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Did Luke write the Gospel of Luke?

Postby Cicero » Tue May 23, 2017 9:02 am

I'd love to hear some evidence.

I'd suggest that, far from being a reliable historian, Luke isn't even a historian to begin with. It's an error of genre. Luke writes popular literary biography -- of Jesus, of Peter, and then of Paul -- with all the characteristics of that type of writing: direct speech, miracle stories, heavy oral influences and intertextuality, exacerbated by a deliberate attempt to mimic the style of the Septuagint and thus to put Jesus in line with OT expectations.

I'm interested in what you'd adduce as actual, specific evidence for the idea that Luke should be regarded as a historian at all, let alone an accurate one. Geographical accuracy (which is often appealed to in this context) is an argument only the negative sense; the fact that I know where Paris is doesn't mean I'm qualified to write a history of the French revolution. In view of the numerous details where Luke at least appears to contradict secular history (like Quirinius...), I'd say the balance of probabilities isn't in your favour.
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Re: Did Luke write the Gospel of Luke?

Postby jimwalton » Tue May 23, 2017 9:12 am

This question has come up so many times, I actually (about a year ago) went through Luke's Gospel verse by verse, looking for historical things. Here's what I found.

Places: Luke mentions 25 places in the whole Gospel. 21 of them are known and corroborated; 4 are unknown (Bethsaida, Sodom, Bethphage, and Emmaus). The 4 haven't been disproved, but are just unconfirmed. So Luke is at least 84% accurate, maybe up to 100%.

Cultural references. He makes 19 cultural references (things like childlessness was a disgrace, elements of betrothal, swaddling, fishermen washing nets, etc.) They are all accurate. 100%.

People. Luke mentions 52 people. 17 are corroborated (but 2 of those are HIGHLY debated: Quirinius and Annas the high priest); 35 are otherwise unknown (people like Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Joseph of Arimathea, etc.).

Historical References. Luke makes 8 historical references (census, Herod's marriage to Herodias, etc.) 4 are corroborated, 4 are unknown, and one of those unknown 4 is HIGH debated (the census).

Religious References. He makes 18 of those. 17 are corroborated, 1 is unknown. Pretty accurate.

All in all, his reliability is astounding. Nothing has been distinctly shown to be wrong, though the census and Quirinius are heavily fought over. Other than those two, what can be confirmed is virtually (if not absolutely) at 100%.
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Re: Did Luke write the Gospel of Luke?

Postby Cicero » Thu May 25, 2017 9:33 am

> Nothing has been distinctly shown to be wrong, though the census and Quirinius are heavily fought over.

Although I’d be very interested in your complete list, if you have it and are willing to share it, I strongly dispute your methodology in the sample you present me with, for the following reasons.

1. You limit yourself to “right/wrong” scenarios but that’s a very limited way of doing history. You can get all your basic facts right and still present a hopelessly skewed, inaccurate version of events. Luke’s Acts can know who Mr X was and where the city Y lay and still be a work of shameless Christian propaganda (which I’d argue it is.)

2. Luke’s geographical accuracy (and to a lesser extent his cultural literacy) means virtually nothing, except that he was a well-travelled, well-educated man. These are things which prove his knowledge of the world of his own day rather than that of the time he describes. As I pointed out in my previous response, if I wrote a history of the French revolution, the fact that I can correctly situate Paris wouldn’t compensate for my inadequate knowledge of what actually happened.

3. Even given that we should limit ourselves to “right/wrong” scenarios, and limiting ourselves to historical references, your category of “historical references” is an arbitarily exclusive one. For instance, Luke claims thousands of people in Jerusalem converted in one day; the argument from silence in Josephus that Christianity was a much smaller sect is very strong. I would count that as a “historically dubious” claim at least, and there are many like it.

4. Your statement that nothing in Luke has definitely been proven false is special pleading. If any other ancient historian had made the Quirinius mistake we’d just have said he got it wrong and forgotten about almost immediately -- if you wish to dispute the scholarly consensus on this that's fine but I would like to know which alternative it is that you espouse, since I think they're all pretty easy to refute. Also, you’ve forgotten the incorrect dating of Theudas’ rebellion; so I’d say that’s 4 (correct) 2 (unknown) 2 (wrong), which is a max of 75% accuracy, which is not all that good. And that's just from memory.

I’m trying to approach Luke as objectively as I can here, and I admit that’s hard for me as much as it must be for you. Luke contains so much stuff I’m philosophically predisposed to dismiss as bs that it’s easy to throw away the baby with the bathwater. I admit that Luke’s accuracy on many points is truly remarkable, often to the degree where I find it hard to explain under the hypothesis that he wrote as late as I believe he probably did.

But nuance is necessary here. When Luke does make errors, he often makes big ones. The supernatural stories he contains are often of a highly archetypical nature, like Peter’s prison escape, which has at least one close (and a large number of more distant) parallel in ancient Greek literature. Most seriously, however, he misrepresents Paul on several important levels. Paul’s uncompromising attitude towards Judaising tendencies, the badly hidden acrimony in his debate with Peter, and the unremarkable nature of his mystic conversion are edited out in a disturbingly dishonest fashion. Everything about early Christianity is big, and amazing, and harmonious, even where our external sources positively indicate that it wasn’t.

I think the fairest conclusion is that Luke is a careful, extremely well educated writer but a mediocre historian with a clear agenda. But I’m interested in your feedback.
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Re: Did Luke write the Gospel of Luke?

Postby jimwalton » Thu May 25, 2017 9:53 am

> I strongly dispute your methodology in the sample you present me with

This is just one simple approach to the question of "Did Luke write with accuracy, or is he off the wall?" It's far from a complete historiographical methodology, but merely a beginning point.

> ...and still be a work of shameless Christian propaganda (which I’d argue it is.)

There is no arguing that Luke had an agenda and a thesis he was trying to substantiate. Every historian writes because they are interested in the subject. But bias doesn't mean you're wrong. If it were, then we can't believe any Jewish historian who writes on the Holocaust, or any African-American writing about antebellum slavery. Too many elements of the gospels don't come across as having been invented for the sake of bias (the disciples' lack of faith, the testimony of women on resurrection, Jesus' claiming his father had forsaken him, etc.). But elements in the gospels also show they are trying to report accurate history. Richard Dawkins has an objective, an agenda. Gerd Ludemann has an agenda. We don't reject writings because the authors have an agenda, but because the arguments are insufficient. Even we as readers are biased.

> For instance, Luke claims thousands of people in Jerusalem converted in one day

You're right that there is no external corroboration for this claim. Archaeological and document evidence tells us that Jerusalem had a population of about 60,000 people at the time. The 3,000 amounts to about 5% of that. It's not unrealistic, not out of bounds, but is uncorroborated. Given that Christians became a large enough demographic in the Roman Empire to warrant persecution by Nero demonstrates, however, that numerical growth had to have been substantial. Thomas Finn, in "The Early Christian World," calculated the size of the Church from archaeological and documentary records. Assuming a population of 60 million in the Roman Empire, he discovers a general growth rate of about 40% per decade until AD 350.

By year 40: 1000 Christians
By 50: 1400
By 100: 7,530
By 150: 40, 496
etc.
until 350, where he estimate 34 million Christians in the empire. So he agrees that there is no corroborating evidence of the 3,000 at Pentecost. Again, though, we don't expect there to be accurate numbers of such things in public records that have remained.

> Your statement that nothing in Luke has definitely been proven false is special pleading.

I don't think so. Your claim was that Luke should not be regarded as an accurate historian, and I beg to differ based on the evidence at hand.

> The supernatural stories he contains are often of a highly archetypical nature,

Again, there is no corroboration to any of these events. The Bible is the only source of them, so there's no way to prove from history their truth or not.

> I think the fairest conclusion is that Luke is a careful, extremely well educated writer but a mediocre historian with a clear agenda.

Perhaps here is the discussion. Aside from the Quirinius debate, where does Luke fall short as a historian (I'm talking about the Gospel here, not Acts, which is a separate conversation)? What have you got here that you can substantiate?
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Re: Did Luke write the Gospel of Luke?

Postby Cicero » Sun May 28, 2017 5:27 pm

> We don't reject writings because the authors have an agenda

Your response to my argument here seems to me to run along the same lines as your response to the oral myth argument, and to be flawed for more or less the same reason. 1) The fact that there is such a thing as "accurate history with an agenda" doesn't mean there isn't such a thing as fundamentally flawed propaganda and 2) the fact that both exist does not mean we cannot tell them apart. Possibly you were simply trying to bring to my notice the fact that bias isn't always a problem, in which case fine, but I was never under that misapprehension. I gave reasons for why I think Luke is biased in ways that do undermine his historical reliability and these reasons stand irrespective of whether one accepts the fact that reliable history can have an agenda too. It's the way historians use their agenda which is important.

> Too many elements of the gospels don't come across as having been invented for the sake of bias

True, but most of these seem to be very early elements in the Christian story; they were probably an integral, universally accepted part of the Christianity narrative to the point where Luke had no choice but to include them. This is not a very good argument for the idea that Luke himself is unbiased. Moreover, even if Luke was unbiased in recording these stories the fact that Luke included them would not somehow undo the instances of bias elsewhere. It would only show that Luke's dedication to creating a propaganda narrative was of a somewhat inconsistent nature.
(I would also argue that these "embarassing" elements in the Gospels have theological motivations within the earliest stages of Christianity, but I have accepted the premise of your argument because this would lead us on a tangent.)

> we don't expect there to be accurate numbers of such things in public records that have remained

Finn's demographics I don't dispute; up to 313AD that looks about right and is consistent with what I was taught at university. It remains that a sect as big as Luke describes would probably have been worthy of considerably more reference from a historian like Josephus. The evidence from Nero is consistent, yes. But elsewhere we'd have expected Christianity to make more noise.

And "probably" matters. It's the only thing we have.

> The Bible is the only source of them, so there's no way to prove from history their truth or not.

You have a very limited view of what constitutes external corroboration.

Suppose some religious organisation claimed that some evil entity had placed its power in a ring, which could only be destroyed by being hurled into some distant volcano, and that it had to be brought there by some unimportant individual in whose hands the future of the planet would have to be entrusted. You wouldn't believe it—not even if you accepted the philosophical premise that investing one's power in a ring is possible. Well, that's why I don't believe Luke's prison escape story. He's reusing a narrative which circulated already. That is fishy. You don't need external corroboration to come to that conclusion.

> where does Luke fall short as a historian (I'm talking about the Gospel here, not Acts, which is a separate conversation)

Acts isn't really a separate conversation. In fact, Acts is a much easier way of testing Luke's accuracy because we can compare Luke's account there to that of an eyewitness (Paul) and because Acts makes more historical references. Most of the claims in the Gospel are unfalsifiable. There's only one really interesting historical claim in the book and that, for some reason which isn't quite clear to me, you wish to leave aside; it seems to me a fundamental error of the kind a well-informed historian could never have made.

In the case of Luke I can only give the general arguments I have consistently given so far: 1) evidence of oral accretion of myth, 2) evidence of suspiciously neat OT intertextuality, 3) evidence of Classical literary tropes being mimicked in the miracles recorded.

You do not appear to find these lines of argument very persuasive, but they're more or less all we have. As I say, the positive evidence for Luke is good, but can for by far the greater part be explained by assuming Luke had had an extensive education (which we need to assume anyway, given the quality of his Greek).

I don't want to sound as though I'm ignoring your challenge, but I think your expectations are unrealistic. External corroboration is only a small part of the picture. At the end of the day, it all boils down to an estimation of mainly internal, textual probabilities, and in the examples I've given I'd say the balance of probability is clearly ranged towards the hypothesis that there is at least a considerable proportion of non-historical material.
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Re: Did Luke write the Gospel of Luke?

Postby jimwalton » Sun May 28, 2017 6:34 pm

> The fact that there is such a thing as "accurate history with an agenda" doesn't mean there isn't such a thing as fundamentally flawed propaganda.

I agree. I don't know where I gave you suspicion that I disagreed with this. It is true that I was trying to bring to your attention that bias isn't always (a) problematic, or (b) necessarily false.

> but most of these seem to be very early elements in the Christian story

This is true also, and possibly evidence that Luke was written earlier rather than later, unless I am misunderstanding your point. (At some point I wish we could sit across from each other at a table rather than communicating via forum.)

> they were probably an integral, universally accepted part of the Christianity narrative to the point where Luke had no choice but to include them.

This could be true also, because it was based in fact, not only because it was part of the Christian "mantra".

> This is not a very good argument for the idea that Luke himself is unbiased.

You're right. This is where we need to examine those spots where you think Luke is more than likely biased to the result of inaccuracy.

So you are saying that the positive evidence for Luke is good, which I also believe. According to my research, the negative evidence for Luke is slight and not as convincing. But it seems to deal with the subject adequately, I need to try to trace back to your three arguments: (1) oral accretion of myth, (2) suspiciously neat OT intertextuality, and (3) evidence of unbelievable literary tropes. These are generalities, but let's turn our discussion here.

I'm starting to read through Luke, to see what I can see. I'll just go a little way, because there is so much to discuss.

He begins (1.1-4) with a preface declaring his intent: historiography based on eyewitness testimony, oral memoranda, and careful research, with a goal of presenting an orderly account "so that you may know for sure." So we at least know what he claims to be writing.

There isn't much debate there, but the discussion (debate) starts in the very next pericope, Luke 1.5-25, with angel visitations, a prophecy, and being struck dumb. Let's start there.

Matthew starts with an infancy narrative focused on Jesus as the fulfillment of OT prophecy; Luke is comparing the births of John and Jesus—a completely different agenda.

The language takes a turn. Whereby vv. 1-4 is more literary *koine*, we have (to the end of chapter 2) a very Hebraistic (Aramaic) tone. Some claim this as evidence that he got most of chapters 1-2 from Mary herself via interview. She was probably still alive, having possibly been born in about 20 BC. By AD 55 (when Luke was traveling with Paul) she might have been around 75 years old. If he didn't interview her directly, he might be relating the oral memoranda of the stories that came from her. Luke, as a physician, may have shown a particular interest in the birth reports.

Now, we move on. The story has symbolism in it, for sure—but are these evidences of fiction, or at least of elaboration for theological or literary effect?

Verse 5 starts with a historical marker: Herod, King of Judea—an accurate piece of history (putting the birth of Christ between 7-5 BC). Then there's a bucketload of symbols from the Old Testament: priests, Law of God, and upright, religious people following that law. No problems so far. All historical. We hear about a priestly division on duty (accurate according to 1 Chr. 24.1-19), putting us in about May or June.

Elizabeth, his wife, was a descendant of Aaron. But we know that to be a priest and married to a priest's daughter was a double distinction, so a cultural reference that makes sense.

Luke starts building his case: two exceptional people, known for morality and obedience to God. Presented, for the purposes of the story, as "flawless"—historical, but also symbolic of the OT itself: priestly system, law-abiding, pious people. They're like old wine in a dusty cellar—a vintage with a balanced bouquet. Symbolic but presented as historical.

But they are also barren. Hmm. True? Already we have some symbolism forming that will shape the book. The "old" has no place to go. For all its merits, it's sterile and cannot produce new life.

Verse 11: the story ramps up. Zechariah's division is serving (historically believable), Zechariah is chosen (historically believable), he enter the temple to burn incense (historically believable), worshippers praying outside (historically believable). Then it says an angel appeared to him. What happened to history?

Incense is a symbol of prayer. The angel says he heard Zechariah's prayers (13). He announces the old will give birth to the new, and his description is given in OT terms: is never to take wine (Nazirite code), will be filled with the HS from birth (as opposed to many OT prophets who were filled with the HS from time to time, so this is a step forward), will bring many Israelites back to God (one of the jobs of a prophet). The "old" was the elderly couple; the "new" was John the Baptist. The "old" was the law, the new was the filling of the HS. Elijah the prophet prepared people for the judgment of the Lord; John would prepare people for the coming of the Lord. Both speak the word and will of the Lord; both aim to bring people back to God.

Zechariah struggles with the message—can the old ever give birth? Can something new come out of something old? The old guard is represented by old Zechariah's disbelief. "How can I be sure of this?" If that doesn't summarize a common Jewish response to Jesus, nothing does.

He is struck dumb "because he didn't believe." His silence is symbolic, but does that mean it didn't happen? Notions of religion, of earning one's way to heaven, of cultic obedience for merit, will be silenced by the truth about God.

Meanwhile the people are waiting. Zechariah emerges unable to speak. Did it actually happen, or is it a trope? Luke tells it as if it actually happened, a living parable, so to speak.

The story ramps up again. In verse 24, old Lizzy is preggo. The phrase "well along in years" (v. 7) suggests they were over 60. It's a motif, though; the motif of an elderly barren woman was recognized by all Jews (i.e., Abraham's wife Sarai, and Isaac's wife Rebekah). It served to indicate the child would have a special role to play in God's plan. But was it so? We are left to interpret and decide.

To me, Luke is saying: God is speaking through history. The old wine was good, but the new wine needs new wineskins. Rules are giving way to life. A whole new reality is being birthed, and the old must stand silent before it. It can't be shouted down like a conservative speaker at Middlebury or Berkeley. Tight restrictions, confining boxes, and lists are being forced open into a huge world of expanding horizons, unparalleled experiences, exciting possibilities, and mind-blowing events.

By my reading, the elements of miracle (angel and elderly birth) are juxtaposed with elements of obvious historicity (Herod, priests, sacrifice, incense). The question is: Is Luke manufacturing a tale of a miraculous birth to buttress John's influence, or has history been invaded by deity to produce the fulcrum of salvation history: the coming of God to earth?
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Re: Did Luke write the Gospel of Luke?

Postby Cicero » Tue May 30, 2017 2:45 pm

> This is true also, and possibly evidence that Luke was written earlier rather than later, unless I am misunderstanding your point.

The fact that there are early elements in Luke is not really an argument to date him early; if anything the contrary, in so far as we can distinguish between earlier elements and late elements. It does point to the existence of earlier traditions; their historical value is not really relevant here.

> At some point I wish we could sit across from each other at a table rather than communicating via forum.

Absolutely. I rarely meet sufficiently well-informed Christians for this type of debate. I’m sure the reverse is true as well.

> The question is: A) Is Luke manufacturing adding to and basing himself on an orally circulating tale of a miraculous birth to buttress John's influence B) has history been invaded by deity to produce the fulcrum of salvation history: the coming of God to earth?

With my alterations, the above is a fair formulation of our disagreement. I’m also happy that you’ve chosen to focus on the infancy narrative, as it’s a very good testing ground for our respective theories (which I shall refer to as A and B, based on the above).
(Btw, on the introduction to Luke. In early Christian writings “that you may have certainty of the things which you were taught” is a very third-generation-ish thing to say. The eagerness to reaffirm the historical reality of Christianity reminds me of Ignatius and Clement more than any other Christian writing. So I’d say this is another reason to (cautiously) date Luke late. But it’s a detail; let’s move on.)

> To me, Luke is saying: God is speaking through history.

Luke is definitely saying this. I don’t think the sincerity of Luke’s belief in the reality of at least the outline of the events he described can be doubted, and I think your analysis of the symbolism he combined with this narrative is cogent and well-argued.

This, however, as you yourself point out, says very little about the historicity of the account itself.

So to decide the issue, let’s take a step back. All literary activity takes place against a wider context. Thus the first question in any historical research is, what kind of narrative are we dealing with here, how does it relate to similar narratives and what does that tell us about its reliability?

Infancy narratives are common in the ancient world. In a time when infant mortality was high, however, records of one’s childhood were rarely kept and thus the infancy stories we find are virtually all obvious myths. Inventing stories about someone’s birth when no records were extant seems to have been something of a compulsory habit in the ancient world. The life of Alexander, the life of Pericles, the life of Vergil – all otherwise quite respectable biographies—all start with a birth story which no serious scholar would believe is anything more than totally fictitious.

So, based on context only, the prior probability of this kind of story being true is low.

As good scholars, however, rationalising our views after we’ve seen the evidence is too easy. The power of science is prediction. Based on theory A, what can I say I expect to see in the text before I actually look at it?

Theory A makes several such predictions. Namely, I’d expect a typical infancy narrative as found in the ancient world, focusing on the birth of an important character, constructed with a number of remarkable, often stereotypical and supernatural events, combined with a dream or vision which in some way forshadows the future life of the new-born child. I’d also expect the basic historical framework (the dates, the area, the cultural background) to be correct, as they are in many other ancient infancy myths.

Luke fits this remarkably well. Except for the fact that an angelophany takes the place of the stereotypical dream (which is a trivial alteration given the Judeo-Christian context) the correspondance is remarkable. The star is particularly interesting in this regard. Since theory B makes no definite predictions on the nature of the infancy narrative (God could have worked in other ways which didn’t so closely follow Greco-Roman literary patterns), this seems to me to be an argument for A.

Let’s go further. It was possible, under both theories, that Luke could have used his own educated Greek style to tell the infancy narrative. He chose not to do this, however; instead, as you say, he jumps dramatically from educated Atticistic prose to a strongly Semitic style. There are several possible explanations for this. The two theories under consideration here are 1) eyewitness involvement and 2) a conscious attempt on Luke’s part to model himself on the Septuagint.

I think it becomes pretty rapidly clear that option 2) is correct. vv. 5-7 is virtually a pastiche of the Septuagint; almost every expression has clear Septuagintal origins. The poetic elements are also extremely unlikely to have come from the mouth of an eyewitness and again show features typical of Septuagintal poetry.

Now I know you’re going to say that the fact that Luke consciously links the literary style of his document to that of the Septuagint is explicable under theory B, too. Which is true. But again, theory A makes definite predictions about the nature of the Semitisms we should expect to find (i.e. none which are plausibly the result of eyewitness influence, as opposed to semitisms which fit the idea that Luke is consciously echoing ancient myths) and theory B doesn't.

Finally, A predicts that where independent infancy traditions exist, they are likely to attempt to do the same thing in different ways. In Luke the angel appears to Mary to inform her of what's going on; in Matthew the angel comes to Joseph once it's clear Mary is pregnant. The same narrative requirement existed in both cases (viz. an angelophany to apprise them of what was going on) but it was met in different ways. This doesn't mean theory B can't be right (because the angel might have appeared to both) but again A makes a clear prediction which clearly works, and B doesn't.

Similarly, both Matthew and Luke needed to find a way to ensure that Jesus (who grew up in Nazareth) was born in Bethlehem (as the prophecy stated). Luke (or Luke's sources) solve this by assuming Joseph lived in Nazareth but went to Bethlehem for a census; Matthew by assuming he lived in Bethlehem but went to Nazareth when Judea became too dangerous. Again, you can sort of harmonise these accounts, but A predicts this kind of discrepancy while B can only rationalise it.

The only clear prediction theory B makes is that the historical references in the infancy narratives should be accurate, whereas A doesn’t as strictly require historical accuracy. But it’s a weak prediction. Historical accuracy is often found in infancy narratives. Vergil’s obviously nonsensical infancy narrative in Donatus’ Vita Vergilii contains a reference to the exact location, the exact people who were consuls in that year and the exact local customs. In fact, this holds true in so many infancy narratives I'd almost dare to say the predictions of A and B run parallel here.

Also, Luke's infancy narrative isn't wholly historically plausible, and neither is Matthew's... but that's a different debate.
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Re: Did Luke write the Gospel of Luke?

Postby jimwalton » Tue May 30, 2017 5:52 pm

> The fact that there are early elements in Luke is not really an argument to date him early

Oh, I agree. It is one of many many elements to the argument. Never build an argument on such a flimsy reference.

> It does point to the existence of earlier traditions; their historical value is not really relevant here.

Their historical value could be relevant. It depends on the concentration of, quality of, or the ability to date early elements. Everything pertains to the grand picture.

>In early Christian writings “that you may have certainty of the things which you were taught” is a very third-generation-ish thing to say.

Possibly, but not definitively. We don't really know whom Luke had opportunity to interview. The Hebraistic nature of chapters 1-2 suggests a Palestinian source. Paul knew the apostles, so Luke would have been 3rd generation for anything gotten from him. He never specifically claims to have interviewed eyewitnesses (1.2), though he claims they were the source authorities for some of it. But it doesn't give warrant to discredit the material, but only that he is removed (an he admits as much) from having experienced any of this himself.

> All literary activity takes place against a wider context. Thus the first question in any historical research is, what kind of narrative are we dealing with here, how does it relate to similar narratives and what does that tell us about its reliability?

Agreed.

> Infancy narratives

I love what you say about infancy narratives (I just didn't cut and paste your whole paragraph for reference), and I agree. Generally the genealogies of royalty were kept, as well as of priests. Those are the ones in particular where lineage matters most. Interestingly, then, it makes sense that the historical lineage of John matters, coming from a priestly family, and that of Jesus as well, coming from a royal dynastic line. From that vantage point, historicity of this text would be important to the Jews, and they would shun mythology. Secondly, the Jewish people were not characterized by mythology, and actually showed contempt for it. These are two cultural factors that play against your assumptions.

By my recollection, most of the infancy narratives of the ancient world (and correct me if I'm wrong) pertained to deity, not just to miraculous birth. In other words, they were incarnation myths. In Hinduism, Vishnu had 10 incarnations; Krishna was the incarnation of Vishnu. Siddhartha Gautama was supposedly born to a virgin who had been impregnated by a white elephant. Mithras never lived as a man.

The legends of Alexander, Pericles, and Virgil are noticeably and qualitatively different from this narrative. Alexander's mom claimed to have been struck by lightning the night before they had sex, and flames spread widely around her body, claiming possible divinity for Alexander. There were other supposed omens at Alexander's birth to reveal that he was superhuman, if not supernatural. Pericles' mama dreamed she was giving birth to a lion (which may have been symbolic of his importance, so not really a big deal at all). I don't know anything about Virgil's birth stories.

These seem distinctly different from this story about John's birth.

> Theory A makes several such predictions.

I agree that the Theory A template fits Luke: an important personage, remarkable or supernatural occurrences, visions, and prophecies. To me the story of John (Zechariah and Elizabeth) shows qualitative differences from the legends of the other ancients to which we have referred. An angelic visitation, and a prophecy about John—the only really miraculous part is a woman past menopause getting pregnant. That's different than getting struck by lightning and seeing flames all around one's body. According to Google, the oldest woman known to give natural birth was 66 (if I'm reading the stats correctly). Of course, Luke doesn't say she was past menopause, but only "well along in years," implying but not insisting she was past childbearing age. Luke's more important point was that she was barren & childless.

The more pertinent theological issue is: If Luke's purpose is to introduce John and Jesus as partner-agents of God's salvation history, we might expect divine phenomena to accompany their births as well as their lives.

> vv 5-7 is virtually a pastiche of the Septuagint

This is recognizable, and your point is well taken. I agree that it suggests a Septuagintal source rather than an orally told historical narrative. But if Luke is trying to paint a picture of specific OT motifs, symbols, personages and patterns, and since Luke himself was Greek and not Hebrew-Aramaic, the use of Septuagintal language doesn't betray a non-eyewitness source to me, but possibly (and only possibly) he tells the story in well-worn and thoroughly-cliched OT terms and phrases, with which he himself is familiar (possibly as we all often begins stories with "Once upon a time..." which is also an old fashioned way of speaking, or as when old preachers pray with King James English and expressions.) Luke has possibly taken the eyewitness accounts in their Hebraistic style and reworked them in his Greek/Gentile milieu to compose an account in his own style, including Septuagintal imitation.

I don't see theory A as the so-easily-perceived reasonable choice over the two. Why do Matthew and Luke tell such different versions of the infancy narratives? You're right that Theory A explains it easily: they make up what they want to suit their purposes in writing. Theory B, however, allows the biographical styles of the first century to bring out different theological points (as I mentioned before, Matthew comparing Jesus and Moses, Luke comparing Jesus and John the B). We know that ancient biographers, according to the literary context of the era, allowed variation. Luke tells the conversion of Paul 3 times in the book of Acts, and tells it differently each time. Plutarch tells the story of Caesar's assassination 5 times, and tells it differently each time. This style of writing, very acceptable in the ancient world, is a mechanism the Gospel writers use to teach the pertinent truths about the identity of Jesus.

For instance, someone took a photo of Vincent Van Gogh, and Vincent painted a self-portrait. Suppose I were to ask you, "Which one is more realistic?" It's a direct, scientific question, but virtually unanswerable. You would have to ask, "What do mean by realistic? Suppose I asked, "Which is a more accurate portrayal?" It's not really a fair question because one is film and one is interpretive. So which account of the infancy narrative is accurate? Which is historical? Which is more realistic? They are both "paintings," so I'm not sure it's the right question. I'm not trying to dodge the elephant in the room, but only to show that the question itself shows a bit of presentistic bias as we define reliable and historiography. Matthew and Luke are interpretive works, both working within the frame of reference of 1st-century methodology. I'm not so quick to claim they were writing legendary or mythological narratives to bolster their theology. It's more likely to me that, as followers of Christ, they would be trying to tell a truthful tale as "painters" of the invasion of God into human history. As you said, "this doesn't mean theory B can't be right." As a person who doesn't seem to believe in the reality of God or His work in the world, Theory A is the only reasonable conclusion. But if God really exists, and He has made Himself known, "this doesn't mean theory B can't be right."

> Luke's infancy narrative isn't wholly historically plausible

I know we're just in Lk. 1.5-25, but the only thing we have encountered so far that might qualify as historically implausible is an older woman getting pregnant—a phenomenon easily explainable if there is a God who is sovereign over nature who is invading human history for a salvation event. Everything else fits what we know about the culture, their cultic practices, their social concerns and responses, and history to a "T".
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Re: Did Luke write the Gospel of Luke?

Postby Cicero » Wed May 31, 2017 3:12 pm

> From that vantage point, historicity of this text would be important to the Jews, and they would shun mythology.

You have a rather simplistic view of human psychology, if I may say so. Exactly the same can be said about the Greco-Roman biographers, as I’m sure they sincerely believed in the historicity of their infancy narratives. Moreover, the same was true in the second century of Christian legends (we have at least one record of the Church authorities explicitly condemning a mythological work) and yet the production of Christian legends in the second century is voluminous. In retrospect, we often simply need to accept that mythologisation just happens in the way urban legends just happen; whether people like it or dislike it or disapprove of it or comdemn it doesn’t seem to have any effect on this.

But we can do much better than that. There’s evidence that our very idea of a stark divide between mythology vs history is to some extent an anachronism. I find one of the most fascinating passages in the letters of Ignatius the passage where he elaborates on Matthew’s story of the appearance of the star at Jesus’ birth (Ephesians 19), where we see, as it were, mythological accretion actually in action. It looks to me as though he’s literally in the process of translating the idea in his mind (namely “the importance of Jesus’ incarnation”) into factual, descriptive imagery (how amazing the star was and how it outshone the other stars and how the nations of the world marvelled, etc).

That is how I imagine the infancy narratives were born too. The silent, almost unconscious poetic licence people like Ignatius seem to have arrogated to themselves to express theological truths in narrative terms.

> Secondly, the Jewish people were not characterized by mythology, and actually showed contempt for it.

This argument is flawed on numerous levels for similar reasons. Firstly, as I’ve already said stated, contempt for myth says nothing about the actual prevalence of the practice; early Greco-Roman writers disapproved of pseudoepigraphy and Victorians disapproved of extra-marital sex, yet both happened often. Secondly, in every way that matters this claim is demonstrably false, as even the most cursory examination of hellenistic Jewish apocryphal literature will prove; in fact, I am rather at a loss as to where you even get this idea from to begin with. Thirdly, I have no difficulty with the assumption that the infancy narratives arose in a hellenistic context, as opposed to a Jewish one – indeed, I would consider that probable even independent of this consideration – so it’s not strictly relevant to begin with.

> Generally the genealogies of royalty were kept, as well as of priests.

I’d say that’s an argument against the idea that the Galilean carpenter had a recorded genealogy… but I'm okay with that observation otherwise.

> By my recollection, most of the infancy narratives of the ancient world (and correct me if I'm wrong) pertained to deity, not just to miraculous birth.

I don’t know, I’ve not done much research on comparative mythology. I don’t think the religious parallel is as good as the biographical one.

> The legends of Alexander, Pericles, and Virgil are noticeably and qualitatively different from this narrative… These seem distinctly different from this story about John's birth.

They’re “different” in the sense that they’re different stories, yes, but then that's hardly remarkable. We wouldn’t expect to find a perfect parallels. They are parallel in the ways I enumerated in my previous post, and I’d say that’s something to get started with. Similarly, I don’t see why the “miraculousness” of the accounts is that important compared to the way the birth narratives function, for instance in terms of the typical way they foreshadow the purpose of John's or Jesus' life.

> Luke has possibly taken the eyewitness accounts in their Hebraistic style and reworked them

True. I anticipated that you'd say that, in my previous post. But as I said then, this view has no predictive power and the simpler explanation remains the one which has to assume fewer redactional stages.

> Theory B, however, allows the biographical styles of the first century to bring out different theological points

You’re saying, if I understand you correctly, that Matthew and Luke offer different perspectives on the same events. That wasn’t actually my argument. My argument was that they offer the same perspective on different events (broadly speaking) and that this is symptomatic of mythology. They both need to express the importance of the incarnation? Fine, there was a huge star/a chorus of angels. They both need to explain how Jesus was born in Bethlehem? No problem, Joseph went there for the census/he left Bethlehem out of fear. They both need to link Jesus to David? Well, as we know, the result of that endeavour is two separate (and incompatible) genealogies.

Plutarch, you say, describes Caesar’s assassination on several times. Again, the point is well taken. But the details of the assassination are the same each time (at least in the Life of Caesar and the Life of Brutus); he only lays different emphases. Whereas there is simply no point of contact between Matthew’s story and Luke’s story at all, except for the basic mythological points they’re trying to make. The stories can be reconciled, of course, relatively easily, but I’d regard that as a pseudo-historical endeavour: the chance that both Matthew and Luke coincidentally picked different elements of the story in such a way as to leave no traces whatsoever of the part of the story told by the other strikes me as highly implausible.

Are you a particular admirer of Plutarch, by the way? You appear to know him well.

> I'm not so quick to claim they were writing legendary or mythological narratives to bolster their theology. It's more likely to me that, as followers of Christ, they would be trying to tell a truthful tale as "painters" of the invasion of God into human history.

This claim is really going to get you into difficulties. Apart from the New Testament narratives themselves there’s very little of the miraculous stuff in ancient Christianity I think you’d be prepared to accept on the basis of that same argument. In so far as you are sceptical of the second century claims that milk spurted out from Paul’s decapitated head, that Peter resurrected smoked fish and that Pilate did a careful experiment to test Jesus’ miraculous powers you can’t use this blanket argument. Christians did mythologise, that is beyond doubt; they did so on an shocking, mind-boggling scale, that is also beyond doubt; the only question is whether they did so in this particular case.

> As a person who doesn't seem to believe in the reality of God or His work in the world, Theory A is the only reasonable conclusion. But if God really exists, and He has made Himself known, "this doesn't mean theory B can't be right."

True. And for the purposes of this debate I'm quite happy to assign them each a prior probability of 50%. My argument isn't that theory A is philosophically better, it's that it more parsimoniously explains the patterns we see in the infancy narratives (and, indeed, elsewhere in the Gospels); it was this kind of argument which led me from B to A a few years ago even when my philosophical biases were identical to yours.

> I know we're just in Lk. 1.5-25, but the only thing we have encountered so far that might qualify as historically implausible is an older woman getting pregnant

I try to avoid referring to miracles as “historically implausible” in debates with Christians. I was actually thinking about Quirinius, but as you say, we aren't there yet. What about the idea that a lowly priest was literate?
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Re: Did Luke write the Gospel of Luke?

Postby jimwalton » Wed May 31, 2017 3:56 pm

> You have a rather simplistic view of human psychology, if I may say so.

Sorry, I thought we were having a good enough debate to be past these obviously stereotypical/caricaturish denigrations. Sigh. I don't have a simplistic view of human psychology. What I have is a studied perspective on 1-st century Judaism. The ancient world didn't have any illusion that their mythologies qualified as historical. Their mythologies were ways of expressing theological truths: how things came to be, how they were ordered, and their purposes. But there was never (or seldom, I guess) any perception that they were talking history when they talked about their gods (or the humans they exalted to deity). Mythography was a way of expressing theological doctrine, so to speak, particularly pertaining to creation, order, function, and the afterlife. The Jews didn't participate in this kind of speculation, or in this type of theology. They rooted YHWH (and also Jesus) firmly in history. You'll notice that the Bible has very little mystical theology to it, especially as compared to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. (Since Islam is largely a Christian cult that grew into a world religion, Islam is mostly philosophical while trying hard to be historical like Christianity. The differences between the Bible and the Qur'an, however, are vast, especially pertaining to historiography.)

> yet the production of Christian legends in the second century is voluminous.

This is true, but they are resoundingly denounced by the Church and the Church's theologians. None of them are accepted as canonical, they are spurned as legendary and heretical when compared to the historiography and doctrines of true Christianity. The 2nd-century Christian fathers seem to have a clear picture of what was history vs. what is legend/mythography.

> I find one of the most fascinating passages in the letters of Ignatius the passage where he elaborates on Matthew’s story of the appearance of the star at Jesus’ birth (Ephesians 19), where we see, as it were, mythological accretion actually in action.

True, and we notice pretty quickly that Ignatius is not regarded as inspired of God or on the level of Scripture. His work is not recognized on the same level as the Gospels and Epistles.

> Jewish contempt for mythology

You mentioned the 2nd-c. Jewish apocalyptists, and yet remember that by the 2nd c. Jerusalem had been "leveled," the Temple destroyed, and Judiasm scattered to the winds. But on a different level, apocalyptic writing is, by nature of the genre, filled with verbal images, metaphors, archetypes, and fantastic language of all sorts. It's not a fair comparison with the Gospel genre or of the Jewish perspective on mythology.

> I have no difficulty with the assumption that the infancy narratives arose in a hellenistic context, as opposed to a Jewish one

My difficulty with this is the markedly Hebraistic tone of Luke 1.5 to the end of chapter 2. Of all of his Gospel coming from a Jewish context, this text is it.

> I’d say that’s an argument against the idea that the Galilean carpenter had a recorded genealogy… but I'm okay with that observation otherwise.

Except that all the Gospel writers are claiming that the Galilean carpenter is a king (the often-repeated teaching about the kingdom of God/heaven; Mt. 1.1 [son of David], 2.2, 27.37; Mark is filled with royal language of power, authority, rightful position and kingdom language; Luke portrays Jesus as a rightful competitor for the thrones sat on by Caesar and Herod, who are false claimants; John portrays Jesus as God with much kingdom talk).

> there is simply no point of contact between Matthew’s story and Luke’s story at all

Actually, there is.

1/. Jesus’ birth is related to the reign of Herod (Lk. 1.5; Mt. 2.1).
2/. Mary, his mother to be, is a virgin engaged to Joseph, but they have not yet come to live together (Lk. 1.27, 34; 2.5; Mt. 1.18)
3/. Joseph is of the house and lineage of David (Lk. 1.27; 2.4; Mt. 1.16, 20)
4/. An angel from heaven announces the coming birth of Jesus (Lk. 1.28-30; Mt. 1.20-21).
5/. Jesus is recognized himself to be a son of David (Lk. 1.32; Mt. 1.1).
6/. Jesus’ conception is to take place through the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1.35; Mt. 1.18, 20).
7/. Joseph is not involved in the conception (Lk. 1.34; Mt. 1.18-25).
8/. The name Jesus is imposed by heaven prior to his birth (Lk. 1.31; Mt. 1.21).
9/. The angel identifies Jesus as Savior (Lk. 2.11; Mt. 1.21).
10/. Jesus is born after Mary and Joseph come to live together (Lk. 2.4-7; Mt. 1.24-25).
11/. Jesus is born at Bethlehem (Lk. 2.4-7; Mt. 2.1).
12/. Jesus settles, with Mary and Joseph, in Nazareth in Galilee (Lk. 2.39, 51; Mt. 2.22-23).

> Apart from the New Testament narratives themselves there’s very little of the miraculous stuff in ancient Christianity I think you’d be prepared to accept on the basis of that same argument.

Yes, and isn't this a fascinating observation you've made! If their concern was to perpetuate a legend, the more-than-remarkable stories would continue. If they were telling it as it happened, and miracles died out (as Paul hinted they might in 1 Cor. 13.8), that's a great explanation for why we see it in the 1st century but not beyond—because the miracles were largely the work of Jesus, only minimally the work of the apostles and Paul, and rarely after that.

> What about the idea that a lowly priest was literate?

Literacy was higher in Jewish Palestine than elsewhere in the Greco-Roman world. The Jews placed a high value on reading and memorizing the Torah, and Jewish boys were particularly taught how to read, so that their faith would be perpetuated. Jesus, as a Galilean carpenter, knew how to read and write (Lk. 4.16-20; Jn. 8.6). The apostles knew their Scriptures quite well (Peter in Acts 2.14-36; Stephen in Acts 7) as is consistent with what we know of 1st-c. Judaism—many boys actually memorized large portions of the Torah, and were taught to read it.

That a priest is literate is no surprise (Lk. 1.63). We have other discoveries from archaeology that reading and writing were common in the era:

- The letter from Babatha, and many common documents of normal business
- Minted coins with messages on them
- Many personal inscriptions on various and sundry articles
- Ossuary inscriptions
- Potsherds with school exercises on them
- Luke sought out reliable sources for his gospel
- Letters of Paul prove writing was current in the early decades of the church
- Zechariah wrote on a wax tablet (Lk. 1.63)
- The Pharisees, chief priests, and scribes were literate (Mt. 12.3, 5)
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