Thursday, November 08, 2007

Raymond Brown's Assessment Of The Infancy Narratives (Part 3)

One of the best portions of Raymond Brown's The Birth Of The Messiah (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999) is his discussion of Jesus' Davidic ancestry. He takes many factors into account that he neglects in other portions of the book. If he had argued in this manner consistently, throughout his book, he would have reached conclusions much more consistent with traditional Christian belief:

"First, relatives of Jesus were known in the primitive church. If the family was not Davidic, would they have gone along with the theological assumption of Davidic ancestry? Can it be assumed that James, the 'brother of the Lord' and the leader of the Jerusalem community as late as the 60s, would never have heard the claim that his close relative was a Davidid? And if he and the other Palestinian Christians who knew the facts about Jesus' family were so indifferent to history as to go along with the pretense of Davidic origins or to assume that merely a theological claim was being made, would Jesus' enemies not have raised some protest? One would expect to find traces of a polemic, especially on the part of the Pharisees, denying Jesus' Davidic status as falsified. But, while there are Jewish attacks on Jesus' legitimacy, there is no polemic against his Davidic descent as such. The unlikelihood of falsification is increased if there is any truth in the information gleaned from Hegesippus that in the 80s or 90s the grandsons of Jude, another 'brother' of Jesus, were brought to trial before the Emperor Domitian on the grounds that they were descended from David and therefore politically dangerous. Had the theologoumenon about Jesus' origins become so traditional that members of the family were willing to die as Davidids? Early in the third century, Julius Africanus, who had been born in Palestine and lived part of his life there, reports that there were relatives of Jesus who lived in the Nazareth area after his lifetime and were familiar with the family genealogies. Second, the NT evidence attributing Davidic ancestry to Jesus is widespread, and some of it is is cited by Paul who knew the Palestinian situation and was always sensitive to correction from Jerusalem....Scholars who tell us that Paul may never have inquired about Jesus' ancestry forget that to a man with Paul's training as a Pharisee, the Davidic ancestry of the Messiah would be a question of paramount importance, especially in the period before his conversion when he was seeking arguments to refute the followers of Jesus. Paul, who twice insists on his own Benjamite descent (Rom 11:1; Philip 3:5), would scarcely have been disinterested in the Davidic descent of Jesus." (pp. 507-508)

Notice some of the factors Brown takes into account:

- The presence of sources with relevant information (Jesus' relatives).

- The length of time such sources were available (James until sometime in the sixties, more distant relatives until near the end of the century)

- The prominence that such sources had in the church, such as James' position as the leader of the Jerusalem community.

- The unlikelihood that such sources wouldn't have heard about the claim that Jesus was a descendant of David.

- The presence of "other Palestinian Christians", not just relatives of Jesus, who would have been in a position to have reliable information on Jesus' ancestry.

- The presence of enemies of Christianity who would have had access to such information about Jesus and would have been interested in it.

- The unlikelihood that all of these sources would have been so apathetic or dishonest as to go along with a claim so significant and so easily known to be false, if it was false.

- The fact that arguments against Jesus' Davidic ancestry, if such arguments had been made, probably would be reflected in the historical record, as other anti-Christian arguments are.

- The willingness of some of the relevant sources to suffer, even to die, for a view of Jesus that involved Davidic descent.

- The plausibility of patristic reports about relatives of Jesus and patristic claims about what arguments the opponents of Christianity were and weren't using. The patristic evidence is assigned a significant amount of weight.

- The fact that a patristic source like Julius Africanus was in a position to have relevant information (his having lived in Israel, etc.).

- The widespread acceptance of Jesus' Davidic ancestry.

- The earliness of some of the sources reporting it.

- Paul's background as an enemy of Christianity and, thus, his status as somebody likely to be familiar with arguments against the religion, such as any arguments that may have been made against Jesus' Davidic ancestry.

- Paul's geographical and relational closeness, as a Christian, to sources with relevant information.

- The fact that Paul would have been susceptible to correction from sources like James, if he was mistaken about Jesus' ancestry.

- The unlikelihood that people like Paul wouldn't have sought information about Jesus' ancestry. Davidic descent for an alleged Messiah was "a question of paramount importance".

These aren't the only factors involved in reaching a conclusion about an issue such as whether Jesus was a descendant of David, but they are among the most important factors. And many such factors are often neglected by less conservative scholars. If Raymond Brown had more consistently given such factors the weight they deserve, he would have reached far more conservative conclusions. The same can be said of modern Biblical scholarship in general, and not just with regard to the infancy narratives.

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