Sunday, November 05, 2006

Early Christian And Non-Christian Views Of The Infancy Narratives

In an article last week, I discussed some issues surrounding the historicity of the infancy narratives, using Ignatius of Antioch as an example. In this article, I want to expand upon the themes I discussed in that post. For example, how did the earliest sources interpret the infancy narratives? How widely accepted were concepts like the virgin birth and the Bethlehem birthplace?

Aristides, in an apology addressed to the Roman emperor shortly after the time of Ignatius, commented:

"The Christians, then, trace the beginning of their religion from Jesus the Messiah; and he is named the Son of God Most High. And it is said that God came down from heaven, and from a Hebrew virgin assumed and clothed himself with flesh; and the Son of God lived in a daughter of man. This is taught in the gospel, as it is called, which a short time was preached among them; and you also if you will read therein, may perceive the power which belongs to it. This Jesus, then, was born of the race of the Hebrews; and he had twelve disciples in order that the purpose of his incarnation might in time be accomplished. But he himself was pierced by the Jews, and he died and was buried; and they say that after three days he rose and ascended to heaven. Thereupon these twelve disciples went forth throughout the known parts of the world, and kept showing his greatness with all modesty and uprightness. And hence also those of the present day who believe that preaching are called Christians, and they are become famous." (Apology, 2)

Notice that, as with Ignatius, the virgin birth is affirmed along with other prominent doctrines, apparently as a historical event, and there doesn't seem to be any sense of a need to argue for the doctrine against some significant portion of Christianity that rejects it. It seems to be viewed as something belonging to mainstream Christianity. Notice, also, that Aristides refers to the virgin birth as something discussed in a written source. Since the earliest Christians often referred to more than one gospel collectively as "the gospel", Aristides might have more than one document in mind. The later reference to Jesus' ascension suggests that the gospel of Luke at least is one of the documents Aristides has in mind, if not the only one. And notice, too, that this document Aristides refers to is available to non-Christians.

Some later sources tell us of another relevant piece of information from about the same timeframe. The emperor Hadrian is said to have planted a grove of trees in honor of the god Adonis at the location of Jesus' birthplace early in the second century, as a deliberate insult to Christianity:

"Both Jerome and Paulinus of Nola provide evidence that the cave in Bethlehem, under the present Church of the Nativity, was identified as the birthplace [of Jesus] before the time of [the Roman emperor] Hadrian - thus almost into the first century. Hadrian (117-38) marked the site by planting a grove of trees there in honor of the Roman god Adonis." (John McRay, Archaeology & The New Testament [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 2003], p. 156)

Toward the middle of the century, Justin Martyr wrote an account of a debate with a Jewish opponent set in the 130s. Justin's debate opponent, Trypho, comments that he's read one or more of the gospels (Dialogue With Trypho, 10). Again, notice that non-Christians had access to these documents, which is one reason among others why it's unreasonable to argue that these early post-apostolic Christians were using gospels other than the ones we possess today. Nobody could plausibly have changed all of the copies distributed among Christians at the time, much less have gotten non-Christians to go along with such changes.

As Justin's account of his debate with Trypho proceeds, we see many references to events narrated in the gospels, including material from the infancy narratives. The virginity of Mary, for example, is mentioned dozens of times. The arguments and counterarguments used by Justin and Trypho suggest that there had been a lengthy history of interaction between Jews and Christians, including on issues related to Jesus' infancy (for example, Dialogue With Trypho, 68). Isaiah 7 is discussed, as are other relevant issues, such as the incarnation and Jesus' birthplace. Justin refers to the events of the infancy narratives as historical in nature (for example, Dialogue With Trypho, 77), and he combines elements from Matthew and Luke into a harmonious account (for example, Dialogue With Trypho, 78).

Elsewhere, Justin comments on Jesus' birthplace:

"And hear what part of earth He was to be born in, as another prophet, Micah, foretold. He spoke thus: 'And thou, Bethlehem, the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come forth a Governor, who shall feed My people.' Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judaea." (First Apology, 34)

Notice that Justin views the Bethlehem birthplace and the census as historical, and he considers them corroborated by a non-Christian source.

Around the time when Justin wrote, Tatian produced a harmony of the gospels, his Diatessaron. Note, again, that the infancy narratives are viewed as harmonious.

Irenaeus, writing shortly after Justin Martyr and Tatian, refers to the virgin birth as one of the doctrines accepted by the apostolic churches and by every orthodox church. He comments that even "barbarians" who don't possess the written records of Christianity know of the doctrine and other foundational doctrines by means of apostolic tradition (Against Heresies, 3:4:2).

During the lifetime of Irenaeus, the pagan Celsus wrote a treatise against Christianity. Like Hadrian and Trypho before him, he was familiar with the material in the infancy narratives. Though Celsus rejects the virgin birth account, as we would expect, he attributes the virgin birth claim to Jesus Himself (Origen, Against Celsus, 1:28). Why would Celsus do that, if a large percentage of people credibly claiming to be Christians rejected it? In all likelihood, Celsus speaks of the virgin birth as part of mainstream Christian orthodoxy, as something Jesus Himself taught, because the large majority of professing Christians accepted the concept.

Some early sources don't discuss the infancy narratives in particular, but do speak highly of the gospels that contain those narratives. Justin Martyr mentions that the gospels are read along with the Old Testament scriptures in Christian church services (First Apology, 67), and we know that Justin was including the gospels of Matthew and Luke among them. See, for instance, Bruce Metzger's The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Martin Hengel's The Four Gospels And The One Gospel of Jesus Christ (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000) for examples of the widespread early influence of these documents.

We should take note of some of the same issues I discussed in relation to Ignatius of Antioch in my first post in this series. Notice the wide variety of sources who are familiar with the material of the infancy narratives. Notice their diverse backgrounds and geographical locations, for example. Some of these men, like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, had lived in multiple locations and had been in contact with one or more apostolic churches. Notice how they refer to beliefs such as the virgin birth and the Bethlehem birthplace as if they're of a historical nature, are widespread, and, in some cases, are corroborated by non-Christian sources.

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