work without it. The only tyrant in the neighborhood, both chronologically and geographically, was Herod the Great, who according to Josephus, even killed three of his own sons. Matthew had every reason, therefore, to place the birth of Jesus in the reign of Herod the Great, whether or not he had any historical evidence on which to base that. (479)
Given that there was no widespread Jewish expectation that something would occur in the Messiah's life that would be comparable to the Pharaoh's attempt to murder Moses, why should we think Matthew was in need of such a parallel to begin with? There are a lot of events in Moses' life that Matthew never attempts to parallel in Jesus' life. And Matthew often describes Jesus' life as different than or contrary to the life of Moses. If Matthew wasn't concerned about having "any historical evidence", as Smith puts it, and the early Christians had "no memory" of the events surrounding Jesus' birth, as Merz alleges (491), then why did Matthew have the chronological and geographical constraints Smith refers to (his "neighborhood" comments)? The best parallel to Moses would be to have Jesus in Egypt when an attempt was made on his life. Matthew has him in Israel instead (nearly two years after Jesus' birth, so that it can't be argued that Matthew only had Jesus in Israel in order to have him born there). If Matthew wasn't writing history, and figures like the magi were unhistorical, why would he need any historical figure for Herod's role? Why not just make one up?
Think of one of the passages in Matthew 2 that's often brought up in this context, Jesus' going into and coming out of Egypt. Is that reminiscent of Moses? Yes, vaguely. It's also reminiscent of Jacob, Joseph, and other Old Testament individuals and groups who went into and/or out of Egypt in one context or another. Egypt was a nearby country with a long history of relations with Israel and a large Jewish population at the time of Jesus' childhood. There isn't much significance in Jesus' going there with his family, as many other Jews had before then. As I've mentioned elsewhere, Jesus' sojourn in Egypt was corroborated by ancient non-Christian sources and was used as an argument against him. He was widely accused of being a sorcerer or magician, and it was often suggested that he learned his skills in Egypt. At the time when Matthew wrote, there was already an accusation circulating that Jesus performed his miracles by the power of Satan, an accusation Matthew addresses in his gospel (9:34, 12:24). Matthew's citation of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 may be an effort to put a positive light on something widely perceived as negative, much as he does with Nazareth's reputation in 2:23. Why corroborate the charge that Jesus was a sorcerer or magician by making up an account about his going to Egypt, especially when so little would be gained by making it up? I'm not aware of any ancient Jewish source who was expecting the Messiah to go into or come out of Egypt, especially at so young an age, for so short a time, and with so little accomplished by it. The way in which Jesus enters and leaves Egypt and what he does while there bear little resemblance to what we see in the life of Moses and other relevant contexts of the Old Testament era.
Another way we can evaluate these alleged parallels is by looking at what Old Testament passages Matthew cites. Sometimes he explicitly tells us about Old Testament passages he has in mind (1:22-3, 2:5-6, 2:15, 2:17-8). Two of the examples I just cited (2:15, 2:17-8) come from what's allegedly the most Mosaic portion of Matthew's infancy material. And those two Old Testament passages are about Israel, not Moses. Even though the Old Testament contains such a large amount of material on Moses and related people and events, Matthew doesn't cite any of those Mosaic passages. Rather, he cites passages about Israel.
At this point, some critics might want to make the argument that Matthew or his source was making up stories to parallel Jesus to the nation of Israel rather than Moses. But the parallels to Israel, like the ones to Moses, are too vague to have much significance. And though some of the Old Testament passages Matthew cites in his material about Jesus' childhood are about Israel, most of them aren't.
And most of the passages he cites, including the ones about Israel, weren't widely perceived as Messianic prophecies that would be fulfilled as Matthew describes. He's largely appealing to typological fulfillment of passages that weren't widely applied by ancient Jews the way he's applying those texts. It doesn't seem that Matthew is making up accounts about Jesus' childhood to create an appearance that common Messianic expectations were fulfilled. Rather, he was looking for Old Testament texts to apply to accounts he considered historical, even though most of the passages don't have much evidential force in the context in which he applies them.
Furthermore, as Charles Quarles explains, Matthew also appeals to a variety of Old Testament translations rather than just one:
"It is notable that the concentration of Matthew's departures from the LXX occurs in the first two chapters. It is also instructive that the greatest mixture of text forms occurs in this same portion of the Gospel. Matthew 1 and 2 include one Septuagintal rendering, four Matthean translations from the Masoretic text, and possible contacts with the Targum, Old Testament Peshitta, and even Qumran literature. It is also notable that an even higher concentration of departures from the LXX, Matthew's predominant source of Scripture references, is found in the fulfillment citations. Of the eleven fulfillment citations, only one, Matthew 1:23, preserves the Septuagintal rendering. These data suggest that Matthew did not begin with Old Testament passages and then contrive their fulfillment through imaginative creation of a narrative. Had this been true, Matthew might easily have remained faithful to one text and adapted the details of his story to fit the informing text. Yet Matthew was moved to either adapt existing translations or provide his own in order to allow the reader to see more clearly how the text found its fulfillment in Christ. This suggests that his starting point was the narrative tradition rather than fulfillment texts. Matthew did not create narrative to fit the text but carefully chose and adapted the translation of texts to fit the narrative." (Midrash Criticism [Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1998], 84-5)
Think of the absurdity of the following scenario:
- The author of Matthew and/or his sources composed mostly or entirely non-historical accounts of Jesus' childhood meant to parallel Moses and other figures and events of the Old Testament era.
- Though they had so much freedom to make up whatever stories they wanted to, to draw whatever parallels they wanted to, etc., they chose to write stories that are so different than common Messianic expectations, with such weak parallels to the Old Testament era, requiring an appeal to such a variety of Old Testament translations. Although, as Merz puts it, "the typological parallel between Jesus and Moses" is "the central theological theme of Matthew's infancy narrative", all five of the explicit Old Testament citations Matthew includes are non-Mosaic.
- These non-historical accounts were incorporated into a document written in a historical genre (Greco-Roman biography). And the earliest interpreters mistook these non-historical accounts for attempts to convey history.
Merz and others who hold similar views may disagree to some extent with the scenario I've just described. At a minimum, however, the general thrust is applicable. What they're suggesting is, as I said, an absurd scenario. Far better alternatives are available.
There are some unusual parallels between the infancy narratives and the Old Testament and other sources. But the parallels are insignificant enough that they can easily be overcome by evidence for the historicity of the events in question. As we'll see to an even larger extent in later posts in this series, Merz frequently ignores or underestimates the evidence we have for the historicity of those events.
(Other parts in the series: part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9.)