Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Response To Annette Merz On The Infancy Narratives (Part 4)

(Previous parts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3.)

One of the most foundational criticisms of the infancy narratives is that they're inconsistent with the accounts we have of Jesus' adulthood. Merz appeals to that objection:

The huge discrepancies between the Matthean and Lucan accounts notwithstanding, both nativity stories agree that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he was recognized as the future king and Messiah/Christ (Matthew 2:2,4,11) and as savior, Messiah/Christ, and bringer of peace (Luke 2:11,14), respectively. Both agree that in addition to heavenly agents (the Matthean star, the Lucan angel and multitude of the heavenly host), human witnesses (the magi and the shepherds) were involved, interacting with the newborn's parents and making known to them the greatness of the moment and the predicted future significance of their son. As historians, we have to ask whether this picture is best explained as a retrospect projection of messianic beliefs into the youth of the hero or as a refraction of memory. If the latter is the case, the rest of the Jesus traditions should concur with this picture to a certain extent. Thus, the last part of this chapter is dedicated to the question of whether the Jesus tradition as a whole allows for an early anticipation, acceptance, or celebration of the king-/messiahship of the newborn Jesus, as it is depicted in the birth stories of Matthew and Luke....

In this light, it is noteworthy that we have several traditions that leave no doubt about the fact that the family of Jesus and his fellow villagers in Nazareth were not among the first followers of Jesus; indeed, on the contrary, we know that they resisted him and tried to bring his mission to an end....

Luke and Matthew have considerably mitigated this tradition [found in Mark 3:20-34], especially leaving out the family's comment declaring Jesus mentally ill. But a comparable picture emerges from other texts: John 7:5 states that "even his brothers did not believe in him," and we have indications that it was only after an appearance of the risen Jesus that James came to believe that Jesus indeed had a divine mandate. The villagers of Nazareth did not even believe that Jesus was a prophet, let alone the Messiah, as we see in Mark 6:1-6....All of those traditions are very hard to explain had there been some early ascertainment of Jesus' significance in the plan of God. To his fellow villagers, Jesus was, according to Mark 6:3, "the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon," as well as several unnamed sisters, not some famous child who had been predestined for future greatness by a perceived heavenly sign. (487-8)

It should be noted how low Merz sets the bar for a refutation of her argument. She tells us that other traditions about Jesus should concur with the picture presented by the infancy narratives only "to a certain extent". She's looking for "an early anticipation, acceptance, or celebration of the king-/messiahship of the newborn Jesus" in those other traditions. Notice, also, how high she sets the bar for her denial that traditions outside the infancy narratives provide what she's asking for. She claims that "several traditions" leave "no doubt about the fact that the family of Jesus and his fellow villagers in Nazareth were not among the first followers of Jesus; indeed, on the contrary, we know that they resisted him and tried to bring his mission to an end."

In 2013, I wrote a series of posts responding to arguments like Merz's. In the remainder of this post and the one that follows, I'll supplement what I wrote in that series. This post will be about Jesus' relatives, and the next one will be about the people of Nazareth.

Merz and other critics of the infancy narratives often allow later sources to qualify earlier ones. They date Paul's letters earlier than Mark's gospel, yet they allow what Mark's gospel says about the initial unbelief of Jesus' brothers to qualify Paul's unqualified references to Jesus' brothers as believers. In my citation of Merz above, she harmonizes the sources. She combines what sources like Mark and Paul tell us to conclude that James didn't become a believer until he saw Jesus risen from the dead. She and other critics of the infancy narratives also do that frequently with other sources (Josephus, Tacitus, etc.). If Merz can harmonize the sources like that, so can those who disagree with her.

And how significant are the differences in dating among the gospels? Most scholars believe in Markan priority, that Mark was written before the other gospels. What significance does Markan priority have? I've argued elsewhere that the internal and external evidence place the completion of Acts, the sequel to Luke's gospel, in the early to mid 60s. And a date prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 makes the most sense for Matthew's gospel, for reasons I've discussed in other posts. Many eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Jesus would have been alive at the time, and Mark probably wouldn't have been written much earlier. I suspect that all of the Synoptics were written within less than a decade of each other. Whatever date you assign to Mark, that gospel's similarities with the other Synoptics are best explained if there was a smaller rather than larger amount of time between Mark and those other two gospels. A difference of months or years makes more sense than a difference of decades. So, under those circumstances, how significant is Markan priority? Mark's earlier date only gives it a minor advantage over the other Synoptics, so we should judge appeals to Markan priority accordingly.

As I explain in my series linked above, Matthew, Luke, and John portray Mary as an inconsistent believer. She was much like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea in that she was a believer, yet was often more distant from Jesus than his closest disciples were and is sometimes rebuked for her sins. For a fuller discussion of the relevant evidence, see Eric Svendsen's Who Is My Mother? (Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 2001). Mark doesn't say much about Jesus' family, and he focuses on the negative aspects of their relationship with Jesus more than the rest of the New Testament authors do. But what he tells us is consistent with what the other sources report. If we let the sources qualify each other, as Merz does in other contexts, we'll conclude that Mary was among the first followers of Jesus.

In some ways, the other New Testament authors are even more negative than Mark about Jesus' family. John, the latest gospel, is the one that's the most negative about Jesus' siblings. John is the only one who explicitly states that they were unbelievers at the time of Jesus' public ministry (7:5). The other gospels, including Mark, imply their unbelief without being so explicit. And John tells us that Jesus distrusted his siblings so much at the time of his death that he entrusted the care of Mary (which he was responsible for as her firstborn) to John rather than to one of Mary's other children (19:26-7). Not only is that a negative passage about Jesus' siblings that isn't found in Mark, but it also extends the siblings' unbelief to the time of the cross. Mark only implies their unbelief in two passages, and the second one is 6:1-6, which occurs well before Jesus' death. John's portrayal of their unbelief is more explicit and more prolonged than Mark's.

Though Matthew, Luke, and John portray Mary as a believer, all three include negative passages about her as well. All three agree with Mark in excluding Mary from Jesus' inner circle during his public ministry. Matthew repeats large portions of Mark's two negative passages about Mary (Matthew 12:46-50, 13:54-8). So does Luke (4:16-30 [especially note verse 24], 8:19-21). And John cites a theme similar to one of Mark's (John 4:44). Luke and John add negative material about Mary not included by Mark. See my discussion of the passages here. Luke includes a passage, not found in Mark, that anticipates a sword of division and judgment that will adversely affect Mary (Luke 2:35; see pages 142-50 in Eric Svendsen's book cited above for further discussion). It's probably not a coincidence that the incident of 2:48-50 and its surrounding context follow just after the account involving Simeon's prophecy. 2:48-50 opens with a quotation of Mary's inappropriate comments in verse 48, followed by Jesus' rebuke of her in verse 49, and concludes with Luke's comments about her ignorance in verse 50. Another Lukan passage not found in Mark warns against holding too high a view of Mary because of her role as his mother (11:27-8). Notice that I've referred to five Lukan passages about Mary that are negative toward her in some sense, whereas there are only two such passages in Mark. John takes language Mark had used about a demon distancing himself from Jesus (Mark 1:24) and applies it to Jesus' distancing himself from Mary while rebuking her (John 2:4).

Matthew, Luke, and John are willing to provide negative material about Jesus' family and often do so, sometimes more than Mark does. But they refer to her as a believer as well. Early sources outside of the New Testament do the same. I'm not aware of any early tradition, aside from the alleged one in Mark that's under dispute, that portrays Mary as a non-Christian up to the time of Mark 6 or beyond. If Mark held such a view, it's unlikely that it wouldn't be reflected in any other early source, but instead would explicitly and repeatedly be contradicted by sources that are so early and so numerous. The best explanation for Mark's portrayal of Mary is that his interests and brevity caused him to leave out some details that are included by other sources who discuss Mary and the rest of Jesus' family in more depth.

The evidence we have suggests that some relatives with a lot of knowledge of the events surrounding Jesus' birth were believers early on, namely Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zacharias, and John the Baptist. Other relatives became believers later, including at least some of Jesus' siblings. Some of his relatives - James, Symeon (a cousin of Jesus), and perhaps others - died as Christian martyrs. At least one of them was in contact with the author of one of the infancy narratives (Acts 21:18), and I've argued that the other narrative was authored by an apostle who had a lot of contact with Jesus' relatives. The claims within the infancy narratives were widely circulating and widely accepted while some of Jesus' relatives were alive and in high positions of leadership within the church. That's a much different situation than what Merz portrays. Passages like Mark 3:20-35, 6:1-6, and John 7:5 are relevant, but they don't give us the full picture.

Even the passages Merz cites, and sometimes the nearby context, provide significant evidence against her position. She doesn't interact with that evidence. The passages in Mark 3 and 6 illustrate some potential reasons why Jesus' family would have behaved as they did, even if the events of the infancy narratives did occur.

The narrative in Mark 3 is one of Mark's sandwich passages, with an account about one of Jesus' exchanges with the religious authorities (3:22-30) between two portions of an account about Jesus' family (3:20-1, 3:31-5). The middle portion of the passage provides us with some important context for examining the rest of the passage and the objection Merz is raising as a whole. Notice three aspects of the middle section of the passage. There was an alternative explanation for Jesus' miracles (3:22), namely that they were demonic rather than Divine. Most of the religious authorities were opposed to Jesus (3:22). And he was confrontational about it, often publicly condemning them and providing counterarguments to their claims (3:23-30).

Mark 6 gives us further information that helps explain why Jesus' family and others acted as they did. As I discuss elsewhere, the reference to Jesus as "son of Mary" in Mark 6:3 probably implies that he was conceived through sexual immorality. The same verse refers to the apparent incongruity between Jesus' career as a carpenter and the high claims he and his followers were making about his identity. The verse also refers to how unimpressive Jesus' siblings were. If they were so ordinary, why think that Jesus was extraordinary?

Later in Mark 6, we read about what happened to John the Baptist when he antagonized his social superiors (6:17-29). Jesus was antagonizing both the religious and the political authorities (8:15, 12:13-7, Luke 13:31-5), which would eventually lead to his crucifixion. He told his followers to expect the same, to lay down their lives and take up their cross and follow him.

In that sort of context, the unfaithfulness of Jesus' relatives (and others), even though the events of the infancy narratives had occurred, makes far more sense than Merz suggests. Jesus' family had to have been under a lot of social pressure to distance themselves from Jesus and to do what they could to get him to desist. Saying that he was out of his mind and attempting to constrain him (Mark 3:21) was preferable to rejecting him as evil (3:22). They shouldn't have done either. They should have stood by him. But what they did under the circumstances is common human behavior, and they probably thought it would prevent Jesus from doing further harm to himself and other people. They behaved that way after Jesus' public ministry began, after Jesus began publicly making such high claims about himself, others were publicly making such claims about him, and many miracles were being performed. Why are we supposed to think that fewer sources making such claims about Jesus, accompanied by fewer miracles, a few decades earlier would have prevented Jesus' family from behaving as they did?

What should we make of Jesus' comments about his family in the passage Merz cites in Mark 6? His comments about being dishonored within his household in 6:4 are a generalization that could be explained by the unbelief of his siblings alone, even if his parents were believers. The siblings constituted a majority of the household. But if Jesus is including the occasional unfaithfulness of Mary, even though she was a Christian and was sometimes faithful to him, then his comment in Mark 6:4 could even include Mary (and Joseph) in that sense. As we'll see later, there's evidence within the Mark 6 passage itself that Jesus is speaking in generalities rather than in universal terms.

Merz seems to be overly focused on the strength of the evidence for the unbelief of Jesus' family. There is strong evidence for it. But it would be a mistake to conclude that strong evidence for early unbelief on the part of Jesus' family excludes some early belief on their part. People are often inconsistent, as we see on some occasions with Peter, for example (abandoning Jesus at the time of his arrest, denying three times that he knew Jesus, etc.). The best explanation for the combination of good evidence for the early unbelief of Jesus' family and good evidence for early belief among some of them is that some of Jesus' relatives were believers, despite being unfaithful to him at times. Even if you think the evidence for their unbelief on some occasions is stronger than the evidence for their belief on other occasions, the latter could still be probable, even if it's probable to a lesser degree. A high probability of unbelief in contexts like Mark 3 and Mark 6 doesn't exclude a lesser probability of belief in other contexts. The conclusions Merz is drawing from two short passages in Mark are contradicted by a much larger number and variety of other sources, including some written around the same time as Mark.

I discuss issues like these further in my series I referred to earlier. In my next post, I'll have more to say about Nazareth's rejection of Jesus.

(Other parts in the series: part 5.)

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