Monday, January 5, 2015

On hiatus...but wait, Epiphany!

I haven't posted anything on the blog in the last week or so; this is because I am under a deadline with a new anthology of Christian apocryphal writings that I'm co-editing. Its working title is More Christian Apocrypha, and it's being published by Eerdmans. Once my co-editor Tony Burke and I get it sent off to the publisher in a week or so, I'll resume fairly regular blogging.

In the meantime, you might like to check out my article on the Magi for the Bible Odyssey website (Bible Odyssey is the Society of Biblical Literature's public face, and has tons of great resources written by scholars), which they're front-paging for Epiphany! Early Christian traditions about the Magi is what I've spent most of my career thus far working on, particularly the strange text known as the Revelation of the Magi. I am including an introduction and summary of this text in the More Christian Apocrypha anthology, and here's a link to the hopefully final version of that piece if you'd like to take a look.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Why scholars believe the Christmas story isn't historical, part 4

Back to the WINAH series. Reason #4 that scholars doubt the historicity of the Christmas story is that both Matthew and Luke's narratives contain miraculous phenomena, and miracles don't happen.

There. I've said it.

Actually, I've simplified the issue more than I'm comfortable doing. Some scholars might be okay with an outright rejection of miraculous phenomena, just as some scholars would immediately say that "anti-supernatural bias" should have no place in serious historical investigation (though strangely, a rejection of "anti-supernatural bias" only seems to leave the door open for Christian miracles...but I digress).

As for me, well, I teach a class called "Religion, the Supernatural, and the Paranormal" (syllabus here), which might imply that I have a certain amount of openness to the notion that some very weird stuff has happened and continues to happen throughout the world (Winston Zeddemore frames the matter slightly differently). So I am not one to automatically rule out the "miraculous." However, I do tend to be more receptive to miraculous claims that are multiply attested--things that more than one person claims to have experienced. Therefore, I don't think it's impossible that people really (whatever that means) saw Jesus alive after his death; after all, there are a number of independent reports of such phenomena from early Christian writings, and other reports of post-mortem contact with the dead in what appear to be flesh and blood bodies are numerous.

And multiple attestation is precisely what most of the miraculous phenomena (and non-miraculous as well, as we will see in future posts in this series) in the infancy narratives lack. Matthew's star marks out a single house in Bethlehem as the residence of the Messiah, and yet no other independent sources testify to this incident. Outside of Matthew and Luke, no other sources report that Jesus was the product of a virginal conception and birth. Yes, Matthew and Luke do seem to both report this independently, but in this case, there is a fairly plausible alternative explanation for how such a tradition arose that doesn't require a miracle.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Are Matthew and Luke completely independent narratives?

UPDATE: check out the exchange between Tony Burke and me in the comments.

This post is mainly a reminder for me to come back and investigate a question more fully (since part of what I envision this blog being for is to kick around ideas that I might want to write about). If it sparks other people to think about the issue, so much the better. 

Reason #1 that the infancy narratives aren't historical had to do with the stories of Matthew and Luke being completely different. Although they are indeed extremely different, there are, as we will eventually see in the WINAH series (Why the Infancy Narratives Aren't Historical), there are a number of intriguing agreements between the two, both in terms of content and form. How should we account for these?

I'm finally reading Jane Schaberg's daring and brilliant book, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives. The preface to the 20th anniversary edition, by the way, is a stunning and awful depiction of the harassment she experienced in response to publishing a book claiming that the historical Jesus was conceived outside of marriage, with someone other than Joseph as the father, as a result of Mary either being raped or seduced. I hope to publish a more complete review of the book on this blog in the future. But last night, the portion I read got me thinking again about the question of whether Matthew and Luke truly created their infancy narratives separately and independently of each other. More scattered thoughts below the jump.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Why scholars believe the Christmas story isn't historical, part 3

I hope y'all had a pleasant Christmas, or whichever celebration of the Winter Solstice you partake in. Back to the problems with the historicity of Christmas. Reason #1 was that Matthew's and Luke's birth stories are completely different and contradictory. Reason #2 was that, outside of Matthew and Luke, none of the earliest Christian writings say anything about Jesus' birth. Therefore, speculations about Jesus' birth seem to have been a relatively late development in the Jesus tradition, much later than the narrative of his death or collections of his sayings.

The third reason to be skeptical of the historicity of the Christmas story is that there was a well-established pattern in the ancient Roman world of telling stories about the auspicious beginnings of a great person's life. Visitations from divine messengers or dreams explaining the significance of the individual, unusual phenomena in the natural world, incidents involving the infant or child that foreshadow his or her later attributes or activities--all of these are the sorts of stock features that appeared in narratives about the Roman emperors, Alexander the Great, Plato, Apollonius of Tyana (a pagan miracle worker with some striking resemblances to Jesus), and so forth.

What does this mean for the birth stories in Matthew and Luke? Follow me below the jump.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Why scholars believe the Christmas story isn't historical, part 2

In part 1 of this series, I explained that Matthew's and Luke's stories of Jesus' birth don't just contain different information, but are actually contradictory in several important ways. It's worth pointing out that the fact that they contradict each other doesn't mean that, at least in theory, one of them could be historical and other not be. For example, maybe Matthew's telling us the real story and Luke's making it up. Or vice versa.

Although this possibility should be considered, more detailed examination of both narratives shows that each has major features that are very likely not historical. Events from Matthew and Luke will be the subject of future installments of this series.

But now, on two reason #2 after the jump.

The Virgin Birth

73% of Americans believe in it. And, though this may be a shock to many Americans, so do most Muslims.

As I will discuss in a later post, there are serious historical difficulties with the Virgin Birth--and contrary to what many people might think, the fact that it's a miracle is not the most serious of these historical problems. Intriguingly, however, the tradition of the Virgin Birth, while not historical in and of itself, may actually point to one aspect of the Christmas story that is historically accurate. But more on that in due time.

The overwhelming religiosity of the American public is, of course, striking. But also striking is the overwhelming ignorance about other religious traditions, measured in other surveys. And lack of knowledge about Islam in particular means that almost no Americans know about the extreme reverence that Islam has for Jesus as a prophet (the second greatest prophet behind Muhammad). Yes, Muslims don't consider him to be God incarnate. But they do agree with almost all of the other major Christian truth claims about him, including the Virgin Birth and his miracles. The issue of Jesus' crucifixion in Islam is complex, and maybe we'll save a post on that for Easter.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why scholars believe the Christmas story isn't historical, part 1

In the article, I have the following super-Grinchy quote about whether the Christmas story really happened:
"My overall take on this, which would be the opinion of most other biblical scholars as well, is that there is very little in the Christmas story of the Gospels that is historically reliable," said Brent Landau, a religious studies scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.
Although the article discusses some of the arguments against the historicity of the infancy narratives that scholars have made, I wanted to take some time to go through these arguments a bit more systematically. I had thought I would discuss all of them tonight, but my write-up of reason #1 got pretty long. So I'm instead going to do these one by one for the next few nights, to make your Christmas merry and bright!

For reason #1 that scholars doubt the historicity of the infancy narratives, follow me below the jump.