The second of Steve Moyise ‘s seminars at Newman University, Was the Birth of Jesus According to Scripture?, explored the use of the Hebrew scriptures in the Matthew and Luke’s nativity accounts and questioned how helpful historical criticism (generally the primary approach used by critical scholars) is for understanding the rationale behind their use.
Unfortunately we encountered difficulties with recording this session. However, we are grateful to Steve for providing us with a handout that includes much of the material from his talk (drawn from a chapter from his latest book – of the same title) and his PowerPoint slides (links below).
Steve began by discussing, in very general terms, the traditional historical critical view of the Nativity; that the events described in the birth narratives were created to prove the claim that Jesus was the messiah. In other words, Matthew and Luke made up some (or most) of the events in order that they reflect the prophecies for the long awaited messiah. However, as students quickly discover, the texts that the Gospel writers select and the way they then use them can appear a little strange and unexpected.
Steve then observed that a number of these ‘prophecies’ are neither prophecies nor were they viewed at the time as being messianic; for example, Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”) used in Matthew 2:15. Steve, following Craig Evans, suggested that, “[n]o one reading Hos 11:1 would invent a trip to Egypt just so that Jesus can come out of Egypt and fulfil this text.” In this way Steve argued:
If the texts were not prophecies in the first place, the rationale for inventing events to match them loses much of its force.
Steve then went on to argue that, although historical criticism is about trying to read the texts within their historical context, we still need to be very careful that we do not retroject our understanding of particular terms and concepts onto the first century audience. For example, how was the term ‘fulfil’ understood at the time of writing? This impacts the way we understand why these authors used Hebrew scripture and how it functioned in their writing. Steve asked:
Was scripture quoted in those days to verify what one already knew or to illuminate the meaning of something that has happened?
Citing Aus and France, Steve argued that the Hebrew scriptures functioned as a way of understanding or providing meaning to the figure of Jesus, his life and ministry.
it was the most natural way for a Jewish Christian like Matthew to express the profound truth that Jesus is “Israel’s final redeemer.”
This leads to a notion of ‘post-structural history writing’ that foregrounds the experience and context of the reader/hearer/user in the way that they will understand a text (or message). In other words, not only is history written from a particular perspective, it is also read from one too.
Steve then looked at Jane Schaberg’s controversial, but influential book The Illegitimacy of Jesus (1987, Sheffield Phoenix Press). Schaberg presents a feminist reading of the nativity stories and argues that the elements that would later be developed into the idea of virginal conception were attempts to theologically explain (or make sense of) Mary’s condition which, she contends, was probably the result of rape. Such suggestions are nothing new; as Steve pointed out, in the second century, both Tertullian and Origen had to “defend Jesus from such a charge.” Whilst not necessarily agreeing with Schaberg’s conclusions (note some of his reservations in his ‘handout’), Steve showed how such a reading could help to shed light upon and create a clearer [or perhaps different] understanding of the use Hebrew Scripture by the New Testament writers that have been sometimes problematised by traditional historical critical approaches.
It clearly makes sense of some of the details (women in [Matthew’s] genealogy; overcoming Elizabeth’s disgrace; God’s mercy to Mary; Joseph not the father) and offers a more straightforward interpretation of Matthew’s quotation of Isa 7:14. Far from taking it out of context or importing an unprecedented virginal conception into the meaning of the words, Matthew is simply asserting that the conception and birth of a child has led to an even greater deliverance (and perhaps also judgment) than in Isaiah’s day. In that sense, it is consistent with the other quotations, where the consequences of Jesus leaving Egypt and Herod’s slaughter of the young children are said to fulfill Hos 11:1 and Jer 31:15 respectively.
Steve concluded by suggesting that, depending upon your perspective, you could read the Nativity accounts in three ways…
Was the Birth of Jesus PowerPoint in pdf format
Preview of Steve’s book: Was the Birth of Jesus According to Scripture?