I have just received this response from Gerd Lüdemann to my comments on his press release (The Christmas Stories are Pious Fairy Tales) and Gerd asks if I would place this in my blog, which I am of course happy to do. I am knee-deep in grading (that's what they call "marking" here) at the moment but I am looking forward to commenting later. The message below is as I received it from Prof. Lüdemann, with my original blog post in lower case (but combining parts of the press release and my comments) and Prof. Lüdemann's responses in upper case:
RESPONSE TO MARK GOODACRE AND STEPHEN C. CARLSON BY GERD LÜDEMANN.
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:
COMMENT LÜDEMANN: APPARENTLY GOODACRE IS UNAWARE OF THE DIFFERENCE IN CONNOTATION BETWEEN "PIOUS” (AS IN PIOUS MYTHS OR PIOUS FAIRY TALES) AND "PIETY”. THE FORMER IMPLIES EXCESSIVE CREDULITY; THE LATTER REFERS TO DEVOUT FAITH. HE SEEMS TO SUFFER FROM A SIMILAR CONFUSION WITH RESPECT TO THE TERM "FAIRY TALE,” WHICH INDICATES AN INCREDIBLE STORY WITH OR WITHOUT FAIRIES IN THE CAST OF CHARACTERS. I SUGGEST THAT IN BOTH CASES HE IS GRASPING FOR STRAWS WITH WHICH TO CREATE OBJECTIONS.
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".
COMMENT LÜDEMANN: 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.
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.
COMMENT LÜDEMANN: TO OBJECT ON THE GROUNDS OF TRANSLATION PROBLEMS IS SILLY AND IRRELEVANT. TO BE PUZZLED BY THE IDEA OF AN ANCIENT PERSON TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF THE MODERN WORLD SHOWS LITTLE MORE, I THINK, THAN A WEAKNESS IN IMAGINATIVE POWERS. AGAIN SAND IS BEING THROWN INTO PEOPLE’S EYES IN LIEU OF ARGUMENT.
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?
COMMENT LÜDEMANN: ONE CANNOT DETERMINE WHAT THIS QUESTION MEANS.
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.
COMMENT LÜDEMANN: 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.
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.
COMMENT LÜDEMANN: 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.
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.
-- COMMENT LÜDEMANN: 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.
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".
COMMENT LÜDEMANN: 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.
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.
COMMENT LÜDEMANN: THAT’S FINE; WAFFLE A BIT IF YOU LIKE. I PREFER NOT TO. I ALSO PREFER NOT TO MAKE CASES ON THE BASIS OF LINGUISTIC PREFERENCES.
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.
COMMENT LÜDEMANN: A PIOUS HOPE LIKELY UNDERGIRDS THIS INSISTENCE, BUT IT IS SO THIN AS TO BE EASILY DISMISSED – UNLESS ONE WERE WRITING A LENGTHY DISQUISITION RATHER THAN A ONE-PAGE ARTICLE.
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.
-- COMMENT LÜDEMANN: CAN IT BE THAT MR. GOODACRE DOES NOT RECOGNIZE THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FAIRIES AND ANGELS? AND AGAIN, IF HE WOULD PREFER "MODELED UPON” INSTEAD OF "DERIVED FROM,” I WILL ACCEPT THE CHANGE. IT AMOUNTS TO A DISTINCTION THAT IS TO ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSE WITHOUT A DIFFERENCE. WHY MUST WE SPLIT HAIRS? IS IT TO REGISTER A PLETHORA OF OBJECTIONS IN AN ATTEMPT TO BOLSTER A TENUOUS CASE?
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. Nobody said they did.
-- COMMENT LÜDEMANN: THIS IS MORE SAND IN THE EYES MASKING AS ARGUMENT.
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.
COMMENT LÜDEMANN: GIVEN THE SUPPOSITIONAL NATURE OF THE EVIDENCE, ONE IS IMPRESSED THAT MR. GOODACRE CAN CERTIFY WHICH IT IS.
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.
COMMENT LÜDEMANN: 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.
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.
COMMENT LÜDEMANN: YES, AN IMAGERY THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE HISTORICAL FACTS. THAT WAS MY POINT ALL ALONG.
I've adapted this post from a Xtalk post I wrote earlier.
Permalink | posted by Mark Goodacre @ 10:06 PM | Comments:
... universal translator or a babel fish ... :-)
# posted by crystal : 9:13 AM
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.
# posted by Stephen C. Carlson : 12:26 AM
I AM SORRY THAT MR. CARLSON "... FOUND [MY] TONE TOO OFF-PUTTING TO ENGAGE IT." I WILL OFFER HIM, HOWEVER, THE FOLLOWING THOUGHTS: I WOULD NOT HAVE YOU ENGAGE MY TONE, SIR, BUT MY IDEAS AND MY ARGUMENTS; AND I WOULD NOT HAVE YOU PUT OFF DOING SO BECAUSE YOU ARE PUT OFF BY SO GOSSAMER A THING AS YOUR RESPONSE TO MY RHETORICAL STYLE. HAVING SMELLED WHAT SEEMS A FALLACIOUS PROPOSAL, YOU SHOULD NOT BE SO EASILY PUT OFF THE SCENT. IT WOULD BE BETTER TO DETERMINE JUST WHAT YOU CONSIDER ERRONEOUS AND ATTEMPT TO REBUT IT. THAT IS MORE HONEST AND FORTHCOMING THAN SIMPLY "PILING ON" BY SECONDING THE OPINIONS OF OTHERS.
AND AS FOR BEING ANNOYED OR OFFENDED -- OR WHATEVER YOU MEAN BY "OFF-PUTTING" -- PLEASE BE ASSURED THAT LIKE MANY OTHERS I AM EQUALLY RESENTFUL OF ATTEMPTS ON THE PART OF ORGANIZED RELIGION TO IMPOSE OUTMODED MYTHS AND CREEDS ON A PUBLIC AND A BODY POLITIC WHO PREFER TO LEAD THEIR LIVES IN ACCORDANCE WITH RATIONALLY AND SCIENTIFICALLY BASED PRINCIPLES OF HUMAN NATURE, MORALITY, AND ASPIRATION.