Friday, January 04, 2008

A Radically Liberal Christmas (Part 5)

Borg and Crossan rightly note that Matthew appeals to prophecies of a typological nature in his infancy account. But they go as far as to claim that all of the prophecies are of that variety:

"In their historical contexts in the Old Testament, none of the five passages is a prediction of the distant future or a prediction of Jesus." (p. 202)

Here's how they attempt to dismiss Micah 5:

"This is the only one of Matthew's formula citations that, in its Old Testament context, refers to an indefinite future....Micah 5:2 expresses the hope for an ideal king who will come from Bethlehem...Is Matthew's use of this combined text from Micah and 2 Samuel a prediction of the place of Jesus's birth, namely, Bethlehem? No. Rather, it is ancient Israel's yearning for a king like David, the great king, the shepherd king. Under the kingship of one like David, 'they shall live secure,' for 'he shall be the one of peace.' It is hope and promise, not prediction. Indeed, rather than being a prediction of the place of Jesus's birth, the passage from Micah is seen by most mainstream scholars as the reason for the Christmas stories narration that he was born in Bethlehem. He was probably born in Nazareth, as the common appellation 'Jesus of Nazareth' suggests. Birth in Bethlehem is a claim in symbolic language that he is the 'son of David,' the ideal king." (pp. 206-207)

Note that Borg and Crossan claim that "none of the five passages is a prediction of the distant future", yet go on to acknowledge that Micah 5 "in its Old Testament context, refers to an indefinite future". How, then, would they know that Micah 5 isn't about "the distant future"? If they're just saying that Micah 5 doesn't state that it's referring to the distant future, but instead leaves the future timing unspecified, then so what?

And what's the significance of their distinction between "hope and promise" and "prediction"? If Micah "promises" (or has promise) that this Davidic, messianic ruler will come from Bethlehem, how is such a scenario significantly different from a prediction of the future? And how would Borg and Crossan know that Micah was doing the former rather than the latter?

I've addressed the "Jesus of Nazareth" objection elsewhere.

What seems to be going on here is that the evidence for what Micah said and where Jesus was born is such that Borg and Crossan don't have a good case against Jesus' fulfillment of a prophecy, yet they don't want to acknowledge such a fulfillment.

They go on to suggest that the Nazareth prophecy of Matthew 2:23 may have been constructed by the author of the gospel so as to reach the count of five prophecies within his infancy material (p. 209). Borg and Crossan argue, elsewhere in the book, that there are patterns of five within the gospel. But some of the ways in which they arrive at that number are unconvincing, and other numerical patterns are included in the gospel. If Matthew wanted to get to five infancy prophecies, why didn't he include one of the many Old Testament passages about the Davidic lineage of the Messiah, for example? Matthew 2:23 seems to primarily be a reference to the prophetic theme of a lowly and despised Messiah (John 1:46, 7:41-42, Acts 24:5), not a reference to one prophetic text (thus the plural "prophets"). There's no reason to conclude that Matthew was being dishonest or that the nature of the Nazareth prophecy is a significant problem for those who hold a conservative view of the infancy narratives. (For a good treatment of Matthew 2:23, see R.T. France, The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007], pp. 91-95.) And the low evidential value of the Nazareth prophecy doesn't prevent other prophecies from having more evidential value.

When Borg and Crossan move beyond their historical criticisms of the infancy narratives to explain what meaning they derive from these passages of scripture, what we get is a lot of this:

"We do not think Matthew's story is historically factual. In our judgment, there was no special star, no wise men, and no plot by Herod to kill Jesus. So is the story factually true? No. But as parable, is it true? For us as Christians, the answer is a robust affirmative. Is Jesus light shining in the darkness? Yes. Do the Herods of this world seek to extinguish the light? Yes. Does Jesus still shine in the darkness? Yes." (p. 184)

Borg and Crossan "seek to extinguish the light" in their own way. They claim that the disputes over the historicity of the infancy narratives are "fruitless" (p. 36), yet they engage in those disputes at length, even when they easily could have avoided it. They probably engage in such disputes because, contrary to what they sometimes assert, they do recognize that the disputes over factuality are highly significant. God doesn't need to use historical evidence or philosophical arguments, for example, to save a soul. But He does often use such means, and it's significant to have an objective standard to appeal to when disputes over these issues arise. Borg and Crossan put a lot of emphasis on politics in their book, and the historicity of the infancy narratives and scripture in general has major implications for politics. If the Bible is correct on issues like abortion, the death penalty, and marriage, and it can persuasively be shown to be correct by objective means, then that fact has devastating implications for the sort of liberal politics advocated by Borg and Crossan.

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