Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Historicity Of The Star Of Bethlehem (Part 3)

(You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.)

Adair gives no example of an early source interpreting Matthew's star account, or Matthew in general, as belonging to the genre of novel. In some of my posts referenced earlier, I cite evidence that early Christian and non-Christian sources assigned the gospels, including the infancy narratives, to a historical genre. In some cases, the star of Bethlehem passage in particular is addressed in a way that suggests that the passage is meant to be taken historically.

Ignatius associates a star with Jesus' manifestation to the world (Letter To The Ephesians, 19). Just before mentioning the star, he refers to Mary's virginity, her giving birth to a child, and Jesus' death. He considered all three historical (Letter To The Smyrnaeans, 1). His comments regarding the star are an elaboration of his comments about the previous three items. Given how much Ignatius emphasizes the historicity and physicality of the incarnation, the virgin birth, and Jesus' death while responding to the Docetists, it would be unlikely that he'd cite a novelistic account of a star as a means by which Jesus was manifested to the world. Most likely, he takes the star account in the same sort of historical, physical way he takes the other accounts.

Sometimes it's suggested that the star Ignatius refers to might not be the one discussed in Matthew's gospel. However, if there had been some significantly different star account circulating, how likely is it that the non-Matthean account would leave so little trace in the historical record? Ignatius' comments are ambiguous enough to reasonably be taken as consistent or inconsistent with some of the details of Matthew's passage. But even if we take Ignatius' comments in a way that's more inconsistent with Matthew, the two accounts are still in agreement that there was a supernatural star accompanying Jesus' birth. Ironically, critics of Matthew's account who try to distance Matthew and Ignatius on this issue are thereby suggesting that there were two early lines of tradition, not just one, attesting such a supernatural star. It's also ironic that critics who point to a wide diversity of interpretations of Matthew's account in the modern world, and argue that many of those interpretations are highly inaccurate, would suggest that Ignatius must not have been depending on Matthew or his tradition if Ignatius' star account differs from Matthew's. If so many modern individuals can be dependent on Matthew, yet depart from Matthew's account in a variety of ways, why couldn't Ignatius have done so as well?

It's likely that Ignatius' star account substantially agrees with the tradition we see in Matthew. A lot of the material in Matthew's gospel appears in the letters of Ignatius. See, for example, the discussions of Ignatius in Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) and Clayton Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers And The New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006). Even if one were to argue that Ignatius is only referring to traditions highly similar to Matthew's, not drawing from the gospel of Matthew itself, Ignatius' widespread use of such traditions would support the notion that he did the same with regard to the star associated with Jesus' birth. Ignatius wouldn't have to derive his star account from Matthew in order to offer corroboration of the historical genre and historicity of the Matthean tradition. Furthermore, some of the themes Ignatius raises in his discussion of the star reappear in later patristic discussions that are more explicitly associated with Matthew. Ignatius refers to how the star was a new star and how it brought about the downfall of evil supernatural powers. Those themes are frequently associated with Matthew's star elsewhere in the patristic literature. See, for example, Dale Allison, Studies In Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2005), n. 49 on 32.

Justin Martyr refers to how the star was "recorded in the memoirs of his apostles" (Dialogue With Trypho, 106). To Justin, the gospels are credible historical accounts composed by the apostles and their associates, similar to Xenephon's memoirs of Socrates (see Sara Parvis and Paul Foster, edd., Justin Martyr And His Worlds [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2007], 71-74). He applies the term "memoirs", instead of appealing to some sort of fictional genre, when discussing the star. He repeatedly appeals to aspects of the star passage as historical fulfillment of prophecy and combines portions of the star passage with other passages he seems to take as historical (e.g., Dialogue With Trypho, 77-78). In the passage just cited, he refers to how "we are able to prove that it happened in the case of our Christ", concerning the magi's visit as a fulfillment of prophecy. That comment makes more sense as a reference to a historical account than a reference to a novelistic one.

Opponents of Christianity writing against the religion in the earliest centuries respond to the star passage as if it's a historical narrative (John Cook, The Interpretation Of The New Testament In Greco-Roman Paganism [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002], 137, 290). In the second century, Celsus and his Jewish source(s) attribute to Jesus himself the claim that the events of the magi account are historical (in Origen, Against Celsus, 1:58). If you read Celsus' comments and Origen's remarks in the surrounding context, you come away with the impression that Matthew's account was assigned to a historical genre by both the early Christians and their opponents.

Regarding Adair's claim that Matthew and Luke's infancy narratives have "very little in common", see here.

See here concerning Matthew's use of sources. Though the post I just linked is about Luke, there's some overlap with Matthew.

And here's a post relevant to Matthew's comments on matters like the mental states of the figures he's discussing.

I don't know why Adair thinks Matthew's "only potential sources" for the star account would be Joseph and Mary. What about people who lived in Jerusalem and other relevant locations at the time, associates of Herod the Great, and associates of the magi, for example? If the gospel was written by the apostle Matthew, as I've argued, then he had a lot of access to Mary, Jesus, Jesus' siblings, the people of Jerusalem, and many other relevant individuals, whether eyewitnesses or reliable witnesses of some other sort.

(As they become available, future segments in this series will be linked here: part 4, part 5, part 6.)

1 comment:

  1. Is there Scientific Evidence for the Star of Bethlehem?
    Hugh Ross, Jeffrey Zweerink, Mark Kidger, Norman Bacrac interviewed on Unbelievable? radio