Sunday, December 01, 2013

Jesus' Childhood Outside The Infancy Narratives (Part 1): Introduction

(This will be an eight-part series. After completion, the entire series will be linked in one post.)

One of the most common and most foundational objections to the historicity of the infancy narratives is the notion that their events haven't left enough of a trace in other sources. Some critics will go as far as to suggest that there's no indication of anything supernatural in Jesus' childhood in any other early source, including the remainder of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Supposedly, what's said of Jesus in the later chapters of Matthew and Luke and in the rest of the New Testament is inconsistent with what's reported in the infancy narratives. Here are some of Raymond Brown's comments on the subject:

If Herod and all Jerusalem knew of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem (Matt 2:3), and indeed Herod slaughtered the children of a whole town in the course of looking for Jesus (2:16), why is it that later in the ministry no one seems to know of Jesus' marvelous origins (13:54-55), and Herod's son recalls nothing about him (14:1-2)? If it was made clear through an angelic message to the parents of Jesus who Jesus was (the Davidic Messiah, the Son of God), why is it so difficult for his disciples to discover this later on, even though Mary was alive at the time of the ministry? Indeed, why does Mary herself seem to be an outsider to the family of true disciples (Matt 12:46-50)? If JBap [John the Baptist] was a relative of Jesus who recognized him even before his birth (Luke 1:41,44), why does JBap give no indication during the ministry of a previous knowledge of Jesus and indeed seem to be puzzled by him (7:19)?…The stories of the ministry [Jesus' public ministry as an adult] were shaped in Christian tradition without a knowledge of the infancy material…

Now, historically, there were no such believers [as the magi] present when Jesus' ministry opened with the baptism; and so it was imperative that the magi be made to depart from the scene immediately. Luke (2:20) shows exactly the same sensibility in having the shepherds return to their fields after glorifying God in Bethlehem….

Both evangelists know that when the public ministry of Jesus begins, there is no surrounding chorus of adoring believers, treasuring the memories of the marvels that accompanied his birth at Bethlehem – this memory is completely absent from the records of the ministry. (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], 31-32, 196, 429)

Similar comments are found in, for example, Geza Vermes, The Nativity (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 9-10, 147-148, 152. It's a common argument.

Critics not only claim inconsistency between the infancy accounts and other early sources, but also sometimes claim that there's little that's historical within the infancy narratives. Vermes alleges that the accounts are only "very slightly" historical (ibid., xv). He later refers to the elements that have "a high degree of probability" as "the names and the place of residence of the child and the parents, but the date of birth could only be approximate, under Herod, and the locale controverted, Bethlehem according to tradition, but more likely Nazareth." (155-156) Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write, "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." (The First Christmas [New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007], 38) Since some people take such a negative view of the historicity of the infancy narratives, material about Jesus' childhood in sources other than the infancy narratives is significant in that context as well.

What should we make of Raymond Brown's comments quoted above? I'll address the Biblical passages he cites in my next post. What I want to do here is make some introductory remarks.

Since Brown accepted the historicity of such significant aspects of the infancy narratives as Jesus' Davidic ancestry and virginal conception, some of his objections could be applied to his own position. The same can be said to a lesser degree about many scholars who don't accept any of the supernatural claims about Jesus' childhood. His Davidic ancestry is accepted by most scholars. And you don't have to believe in Jesus' deity or sinlessness in order to recognize that a lot of what made him so unusual and interesting during his public ministry would have been present earlier in his life as well (his ethical conduct, his communication skills, etc.). Those who hold a traditional Christian view of Jesus' childhood aren't the only ones who need to explain why he didn't become such a public figure until late in his life and why he was so opposed among his relatives, in Nazareth, and in other circles where people knew him well. The general thrust of Brown's objection, though not all of its details, is also applicable to the positions of many of those who reject a traditional view of the infancy narratives, including Brown.

So, how do we explain the shift from Jesus' promising beginning to his more negative reception later in life? The answer is that what was promising in Jesus' life, including in his childhood, was accompanied by other factors of a more negative nature. Brown objects to an absence of a "surrounding chorus of adoring believers, treasuring the memories of the marvels that accompanied his birth at Bethlehem". The situation is more complicated than that.

Different events in the infancy narratives occur in different locations, so that no one city, like Nazareth, witnessed everything. Some of the events, like Joseph's dreams and the annunciation to Mary, are of a highly private nature. The magi didn't know the child's identity until the end of their journey, and we don't know how many other people saw the star, recognized its significance, and associated it with Jesus. Some of the witnesses, such as Zacharias and Simeon, probably didn't live long after John and Jesus were born. Due to these and other factors, much of the knowledge of Jesus' childhood that existed would have been partial and far less than what later readers of the gospels would possess. The alleged events surrounding the births of John and Jesus, if they occurred as reported by Matthew and Luke, were known to some people (Matthew 2:12, Luke 1:65, 2:17-18, 2:38). But those individuals were ignorant of some of the events and issues involved, with their ignorance and misjudgments often noted within the infancy accounts themselves (Matthew 1:19, 2:2, 2:12, 2:22, Luke 1:18, 1:34, 1:65-66, 2:18-19, 2:33, 2:50-51). Even when Jesus' public ministry is well underway, the gospels refer to people who are ignorant of his identity and background and misunderstand what he's teaching. We shouldn't expect the witnesses of Jesus' childhood to have a highly mature understanding of his identity and work.

For a variety of reasons, Jesus' family and some of the other people involved would have had cause to be highly selective about what they revealed and to whom. As Ethelbert Stauffer notes, "The excitement that had surrounded his birth had to remain concealed in order not to cast suspicion upon the grown man and bring down upon him the bloodhounds of Herod and the Romans." (Jesus And His Story [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960], 62) Herod would die early in Jesus' life, but his sons would be around for decades to come. One of them would have a role in bringing about the death of both John the Baptist and Jesus shortly after those men began their public ministries. Not everything about Jesus' childhood could be concealed, and not everybody involved would want to conceal everything. I'm not suggesting that everything could have been or was concealed. But partial concealment makes sense and is one factor among others that needs to be taken into account.

What the witnesses knew of the promising events surrounding Jesus' birth would have been accompanied by their own misconceptions, knowledge of the low social status of Jesus' family, suspicions surrounding Mary's premarital pregnancy, Jesus' failure to fulfill common Messianic expectations, his ordinary and disappointing career as a carpenter, the passing of a few decades without much happening, and, eventually, condemnation of Jesus by most of the Jewish leadership. The Jewish leaders had an explanation for Jesus' miracles. He was an agent of Satan. While all of these things were occurring, the Romans were looking on. There are reasons why Jesus said that those who wanted to follow him needed to consider the cost, take up a cross, and lay down their lives. What we have is a combination of factors that would draw people to a high view of Jesus in some contexts and move them away from such a view in other contexts.

Under those circumstances, we shouldn't expect Brown's "chorus of adoring believers, treasuring the memories of the marvels that accompanied his birth at Bethlehem". But we should expect evidence of another sort for the events of Jesus' childhood, including in sources outside the infancy narratives. As we'll see, there is such evidence.

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