October 2, 2017

Absolving God in Bethlehem: Narrativity vs Historicity

Gospel narrative perturbs critics and apologists differently. Exhibit A this week comes from John Nolland's 2005 commentary on the massacre of Bethlehem's children, in Matthew 2:16.

Nolland writes, "The disturbing story in v. 16 is often dismissed, ostensibly on the basis of the lack of explicit support from Josephus.* But . . . it is too much to ask that Josephus report the specific episode." And his footnote (*) clarifies: "I say 'ostensibly' because I suspect the background difficulty with the story has to do with the way that in context it seems to reflect badly on God, who treats the other infants of Bethlehem as dispensable."

Before I make my own observation, let's do some basic ground clearing. First, interpreters are free to doubt this story for any number of reasons, and could still do so even if Josephus appeared to corroborate. Second, interpreters are equally free to suppose this awful thing really happened, although we have no way of ever knowing or proving at all that it did. Third, appealing to Josephus as an infallible, all knowing, or exhaustive account of events during Jesus' or Paul's lifetime is tragically common and a serious problem among NT scholars (on which, see Steve Mason 2016a & 2016b). Fourth, as regular readers will tell you, my standard position is that it's pointless (indeed, sometimes counterproductive!) to argue about historicity in the Gospels. It's far more interesting to ask what drives someone's judgments about historicity, and to observe to what present use those arguments are being put by the interpreter.

On that last note, let's consider Nolland's 'ostensibly'.

It's hard to suppose that he's wrong, because I've often had the same suspicion. Whether dismissal of v. 16 is justified or unjustified, the motive behind these dismissals seems clear. The frequency and intensity of these critical apologies (!) suggests a felt need for absolution, a desire to see scripture and God, both, washed clean of the stain of this purported crime. Apparently fearing that it makes God an unacceptably immoral monster, we move to explain away this bit of text. "Scholars say this didn't happen." It's fiction, myth, or allegory. Take your pick. In fact, take your time. I won't argue against this kind of thing.

The fish I'm frying today are altogether more interesting.

Sizzle... Narrative... Sizzle... Historicity... Sizzle... 

Ahem. Doubting historicity fails to alter Matthew's narrative.

Om, nom, nom!

Whether this passage is fiction or non-fiction, Matthew presents us with a God who - at least - allows those poor babies to die. This God, who is a character in Matthew's narrative story world, absolutely allows that to happen. Doubting the story is true doesn't alter the story, and it doesn't alter the fact that Matthew's theological opinion is that God can be like this, sometimes. Even if Matthew means us to take this as myth or allegory, doing so requires starting with the form in which this myth or allegory is presented to us. That myth or allegory includes this implicit portrayal of God.

As truth or as fiction, narrative remains narrative. Explaining away the episode as "unhistorical" is like fast forwarding through Braveheart wherever it's least accurate. Removing this massacre from your reading is like turning off Casablanca a bit early because you prefer to imagine Isla winds up with Rick. If you do that sort of thing, you're not being critical. You're being disrespectful. The kind of God who allows these babies to die is a central component of Matthew's deliberately constructed representation of Jesus' origin story. Removing this disturbing scene from your view, while reading Matthew, is like standing up during Hamilton and yelling "British Colonials weren't technically immigrants!" That's pointless. That's is a basic failure to respect and appreciate literature. When we read Matthew's narrative, the massacre is and should be disturbing.

Knowing that NT scholars are excellent readers, what explains this strange move to dismiss? How does dismissing historicity make our reading of Matthew any better?

It doesn't. It cannot. You aren't reading the past. You're reading Matthew.

Sizzle... Sizzle... Here's what I'm actually getting at...

I believe this trend illustrates a much deeper problem. Maybe for some it's just rhetorical slight of hand; maybe it's meant as a benevolent misdirect. If that's true then it may not illustrate the problem but it's absolutely fostering and encouraging the problem. Either way, this trend relates to a serious problem.

Here is the problem. When the judgment of historical criticism allows us to ignore pieces of narrative while reading the overall narrative, we implicitly conflate literary narration and the historical past. That is, we exercise positivism. Yes, historical criticism can engage in positivism, because the error of positivism is not trusting the text, but treating the text *AS* the past. Whether we individually doubt or believe Matthew, we must stop equating the text with the past.

More broadly, the fact that this dismissive position on Matthew 2:16 is so often suggested to alter our reading of the text serves as evidence that this naive positivism is a deep and abiding component of a general mindset in the NT guild, and that this mindset is no less common among critics than apologists.

By and large, NT scholars have a real problem distinguishing between narrativity and historicity.

We should try to do something to change this.

Wouldn't you say?


mjazzguitar said...

God allowing this to happen is nothing new. There have been countless tragedies that people accuse God of doing nothing about.
I read that the population of Bethlehem at the time was around 1000 and maybe 20 children could have been killed. This indicates that the account could be true.

Bill Heroman said...

The killing seems less unlikely than the magi and the star (on which the killing depends), but people are understandably more bothered by the idea that God killed those babies "to fulfill what was written."

It could all well be true, but what do we do with that? Historicity should not be a conclusion to attack or defend. Historicity is a starting point for historical reflection...

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