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Tidings of comfort and...wellll...hmmmm

As we move toward the Christmas season (at the moment it's technically Advent) and start thinking about the star, the wise men, the shepherds, and the manger, I decided to talk once more about the way fictionalization theories of the New Testament ruin everything.

Even Christmas.

Here's a lengthy quotation from Dr. Michael Licona in response to Bart Ehrman's challenges to the infancy stories about Jesus. (In other words, the Christmas stories in Luke and Matthew.) This quotation occurred in the course of a written debate in 2016.

Bart provides the example of the differences between the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. In my opinion, those narratives include the most difficult and profound differences in the Gospels. As my friend Jonathan Pennington writes,
Despite our conflation of all these events at the annual church Christmas pageant, these stories do not in fact overlap at all. If Jesus did not appear as the named figure in both of these accounts, one would never suspect they were stories about the same person.

Here I must acknowledge that I don't know what's going on and have no detailed explanations for these differences. I think one can provide some plausible solutions. But I admit they are speculative. 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.

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. I'm not saying this is what Matthew and Luke did. 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. After all, with such differences between the accounts in Matthew and Luke, one could reasonably argue that the core is attested by multiple independent sources.

So many errors to point out, so little time. Let's start by clearing one thing out of the way: "Licona's friend," Jonathan Pennington, is not to be blamed for any of this. I looked up the quotation Licona gives in context, and it is taken out of context as used here. Pennington merely makes that statement to "set up" the alleged tensions between the infancy narratives, to make it sound rhetorically like there might be a problem (as a writer will sometimes briefly do), but he eventually says quite calmly that reasonable harmonization fits the infancy narratives together just fine! His approach is thus very different from Licona's repeated, "I don't know what's going on" and "these are among the most difficult differences in the Gospels" statements.

The comment that Licona attributes to him as if it is a serious criticism (though Pennington doesn't intend it that way) would be, if serious, a particularly poor method for criticizing any historical documents. You can take the biography of many a man and chop it up in such a way that you could say that you would never guess that these events all happened to the same person. This tells us absolutely nothing whatsoever about probable historicity.

Next, let's look at Licona's very confused and confusing use of the term "midrash." It's astonishing that he makes not the slightest attempt to argue on independent grounds that Luke or Matthew (especially Luke, of all authors) is "using midrash" in the infancy narratives. Perhaps he thinks that Robert Gundry did all of that work back in the 1980s when Gundry wrote an (in)famous commentary on Matthew stating that Matthew is heavily fictionalized and called this "midrash." Well, Gundry's commentary was a walking disaster in almost every possible way, and it was well refuted at the time, but he did not apply his claims to Luke. In fact, just the contrary. According to Gundry's personal (bizarre) theory, Luke's infancy narrative was part of an "expanded Q" that was available to Matthew and that was intended historically, and Matthew's was largely made up as a "midrash" on Luke's. So I have no idea where Licona is getting the idea that Luke's infancy narrative even might be a fictionalized "midrash," but certainly not from Gundry, the evangelical king of saying-stuff-is-midrash. Licona grabs this use of "midrash" to mean "largely invented" and then slaps it onto Luke (who is otherwise well-known for his meticulous historical investigation) with nothing whatsoever in the way of independent indication other than the differences between the stories themselves (which are almost entirely non-contradictory anyway, as I'll discuss more below).

This is a highly irresponsible suggestion, especially since he then goes on solemnly to tell us that we "would have to take the matter of genre--midrash--into consideration." So wait: You just get to make up a genre designation out of whole cloth without any evidence and then tell us that if this were true we would have to take this made-up idea "into consideration" when thinking about the historicity of the passages? Why should anyone go along with such evidence-free theorizing?

Then there is the fact that no less a scholar than N.T. Wright says that this isn't what midrash even is.

Fourth, midrash never included the invention of stories which were clearly seen as non-literal in intent, and merely designed to evoke awe and wonder. It was no part of Jewish midrash, or any other Jewish writing-genre in the first century, to invent all kinds of new episodes about recent history in order to advance the claim that the Scriptures had been fulfilled. (Who Was Jesus, p. 73)

Wright quotes P.S. Alexander as follows:

[L]abelling a piece of Bible exegesis 'midrash' appears to set it in a definite historical and cultural context, to hint at well-known, technical parallels. But all this may be entirely bogus. (Quoted in Wright, p. 73)

It's actually rather depressing (if one cares about this type of thing) to see Licona stating openly that, even with all the many "compositional devices" he thinks he has found in ancient Greco-Roman literature, he couldn't find any labels to place onto the infancy narratives, and so he just leaps instantly to grabbing a Jewish-sounding label to slap on them in a "speculation," a label that he uses to mean "making up a lot of stuff." This brings one to the rather unsettling conclusion that all of this genre talk is not driven by objective scholarly indications of genre at all but rather by the strained desire to find some sort of label that one can call a "genre," thereby simultaneously suggesting fictionalization and also claiming that somehow it doesn't really matter. If a Greco-Roman label can't be found, a Hebrew one will be found.

Next is Licona's very, very confused use of the notion of a "core" and "details." As Licona uses the word "core" in this passage, the "core" is what Matthew and Luke both agree on--the overlap between their stories. Now, that's a very odd concept of the "core." Most of us would say, just reading Luke, that the shepherds are part of the "core" of his story. They are certainly very prominent in Luke, even though they aren't mentioned in Matthew. You can't identify the "core" and "details" of two accounts simply by noting their overlap.

Licona's "speculation" would make everything "outside of the core"--that is, all the non-overlap--into mere "details" which would be "questionable." But that means an awful lot of material! The star, the Magi, the slaughter of the innocent, the flight to Egypt, the angels, the shepherds, the manger, the journey to Bethlehem, and the presentation in the Temple. In other words, most of what we would call the Christmas story.

Nor would anyone who was not using some kind of New Testament scholar code-talk normally call these "details." These are obviously entire incidents. If this is how Licona is willing to use the word "details," this should lead to great caution when one hears a literary device theorist talk about Gospel authors changing or inventing "details" rather than the "core" of a narrative.

Next there is the rather delicate question of what degree of credibility Licona is attributing to this "speculation." He is careful to say that he is not "saying that this is what Matthew and Luke did" and that he doesn't "know what is going on with the infancy narratives." But at the same time, he sets the entire speculation up by implying a very large problem with the infancy narratives. He thinks their differences "include the most difficult and profound differences in the Gospels," which is presumably what causes him not to "know what is going on."

He also says that he thinks "one can provide some plausible solutions" but that they are "speculative" and then invites the reader to "just speculate for a moment and consider the following scenario"--that scenario being the wholesale invention by Matthew and Luke of the bulk of the Christmas stories. It is hardly far-fetched to read this as meaning that this scenario is at least one of the "plausible solutions" that he thinks one "can provide," especially since he gives nothing else whatsoever as an example of such a "plausible solution." Not a single one. In response to skeptic Bart Ehrman on the infancy narratives.

Given all of the "I don't know what's going on" and "these differences are so difficult" statements, it is at least fair to say that Licona appears agnostic concerning the "details" that are not part of the "core" (i.e., the propositional overlap) of the infancy narratives. Er, that would be the star, the wise men, the shepherds, the flight to Egypt, and so on and so forth.

It's important to remember that words like "perhaps," "maybe," "conjecture," and so forth are not get-out-of-criticism-free cards, as though one can bring forward any theory and then slip aside when criticized for seeming to suggest it seriously by saying, "Didn't you see the word 'perhaps'?" Or "Didn't you see where I said that I don't know if this is true?" Yes, we saw it. But scholars do not seriously discuss theories that they think are completely and totally crazy and incorrect, as if they are plausible, without giving any indication that they think the theories are completely and totally incorrect, unless those scholars are playing some kind of strange "guess-what-I-really-think" game. Which is not a good way to do scholarship. Generally a scholar discusses a theory he thinks is crazy only in order to refute it (if it is popular), not to bring it forward as the only suggestion presented in the immediate context where he has said that he thinks there are some "plausible solutions" to some major problem. When a scholar does that, it is hardly going too far to conclude that he thinks the theory in question is at least plausible.

Moving on from the question of just how credible Licona thinks this theory is, consider the methodological statement that, if it were true, it would not affect the credibility of what he calls the "core," meaning the overlap between the two accounts.

That claim is also completely and utterly wrong. I will be discussing this further in a forthcoming article that has been accepted in the biblical studies journal Themelios. Without giving that entire article here, let me say briefly that "multiple attestation" is misused from a probabilistic perspective when one hypothesizes some common tradition (as Licona does here when he suggests that only the overlap between Matthew and Luke was held by Christians at the time) and that two authors have fictionally embellished this common tradition to make their stories more interesting. In that case, we do not have multiple, independent attestation to the facts of what happened. The differences between the accounts merely attest to the differences in two authors' imaginations, not to their having separate access to the events. In contrast, when we have variation between witness accounts of an event--e.g., one mentions the color of a bank robber's shirt while the other mentions that he walked with a limp--we guess that these two people actually have separate access to what happened, are trying to get it right, but are telling some different aspects of the truth. One cannot use that sort of reasoning to bolster the overlap between two accounts while simultaneously hypothesizing that the overlap comes from some free-floating tradition and that all of the non-overlap is the result of pure imaginative elaboration. That's just probabilistically wrong.

Moreover, according to the speculation Licona gives, Matthew and Luke would have been unlikely to have either the motivation or the ability to check out their overlapping facts. The speculation says that "little else was known" besides the overlap. So how would Matthew and Luke have done any investigation to find out if that overlap itself was true? And if they thought nothing of making up entire fairy tales about stars, angels, and wise men in order to make their stories more interesting, why would they have bothered to try to fact-check the tradition they had heard in the Christian community?

But be of good cheer. There are real tidings of comfort and joy: This sort of despairing theorizing is all wrong. The various differences between the Christmas stories are not particularly difficult. The two authors are simply telling different aspects of the story as they became known to them. We don't, of course, know how Matthew came to know about the flight to Egypt and Joseph's dream, but the emphasis upon Joseph's private experience may mean that Matthew had access to Joseph or (since Joseph was probably dead by the start of Jesus' ministry) someone who had spoken with Joseph. (Perhaps Jesus himself told Matthew about this part of his childhood, as told to him by his guardian Joseph.) Luke's emphasis upon Mary's experience, along with the distinctive Hebraic features of style of his Christmas story, may mean that in this particular case there really was a source document, possibly preserved by Mary's family, of some of her unique experiences and knowledge at the time of Jesus' birth and in the life of her cousin Elizabeth.

Of all of the variations between the accounts, only one amounts even to an apparent contradiction as opposed to mere difference in information. That's a pretty good track record--only one apparent contradiction in the accounts. That apparent discrepancy concerns Luke 2:39, right after the purification of Mary in the Temple:

When they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth.

This must refer to a time before the coming of the Magi to the house in Bethlehem. But here one would guess from a reading of Luke alone that they returned immediately to Galilee after completing the rites required by the law in Jerusalem. Luke does not precisely say that, but it is a natural reading of the verse. Of course, it is not the case that they returned immediately, and we can tell that when we harmonize with Matthew. They apparently settled in Bethlehem for a time, for the Magi find them in a house some unspecified time after the birth of Jesus. Then there is the flight to Egypt and the residence there until the death of Herod the Great in 4 B.C., at which point (according to Matthew) they returned to Israel and decided to settle in Galilee rather than Judea after hearing of Archelaus's being made tetrarch in Judea (Matt. 2:22).

So if we read Luke 2:39 most naturally and harmonize the account overall as much as possible with Matthew, we would have a contradiction on the question of whether they returned immediately to Nazareth after the purification of Mary.

That's it. That's the only apparent contradiction between them. What it probably means is that either Luke was not aware of the flight to Egypt (meaning that he didn't yet have Matthew's Gospel at the time when he was writing this part of his own Gospel) or that he chose to hew fairly closely to a written source that for some reason--perhaps a political reason--left out the visit of the Magi and the events with which it is bound up, the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt.

These are by no means "profound and difficult" differences between the accounts.

Moreover, more tidings of comfort and joy: The behavior of Archelaus shortly after the death of Herod the Great, independently attested by Josephus, indirectly confirms Matthew's account. For the disturbance in Jerusalem in which Archelaus had Roman soldiers slaughter several thousand Jews (after a riot), if it came to Joseph's ears, might very well have made him afraid to settle in Judea under Archelaus and to prefer to settle under the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas in Galilee, where they had been before Jesus was born. See Esteemed Husband's discussion here. If Matthew made up the entire flight to Egypt, it's rather a strange coincidence that this little note about Joseph's thoughts about Archelaus fits so well with other things we know about Archelaus.

A brief word about the census mentioned in Luke 2. Licona may be rolling that together with the differences between Luke and Matthew, especially since it is a favorite hobby horse of Ehrman's and was brought up by Ehrman in the debate. If so, Licona is speaking confusingly, since the mere presence of the census in Luke 2 does not create a "profound and difficult" difference with Matthew. It does not even create a prima facie contradiction. Matthew simply does not narrate how it came about that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He begins with the birth in Bethlehem as a fact (Matt. 2:1). Ehrman may want to make a contradiction with Luke out of that, but that's a typically desperate Ehrmanesque artificial contradiction.

What is more frequently pushed against Luke is the mere fact that we have difficulty identifying the census at the time of Jesus' birth from external sources and its relation to Quirinius, mentioned by Luke, causing some skeptical commentators to conclude that Luke confused the time of Jesus' birth with the census taken under Quirinius in A.D. 6. Oceans of ink have been spilled on this question, and I don't propose to spill another ocean here. Several quite legitimate possible solutions to the issue have been proposed, and even if one doesn't have a favorite, one should remember that it's the disjunction that has to be true in order for Luke to be right--that is, that either this or this or that was the case. (See several different discussions here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

A couple of big-picture points are more important than picking a favorite theory: The fact that Luke so carefully notes the census at all is extremely strong evidence for the historical nature of his genre. It is almost laughable that anyone would so much as bring up the idea that Luke is fabricating out of his hat, using a "genre" of "midrash" which "must be taken into consideration," in the very passage where Luke is so carefully historical as to refer to the Roman governor Quirinius. Luke goes out of his way to include an aside about when the census under Quirinius was first made or first completed or when the first census under him was made--depending on how you translate the verse. This is the mark of intentionally historical writing! The very verse that allegedly creates an historical difficulty for Luke is the verse that shouts Luke's historical genre from the rooftops.

Moreover, Luke's care as an historian is massively documented in other ways, earning him a great deal of credit at this point. Even here, it is not that other sources contradict Luke, saying, "There was no census in Palestine at such-and-such a point." And Luke's obviously greater knowledge of the time period and closeness to the time period, and our own comparatively fragmentary information, should give pause before saying that he is incorrect about (say) Quirinius. Colin Hemer, who has done a great deal in his magisterial Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History to corroborate the historicity of Acts, makes the following comment apropos of a different passage, but it applies at least as well to the census:

The fact that Luke's background information can so often be corroborated may suggest that it is wiser to leave this particular matter open rather than to condemn Luke of a blunder. p. 163

Far from being an embarrassment to the historicity of the Gospels, the infancy stories provide us with fascinating "inside information" about the life of Jesus, information that the Gospel authors included not because they thought it was legitimate to make things up to "make the story more interesting" but because the factual data they had was intrinsically interesting, and they wanted to make it available to the world.

For far too long, Christian apologists have played the game of "retreat and retrench," continually counting on "multiple attestation" to save them. This has given rise to ridiculous statements such as this: That it would not make any difference to the reliability of the Gospels if the infancy narratives were massively invented. That it wouldn't make any difference to the "reliability" (redefined) of the overlap between the infancy stories if they were otherwise invented. That we can do without John and still argue just as robustly that Jesus claimed to be God. That we don't need the details of the resurrection narratives to defend the resurrection of Jesus. And so on and so forth. Increasingly, literary device theorists are playing these cards more and more aggressively, implying that as a matter of fact such quantities and types of material were really invented by the Gospel authors.

This is a game that should have been abandoned long ago.

The good news is not that we can abandon the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke and still have Christmas. The good news is that we don't have to. The Christmas stories can stand on their own just fine!

Comments (15)


Your explanation of the ‘differences’ in Luke and Matthew are good and seem quite plausible. BUT you must readily admit you do t know. You can not know what Luke ‘knew’ or ‘heard’ or Matthew. It is speculation on your part, to explain (in a reasonable way) the problem. The issue is you have taken Mike to task for his speculation as to HOW one could explain it, which he readily admits he does not know. You are arguing about one person’s imagination by using yours...we can speculate all day but Mike is humble enough to admit he doesn’t know...I wish you would do so also.

If someone points to the census story in Luke as an argument against the credibility of the Gospels, I will give this reply:

1. First, whether the nativity stories are reliable or not doesn't impact the overall reliability of the Gospels very much. Suppose, the Gospels were written around 70 AD. The events during the ministry of Jesus occurred about 40 years earlier. The events in the nativity stories happened about 70-80 years earlier. Luke could very well have had bad sources for the nativity events and very good sources for the events during Jesus' ministry. You can compare this with many credible ancient Roman historians (e.g., Velleius Paterculus, Plutarch, etc.), who report legendary stories at the beginning of their books but are very reliable as the events happened closer to their own times.

2. However, it's not at all probable that the census story in Luke is a historical error. It's possible to explain the census story in a way that's plausible, although I wouldn't say that it's probable. However, that's not needed, since the burden of proof is on the person who wants to show that Luke made an error.

Luke 2:1-2 can be read just like Acts 11:27-28:

"Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius)."

It's striking how many similarities there are between Luke 2:1-2 and Acts 11:27-28. Both start with 'in these/those days'. Both refer to an emperor. In both cases, the ambiguous word οἰκουμένη is used. In both cases, there are two time indications with ἐγένετο in the second time indication. In Acts, the second time indication does not refer to these same event, but to an event further in time, i.e., the fulfillment of the prophecy. Therefore, it's plausible to suggest that the second time indication in Luke 2 ("when Quirinius was governor of Syria") also points to an event later in time and is not an addition to the first one ("in those days").

The argument against the reliability of the Gospels based on the census story is based on two false presuppositions:
1. An argument against inerrancy is an argument against reliability.
2. Josephus and the Gentile historians report all major events in the history of the Roman world.

For the sake of clarity, the "Tony" who posted above at 9:24 am on Dec. 18 is not the Tony M who is a contributor here at this blog. He is a different Tony altogether.

Tony M

"Midrash" seems to be the new "turtles all the way down".

(I think I'll use Tony 1.)

Tony 1:

I am criticizing Licona because his "speculation" is a) crazy and hyper-complex, b) unnecessary, c) the only "solution" he suggests, rather than even considering normal harmonization, and d) utterly at odds with what else we know about the Gospel authors. Plus his methodological statement about multiple attestation and reliability is *flat wrong*, as I can show probabilistically.

I am not saying, "Never conjecture about how we might have gotten the Gospel documents that we have."

What I have written is actually quite clear. Some conjectures are more grounded in reality than others. Not all speculations are created equal. Conjecturing that Luke and Matthew made most of their stories up has a burden of proof that Licona has made not the slightest attempt to satisfy. Harmonization is a normal and responsible historical practice. Taking mere differences (not even contradictions) and just saying, of authors for which we have *reason to believe they were attempting to write historically*, "Hey, maybe they just made all of this stuff up" is not *reasonable* conjecture. It's wild conjecture.

Moreover, it is the *sort* of wild conjecture that one rightly does not expect to see in a person who is supposedly *defending* the reliability of the Gospels in a debate with a skeptic. If you really think that that is what Matthew and Luke were like, you should realize that you don't really think of them as reliable authors.

"Moreover, it is the *sort* of wild conjecture that one rightly does not expect to see in a person who is supposedly *defending* the reliability of the Gospels in a debate with a skeptic."

This is what puzzles me... Why would somebody think that a sceptic, however open-minded he might be towards Christianity, would ever,ever, ever, be satisfied with such an approach that Licona wholeheartedly advocates for? At the end of the day, when we understand all the ancient textual magic that Licona supposedly discovered and now shares with the world, we end up with a "core of truth" with a suspicious veracity, and many made up stories whose existence is an obvious threat to the authority of those who claim the veracity of this "core". And the sceptic should just pretend that all of this is ok because the ancients liked to make up a whole set of stories that they claimed to be true, in order to prove a point, a "core", that they thought of as being true? And the sceptic should simply ignore that Licona's approach leads him with a mostly made up Gospel whose authores claim to be true? Why would an open-minded sceptic buy this? Why would Ehrman (who is anything but open-minded towards the actual truth of the Gospel) buy this? Why would for God's sake anyone buy this?

Well, I am a bit sad for Licona. On midnight mass I am going to celebrate an awesome Christmass story, whereas Licona is going to celebrate, emm, midrash?.... well... happy midrash (?), I guess...

*whose existence is an obvious threat to the reliability of the authores who claim...

N.S., it has saddened me for quite some time, but there are quite a number of followers of Dr. Licona who believe that in some strange way this is *defending* the Gospels. In May when he did a series of interviews with Tim Stratton on the Freethinking Podcast, they were both agreeing with each other that teaching people that there were "devices" that allowed the Gospel authors to alter facts is somehow "defending the reliability of the Gospels." Now, interestingly, that was kicked off by agreeing that you can get a good argument for the resurrection *without* defending the reliability of the Gospels. They agreed that you don't "need" the Gospels to defend the resurrection, because you can "do it all with Paul." (If I had attributed that view to Licona, in such frank terms, his followers would have arisen in wrath and accused me of a straw man.) But then, they agreed, Licona went on to "defend" the reliability of the Gospels *anyway* (as a kind of extra??) by his work on literary devices.

Given the alleged nature of the literary devices in question, this should be extremely baffling to everyone, just as it is to you.

The idea that this is a "defense" arises from several mistaken beliefs/assumptions:

1) If making something up was part of a "genre," or if it was "accepted at the time," then any alteration of fact doesn't count as an error and hence cannot count against reliability. Hence, it is believed, if a scholar argues that a certain activity was part of a genre and accepted at the time, he has "defended" the Gospels from the charge of error or unreliability.

This is obviously false, since human beings create artistic genres that are not even *claimed* to be historically reliable. And it can be accepted at a given time to produce things in such a genre. E.g. Movies that are only loosely based upon historical events.

2) If a scholar identifies this change as part of a genre that was allowed at the time, the scholar has a really good handle on precisely "how far" someone creating in that genre would go and how far he wouldn't go, and therefore identifying such a change as part of a genre allows us simultaneously to put limits on invention and to protect certain parts of the narrative from the charge that they are invented.

That this is false can be seen simply by observing what the scholars actually do and the way that they continually "make it up as they go along." What counts as the "core" or the "gist" shifts with the winds and is not objectively definable at all. The very fact that the "core" gets defined as what *happens to be the overlap* between two accounts lets us see that this is false as well. If we didn't happen to have a second account that reaffirmed some particular propositional item, that item would, by that accident of history, not get counted as the "core" of either account.

3) Multiple attestation is a trump card that can be pulled out in virtually any circumstance where one sees that more than one document asserts or implies a fact. Considerations of independence concern *only* the possibility that one document was copied from another. So if there are just a lot of differences, even if our theory attributes them to sheer fabrication, we can still claim "multiple attestation."

I have addressed this error briefly in the o.p. and at more length in the forthcoming article. I recently saw a prominent scholar state that the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (!!) appears to have an "independent" account of the story of the guard at the tomb. What were the grounds of this suggestion? Merely that the Gospel of Peter has few verbal similarities to the Gospel of Matthew. That presumably means that the Gospel of Peter's account wasn't *textually copied* from the Gospel of Matthew, but it *hardly* means that the account is "independent" in the sense that the author of the Gospel of Peter literally had some line of information that went back to some person in the know about the *real events* who was *different* from the source of information used by Matthew. Indeed, it seems *highly* likely that the inclusion of the story of the guard at the tomb in the Gospel of Peter *was* just influenced by the fact that the author had read or heard the Gospel of Matthew, full stop. Verbal dissimilarity and the word "independent" are not all you need to claim multiple attestation!

The extremely undisciplined use of the concept of multiple attestation really, really allows people to think that they can give away the store a lot more than they can (as Licona does in this speculation about the infancy narratives) and count on multiple attestation as a kind of safety net.

Hence, what Licona does here gets wrongly considered to be a "defense" of the "core" of the infancy narratives because he argued (wrongly) that the "core" is saved by multiple attestation.

4) (Remember, these are falsehoods that cause these things to be thought of as a defense of the Gospels.) Our case is stronger if we lower the number of propositions we are defending.

This mistake arises from a very strange and vague epistemic idea that there is a certain fixed amount of strength in the case for Christianity and that we somehow "concentrate" that strength and make it greater as we lower the sheer amount of propositional content we are defending. It is almost never stated outright, but it hangs around in the background: The idea is that if we defend, say, the Wise Men and shepherds *in addition to* the Virgin Birth, we are "spreading around" the amount of epistemic force that we have to spend, whereas if we stop trying to defend the Wise Men and the shepherds, we'll have a stronger case (through this concentration effect) for the Virgin Birth!

Well, this comment is long enough, so as the saying goes, I'll leave working out what's wrong with that idea as an exercise for the reader.

If making something up was part of a "genre," or if it was "accepted at the time," then any alteration of fact doesn't count as an error and hence cannot count against reliability.

Actually, if making something up was part of a genre, and if it was accepted at the time, all this would do is constitute a direct basis for saying that the genre was unreliable. Individual instances of an unreliable genre are also unreliable.

Hence, what Licona does here gets wrongly considered to be a "defense" of the "core" of the infancy narratives because he argued (wrongly) that the "core" is saved by multiple attestation.

Here Licona's completely arbitrary, completely unfounded thesis of what counts as "core" comes into its own as an epistemic hurdle: what if LUKE, in making up the story about the angel Gabriel, and the story about the visit to Elizabeth, meant to recount really and truly as historically accurate the Marian prayer, the Magnificat. Because it wasn't attested by Matt, though, Licona claims it isn't "core" and we can ditch it as "non-core". So Licona's view of what was core and Luke's view might have no bearing on each other at all. Licona is importing from his own POV a "test" for what is core that is completely foreign to the Gospel of Luke as a work. If you were to work solely within Luke and not by reference to what is in Matthew, you would arrive at a totally different picture of what seems to be core to it, i.e. essential to what the writer meant to convey. Licona is introducing anachronism into the historical analysis. Which is quite unprofessional.

Tony M

I believe that the word "core," like the word "gist," functions as a kind of signaling device. It signals to the reader and hearer and even perhaps self-signals to the theorist (!!) that "this is all no big deal." Other than that, as presently used in many NT circles, such words are coming to have very little semantic content.

As a slight aside, I thought I'd mention two things:

1. On Luke's census, Stephen Carlson (not an inerrantist) proposed, quite some time ago, a very persuasive interpretation of this at his blog. The links to the series are here: http://hypotyposeis.org/weblog/2006/11/luke-acts-on-hypotyposeis.html

2. On the timeline issue, there may be an undesigned coincidence in the two accounts: notice that in Luke 2:41, the family is said to go to Jerusalem every year for the Passover. Since Joseph's family was in Bethlehem, so close to Jerusalem, it is likely that they would have stayed there. Thus, it may very well have been during the first or second Passover visit that the Magi arrived at Bethlehem, when the Holy Family was there as well. This reading of the timeline would not need to fit a couple years into Luke 2:38-39.

I think the suggestion there in #2 won't really work because of the specific reference in Luke 2:38-39 concerning performing what was required by the law of the Lord. In the context that really, really looks like a reference to the purification of Mary and the offering for the male child (see verse 22, reference to what was required by the Law of Moses). That would be only 40 days after the baby's birth.

I believe Esteemed Husband favors the translation, "This census was first completed when Quirinius was governor of Syria." This is also the interpretation favored by historian Paul Maier. The idea is that a registration was begun after Herod the Great fell out of favor in 6 B.C., was halted when Herod got back into favor (so he was allowed to take his own taxes) and then ramped up again 14 years later after Archelaus, when Quirinius came in.

I myself don't have a strongly "fave" census theory, though I would have tended to lean spontaneously toward, "This was the first census that was made when Quirinius was governor of Syria," with "governor" having a flexible meaning and the verse referring to an earlier time when Quirinius was in an important sense "in charge" in the region, which evidently did occur. On the other hand, I have not investigated the claim that this is a less probable rendering of the Greek of the verse.

I think it's improbable that Luke refers to an earlier census that was carried out by Quirinius during the reign of Herod, because of multiple reasons. One reason is that the 6 AD census was a quite famous one (e.g., it's mentioned in Acts 5:37 as "the" census). It's unlikely that Luke refers without additional explanation to a different census, confusing his readers as to which census he meant.

I favor the same interpretation as your husband. However, I think the best translation is:

"This first census was completed when Quirinius was governor of Syria."

The "first census" refers to the census that was executed when a region became (part of) a province of the Roman empire. In order to be able to tax the people, a census was needed.

I think Luke was accidentally confusing to us (we don't know if he was confusing to his original readers) while trying to be clarifying. Such are the accidents of writing history. I certainly agree that the 6 AD census was famous. In some manner or other, Luke is trying to take that into account. If for example it should be translated, "This was the first census that was made when Quirinius was governor of Syria," that parenthetical remark is in there for precisely the reason you give: Knowing of the fame of the later census, Luke wants to take that into account and distinguish the one that is relevant to his story from the later, more famous one.

But that may not be the correct or best translation.

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