Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Response to Lüdemann

I have now finished my first set of final grading here at Duke so I have a moment to turn again to Gerd Lüdemann on Christmas. Lüdemann published a press release headed The Christmas Stories are Pious Fairy Tales to which I responded here on Friday, Lüdemann on Christmas. Prof. Lüdemann responded to my blog post yesterday, Response to Mark Goodacre and Stephen Carlson, and asked me to post it here. I would now like to respond to those comments.

It will perhaps not surprise the reader that I was a little taken aback by the rather strong tone of Prof. Lüdemann's response, some of which I thought went a little further than the kind of civil scholarly discourse I in general tend to prefer. I suspect that this was at least partly due to some misunderstanding of my own tone, which was attempting, at points, to be light hearted and a bit tongue-in-cheek. Of course one of the problems with blogging is that the intended tone does not always come out right, and what I am writing with a smile may be read with a frown. One of the reasons for the elements of levity in my response was that I found Lüdemann's tone in the press release so strident. So when I criticize Lüdemann's use of the term "pious fairy tales", e.g. by commenting that we have an angel rather than a fairy on the top of our Christmas tree, this is not to be taken too seriously. And when Lüdemann comments on my reference to troubles communicating with the 8th Century BCE Isaiah, where I mention the universal translator and babel fish (references to Star Trek and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for the uninitiated), I am simply having a bit of fun, so I take it as a compliment that Prof Lüdemann finds them "silly and irrelevant", which was the point. Perhaps I've been watching too much Monty Python since I came to the USA (it's the prime staple of BBC America).

I had commented on Lüdemann's insistence on "ten unquestionable facts", and what "historical research" had "demonstrated once and for all" by suggesting that this was stated too strongly. What historical research can do is "to show that elements in the story are implausible or problematic", to which Lüdemann responds:
This is simply carping about blunt and straightforward talk that has no time for the nuances and niceties of scholastic debate. Soften a couple of phrases, add a few qualifiers and weasel-wording extenuations, if you like; but it will all come down to the same thing. [I have changed to lower-case here and throughout, which I find easier to read than upper case.]
I do not share quite so low a view of "the nuances and niceties of scholastic debate" and think that precision in our language is important when we are engaging in scholarship, especially when we are encouraging our students to do the same. I don't think that it is "qualifiers and weasel-wording extenuations" to describe the academic task as precisely and clearly as possible. To be a good historian is not only to know what we can say about the past with confidence, but also to know what the limits of the historian are. I am keen to make clear that my own attitude to doing ancient history has been formed in interaction with Prof. Lüdemann's work; I have learnt much from his own cautious approach to history, and I frequently engage with it in my teaching (especially on Pauline chronology).

Later, I asked "Is talk of "the Christmas story" itself unhelpful when one is talking about Matthew and Luke?" to which Lüdemann responded, "One cannot determine what this question means". I was a bit terse there. I was simply wondering whether it is helpful to talk about "the Christmas story" in a press release, the aim of which is presumably to communicate about the Biblical narratives to a broad audience, some of whom would not realize that "the Christmas story" was in fact a harmonized, popularized narrative based on elements derived from Matthew and Luke. It's not a particularly important point; I just wondered whether it gave the impression that you could go to the Bible and find something resembling "the Christmas story" that we see in nativity plays and the like.

More importantly, I went on to write:
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.
And Lüdemann responded:
Call it "created” or "derived” or "inspired by”; it makes little enough difference. This admission shows beyond cavil that narrative elements have their roots in the Hebrew Bible and have resulted from a process of radical revision.
My point is that given that some of Matthew's scriptural citations are a relatively poor fit for the material they are supposed to be confirming, it seems likely that at some points Matthew has not derived the tradition from the prophecy. Rather, the tradition sometimes comes first, and the Biblical citation comes afterwards. Whereas Lüdemann is working with a kind of "prophecy historicized" model, I am suggesting that sometimes the exact reverse is taking place, and we are dealing with tradition scripturalized. Let me clarify that I do not think that this is happening all the way through Matthew's Birth Narrative -- the prophecy historicized model sometimes works well, perhaps most obviously in the case of the birth in Bethlehem, which, I would guess is a prophecy historicized because it is a good fit. But there are other cases where the prophecy historicized model does not work, and the best example is Matt. 2.23, on which I commented as follows:
Where does it say that the Messiah would live in Nazara? Matthew is weakly scripturalizing the tradition he knows.
And Lüdemann responds:
To be sure, in this one case, the author has manufactured out of whole cloth a citation in order to give scriptural authority to a simple biographical fact: Jesus came from Nazareth. Invention? Lie? Call it what you will.
We are agreed, then, on the direction here, that the tradition (Jesus was from Nazara) has been scripturalized (though my preference is to avoid language like "invention" and "lie"). What I am suggesting is that this interesting, agreed phenomenon right at the end of Matthew's Birth Narrative, could give us a clue to what is going on elsewhere too.

Another particularly good contender for the phenomenon of tradition scripturalized (i.e. a pre-Matthean tradition that is overlaid with Matthew's own scriptural reference) is, I would argue, at 1.23, where Isaiah 7.14 LXX, "A virgin shall conceive . . ." is given as the scriptural text that explicates Jesus' unusual conception out of wedlock. If this tradition was well known -- and Jane Schaberg and others make a very good case that it was -- then Matthew has not derived the story of Jesus' conception from Isaiah 7.14. On the contrary, the tradition came first and the scripture that for Matthew explained it came afterwards. I think that Lüdemann in fact largely agrees with this scenario:
Granted that this line of argument has further support in Matthew’s curious inclusion in Jesus’ genealogy of four problematical pregnancies (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba), the Isaiah quote, coming as it does from perhaps the most revered of the prophets, is hardly thereby to be discounted.
The four women are, following Schaberg and others, no doubt mentioned by Matthew because of unusual sexual unions outside of wedlock, and it seems likely that this points to a pre-Matthean tradition of Jesus' conception outside of wedlock. And if that is the case, the story of Jesus' conception is clearly not derived from, or invented on the basis of, Isaiah 7.14.

Lüdemann is concerned, though, that I may be ignorant of the issues connected with Isaiah 7.14 LXX:
Here Goodacre seems to be unaware that the Hebrew almah ("young woman", as opposed to betulah, "virgin”) was rendered by the Greek parthenos (often but not always intending "virgin”) in the Septuagint. Since Matthew apparently relied on the Septuagint, he would quite naturally cite it as evidence of a special birth.
The latter clause here captures nicely the process of scripturalization, that Matthew "would quite naturally cite it as evidence of a special birth" -- he cites the text as evidence; he does not derive the story from there. Of course Matthew is working from the LXX of Isaiah 7.14 here, and of course I am aware of basics like that. My point is that even the LXX of Isaiah 7.14 is not especially appropriate -- it's nothing to do with the birth of a Messiah in the distant future. So Matt. 1.23 is a relatively weak scripturalization of the tradition, and my guess is that Matthew goes to it because he likes the "Emmanuel" part, which famously gets its pair at the end of the Gospel, 28.20.

On the issue of Jesus' birthplace, as I indicated before I am inclined to agree with Lüdemann. But I dislike the language of "unquestionable fact" when we do not have so much as a tradition to the effect that Jesus was born in Nazareth, let alone birth records. If there is some scope for doubt -- and who knows whether Jesus might have been born in Cana, Nain or Bethsaida or anywhere else -- then it is incautious to speak of birth in Nazareth as "unquestionable fact". Ancient history is about nuanced judgements.

Regarding angels in the story, Lüdemann had said that they "derive from primitive mythology". I facetiously mentioned fairies (referencing my comments at the beginning of the post) but more seriously added that the "derive from" is a little too strong given that even today, a person with a religious world view might articulate their experience of the world by using language of angels, demons, etc. The language often encapsulates or masks a description of reality that could be articulated using scientific language. In other words, the presence of religious language is not itself an index of lack of historicity. It is only an indication of the kind of world view witnessed in the text. Lüdemann's response, which suggests that I am splitting hairs and attempting to bolster a tenuous case, does not take seriously the nature of my objection, which is that Lüdemann's remarks were overstated, and his method questionable.

Lüdemann also commented on the lack of Magi in Luke's account, to which I responded that Luke would not be expected to include Magi given his known attitude to them in Acts, to which Lüdemann respnds:
Here is another irrelevant point, an objection for the sake of objecting. Their absence from Luke’s account was adduced only to show the irreconcilability (and therefore the all but certainly fictitious nature) of the two accounts.
I don't think that this deals with the point. If Luke knew of the Magi, one would not expect him to include them given his antipathy towards Magi in general, so their absence from Luke at best simply reminds us of that antipathy. It can't tell us anything about the historicity or otherwise of the tradition in Matthew. Difference between Matthew and Luke cannot in itself be an index of lack of historicity, nor does Lüdemann treat it this way in other contexts.

Overall, this response, in addition to my previous comments, may give the impression that there is more distance between Lüdemann and me on the Birth Narratives than there actually is. What caused me to respond initially were what I regarded as some overstatement and unhelpful generalization which ultimately detract from the potential plausibility of the case. But my guess is that one of the reasons for issuing a press release is to generate not only attention but also discussion and intellectual exchange, and it is in that spirit, and in the appreciation of Lüdemann's scholarship, that I offer this response.

Update (19.41):

Response to Mark Goodacre

I agree that the two of us are not as far apart as our contentious words may have suggested. I do look forward to further mutually respectful exchanges with Professor Goodacre on matters of mutual interest.


Gerd Lüdemann.


Dave Elkin said...

A well stated response by
Dr. Goodacre. I do not disagree with much of what Prof. Lüdemann wrote, but the tone was certainly contentious.

The legitimate questions of Virgin Birth, Magi, the Herod slaughter of the innocents, and the Magi will continue to be examined. As Pete Townshend once wrote "I know you have decieved me but I can see for Miles and Miles and Miles"

The gospels were written for specific theological reasons and with that understanding, let us converse with civility and humility

Whit said...

Mark wrote, "I have changed to lower-case here and throughout, which I find easier to read than upper case."

Wonder if any of the precieved harsh tone of Lüdemann was due to the fact that it was published on your blog in all caps? I know the old joke on e-mail was that all caps is like yelling and I sometimes find that I perceive it that way.

Just as Mark talks of the difficulty of understanding the tone someone uses in a blog - I wonder if perhaps at some level we read Lüdemann as yelling because his responses were in upper case type.

Ben Myers said...

I agree with Whit -- I thought the all-caps definitely made things worse.

crystal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Christopher Shell said...

Re 'called a Nazarene', I think the common denominator of the birth-narrative quotations, whose imperfect 'fits' are telling, is not necessarily always scriptural justification for the tradition. It is better stated as optimal-if-imperfect scriptural backup for *either* tradition *or* (as in the case of Egypt and Rachel's tears) typology.

I'd wish to be a minority voice on the four women in the birth narrative, ever mindful of the need to avoid eisegesis of contemporary preoccupations. If the contemporary view (that Matthew is mentioning 4 women of dubious sexual/marital history and thereby providing an unspoken message re Mary) were correct, these questions would arise:
(1) What is so dubious about Ruth?
(2) Is this in line with Matthew's view on Mary?
(3) Why does he deliberately show the propriety not to mention the name of Bathsheba?
(4) What is wrong with the simpler view that Matthew, quite naturally, simply mentions female ancestors when they were more famous than their husbands and/or evoked a well-known OT story, and/or to clarify which particular wife the descent came through (in cases where there was more than one wife)?
(3) What is wrong with the simpler view that Matthew simpoly

Jim Deardorff said...

Regarding the four women in the birth narrative, I agree with both Mark Goodacre and Jane Schaberg that the writer of Matthew mentioned them in order to allow that honorable offspring can result from dishonorable liasons.

My studies indicate that this writer was using a source document (not Mark) which told of the conception of Mary by a "Guardian angel." If we know from 1 Enoch that "fallen angels" can interfere in human affairs in this manner, why not an occasional "good angel"? This is almost implied in Luke (re Gabriel). I think it's understandable that the writers of Matthew and Luke would not wish to spell this out any more than we would like to acknowledge similar incidents occurring within the UFO phenomenon.