Saturday, November 12, 2005

Jesus' Infancy Outside of Matthew and Luke (Part 1)

Critics of Christianity often suggest that the earliest Christians were highly divided. Supposedly, Matthew records information in his gospel that was unknown to most other Christians not only when he wrote his gospel, but also for decades afterward. Luke wrote material that was unknown to and contrary to what was believed by communities following John, for example. This sort of splitting up of the early Christians into largely separate and contradictory communities doesn't have much evidence to commend it, but it's popular, and it's one of the arguments raised against the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke.

When I was participating in a forum on America Online several years ago, there was an Anglican there who was critical of Evangelicalism and Biblical inerrancy in particular. One of the arguments he would often use was to point out that Paul doesn't mention the virgin birth in any of his letters. Apparently, he thought that mentioning this fact was a convincing argument against the historicity of scripture.

How likely is it that Matthew and Luke were making claims that were widely unknown or rejected? How likely is it that somebody like Paul or John was unaware of a concept such as the virgin birth or Jesus' birth in Bethlehem? Is it realistic to think of Matthew and Luke as highly isolated authors who were largely making up stories several decades after the fact, without many people even being aware of the claims they were making until decades later? Can critics dismiss the infancy narratives on the basis that they represent little more than the views of a couple of late first century communities?

The suggestion that Matthew and Luke were off in their own corners of the Christian world is unrealistic:

“Suggesting that the Fourth Gospel is not directly dependent on the Synoptics need not imply that John did not know of the existence of the Synoptics; even if (as is unlikely) Johannine Christianity were as isolated from other circles of Christianity as some have proposed, other gospels must have been known if travelers afforded any contact at all among Christian communities. That travelers did so may be regarded as virtually certain. Urban Christians traveled (1 Cor 16:10, 12, 17; Phil 2:30; 4:18), carried letters (Rom 16:1-2; Phil 2:25), relocated to other places (Rom 16:3, 5; perhaps 16:6-15), and sent greetings to other churches (Rom 16:21-23; 1 Cor 16:19; Phil 4:22; Col 4:10-15). In the first century many churches knew what was happening with churches in other cities (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 11:16; 14:33; 1 Thess 1:7-9), and even shared letters (Col 4:16). Missionaries could speak of some churches to others (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:1-5; 9:2-4; Phil 4:16; 1 Thess 2:14-16; cf. 3 John 5-12) and send personal news by other workers (Eph 6:21-22; Col 4:7-9). Although we need not suppose connections among churches as pervasive as Ignatius’ letters suggest perhaps two decades later, neither need we imagine that such connections emerged ex nihilo in the altogether brief silence between John’s Gospel and the ‘postapostolic’ period. No one familiar with the urban society of the eastern empire will be impressed with the isolation Gospel scholars often attribute to the Gospel ‘communities.’” (Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], pp. 41-42)

Think of all of the communities that had contact with more than one apostle. All of the apostles had been in Jerusalem (Acts 1:13). Paul and John were both in contact with Ephesus (Ephesians 1:1, Revelation 2:1). Paul and Peter were both in contact with Antioch (Galatians 2:11). Etc. The apostles were concerned with being of "one accord" (Acts 1:14) and teaching the same foundational doctrines (1 Corinthians 15:11). Nobody reading the pastoral epistles, for example, with their emphasis on maintaining doctrinal soundness, should be convinced by the suggestion that the early Christians didn't have much concern for doctrinal unity.

Over the next few days, we'll consider further just how isolated Matthew and Luke were in their assertions about Jesus' childhood. As we'll see, the concept of large segments of early Christianity having little or no concern about Jesus' childhood, or viewing His childhood in a way radically different than Matthew and Luke did, is unconvincing.