Saturday, November 18, 2006

Some Common Objections To The Infancy Narratives

John Loftus recently posted an article that largely repeats some of Raymond Brown's objections to the historicity of the infancy narratives. John tells us that, in the process of rejecting Christianity, he "read the works by Christian scholars from a wide variety of scholarly sources". Apparently, he didn't read many of the works of the scholars who have been critical of Raymond Brown's arguments. And I doubt that he agrees with Brown's more conservative conclusions on issues like the virgin birth and Jesus' Davidic ancestry.

I'll be posting an article tomorrow on the alleged inconsistencies between the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. For now, I want to address some of the common objections that John raises in his article.

On the issue of why sources like Josephus don't report some of the events mentioned in the infancy narratives, see Steve Hays' comments and mine on Matthew 27:52-53 here and here. When a source like Thallus or Josephus does refer to the darkness at Jesus' crucifixion or refers to Jesus' performance of apparent miracles, for example, people like John Loftus reject the Christian claim anyway. Instead of just dismissing the Christian sources, they dismiss the non-Christian corroboration as well.

Furthermore, Bethlehem was a small town that wouldn’t have had many infants in it. Craig Keener writes:

"It is possible that he [Herod] also engaged in persecutions outside the scope of Josephus’s sources, as in the repression of the wilderness Essenes (Fritsch 1956: 23-24). In an era of many, highly placed political murders, the execution of perhaps twenty children in a small town would warrant little attention (see France 1979: 114-19). Although Josephus readily lists Herod’s atrocities, most of his reports surround the royal house or events known on a national scale; it is not improbable that Herod was no less brutal when acting out of range of Josephus’s sources" (A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], pp. 110-111)

Besides, the event in question already had Christian associations by the time Josephus wrote. He was writing for the Romans, and he had no interest in promoting Christianity to them. Josephus was aware of Jesus’ miracles, and he refers to them in passing in his account of Jesus’ life, but he doesn’t go into detail about what those miracles were. He had reasons, whatever they may have been, for not discussing such things in more depth. Similarly, he probably also knew about the conversion of the apostle Paul and other historical events favorable to Christianity, but chose not to mention them. Should we conclude that Paul probably didn't exist or was radically different from how he comes across in the New Testament, since Josephus doesn't discuss him? What do we do when one non-Christian source mentions something and another doesn't? For example, if Suetonius and Tacitus don't include all of the same people and events in their works, should we conclude that one of them is mistaken every time he's not corroborated by the other?

Regarding the census of Luke 2, see here and here. See also the discussion of Darrell Bock on pp. 903-909 in Luke, Volume 1, 1:1-9:50 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994). Aside from Luke's general reliability, we have a more specific reason to doubt that he mistakenly thought that Jesus was born at the time of the A.D. 6 census. Paul Barnett writes:

"Luke proves to be well informed about Herod at other points where we can evaluate his accuracy....Having located Jesus' birth in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, in one place (Lk 1), would he also locate it at the time of the controversial census (Lk 2) a decade later?" (Jesus & The Rise Of Early Christianity [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999], p. 99)

For reasons such as the ones Chris Price discusses in his article linked above, Luke probably does place Jesus' birth within the reign of Herod the Great. It's doubtful that he placed Jesus' birth around the time of the A.D. 6 census.

We also have some comments from later sources, such as Justin Martyr (First Apology, 34) and Tertullian (Against Marcion, 4:7), claiming that there were government records of such a census. "Finally, though never at Rome, on authority he [John Chrysostom] knows that the census papers of the Holy Family are still there." (Catholic Encyclopedia) We know that census records were kept, but it's possible that Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and John Chrysostom were all mistaken. Perhaps they were just repeating unreliable accounts they had heard. But they, or one of them, also may have been correct. I would assign some weight to this evidence, but not a lot. At the least, it shows us that the early Christians were so confident of the census account that they thought it was corroborated even by the Roman government. It doesn't seem that the earliest enemies of Christianity were responding to the Christian claim by arguing that no such census occurred.

Regarding Luke 2:22, Darrell Bock discusses multiple explanations consistent with the plural "their purification" (Luke, Volume 1, 1:1-9:50 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994], pp. 235-237). For example, "Joseph, because he aided in the delivery, was himself made unclean, since according to the Mishnah contact with blood in the delivery made one an 'offspring of uncleanness'" (p. 236).

John quotes Raymond Brown:

"Herodian knowledge of Jesus’ birth and the claim that he was a king. Rather, in Matt 14:1–2, Herod’s son seems to know nothing of Jesus. (d) Wide knowledge of Jesus’ birth, since all Jerusalem was startled (Matt 2:3), and the children of Bethlehem were killed in search of him. Rather, in Matt 13:54–55, no one seems to know of marvelous origins for Jesus."

Messianic interest in general and interest in Jesus in particular would have been less prior to Jesus' public ministry than it was after the ministry began, but it would have existed to some extent beforehand. John the Baptist wouldn't have been preparing the way for somebody he wasn't expecting (Mark 1:2-8). Though he had doubts about whether Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 11:2-3, John 1:33), Matthew 3:14 suggests that John the Baptist had a high view of Jesus prior to Jesus' baptism. The interaction between Jesus and Mary in John 2:3-5 is best explained by a prior relationship in which Jesus and Mary were both aware that Jesus was unusual in some manner. At the least, the comments of John the Baptist in Mark 1 suggest that there were general Messianic expectations prior to the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, and Matthew 3 and John 2 suggest that John the Baptist and Mary had a high view of Jesus when His ministry began. There may have been others who held similar views, and the events of the infancy narratives may have been involved in leading people to those views. Brown's claim that "no one" held such views is unconvincing.

Brown cites Matthew 13:54-56 and the opposition to Jesus in Nazareth, but Nazareth is one city. It doesn't justify Brown's use of a term like "no one". Some of the people who opposed Jesus during His public ministry, such as His brothers and the people of Nazareth, didn’t witness the miracles surrounding His birth. Jesus lived in Nazareth, but the infancy events largely happened in other places, such as Bethlehem and Egypt. Mary, Joseph, and others involved would have had reasons to not tell many people, or anybody, about some of the details. Jesus’ siblings weren’t even alive yet, so they couldn’t have seen any of the supernatural events. Whatever their parents may have told them, they could grow increasingly skeptical as they saw Jesus live for decades without much of significance happening in His life, saw Him fail to meet common expectations for the Messiah, saw the respected religious leaders of their day condemn Him as empowered by Satan, etc. It’s possible that their parents and other people told them about some of the events surrounding their brother’s birth, and they believed those reports, but they struggled with the issue of whether the events reported came from God or from Satan, and following their brother as the Messiah may have required more of them than they were willing to give. To assume that Jesus' siblings and others in Nazareth would have made their judgments based entirely or almost entirely on whether they had heard reports of miracles surrounding Jesus' birth is simplistic. Other factors would have been involved. Nazareth is only one city, much of what occurs in the infancy narratives occurs elsewhere, and nothing in Matthew 13:54-56 leads us to the conclusion that the people of Nazareth had never heard of any of the supernatural events surrounding Jesus' birth.

The events of Matthew 13 occur after John the Baptist had said that he was preparing the way for the Messiah. Jesus had already performed miracles. The people in Matthew 13:54-56 mention that they had heard of Jesus' miracles (verse 54), and Matthew tells us that Jesus performed some miracles among them (verse 58). Their negative response to Jesus can't be a result of nobody having said anything about the arrival of the Messiah or nobody having reported any miracles. The focus of their criticism seems to be on disapproval of some non-supernatural elements of Jesus' life, even if those non-supernatural elements were accompanied by the supernatural. It may have been a matter of resenting the authority He claimed over them, disapproving of the type of Messiah He was claiming to be, or some combination of factors. The people of Nazareth would have been significantly influenced by the religious leadership, and they would have been told by those leaders that Jesus was a danger and was to be opposed (Mark 3:22, Matthew 9:34). There isn't anything in Matthew 13 or any other early source that should lead us to the conclusion that there was no Messianic interest in Jesus prior to His public ministry. The people of Nazareth cited some unimpressive elements of Jesus' background as an objection to Him, even though they also heard about some miracles He had performed. Likewise, they could have rejected reports about unusual events surrounding His infancy on the same grounds.

We shouldn’t think that the gospel writers themselves were ignorant of the sort of contrast Raymond Brown discusses. The account in Luke 2:48-50 of Mary’s misunderstanding Jesus and being rebuked by Him comes just after the infancy accounts that portray Mary as receiving revelation from God and cooperating with that revelation. Luke didn’t think that Mary’s early knowledge and cooperation required knowledge and cooperation on all future occasions, and neither should we. Mary will have to be rebuked by Jesus in John 2:4 (see here), yet she'll go on to tell the servants in that passage to do whatever Jesus tells them (verse 5) and will follow Jesus to the cross (John 19:26). Similarly, we see Peter and the other disciples of Jesus being inconsistent, sometimes even doubting or denying Jesus after seeing Him perform miracles.

The religious leaders of Israel knew of supernatural occurrences in Jesus’ life, such as the healings He performed, but they attributed His activities to Satan. In all likelihood, Jesus' immediate family struggled with His identity in much the same way that other people did. Mary, for example, probably was inconsistent in much the same way Peter was. She would have known that Jesus was unusual and that there were supernatural elements in His life, but she also would have known what the common expectations for the Messiah were, and she would have heard the arguments of the religous leaders to the effect that Jesus was empowered by Satan, for example. She would have to take all of these factors into consideration, and what all four of the gospels suggest is that she struggled with it. She knew of some supernatural aspects of Jesus’ life, but she also knew that He was a poor carpenter who wasn't fulfilling some common expectations for the Messiah, wasn't approved by the religious leadership, was associated with some of the most sinful people in society, and could be empowered by Satan rather than God. She also would have known that there would be some significant negative consequences to following Jesus. Even Jesus' closest disciples abandoned Him when He was getting close to the cross. Jesus was already involved in performing public miracles at the time He faced opposition from His family in passages like Matthew 13, Mark 3, and John 7. If they could oppose Him after He performed miracles as an adult, why should we think that they couldn't have done so if miracles had occurred 30 years earlier?

How much knowledge did the people in the infancy narratives have? It’s often suggested that somebody like the Mary of the infancy narratives had a high degree of faith and a deep understanding of who Jesus was and what He would do. But that’s not what the infancy narratives themselves suggest. Mary repeatedly is "perplexed" and "ponders" the meaning of what she’s told, and she asks questions (Luke 1:29, 1:34, 2:19, 2:33). The same sort of surprise, questioning, and uncertainty is seen in other people involved in the infancy accounts (Matthew 2:1-9, Luke 1:12, 1:18, 1:66, 2:18, 2:33). Being impressed by a supernatural event or understanding that Jesus was unusual in some manner isn’t equivalent to having the sort of faith Christians would have later, after events such as Jesus’ public ministry, His resurrection, and the building up of the church. How people first reacted to the events of the infancy narratives, when everything was unexpected and new to them and they hadn’t thought about these issues much, would be different from how they reacted after the passing of more time and after having to take more factors into account.

What about Brown's citation of Matthew 14:1-2? Here, again, we need to make distinctions about who knew what and when. We shouldn't read the infancy narratives as if everybody alive at that time knew what we know today. Herod the Great didn't experience what the shepherds experienced. The magi didn't know what Simeon knew. The people in Egypt would have had different experiences than the people in Jerusalem. Etc. Why should we think that Herod Antipas would have known much about the events surrounding Jesus' infancy? Herod the Great’s execution of the children of Bethlehem would have changed the expectations of some of the people involved. Herod and those around him, if they believed the claims of the magi (as opposed to acting on those claims only as a precaution), would have thought that the child was dead, and others may have made the same assumption. All that they had was general information about the beliefs of the magi. They didn't know who the child was.

The people of Jerusalem mentioned in Matthew 2:3 wouldn't have had much to go by either, and their thoughts would have been on Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, much less Nazareth. There's no indication that Herod the Great told the general population what he discussed in private with the magi and the religious leaders he consulted. Even if Herod Antipas knew of some or all of these things, why would he think that Herod the Great had been unsuccessful in executing the child, and how would he know that Jesus was that child? Besides, Luke 9:6-8 tells us that Herod Antipas already had some information on Jesus, so the question he asks in Luke 9:9 seems to reflect a desire for more information. It's not as though he doesn't know anything.

Brown's use of John 1:33 is likewise dubious. Darrell Bock explains:

"it seems possible that in these verses [in John’s gospel] John the Baptist is referring to the decisive knowledge of God’s personal confirmation about who Jesus is, rather than making a comprehensive statement about never knowing Jesus personally. Luke 1:41-44 would not contradict this Johannine distinction, since that passage has a prenatal act by John that Elizabeth interprets for him. Though the baby is prompted by the Spirit (1:15), the fetal John is hardly conscious of performing a confirming sign from God. John 1 is only making the point that John could not definitely know the Messiah was Jesus, until God showed him directly. Thus, Brown’s theory about Lucan composition is to be rejected….The relationship between Mary and Elizabeth is not specified. Wycliffe seems to be responsible for associating the two as cousins" (Luke, Volume 1, 1:1-9:50 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994], p. 101, n. 47 on p. 126)

John the Baptist's parents gave birth to him in old age. They probably didn't live long after John's birth. We don't know what they or others told John about the events surrounding his birth and that of Jesus. We know that John lived a life committed to God prior to Jesus' public ministry, and the passage Raymond Brown cites has John expecting the Messiah before he receives confirmation that Jesus is the one (John 1:26-27). (It should be noted that John the Baptist's life in the wilderness and his expectations of a coming Messiah are consistent with the infancy narratives. Critics often object to supposed inconsistencies between the infancy narratives and Jesus' public ministry, yet John the Baptist's ministry is the sort of result we would expect from the events of the infancy narratives.) Matthew and Luke, the same authors who wrote the infancy narratives, portray John as doubting Jesus’ identity later in his life, despite knowing of Jesus’ miracles (Matthew 11:2-3, Luke 7:19), so why should we think that he couldn’t have done so earlier?

As I mentioned in some previous posts (here and here), the gospels of Matthew and Luke were widely known and accepted by the earliest patristic sources. If the fourth gospel was written late in the first century, it's unlikely that the author was unfamiliar with the gospels of Matthew and Luke and the relevant traditions behind them or that he rejected them. To read John 1:33 as a reflection of ignorance or rejection of Luke's infancy account is dubious:

"Suggesting that the Fourth Gospel is not directly dependent on the Synoptics need not imply that John did not know of the existence of the Synoptics; even if (as is unlikely) Johannine Christianity were as isolated from other circles of Christianity as some have proposed, other gospels must have been known if travelers afforded any contact at all among Christian communities. That travelers did so may be regarded as virtually certain. Urban Christians traveled (1 Cor 16:10, 12, 17; Phil 2:30; 4:18), carried letters (Rom 16:1-2; Phil 2:25), relocated to other places (Rom 16:3, 5; perhaps 16:6-15), and sent greetings to other churches (Rom 16:21-23; 1 Cor 16:19; Phil 4:22; Col 4:10-15). In the first century many churches knew what was happening with churches in other cities (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 11:16; 14:33; 1 Thess 1:7-9), and even shared letters (Col 4:16). Missionaries could speak of some churches to others (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:1-5; 9:2-4; Phil 4:16; 1 Thess 2:14-16; cf. 3 John 5-12) and send personal news by other workers (Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-9). Although we need not suppose connections among churches as pervasive as Ignatius’ letters suggest perhaps two decades later, neither need we imagine that such connections emerged ex nihilo in the altogether brief silence between John’s Gospel and the 'postapostolic' period. No one familiar with the urban society of the eastern empire will be impressed with the isolation Gospel scholars often attribute to the Gospel 'communities.'" (Craig Keener, The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], pp. 41-42)

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