Friend and fellow Kiwi blogger, Peter Carrell, blogged recently about the historicity of the Gospel birth narratives (in response to a comment of mine).
I hope I am fair in my summary of his post:
“The invention hypothesis” would have Matthew expanding Mark’s gospel from the perspective of Joseph, while Luke does so from the perspective of Mary.
Put like that, why would we have any regard at all for either Matthew or Luke’s accounts of the birth of Jesus as historical narratives? Why not treat them as sheer fiction relative to the actual but unknown historical facts of Jesus’ birth and as narratival theology on a par with the explicitly theological prologue of John’s Gospel? And, of course, if we head towards the conclusion that the narratives are not historical, why not cast doubt on the miraculous conception of Jesus?
Peter goes on to observe that “if the accounts cannot be proven to be historical, neither can they be proven to be unhistorical.” He points out that the birth narratives are not in Q (“the common source for non-Markan material in Matthew and Luke”) but there are still points in common between Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives: “Jesus’ mother is Mary, his step-father is Joseph. His conception is miraculous. His birth is in Bethlehem. His upbringing is in Nazareth.” He argues that the uniqueness of Jesus may have unique events around his birth, and that there is nothing intrinsically impossible in the stories.
He concludes “there are… significant reasons for not moving …to determining that we “know” there is little or no history involved in the narratives. …There is no other history available to us.”
A better approach?
Peter then (humbly) points to “a much better post …by Ian Paul”. I think Peter is wrong. I think Peter’s is by far the better approach.
Ian Paul argues that he cannot see any changes in style (between history and unhistorical), that a midrash approach to the Hebrew Bible would not lead to the texts we have, and that (for example) the magi, elsewhere, do not get positive press and so would not have been at hand for Matthew’s inventing their place in his story. To this last point I would remind readers that we may be reading the text through pretty-Christmas-cards-and-children’s-nativity-plays lenses. Matthew may not be having the magi giving allegorical presents at all, this may be the magi giving up their old ways and false spirituality with a sign of handing over the tools of their trade to the infant messiah.
Most importantly, here is Ian Paul’s conclusion that needs strong challenging:
if God in Jesus did not outwit Herod, on what grounds might we think he can outwit ‘the Herods of this world’? More fundamentally, Matthew and his first readers appeared to believe that the claims about Jesus were ‘parabolically true’ because these things actually happened. If none of them did, what grounds do we now have? Even if the events we read about are heavily interpreted, there is an irreducible facticity in testimony; if this has gone, we ought to question the value of the testimony itself.
Let’s deal with his first question first: the logic that because we say pious things in sermons (“Jesus outwits the Herods of this world”) therefore it actually, historically happened, patently does not follow.
The idea that everything in the gospels is historically accurate, and that if we question the historicity of one part we pull at a thread which means the whole of our weaving completely unravels and we are left with nothing, is false. It is the weak (read ‘false’) argument used by so many atheists and discreditors of Christianity.
Only recently, in a perfectly reasonable online conversation, an anti-theist troll thought to reject my points merely because I am a theist. He tried to shift the conversation by listing off a (clearly regularly used copy-and-paste-of-his) seeming contradictions in the Bible as if that would destroy my faith! I didn’t respond, but, as a daily studier of the Bible, I would be able to produce a much longer list than his.
On the other hand, I recently came across a Christian arguing that God put contradictions in the Bible to weed out the atheists!
All the Bible is True. Some of it happened.
No reputable historian would say that there is no history beneath Matthew’s gospel. Ian Paul is arguing that there are only two options: either all of the gospel of Matthew is historically accurate, or none of it is.
I think Peter’s conclusion that we cannot, with the information we have, argue Matthew’s infancy narrative lacks historical basis, is a reasonable conclusion. Ian Paul’s is not.
I would see the infancy narratives as overtures for the greater work of art to follow. Many of Matthew’s themes are set up there – Jesus the new Moses (coming out of Egypt); Joseph the new Joseph (his father is Jacob, dreams, etc); the message for all nations (prefigured in the Magi); etc.
Some of the discussions assume the author of the text of Matthew’s Gospel, as we now have it, is the eyewitness, Matthew the apostle. Although the apostle may undergird certain layers of the final text, I hold to the final document expanding Mark, and so cannot follow such an authorship position.
We are dealing with ancient texts with a long history of development, with genres, approaches, and assumptions in which they were agile and we now struggle with. Texts, even today, have a variety of ways of conveying truth – metaphor, poetry, allegory, hyperbole, and irony can convey truth in a way that a direct, scientific flat description would completely fail to sustain.
We do not have to go down the minimalist route, using tools that cut down to be historical only to that of which we can be absolutely certain. But we need to be honest that some of the material we cannot be certain whether this is history as it is presented, or something else – where the message conveyed outweighs the historicity.
Yes, the Gospels are absolutely true, and much of them actually happened.
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