Friday, December 22, 2006

The Gospel Truth About Christmas

What is the truth about Christmas? During this time of the year you will find all kinds of television specials and magazine treatments on the history of Christmas. These specials will oftentimes call into question the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts. Since the announcement of the Pope's new book we've been dealing with the historical Jesus here. In this post, I want to deal with some of the issues related to the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke.

Matthew's Account
First off, let’s deal with Matthew. Scholars will often claim that Matthew 1-2 is a midrash. Midrash is an ancient rabbinic interpretive approach to the Old Testament, which is probably best known for adding or embellishing the biblical narratives. In other words, midrash incorporated fictional details into stories of Scripture. By arguing that Matthew 1-2 is a midrash, scholars are essentially arguing against the historical reliability of his account.

Is Matthew a midrash? There are a lot of issues involved here and I simply can't get into them all in one post. A great scholarly treatment can be found in Scott Cunningham and Darrell Bock, “Is Matthew Midrash,” in Bibliotheca Sarca 144 (1987): 157-180. I also recommend The Truth of Christmas: Beyond the Myth by Rene Larentin (originally published Les Evangiles des L’Enfance du Christ: Verité de Noël au-delà des mythes; Paris, 1982; trans., M. J. Wrenn et al.; Petersham, Mass.: St. Bede’s Publications). I also recommend Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: Matthew (San Francisco: Ignatius 2000) and The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: Luke (San Francisco: Ignatius 2000).

A few things. First, Matthew 1-2 is different stylistically from midrash. It is not based on an Old Testament text and it is not a retelling of an Old Testament story. It tells an entirely new story, introducing new characters and events. Craig Blomberg writes,
". . . all the examples of midrashic rewriting of Scripture deal with what was already ancient, canonical history by the time of the first century. There is very little evidence that Jewish authors embellished contemporary history in the same way" [The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 49].
Moreover, Matthew sees the events he records as fulfillments of OT prophecies. I like what Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch write: “Unless these events are anchored in history in the first place, it seems unlikely that Matthew would fabricate stories as if Jesus fulfilled the OT. Scripture was never really fulfilled if the events Matthew narrates never happened. In this case, Matthew’s exegesis of the OT would amount to little more than an exercise in self-delusion” [ICSB: Matthew, 20].

Furthermore, had Matthew been inventing a story to fit the OT prophecies one would expect something entirely different than what one finds in chapters 1 and 2. For example, Ps 72:10 and Is 60:3-6 are seen as fulfilled in the coming of the wise men—but the story does not neatly fit into these passages. Matthew calls the visitors “magi,” not kings and Jesus receives three gifts not two (gold and frankincense). He also alludes to rather obscure passages: “He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt 2:23) is a notoriously difficult verse. Likewise, in telling us about the return from the flight into Egypt, Matthew cites Hos 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”)―a passage no one would have expected to have a messianic fulfillment. Matthew is hardly assembling easily recognized, long held messianic hopes. The idea that Matthew is inventing this from cloth to simply prove Jesus’ messianic status stretches the imagination.

In addition, Matthew 1-2 coheres well with what we do know from other records. For example, we do know of Jewish colonies in Egypt at that time (e.g., Alexandria)—the holy family’s flight there fits in well with that information. Likewise, the description of magi from the east fits well with the historical evidence regarding Persian astrologers. As for the slaughter of the innocence―we know Herod frequently did away with those he feared as threats to his power. He had no qualms killing his wife, his three sons, members of the Hasmonean dynasty―why would he not kill the children of the Jews?

Luke's Account
What about Luke? The issues here revolve around Luke 2:1-2: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Three major problems emerge: identifying the year of Herod’s death, determining the nature of Augustus’ “enrollment,” and the chronology of Quirinius.

Herod’s death. This is important because we know Jesus was born during Herod’s reign―therefore, obviously, before his death. Most scholars today date his death to 4 B.C. His death was linked to a lunar eclipse—and since one occurred during March of 4 B.C. this year has been recognized as a perfect candidate. However, a growing number of scholars are recognizing problems with that view. Many are now looking at an eclipse that occurred in 1 B.C. (See John Pratt, “Yet Another Eclipse for Herod,” in Planetarian 19/4 (1990): 8-14). In fact, this would fit in well with the witness from the earliest Christians, who believed that Jesus was born between 3 and 2 B.C.

Caesar’s enrollment. Many people have dismissed this element as unhistorical since such enrollments have been seen as occurring for tax purposes and Herod, as king, would have collected his own taxes. Yet, many have argued that there may be another rationale behind the enrollment. Josephus recounts that Judea was required to take an oath of loyalty to Caesar during the end of Herod’s reign (Antiquities XVII. 41–45). Archeological evidence confirms it was taken in other places around 3 B.C. In fact, Orosius (5th cent) says Augustus required all to be enrolled with an oath. This oath apparently was established not long before 2 B.C., when Augustus came to be called “first of all men.”

Quirinius’ census. Quirinius’ role is the most difficult detail. Some scholars assert that Luke has made a mistake. We know that Quirinius became governor later and took a census in 6 A.D. Has Luke made a mistake. Why would Luke associate him with an earlier enrollment.

Luke's language here may be significant. In describing Quirinius, Luke uses the same term he uses for Pontius Pilate, a regional procurator, in 3:1, hegemon. Pilate was not a governor, but a regional authority. Perhaps Luke is indicating that Quirinius had some role as administrator prior to his appointment as governor. Justin Martyr testimony concurs with this as he records that Quirinius was procurator in Judea at this time (First Apology, 34).

In fact, Luke tells us that this was the "first" enrollment--implying he knows about a later one. He apparently mentions it in Acts 5:37.

Of course, as I explain to my students at John Paul the Great Catholic University, faith does not mean that we believe the Bible because we can prove every element in it. That was the failed project of the Enlightenment thinkers and the Deists (see the posts from November and December, especially the one on Pope Benedict on Historical Criticism!). That does not, however, mean we believe that the Gospels are false. The Gospels tell us what Jesus "really did and taught" (CCC 126). In truth, those who approach the Bible with an a priori rejection of its historical truth are often allowing a different kind of presupposition to limit their understanding of its meaning.


Kevin Beck said...

I just found your blog and I really love it. I'm not Catholic, but have read and listened to much of Scott Hahn's work. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing.

Merry Christmas,

Anonymous said...

Dear Mike:

Thank you for this post.