Bart Ehrman and Infancy Narratives — Part I

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Murillo, The Annunciation

Read Part II here.

Nothing is more predictable in the press than the race, every Christmas and Easter, to see who can throw the most doubt on the historicity of the Gospels.

Much of it is recycled older material, though there are a few names that stand out year after year. Among them, perhaps the most prominent is Bart Ehrman, renowned Biblical scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who, unlike many of his fellow skeptics, admits the Jesus was a real historical person. Yet he relentlessly attacks the Gospels for giving an unhistorical picture of Jesus. For instance, in a December 2012 article in Newsweek, he even attacked Pope Benedict XVI’s newly published Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives for daring to suggest the events in the Gospel infancy narratives were historical.[1]

I decided to examine Ehrman’s various objections to the Infancy Narratives as the subject of my commentary, because he is the best known, and the type of objections he raises are quite typical of other skeptical critics. As we will see below, he has apparently cribbed much of it from Fr. Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah, which was a succès de scandale a generation ago for the way it diminished the historicity of the Gospel accounts.

Ehrman’s Scholarship

Ehrman has a M.Div and Ph.D and specializes in New Testament textual studies. He doesn’t have degrees in history or theology. He definitely hasn’t acquired the intellectual tools of a historian, nor the temperament. In debates with Biblical scholars far more learned in history and archaeology, like Craig Evans, he embarrasses himself.

As a historian, I have a number of problems with Ehrman’s approach. For one thing, he doesn’t think it necessary that we understand ancient ways of writing and understanding history, as they differ from modern ones; he just dismisses the whole question (I have heard him do this in debates). This doesn’t make it likely that he will actually understand any ancient historical accounts like those in the Gospels.

He claims that if there are any discrepancies between two accounts in the Gospels, one or the other must be in error. He thinks that the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke “are strikingly different from one another, in ways that appear irreconcilable.”[2] For him, this means that one or the other, or more likely both, are unhistorical. He is against any attempt to reconcile or harmonize accounts. He thinks if one source is in error somewhere you can’t use it for historical purposes.

This is a distortion of what genuine historians do. Ehrman doesn’t realize that the process of trying to reconcile two accounts – through study of the language and usage of the time, the historical background, and so on — is the only way you can determine if they are in fact irreconcilable. He apparently doesn’t know that this is a problem with all historical sources. As a historian who has had to deal with sources that often have discrepancies or even seemingly outright contradictions, I feel an almost constant need to explain to Ehrman that he doesn’t understand how historians actually work. There are always going to be discrepancies of some kind, but no historian would reject a precious ancient source for this reason.

At times, he confuses historical accuracy with biblical inerrancy as understood by fundamentalists. He thinks that only “fundamentalist” and very conservative Christians accept the historical accuracy of the Gospels.[3] This is actually false. Many historians and Biblical scholars who are not Christians are comfortable using the Gospels as historical sources for the life of Jesus, though they don’t think them inerrant. They do work to determine bias and the relative authority of the sources, just as they do with other historical accounts. Believing historians do the same, using the same historical tools.

All of this affects how Ehrman studies the Infancy Narratives. Let’s turn now to what he says.

Christology Backwards

Of course, Ehrman, along with other skeptics, especially disputes Matthew and Luke’s stories of the virginal conception and birth of Jesus. This comes principally in his 2014 popular work How Jesus Became God.[4]

Ehrman’s treatment is based on what he calls the “backward movement of Christology.” Ehrman describes this as the “contribution” of Fr. Raymond Brown, but it was not. It was first popularized by Scripture scholar Rudolf Bultmann and his followers about a hundred years ago. [5] In this view, Christ went from being seen by his first followers as a human “elevated” by God to Lord and a divine being after his death to being pre-existent as God from all eternity. These scholars believed that in the earliest strata of the New Testament — Peter’s sermon in Acts, and the pre-Pauline material in Paul — Jesus is promoted to Lord and Christ at his resurrection. Later, in the Gospels, Jesus becomes Son of God at his baptism; in the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, he is God from his conception; the Synoptic Gospels, Ehrman says, don’t know of Jesus’ pre-existence as God; this comes only later, in the last stage, which can be found in the later Pauline epistles and John.

There are many problems with this conception, beginning with Ehrman’s view of his sources; he himself admits that Acts and Paul can contain primitive pre-Pauline material, alongside what he takes to be Paul’s own views, and even later developments all together in the same documents; this is obviously a problem for his chronological development theory, though he tries to get around it in various ways. Couldn’t this just mean that the writers didn’t all have the same interpretation of these passages that Ehrman does, and that they are not from different levels of development?

For instance, one of his main points, that the words heard at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my beloved son,” mean that Jesus became God’s son at that moment, is questionable. It is anything but certain that this is the meaning of these words.[6] They can be read simply as a declaration of the ongoing relationship of Jesus and the Father, and have been so by most readers. And if Ehrman’s interpretation is correct, what are we to think of God’s words at the Transfiguration – “This is my beloved Son”? Did he only become God’s son at that moment too?[7]

Most good scholars are now rejecting this schematic view; nevertheless, Ehrman still clings to it. But let’s talk more specifically about the Nativity stories.

Ehrman and Luke

Ehrman does reject the idea that the Nativity stories are myths like those of the pagan Greeks, though he muddles his explanation of this:

The God of the Christians was not like the philanderer Zeus, filled with lust and full of imaginative ways to satisfy it. For the Christians, God was transcendent, remote, “up there”—  not one to have sex with beautiful girls. At the same time, something somewhat like the pagan myths appears to lie behind the birth narrative found in the Gospel of Luke. In this Gospel, Jesus was born of Mary, who had never had human sex. She had never had divine sex either, exactly, but it was God, not a human who made her pregnant.

Well, thank you for that much, anyway, Prof. Ehrman! You don’t really believe in the old canard that the virginal conception of Jesus is warmed-over pagan myth, but you have to try and bring it in anyway.

More seriously, Ehrman makes some frankly erroneous claims. To begin with, he says: “In the final form of Luke’s Gospel, it appears that Jesus is to be thought of as becoming the Son of God, for the first time, at the moment of birth. Or, to be more precise, at the moment of his conception.” He differentiates this from Jesus being the pre-existent Son of God from all eternity, the last and final state of Christological development in the New Testament.

Here is how Ehrman interprets the Annunciation in Luke:

Gabriel tells [Mary] that she is specially favored by God and will conceive and bear a son. She is taken aback—she has never had sex: How can she conceive? The angel tells her in graphic terms: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the Power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the one who is born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). I call this description “graphic” because there is nothing in it to make the reader think that the angel is speaking in metaphors. In a very physical sense the Holy Spirit of God is to “come upon” Mary and “therefore”—an important word here—the child she bears will be called the Son of God. He will be called the Son of God because he will in fact be the Son of God. It is God, not Joseph, who will make Mary pregnant, so the child she bears will be God’s offspring. Here, Jesus becomes the Son of God not at his resurrection or his baptism, but already at his conception.

In his discussion Ehrman doesn’t go much beyond what the pagan Greeks said about Zeus and his women: if a human woman becomes pregnant by a god, the offspring is a god (or at least a half-god). True, the nature of the divine sonship of Mary’s child is not explained in any detail in Luke. But that doesn’t matter to Ehrman. One of his many problems is that he evidently thinks that because someone does not explicitly affirm something, he must therefore be denying it. But Ehrman has no difficulty in filling in the blanks with his own ideas.

So according to Ehrman, Luke here represents the next-to-latest-stage in the development of Christology. Ehrman does not differentiate these last two stages clearly; in fact it is unlikely they could be differentiated by anyone with any understanding of Christian theology. As we articulate it now, of course, Christians believe that the man Jesus, meaning his human body and human soul, did not exist before the Incarnation, so he could not have been said to be anything then, much less God, but that at the moment he came into existence in Mary’s womb, he was joined in a hypostatic union with the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, who indeed existed from all eternity. In fact, it is not possible to talk about a non-pre-existent God, so if Jesus was God in any sense, that God had to be pre-existent, so Jesus would have been pre-existing God from the time he was in the womb, Luke’s account does not explicitly speak of this pre-existence, but nothing he says is in the least conflict with the statement “the Word became flesh” of John (1:14), which represents Ehrman’s supposed last stage of development, or the hymn in Philippians: “He emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7).

But there is even more reason to question Ehrman’s idea that Luke represents a later stage of development in the New Testament. Many scholars believe that the Infancy narrative in Luke, far from being late, contains primitive Aramaic material from the earliest Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem: it is early rather than late.[8] It concentrates on Jesus as the Messiah, son of David, and other aspects of him in Jewish expectation; there is nothing in it of the later language of Paul’s theology, indicating that Luke was very careful to preserve the words transmitted to him by Mary and other earliest witnesses. Hidden within the account are many Old Testament allusions, calling to mind concepts the original readers already knew, and helped them understand the nature of this conception and divinity of Jesus. Ehrman’s basic error is that he either doesn’t know about, or chooses not to notice, these allusions. Brown (from whom he is apparently taking everything), knows about them, but does his best to dismiss them.[9]

I won’t have time for all of these, but here is the important one. In Luke 1:35, “the power of the Most High overshadows” Mary. The word used in Greek “episkiasein,” is the same word used in Exodus 40:34. There” the cloud overshadowed the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”[10] God comes to Mary not in the manner of Zeus coming to Europa, but in the manner of God “overshadowing” the tent of the meeting, filling the tabernacle and accompanying the people of Israel through the desert. God will be present in Mary as he was in the tabernacle and in ark of the covenant. This indicates to Mary and to us, that God will come to dwell with his people. The earliest church here did not yet have the necessary language or concepts to express the nature of Jesus’ humanity an divinity more clearly. A more explicit description, however, comes later from Hebrews, an exhortation that is believed to have been addressed to the early Jerusalem Church: The pre-existing Son speaks: “A body you have prepared for me. . . then I said . . . Behold, I come to do your will.” (Heb 10:5-7)

It is important to understand that Ehrman is right about one thing: the fully realized Christian teaching about the Incarnation did develop over time, but it did not develop in the way Ehrman describes. We see Paul and the Synoptics grapple with it in different ways, not by jumping around in time searching for the moment when God landed in Jesus, but rather, by deepening of the understanding of the original teaching that was given. I think Ehrman is unable to understand, or compare Luke to the teaching, because he fundamentally does not understand the teaching.

But all of this is nothing compared to the muddle Ehrman gets into with Matthew. I’ll talk about that next time.


NOTES

[1] Bart D. Ehrman, “What Do We Really Know About Jesus?” Newsweek, December 10, 2012; online version: http://www.newsweek.com/what-do-we-really-know-about-jesus-63427

[2] Ehrman, ” What Do We Really Know,” ibid.

[3] One of the reasons for Ehrman’s strange view, as many of his critics have pointed out,n may be that he himself is of a Protestant fundamentalist background, and later lost his faith. He evidently has no experience of any Christian approach to the Gospels but a fundamentalist’s wooden literalistic view of inerrancy.

[4] Ehrman, How Jesus became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. (New York: HarperOne, 2014)

[5] In How Jesus Became God, p. 269. Brown’s discussion is in The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1993, pp. 29-32). Ehrman evidently had a reason for this claim. “This shows,” he says, “among other things, that this is not simply a ‘skeptical’ view or a ‘secular’ view of early Christology; it is one held by believing scholars as well.” He lists no other scholars on this subject in his notes or bibliography for the book. He is either unaware of or simply ignores the fact that the theory was not actually Brown’s contribution, but was the product of nineteenth-century German scholars like F. C. Baur, and taken up by Wilhelm Bousset, Rudolf Bultmann and their followers, many of them radical skeptics about the historicity of many details in the life of Christ; nor does he seem aware that Brown’s view is a great deal more nuanced than the earlier scholars’ or his own. Ehrman is certainly misleading his readers here.

[6] A few early manuscripts of Luke, instead of “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” the best attested reading, have “You are my Son, this day I have begotten you,” (cf. Ps 2:7). Some early heretics, the Adoptionists, used this passaget to say that Jesus was not God’s son, but purely human, and “adopted” by God for his messianic task. But this is a pretty far cry from saying that Jesus became God when the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism. It should also be pointed out that the phrase does not necessarily mean what the Adoptionists thought it did. The author of Hebrews cited the same verse from Psalm 2 in a way that is perfectly consonant with his very high Christology, since he uses it in reference to the pre-existent Son through whom God created the universe (Heb. 1:2).

[7] For this point, see Simon J. Gathercole, “What did the First Christians Think about Jesus?” in Michael F. Bird, et al., How God Became Jesus: The Real Origin of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature. A Response to Bart Ehrman (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), pp. 96-97. This book as a whole is an excellent response to Ehrman.

[8] Even Brown admits the “primitive sotierology” [description of the mode of salvation] of the Magnificat and other hymns, and suggests they may have come from the primitive Jewish-Christian Church in Jerusalem; Brown, Birth of the Messiah, pp. 353-54. But he doesn’t extend this Jewish primitive quality to the rest of Luke 1-2.

[9] Brown says that the “overshadow” does not really come from the Old Testament, but is an adaptation of a very early Christian Christological formula, using the elements of “power” and “the Holy Spirit” found in other formulas such as Rom. 1:3-4. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, pp. 313-14. He contends that since there was no Jewish expectation that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, these passages would not have been used directly, as there was no tradition involving them. Yet even the Christological formulas did not get their ideas from nowhere! Where else did they get them but from the Old Testament? Brown admits that the power of the Most High “overshadowing” Mary was a sign of divine presence at the birth, but still even though “the power of that presence creatively brings about the conception of the child . . . that is not necessarily the same as Jesus being the embodiment of the divine presence in the womb of Mary.” (ibid, p. 327).

[10] For a discussion, see Tim Staples, Behold Your Mother: A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines (El Cajon, CA: Catholic Answers, 2014), Kindle ed., loc. 1339.

 

 


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