Friday, December 16, 2005

Lüdemann on Christmas

On Biblical Theology, Jim West gives the text of Gerd Lüdemann's thoughts on the Christmas story. A look at Lüdemann's homepage gives the text too, under a press release headed:

The Christmas Stories are Pious Fairy Tales

I'm not sure what's wrong with piety, and you'd expect the New Testament to feature some piety, and I don't think there are any fairies in the Birth Narratives (or at least we still call the doll on the top of our Christmas tree an angel rather than a fairy). Some of Lüdemann's content I am inclined to agree with (which NT scholars would not?), but there is something about the overstatement and the tone ("supposed Son of God", "unquestionable facts", "lies") makes me all the more keen to argue against at least elements in it. So here are a few thoughts:
The biblical accounts of the birth of the Jesus, the supposed Son of God, are mere inventions and have little relation to what really happened. Historical research has demonstrated this once and for all. Ten unquestionable facts argue against their historical credibility:
Historical research has not "demonstrated" any of the elements here. What historical research can do is to show that elements in the story are implausible or problematic, but it misrepresents the historical task here to claim so much for it. Nor are the ten assertions all "facts", let alone "unquestionable facts".
1. Written centuries earlier, the quoted words of Old Testament prophets did not predict the coming of Jesus, but referred to events and persons in their past or immediate future. They would have been shocked by the notion that Jesus' birth was the fulfillment of their prophecies.
Perhaps so, but I am always puzzled by comments about how figures living centuries before later figures would have been "shocked" by what they saw. I can't even begin to get my head around the idea of Isaiah being told about what was going to happen 700 years later. His seeing the time machine would surely be a far greater "shock" than the substance of what Lüdemann would be able to convey. If I were in the time machine, I'd definitely want to make sure I had a universal translator switched on, or a babel fish in my ear because I wouldn't trust my 8th C. BCE spoken Hebrew.
2. The New Testament authors derived most events of the Christmas story from prophecies of the Old Testament and misrepresented their original intent in order to make them seem to point to Jesus.
Is talk of "the Christmas story" itself unhelpful when one is talking about Matthew and Luke? And far from an "unquestionable fact", this is actually highly debatable. Some of the Biblical verses alluded to by Matthew are such an odd fit with the events narrated that it is difficult to imagine that Matthew, or anyone else, "derived" the narrative from the prophecies. On the contrary, the opposite process, of tradition scripturalized is far more plausible. e.g. Matt. 2.23 -- where does it say that the Messiah would live in Nazara? Matthew is weakly scripturalizing the tradition he knows.
3. The notion that Mary's pregnancy did not result from intercourse with a male is a canard. The claim of a virgin birth has two sources: the mistranslation of "young woman" by "virgin" (in a passage that clearly did not refer to Jesus!), and the desire of Christians to place their revered leader on the same level as other ancient "sons of God" who were likewise born without participation of a male.
The first point is weak and self-defeating. If "young woman" is mistranslated as "virgin" in Matthew, then Isaiah 7.14 can hardly be the prophecy from which the story of the conception of Jesus is derived. No one would have derived the virginal conception story from that verse for the very reason Lüdemann adduces. More likely is that scripturalization is at work here -- Matthew has a tradition of illegitimate birth that he is attempting to explain and defend by providing a scriptural precedent. The one he chooses is not especially appropriate, but it is the best he can do, and has the advantage of allowing him to bring in "Emmanuel".
4. The reported worldwide census ordered by Caesar Augustus did not occur. 5. The reported murder of children in Bethlehem ordered by Herod the Great did not occur.
I'd prefer to state it a little less forthrightly, e.g. there is no other evidence in ancient texts for these, they are historically unlikely etc.
6. Jesus was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem.
I'd be inclined to think that that is likely, but it's not an "unquestionable fact". It's one of those don't knows. The historian surely needs to keep open the possibility that it was Jesus' birth in Bethlehem that suggested to him and his family that he might be something special.
7. The angels in the Christmas story derive from primitive mythology.
Shouldn't that be "fairies"? "Derive from" is again too strong. Think only of contemporary stories told of meetings with angels in which it is the religious language being employed that potentially masks a story that could be told in other, non-religious language.
8. The shepherds who kept watch over their flocks are idealized representatives of the poor and outcast, persons emphasized by Luke. They do not appear in Matthew's story.
I think that that's a good reading of Luke -- the whole Birth Narrative rings with the good news to the poor that is so characteristic theme in Luke. But it's worth bearing in mind that for many scholars (not me), the earliest stratum of Jesus tradition, in Q1 and Thomas, has "Blessed are the poor", and so the concern for the poor is bedrock, not Lucan redaction.
9. The magicians from the East are idealized representatives of the Gentiles and of eternal wisdom. They do not appear in Luke's story.
Well, of course they don't appear in Luke's story. We know from Acts that Luke doesn't like Magi; one of its villains is a Magus.
10. The story of the star of Bethlehem is a fiction intended to emphasize the importance of Jesus - and, of course, to provide an entrance cue for the magicians from the East.
I've nothing to say there, except that again it's not "an unquestionable fact"; it's a reminder of the kind of language and imagery that is being employed in Matthew's Birth Narrative.

I've adapted this post from a Xtalk post I wrote earlier.


crystal said...

... universal translator or a babel fish ... :-)

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Thanks for doing that. I thought about responding to point-by-point too, but I found L.'s tone too "off-putting" for me to engage it.