Monday, December 02, 2013

Jesus' Childhood Outside The Infancy Narratives (Part 2): More About Raymond Brown's Objections

In my last post, I addressed some problems with Raymond Brown's view of the relationship between the infancy narratives and what other early sources said about Jesus. In this post, I want to discuss the Biblical passages Brown cited to support his position.

His claim that "no one" seems to know of Jesus' unusual origins isn't justified by Matthew 13:54-55 or the other passages he cites. At face value, what his argument suggests is that some significant figures didn't know of the infancy narrative events. Whether other individuals knew of the events would have to be judged by other means. It can't be assumed that everybody else held the same view as the people Brown cites.

But does Brown's argument even justify his conclusions about the individuals he's addressing? Let's look at each of the cases he brought up.

What about Herod and the Jerusalemites in Matthew 2:3? Brown misrepresents the passage when he claims that they "knew of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem". Most likely, Matthew 2:3 refers to Herod and the Jerusalemites as "troubled" because of the political ramifications involved, not because they were convinced that the Messiah had been born. Herod didn't want a rival. And the people of Jerusalem didn't want Herod overreacting to a perceived threat. He didn't handle that sort of thing well. He had a bad track record, and the people of Jerusalem knew it. If they were reacting to a perceived birth of the Messiah, they might have been curious, amazed, or joyful, for example, but probably wouldn't have been troubled. They probably weren't reacting to what they thought was the birth of the Messiah. Rather, they were reacting to what might go wrong in Herod's response to the magi. Other reasons to reach that conclusion are the nature of the magi and the common Messianic expectations of the day. Jerusalemites at that time weren't expecting to have to be informed about the Messiah's birth by some Gentiles, much less Gentile magi. And they weren't expecting a birth star. To make matters worse, why hadn't they noticed the star and/or its implications? Why would Gentile magi have to inform them? The notion of learning of the Messiah's birth by such means probably would have been offensive, not something that by itself would have led the Jerusalemites to believe that the Messiah had been born.

What should we make of the objection from Matthew 14:1-2? Brown's argument seems to be something like the following.

If the events of Matthew 2 are historical, then Herod Antipas probably eventually discerned that Jesus was the child mentioned in that passage. However, if he knew that Jesus was the child of Matthew 2 at the time of Matthew 14, as he probably would have, he likely wouldn't have said what he did in the latter passage. If Herod knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, knew he was honored by Gentile magi who identified him as the king of the Jews and followed a star to find him shortly after his birth, and knew that he was rescued from Herod the Great's attempt to kill him, Herod Antipas probably wouldn't have attributed Jesus' miracles to John the Baptist, as we see him do in Matthew 14. Rather, he would have attributed at least some of the miracles to Jesus' promising origins, his identity as the Messiah, or something of the like. So, Herod's comments in Matthew 14 suggest that the events of Matthew 2 didn't happen.

There's some merit to Brown's argument. I agree with Brown that if Herod knew that Jesus was the child of Matthew 2, he probably wouldn't have said what he did in Matthew 14. But I would argue that it's only a small probability.

Jesus was performing miracles before John died. Why, then, would Herod attribute Jesus' miracles to the post-death activity of John? Maybe Herod was only referring to some of Jesus' miracles, such as the most recent ones. Under that scenario, there would be other miracles that Herod wasn't attributing to John. Thus, his comments about John weren't a denial that some of Jesus' miracles came from another source.

Why, though, would Matthew only cite Herod's comments on the miracles he associates with John? Notice that Matthew goes on to discuss the events surrounding John's death. Matthew may have been preparing the way for that discussion. Though Matthew focuses on Herod's comments about John, it doesn't follow that Herod didn't associate other miracles of Jesus with the events of Matthew 2.

It's possible, as well, that Herod knew of the Matthew 2 events, but rejected the Christian interpretation of them. He didn't think the judgment of the magi was reliable, he thought the relevant events of Matthew 2 were insufficient to prove Jesus' Messianic identity, he thought other aspects of Jesus' life (like the ones I discussed earlier) offered weightier evidence against his Messiahship, or whatever. But when Jesus started performing miracles around the time when John died, Herod considered the timing too close to be coincidental. He found John's death a convincing explanation for Jesus' miracles, but wasn't convinced by other explanations, like the events of Matthew 2.

I think Brown's interpretation is preferable to the alternatives I've outlined above. It has the advantage of being simpler. Since Herod's comments in 14:2 are all that Matthew offers as Herod's explanation of Jesus' miracles, it makes the most sense to take that passage as representing Herod's only explanation. And it seems unlikely that Herod would have attributed Jesus' earlier miracles to a source other than John, then would have attributed the later miracles only to John. Why would the earlier source of Jesus' miracles suddenly become irrelevant? It also seems unlikely that Herod would have held such high esteem for John and Jesus, yet have dismissed what he knew of Jesus' childhood as an explanation for his miracles. Herod isn't repeating the Jewish religious leaders' accusation that Jesus was empowered by Satan. He doesn't seem to hold as negative a view of Jesus. I doubt he would have been so negative about Jesus' background in Matthew 2 that he'd dismiss all of it as irrelevant. On balance, Brown's interpretation seems preferable to the alternatives I've mentioned. However, the alternatives are reasonable possibilities. Brown's view is only preferable by a small margin, so it doesn't add much to his overall case against the historicity of the infancy narratives. It wouldn't take much evidence from the other side, in favor of the historicity of the accounts, to outweigh Brown's argument from Matthew 14.

But his appeal to Matthew 14 doesn't even have that small amount of significance. Why should we think Herod Antipas knew enough about Jesus to identify him as the child of Matthew 2? What we seem to be getting in Matthew 14 is an early impression Herod had of Jesus. The odd, erroneous nature of Herod's assessment of Jesus' miracles and his assessment of the relationship between John and Jesus suggests that Herod wasn't well informed. Why should we think he knew enough about Jesus' age and birthplace, or had other relevant information, to identify Jesus as the child of Matthew 2? John 8:57 suggests that Jesus could easily be identified as being some age less than fifty, but why should we think Herod knew enough about his age to place his birth close enough to the time of the Slaughter of the Innocents? Since Jesus' family lived in Nazareth, he himself had lived there for a while, and he was often called "Jesus of Nazareth", it would have taken significant effort or significantly favorable circumstances to know that he was born in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth. As John 7 illustrates, there would have been a lot of ignorance and false conclusions about Jesus' birthplace early on. Given Herod's ignorance and misinformed views in Matthew 14, as well as Matthew's comments in 14:1 suggesting that Herod was just expressing an early impression he had (suggested also by Luke 9:9), it's doubtful that he knew enough about Jesus' age, birthplace, and/or other relevant information to identify him as the child of Matthew 2. And if Herod wasn't yet in a position to identify Jesus as that child, then Brown's objection collapses. The problem in Matthew 14 isn't that Herod is ignorant of the relevant events in Matthew 2. Rather, the problem is that Herod doesn't know much about Jesus yet. The historicity of Matthew 2 is consistent with that sort of ignorance on Herod's part.

Brown's reading of Matthew 13:54-55 is problematic as well. The people in Nazareth had heard of Jesus' miracles, including miracles done in their midst (verses 54, 58). They weren't reacting to an absence of miracles. Rather, they were reacting to the presence of other factors, such as the ordinariness of Jesus' family and other elements of his background. The parallel passage in Mark 6:1-6 suggests that they objected to his career as a carpenter and his perceived illegitimate birth (verse 3). (Remember, though Joseph received supernatural confirmation of the virginal conception in a dream, other people didn't have that sort of confirmation. Since the conception occurred during Joseph and Mary's engagement, prior to marriage, that sort of timing of the pregnancy would have seemed unfitting. Pregnancy prior to marriage was looked down upon, and there may have been a general assumption that God wouldn't have brought about a virginal conception under such circumstances. Thus, whatever tendency there was to doubt a woman's claim to be a virgin while pregnant, that tendency would have been exacerbated by the timing of Mary's pregnancy. A virginal conception after marriage, or one involving a single woman set apart by God for his service in some way that was verifiable ahead of time, for example, probably would have seemed more dignified and more fitting as something God would do. A virginal conception involving a woman about to get married to a man probably seemed inappropriate.) And the widespread opposition to Jesus among the religious leaders (e.g., Matthew 9:34) would have given the people of Nazareth even more reason to be hesitant in accepting Jesus' claims. Since Jesus' birth was perceived as illegitimate, his family was so ordinary, he had such a common and unpromising career (as a carpenter), he wasn't fulfilling common Messianic expectations, he was making a lot of difficult demands on his followers, and the religious leaders of Israel were mostly united in denouncing him, why should we think that miracles a few decades earlier would have prevented Nazareth's opposition to him? Since the more recent miracles referred to in the Matthew 13 passage itself didn't prevent the opposition of the people of Nazareth, why would previous miracles?

The principles I've just outlined with regard to Nazareth's opposition to Jesus are more widely applicable. It's not as though the presence of miracles produces faithfulness. The Jewish leadership consistently acknowledged many of Jesus' miracles. They also consistently attributed those miracles to Satan, as we see in the New Testament, Justin Martyr, Celsus, etc. Early rejection of Jesus wasn't primarily about a lack of miracles.

Some of my comments on Mary and John the Baptist will be reserved for the next post in this series. For now, I'll note that the passages Brown has cited about Mary and John's doubts are passages that occur well into Jesus' public ministry. Some of the same observations I've made about the people of Nazareth and other opponents of Jesus are applicable to Mary and John. Since high claims were being made about Jesus during his public ministry (Son of Man, Son of David, Messiah, etc.), and he had been performing many miracles, then why would doubts on the part of Mary and John at that point suggest a lack of proclamation of Jesus' identity or a lack of miracles a few decades earlier? If they could doubt Jesus after his public ministry was well underway, then they could doubt him after the events of the infancy narratives. The gospels portray both Mary and John as having faith, but inconsistently. Mary's struggles are even predicted within the infancy narratives (Luke 2:34-35) and are exemplified well before Jesus' adult ministry begins (Luke 2:48-50). Mary's doubts not only are consistent with the accounts of Jesus' childhood, but are even anticipated and present there. Again, Brown's argument is unconvincing.

Mary's highest levels of faithfulness seem to have been early in her life, through the early years of Jesus' childhood, and around the time of Jesus' death and beyond. (She's with Jesus at the cross in John 19, and she's with the disciples in Acts 1.) She seems to have had a more wavering faith between those two timeframes. I think Ethelbert Stauffer offers a good partial explanation (which can be supplemented with other factors, like the ones I've mentioned before):

"Meanwhile [since the miracles surrounding Jesus' birth], years and decades had passed. The story of his brief emergence at the age of twelve only serves to emphasize how little that was unusual had happened during the first three decades of his life….We may think of the story of Moses, who, after promising beginnings, herded sheep for decades. In similar fashion Jesus worked at his trade for many years, and it was as though nothing had happened or was going to happen. These were not only years of quiet and maturation; they may also have been years of temptation, for Jesus and for his mother." (Jesus And His Story [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960], 61-62)

What about Brown's claim that Matthew and Luke make the magi and shepherds quickly leave the scene, since they (Matthew and Luke) knew that there were no such people around when Jesus' public ministry began? If Matthew and Luke were trying to explain a lack of recognition of Jesus at the start of his adult ministry, then why did they have individuals like the magi and shepherds come on the scene to begin with? They wouldn't have to quickly leave if they hadn't arrived in the first place. And they don't just arrive. They arrive in a significantly public manner. The magi are accompanied by a star, meet with king Herod, create a disturbance among the Jerusalemites in general, and visit Bethlehem. The shepherds don't just receive a private revelation and visit Jesus and his family without anybody else's knowledge. Rather, they also tell other people what happened (Luke 2:17-18). Similar comments are made elsewhere in the infancy accounts (Luke 1:65, 2:38). Matthew and Luke aren't trying to make these events seem highly private. Rather, much of what occurs in the infancy accounts is relatively public.

Critics like Brown often claim that we should have more corroboration of events like the Slaughter of the Innocents and Luke's census if they occurred, since the purported events are of such a public nature. On the other hand, we're supposed to believe that Matthew and Luke were aware of how unrecognized Jesus was at the start of his adult ministry, so that they made figures like the magi and the shepherds fade into the background in order to accommodate their absence in Jesus' later life. But it's doubtful that the infancy narratives would have the sort of public nature I've noted above if Matthew and Luke were trying to accommodate an absence of later evidence in the way Brown suggests. If the gospel authors wanted to have some people recognize Jesus in his childhood, but wanted to do so in a way consistent with a lack of recognition of Jesus later, they could have done so much more effectively. I doubt that Matthew and Luke were as incompetent as Brown's theory implies. And, as we'll see in later posts, Brown is wrong about a lack of evidence outside the infancy narratives for the events in question. Matthew and Luke weren't trying to explain a later absence of any recognition of Jesus, since there isn't an absence.

I want to discuss some of the evidence to that effect in the New Testament and extrabiblical sources. In my next post, I'll start by taking a look at Matthew's gospel.

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