Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Straining to find a "genre"

I have raised a number of doubts about the facile use of "genre" as a response to allegations of discrepancies in the gospels. I am really almost a little shocked at the example of this represented in the long quotation below, which I read for the first time this morning. Notice that Dr. Licona expressly says that in his research he was unable to come up with any "literary conventions" from the Greco-Roman authors that would cover what he regards as problematic differences in the infancy stories about Jesus in Matthew and Luke. (I certainly do not regard these as troubling, though I think probably Luke just didn't know about the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt. Big deal.) Faced with this situation, Licona strains and reaches for "midrash" (which has now become an all-purpose word among some writers about the New Testament meaning "they made it up but I don't just want to say they made it up") to say that perhaps Luke and Matthew made stuff up about Jesus' birth. But that's okay because he has a word naming a "genre" (that is, "midrash"), so it's not a problem for reliability. Somehow. And they both affirm that Mary was a virgin, so we're not going to count that as part of the "midrash."

The trenchant discussion by N.T. Wright (no fundamentalist!) of the promiscuous invocation of midrash is relevant here. (Who Was Jesus, pp. 71ff.) "Midrash" just isn't the kind of thing that those who invoke it in this way imply. For example, says Wright,

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. (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) 

Wright also points out that midrash was a technique for commenting on ancient scripture and states that it is "fantastically unlikely" that this is what Luke and Matthew were doing in the birth narratives. (p. 73) (HT to Esteemed Husband for the information on midrash from Wright.)
Now, this midrash idea is just a conjecture Licona brings forward as possible, but he seems quite open to it and seems to think it solves some kind of problem.

I'm still in a bit of shock at how widely Licona is willing to cast his "literary devices" net while still claiming that the gospels are historically reliable. (In some sense or other.) What he writes here about the birth narratives bespeaks a positive determination to name something one calls a "genre" in order to shake off concerns about alleged discrepancies.

Here is the full quote.

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,[5]
"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." [LM: You can say the same thing about different facts in the life of Abraham Lincoln.]
Here I must acknowledge that I don’t know what’s going on and have no detailed explanations for these differences. [LM: The only actual difference between Luke and Matthew cited by Ehrman is the implication in Luke that they returned immediately to Nazareth after the purification of Mary. The rest of Ehrman's discussion consists of beating the dead horse of the census in Luke, which does not concern any apparent discrepancy with Matthew in any event. I don't know why Licona speaks as though there are extremely difficult, problematic discrepancies between Luke and Matthew. In fact, they simply record different details about Jesus' infancy. There is no reason to think there is something heavy "going on."] 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. [LM: So we refer to what Luke and Matthew both affirm as the "core," triumphantly state that this is multiply attested (!), and then attribute what we are saying they made up out of whole cloth as belonging to a "genre," to which we give a name, even though there is no evidence that they were using any well-established genre that would have these properties. This is highly unconvincing as any sort of defense of Matthew's and Luke's reliability!]

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