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Ian Paul offers an interesting line of defense of Luke’s general historicity with regard to the census in Luke’s birth narrative. Commenting on the historiographical tendencies of both Luke and Josephus, he suggests an alternative translation of Luke 2:2 that seems to account for the historical and linguistic peculiarities of the text:
Marshall notes that ‘the form of the sentence is in any case odd’ (p 104); why say something was ‘first’ when there is nothing to compare it with? Stephen Carlson has looked even more closely, and also noted that the verb egeneto also seems strange; why suggest the census ‘became’ something, rather than that it simply ‘was’? Carlson suggests that prote, rather than ‘first’ numerically, should be read as ‘of most importance’—much as we might say ‘so-and-so is Arsenal’s Number One player.’ This would then give the translation as:
This registration became most prominent when Quirinius was governing Syria.
This [decree to get registered] became the/a most important registration when Quirinius was governing Syria.
In the end, the mystery of the conflict between Luke and Josephus remains unsolved and (as Marshall puts it) ‘can hardly be solved without the discovery of fresh evidence.’ But these arguments at least offer a plausible explanation—and when considering questions of history, proof is rarely possible, but plausibility is an important measure. It certainly offers no grounds to write off Luke’s account, think it unhistorical or a fabrication, or see it as in conflict with Matthew.
I somehow missed this article when it came out in New Testament Studies a few years back, but Brice C. Jones has the scoop on Stephen Carlson’s interpretation of the κατάλυμα (katalyma) in Luke 2:7, traditionally—yet erroneously—rendered “inn.”
I don’t know of any adult Bible readers who think of this space as the Bethlehem equivalent of a Motel 6. I’ve usually heard it explained as the guest room of a private home. Carlson’s interpretation takes it one step further by paying close attention to the marital and living customs of first-century Judaism:
“Luke’s infancy narrative therefore presupposes the following events. Joseph took his betrothed Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem (2.5). Bethlehem was his hometown (v. 3) and, in accordance with the patrilocal marital customs of the day, it must also have been the place where they finalized their matrimonial arrangements by bringing her into his home. As a newly married man, he no longer would have to sleep in the main room of the village house with his other relatives, but he and his bride could stay in a marital chamber attached to the house until they could get a place of their own. They stayed there for some time until she came to full term (v. 6), and she gave birth to Jesus in the main room of the house rather than in her marital apartment because it was too small, and she laid the newborn in one of those mangers (v. 7) common to the main room of an ancient farmhouse. After staying at least another forty days in Bethlehem (v. 22; cf. Lev 12.2–8), Joseph and Mary eventually moved to Nazareth to make their home together in her family’s town (v. 39; cf. 1.26–27). To be sure, this scenario as presupposed in Luke’s infancy account diverges greatly from the conventional Christmas story. There is no inn, no innkeeper, and no stable. But it is grounded in a careful exegesis of the text.”
Wednesday night Bible study tonight delved into Matthew’s version of the genealogy of Jesus. This got me thinking about a series of posts I wrote a few years back about this topic, which I thought I’d link to again for those who either missed it the first time around or wanted a refresher.
New at The Bible and Interpretation: Isaac W. Oliver, “Do Christians Have to Keep the Torah? The Cases of Matthew and Luke-Acts.”
For a long time it was not uncommon to posit that Jesus was responsible for the dispensation of such practices [as kosher rules, the Sabbath, etc.]. Jesus was the first “Christian,” who had come to announce the end of the Torah and Judaism. Draining Jesus of his Jewishness reached its unfortunate peak with the rise of Nazism when Jesus was even cast by some as an Aryan! However, ever since the end of World War II, the Jewishness of Jesus has been gradually resurfacing. “Blame” for the Christian distancing from Jewish practice has shifted instead to Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles. Traditionally, Paul has been viewed as an “apostate” from Judaism who founded a new religion, Christianity. Yet even Paul’s relationship to his Jewish heritage, including the complex question of his attitude toward the Torah, is being revisited and intensely debated among scholars of early Judaism and Christianity. It is also becoming clearer that many early Christians continued to conceive of their faith in Jewish terms and even identify themselves with the Jewish people and story for longer than previously thought. Social scientific analysis of early Christianity and Judaism further reminds us that the social reality on the ground was always more complicated than the idealist and often polemical depictions found in some of the early Christian literature that has survived history. Many of the early Christian works that have been preserved were written by Christian intellectuals—often opposed to Judaism and the observance of Jewish custom—who tried to assert their theological ideals and norms upon other Christians. The average Christian on the street, however, might have cared little about what some of these church fathers wrote or preached from the pulpit. As late as the fourth century of the Common Era, John Chrysostom, was vociferously (and in some ways helplessly) trying to convince his Christian parishioners in Antioch not to attend services at synagogues and observe Jewish festivals (see his work, Against the Jews). Certainly, the surviving literature does not tell us the whole story about the complex history of Jewish-Christian relations.
This will definitely be on my syllabus the next time I teach New Testament.
Tim Henderson relates (confesses?) that he is now only 51% convinced of the two-source hypothesis. Namely, that Matthew and Luke both used Mark and Q as sources for their Gospels. In a post at Earliest Christianity, he summarizes a portion of Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective dealing with the evidence from Papias for the early history of the Gospels.
Watson is the latest big name to argue in favor of the alternative Farrer hypothesis: Matthew used Mark as a source, Luke used both Mark and Matthew, and there was no Q.
At one point in his argument, Watson turns to the evidence from Papias and suggests that it may, in fact, point toward something like the “Farrer” theory. I will summarize his points briefly, hopefully not doing them a disservice in the process.
Luke implies in his prologue that previous gospels were not properly ordered, or at least that his gospel is more properly ordered than those of his predecessors.
Papias explicitly states that one of the inadequacies of Mark’s gospel is that it was not written “in order,” and that it is not “an ordered account.” Therefore, both Luke and Papias share the view that Mark’s account is not as orderly as it could have been.
It appears that Papias discusses Mark first, followed immediately by Matthew, since this is the order in which Eusebius mentions things.
When the topic shifts from Mark to Matthew, Papias introduces his commentary with the word “So” (Greek οὖν): “So Matthew set the sayings in order in the Hebrew language, and each person translated them as far as he was able.” This further suggests that, in Papias’ understanding, Matthew wrote after Mark.
Papias states that, in contrast to Mark’s disordered account, Matthew has written an orderly account and apparently improved upon Mark’s work.
Papias’ statement claims that other gospel writers used Matthew’s gospel as a source, translating (“interpreting”?) Matthew’s gospel for their own new gospels.
What if the only thing Papias gets wrong is the “Hebrew” language of Matthew? Watson suggests that this detail is apologetically motivated – it emphasizes the authenticity of Matthew’s version, since it preserves Jesus’ words in their original language. But once Matthew’s gospel is written in Hebrew, it would need to be translated into Greek by later gospel writers who used it as a source. If Watson is correct on this point, I think his reading of Papias is quite compelling in many ways.
The Gospel of Mark was the first draft of a doctoral candidate’s dissertation. He submitted it to his advisor who suggested the need for more background information about Jesus’ birth, maybe some more teaching material, and a stronger ending. The student rewrote his dissertation and submitted the Gospel of Matthew.
His advisor thought the revision was much stronger but felt that the teaching material should be better integrated into the narrative, thought a story about Jesus’ youth might be helpful, and suggested that the genealogy could be expanded back to Adam, etc. The PhD candidate did another major revision and produced the Gospel of Luke.
Once again the advisor was critical and asked for major revisions. Frustrated, the student took drugs and wrote the Gospel of John. – Jordan R. Scharf
(H/T: James McGrath)
I have to say that there are two approaches to the Gospels which I ardently despise. First, some über-secularists want to read the Bible as nothing more than a deposit of silly ancient magic, mischievous myths, whacky rituals, and surreal superstitions. They engage in endless comparisons of the Bible with other mythic religions to flatten out the distinctive elements of the story. Added to that is advocacy of countless conspiracy theories to explain away any historical elements in the text. This approach is coupled with an inherent distaste for anything supernatural, pre-modern, and wreaking of religion. Such skeptics become positively evangelical in their zealous fervor to prove that nothing in the Bible actually happened. Second, then there are those equally ardent Bible-believers who want to treat the Bible as if it fell down from heaven in 1611, written in ye auld English, bound in pristine leather, words of Jesus in red, complete with Scofield footnotes, and charts about the end-times. Such persons regard exploring topics like Johannine chronology just as religiously affronting as worshipping a life size golden statue of Barack Obama. Now I have to say that both approaches bore the proverbial pants off me. They are equally dogmatic as they are dull. They are uninformed as they are unimaginative. There is another way!
Interesting thought to ponder from Jeff Dunn at Internet Monk:
Who among us has even the slightest skill, talent, or possession to impress God? Which one of us can say, “I have what it takes to follow Jesus for one year? One month? One week? Day? Hour? Second?” No, not even one second. No, you don’t. Don’t even tell me how you have it in you to follow Jesus for one brief second. You don’t. I don’t. The tower builder didn’t. Neither did the king.
And that is just what Jesus was teaching. Go ahead and take an inventory of your money and possessions if you want, but you don’t have what it takes. You will fail if you set off on your own to do what only God can do. This is not a story of the cost of discipleship. No—it is about the cost of non-discipleship. It is about the folly of not abandoning all to follow Jesus. All. Give it all up, starting with your precious “family values.” Continue on to the talents and skills you have developed in building things. All the tools you have acquired. Then let’s look at the strength of the army you have surrounded yourself with. None of it is worth talking about, Jesus says. Don’t be bringing fruit punch to a whisky party.
The Seventh Lesson:
The shepherds go to the manger.
That night some shepherds were in the fields outside the village, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terribly frightened, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news of great joy for everyone! The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born tonight in Bethlehem, the city of David! And this is how you will recognize him: You will find a baby lying in a manger, wrapped snugly in strips of cloth!”
Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and peace on earth to all whom God favors.”
When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Come on, let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this wonderful thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (Luke 2:8-16, NLT)
“Go Tell It on the Mountain”
Doug Chaplin is pondering a few commonalities, including “a clear verbal parallel at the core,” between Matthew and Luke’s versions of the story of Jesus’ birth. What if Matthew didn’t “invent” his story of Mary’s virginal conception in order to fit his messianic interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 but rather appealed to Isaiah 7:14 to explain a detail he already knew from his Jesus tradition?
Matthew is certainly keen on demonstrating Jesus as the fulfilment of prophecy, and capable of moving backwards and forwards between prophecy and the Jesus story. We must therefore weigh each instance to see whether it is more likely that Matthew has come up with a detail which (absent any real knowledge) must have happened in this way because of what the prophet said, or whether he has decided this or that verse is a prophecy because it fits with the Jesus tradition as he has received it.
It is certainly plausible, for example, to think that either Matthew or his tradition come up with the birthplace in Bethlehem because of Micah’s prophecy (though I’m not fully persuaded). It seems to me a good deal less plausible that a virgin birth should be invented on the basis of a verse no-one else ever seems to have taken as Messianic. I would be more inclined to think that this is Matthew “scripturizing” (a term I owe to Mark Goodacre) the tradition he has received, and justifying the rather odd new Christian belief about Messiah for his somewhat beleaguered Judeo-Christian community.
If I’m right, that Matthew is innovative in offering this rather odd reading of Isaiah 7:14 because of a prior belief about Jesus, perhaps it may also be a further reason for thinking he is working with a pre-existing tradition about the birth of Jesus, and indeed, one he shares with Luke.