Recently New Testament scholar Michael Licona has been doing a written debate with Bart Ehrman. Links to their entire back-and-forth can be found here.
In the course of that discussion, Ehrman argues that the infancy accounts in Matthew and Luke are radically at odds with each other, though oddly enough he brings up only one actual apparent discrepancy between the accounts. (Namely, that Luke seems to have thought that the Holy Family went back directly from Jerusalem to Nazareth, whereas Matthew would put the slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt and residence in Egypt at this point in the story.) The rest of Ehrman's discussion consists of mocking the census account in Luke and working the chestnut that it never happened, etc.
Licona, however, writes as though there is some major conundrum concerning the infancy accounts and the differences between them. And he grabs the word "midrash" to cover the idea that Luke and Matthew might have made up their accounts of Jesus' infancy beyond the supposed "core" that a virgin named Mary, espoused to Joseph, gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. They might have done this "to create a more interesting narrative of Jesus' birth."
However — even though, as I say, I don’t know what’s going on here to cause the differences — let’s just speculate for a moment and consider the following scenario. Matthew and Luke both agree that a Jewish virgin named Mary who was engaged to a Jewish man named Joseph gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. The early Christians all knew this much. However, little else was remembered about this event. So, Matthew and Luke added details to their account to create a more interesting narrative of Jesus’s birth, a type of midrash.
Licona is very tentative in his suggestion of this possibility, but he does imply that this invocation of "midrash" would somehow solve a problem:
I don’t know what’s going on with the infancy narratives. However, if this occurred, we would have to take the matter of genre — midrash — into consideration and recognize that the historicity of the details outside of the story’s core would be questionable, while the core itself could stand.
I want to say forcefully here that this is really poor scholarship. I give quotations (in the companion piece that I just put up) from N.T. Wright, who is certainly no fundamentalist, about this sort of promiscuous invocation of the concept of "midrash" to mean making stuff up. That just isn't what Jewish rabbinic midrash commentary was.
Not only is this invocation of "midrash" unsupported by any genre considerations, it also doesn't stand up as a good explanation of what we find in the documents. As I have pointed out before concerning such invention theories, it is an extremely complex hypothesis where a much simpler one would do--the simpler hypothesis being that Luke simply hadn't heard about the slaughter of the innocents and flight to Egypt.
What is most striking here is the sheer lack of care in invoking even made-up "genre" and "literary convention" claims. Can't figure out what's going on in a passage? Name some "literary convention" which you claim is found in a "genre" that would explain it away. In the case of the infancy narratives Licona admits openly that he couldn't even find anything to say that would seem to flow from his studies of Greco-Roman literature:
In my research pertaining to the most basic compositional devices in ancient historical/biographical literature, I did not observe any devices that readily shed light on the differences between the infancy narratives.
So what then? Well, go and pick something else to which you think you can give a genre name (in this case "midrash"), even if no evidence supports the idea that this is what that genre was actually like, slap that name onto the claim that the gospel authors made up things--in this case, apparently, all of the other details surrounding Jesus' birth--and then say that their reliability is not impugned because "we have to take genre into account."
Let's set aside piety. This is just bad argument. There is no evidence whatsoever that Luke and Matthew didn't believe their infancy stories were true. Moreover, if you thought they did that, if you thought that Luke made up the census, made up the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, made up the angels and the shepherds, that Matthew made up the wise men, the slaughter of the innocents, and the flight into Egypt, then what in the world would it mean to call them historically reliable anymore? That they agree that Jesus was born of a virgin in Bethlehem? That makes them historically reliable? There is no way that one should call any author "historically reliable" in any meaningful sense if he's just making up whole incidents like this and writing them as if they really happened "to create a more interesting narrative." We've gone way beyond minor details at this point. If this were all true, then Matthew and Luke wouldn't be historically reliable, and we should just come out and say that and live with it.
And how does genre really help? Notice that, given the way that Licona is using the term "midrash," it would be precisely a non-reliable genre, a genre that consists in making up incidents out of whole cloth. You can't get reliability out of unreliability. If one said that the genre were "fairy tale," one couldn't then claim that this doesn't undermine reliability because "we have to take genre into consideration." And the argument that there is some "historical core" is based on a circular definition of what constitutes this alleged core: The supposed core has been identified in the first place by means of noting that it is found explicitly in both Matthew and Luke. Then everything else is (so Licona tentatively conjectures) attributed to "midrash," i.e. fiction. In that case, if they're making up the rest of the stories, the mere fact that the two gospels agree explicitly upon something or other hardly gives us good reason to think that that something or other is historically true.
If you read the exchange, you will see that, as one would expect, Ehrman makes this type of point repeatedly concerning Licona's earlier invocation of "literary conventions." Ehrman positively hammers on it. Ehrman is a highly deceptive author, as I have argued elsewhere, but here he's been handed a gift, and it is no wonder that he makes the most of it.
Much as it pains me to point this out, the fact is that Licona is just not being careful in making this type of conjecture. And I don't mean by that, "He's not being careful not to tread on pious toes." I mean he's not being rigorous. The "midrash" conjecture, using that name, shouldn't even be on the table. The use of the term is a transparent attempt to put a nominal fig leaf on the conjecture that Matthew and Luke made up nearly the entirety of their birth narratives.
What about the conjecture, sans invocation of the term "midrash," that Matthew and Luke made up this additional material to make their narratives more interesting? Well, of course, one can always conjecture that the gospel authors made stuff up. But why take it that they did in this case? Perhaps a bias against miracles, but to Licona's credit, that isn't where he's coming from, since he treats the virgin birth as part of the "core" he wants to retain. Because of the one apparent discrepancy concerning the return to Nazareth? But that is far more simply accounted for by saying that Luke (who isn't claimed to have witnessed any of this himself) simply hadn't heard that part of the story. In fact, the character of Herod (as Wright points out in Who Was Jesus, p. 87) tends to confirm the slaughter of the innocents. Because of the census problem? Well, volumes have been written on that subject. One of the many possible solutions is that Luke's statement should be read as "this census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria" (Wright, p. 89). Beyond the question of what Luke is saying about Quirinius and whether he's right about it, Ehrman's and others' attacks on the census in Luke consist of weak arguments from silence and "I wouldn't have done it that way" to make a problem. Luke's care as an historian is so well-confirmed otherwise that there's every reason to give him some credit at this point and treat him as an original source to a census we just don't happen to know about otherwise. (Nor, contra Ehrman and, I'm sorry to say, the translators of the NIV, did the census actually have to have covered the entire Roman Empire.) Even the hypothesis that Luke made some minor mistake about the census--e.g., that he thought it occurred under Quirinius when it didn't--would be far simpler than the hypothesis that he made up the story out of whole cloth.
Licona doesn't say exactly what he is conjecturing Luke and Matthew might have invented. But his conjecture is that "little else was remembered" about Jesus' birth at the time when Luke and Matthew were writing beyond the minimal claim that Mary was a virgin espoused to Joseph and gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. This would seem to mean that Luke and Matthew made up pretty much everything else!
Further evidence against any such hypothesis is the highly Hebraic language and preoccupations of Luke 1-2, including for example the earthly-sounding Messianic expectations. As I have discussed in this post, this points to a very old origin of these chapters. The differences in language may even mean that Luke had some written document as a source for these chapters (an hypothesis I am generally hesitant to invoke) in Aramaic or Hebrew. It could have come from Mary's family, for example.
Licona is far, far too ready to say or conjecture that the gospel writers made things up. Not because he should be more pious but because he should be more historically careful. He conjectures it and sometimes positively states it (in the other claims of "literary conventions") on the basis of flimsy argument. This latest conjecture, concerning the birth narratives as "midrash," is so sweeping, ill-conceived, and poorly supported that it surprised even me, despite my earlier criticisms of Licona's approach. If one prizes rigor one should be bothered by this, and one should hesitate to treat Dr. Licona as an authority when he makes such claims and conjectures.