Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Response To Annette Merz On The Infancy Narratives (Part 9)

(Previous parts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.)

I want to conclude this series of responses to Merz by discussing how much Matthew and Luke agree about the childhood of Jesus. One of the most common criticisms of the infancy narratives is that they're too different. And critics often cite that objection as one of the most foundational reasons for rejecting the historicity of the accounts.

Merz cites a couple of resources on the agreements between Matthew and Luke:

Instructive lists of the agreements can be found in J.A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (AB 28; New York: Doubleday, 1981), 307; and P.M. McDonald, S. H. C. J., "Resemblances between Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2," in New Perspectives on the Nativity, 200-01. (n. 34 on 475)

And here are some of her comments on the differences between the two gospels:

Whereas Joseph is a resident of Bethlehem according to Matthew, and the birth seems to have taken place at his house, Mary is forced to give birth in a stable in Luke's account…

The contradictions between Matthew and Luke on the question of how the family happened to be present in Bethlehem and how the course of events developed after the baby's birth count heavily against historicity. Matthew presupposes Bethlehem as the hometown of Joseph, the son of David, and has the family move to Nazareth only much later, after the magi's visit and clandestine return had provoked Herod's slaughter of the innocents, which in turn caused the family's flight to Egypt, which allowed Matthew to cite another biblical proof text from Hos 11…In Luke, the family lives in Nazareth and comes to Bethlehem, the city of David, in obedience to the decree from Caesar Augustus that they should be enrolled in a world-wide census, and they return to Nazareth very quickly, stopping only to perform the necessary rituals in Jerusalem - the presentation of the child in the temple and the purification of the mother (40 days after birth, according to Lev 12). Within approximately seven weeks, the family was back in their hometown, Nazareth, and on the way back had stayed for several days in Jerusalem, undisturbed by any persecution or threat present there. Of course they never saw a glimpse of Matthew's magi but enjoyed the visit of some shepherds, who had been informed of the birth by many angels instead. Thus we are dealing with two totally different stories, each with a consistent chronology, which are impossible to harmonize. (476-8)

Recall what Merz said about the origins of the infancy narratives. She claims that "the whole infancy story [in Matthew] bears numerous traces of legendary retelling of scripture" (470), "no historically reliable traditions of Jesus' childhood have survived" (491), "no memory was extant" about Jesus' birth in the earliest decades after his death (491), "traditions were invented to meet the requirements of the beliefs that had developed" (491-2), etc.

Given her extremely negative view of the background to the infancy narratives and the narratives themselves, what should we see in Matthew and Luke? We ought to see them having the interests Merz suggests, such as paralleling the Old Testament and addressing later Christian concerns. The two gospels should have little in common, and what they have in common could easily be unhistorical. There should be differences that are so significant that the accounts are "totally different", "impossible to harmonize", and so forth.

Under a traditional Christian view of Matthew and Luke's material, how much agreement should we expect between the two gospels? They're largely addressing different timeframes. The best explanation for the reference to "two years old and under" in Matthew 2:16 is that the events of Matthew 2 occurred when Jesus was close to two years old. Luke doesn't narrate that portion of Jesus' life, much as Matthew doesn't include any equivalent to Luke's material about Jesus' adolescence (2:42-52). Even when they're covering the same timeframe, they often have a different level of knowledge and different interests. Matthew seems to have had more information about the events of the second chapter of his gospel than the events of the first chapter, which I'll elaborate on below. So, even though Matthew's timeframe in his first chapter overlaps with Luke's, he says much less than Luke does about that timeframe and less than he says about the events of his second chapter. Matthew focuses more on Joseph, and Luke has more of a focus on Mary. Luke tells us a lot about John the Baptist and his family around the time of John's birth, whereas Matthew doesn't narrate any of those events. Matthew was a Jew writing for a more Jewish audience, while Luke was a Gentile writing for a more Gentile audience, and their material differs accordingly. These and other differences have to be taken into account when making a judgment about how much the two gospels should have in common.

As far as I recall, Merz never discusses the implications of Matthew 2:16. I don't remember her addressing the subject, and the passage isn't accompanied by any of the page numbers from Merz's chapter in the book's scripture index. Some of her comments contrasting the material in the two gospels would have lost much or all of their force if she'd acknowledged that the gospels are addressing such different timeframes.

The claim that the gospels are impossible to reconcile is ridiculous. We've harmonized them on this blog, and many other people have harmonized them. Conservative commentaries on the gospels frequently address the relevant issues. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, two very liberal Jesus Seminar scholars, acknowledged, "It is not impossible to harmonize them." (The First Christmas [New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007], 23) As with so many other issues, Merz doesn't make much of an effort to interact with the counterarguments to her position.

Like other critics of the infancy narratives, she relies on some highly questionable assumptions and interpretations. Should Matthew 2:1 and 2:11 be taken to indicate that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem during the events of Matthew 1 and up to the time of Matthew 2? Does Matthew 2:22-3 suggest that they hadn't lived in Nazareth before? Do Luke 2:4 and 2:39 suggest that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth until the census led them to Bethlehem? Does Luke 2:39 imply that they returned to Nazareth just after the events mentioned at the beginning of that verse?

Keep in mind what I said in previous responses to Merz regarding the principles involved in interpretation and harmonization. I used the example of how the word "son" could be taken as a reference to a biological or adoptive relationship. A document that initially seems to refer to a biological relationship ought to be interpreted as referring to an adoptive relationship instead when warranted by the larger context. We apply these principles in our everyday lives. As I demonstrated, Merz herself applies these principles in her chapter that I'm responding to. She sometimes harmonizes sources, takes phrases to have something other than their most common meaning, and allows an earlier document to be qualified by what we're told in a later document written by a different author. And that's true of critics of the infancy narratives in general, not just Merz. They let Josephus, Tacitus, Dio Cassius, and other sources qualify each other when discussing Augustus, Herod the Great, Quirinius, etc.

I cited three passages from Matthew 2 that are supposed to imply the location of previous individuals and events. But why are we relying on implications? The absence of geographical references in chapter 1 is significant. Matthew says a lot about geography in his second chapter (verses 1, 3, 5-6, 8, 13-16, 20-23). And notice that he includes references to geography in chapter 2 when the location has already been implied. Jerusalem is mentioned again in verse 3 after having been mentioned in verse 1, Bethlehem is unnecessarily mentioned twice in verses 5-6, Egypt is mentioned again in verse 14 without a need for its having been mentioned again, etc.

Raymond Brown refers to how geography has "a major role" in chapter 2 (The Birth Of The Messiah [New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999], 607). W.D. Davies and Dale Allison wrote:

"There are, in fact, no geographical notices at all in chapter 1. This is in striking contrast to chapter 2, where geography is a central theme….The query, 'where' [in Matthew 2:4], signals a leading theme of Mt 2. It is implicitly asked three times, and three different answers are given, each based upon Scripture." (Matthew 1-7 [New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010], 197, 232)

John Nolland notes some other material that's missing from chapter 1:

"In the larger shape of Matthew's narrative it is a little surprising to have the location and timing of Jesus' birth introduced for the first time here [in Matthew 2:1] and not at the point where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus first enter the narrative...Matthew offers no comment on how it is that the birth happened to take place in Bethlehem." (The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005], 107)

Similarly, Craig Evans comments that it's "surprising" that Matthew says so little about Jesus' birth in 2:1 (Matthew [New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012], 49). We also see differences between the events of the first two chapters in terms of how many people are included, how much they say, etc.

It seems that Matthew has less information about the events of his first chapter than the events of chapter 2. He has a lot of interest in geography, as chapter 2 demonstrates, yet he doesn't discuss it in chapter 1. He probably didn't know much about where the events of chapter 1 occurred. His comments in 2:22-3 aren't meant to imply where Jesus and his family were prior to the events of chapter 2. It's Matthew's ignorance of the family's previous location, not an affirmation that they had never lived in Nazareth before, that's behind the wording of 2:22-3. Notice that I'm not just speculating here, but am offering an explanation for the evidence provided by the differences between chapters 1 and 2.

Matthew's restraint in chapter 1, even though he had so much interest in geography and other matters he says a lot more about in chapter 2, suggests that he was being honest and careful. It makes him more credible as a historical source. If he wanted us to conclude that Bethlehem was the location of the individuals and events of chapter 1, he probably would have included one or more references to Bethlehem in that chapter, just as geography is so prominent in chapter 2.

Normally, a family said to be in a house in Bethlehem (2:11) would have lived there for a long time previously. And we'd expect Joseph and Mary to have lived in Bethlehem long before Jesus was born there (2:1). Merz is right about those implications of the passages. But those implications are based on what normally happens in such situations, and there often are exceptions to the norm. It doesn't take much evidence to justify a conclusion that something other than the norm has occurred. People often change locations. For example, my family moved to another state shortly after I was born. That's a common experience. If Matthew 2 were all we had to go by, we'd conclude that Jesus' parents probably lived in Bethlehem for a long time before Jesus' birth and remained there up to the point of Matthew 2:14. But that probability is so low that it doesn't take much to overcome it. The evidence we have from Luke and other sources is more than enough to overcome the probability Merz is appealing to. My harmonization of Matthew and Luke in this context is comparable to Merz's harmonization of Paul and Mark on the nature of the relationship between Jesus and his brothers, which I discussed in previous posts (here and here).

Matthew's restraint about geographical matters in chapter 1 has an implication beyond what I've discussed above. If the family's residence in a house in Bethlehem in chapter 2 implies an earlier Bethlehem residence, why didn't Matthew consider that implication sufficient grounds for referring to Bethlehem as the location of the events of chapter 1? In other words, it's not just that Matthew is silent on the location of the chapter 1 events. He's silent even when the location is implied by other information he has. Why would he be silent in that situation? Maybe he was just being careful, since the implication of a Bethlehem location of the chapter 1 events could so easily have been wrong. It's also possible that his source(s) had told him that the family had moved to Bethlehem shortly before Jesus' birth, but didn't tell him where they were previously. So, he knew that Joseph and Mary were in a different location prior to Jesus' birth, but he didn't know what that location was. Either way, Matthew's silence on geography in chapter 1, even though chapter 2 implies a Bethlehem location for the first chapter, should make us more cautious about concluding that Matthew thought of Bethlehem as the location of all of the chapter 1 events.

Were Joseph and Mary both from Nazareth in Luke's gospel, as Merz claims, which is something she takes to be a contradiction of Matthew? Luke does tell us that Mary lived in Nazareth prior to the events in the second chapter of his gospel. Did Joseph live there? Did he live there only? Remember what I said in my last post about how Joseph seems to have had property and/or family in Bethlehem. Luke 2:3 refers to how each census participant went to his own city. Verse 4 begins by telling us that Joseph "also" went from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The implication is that Bethlehem is "his own city" (verse 3). Why did he come to Bethlehem from Nazareth, then? Stephen Carlson has offered the best explanation I'm aware of. He argues, in an article you can read here, that Joseph was following the marriage custom of his day, which involved his going to where the bride lived and taking her back to where he lived for the wedding. It's also possible that Joseph owned property in and lived in both locations or sometimes stayed with a relative in one location while owning property in the other. Whether it was one of those scenarios or something else, Joseph's association with Bethlehem in verse 4 and the evidence for his wedding with Mary in Bethlehem need to be explained. The suggestion that Luke has Mary and Joseph both coming from Nazareth, without further qualification, is misleading.

Doesn't Luke 2:39 say that they both came from Nazareth, though? It could be saying that, but it would then need to be reconciled with the evidence from 2:4 and the evidence for a wedding in Bethlehem. 2:39 could be saying that they had lived in Nazareth, but without any intention of denying that Joseph had also lived in Bethlehem or that they had family they could stay with there. Or 2:39 could be referring to Nazareth as the place Joseph and Mary would make their home in the future, regardless of their past relationship with the city (much as hell is referred to as Judas' place in Acts 1:25, even though Judas hadn't been in hell previously; cf. Philippians 3:20, Hebrews 11:9-10, 11:14, 11:16, 13:14). See Stephen Carlson's comments on the subject on page 338 of his article I cited earlier.

But keep in mind that even if Merz were correct, even if we assumed that Joseph and Mary came from Nazareth, it would be easy to reconcile that fact with Matthew's gospel. What Luke tells us about Joseph and Mary's background is more complicated than Merz suggests. However, she would be wrong about how Luke's material relates to Matthew's even if she were correct about Joseph and Mary's background in Luke.

What about the popular objection that Matthew 2:11, which refers to a house, contradicts Luke 2:7, which refers to an inn? Merz even refers to Jesus' birth in "a stable" in Luke. Actually, both gospels are referring to a house. See Stephen Carlson's discussion of the subject. And Matthew 2:11 and Luke 2:7 are addressing two significantly different timeframes, so how much agreement should we be expecting to begin with?

Does Luke 2:39 suggest that Joseph and Mary went to Nazareth just after the events mentioned at the beginning of the verse? Even if 2:39 were making that suggestion, how would it follow that there's a contradiction between Luke and Matthew? If Joseph had property and/or family in Bethlehem, as Luke suggests, then Joseph and Mary would have had reason to sometimes visit the city. Joseph could have had carpentry work in or near Bethlehem at times and, therefore, have had reason to stay in Bethlehem, perhaps sometimes with his family. And since Bethlehem is near Jerusalem, it would have been a good place for them to have stayed when they visited Jerusalem for religious festivals (2:41) or for other reasons. Even if Luke hadn't told us about Joseph's connection with Bethlehem, hadn't implied that Joseph and Mary had their wedding there, and hadn't mentioned the family's frequent visits to nearby Jerusalem, we'd still have to leave open the possibility that they would go to Bethlehem later for reasons unknown to us. It would be easy to reconcile Matthew and Luke even if Merz's reading of Luke 2:39 were correct.

But is it? Luke seems to want to communicate that two things were accomplished, the fulfilling of the law and a move to Nazareth, and that the latter didn't occur until after the former. It doesn't follow that nothing happened between the two or that only a small amount did. Most likely, Joseph and Mary would have at least gathered their belongings together and made other preparations for the move to Nazareth between the time when they fulfilled the requirements of the law and the time when they left for Nazareth. They wouldn't have gone to Nazareth immediately after the last requirement of the law was fulfilled. Similarly, Acts 13:29 doesn't require that Jesus was removed from the cross immediately after those who crucified him had fulfilled all of the relevant prophecies. Rather, Jesus remained on the cross for some time (Luke 23:52). The timespan between the completion of "all that was written concerning him" (Acts 13:29) and his being removed from the cross was short, but there was some time between the two. Luke's (and Paul's) point in 13:29 is that the removal from the cross occurred only after the fulfillment of all that was prophesied about Jesus. The point isn't that the removal occurred immediately after the fulfillment of the last prophecy, as if no time could pass between the two. Some time could pass, and the same is likely true of Luke 2:39. Just as 1:80 briefly summarizes a large amount of time in John the Baptist's life to conclude the narrative of his childhood, so 2:39-40 briefly summarizes a large amount of time in Jesus' life to conclude the narrative of his earliest years, which 2:51-2 will likewise do with a later portion of his life. That sort of summarizing context increases the plausibility of the passing of weeks, months, or years in 2:39 instead of the passing of some shorter period of time.

Matthew and Luke can be reconciled without much difficulty in these contexts in which Merz claims that there are contradictions. Even if we grant much of what Merz is arguing for - that Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth prior to their participation in the census; that Matthew was unaware of that Nazareth residence; that Matthew 2:1 suggests that all of the events in Matthew 1 occurred in Bethlehem if we interpret Matthew apart from Luke and other sources; that Luke 2:7 isn't referring to a house Joseph owned, a house owned by one or more of his relatives, or anything like that; that Luke 2:7 is referring to a stable in which Jesus was born; that Luke 2:39 is referring to a return to Nazareth just after the events mentioned at the beginning of the verse - there still isn't much difficulty involved in reconciling the two gospels. It's absurd for her to claim that the two have "totally different stories", are "impossible" to harmonize, etc.

When discussing Matthew and Luke's agreements, a subject Merz doesn't say much about, she cites the lists of agreements compiled by Joseph Fitzmyer and Patricia McDonald. She tells us that the lists are "instructive", but doesn't tell us how much she agrees with the lists. Fitzmyer's is ridiculously short. It only includes twelve items. McDonald includes twenty-three, but she gets to that number by including some agreements as vague as "an angel appears to a male figure", "light imagery is used", and "spilling of male children's blood [in the Slaughter of the Innocents and the circumcision of John the Baptist and Jesus]" (in Jeremy Corley, ed., New Perspectives On The Nativity [New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2009], 201). If Merz's reference to Fitzmyer and McDonald's lists as "instructive" was meant to imply that McDonald's list illustrates how difficult it is to find a larger number of agreements between the two gospels, then she's mistaken. The agreements between Matthew and Luke are more numerous than Fitzmyer and McDonald claim and more substantial than McDonald's list suggests. See the examples I provide here. In that article, I'm addressing Matthew and Luke's writings as a whole, not just the infancy narratives. But even if my material on the infancy narratives is singled out, my list demonstrates that the agreements between the two are more significant than Fitzmyer and McDonald suggest. My list isn't meant to be exhaustive. Matthew and Luke agree on more than the thirty points I discuss.

Keep in mind that we shouldn't be expecting much agreement. They're covering such different timeframes. The authors come from such different backgrounds, have such different levels of interest in the individuals and groups involved in Jesus' childhood, etc. The dozens of points they agree about take on more significance when you realize how little agreement we should expect to begin with and how easily they could have agreed less than they do.

Where the two gospels agree, do their agreements seem to have the characteristics Merz suggests? If the authors were as unconcerned about history as Merz claims, if they produced two "totally different stories", if "no historically reliable traditions of Jesus' childhood have survived", if "no memory was extant" about Jesus' birth in the earliest decades after his death, if "traditions were invented to meet the requirements of the beliefs that had developed", would we expect the two gospels to agree as they do?

Matthew and Luke agree that Mary became pregnant while engaged to Joseph, for example. Why would they have agreed about a situation so unexpected, so embarrassing, so easily used against Christianity by its critics, and so easy to avoid? They agree about the virgin birth. But few or no Jews were expecting the Messiah to be born of a virgin, and the concept diminishes Jesus' Davidic ancestry, which was one of the most explicit, widespread, and commonly accepted Old Testament Messianic expectations. The two gospels agree in portraying Jesus as different than Moses, David, and other Old Testament figures in significant ways, even though Merz and other critics often claim that the accounts of Jesus' childhood were fabricated in imitation of such Old Testament individuals. In a previous post, I discussed how poorly Merz's appeal to Old Testament typology explains the infancy narratives. She claims that "traditions were invented to meet the requirements of the beliefs that had developed", yet Matthew and Luke say little or nothing in their infancy narratives about the death and resurrection of Jesus, the events that both of their gospels place so much focus on and conclude with. The infancy narratives also say little or nothing about a lot of controversial matters that come up in Acts, Paul's letters, other New Testament letters, Revelation, and the early patristic literature. Matthew and Luke agree about Jesus' childhood in ways that meet the criterion of embarrassment. They agree in exercising restraint in contexts in which it would have benefited them to have not been so restrained. They agree on unusual details that couldn't have been anticipated by Old Testament Messianic expectations, the culture of their day, or some other such source. They agree on points that add coherence to what we read in Paul, Mark, and other early sources. They agree on matters they could easily have disagreed about. Accounts that are as unhistorical and contradictory as Merz claims wouldn't agree about dozens of subjects in that manner. And if they were so unhistorical and contradictory, there would be far better arguments to use against them than Merz's.

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