Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A Radically Liberal Christmas (Part 3)

Much of what I want to say in response to Borg and Crossan's treatment of the historicity of the infancy narratives has already been said in my first post about their book and in the articles linked there. There are far too many problems with the book for me to cover all of them in depth. But I want to say more than I did in my first two posts. I'll be concluding my review of the book with three more posts, this one and two more on the two days following.

Borg and Crossan classify the infancy narratives as parabolic overtures (pp. 34-35, 38-39, 52-53). Just as the parable of The Good Samaritan can include realistic elements such as a reference to going down from Jerusalem (Luke 10:30), so also the infancy narratives can be realistic in some ways without having been intended as historical accounts. The narratives are non-historical stories that foreshadow themes found later in the gospels.

Though Borg and Crossan suggest that Raymond Brown's The Birth Of The Messiah (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999) is the best resource available on the infancy narratives (pp. 92, 257), their view of the historicity of the narratives is significantly more liberal than Brown's. Compare, for example, my citations of Brown's work here to Borg and Crossan's far more minimalist view:

"Thus, in our considered judgment, Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 contain, and were intended to contain, minimal historical information - probably just the three items that Jesus was a historical figure whose parents were Mary and Joseph and whose home was at Nazareth in Galilee." (p. 38)

Their book is around 250 pages long, yet they never address the large majority of the evidence for a historical genre for the infancy narratives. They don't interact much with the sort of internal and external evidence discussed here.

Ignatius of Antioch was a bishop of the early second century who was a contemporary of the apostles, was the leader of a church that had recently been in contact with multiple apostles, and was in communication with other apostolic churches. He commented on the historicity of some of the events of the infancy narratives in his letters to such apostolic churches. He was writing only about a decade after the death of the apostle John. Do Borg and Crossan discuss his testimony or the testimony of similarly relevant Christian and non-Christian sources (Aristides, Trypho, Justin Martyr, etc.)? No, they don't.

The only citation of an early post-apostolic source that I recall in their entire 259-page book is a quotation of Celsus (p. 104). It's a quotation taken from R. Joseph Hoffmann's edition of Celsus, the same misleading passage I've discussed here in the past.

Since they date Matthew and Luke to the last two decades of the first century (pp. 25-26), their neglect of the early post-apostolic sources is even more inexcusable. By dating the gospels so late, they lessen the amount of time that passed between the original publication of the documents and the earliest extant interpreters. Critics of the New Testament can't have it both ways. If they want late gospels, then they have to pay the price of assigning more evidential weight to the early Christian and non-Christian interpreters. To place the gospels at so late a date, yet assign so little weight to the early external testimony regarding the genre of the gospels, doesn't make sense.

The primary argument for Borg and Crossan's classification of the infancy narratives as non-historical seems to be the alleged historical implausibility of the accounts. Their reasoning is reflected in the following comments on the genealogies of Jesus in the two gospels:

"Nowhere is it so clear as in these two genealogies that theological metaphor and symbolic parable rather than actual history and factual information create and dominate the Christmas stories of the conception and infancy of Jesus. We are willing to make the point in even stronger terms. If you understand properly what minimal history but maximal theology those genealogies contain, you will recognize the similar balance in the Christmas stories as a whole. Understand the purpose of these genealogies, and you will understand the purpose of the parabolic overtures in Matthew and Luke. In fact, just as the overtures are miniatures of the gospels, so are the genealogies miniatures of the overtures." (pp. 81-82)

And elsewhere:

"But what is always clear is that ancient genealogy was not about history and poetry, but about prophecy and destiny, not about accuracy, but about advertising." (p. 98)

Notice the claim that genealogies are always not about history. Borg and Crossan refer to non-historical claims of descent from the gods in pagan sources, but they don't document their claim that genealogies are always not about history. As I said in the first part of my review of this book, the entire book has only eight endnotes taking up less than one page (p. 259). They try to justify the lack of documentation on the basis of the publisher's desire to appeal to a general audience (p. 257), but the fact remains that many claims that people would like to see documented, like the ones above, aren't documented.

How many parables have you seen that include genealogies? Matthew and Luke derived portions of their genealogies from information in the Old Testament. What was the mainstream Jewish view of the historicity of such Old Testament accounts? Borg and Crossan differentiate between the genre of the infancy narratives and the genre of the remainder of those two gospels. Yet, Luke's genealogy is placed at the close of the third chapter of his gospel, after the beginning of the account of Jesus' public ministry. Did Luke keep going back and forth between non-historical and historical accounts? Would you expect a parable to begin with the sort of references to eyewitness testimony and research that we see in Luke 1:1-4? Why did the early Christian and non-Christian sources take the genealogies as historical accounts? Julius Africanus refers to relatives of Jesus who had verified the accuracy of the genealogies, and Eusebius of Caesarea refers to how "every believer" offered a harmonization of the genealogies (Eusebius' Church History, 1:7:14, 1:7:1). Why would it be so common to view the genealogies as historical if two different authors composed them without the intention of conveying history? Were both authors so widely misunderstood?

Though we can think of circumstances in which somebody might compose a genealogy that isn't meant to convey historical information, non-historicity isn't what's normally implied by a genealogy. And even if we were to accept Borg and Crossan's claim that the two genealogies in Matthew and Luke are contradictory, it doesn't therefore follow that one of them wasn't intended as history, much less that both were meant to be non-historical. A genealogy could be intended as historical, yet be erroneous. Or one genealogy could be of a non-historical genre, while another is of a historical genre, thus explaining their differences. But Borg and Crossan don't give us any reason to reject the traditional view that both genealogies are accurate historical accounts.

They tell us that any attempt to harmonize the two genealogies as accurate historical accounts is "love's labor lost" (p. 84). Supposedly, then, the ancient Christian world in general was laboring in vain. They misunderstood what two different authors meant by these genealogies, even though they were in frequent contact with relatives and associates of Jesus and the gospel authors well into the second century.

Like Raymond Brown and other liberal critics of the infancy narratives, Borg and Crossan will acknowledge that the narratives can be harmonized (p. 23), but will tell us that we shouldn't harmonize. They repeat common arguments against the historicity and consistency of the infancy narratives without making much of an effort to interact with counterarguments: the alleged Bethlehem setting of Matthew 1 (p. 22), the allegedly overly precise movements of the star of Bethlehem (p. 182), etc. Their discussion of the census (pp. 145-149) repeats common objections. They don't address the counterarguments of conservative scholars like Darrell Bock and Stanley Porter or data such as what I discussed in my recent series on the census. Their criticisms of the historicity of the infancy narratives are dated and unconvincing.


  1. I read this too, I found that it had some good insights but it was inacurrate in many places. The whole notion of parabolic overture seemed like quite a reach.

  2. In their comparisons to pagan writings and myths, it seems that they're failing to take into account the fact that Biblical religion was a completely different worldview than the pagan ones. This was the problem with Bultmann's thesis. Thus, the Jews would have had a different philosophy of history and would not have used genealogies parabolically.