Saturday, November 11, 2006

Were The Infancy Narratives Meant To Convey History?

In two recent articles (here and here), I discussed how the earliest Christian and non-Christian sources viewed the material in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. Some minority groups that didn't have much credibility, such as the Docetists, interpreted the material in an unusual manner, but it seems that the mainstream of early Christianity and its opponents interpreted the infancy narratives as historical accounts.

But do the gospels of Matthew and Luke themselves suggest that the mainstream interpretation was correct? It's highly unlikely that so many people so close to the sources would repeatedly misunderstand what was being communicated. Since modern critics often suggest that there may have been such widespread misunderstandings, though, I want to address how the gospels themselves present the material surrounding Jesus' infancy.

Though most scholars accept the infancy narratives as part of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, some critics will suggest that the infancy narratives may not have been part of the gospels at first. They were added later, without the approval of the original authors and at a time when there weren't many means of verifying the content. The intention seems to be to acknowledge an earlier date for the gospels, yet place the infancy narratives in a later timeframe, in addition to separating the infancy narratives from the purported authors of the gospels. This issue is relevant to the genre of the infancy narratives, since the narratives' unity with the remainder of the gospels would allow us to take the genre of that remainder as an indication of the genre of the infancy accounts.

The earliest enemies of Christianity say nothing of such a change in the text, and it isn't reflected in the manuscript record. The internal and external evidence suggest that it didn't happen:

"Matthew 1-2 serves as a finely wrought prologue for every major theme in the Gospel." (D.A. Carson, The Expositor's Bible Commentary: Matthew, Chapters 1 Through 12 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995], p. 73)

"Luke's infancy narrative is a major section of his Gospel, since it introduces many key themes....A careful study of these two chapters [Luke 1-2] must be a part of any treatment of Luke's two volumes, for they set the table for Luke's account." (Darrell Bock, Luke, Volume 1, 1:1-9:50 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994], pp. 68-69)

"[Luke] 1:5-2:52 is better seen as an overture to the Gospel. In it Luke's major theological themes are sounded, esp. that of God's fidelity to promise. The 20 Lucan themes investigated by J. Navone (Themes of St. Luke [Rome, 1970]) are already enunciated in 1:5-2:52: banquet, conversion, faith, fatherhood, grace, Jerusalem, joy, kingship, mercy, must, poverty, prayer, prophet, salvation, spirit, temptation, today, universalism, way, witness." (Robert Karris, in Raymond Brown, et al., editors, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary [Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990], p. 679)

"There are, however, various indications that the birth narratives should not be separated from the rest of their respective Gospels. For instance, the thematic and theological unity of Luke 1-2 with the rest of Luke's Gospel has been demonstrated (Minear). Various of Luke's major themes are given their first airing in the birth narratives." (Ben Witherington, in Joel B. Green, et al., editors, Dictionary Of Jesus And The Gospels [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992], p. 61)

"[the theory] that Marcion used a 'Proto-Luke' which has been expanded by the church for the purpose of anti-Marcionite polemic not only completely fails to recognize the historical context of the Third Gospel but also comes to grief on its stylistic and theological unity. Moreover there is no manuscript evidence for such a hypothesis. Such a manipulation of the text would have had to find a record around 150; moreover it would no longer really have been generally recognized." (Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels And The One Gospel Of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], n. 131 on p. 230)

Early in the second century, in an address to the emperor, Aristides refers to the virgin birth as part of "the gospel" (Apology, 2), a document he's recommending that the emperor read. Apparently, he saw no need to warn the emperor about other versions of the gospel that were circulating. It seems, from the comments of Aristides and other early sources, that any altered versions that may have existed must not have been widespread. Justin Martyr refers to material from the infancy narratives as part of the "memoirs of the apostles", which he identifies elsewhere as our gospels (Dialogue With Trypho, 105-106). Irenaeus repeatedly refers to Matthew and Luke as the authors of the material in the infancy narratives (Against Heresies, 3:9:2, 3:10:1-4). So do The Muratorian Canon (8), Tertullian (On The Flesh Of Christ, 22), Julius Africanus (The Letter To Aristides, 3), etc.

The early and widespread nature of the infancy material, which I discussed in the previous two articles linked at the beginning of this post, is consistent with the inclusion of the infancy narratives in the original gospels. Even if we were to reject the infancy narratives' unity with the rest of the gospels, the material would still have to be dated to about the same timeframe and would have to have been credible enough to have gained such widespread acceptance. In addition to being contrary to the evidence, the theory that the infancy narratives were added to the gospels later doesn't accomplish much for the critic.

It's often suggested that the infancy narratives aren't of much historical worth, since they're so theological. We're often told that the infancy narratives may have been shaped by pagan mythology or by Old Testament themes, without much concern for historicity.

However, as Ben Witherington notes, most scholars think that the infancy narratives are more like Jewish infancy narratives than pagan birth legends (in Joel B. Green, et al., editors, Dictionary Of Jesus And The Gospels [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992], p. 60). Witherington goes on to comment:

"It is agreed by most scholars that (1) no extra-biblical materials provide such precise parallels with the birth narrative material that they can definitely be affirmed as the source(s) of the Gospel material; and (2) that both Matthew and Luke used sources for their birth narratives….Certainly in light of Luke’s prologue (1:1-4) one would naturally expect that this Evangelist was not only using sources, but sources he felt were historically credible…All of this suggests that to assume we must choose between either theology or history in this material is to accept a false dichotomy. What we likely have is material of historical substance that has been theologically interpreted so as to bring out its greater significance." (pp. 60-61)

In a recent post, I discussed some of the problems with theories about pagan influences on the infancy narratives. That article links to other material that discusses the issue in more depth. I won't be saying much more about the subject here. I would summarize by saying that Christianity arose in a highly anti-pagan atmosphere, that no significant pagan influence on the infancy accounts can be demonstrated, and that the alleged pagan parallels are of too vague a nature to prove what critics want to prove.

The concept that the gospels are making up stories to fulfill Old Testament prophecies or themes is likewise dubious. Rather than making up stories to align with Old Testament passages, Matthew has so much difficulty finding an Old Testament parallel for Jesus’ living in Nazareth that he appeals to a general theme of the prophets (plural) rather than citing a specific Old Testament text (Matthew 2:23). We have no evidence of Jews prior to Matthew’s time expecting the Messiah to come from Egypt in fulfillment of Hosea 11:1. Yet, Matthew cites the passage (Matthew 2:15). It seems, then, that Matthew was looking for Old Testament passages relevant to recent events rather than making up stories to align with Messianic expectations. Instead of the Old Testament shaping Matthew’s account of Jesus’ early life, the historical information Matthew had concerning Jesus’ early life shaped his use of the Old Testament. R.T. France comments that "there is no indication that either [Jeremiah 31:15 or Hosea 11:1] was interpreted Messianically at the time; and the 'quotation' in Matthew 2:23 does not appear in the Old Testament at all…In fact the aim of the formula-quotations in chapter 2 [of Matthew] seems to be primarily apologetic, explaining some of the unexpected features in Jesus’ background, particularly his geographical origins. It would be a strange apologetic which invented 'facts' in order to defend them!" (Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: InterVarsity Press, 1999], p. 71)

Luke’s infancy account comes just after his prologue that expresses concern for historical information coming from eyewitnesses and research (Luke 1:1-4). Whether Matthew and Luke were accurate in the historical information they conveyed is an issue I'll be addressing in future posts, but my focus here is on their intention to convey historical information. The concept that Luke would write the prologue that he wrote for his gospel, then proceed to borrow from pagan mythology or otherwise give accounts that he didn't consider historical, surely isn't the most natural way to read the text.

Craig Keener writes:

"Readers throughout most of history understood the Gospels as biographies (Stanton 1989a: 15-17), but after 1915 scholars tried to find some other classification for them, mainly because these scholars compared ancient and modern biography and noticed that the Gospels differed from the latter (Talbert 1977: 2-3; cf. Mack 1988: 16n.6). The current trend, however, is again to recognize the Gospels as ancient biographies. The most complete statement of the question to date comes from a Cambridge monograph by Richard A. Burridge. After carefully defining the criteria for evaluating genre (1992: 109-27) and establishing the characteristic features of Greco-Roman ‘lives’ (128-90), he demonstrates how the canonical Gospels fit this genre (191-239). The trend to regard the Gospels as ancient biography is currently strong enough for British Matthew scholar Graham Stanton to characterize the skepticism of Bultmann and others about the biographical character of the Gospels as ‘surprisingly inaccurate’ (1993: 63; idem 1995: 137)….But though such [ancient] historians did not always write the way we write history today, they were clearly concerned to write history as well as their resources allowed (Jos. Ant. 20.156-57’ Arist. Poetics 9.2-3, 1451b; Diod. Sic. 21.17.1; Dion. Hal. 1.1.2-4; 1.2.1; 1.4.2; cf. Mosley 1965). Although the historical accuracy of biographers varied from one biographer to another, biographers intended biographies to be essentially historical works (see Aune 1988: 125; Witherington 1994:339; cf. Polyb. 8.8)….There apparently were bad historians and biographers who made up stories, but they became objects of criticism for violating accepted standards (cf. Lucian History 12, 24-25)….Matthew and Luke, whose fidelity we can test against some of their sources, rank high among ancient works….Like most Greek-speaking Jewish biographers, Matthew is more interested in interpreting tradition than in creating it….A Gospel writer like Luke was among the most accurate of ancient historians, if we may judge from his use of Mark (see Marshall 1978; idem 1991) and his historiography in Acts (cf., e.g., Sherwin-White 1978; Gill and Gempf 1994). Luke clearly had both written (Lk 1:1) and oral (1:2) sources available, and his literary patron Theophilus already knew much of this Christian tradition (1:4), which would exclude Luke’s widespread invention of new material. Luke undoubtedly researched this material (1:3) during his (on my view) probable sojourn with Paul in Palestine (Acts 21:17; 27:1; on the ‘we-narratives,’ cf., e.g., Maddox 1982: 7). Although Luke writes more in the Greco-Roman historiographic tradition than Matthew does, Matthew’s normally relatively conservative use of Mark likewise suggests a high degree of historical trustworthiness behind his accounts….only historical works, not novels, had historical prologues like that of Luke [Luke 1:1-4] (Aune 1987: 124)…A central character’s ‘great deeds’ generally comprise the bulk of an ancient biographical narrative, and the Gospels fit this prediction (Burridge 1992: 208). In other words, biographies were about someone in particular. Aside from the 42.5 percent of Matthew’s verbs that appear directly in Jesus’ teaching, Jesus himself is the subject of 17.2 percent of Matthew’s verbs; the disciples, 8.8 percent; those to whom Jesus ministers, 4.4 percent; and the religious establishment, 4.4 percent. Even in his absence he often remains the subject of others’ discussions (14:1-2; 26:3-5). Thus, as was common in ancient biographies (and no other genre), at least half of Matthew’s verbs involve the central figure’s ‘words and deeds’ (Burridge 1992: 196-97, 202). The entire point of using this genre is that it focuses on Jesus himself, not simply on early Christian experience (Burridge 1992: 256-58)." (A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], pp. 17-18, 21-23, 51)

See also the further discussion in the introduction in the first volume of Keener’s commentary on the gospel of John (The Gospel Of John: A Commentary [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003]). Keener goes into much more detail than what I outline above, far too much to quote here. For example:

"The lengths of the canonical gospels suggest not only intention to publish but also the nature of their genre. All four gospels fit the medium-range length (10,000-25,000 words) found in ancient biographies as distinct from many other kinds of works….all four canonical gospels are a far cry from the fanciful metamorphosis stories, divine rapes, and so forth in a compilation like Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Gospels plainly have more historical intention and fewer literary pretensions than such works….Works with a historical prologue like Luke’s (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2) were historical works; novels lacked such fixtures, although occasionally they could include a proem telling why the author made up the story (Longus proem 1-2). In contrast to novels, the Gospels do not present themselves as texts composed primarily for entertainment, but as true accounts of Jesus’ ministry. The excesses of some forms of earlier source and redaction criticism notwithstanding, one would also be hard pressed to find a novel so clearly tied to its sources as Matthew or Luke is! Even John, whose sources are difficult to discern, overlaps enough with the Synoptics in some accounts and clearly in purpose to defy the category of novel….The Gospels are, however, too long for dramas, which maintained a particular length in Mediterranean antiquity. They also include far too much prose narrative for ancient drama….Richard Burridge, after carefully defining the criteria for identifying genre and establishing the characteristic features of Greco-Roman bioi, or lives, shows how both the Synoptics and John fit this genre. So forceful is his work on Gospel genre as biography that one knowledgeable reviewer [Charles Talbert] concludes, ‘This volume ought to end any legitimate denial of the canonical Gospels’ biographical character.’ Arguments concerning the biographical character of the Gospels have thus come full circle: the Gospels, long viewed as biographies until the early twentieth century, now again are widely viewed as biographies….Biographies were essentially historical works; thus the Gospels would have an essentially historical as well as a propagandistic function….[quoting David Aune] ’while biography tended to emphasize encomium, or the one-sided praise of the subject, it was still firmly rooted in historical fact rather than literary fiction. Thus while the Evangelists clearly had an important theological agenda, the very fact that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman biographical conventions to tell the story of Jesus indicates that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they thought really happened.’…had the Gospel writers wished to communicate solely later Christian doctrine and not history, they could have used simpler forms than biography….As readers of the OT, which most Jews viewed as historically true, they must have believed that history itself communicated theology….the Paraclete [in John’s gospel] recalls and interprets history, aiding the witnesses (14:26; 15:26-27).…the features that Acts shares with OT historical works confirms that Luke intended to write history…History [in antiquity] was supposed to be truthful, and [ancient] historians harshly criticized other historians whom they accused of promoting falsehood, especially when they exhibited self-serving agendas." (pp. 7-13, 17, n. 143 on p. 17, 18)

See also J.P. Holding's article here.

It seems that the early Christian and non-Christian consensus that viewed the infancy narratives as historical accounts was correct. Whether those historical accounts about Jesus' infancy were accurate is another issue, and I'll be addressing it in future posts, but the accounts were meant to convey history.

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