C. Philipp E. Nothaft Discusses Attempts at Dating Jesus’ Life

A new essay over at Bible and Interpretation deserves a look (h/t Jim West).  C. Philipp E. Nothaft writes the following (snippet):

At the same time, however, it is difficult to overlook the ever-widening gap between this quasi-naturalistic quest for the “real” star of Bethlehem and the approaches taken by modern New Testament scholarship where the infancy stories of Matthew and Luke are treated to often devastating historical criticism.Understandably perhaps, astronomers with a bent for solving biblical puzzles in their free time have rarely paid attention to the kind of caveats that were already raised in 1917 by the historian of astrology Franz Boll, to whom the original wording of Matthew’s Greek pointed, if anything, to a certain familiarity with the ancient folk-belief that the birth of each man is accompanied by the apparition of a new star (Pliny, Natural History 2.28).  Others, including the pioneering historian of religion Hermann Usener, had previously gone even further and pointed to a whole range of ancient sources that show how the motif of celestial portents was firmly rooted in the ancient imaginaire surrounding the birth of regal and messianic characters.

You’ll want to read more here.  Then come back.  Back?  Good.

Here is my gripe with this type of historical criticism; it doesn’t work.  It can’t work with the Gospels.  As soon as one starts trying to allocate which parts of the Gospels are that ‘historical kernel’, the narrative is already lost.  Someone says, “Well who would fabricate the concept of a star at the birth of Jesus?” so they presume the star of Bethlehem is true, and then declare that it was ancient man’s incompetence that lead them to believe that the star was merely a comet that happened to coincide with the birth of Jesus–all presumed without a shred of evidence, without a reason to make these baseless claims; all at the expense of the theological tradition, the emulative nature of the narrative, the edifying function of the text.

We must ask ourselves, how is this different than someone claiming that a gust of wind was responsible for the parting of the Red (“Reed”) Sea, or that a natural eclipse caused the darkening of the sun, or that erectile dysfunction was what made the Philistines return the Ark to Israel.  These are all baseless claims made by people who have no real grasp of the function of the text; they care little about why the text was written and simply presume that the authors wrote about ‘what happened’ through some primitive mindset, which runs counter to what we know of the rich cultural traditions of the ANE who, by the time the Gospels were written–even by the time the books of the Hebrew Bible were written, there was a strong grasp of mathematics, of astronomy, of science–even if it is not what have today, it was pretty remarkable what they knew in antiquity.

Those who seek to use this method work under the presumption that these authors were uneducated simple folk, but they weren’t.  They were well educated–they were multilingual, they had at least the very basic grasp of philosophy (though the schools may vary from writer to writer), and they had a grounding in mimesis/imitatio.

The sort of historical criticism used to try to date the events of the text in this manner will always ignore this and therefore prove fruitless.  It does so at the expense of the agendas of the scholars; that is problematic.  If a scholar sets out to show that the turning over the tables in the temple is historical, they show this not with sound evidence but through the creation of new methods which are not helpful and are usually flawed (like the ‘criterion of embarrassment’, which just fails on all levels).*

Nothaft does a decent job in his article on Bible and Interpretation exposing this issue, but I am always concerned when I read comments like:

Understood as a mere approximation, this is not necessarily inconsistent with a birth in 4 BC; but neither does it completely rule out a birth in 1 BC and AD 1, as Dionysius Exiguus seems to have imagined. Unless one wants to give up talk about the birth year of Jesus altogether, it is perhaps still advisable to take into account the opinions of the ancient Church Fathers, who used Luke 3 to deduce a birth in 3 or 2 BC.

The problem of course is that the Church Fathers are far from reliable.  Indeed, Nothaft’s comment that “Since claims about Jesus’ adult years as a preacher in Galilee and Judea are certainly more trustworthy than those about his infancy, it seems that we are left with Luke 3 as the only feasible indication of Jesus’ birth year.” becomes moot when we use the church fathers, as some early traditions suggest that Jesus was 50 years old when he was crucified. Maybe older; it appears as if Jesus is portrayed to have lived up until the time of Trajan, or at least John did–who is suggested to have been a contemporary–which would make them both, or one of them, very, very old when they died (via Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.2-6, for example, and which many an apologist has tried to argue that he never said what he said, even though A.H. 2.6 is very clear on this).  Or that he was born decades earlier than the Gospels suppose (Epiphanius of Salamis, via his Panarion 29.3.3, thought this–that Jesus was born prior to the high priest Alexander, King Herod, and Emperor Augustus; this seems to contradict Nothaft’s claims about consistency earlier in his paper–though it also seems as though Epiphanius contradicts himself on occasion or he isn’t quite clear).  In any case, both of these traditions predate Dionysius Exiguus.

My point here is that the Gospels, like the church fathers, are purveyors of traditions, not ‘fact’, not ‘history’ in the sense of ‘what happened’.  We have to accept this unfortunate truth; the Gospels are just what their ‘genre’ (whatever that might mean) implies: they are the ‘good news’.  They are not historiographies, biographies, or evidence of anything other than a particular tradition (or group of traditions) at a synchronic point, along with the author’s (or group of authors) theological and political perspectives.  We need to move on.  The church fathers cannot help us, Paul cannot help us, the pastorals can’t help us.  We have to come to grips with the limitations of our texts–that is all we can do.

*Just to be sure we’re clear, I’m not saying that because the Gospels cannot be used as evidence to define historical events, does not mean I’m a mythicist or that I am suggesting that such events couldn’t have happened or that Jesus never existed.

3 Responses

  1. […] Tom may disagree, and he has every right to be wrong, but this is good criticism. Yes, I don’t think that the Gospels were meant to be taken as a historical narrative, but […]

  2. I frankly have a hard time understanding this criticism of my article, which appears to be based on a very uncharitable reading. What “claims of consistency” am I making? All I’m saying is that if any passage in the NT contains some reliable chronological information, it’s Luke 3. I’m not saying definitively that it does, only that it’s the go-to passage IF any of it is reliable. It’s a big IF and I thought my article reflected the fact that I consider these dating-attempt to be mere speculation. When I mention the Church Fathers or Dionysius Exiguus, it’s because they are examples for a particular opinion on the birth year, not because I personally consider them particularly reliable. I say that we should “take into account” the Church Fathers, because they based themselves on Luke 3, not because I think they had any special knowledge.

  3. Thank you for the comment. I don’t disagree with you; I wasn’t necessary criticizing your argument as much as I was confused by it. Your explanation here makes sense to me and I appreciate you taking the time to respond.

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