Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Jesus' Infancy Outside of Matthew and Luke (Part 4)

If the information in the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke was widely unknown in the mid to late first century, you have to wonder why that information is so widely known in the early to mid second century. The widespread acceptance of the infancy accounts in the second century is best explained by its widespread dissemination and acceptance in the first century.

Various details of the infancy narratives, such as the virgin birth, the star of Bethlehem, and Jesus' Davidic ancestry, are mentioned either directly or indirectly by a large variety of sources in the early to mid second century. Ignatius (Letter to the Ephesians, 19; Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 1-2) and Aristides (Apology, 2), for example, mention some of the details recorded by Matthew and Luke. Aristides mentions that the information he's referring to comes from a written gospel, and he refers to how both Christians and non-Christians have access to the document, suggesting that it was circulating widely. Other early sources, such as Quadratus (cited in Eusebius, Church History, 3:37:2) and The Epistle of Barnabas (4), indirectly support the infancy narratives by supporting the gospels in which they're found. Justin Martyr repeatedly affirms the details recorded in the infancy narratives and refers to how the gospels are read in Christian churches along with the Old Testament scriptures (First Apology, 67). As Martin Hengel explains, the comments of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and other sources in the mid to late second century suggest that the four gospels were widely accepted prior to that time:

"the knowledge of a widely recognized collection of the four Gospels which is used in worship is certainly substantially older than Irenaeus...Evidently Clement [of Alexandria] took it for granted that the collection of four Gospels was based on recognized church tradition and was unchallenged, since he does not have to defend it anywhere." (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], pp. 14, 16)

Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho, which is about a debate between Justin Martyr and an advocate of Judaism in the 130s, takes the infancy narratives as historical fact and Christian orthodoxy. By the mid second century, Christian knowledge of the infancy narratives is so settled and developed that Justin interacts with Jewish objections to that material and cites extra-Biblical evidence to support the Biblical accounts (Dialogue with Trypho, 43, 66-67, 78-79).

Apparently, the account of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem was so well known in the early second century that not only was the Roman emperor aware of the birthplace, but he also was aware of the specific location of the cave within Bethlehem. Early in the second century, the emperor Hadrian planted a grove of trees in honor of the god Adonis at the location of Jesus' birthplace, as a deliberate insult to Christianity:

"Both Jerome and Paulinus of Nola provide evidence that the cave in Bethlehem, under the present Church of the Nativity, was identified as the birthplace [of Jesus] before the time of [the Roman emperor] Hadrian - thus almost into the first century. Hadrian (117-38) marked the site by planting a grove of trees there in honor of the Roman god Adonis." (John McRay, Archaeology & the New Testament [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 2003], p. 156)

If knowledge of the infancy material in Matthew and Luke was so widespread in the early to mid second century, what's the best explanation of how that situation came to be? There's little to support the skeptical theory that Matthew and Luke were making up stories and were only speaking for highly isolated communities within the Christian world. The evidence suggests, instead, that Matthew and Luke recorded old, widely accepted traditions that were considered credible by the earliest Christians around the world, including Jesus' relatives.