Sunday, January 8, 2012

Not everyone is as enamored as I am with theoretical questions regarding historical evidence – as the late Ben F. Meyer said, though, we do not choose our obsessions – and it would be worth taking a break from the first and second installments on how theoretically to judge historical evidence actually to judge historical evidence, at least tentatively.  The readings for Epiphany, especially the reading from Matthew 2 offer a perfect test case, if what is meant by perfect is “difficult,” for how to judge the historicity of certain passages and events in the Bible.

Here is the passage for Epiphany from Matthew 2:1-12 in full:


In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 "And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.' " 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (NRSV)
Only two Gospels, Matthew and Luke, describe Jesus’ birth and they do it in different manners, with Matthew focusing on Jesus’ kingship, his father Joseph, his fulfillment of ancient prophecy, and the flight to Egypt. Luke concentrates on Jesus’ as the new Prophet, his mother Mary, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the Roman context of the census and the journey to Bethlehem. It can also be said that Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, who brings the Law to fulfilment, while Luke presents Jesus as the new Samuel, the final prophet.  Magi appear in Matthew, and shepherds appear in Luke. None of these characteristics or categories exhausts the meaning of either Infancy Narrative or is inclusive of all elements found within these accounts, but it gives a sense of the differences.

Some things are shared in common, though, and a couple of these similarities appear in the Matthean passage above: Jesus is born in Bethlehem during the reigns of Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great and Mary is his mother.  This might not seem like a lot, and there are other similarities – a pregnancy which occurred miraculously, the father Joseph,  Nazareth, and angelic visitations – which are not found in this passage, but the unique aspects of each account give us pause: how do we explain these historically?

There are three types of historical questions that I want to ask: how do we judge the evidence shared in common by Matthew and Luke? How do we judge the evidence only found in Matthew or Luke? And finally, since angelic visitations and miraculous pregnancies do not occur on a regular or common basis, how do we judge historically the evidence found either  in both Gospels or only in one when that evidence defies our normal experience of life?

In terms of claims such as Mary was Jesus’ mother and Joseph was Jesus’ father, or that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there would seem to be no good reason to deny historicity. Jesus had parents and he was born somewhere, so it would appear probable and likely that even if only two Gospels tell us about these aspects of his birth story, they would give us accurate information, especially when they agree.

In terms of information contained in only one Gospel, there are significant questions: if Magi came from the East, why does only Matthew mention it? If there were shepherds visited by angels, why does Luke note it but not Matthew?  If Herod wanted to kill all of the infants under two years old, why does no other historical source tell us this than Matthew 2:16? Why does Matthew alone have the Holy Family escaping to Egypt before going to Nazareth as in Matthew 2:19-20?   

These are all fair historical questions and while none of the events or occurrences related in the paragraph above are on their own unbelievable, it is strange that Matthew and Luke present such differing accounts and that Luke does not mention that Magi came or that the Holy Family went to Egypt, which would have been a significant reality in the life of Jesus and his family. Even the Massacre of the Infants by Herod the Great, often assumed as ahistorical on a number of grounds, especially due to the fact that there is no other evidence for it, is not necessarily ruled out apriori as ahistorical. Some scholars would argue that some other source would have mentioned this or that even King Herod would not have performed such heinous acts. As to what King Herod would be willing to do, a man who had one of his wives, Mariamne, and two of his own sons killed would certainly be willing to kill other people’s children.  Apart from that, we do not know how many children that age would have been in the region of a small Judean village, regardless of later artwork, perhaps it was only a few and ancient kings were certainly capable of killing threats to their kingship without historical reports circulating widely. Why? It was normal enough behavior in hierarchical and monarchical societies for a King to act with utter impunity for human life and, frankly, it would not be so shocking as to become a common story, if people indeed knew about it.

Having said all of that, though, it is hard to prove the historicity of any of these events and it is likely that the Gospel authors had purposes beyond passing on simple, historical evidence in the Infancy Narratives, which are related to their literary and spiritual purposes. Matthew is, after all, partly interested in presenting Jesus as the new Moses, and it is in the infancy of Moses that another King, the Pharaoh of Egypt, threatens the life of Israelite children and it is to Egypt that the Holy Family runs.  His Inafncy narrative creates literary and spiritual parallels. The Magi, too, while they cannot be ruled out as historically impossible, represent the Gentile world’s acceptance of the newborn Jewish King Jesus. One of the readings for Epiphany, Isaiah 60: 1-6, speaks of a prophecy of gifts from the nations coming to Israel and their representatives acknowledging the sovereignty of God:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms. 5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. (NRSV)
When dealing with historical events or persons who occur only once in an ancient source, or who fulfill ancient prophecy, or are at odds with or fundamentally different from another or other accounts, it is important to tread carefully with respect to historicity.  It does not mean that these events could not be historical, but it is difficult to demonstrate and it is possible that the more important goals are to demonstrate the fulfillment of prophecy or the salvific role played by Jesus in salvation history. That gold and frankincense are brought is an indication that Jesus, according to Matthew, is fulfilling the promises of God found in the prophet Isaiah.

What about angelic visitations, though, or dream visions from God which direct people, such as Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, or the Magi? Could these occurrences be historical? What about a child born without need of a human father, with a mother carrying a child given her by God? In these cases the normal procedures of historicity reach a dead end and that is the case both for those who accept these events or those who deny their historicity. This is what I mean: most of us have never talked to an angel, and many people do not accept that angels even exist. This is the same case for the Holy Spirit; it is hard to accept a woman could become impregnated by the Holy Spirit if you do not believe that such a thing as the Holy Spirit exists. And here is the reality that is sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, overlooked, even by those who believe in God, and that is that none of us have known someone personally who has been impregnated by the Holy Spirit. We accept the ancient evidence, if we do, because we believe in the reality of a transcendent God who acts in human history. We reject the possibility of this being true, even though it suffuses the two Gospel Infancy Narratives, because we do not believe in God or do not believe that God acts this way in history. But whether we accept or reject these claims often has nothing to do with history.

The reasons we accept a God that acts in human history might be different; we might always have accepted it; we might feel the reality of God in nature or in the course of our relationships; we might have moved to that position through reason and contemplations; but to accept the miraculous occurrences of the Bible means we accept that there is a God who can do such things. For those who do not believe in God, they cannot accept a God who speaks to people in dreams or who gives a woman a child without human intervention. That is, at the end of it, it actually is an issue of philosophical presuppositions: do I believe in a God who can do and has done such things?  

So, some historical claims are simple to prove and accept since they occur in more than one account and are simple statements of basic reality – Jesus was born to certain parents in a certain city, Bethlehem; some historical claims are more difficult to accept because they only occur in one ancient account– the Magi visited Jesus from a foreign land is not implausible, but one does wonder why this signficant event is not commemorated by some other Gospel writer or early Christian author; and some claims are difficult to prove historically unless certain philosophical presuppositions about God’s existence and the nature of God are accepted – Jesus was conceived miraculously through the Holy Spirit and his mother was a virgin. The issue of miracles will be discussed in depth later on in this series on historical evidence, but it seemed good to discuss some of the application of these discussions before getting lost in theoretical minutiae. There is, however, one last question.

On the celebration of the Epiphany, what is one to make of these sorts of questions or even these preliminary conclusions? Is this an attempt to destroy faith in the events surrounding Jesus’ nativity? First of all, not everyone cares about historical questions, and I think that is fine; they are satisfied with the accounts in the Gospels and draw nourishment and spiritual strength from them and issues of history are insignificant. But once historical questions are raised, for those who care about it, one cannot ignore them. Whether every aspect of the account of the Magi coming to worship Jesus is historically accurate is not that significant to me spiritually, for the story points to deeper truths: God’s son is the true King, though vulnerable and weak, not the earthly Kings who seek their own aggrandizement and power; and people from the entire world will come to worship this King and they are represented in Matthew by the Magi. Whether the Magi actually came to Jesus as described, I am happy that the Magi came to Jesus as described.  Epiphany is the celebration of the manifestation of the divine in the infant Jesus and the recognition of that reality the world over.  I believe that is true.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitterhttps://twitter.com/#!/johnwmartens