Monday, November 14, 2005

Jesus' Infancy Outside of Matthew and Luke (Part 3)

Some skeptics seem to think that the absence of any explicit mention of Jesus' virgin birth in the writings of Paul is a convincing argument against the doctrine. And some will cite John 7:42 as evidence that John, or a Johannine community, for example, was unaware of some of the details recorded in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. How likely is it that people like Paul and John were ignorant of or rejected portions of the infancy narratives?

As is so often the case, the skepticism of these skeptics seems to be a one-way street. They aren't particularly skeptical of their own skepticism. A large amount of evidence contrary to their conclusions is ignored in favor of far weaker evidence.

There are a lot of details of Jesus' life, not just His childhood, that aren't mentioned by Paul. Since Paul was writing to people who were already Christians and he was largely addressing pastoral issues, we shouldn't expect much about Jesus' childhood to be mentioned. But we know that Paul was interested in the subject and was aware of some details, such as Jesus' Davidic ancestry (Romans 1:3) and the timing of His birth (Galatians 4:4).

John and other early Christian leaders would similarly have been concerned with some of the details surrounding Jesus' birth. Though John 7:42 is often portrayed as evidence that John didn't know of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, that conclusion is unproveable and unlikely. The same passage mentions Jesus' Davidic ancestry, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that John was undecided on or opposed to Jesus' Davidic descent. There was widespread agreement among the Jews of that time regarding the Messiah's descent from David. Jesus' Davidic ancestry is widely reported among the early Christian sources, including in another Johannine document (Revelation 22:16). The people John quotes in John 7:42 are ignorant, as are other people John quotes in his gospel without commenting on what he quotes. Just as John surely knew of Jesus' Davidic ancestry, John 7:42 suggests that he also knew of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem.

Given the unity that existed among the early Christians and their concern for doctrinal agreement, how likely is it that a document like Matthew or Luke could circulate for decades without somebody like John being aware of it? Or how likely is it that somebody like Luke would put so much effort into examining Jesus' life (Luke 1:1-4), and was a companion of Paul (Acts 16:10, Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24), yet Paul wouldn't know much of what Luke knew about Jesus' childhood? 1 Timothy 5:18 seems to be a reference to Luke's gospel as scripture. Even if Paul had never made such a reference to Luke's gospel, the close relationship between the two men suggests that Paul would also have had a lot of information on Jesus' background.

People like James and Jude surely would have had a lot of information on Jesus' childhood, since they were close relatives of Jesus. We should ask about them what I asked earlier about the apostles. If people like James and Jude were circulating information about Jesus' childhood that was radically different from what Matthew and Luke mentioned, why don't we see that sort of disagreement reflected in the historical record? As we'll see tomorrow, the earliest post-apostolic Christians seem to have accepted the accounts in Matthew and Luke as historical fact and as uncontroversial.