Sunday, October 02, 2016

A Response To Annette Merz On The Infancy Narratives (Part 6)

(Previous parts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.)

Regarding whether Jesus was a descendant of David, Merz writes:

The evidence is complicated and inconclusive. On the one hand, there is early [post-Easter] evidence for the attribution of Davidic origin to Jesus in the formulaic tradition (Rom 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8), and the title "son of David" is present in Mark (10:47-48). On the other hand, there are once again strong indications that we are dealing with a concept which was absent from or debated in the earliest sources. In the Saying Source Q (which predates Mark), no traces of a Davidic ancestry are to be found. (489)

Merz refers to the evidence as "inconclusive", but elsewhere she tells us that Jesus' Davidic ancestry is "doubtful" (491).

She provides no argument for her reconstruction of the alleged Q source, and she provides no example of a place in Q where we'd expect Davidic ancestry to be mentioned if the author of Q believed in it. Paul doesn't mention Jesus' Davidic ancestry in Philemon. That doesn't prevent Merz from concluding that Paul refers to it in Romans. Authors frequently don't mention things they believe in, often because it's irrelevant to their present context. The vast majority of scholars, including Merz, accept conclusions related to Jesus that aren't found in Q. I've given some examples in previous posts in this series, such as Merz's apparent view that Jesus' brother James was an unbeliever until he thought he saw Jesus risen from the dead. I'm not aware of any reconstruction of Q that would include that material.

Merz continues:

Historically, the obvious problem remains that those genealogies [of Jesus in Matthew and Luke] cannot even agree on the identity of Jesus' grandfather and thereby reveal their secondary character. The probability that both genealogies are fictions is much higher than the assumption of the invention of one contrived ancestral chart when a genuine one was extant. Thus, R.E. Brown's conclusion that the tradition of Jesus' Davidic origin was probably older than the attempts of Matthew and Luke to find a Davidic genealogy for Jesus stands. (489-90)

She doesn't interact with any of the reconciliations that have been offered for the differences in the genealogies.

Her claim that one genealogy wouldn't be fabricated if a genuine one was extant doesn't make sense. If one or both of the authors of the two gospels in question had no close connection with Jesus' family and other relevant sources, as Merz and other critics typically allege, why should we think both gospel authors would have had access to an extant genealogy that was genuine? Under Merz's scenario of anonymous, late gospels, with infancy narrative material and whatever other material composed in a non-historical genre, with authors who didn't have any significant sources they were drawing from, there's a lot of potential for one of the authors in question to have been unaware of a genuine genealogy of Jesus that was extant. On the one hand, Merz wants us to think of the gospel authors as individuals far removed from having much of a desire or ability to record the history of Jesus' childhood. On the other hand, she wants us to believe that if a genuine genealogy of Jesus existed when the gospels were written, the gospel authors would have been aware of it and would have incorporated it into their work. I don't know how Merz reconciles those two concepts.

Even if we were to accept Merz's unsupported claim that the genealogies are inconsistent (we shouldn't), it wouldn't follow that both are inaccurate about Jesus' Davidic ancestry. It could still be that Jesus' descent from David is accurately recorded in one or both. And even a genealogy that inaccurately traces a lineage from David would be significant as a witness to the belief that Jesus had Davidic ancestry, how widespread that belief was, etc.

It's easy to think of potential reasons why people who had a genuine genealogy of Jesus would want a second one (or third one, fourth one, etc.). Look at how Matthew rearranges his genealogy (starts with Abraham rather than Adam, classifies it in groups of fourteen, etc.). Matthew would have been aware of the genealogies of the Old Testament and would have considered them accurate, yet he alters their material in various ways. Given the number and variety of relatives of Jesus who would have been alive in the earliest decades of Christianity, there's a lot of potential for diverse backgrounds, interests, and other factors to have produced multiple genealogies that are accurate (one source is interested in biological descent, whereas another is interested in legal descent; one considers a combination of biological and legal descent acceptable, whereas another doesn't; one uses a particular name for a certain ancestor, whereas another uses a different name for that ancestor; etc.). Keep in mind that the issue here isn't just what interests the relevant sources in the early decades of Christianity would have had. The genealogies possessed by sources in the first century A.D. would have been influenced by earlier generations.

The main issue in this context isn't whether the genealogies can be reconciled. They can be. The bigger issues are ones like the authorship of these gospels, their genre, what sources they had, and whether we have good evidence that the gospels in question are Divinely inspired scripture. Those issues address whether we should trust the gospels concerning genealogies whose details we're not in much of a position to evaluate.

Merz writes:

Of course, there still remains the question of how we are to understand the Johannine denial of the Davidic origin of Jesus (John 7:42) in the light of the early post-Easter confession that Jesus was "from the seed of David according to the flesh" [Romans 1:3] (490)

John doesn't deny Jesus' Davidic ancestry. He affirms it. See my article here for an explanation of how John 8:12 has Jesus (and, by implication, John) affirming Davidic ancestry in response to 7:42. As I explain in my article just linked, not only does Merz seem to be unaware of the implications of John 8:12, but she also doesn't address the widespread affirmation of Davidic ancestry among early patristic sources who were relationally and/or geographically close to John.

Merz continues:

Mark 12:35-37a (together with Barn 12:10) is another important tradition that has to be considered here. The Davidic sonship of the Messiah seems to be straightforwardly denied, which produces some friction between this account and the earlier positive usages of the acclamation of the Messiah as the Son of David in Mark 10:47-48 and 11:10….Most certainly, however, the pre-Markan tradition meant what it said - that David calls the Messiah 'my Lord' precludes that the Messiah would be his son. This indicates that the Davidic origin of the Messiah was debated in some strands of Judaism and early Christianity and possibly even ridiculed or relativized by Jesus himself. (490)

As we'll see below, Merz has no good argument against the conclusion that Bartimaeus is affirming Davidic ancestry in Mark 10:47-8. And she doesn't even attempt to argue against the affirmation of it by the crowd in 11:10. Given that both Bartimaeus and the crowd are portrayed so positively and aren't corrected by Jesus, it seems likely that Mark believed in Jesus' Davidic ancestry and wanted his readers to conclude not only that it was affirmed by Bartimaeus and the crowd in 11:10, but also that it was accepted by Jesus. It's unlikely, then, that Mark would go on to knowingly contradict Davidic ancestry in 12:35-7.

But Merz argues that Jesus did reject Davidic ancestry in his comments recorded in that passage. She also thinks Matthew and Luke misrepresent Jesus' comments. And it follows that the early sources who comment on these passages in the gospels and see them as consistent with Davidic ancestry are also misrepresenting what Jesus said. So, we're supposed to believe that Jesus spoke against Davidic ancestry, yet all three of the gospel writers who recorded his comments and the early Christians in general misunderstood him or lied about what he said. As W.D. Davies and Dale Allison explain:

"But it is difficult indeed to imagine the rejection of a tradition so confidently assumed in both Jewish and Christian sources and so scripturally well-rooted as the Messiah's Davidic heritage. Chilton (v), p. 91: 'the circle's ideology [the ideology of a hypothetical group of early Christians who rejected Davidic ancestry] would be so out of keeping with so many strata of the New Testament that, in the absence of positive evidence for its existence, the hypothesis itself seems problematic'." (Matthew 19-28 [New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2012], n. 5 on 250)

In her footnotes, Merz cites Joel Marcus' commentary on Mark to support her interpretation of Mark 12:35-7. In Marcus' commentary, he acknowledges that Jesus' Davidic ancestry is affirmed in other passages in Mark's gospel, and he thinks Mark intended to affirm the concept in 12:35-7 (Mark 8-16 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009], 850-1). He refers to how there was "overwhelming" Old Testament and Jewish expectation that the Messiah would have Davidic ancestry, and he refers to how the affirmation of Jesus' Davidic ancestry is widespread in the New Testament (847-8). Yet, he presents some arguments that Jesus meant to deny Davidic ancestry in his comments recorded in Mark 12. Marcus concludes by referring to how it's "possible" that later Christians misrepresented Jesus' denial of Davidic ancestry (848). Marcus writes:

The fourth-century anti-Gnostic writer Adamantius asserts that "how" in Mark 12:35 implies questioning but not denial, as in Deut 32:30; Isa 1:21; 14:12 (Concerning True Faith in God; PG 11.1849-52). A similar conclusion is reached by modern interpreters such as Lövestam ("Davidssohnfrage," 72-82) and Juel (Messianic Exegesis, 142-44), who take our passage as a rabbinic-style reconciliation of contradictory scriptural expectations (the Davidic descent of the Messiah on the one hand, his exaltation to heaven on the other).

As Bultmann (407) points out, however, our passage cites only one scripture (Ps 110:1), not two. Its foil, moreover, is a scribal opinion, and in Mark such opinions are routinely refuted (see 2:6-8; 3:22-27; 7:5-13; 9:11-13; 11:27-33; 15:31-32) and the scribes as a class negatively evaluated (the scribe in 12:28-34 is an exception). Certainly, as Adamantius claims, pōs ("how") and pothen ("whence") can have a variety of meanings, depending on context (cf. de Jonge, "Jesus, Son of David," 99). But the OT passages he cites in favor of the interrogative interpretation are not apposite (pōs introduces exclamations rather than questions), and the immediate context here suggests that Jesus is aiming at refutation rather than reconciliation, since, again, no father calls his own son "lord." This would be especially true in the hierarchical Greco-Roman world, where "lord" and "son" were near opposites, the father being, so to speak, the lord of the son (cf. the household codes in Col 3:18-4:1; Eph 5:21-6:9).

On the face of it, then, our passage seems to be denying that the Messiah is "the Son of David." (847)

A traditional understanding of the Mark 12 passage doesn't require that we deny that Jesus is refuting a scribal opinion. What would be disputed is the identity of that opinion. Is Jesus refuting the opinion that the Messiah is a son of David? Or is he refuting the opinion that the Messiah is only a son of David? Either way, Jesus would be refuting the scribes. That doesn't tell us which scribal opinion he was refuting.

Marcus acknowledges that there's "overwhelming" reference to the Davidic ancestry of the Messiah in the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish literature (847), and the scribes Jesus is responding to would have already cited the relevant Old Testament passages on many occasions. Jesus wouldn't need to cite a particular passage in order for people to know what he was responding to. And since there are so many passages referring to the Messiah's Davidic ancestry, he may have wanted to cite the theme rather than bringing up a particular passage. Jesus is addressing two scriptural themes, even though he only cites one passage (Psalm 110:1). He was speaking in a context in which there wouldn't have been a need to cite a passage about Davidic ancestry, even if he had such passages in mind. The fact that he doesn't cite such a passage doesn't have much significance.

Besides, Jesus doesn't have to be using "a rabbinic-style reconciliation of contradictory scriptural expectations" in order for the traditional Christian view of Jesus' comments to be accurate. He could be refuting a common scribal misunderstanding of scripture without having to conform his refutation to rabbinic standards.

Jesus' argument makes more sense if he's supplementing Davidic ancestry rather than denying it. The lordship of the Messiah, which he derives from Psalm 110, doesn't contradict Davidic ancestry. But it does make the Messiah more than a son of David. Marcus' interpretation has Jesus asserting a contradiction where one doesn't exist. The traditional Christian interpretation, on the other hand, has Jesus using an argument that makes sense. Since the traditional Christian view doesn't attribute a nonsensical argument to Jesus, it's preferable.

Notice that Marcus makes so many appeals to contexts outside the passage (how Jesus interacts with the scribes elsewhere, how Jesus' terminology is used elsewhere, etc.). Yet, other aspects of the surrounding context work against the interpretation Marcus is suggesting. As he acknowledges, Bartimaeus affirms Jesus' Davidic ancestry in Mark 10:47-8, the crowd in 11:10 affirms it, and the positive portrayal of those individuals by Mark and the lack of any correction from Jesus suggest that those affirmations of Davidic ancestry are correct and were accepted by Jesus. Marcus keeps appealing to contexts outside the Mark 12 passage, but the outside contexts taken as a whole heavily favor the traditional view of Mark 12.

What we have in 12:35-7 is somewhat similar to Mark 3:32-5. In that passage, Jesus isn't denying that he has physical relatives. Rather, he's saying that spiritual relationships are more important.

What about Merz's citation of The Epistle Of Barnabas? Here's the passage she mentions:

"Observe again that it is Jesus, not a son of a man but the Son of God, and revealed in the flesh by a symbol. Since, however, they were going to say that the Messiah is the son of David, David himself, fearing and understanding the error of sinners, prophesied: 'The Lord said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'' And again, Isaiah says as follows: 'The Lord said to the Messiah my Lord, whose right hand I held, that the nations would obey him, and I will shatter the strength of kings.' Observe how David calls him 'Lord,' and does not call him 'son.'" (12, in Michael Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2005], 309)

The author seems to be addressing the same issue Jesus did in Mark 12, whether the Messiah is merely a son of David. For one thing, notice that the first sentence I've quoted above refers to how Jesus is "not a son of a man". The author obviously isn't denying that Jesus is human, but rather is denying that he's merely human. The comment about being a son of David, which follows just after, should be read the same way. Furthermore, The Epistle Of Barnabas refers to Matthew's gospel as scripture elsewhere (4), and Matthew explicitly and frequently refers to Jesus as a descendant of David. You have to take The Epistle Of Barnabas badly out of context to make it appear to deny Jesus' Davidic ancestry.

Perhaps Merz didn't intend to suggest that the document denies Davidic ancestry, but instead just meant to cite it in support of some lesser point. However, since The Epistle Of Barnabas is an early document that uses language like that of Mark 12, yet affirms Davidic ancestry, it does more to undermine Merz's argument than support it.

She goes on:

One explanation for this somewhat contradictory evidence may be found in the observation that the title "Son of David" was not exclusively connected to the political expectation of a future king from the line of David in Judaism. It has been convincingly shown that Jesus, as a successful exorcist, could have been linked to Solomon, the only person called "the son of David" in the Old Testament, who was also known as the most powerful exorcist and author of exorcistic literature in first-century Judaism. It is thus possible that the therapeutic (Solomonic) interpretation of the title "Son of David" predated its messianic (Davidic) interpretation when first applied to Jesus. (490)

Since we're looking for historical probability, appealing to a possibility doesn't have much significance.

Here are some problems with applying Merz's Solomonic hypothesis to Mark 10:47-8:

- Where's the precedent for referring to Solomon-like figures as a son of David? The fact that Biblical and extrabiblical sources refer to Solomon that way doesn't prove that there was any ancient practice of referring to Solomon-like figures in that manner. Even if there was such a practice, why think it was widespread enough that it better explains Bartimaeus' language than the traditional Christian interpretation does?

- Even if we set aside 10:47-8 and 12:35-7 for the sake of argument, 11:10 still suggests that Jesus, the crowd in 11:10, and Mark viewed Jesus as a descendant of David. So, the context provided by 11:10 argues for an interpretation of 10:47-8 that includes Davidic ancestry.

- The only other use of "son of David" in Mark's gospel is found in 12:35-7, where it's referring to a descendant of David. (Note that the passage in chapter 12 refers to a descendant of David even if we grant Merz's interpretation of that passage, so I'm not assuming my interpretation here.) Merz is proposing a second interpretation of the phrase that departs from Mark's use of it elsewhere, even though there's no problem with interpreting the phrase in chapter 10 the same way it's interpreted in chapter 12. She's proposing an unnecessary complication, which makes her interpretation inferior.

- The closest use of "son of" is in the passage under discussion, where Bartimaeus is referred to as "son of Timaeus" (verse 46). The phrase is used in the sense of "descendant of", as a description rather than a title, as opposed to the sense Merz is suggesting in verses 47-8.

- Merz's suggested interpretation is more complicated and misleading, which makes it a worse explanation of the text. Referring to a descendant of David as "son of David" is more straightforward than referring to somebody who wasn't a descendant of David as "son of David", because he's similar in other ways to another individual (Solomon) who was a descendant of David and therefore had the title Son of David.

- Bartimaeus was a blind man living in a lower-class context. The traditional Christian interpretation of "son of David" makes more sense coming from such an individual, since the alternative is more complicated and misleading, as explained above.

The traditional Christian understanding of Mark 10 makes far more sense than Merz's alternative.

She writes:

His [Jesus'] fellow villagers (Mark 6:1-6) and skeptical Jerusalemites (John 7:42) certainly were not [willing to attribute Davidic ancestry to Jesus], and Jesus' own reflections on the question of whether the Messiah could rightly be called a son of David (Mark 12:35-37) advise caution. (491)

I've responded to her appeal to Mark 6 elsewhere. Mark 12 was addressed earlier in this post.

The John 7 passage does refer to people who didn't think Jesus had Davidic ancestry. How knowledgeable were they?

John portrays them as part of a crowd in Jerusalem, a crowd that was largely ignorant, self-contradictory, and badly motivated (verses 12-3, 20, 25-7, 35-6, 40-1, 43, 49). Keep in mind that people were traveling to Jerusalem for the feast that was occurring, so some of them would have been coming from far away. Some members of the crowd ask "Is this not the man whom they are seeking to kill?" (verse 25), comments which suggest that at least some of the people in the crowd didn't have a lot of knowledge about Jesus. They were familiar with him to some extent, but not much. They go on to ask whether the religious authorities were now believers in Jesus (verse 26), which further suggests their ignorance.

Jesus' response to them in verses 28-9 also reflects poorly on them. His first two comments could be interpreted in a lot of ways. He could be saying that they have some knowledge of him and where he's from, such as that he's lived in Galilee, though the knowledge is partial and needs to be supplemented (by what he says in verses 28-9 and elsewhere). He could be making a point similar to one made by Paul in Romans 1:18, that these people know the truth, but are suppressing it. Or Jesus could be sarcastically saying that they know him and where he's from, with the sarcasm implying that they actually don't know what they think they know. Another possibility is that, as some commentators suggest (e.g., F.F. Bruce, Frederick Dale Bruner), Jesus is asking questions rather than making statements ("You know me? You know where I am from?").

Whether we adopt one of those interpretations or some other one, Jesus is rebuking and correcting these people in some manner, as suggested by the ignorance of the group's comments in verses 25-7, Jesus' remark that they don't know the Father, and the hostile reaction in verse 30. Later, in 8:12, Jesus corrects the sentiments expressed in both 7:27 and 7:42. In 8:14, Jesus says to the Pharisees he's addressing, "you do not know where I come from". In 8:19, he tells them, "You know neither me nor my Father". The Pharisees probably would have been more knowledgeable than the laymen cited in 7:25-7, so it seems unlikely that Jesus is attributing knowledge to the laymen that he denied the Pharisees had. Most likely, either Jesus is being sarcastic in his initial comments in 7:28 or he's questioning his critics rather than making affirmations about them.

Notice a pattern we see in John 7-9. Jesus' critics begin by saying that they know where he's from, that he's from Galilee (7:27, 7:41, 7:52). When Jesus alludes to his Davidic and Bethlehem origins in 8:12 and accuses his critics of ignorance of where he's from in 8:14, there's no longer a claim that he came from Galilee. They respond on other grounds (8:13, 8:19). The reference to Jesus as a Samaritan in 8:48 might be irrelevant, if it's only an epithet that isn't meant to claim Samaritan ancestry or if it's meant to refer to conversion to Samaritanism. Even if it is a claim of Samaritan ancestry, it's a ridiculous charge that's inconsistent with and less credible than their previous comments on Jesus' background. In 9:29, we see some Pharisees retreating even further, to the point where they say "we do not know where he is from". Most likely, different Pharisees and other opponents of Jesus had different levels of knowledge about his background. Some would have known that he had lived in Galilee for much of his life and would have incorrectly assumed that he was born there, some would have known about his Bethlehem birthplace and would have been silent about it, some would have lied about it, some would have been agnostic, etc. For example, the reference to being "from Galilee" in 7:52 might just refer to Jesus' living there for a long time, regardless of whether he was born there, and the claim that they don't know where Jesus is from in 9:29 might be disingenuous. There are a lot of ambiguities, given the language that's used and the shifting contexts (Jesus addressing different portions of different crowds under different circumstances). Still, at least the rhetoric of Jesus' opponents, as John records it, seems to be in steady retreat from chapter 7 to chapter 9. At the same time, Jesus is advancing his case. He initially implies his critics' ignorance about his origins (7:28-9), then gets more specific by alluding to his Davidic ancestry and Bethlehem birthplace (8:12), then explicitly tells his critics that they don't know where he's from (8:14). So, we see Jesus steadily advancing his case as his critics steadily retreat.

That's a much different situation than what Merz suggests. Citing a passage like 7:41-2 while ignoring the larger context is highly misleading.

It doesn't seem that the view expressed in 7:41-2 gained much of a foothold. The widespread acceptance of Jesus' Davidic ancestry elsewhere, including among Jesus' relatives and enemies, suggests that the people in question in John 7 were uninformed or misinformed. Similarly, when many Americans don't know where Barack Obama was born or think he was born somewhere other than where he actually was, we don't conclude that the traditional view of his birthplace is incorrect. The case for the traditional view of his birthplace doesn't depend on the nonexistence of dissenters.

Most of the arguments for Jesus' Davidic ancestry aren't addressed by Merz. You can read about some of the arguments here and here. The latter post focuses on Raymond Brown's material on the subject. Brown wrote the most widely respected work on the infancy narratives in modern scholarship, and Merz refers to that work as the most important in the field (n. 1 on 463). Brown's arguments are much weightier than Merz's, and she doesn't even attempt to answer them.

The ancestry of Jesus' family would have been discussed to some extent even before Jesus' life began. It's unlikely that Jesus' family would have even attempted, and even more unlikely that they would have gotten away with, changing their ancestral claims from non-Davidic to Davidic after Jesus was born. The relatives of Jesus who weren't Christians during his earliest decades would be especially unlikely to support such a change in ancestral claims during their skeptical years. Merz argues that even Mary was an unbeliever early on in Jesus' life and into the time of his public ministry, so this point carries even more force under Merz's scenario. By the time Jesus' family converted, it would have been too late to change the family's ancestral claims without leaving some traces of that change in the historical record. Jesus was already a highly public figure with a lot of enemies, in a context in which people had interest in his ancestry and ancestry in general. Merz acknowledges that Jesus' Davidic descent was widely accepted early on, as reflected in the early tradition Paul cites in Romans 1:3 (489). At the time, James was the leader of the Jerusalem church and sometimes traveled to other places (1 Corinthians 9:5), and Paul was closely associated with him (Acts 15:1-29, 1 Corinthians 15:3-11, Galatians 1:19, 2:9-10). At least one other brother of Jesus was alive at the time, had a leadership position in the church, and sometimes traveled (1 Corinthians 9:5). It's doubtful that the claim of Jesus' Davidic ancestry would have been so widespread without such relatives of Jesus knowing about the claim and accepting it. Even the author of Hebrews, who had an interest in portraying Jesus' background as priestly rather than Davidic and knew that he had the option of saying that Jesus' ancestral background was unknown or irrelevant (7:3), acknowledges that Jesus had Davidic ancestry and that the ancestry was so well known as to be "evident" (7:14). I've only outlined a portion of the evidence here, but I think it's clear that Merz's argument against Jesus' Davidic ancestry is much weaker than the argument for it.

(Other parts in the series: part 7, part 8, part 9.)

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