December 25, 2017

The Academics' Christmas Stories

Among the guild of NT scholars, too many have too often confused historicity and narrativity (as I demonstrated again here recently) and this meta-critique applies to critics and apologists alike. Today's exhibit is my friends James and Deane, who see no cause to rebel against the prevailing critical dogma that Matthew's infancy narrative and Luke's infancy narrative are "contradictory" and "irreconcilable". However, while it would be special pleading to assert the opposite, it's merely a combination of good reading and simple logic to point out that James and Deane are the ones who have stretched things too far.

I am no defender of texts. My preference is to imagine the past. To that end, my first step is to analyze the story worlds represented by each of these two different narratives. I do not assume historicity. I do not defend historicity. I do not aim to construct arguments that might support potential historicity. What I do, for starters, is construct story worlds based on the texts. We might call these hypothetical versions of the conceivable past. At some point, later on, we might judge these scenarios to be more or less plausible, and more or less likely to have actually happened. We are best capable of such judgment when we leave it aside until later.

The question, then, is whether two narrative story worlds are hypothetically compatible. By and large, they clearly are... apart, that is, from one tiny detail. The contradiction is that Luke 2:39 says the holy family left Judea when Jesus was still an infant, whereas Matthew keeps them in Bethlehem until Jesus is much older. That is a problem, and I am happy to leave it as such. What I am contending is merely that Luke 2:39 is the only obstacle to imagining a single story world -- a single "Christmas Story" if you will -- containing all of the other events that Luke and Matthew represent. (Note: Luke's statement about Quirinius is a second problem IFF the common translations are faithful renderings of what Luke meant to convey. I happen to suspect otherwise, but I'd rather leave that all aside because Quirinius is irrelevant to reconstructing "The Christmas Story" in any way you slice it.)

Apologists will find some way to argue why Luke didn't mean what Luke clearly says, and I will let them go about such foolishness. But those who wish to think critically about the text AND to think historically about the past should ALSO learn to distinguish narrative reconstruction from historical inference.

James and Deane both make an inference about the world Matthew is representing, and then proceed to claim that inference is necessarily a part of Matthew's story world. That's invalid for multiple reasons. Matthew does not tell us whether Joseph and Mary had always been in Bethlehem. Matthew does not tell us they had, and Matthew does not tell us they hadn't. The fact that Joseph and Mary are living in Bethlehem when Matthew opens his story does not equate to a claim by Matthew that they had always been living in that place. Claiming otherwise, James and Deane have taken their own inference and elevated it to the level of textual meaning. This is not only invalid narratological procedure, it's a premature historical-critical judgment. In such a task, the work of historical inference belongs after narratological analysis; that is, before we can attempt to infer anything about the world represented by Matthew's narrative, we must first restrict ourselves to understand what Matthew is and is not claiming to represent about that hypothetical world. So, it is poor reading to claim Matthew makes Bethlehem their home town, and it is poor methodology to infer elements of a character's "historical" backstory  during what should properly remain the narratological reconstruction of a story-world based strictly on the writer's narrated discourse.

In other words, you can't make a critical judgment about the historical validity of the narrative content, and then assume that judgment as part of the narrative story world, and THEN argue that said story world is strictly the representation of the writer, as such. That's like the cart pulling the cart with a dead horse being dragged along somewhere in between.

Now, let me say a kind word to my friends, hoping they'll remain as my friends.

Deane, I sympathize with your hostility against apologists but I don't understand your antagonism against "harmonies" per se. Technically, a Gospel harmony is textually splicing different narrative discourses together (and calling it "the whole story"). Rest assured, I'm against that, for many good reasons. However, the perennial reconstructions of "The Christmas Story" by religious believers are not harmonizations. They are narratological combinations. The work of contextualizing a robust literary imagination, whether the literary content might be fictional or historical, is neither apologetic nor is it "harmonization". Such imaginative work is rather to be encouraged, but recognized for what it is. The non-academic reconstructions of "The Christmas Story" need discipline and humility. If you simply pooh-pooh them and tell them they're stupid, they'll dismiss you. That isn't helping any of them to be smarter about dealing with scripture, and I dare say helping them think carefully is a more productive goal than telling them to stop being religious.

James, I'm surprised you still haven't gotten this straight yet. Of course Matthew gives "no indication whatsoever that they are from somewhere else" but he also gives no indication that they aren't. Now, while you'd expect lesser antagonists to use that point as special pleading, you know me well enough that I'm not defending the possibility of non-contradiction. All I'm saying is that you shouldn't keep saying this lack of information is grounds for a defined contradiction. If the issue at hand were about historicity, this conversation would have to be much, much longer indeed... and ultimately much less conclusive... but as I understand it, the issue at hand is whether or not one story world can (potentially, hypothetically) be reconciled with the other.

Apart from the problematic information conveyed by Luke 2:39, it absolutely can be.


UPDATE: Deane responded to this post, along with several other reactions, here. I'll let my comments there speak for themselves.

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