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Response by Mark Goodacre

www.ntgateway.com/weblog/

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Response to Lüdemann

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

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

I had commented on Lüdemann's insistence on "ten unquestionable facts", and what "historical research" had "demonstrated once and for all" by suggesting that this was stated too strongly. What historical research can do is "to show that elements in the story are implausible or problematic", to which Lüdemann responds:

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

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

More importantly, I went on to write: Some of the Biblical verses alluded to by Matthew are such an odd fit with the events narrated that it is difficult to imagine that Matthew, or anyone else, "derived" the narrative from the prophecies.And Lüdemann responded:

Call it "created" or "derived" or "inspired by"; it makes little enough difference. This admission shows beyond cavil that narrative elements have their roots in the Hebrew Bible and have resulted from a process of radical revision.My point is that given that some of Matthew's scriptural citations are a relatively poor fit for the material they are supposed to be confirming, it seems likely that at some points Matthew has not derived the tradition from the prophecy. Rather, the tradition sometimes comes first, and the Biblical citation comes afterwards. Whereas Lüdemann is working with a kind of "prophecy historicized" model, I am suggesting that sometimes the exact reverse is taking place, and we are dealing with tradition scripturalized. Let me clarify that I do not think that this is happening all the way through Matthew's Birth Narrative – the prophecy historicized model sometimes works well, perhaps most obviously in the case of the birth in Bethlehem, which, I would guess is a prophecy historicized because it is a good fit. But there are other cases where the prophecy historicized model does not work, and the best example is Matt. 2.23, on which I commented as follows:

Where does it say that the Messiah would live in Nazara? Matthew is weakly scripturalizing the tradition he knows.And Lüdemann responds:

To be sure, in this one case, the author has manufactured out of whole cloth a citation in order to give scriptural authority to a simple biographical fact: Jesus came from Nazareth. Invention? Lie? Call it what you will.We are agreed, then, on the direction here, that the tradition (Jesus was from Nazara) has been scripturalized (though my preference is to avoid language like "invention" and "lie"). What I am suggesting is that this interesting, agreed phenomenon right at the end of Matthew's Birth Narrative, could give us a clue to what is going on elsewhere too.

Another particularly good contender for the phenomenon of tradition scripturalized (i.e. a pre-Matthean tradition that is overlaid with Matthew's own scriptural reference) is, I would argue, at 1.23, where Isaiah 7.14 LXX, "A virgin shall conceive . . ." is given as the scriptural text that explicates Jesus' unusual conception out of wedlock. If this tradition was well known – and Jane Schaberg and others make a very good case that it was – then Matthew has not derived the story of Jesus' conception from Isaiah 7.14. On the contrary, the tradition came first and the scripture that for Matthew explained it came afterwards. I think that Lüdemann in fact largely agrees with this scenario:

Granted that this line of argument has further support in Matthew's curious inclusion in Jesus' genealogy of four problematical pregnancies (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba), the Isaiah quote, coming as it does from perhaps the most revered of the prophets, is hardly thereby to be discounted.The four women are, following Schaberg and others, no doubt mentioned by Matthew because of unusual sexual unions outside of wedlock, and it seems likely that this points to a pre-Matthean tradition of Jesus' conception outside of wedlock. And if that is the case, the story of Jesus' conception is clearly not derived from, or invented on the basis of, Isaiah 7.14.

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

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

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

Lüdemann also commented on the lack of Magi in Luke's account, to which I responded that Luke would not be expected to include Magi given his known attitude to them in Acts, to which Lüdemann respnds:

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

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

Update (19.41):

Response to Mark Goodacre

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

Sincerely,

Gerd Lüdemann.

Permalink | posted by Mark Goodacre @ 3:46 PM | (5) Comments | Monday, December 19, 2005

Response to Mark Goodacre and Stephen Carlson by Gerd Lüdemann

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 ... :-)

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.

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.

GERD LÜDEMANN. ———-

Permalink | posted by Mark Goodacre @ 2:35 PM | (9) Comments | 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:

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".

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.

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? 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. 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.

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. 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".

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.

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.

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.

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.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.

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.

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.


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