Pope Paul’s Canonization on the Way

PaoloVIYesterday I read with great joy that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has approved a miracle for Blessed Pope Paul VI, that will pave the way for his canonization, probably this fall. Not coincidentally, both miracles for this great Pope of life are of the safe delivery of children in medically dangerous pregnancies and the healing of their mothers. Here’s the article from the Catholic News Agency.

I don’t have time to publish much more right now. But it is a good time to provide some links to my earlier posts on “The Real Paul VI.”

Part I – Was Paul a Gloomy Pope?

Part II – His Spirituality

Part III- The Assassination Attempt

Part IV – Pope Paul and his Successor

I’ll have more as the time for his canonization approaches.


Franciscan Saints, January 2018 — Bl. Ludovica Albertoni, Part 2

I am finally getting around to talking again about Bl. Ludovica Albertoni, as we once again observe her feast day on January 31. It has taken me a year because reading through the 1672 biography of her by Giovanni Pauolo has proved difficult, partly because of his style, which made it hard to extract even a few good nuggets of information from a mountain of fulsome Baroque rhetoric. Since an appreciation of this saint’s whole life would be impossible in the space of a post like this, I will confine myself to describing Ludovica’s Franciscan vocation and the nature of her spirituality, since Pauolo describes in detail her profession and life as a member of the Third Order.

"The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni Distributing Alms" by Baciccio

“The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni Distributing Alms” by Baciccio

As I mentioned in my last post about Ludovica, there is astonishing little material on her from the first hundred or so years after her death in 1533. She is not mentioned even by the Franciscan chronicler Luke Wadding, who wrote in the early 1600’s, when the fame of her sanctity was spreading, and she was honored by the government of Rome (one of the few things we do know).

Pauolo’s work is the first full-scale biography of Ludovica. It does have the advantage of being written by one of her descendants, the procurator of her cause for canonization, who was also an Observant Franciscan friar at the monastery attached to the church in Rome where she is buried, San Francesco a Ripa.[1] Because he was a Franciscan, and in particular an Observant, with the emphasis that this branch of the order placed on poverty, austerity and apostolic preaching to the laity, he seems well placed to articulate her spirituality.

To recapitulate a little, Ludovica was born in 1473 to Stefano Albertoni and Lucrezia Tebaldi, both from noble Roman families. In her youth, she greatly desired to embrace the religious life, but in obedience to her parents, married Giacomo della Cetera, also of noble rank; we don’t know the date, but probably around 1590. Pauolo describes Giacomo as “a most noble youth and a noble Roman.”[2] They had three daughters, Camilla, Silvia and Antonina. In 1506, Giacomo became sick and died after a lingering illness, tended by his wife. Ludovica, then 33 years old, was left to raise their three daughters alone. She did so with the greatest care for their religious education. The oldest, Camilla, died while still young. But Ludovica found husbands for the two other girls in noble Roman families.

Ludovica as a Tertiary

The young widow was sought in marriage by many Roman noblemen, but instead she became a Franciscan Tertiary; it was probably a step she had contemplated for a long time. Though she had been baptized in the church of Santa Maria della Corte in the Piazza Campitelli, her parents’ parish church, she moved to the Trastevere with her husband when she married, and they attended his parish of San Francesco a Ripa together. Most likely her spiritual director, who Pauolo mentions, was a Franciscan of the monastery. It was here that she made her profession as a Tertiary:

Accompanied therefore by many venerable matrons, she went to the Church of San Francesco; on her knees there, she made a brief but fervent prayer, recommending herself in her heart to the Lord, in the presence of many ladies and noblemen, she was vested by the superior of that Sacred Convent with the habit of a Tertiary. And she received it with such joy that she clearly revealed to everyone the internal jubilation of her heart.[3]

The ladies mentioned here often appear in Ludovica’s company, but Pauolo doesn’t make their relationship to her clear. Were they perhaps members of a fraternity or Tertiary community? We know that they were her constant companions and were also at her side when she died.

In fact, even during her marriage, Ludovica had gathered many other young noble matrons around her and together they read books of devotion, engaged in spiritual conversations and the others listened to Ludovica’s exhortations. This was the period in which printed books were becoming more and more common. Ludovica and her companions could have read works like The Imitation of Christ in their own language (it was printed in Italian as early as 1502), and Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis and the Fioretti (both printed in one volume in 1503). Pauolo tells us that Ludovica read the life of St. Francis a number of times.

Even before entering the Third Order, Ludovica practiced great austerities; after she entered she increased them, fasting on bread and water for much of the week; on the days she received the Eucharist she took no other food. She gave up all her fine clothes, and did not wear any clothing but her habit when she went out in cold weather. She wore a hair shirt under her clothes and slept on a hard pallet, spending long nights in prayer.

Pauolo remarks wisely that while many people wrongly practice penance and austerity as an end, they are really only a means toward perfection. Some start out by wanting to counter hypocrisy, and end up practicing austerity for show, to gain a reputation for sanctity. On the other hand, Ludovica’s goal, he says, was “enjoying the embraces of her sweetest spouse Jesus.”[4] Her way of practicing mortification was also in line with Franciscan spirituality. When she slept on a pallet, “she meditated devoutly on the manger of our Lord Jesus Christ as a baby, who being king of glory, wanted to be at that tender age laying on the straw in a manger for animals.”[5] This was certainly the same spirit that motivated St. Francis in founding the Christmas crib. Love for the poverty of Christ would certainly have increased her love for the poor, which I spoke about in my first post.

Ludovica also had a great love for the Cross. Pauolo gives the prayer that she used to say prostrate before the crucifix. (It is so different from his own pompous style that I feel sure he got it from an early source). It makes clear her great love for the cross, which she had even before becoming a tertiary:

“Yes, in the past, I was not my own, thanks more to my husband, than to me, therefore I could not consecrate myself completely to you, my Jesus: now therefore, since I am living all on my own, I leave off being mine, in order to belong completely to you. And because widowhood is hated, I embrace it from my heart to live as a widow in the world, and to make myself the spouse of your most holy Cross. What else is widowhood, but a very fertile field of the holy Church? Yes, cultivate it, my God; to you belong the planting, to you the increase, to you the fruit. And widowhood is good, since it is the wise teacher of the Catholic faith, teacher of the most exemplary chastity. I could not, in order to obey my parents, preserve my virginity; I yearn at least to be a norm of chastity; You, Divine Master of most chaste counsel, instill my heart true precepts of chastity. Our flesh undermines us widows; you most simple spirit, guard my heart from the allurements of the senses; clear my mind from the darkness of the thoughts of the world; defend my soul from the proud assaults of the enemy Satan. I adore your cross, having nailed myself with loving feelings to that wood; since it is the wood of life, it gives life to the one who dies for it. I unite myself to you, my Jesus, since you are Master of chastity, I will be able to live securely from the allurements of the tempter spirit.”[6]

Like St. Francis, Ludovica frequently meditated on the Passion of Christ and desired to imitated him; often “prostrate before the image of the Saint, she would pray insistently to him to implore from God for her for that fervor of spirit that had inflamed his soul; that oneness with Jesus through which he merited being similar to him in his most sacred wounds.”[7] At the hour of her death, at the age of sixty, on January 31, 1533, she held a crucifix, “devoutly kissing the feet and all the sacred wounds of the Crucified, weeping with compassion, she repeated often ‘into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’”[8]

Ludovica was buried, at her request in San Francesco a Ripa beside her husband, and it became a site for devotion, as well as miracles. The Franciscans there still cherish her memory along with that of St. Francis and Lady Jacopa.


[1] Pauolo, Giovanni. Vita della beata Ludovica Albertoni, Piermattei Paluzzi del Terzo Ordo (Rome: Giovanni Corvo, 1672). We don’t know much about Pauolo’s sources. He describes them as “some ancient memoirs, which in spite of the passing of time, have been preserved up to the present day,” and as a “legend” (the usual name for a saint’s life), which he quotes from in Latin; elsewhere he speaks of a “brief Latin compendium of her life.” The last two, or even all three, might be referring to the same work. None of them is mentioned in the other early literature on Ludovica. Some parts of his work, such as the “memoirs,” might be family tradition. He did evidently take some things from her canonization process, which took place in 1671 and was printed the same year. It was devoted mostly to establishing the antiquity of Ludovica’s cult, in accordance with the decree of Urban VIII in 1634. I don’t have a complete copy of the process, but a lengthy resume with quotations can be found in Shelley Karen Perlove, Bernini and the Idealization of Death: The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni and the Altieri Chapel (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press,1990), pp. 57-66. It does not shed any light on these source, which remain a mystery. Perlove’s book does add a great deal of helpful historical background.

[2] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 32.

[3] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 53.

[4] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, pp. 58-59.

[5] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 61.

[6] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, pp. 50-51.

[7] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 56.

[8] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 229.


C. S. Lewis’ Christmas Sermon for Pagans

LewisThere is a very widespread confusion among modern people about the ancient world, specifically its religious aspect. I have been a witness to a number of discussions on Christianity where the skeptic tartly demands “contemporary secular sources” for the story told in the Gospels, before he will consent to accept the historical reality of Jesus. He believes these “secular” sources, though from the time of Jesus, won’t be affected by the religious fanaticism of Christians, who actually believed in miracles. I always wait in anticipation of the moment when the Christian apologist counters with: “But all the contemporary Greek and Roman writers were religious and believed in miracles too!” Happily, most modern apologists know their stuff; they will be alert to this kind of thing and able to counter it.

But many Christians too fall victim to this confusion. Many of them have been complaining about a creeping paganism in our culture. And by this they don’t mean that people are sacrificing to Diana or Zeus. This is clearly indicated by a newly published article by Mary Eberstadt, “The Zealous Faith of Secularism: How the Sexual Revolution became a Dogma” in First Things, January 2018. She writes:

To begin with a point to which many Christian thinkers would agree, the United States and other nations rooted in Judeo-Christianity have entered a time of paganization—what we might also call “re-paganization.” The gravitational pull of traditional religion seems to be diminishing, even as a-religious and anti-religious elements accumulate mass. This paganization is especially ascendant among the young, now famously more prone than any other group to checking “none of the above” when asked for their religious affiliation; according to the Pew Research Center and others, the combination of self-described atheists and self-defined “nones” is now the fastest-growing “religious” group.

The mistaken view that modern secularism is essentially the same thing as paganism is very problematic. In part, it may have come about by conflating ancient paganism and its simulated modern counterpoint, deeply infiltrated with modern New Age notions, with Wiccans who don’t really believe in the reality of their own earth-goddess, but who do really believe that “I am goddess.” To confuse something like this with ancient pagan religion is a fundamental distortion of the reality of the ancient world. And it actually distorts modernity too, and gives a false idea of our real problems.

No one knew how to address this question better than C. S. Lewis. He was a student of literature who was an expert on the classics and Greek and Roman myth; in fact, he loved these myths long before becoming a committed Christian as an adult, as well as a Christian apologist. This is why I was so delighted to learn a few days ago that a long-lost article by him on this subject has just-been discovered. Titled, “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” it was originally published in the popular British magazine The Strand in December 1946. Two modern scholars independently discovered it, and it is going to be re-published in VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center in January 2018.

Only a few excerpts have been published so far. But I have been carefully going through the issue, still, alas, under copyright, which is offered in “snippet” view on Google Books, testing keywords, and actually coming up with more of the article (Hey, some people stand in line all day to see Star Wars films, I do this).

Lewis begins:

When I was asked to write “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” I accepted the job light heartedly enough; but now that I sit down to tackle it I discover a difficulty. Are there any Pagans in England for me to write to? I know that people keep on telling us that this country is relapsing into Paganism. But they only mean that it is ceasing to be Christian. And is that at all the same thing?

Lewis begins by reminding people of the original of the word “pagan”; they were “the backward people in the remote districts who had not yet been converted, who were still pre-Christian.” He continues:

To say that modern people who have drifted away from Christianity are Pagans is to suggest that a post-Christian man is the same as a pre-Christian man. And that is like thinking … a street where the houses have been knocked down is the same as a field where no house has yet been built. [They do have something in common], namely that neither will keep you dry if it rains. But they are very different in every other respect. Rubble, dust, broken bottles, old bedsteads and stray cats are very different from grass, thyme, clover, buttercups and a lark singing overhead . . .

Lewis also pointed this out in more detail in his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, in 1954:

It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are “lapsing into Paganism.” It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminister Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went” and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.[1]

Going back now to the new article, how does Lewis find that the pagan differs from the post-Christian? “Firstly, he was religious. From the Christian point of view he was indeed too religious by half. He was full of reverence. . . the earth was holy, the woods and waters were alive. . .”


Dryad, Narnia illustration by Pauline Baynes

Lewis is speaking here of the wood and water nymphs. He especially loved the dryads, or the tree spirits, and wrote delightfully of them in his Narnia tales. At the beginning of Prince Caspian, Narnia had undergone a long period of unbelief, not just disbelief in Aslan, but as a corollary, disbelief in the reality of the dryads, who never appeared any longer, but who lay asleep in their trees until with Aslan’s approach, Lucy sees them awaken and dance in the forest. Later, they come to Aslan, who provides them a welcome where modern secularists would not. In fact, the only way they can really survive as themselves is as creatures (even of the imagination) under him.

Pale birch-girls were tossing their heads, willow-women pushed back their hair from their brooding faces to gaze on Aslan, the queenly beeches stood still and adored him, shaggy oak-men, lean and melancholy elms, shock-headed hollies (dark themselves but their wives all bright with berries) and gay rowans, all bowed and rose again, shouting “Aslan, Aslan!” in their various husky or creaking or wave-like voices.[2]

But for Lewis, there was a second and more important likeness between ancient pagans and ancient Christians.

Secondly, they “believed in what we now call an ‘Objective’ Right or Wrong,” that is, that “the distinction between pious and impious acts was something which existed independently of human opinions . . . which (like the multiplication table) he had better take notice of. The gods would punish him if he did not.

To be sure, by Christian standards, his list of “Right” or “Wrong” acts was rather a muddled one. He thought (and the Christians agreed) that the gods would punish him for setting the dogs on a beggar who came to his door or for striking his father: but he also thought they would punish him for turning his face to the wrong point of the compass when he began ploughing. But though this code included some fantastic sins and duties, it got in most of the real ones.

Lewis knew that the idea of morality did not come into being with Christianity. I recall one of my professors in college, who taught my class in Roman History, had a very hard time grasping this idea. He saw the Romans as “enlightened,” especially in regard to sexual morality, avoiding the hang-ups that Christians have in these areas. Most of the sources we studied in regard to the Roman Republic, however, told a different story. They spoke of the virtues of the Old Republic, which included marital chastity and devotion to home and hearth, as well as moral integrity or virtus in other areas. Even the word “virtue” is of Latin origin!

Indeed, Lewis says, the difference between the post-Christian man and the pagan was that “[the Pagan] knew he had sinned.” He felt “a deep sadness” because he had not obeyed the moral law perfectly. “And the Pagan dealt with this situation in a rather silly way. His religious was a mass of ceremonies (sacrifices, purifications, etc.) which were supposed to take away guilt. But they never quite [did so].”

But today we have a different situation, Lewis wrote. “There is no objective Right or Wrong,” there are only different ideologies, but “none of these ideologies can be better or worse than another. For a better moral code can only mean one which comes nearer to some real or absolute code. One map to New York can be better than another only if there is a real New York.”

Modern relativists don’t understand that in getting rid of what they think is “repressive” Christianity morality, they are really getting rid of all the morality that has ever existed – not only that, but every morality that ever could exist, as Lewis showed in his Abolition of Man.

A third great problem that Lewis saw was the rise of the “post-Christian” view of nature. The problem has become even more acute in our own time, when modern secularists have replaced both the pagan reverence for nature and the Christian idea of stewardship of creation with another attitude that “complete already in some people and still incomplete in others – is quite different. According to it Nature is not a live thing to be reverenced: it is a kind of machine for us to exploit.”

Indeed, Lewis thought that nature in his time might be “hitting back.” There was “the present threat of world famine. We know now that it is not entirely due to the war. From country after country comes the same story of failing harvests: even the whales have less oil. Can it be that Nature (or something behind Nature) is not simply a machine” that we can do what we want with? Even if this is not the case, he says, the modern irreverent conquest over nature by humans is disastrous; it “yields new means of propaganda to enslave them, new weapons to kill them, new power for the State and new weakness for the citizen.”

Since Lewis’ time, secularists have acquired another and even more destructive ideological replacement for Christian and pagan beliefs: only reverence for nature, or “the environment” exists, neither God nor man is of any account. Humans are urged to kill themselves off as a species to protect the environment, though they can’t even give a morally coherent account of why the environment should be preserved. As Lewis explains, again in The Abolition of Man, they have taken one of the old moral principles and worship it in isolation, while allowing the whole moral framework that supported the principle in the first place to fall.

If correct, Lewis says, the post-Christian view means we have awakened into a true freedom from “the old fear, the old reverence, the old restraints,” But this freedom may not be what we had hoped:

A universe of colourless electrons (which is presently going to run down and annihilate all organic life everywhere and forever) is, perhaps, a little dreary compared with the earth-mother and the sky-father, the wood nymphs and the water nymphs, chaste Diana riding the night sky and homely Vesta flickering on the hearth. But one can’t have everything, and there are always the flicks [movies] and the radio: if the new view is correct, it has very solid advantages. . . .

But what if the post-Christian view is not correct? Lewis is building to his point. And, as always, his prose invites quotation:

It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. … For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.

The pagans had been aware of a “deep sadness” brought onto the world by sin. The very Pagan thing we do on December 25 of “singing and feasting because a God has been born” may be, Lewis says, our “way back not only to Heaven, but to Earth too.”


[1] C. S, Lewis, “De Descriptione Temporum,” in Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969). pp. 4-5.

[2] Lewis, Prince Caspian (London: Bles, New York: Macmillan, 1951), pp. 130-31.

Bart Ehrman and the Infancy Narratives — Part II


Francesco Albani, The Annunciation

Read Part I here.

As we saw in the last installment, a lack of Scriptural and historical understanding haunts Ehrman when it comes to Luke. Now we come to Matthew. Ehrman writes (emphasis mine):

It is interesting to observe that the Gospel of Matthew also has an account of Jesus’s birth in which his mother is a virgin. One might infer from this account as well that Jesus is the Son of God because of the circumstances of his unusual birth. But in the case of Matthew, this conclusion would indeed need to be made by inference: Matthew says nothing of the sort. There is no verse in Matthew similar to what Luke says in Luke 1:35. Instead, according to Matthew, the reason Jesus’s mother was a virgin was so that his birth could fulfill what had been said by a spokesperson of God many centuries earlier, when the prophet Isaiah in the Jewish scriptures wrote, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).[1]

It’s difficult to believe that Ehrman actually means what he says here. There is “no verse in Matthew similar to what Luke says in Luke 1:35″? Really? Well, let’s see, what does Luke say?

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.” (Lk 1:35)

And what does Matthew say:

Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit.

It is strongly implied that Mary is a virgin, and explicitly stated that she conceived through the Holy Spirit. But this is not all. In 1:20 the angel tells Joseph:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.”

Matthew actually sates twice that Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit! Matthew then comments:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means “God is with us.” (22-23).

Matthew has more or less what Luke has, the child is conceived in a virgin by the Holy Spirit, therefore he will be called the Son of God. The “conceived as a virgin by the Holy Spirit” is covered by the events he narrates, the “therefore he will be called the Son of God” part is covered by the reference to Is. 7:14. The events that had just taken place would lead to Jesus being called “God with us.”

But Ehrman isn’t finished yet. He continues:

It has frequently been noted that Isaiah actually does not prophesy that the coming messiah will be born of a virgin. If you read Isaiah 7 in its own literary context, it is clear that the author is not speaking about the messiah at all. The situation is quite different. It takes place in the eighth century BCE, during a calamitous time. Isaiah is talking to the king of Judah, Ahaz, who is very upset, and for good reason. The two kingdoms to the north of Judah—Israel and Syria—have attacked his capital city of Jerusalem to force him to join them in an alliance against the rising world power of Assyria. He is afraid that these two northern opponents will lay his kingdom to waste. Isaiah, the prophet, tells him that it is not so. There is a young woman (not a virgin) who has conceived a child, and she will give birth to a son, who will be called Immanuel, which means “God is with us.” That God is “with” the Judeans will become clear, because before the child is old enough to know the difference between good and evil, the two kingdoms that are attacking Jerusalem will be dispersed, and good times will return to Ahaz and his people. That’s what Isaiah was referring to. As a Christian living centuries later, Matthew read the book of Isaiah not in the original Hebrew language, but in his own tongue, Greek. When the Greek translators before his day rendered the passage, they translated the Hebrew for word young woman (alma) using a Greek word (parthenos) that can indeed mean just that but that eventually took on the connotation of a “young woman who has never had sex.” Matthew took the passage to be a messianic tradition and so indicated that Jesus fulfilled it, just as he fulfilled all the other prophecies of scripture, by being born of a “virgin.”[2]

By “messianic tradition” I presume Ehrman means “messianic prophecy.” His contention is: “Matthew only believes that Mary was a virgin because of a prophecy that didn’t really talk about a virgin, and actually meant something else entirely. Matthew made up the story of a virgin birth based on a mistaken translation of Isaiah 7:14.” This is a standard objection of skeptics.

First, in regard to almah vs. parthenos. This is so frequently raised as an objection with such assurance that I think that the critics should spend more time with their dictionaries. The Hebrew word almah has the basic meaning of “young unmarried girl.” It is often said that Isaiah would have used the word betulah if he really meant virgin, but the meaning of this word is not unambiguous either, and it can be used in other senses. For instance, in Joel 1:8 a betulah is described as mourning “for the husband of her youth.” It seems clear that this was a married woman and not a virgin. On the other hand, The Song of Solomon (Canticles) 6:8 describes the king’s harem as including “sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens (almah’ot) without number.” Going by the usual makeup of such a harem, the almah’ot here would be virgins with whom the king has not yet cohabited. The Greek word parthenos has a similar ambiguity (which even Ehrman admits), as it is used throughout early Greek literature in a way very similar to almah, to mean “young (unmarried) girl, maiden.” By extension, it later came to mean “virgin” in a technical sense, and as an adjective “chaste.” Given the time period when the Greek translation of the Bible was made, it doesn’t seem that the translators were mistaken in translating almah by parthenos; it’s likely they thought it the closest equivalent, and perhaps one that would preserve the general, even if ambiguous nature of the original word.

It is true that the words of Isaiah’s prophecy referred to a present, not a future situation. It’s not clear who the mother and the child to be born were, whether Ahaz’s wife and his son Hezekiah, or someone else. But most modern scholars think it clear that an immediate fulfillment was what the prophet meant.

Ehrman, however, believes that this was the only fulfillment this prophecy could ever have, so Matthew was mistaken in citing it.

The problem here is that Ehrman fails to understand how “fulfillment” worked in Jewish thought of the time with regard to the Old Testament. Direct fulfillment of a prophecy was not the only possibility – and this approach was not limited to Christians.

There were various Jewish methods of interpretation that sought to make the past relevant to the present. One was the exegetical technique called midrash, where the text was interpreted to bring out its relation to present events. A modern Jewish writer, reading Luke 1:35-37, notes that the angel’s words to Mary, “nothing is impossible with God,” is a midrash on Gen. 18:14.[3] This is the passage where Sarah laughs at the thought that at the age of 90 she will bear a child, and the angel of the Lord replies, “Is anything impossible with God?” The angel is telling Mary that her situation is similar to that of Sarah, and that like her, she is to have faith.

There was also typology, which saw various OT figures as prefigurements or “types” of current figures. The Christians inherited these ideas, seeing many Old Testament figures as types of Christ or his mother.

These ideas were not restricted to certain prophecies. The earliest Christians thought the entire New Testament lay hidden in the Old until it was revealed by Christ, who taught his disciples that Moses, the prophets, and indeed “all the scriptures” referred to him (Lk 24:27).  As my friend Mark Shea has written:

In fact, the New Testament makes plain that the prophecies of the Messiah were not so much revealed by the Old Testament as they were hidden there. This is why Paul writes that the New Covenant was “veiled” until the gospel took away the veil (2 Cor 3:14). It is also why he declares the gospel was “ not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” (Eph 3:5).

His whole treatment also deals with the Matthew-Isaiah controversy, and is really worth reading.

We can see how this works a little more clearly if we look at another of Matthew’s “fulfillment” passages, where he makes this comment on the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem (2:17-18).

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)

Jeremiah’s words were not even a prophecy strictly speaking, but a poetic description of what he himself saw during the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., with the slaughter of many of its people and the carrying off of the rest to exile to Babylon. He is imagining Rachel, the wife of Jacob, as an embodiment or personification of Israel, weeping over the dead. The scene is related to the one in Matthew, not as a prediction of it, but as a situation similar to it: oppression and slaughter again afflict the people of Israel in Mary and Joseph’s time, as they did almost 600 years earlier.

But there is more: the verses Matthew cited are a small part of a much longer passage, comforting and offering hope to the exiles for their coming return to their homeland. Just a few verses after the mention of Rachel comes one of the most quoted passages of Jeremiah:

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. . . for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31: 31-34).

Every Jewish Christian acquainted with the prophets knew these verses. There is an enormous amount of meaning here, and hope and joy hidden behind the said and poignant words, for Matthew’s audience was living that New Covenant. and would find Matthew’s words a whole commentary rich in meaning on the events he is describing.

Jeremiah also makes use of typology in making Rachel, as a personification of Israel, prefigure the mourning women of his own time (Rachel actually died near Bethlehem, and in some accounts is buried there, so this description is doubly fitting for the use Matthew made of it). At the same time, we would see Rachel as a prefigurement of Mary, who is the embodiment of the New Israel, being involved in these sorrowful events as well as the joyful promise of a New Covenant.

To return now to the prophecy of Isaiah: it was already known to all Jews in Matthew’s time that Isaiah’s prophecy about the child called “Immanuel” had been fulfilled. But because the prophecy was addressed to the “House of David” (7:13-14), it was ripe with possibilities for the development of messianic expectations. In fact, in the following chapter, Immanuel is already seen not as simply an individual , but almost as a kind of personification of land of Judah (Is 8:8). It is not surprising at all that Matthew should see such a development there and comment on the resemblance between it and the birth of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah from the land of Judah. For him, the “virgin” might not even be the most important part of the prophecy. What is important to him is the idea that the coming Davidic messiah could be called “God with us.”[4] As we have seen, exact agreement between all aspects of the two situations are not required for them to be meaningfully related to each other. And confirmation that the young woman of his fulfillment was indeed a virgin was not needed from the Old Testament: Matthew had that from the historical tradition he had received about Mary’s conception.

From his earlier statements, readers would never guess that Erhrman is aware of any of the above understanding of New Testament interpretation, though scholars in his field has devoted an enormous amount of time to it. However, at the end of his discussion he does backtrack a little and say:

It does not take too much thought to realize, though, that Matthew may have been giving “scriptural justification” for a tradition he inherited that originally had a different import: like Luke’s tradition, the one that came to Matthew may originally have spoken of Jesus as the unique Son of God because he was born of a virgin, with God as his father.

This is indeed exactly what Matthew does have! He has a clear statement from his tradition that Jesus was conceived by a virgin through the Holy Spirit, implying that God was his father. He does not say it quite as explicitly as Luke does, perhaps, but his account is certainly not the invention Ehrman thinks it is.

In fact, the idea of the virgin birth being an invention in Matthew depends completely on him being the first to tell the story. But since I’ve gone on long enough, I’ll have to deal with this question in another installment.


[1] Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 277.

[2] Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, pp. 277-78.

[3] Larry Magarik, “The Torah Reading for Rosh-Hashanah.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 39:2, (2011): 83-90. The discovery of a number of scriptural commentaries among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D. have added tremendously to our knowledge about the modes of scriptural interpretation in the time of Jesus and the apostles. These commentaries use the terms midrash and pesher (an Aramaic term) to denote their interpretive methods, but it’s not clear how far differ from each other. I am using midrash as the general term, as it is better known. A very helpful guide to the Jewish methods of interpretation used by Matthew and other New Testament writers can be found in Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).

[4] Richard Longenecker writes: “it may be that Matthew considered Isa 7:14 more a typological statement, which found its antitype [fulfillment] in the Messiah Jesus, than a direct messianic prophecy, as we would understand direct messianic prophecy.” Biblical Exegesis, p. 128.

Bart Ehrman and Infancy Narratives — Part I


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 at a somewht later date. In it, 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, but it was not by jumping around in time searching for the moment when God landed in Jesus; rather, it took place by a 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.


[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 one or another form of this passage to say that Jesus was not God’s son, but purely human, and “adopted” by God for his messianic task, just as David, though human was God’s son. 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 “this day I have begotten you” 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.