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Why It Didn’t Happen that Way. The Stories of Jesus’ Birth

In the previous post I began to discuss (as a review for many readers of the blog) the historical problems with the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.  The point of the discussion is that the stories cannot be accepted as historically accurate.  This is a huge issue mainly for fundamentalist Christians and conservative evangelicals – and those they have managed to persuade that if a story does not describe what actually happened, then it is worthless and should simply be thrown out. For others – whether theologians, pastors, parishioners, or simply lay-folk interested in Christianity – the stories are important for other reasons, for example in the ideas they are trying to convey. In any event, here is the second post dealing with the historical problems that arise when you compare the two accounts to one another. ***************************************************** It may be possible to reconcile these accounts if you work hard enough at it.  I suppose you’d have to say that after Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth, as in Luke, they decided to move [...]

2020-04-03T02:15:17-04:00June 2nd, 2017|Bart’s Biography, Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

Another “True” Story that Didn’t Happen? Jesus’ Birth in Luke

I have been trying to illustrate the point that critical scholars who remain Christian have long made, that there can be stories in the Bible that are not historically accurate but that are trying to convey larger theological truths.  My first illustration had to do with the death of Jesus; in this post and the next, I will deal with the birth of Jesus.   This is a topic I’ve dealt with several times over the years on the blog; but it’s worth covering it again!   I’ve drawn this discussion, again, from my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. ***************************************************** “True” Stories that Didn’t Happen (at least as narrated): Jesus’ Birth in Luke We may take an example from the familiar stories at the beginning of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  These are the only Gospels that narrate the events of Jesus’ birth (in both Mark and John, Jesus makes his first appearance as an adult).  What is striking – and what most readers have never noticed – is that the two accounts [...]

2020-04-03T02:15:26-04:00June 1st, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

Jesus’ Virgin Birth in Mark (Reader’s Mailbag February 26, 2016)

It is time for the weekly Readers’ Mailbag.  This week I will be dealing with only one question, one that I find particularly intriguing.  If you have any questions you would like me to answer, either in a comment or in the mailbag, let me know.  I can’t answer every question I get, either because I don’t know the answers (often enough!) or because I can’t get to them all.  But I take them all seriously and will do my best to get to yours! ******************************************************* QUESTION:  I've read of one NT scholar who is critical of your reasoning in How Jesus Became God. He says that your argument from silence is fallacious. For example, he says that just because the virgin birth is absent in Mark's gospel does not constitute evidence that the writer did not believe in the virgin birth.   RESPONSE:        Great question.  The first and most obvious thing to point out is that there is no way to know what another person believes (either the person who wrote Mark or [...]

Jesus, Matthew, and the Law

In my previous post I discussed the differences – what strike me, at least, as the differences – between the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s letter to the Galatians and with respect to whether the followers of Jesus are to follow the law or not.   Matthew’s Gospel indicates that the law will not cease to be in force until the heavens and earth pass away, and that Jesus’ followers need to follow the law to the limit, to follow it even better than the scribes and Pharisees do.   Paul, on the other hand, insists that the followers of Jesus must not think that they have to follow the law.  Any gentile who thinks he has to be circumcised, or to follow other aspects of the Jewish law, is in danger of losing salvation. I would like to clarify one point about my view and explain one of its complications.   Clarification: in my post I was not discussing whether Paul saw eye-to-eye with Jesus about this issue.  My post was about the Gospel of Matthew.  I [...]

2020-04-03T13:53:49-04:00March 27th, 2015|Canonical Gospels, Paul and His Letters|

Is Paul at Odds with Matthew?

In yesterday’s post I indicated that I really very much wish that we could have some of the writings produced by Paul’s opponents in Galatia.   They believed that in order to be a follower of Jesus, a person had to accept and follow the Law of Moses as laid out in the Jewish Scriptures.   Men were to be circumcised to join the people of God; men and women were, evidently, to adopt a Jewish lifestyle.  Presumably that meant keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath, and so on.   Anyone who didn’t do this was not really a member of the people of God, since to be one of God’s people meant following the law that God had given. Paul was incensed at this interpretation of the faith and insisted with extraordinary vehemence that it was completely wrong.  The gentile followers of Jesus were not, absolutely not, supposed to become Jewish.  Anyone who thought so rendered the death of Jesus worthless.  It was only that death, and the resurrection, that made a person right with God.  Nothing else.  [...]

2020-04-03T13:53:57-04:00March 25th, 2015|Canonical Gospels, Paul and His Letters|

Did Matthew Copy Luke or Luke Matthew?

In this thread, which is supposed to be on the lost writings of early Christianity that I would most like to have discovered, I can’t seem to get away from Q,   Several readers have asked a pointed question about Q.  If you recall, Q is the hypothetical document that contained principally sayings of Jesus, that was evidently used by Matthew and Luke (but not by Mark) in constructing their Gospels.  The logic is that if Matthew and Luke both used Mark (which the vast majority of scholars agree about), then one has to explain why they have so many other materials (mainly sayings) in common not *found* in Mark. I have pointed out that Matthew does not seem to have gotten those sayings from Luke or Luke from Matthew, and so they both most have gotten them from some other one-time-existing source.  That is what we call Q (for the German word Quelle: Source).  But some readers have asked WHY it is unlikely that Matthew got these sayings from Luke or Luke from Matthew.   It’s [...]

2020-04-03T13:54:33-04:00March 19th, 2015|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

Evidence that the Synoptics Are Copying (one another? other sources?)

In yesterday’s post, when talking about the one-time existence of Q, I indicated that scholars have long recognized that there must be some kind of literary relationship among Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Synoptic Gospels, since they have so many similarities: they tell many of the same stories, often in the same sequence, and sometimes – lots of times – in the very same words.  That is to say, someone must be copying someone else, or they are all using the same written sources. Some of my students have trouble seeing that if two documents are word-for-word the same, one must be copying the other (or they both are copying a third source).  Older adults don’t seem to have any problem seeing that, right off the bat.  But younger adults need to be convinced.  And so I do a little experiment with them that more or less proves it.  I do this every year in my New Testament class, which normally has 200-300 students in it. I come to class a minute or two late [...]

2020-04-03T13:54:50-04:00March 17th, 2015|Canonical Gospels|

The Lost Q Source

I can now return to my thread dealing with a question asked by a reader:  if I could choose, which of the lost books from Christian antiquity would I want to be discovered?  My first and immediate answer was:  the lost letters of Paul.   My second answer is what I will deal with here.  I would love – we would all love – to have a discovery of Q. Many readers of the blog will know all about Q.  Many will know something about Q.  Many will have never heard of Q.   So here’s the deal. Scholars since the 19th century have worked out the relationship of the Synoptic Gospels with one another.   Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called “synoptic” because they tell many of the same stories, often in the same sequence, and sometimes in exactly the same words.  Synoptic means “seen together.”   You can “see” these Gospels “together” by laying them side by side and noting their abundant similarities (and differences).   But the only way they could have such extensive similarities (especially the [...]

2020-04-03T13:55:02-04:00March 16th, 2015|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

A Source for the Birth Narratives in Matthew and Luke?

QUESTION: What’s your take on the independence or interdependence of Mt 1-2 and Lk 1-2. Do you think Luke’s infancy narratives are based on Matthew’s? Or vice versa? Or on some other unknown earlier common source? Or neither and they’re both independent?  It sounds like you’re advocating independence. But if they are separate and independent, then we have to account for common elements in the two. Some commonalities are easier to explain (e.g., location in Bethlehem [Micah 5.2]; mother’s name Mary [Mk 6.3]), but others less so (e.g., both have the same name Joseph for Mary’s husband even though that name is not in Mark or Q; both have the unexpected and unprecedented miracle story of a virgin birth). Thoughts?   RESPONSE: This is a great and very perceptive question.  It is rooted in my thread, just finished, on Bethlehem and Nazareth, in which I argued that both Matthew and Luke have given us stories to explain how Jesus could be the messiah – who (in their opinion) was to be born in Bethlehem – [...]

2020-04-03T13:57:25-04:00March 9th, 2015|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

Bethlehem and Nazareth in Matthew

In my last post I showed why it is virtually certain that Jesus’ home town was Nazareth.   All of our sources agree that he was from there, and it is very hard to imagine why a Christian story teller would have made that up.    But now the question is whether that was also his place of birth. The only two accounts we have of Jesus’ birth, Matthew and Luke, independently claim that even though he was raised in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem.   So isn’t that the more likely scenario?  Born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth?   You might think so, given the fact that this is what is stated in our only two sources of information, and that they independently agree about the matter (based on their own sources, the no longer existing M – Matthew’s source or sources – and the no longer existing L – Luke’s source or sources). But there are reasons for thinking that we cannot trust these accounts, for three reasons: THE REST OF THIS POST IS [...]

2020-04-03T13:59:03-04:00March 5th, 2015|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus|

Creative Uses of Numbers in Scripture

Here I resume my interrupted thread on the use of letters as numbers in ancient languages.   As I had indicated earlier, Greek and Hebrew did not use a different system for their alphabets and their numerals, but the letters of the alphabet played double duty, so that each letter had a numerical value.  One pay-off of that system was that every word had a numerical value, discovered simply by adding up the letters.   In Greek, for example, the six letters in the name Jesus, Ιησους , add up to 888. Or another example: in Hebrew, the three letters in the name “David” (ancient Hebrew did not have vowels, only consonants), D-V-D were worth 4-6-4, so that the name added up to 14.   That may have been significant for the genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 1:1-17), since, as Matthew presents it, Jesus, the “son of David” had a genealogical tree that can be organized around the number 14:  between the father of the Jews, Abraham, and the greatest king of the Jews, David, was 14 generations [...]

2020-04-03T14:00:26-04:00February 17th, 2015|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

Matthew’s “Filling Full” of Scripture

In the last post I indicated one way that Matthew understood Jesus to have fulfilled Scripture – a prophet predicted something about the messiah (to be born of a virgin; to be born in Bethlehem, etc.) and Jesus did or experienced what was predicted.   There’s a second way as well, one with considerable implications for understanding Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus.  Here’s how I talk about it in my textbook on the New Testament  *****************************************************************  The second way in which Jesus "fulfills" Scripture is a little more complicated.  Matthew portrays certain key events in the Jewish Bible as foreshadowings of what would happen when the messiah came.  The meaning of these ancient events was not complete until that which was foreshadowed came into existence.  When it did, the event was "fullfilled," that is, "filled full of meaning." As an example from the birth narrative, Matthew indicates that Jesus' family flees to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod "in order to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, `Out of Egypt I [...]

2020-04-03T14:11:35-04:00January 7th, 2015|Canonical Gospels|

Matthew’s Fulfillment of Scripture Citations

I’ve begun a short thread dealing with how Matthew understood and interpreted and used Scripture.   Here is a fuller exposition, the first part of which comes straight from my textbook on the NT and the second part straight from my noggin to the keyboard.  **************************************************************  What is perhaps most striking about Matthew's account is that it all happens according to divine plan.  The Holy Spirit is responsible for Mary's pregnancy and an angel from heaven allays Joseph's fears.  All this happens to fulfill a prophecy of the Hebrew Scriptures (1:23).  Indeed, so does everything else in the narrative: Jesus' birth in Bethlehem (2:6), the family's flight to Egypt (2:14) Herod's slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem (2:18) and the family's decision to relocate in Nazareth (2:23).  These are stories that occur only in Matthew, and they are all said to be fulfillments of prophecy. Matthew's emphasis that Jesus fulfills the Scripture does not occur only in his birth narrative.  It pervades the entire book.  On eleven separate occasions (including those I have just mentioned), [...]

2020-04-03T14:11:44-04:00January 6th, 2015|Canonical Gospels|

Matthew’s Ancient Approach to Scripture

QUESTION:  (The following question was raised by a reader who objected to Matthew’s attempt to interpret passages in the Hebrew Bible as having relevance for Jesus – especially passages that appear to have been taken radically out of context).  Here’s the question: Well then, the Christians of Matthew’s day did not read the OT very carefully at all. For example, when Matthew says that Jesus returning from Egypt was a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1 (out of Egypt have I called my son), did he not read the first part of that verse? It reads “When ISRAEL was a child, I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.” Is this not clearly referring to the Exodus? How could Matthew (or whoever) determine that this referred to Jesus when it clearly states it is Israel?   RESPONSE: Yes, Matthew certainly did not interpret the Bible the way we would teach people!   On the other hand, he does seem to have interpreted it in ways that would have seemed sensible to many ancient readers.  The puzzling [...]

2020-04-03T14:11:51-04:00January 5th, 2015|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

Why Was Jesus Born of a Virgin in Matthew and Luke?

A few days ago I raised the question of why anyone should think that you have to believe in the Virgin Birth in order to be a Christian.  The reality is, of course, that many Christians do not believe in it, but recognize that it is a story meant to convey an important theological point – a point that could be true whether or not the story happened – that Jesus was uniquely special in this world, not like us other humans, but in some sense the unique Son of God.   Just as the moral of a fairy tale is valid (or not) independent of whether the tale happened, so too with stories like this in the Gospels, whether you choose to call them myths (in a non-derogatory sense), legends, tales, or simply “stories intending to convey a theological truth.” It is interesting, and not often noted, that Matthew and Luke – the two Gospels (in fact, the two NT books altogether) that recount the story of the Virgin Birth – do so for different [...]

2017-12-09T16:07:12-05:00December 24th, 2014|Canonical Gospels|

Papias on Matthew and Mark

In my previous two posts I showed why Papias is not a reliable source when it comes to the authorship of Matthew and Mark.   If you haven’t read those posts and are personally inclined to think that his testimony about Matthew and Mark are accurate, I suggest you read them (the posts) before reading this one. In this post I want to argue that what he actually says about Matthew and Mark are not true of our Matthew and Mark, and so either he is talking about *other* Gospels that he knows about (or has heard about) called Matthew and Mark, that do not correspond to our Matthew and Mark, or he simply is wrong. I’ll reverse the order in which his comments are given, and deal with Matthew first. In the quotation of the fourth century historian Eusebius, we read this:  And this is what [Papias] says about Matthew: “And so Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew tongue, and each one interpreted [Or: translated] them to the best of his ability.” The problems [...]

2020-04-03T14:19:54-04:00November 26th, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

Believing Papias When It’s Convenient

In my previous post I stressed that, contrary to what you sometimes may have heard or possibly will hear, Papias is not a *direct* witness to what the apostles of Jesus were saying.  That is an important point because of the most important “testimony” that Papias gives, a testimony that is often taken as very strong evidence that the second Gospel of the NT was written by Mark, the companion of Peter, and that the first Gospel was really and truly written by Matthew, the disciple of Jesus.   If these claims were right, they would be highly significant.  Matthew would have been written by someone who was there to see these things happen; and Mark’s account would be based on arguably the most important witness to Jesus’ life.. Here is what Papias says.  Remember, when he indicates what “the elder” says, he is indicating what he has learned from a person who was allegedly “companion” of the elder; the elder was someone who allegedly knew the apostles.  “And this is what the elder used to [...]

2020-04-03T14:20:05-04:00November 25th, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

Papias and the Gospels: Some Background

In my previous post I argued that sometime in the second half of the second century, an edition of the four Gospels was compiled by an unknown editor/scribe, and place in circulation in Rome, in which the texts were identified, definitively and possibly for the first time, as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.   Now the question is: why did these names come to be chosen? This is a complicated question, and the answer is neither straightforward nor easy.   But I can state its broad contours simply:  for two of the authors, Matthew and Mark, there were much older traditions indicating that they had written Gospels, and the editor of the Roman edition of the four Gospels latched onto these traditions and assigned two of his Gospels to them; and for the other two Gospels, the unknown Roman editor used internal hints within Luke and John themselves to derive the names of their authors. First I’ll deal with Matthew and Mark, beginning with this post. The old traditions that Matthew the tax collector and Mark the [...]

2020-04-03T14:20:35-04:00November 21st, 2014|Canonical Gospels, History of Christianity (100-300CE)|

Similarities and Differences: The Synoptic Problem

  In yesterday’s post I mentioned my New Testament class, and that one of the main lessons I’m trying to convey in it is that each of the Gospels has to be read for what *it* has to say.  This requires the reader to bracket information that is conveyed in some other Gospel (or that they’ve heard before elsewhere), to see what the meaning of this particular text is. That shouldn’t be such a hard idea to grasp.   If I write a book about Jesus, I don’t expect or want my readers to read my book in light of what some other author said (say, Reza Aslan or Bill O’Reilly), interpreting my views in light of the other person’s views, as if my views, as I state them, are not enough or sufficient.  And yet people regularly read the Gospels as if Mark must mean the same thing that John does, or that this passage in Matthew makes best sense in light of that other passage in Luke, and so on.  We don’t do that [...]

2017-12-25T12:36:43-05:00February 11th, 2014|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum, Teaching Christianity|

Would Matthew and Paul Have Seen Eye-to-Eye

One of my major goals as a professor of New Testament is to get my students to understand that the NT is not a single entity with a solid and consistent message.  There are numerous authors who were writing at different times, in different parts of the world, to different audiences, and with different – sometimes strikingly different – understandings about important issues.  In fact, about key issues, such as who Jesus was and what his role was in salvation. One of the assignments that I used to give was to have students compare Matthew’s view of salvation with that found in Paul.  Specifically, what is the role of doing what the Law demands and of doing good deeds?  If someone abides by the law and does good deeds for others – will that bring about salvation? The way I get them to think about those questions is by looking at two passages, one in Matthew and the other in Paul.  The first is Matthew’s version of the “rich young ruler” (he’s actually not a [...]

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