Thursday, January 03, 2008

A Radically Liberal Christmas (Part 4)

Borg and Crossan tell us:

"From this scholarly consensus about the dating of Matthew and Luke in relation to earlier Christian writings flows an obvious inference: stories of Jesus's birth were not of major importance to earliest Christianity. Mark wrote a gospel without referring to Jesus's birth, as John later did. Though the end of Jesus's life - his crucifixion and resurrection - are utterly central to Paul, he says nothing about how his life began." (p. 26)

Yet, elsewhere they acknowledge:

"Since Matthew and Luke agree independently on those two points about Jesus - that he was descended from David's lineage and born in David's city - those must come from an earlier tradition than either of their Christmas stories. And, in fact, we find both of those points elsewhere in the New Testament. First, Paul, in opening his letter to the Romans, speaks of 'the gospel concerning his [God's] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh' (1:3)....This [John 7:41-42] is a typical instance of Johannine irony. He presumes that Jesus was born at Bethlehem and, therefore, the crowd's ignorance confirms what they deny. Jesus is the Messiah, and he was born in Bethlehem. Paul and John indicate that common Christian tradition that Jesus was the Davidic Messiah and was - whether literally or metaphorically - born in Bethlehem." (p. 130)

As I've mentioned elsewhere (here and here), interest in an influential person's background and the Messianic expectations of first-century Israel suggest that there would have been widespread interest in Jesus' childhood even before He died. And passages like the ones Borg and Crossan cite from Romans and the gospel of John reflect such interest. Issues such as whether a person thought to be the Messiah was a descendant of David and where He was born would have been considered highly significant by the earliest Christians.

And Borg and Crossan's reference to the gospel of Mark undermines their argument. We know that there was significant early interest in Jesus' resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15:5-8), yet Mark doesn't narrate any of those appearances in his gospel. And, as Borg and Crossan note, John's gospel, which is usually dated after Matthew and Luke, doesn't have an infancy narrative. Yet, we know that there was significant interest in Jesus' childhood by that time, as reflected in Matthew and Luke. See also my discussion elsewhere of Paul's alleged silence regarding the public ministry of Jesus. Some of the same principles apply to the alleged early silence about Jesus' childhood.

While Borg and Crossan date the gospels of Matthew and Luke to the last two decades of the first century, other scholars have argued for earlier dates. If the two gospels were written prior to 70 A.D., as I would argue, then Matthew and Luke would be close to Borg and Crossan's dating of Paul's letters and Mark's gospel. Even if Matthew and Luke were written in the seventies, for example, that would only place them about a decade or less later than the common liberal dating of Mark. Even a date in the eighties or nineties would be within a few decades of Paul's death. As the opening of Luke's gospel tells us, Luke thought that he was passing on what had been handed down to him by earlier Christians. To speak of Matthew and Luke as if they're late documents, just because they're being dated to the closing decades of the first century, is to define lateness in a way that doesn't have much significance. We have good reason to date the two gospels in question earlier than Borg and Crossan do, but even the later dating isn't late enough to have the sort of significance that's been suggested.

Paul was writing letters, not biographies of Jesus, and even in those letters he shows interest in and knowledge of Jesus' background (Romans 1:3, Galatians 4:4, etc.). Where in his letters is he supposed to have had some sort of compelling interest in mentioning something like the virgin birth, the Slaughter of the Innocents, or Mary's visit to Elizabeth? The concept that Luke had access to so much information related to Jesus' background, whereas the more prominent and probably more widely traveled Paul was so apathetic and uninformed as to not have even asked where Jesus was born or have not heard of the virgin birth, for example, is dubious. Borg and Crossan acknowledge that the virgin birth, for example, was a widespread Christian tradition that predated the gospels of Matthew and Luke (p. 123). But Paul never heard of it? Or he did, but rejected it or considered it insignificant? None of those scenarios are reasonable.

Borg and Crossan cite some examples of ancient pagan sources questioning or denying the historicity of pagan accounts (pp. 98, 124-127). They conclude:

"Finally, then, it is unwise to imagine that those pre-Enlightenment ancients told incredible histories, which we post-Enlightenment moderns have learned to deride. It is wiser to realize that they used powerful metaphors and told profound parables, which we have taken literally and misunderstood badly....It would be wiser, therefore, to presume that the ancients were as wise as we moderns are - when we are both wise - and as dumb as we moderns are - when we are both dumb." (pp. 126-127)

But the fact that ancient pagans questioned or denied the historicity of pagan accounts doesn't prove, by itself, that the accounts weren't intended as historical. And the fact that Borg and Crossan can cite so many pagan examples of such questioning and denial, yet can't cite comparable evidence from early Christian sources commenting on the infancy narratives, is revealing. Ancient people, including ancient Christians, were capable of distinguishing between genres of literature and true and false historical accounts. As Craig Blomberg notes:

"A careful reading of the patristic evidence suggests that indeed the vast majority of early Christians did believe that the type of information the Gospel writers communicated was historical fact, even as they recognized the more superficial parallels with the mythology of other worldviews" (cited in Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case For The Resurrection Of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], n. 27 on p. 327)

Why, then, didn't the early Christians and their enemies interpret the infancy narratives as Borg and Crossan do?

Borg and Crossan draw some common parallels between the infancy narratives and Old Testament and extra-Biblical literature. They compare Matthew's account of Jesus' childhood to accounts of Moses' childhood in other literature, for example. But the dating of some of the documents is questionable, and the parallels often don't hold up. They tell us:

"And, as with the three elements of divorce, revelation, and remarriage in the Moses/Jesus conception parallelism, so also here with the three elements of dream, fear, and interpretation in the birth parallelism of Moses and Jesus, we expect and get creative variation rather than strict uniformity." (p. 139)

The reason why there isn't "strict uniformity" is because Matthew was giving a historical account. He would be interested in highlighting similarities between Moses and Jesus, but he would include differences between the two as well.

And if the accounts of Jesus' childhood weren't similar to accounts of Moses' childhood in some ways, then critics could choose some other figure to parallel with Jesus. They could look for accounts of Abraham's childhood, David's, etc., then suggest that the accounts of Jesus' childhood were made up in an attempt to parallel those other accounts. Given the fact that Jewish society had existed for so many centuries and had produced so much literature, how significant is it if some sources wrote accounts of well-known figures that have some similarities with, as well as differences from, the accounts of Jesus' childhood? Borg and Crossan, like others before them, have failed to make the case that the similarities between Moses and Jesus are so significant as to make Christian borrowing probable.

They acknowledge that the virgin birth accounts in Matthew and Luke are different from what we find in Jewish and pagan literature:

"In Jewish and biblical tradition, ordinary marital intercourse takes place between aged and barren parents - even if conception is thereafter divinely miraculous....Even with Greco-Roman divine conceptions, the male god engages in intercourse, so that the human mother is no longer a virgin after conception. What pre-Matthean and pre-Lukan Christianity claimed was that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after conception (not birth) - and that made her divine conception different from and greater than all others." (pp. 122-123)

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