Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas has its own hermeneutical challenges, especially ...

... the challenge of not reading more into the narratives than are there, and the challenge of thinking twice before harmonizing Matthew and Luke's narratives. Technically harmonization is possible, but, as Doug Chaplin at Clayboy observes, the cost may be that we become less 'biblical' rather than more 'biblical' by doing so.

Here is an excerpt from his thoughtful post, Ox and ass and we three kings: Christmas harmonies and evangelical humbug:

"Historically speaking, the main problem with Matthew’s story is Luke’s story, and vice versa. They can be harmonised only by careful suppression of each’s specificity. In Matthew the holy family home is always in Bethlehem. In Luke, they travel directly home to Nazareth after the forty days of Mary’s purification are up. One could go on, but the problem of historical believability is not just an issue for modern sceptics rejecting God’s work – it’s a problem of two contradictory and different narratives.

This historical use of the text is one thing. Preaching is another, and here there are at least two ways of preaching the Christmas story. The first is the one that pays attention to the text, that doesn’t harmonise the accounts, or fit the shepherds and the magi together. In this version it’s appropriate (in Year C – when Luke is the gospel?) to be sceptical about an inn and explore the idea of a guest room. It’s appropriate (in year A – when we read Matthew?) to consider Herod’s bloodthirsty reputation and the irony of astrology guiding pagans to worship, while those who have the prophecies of Scripture use them only to kill. That is a perfectly appropriate and legitimate use of Scripture in preaching, and one where my head and heart unite. I guess on that people of many views can agree."

With respect to separating Matthew and Luke, I would add the small point missed by many Anglicans of my acquaintance: the wise men should only be introduced to the preaching calendar at Epiphany (6 January)!


  1. "They can be harmonised only by careful suppression of each’s specificity. In Matthew the holy family home is always in Bethlehem. In Luke, they travel directly home to Nazareth after the forty days of Mary’s purification are up."
    I am not sure what point Chaplin is trying to make, but if he is saying the two accounts contradict each other, then either one or the other is false, or both.
    But if the two accounts are independent and both true (as I believe they are), then harmonization is not illegitimate but practically demanded. Three points where Chaplin overstates his case:
    1. Matthew only mentions the 'holy family home ... in Bethlehem' in 2.1, so the 'always' is illegitimate exaggeration by him. Nobody knows whose 'oika' is in view here. But Ken Bailey - who rejects the kataluma = inn idea - believes it was the house of Joseph's relatives in Bethlehem. (See 'Poet and Peasant'.)
    2. There is no 'directly' (eutheus) in Luke. The real problem (which Chaplin doesn't mention) is the (two year?) sojourn in Egypt. Exactly when the family went to Nazareth simply isn't stated in Luke. Is this because Luke didn't know of this? To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we are dealing with unknown unknowns here. Perhaps Luke omitted such mention because it didn't suit his presentation. Quien sabe?
    3. Harmonization isn't specifically "evangelical"; it's what Catholics and Orthodox have always done. Only among liberal Protestants and those influenced by their literary and philosophical theories (e.g. that the infancy narratives are fictitious) is the procedure stigmatized.
    Once we set aside the kids' nativity plays (which would be a blessed relief), we stil have to ask: did all these things actually happen?

  2. Good responses!
    I agree that the biggest stretch to consider re historicity is the two year sojourn in Egypt according to Matthew.

  3. Thanks for the link to Doug's post, Peter. Like you I found it thoughtful, both regarding the problem(s) presented by the two birth narratives, and also for his suggested approach to preaching from these Christmas texts ... which is to say, only one at a time.

    For me the main hermeneutical conflict here is not one that divides readers along theological lines, but whether our respective theologies encourage or even allow us to take scripture seriously. That is, to read the text for what it is actually saying rather than for what we want it to say. Doug is evidently one reader who is making the effort to do so, taking the details in the texts seriously rather than refusing to notice them.

    I am not so convinced by the response of Anonymous above. If two narratives contradict each other in some details, it does not follow that at least one of them must be false. Rather, it should raise a question about what kind of truth each conveys.

    When a historian approaches a text looking for data, this purpose may be significantly at variance with the primary, controlling purpose of the author. To demand that the divine inspiration of a biblical text depends upon the historical (or scientific) accuracy of every detail in its stories says a lot about our theology and very little about our appreciation of literary genres.

    I agree with you that the lengthy sojourn in Egypt (in Matthew, but I have not yet found his two years) is a major difference from Luke's return from Judea to Galilee "when they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord", which implies a presentation in the temple not much more than 33 days after the birth (Leviticus 12). These are difficult to ignore because these parts of the stories seem important to each author, rather than incidental to their purposes.

    The question "Where was the family home?" can't be dismissed too easily either. We should acknowledge that the authors had different beliefs about this. Luke thought he needed to explain Bethlehem as the birthplace but not why Jesus was brought up in Galilee, and Matthew thought the opposite. It is hard to avoid an inference that neither actually knew the family's original location. The crucial interpretive question for us 200 years later is whether this matters. What do we require from these authors, and shouldn't this be related to what they are actually able to give us, especially if we believe they are the inspired ones?

    We need to distinguish two lines of questioning here. Historians might quite properly ask, "how much of this story is reliable data? What do these authors really know and what are they surmising?" This might well lead them to infer that they had reliable information that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and brought up in Nazareth. Their divergent accounts of how this came to be could then be seen as narrative explorations of the significance of these two facts in the light of Israel's sacred history and prophetic expectations, with Matthew addressing the question "Why would Jesus be brought up in Nazareth if he was born in Bethlehem?" and Luke answering "Why would Jesus be born in Bethlehem when we know he grew up in Nazareth?"

    This pair of divergent biblical texts is only one of many that challenge our assumptions about what it means for us to take scripture seriously. I want to say that it is scripture that forces us to wrestle with its complexity, not our theological presuppositions, be they liberal or conservative. To harp on, once again, the recent call for "biblical clarity" is an ideological dream, IMHO.

  4. Hi Howard
    A rich post to which I will not reply in full.
    Two brief comments: I agree that there is a strong sense in which Matthew and Luke make very good sense if each is answering a different question re the nexus of Bethlehem and Nazareth; and I agree that the birth narratives provide a great example of Scripture forcing us to wrestle with its complexity irrespective of what theological presuppositions we bring to the text.

  5. "I am not so convinced by the response of Anonymous above. If two narratives contradict each other in some details, it does not follow that at least one of them must be false."
    It does if they are making historical statements. It's one of Aristotle's Three Laws (Non-contradiction). Some contradiction is formal, some is factual. Formal contradictions are about the way we express things, which can be loose and partial. Harmonization stands back and explains things as 'both/and' rather than 'either/or' (or 'neither/nor'). It takes courage - or hubris - to speak up for a procedure that some 20th century German scholar has stigmatized! :) (And no, I am not anti-German! Ganz anders!) Factual contradiction is the real issue. If Luke said the holy family went "directly" (Chaplin's word) to Nazareth after the purification, then you would have a problem. But he doesn't. (Similar issues arise over the resurrection narratives. John Wenham proposed a harmonization of the accounts in 'Easter Enigma'.)
    "Rather, it should raise a question about what kind of truth each conveys."
    Yes, truth can be poetic and timeless as well as historical. But is the sojourn in Egypt a 'timeless truth'? The Coptic Church at least doesn't think so.
    A thought experiment: Just imagine that Luke was written c. AD 65 by ... Luke! who was the companion of ... Paul! who visited Jerusalem often and knew ... the Apostles, who knew Jesus, and his mother. Could lead to some interesting conclusions.
    Every detail of the narrative - virginal conception, birth in Bethlehem, magi coming etc (remember David Jenkins?) - has been questioned or denied by liberal scholarship and explained in mythopoeic-literary terms, and answers have been essayed to each point. Whether one finds the criticisms or answers persuasive does say something about our theological presuppositions, but also our historical knowledge and literary competence (not to mention individual cussedness). I think Ben Witherington is pretty good in these. So too were the late Martin Hengel and Charles Cranfield.

  6. Καὶ ὡς ἐτέλεσαν πάντα τὰ κατὰ τὸν νόμον κυρίου, ἐπέστρεψαν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν εἰς πόλιν ἑαυτῶν Ναζαρέθ. (Luke 2:39) Which bit of that statement is hard to understand? "When they had finished everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to Nazareth their town." They headed north to Galilee, not south to Egypt. This is the plain sense of Luke's story, and to say otherwise is not a sign of literary competence but of special pleading, entered into for reasons that have nothing to do with Luke's text. Quite simply, Matthew's narrative does not fit inside Luke's, and was not meant to.

    "Factual contradiction is the issue." In this case factual contradiction is a fact, not something invented by liberal theologians or 19th century Germans. Live with it.

  7. I shall look forward, Howard, to Anonymous' response to your plain reading of the text!

  8. Special pleading? Shall I plead specially guilty? Howard inveighs above: 'To harp on, once again, the recent call for "biblical clarity" is an ideological dream, IMHO.'
    And now he tells us: 'This is the plain sense of Luke's story.'
    I have translated this into Reformationese Latin:
    'Hoc enim claritas narrationis Lucae est.'
    I am glad that Howard now believes in the 'claritas Scripturae', one of the principles of the Reformers! ;)
    Seriously, I know someone who was born in Europe and grew up in NZ but for two years lived as a young child first in Australia. Most friends don't know (or care) about that childhood episode, so to say 'X was born in Europe and moved to NZ' is factually true but not the whole truth.
    Like Donald Rumsfeld, I don't know what Luke didn't know. Both infancy narratives must be selective and follow particular presentations. Matthew seems to show Jesus as the faithful embodiment of Israel, while Luke 1-2 is thoroughly temple-centered and shows Jesus as the fulfillment of Torah Judaism - prior to becoming the universal Savior.
    But if there is a 'factual contradiction', as Howeard says, then who is correct? Was the sojourn in Egypt a fiction? Or do Luke get his facts wrong?
    I agree that the Magi should stay away until January 6!

  9. "I want to say that it is scripture that forces us to wrestle with its complexity, not our theological presuppositions, be they liberal or conservative."

    Yes - if you wish to hypostatize 'Scripture', which for me is the written voice of the Holy Spirit, but for liberal theologues is something other, and more likely to suffer force than inflict it. But I would agree with Bultmann that 'voraussetzunglose Exegese' isn't really possible- for whoever comes to any text without a preunderstanding? - and it is rather easier to generate (lots of mutually incompatible) questions (or unprovable speculations, aka dissertations :)) from the text than to achieve a unified and coherent understanding so that the (singular) word 'Scripture' means something other than a 'collection of Jewish and Christian holy books', full of puzzling aporias. I start from a theological understanding of the text as God's Word Written.
    I don't particularly castigate 19th century Germans; alongside Strauss and von Paulus you have Coleridge and Jowett as well.

  10. Thanks Anonymous for helpful insights!

    I suggest Luke, on whatever view of scripture/Scripture/Word of God written we hold to, is tricky in respect of 'history'. To give one example: I am fascinated by the way in which the resurrection-ascension in Luke 24 could be accounted for by one 'long day', but in Acts 1 it is accounted for with '40 days'. There is no absolute contradiction because Luke 24 does not specifically state the length of time between resurrection and ascension, but the intriguing prospect is raised that by the historiographical standards of his day, Luke is able to 'play with the data' in a manner unacceptable today, in order to tell his story and make his theological points.

  11. Fair comment. I agree that Luke 24.50 could make us think ascension occured on Pascha Day - unless we had the evidence of Luke's own words in Acts 1 that there's a bit more to the story than immediately meets the eye. (A parallel with Luke 2?) I hope Luke won't be accused of contradicting himself!
    History, of course, is just as much a literary form as any other, involving selection of detail and presentation. Interesting that Luke begins his gospel in the temple and ends it there - showing that Jesus perfectly fulfills the expectations of Judaism. This sets the scene for Acts, the progress of the gospel among the Gentiles.
    I have often wondered if Luke planned to write a third volume, how Paul took the gospel to 'the ends of the earth' - no, not Stewart Island, the Pillars of Hercules!

  12. This is getting more and more interesting, Peter. Lacking any strong contrary evidence, I will make an unsupported assumption that the last two comments labeled Anonymous are from the same author. This leads to an inference that he/she prefers to deal with historical and theological analysis separately, although they are intimately connected in his/her own practice.

    Let me first clarify my beliefs about scriptural clarity. I do hold that particular texts may frequently express plain meanings. I do not hold that the whole canon of scripture has a plain meaning, which is what I understand to be claimed by those who have recently called for "biblical clarity". One of the main reasons for characterizing scripture as "complex" is the plain meanings of its component parts are frequently in tension with one another. The virtue of Christian scholarly truthfulness should motivate us to acknowledge that in some instances that tension may amount to factual contradiction, on some level of the texts' signification. If historians notice such contradictions, they are bound to make discriminating judgments concerning the value of the data that may be drawn from the conflicting texts for their purposes.

    I agree that theology comes into the picture as we begin to characterize scripture as the Word of God written, or in whatever way we place it within a theory of revelation. What place it holds there needs careful examination, testing it against the data - which is to say, against the evidence of what actually appears in the body of texts held to have canonical status. Does your belief in "the Word of God written" mean that it could not include statements of historical or scientific data that could be shown to be unreliable? If so, your theology is subject to historical and scientific falsification, and you will find yourself working hard to "save the data" for your theological theory. In practical terms, you will find yourself arguing that the true significance of conflicting lies in something that neither signifies alone ... in this case, that the holy family actually went home to Galilee via Egypt, and that this historical fact is guaranteed by the canonical status of the texts.

    Howard/Howeard/How weird

  13. To clarify further - my previous comment was written and posted before I refreshed my screen and saw Anonoymous' 9.16am contribution, which includes this assertion:- "History, of course, is just as much a literary form as any other, involving selection of detail and presentation." In the context I take this to refer to Luke's genre of historical writing (as opposed to a devaluing of the modern discipline of historiography). We would all agree that Luke's history of Christian beginnings should not be judged my modern standards of historiography. Do we further agree, however, that this leaves a modern historian free to question the value of Luke's (and Matthew's) data? And what theological threat does this pose, if any?

    Why can't the Word of God include fiction, if fictional elements were a normal part of ancient historiography?

    However, I find it difficult to think that Luke, whatever his own procedures of data-gathering may have been, would have framed his story as he did had he been aware of Matthew's account. What do you reckon Peter? Does this divergence challenge your confidence in the Luke-used-Matthew theory?

  14. On the contrary Howard I think it is generally plausible that Luke, knowing Matthew's gospel, writes his different account in a complementary manner (by the then standards of historiography), sharing with Matthew the five key pieces of data: birth at Bethlehem, growing up in Nazareth, "father" named Joseph, mother named Mary, and it all happened in the days of Herod the Great (with a slight question mark because of Quirinius etc), doing so in order to make a different theological point to Matthew.

  15. OK Peter, so how does this work? Luke has Matthew's birth narrative before him, looks at the bit about the trip to Egypt including the reasons given for setting up home in Nazareth rather than returning to Bethlehem and thinks, "No that didn't actually happen, being an expression of Matthew's creative freedom, so I can rewrite that part to set the record straight, for good theological reasons, given that neither of us actually knows how they got from Judea to Nazareth ... and I won't need to explain why they did so because unlike Matthew I think that's where they came from and they were just returning home..."

    A slight caricature, to be sure, but if Luke was using Matthew as a source, in what respects might he have regarded it as authoritative? I do believe fiction had an integral place in ancient historiography, when it came to filling in gaps in received stories. Do you think that Luke had a process of identifying which parts of Matthew's story did not rest on reliable data and could therefore be altered to make a different point, or does their agreement on those five points not indicate his confidence in their reliability? Is their agreement on these five things only theological?

    Anonymous and I seem to be in agreement that the independence composition of these two gospels indicates the reliability of their agreements as received data. Wouldn't you like a bit of the two-source cake we are enjoying here?

  16. "Does your belief in "the Word of God written" mean that it could not include statements of historical or scientific data that could be shown to be unreliable?"

    It's really a matter of primary authority, followed by consideration of genre. Jesus in the Gospels affirmed Tanakh as God's Word Written, and that's my starting point. I've never read Gen 1-2 as strictly scientific or historical, but it does seem to me that Romans 5.12 requires a historical (rather than simply figurative, representational) Adam for the argument to work. There are difficult paths one may follow pursuing a particular logic, and some may lead to unfamiliar places - sunlit uplands or deserts? Bart Ehrmann has become an agnostic following his own track, and Hector Avalos an atheist. Both would consider those who didn't follow them to lack courage, scholarly competence or intelligence. Evangelical scholars, like Peter Williams of Tyndale House, Cambridge, propose a point by point reply to Ehrmann. A dilettante like me knows that storms come and go, and I'm not too interested in picking up Jesus Seminar stuff in secondhand bookstalls. Richard Bauckham is more my style, with a more convincing grasp of how ancient history-writing actually worked.
    I'm intrigued by Peter's suggestion that Luke used Matthew but wonder why the genealogies are so divergent. Have you a paper available on this, Peter, or are you saving it up for publication? Maybe I will finally get round to reading John Wenham's own 'fresh assault on the Synoptic problem' which argues for Matthean priority. If* Luke had Matt 2 before him he plainly omitted it for his own reasons.
    First century (-ish) historiography isn't a vast (extant) corpus but there are differences (say) between Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, Caesar on the one hand and Josephus and the Gospel writers on the other. Matthew's claim that the holy family sojourned in Egypt isn't, however, a 'gap' that had to be filled. Luke, in fact, is the only one who tells us anything about the childhood of Jesus - and once again it's in the temple.

  17. Hi Howard
    I do not know what Luke thought of Matthew's gospel (if he knew the gospel). He may have felt it needed correcting, he may have felt it left details out, he may have felt it told a story with its own integrity and that he could tell another with its own integrity, and thus the Christian reading public would benefit from access to both.

    I know of no watertight case in favour of Luke's use of Matthew, but then there is no watertight case in facour of Q, so I am not too worried about two-source cake and eating it. Indeed, at this time of the year it is advisable to go easy on cake :)

  18. Hi Anonymous,
    The divergent genealogies are one reason for not pretending that "Luke knew Matthew" is easy to prove!

  19. More on reading Luke, this time with reference to Mark, and what can happen - in the hands of Bart Ehrmann - when you read the gospels "monoptically" rather than synoptically, i.e. canonically: