Sunday, November 13, 2005

Jesus' Infancy Outside of Matthew and Luke (Part 2)

If we want to know how widespread Matthew and Luke's view of Jesus' childhood was, one of the questions we have to ask is what concern the people of the first century would have had for the relevant facts. Would people living at the time of Matthew and Luke, or a little earlier or a little later, have had much concern for where Jesus was born or His ancestry, for example?

From human nature alone, we have reason to expect the earliest Christians to have been interested in Jesus' birthplace, His relatives, and other details surrounding His background. How likely is it that such subjects would never have come up when Jesus' disciples were living with Him for years, when Mary and other relatives of Jesus were with the church for years or decades after Jesus' earthly ministry, etc.? If they were interested in such issues and discussed them, and the information circulating among them was different from what Matthew and Luke record, then why didn't that differing information leave traces in the historical record? How did Matthew and Luke's accounts become universally accepted with so little evidence of resistance?

But beyond human nature, the common social and Messianic expectations of the day would have resulted in a lot of interest in Jesus' background. Where a person came from (John 1:45-46) and His relatives (Mark 6:3), for example, were important to people in Jesus' social context. And though there was a lot of uncertainty and disagreement about who the Messiah would be and what He would accomplish, some of the more commonly accepted Messianic expectations were the Messiah's Davidic descent and His Bethlehem birthplace. Belief in Jesus' Messiahship would have led to interest in His childhood.

And that interest would have existed among the enemies of Christianity, not just among Christians. As Ethelbert Stauffer explains, Jewish tradition called for the investigation of the background of false teachers:

“If a man is suspected of apostasy, the circumstances of his birth are to be investigated. For the mamser (bastard) is inclined toward rebellion and blasphemy. (Lev. 24, 10 ff.; Targum same place; S. Lev. 24, 10 ff.; Kalla 41 d. The mamser must be distinguished from the beduki and the shethuki. The beduki is a child whose birth still requires investigation [Kid. 4, 2; B Kid. 74 a; J Kid. 4, 65 d]. The shethuki is a child whose father can no longer be determined [Kid. 4, 1; B Kid. 69 a; 73 a; Yeb. 100 b].)” (Jesus and His Story [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960], p. 207)

Yesterday, we saw that the early Christians were often in contact with each other and were highly concerned for doctrinal unity. And we've seen today that there would have been interest in Jesus' childhood among both Christians and non-Christians for a variety of reasons (human nature, social context, Messianic expectations, non-Christian desire to discredit Jesus). Tomorrow, we'll consider more evidence for widespread early knowledge of the information Matthew and Luke recorded.