the-starThere has been quite a bit of conversation about my post on the contradictions between the birth stories of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

In addition to various Facebook discussions, there was an earlier post by James McGrath, taking much the same view as mine, agreement from Neil Godfrey, Fred ClarkRobert Myles, and seemingly from Jim Davila. Then there was a post by Bill Heroman arguing that the two stories “absolutely can be” reconciled, except perhaps for the statement in Luke 2.39 that Joseph, Mary & Jesus went straight back to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth, and a post by Michael Kok arguing that it is “possible to reconcile the stories”, again with Luke 2.39 being the “the major obstacle” for reconciliation of Jesus’ birth stories in Matthew and Luke.

No doubt we could go into detailed arguments about the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. But there is a more fundamental hermeneutical choice involved here that I want to highlight.

I want you to note the language that I quoted above from Bill Heroman and Michael Kok: that harmonization “can be” done, or it is “possible to” find a harmonizing interpretation of the two stories. Also, note that the information in Luke 2.39 is seen as “a problem” (Heroman) and a “major obstacle” (Kok). This would be odd language if the goal was simply to seek the more probable meaning of each text. But can there really be a “problem” unless it is your primary goal to arrive at interpretations which result in a harmonization? Can there really be an “obstacle” unless it’s not actually your goal to seek the best meaning of each text (irrespective of whether that interpretation involves a contradiction or harmonization)?

It seems obvious that the so-called “problem” here is only for the harmonizer of texts, not for the exegete (whether in a historical-critical or more literary-critical role). That is, if your goal is to establish the better and more probable meaning of a text, then whether or not that meaning results in a contradiction with any further text is not a “problem” to be avoided at all costs. If however your goal is to attempt to harmonize two texts, which is the goal of many Evangelicals, including Bill and Michael, then harmonization can still be satisfied by a “possible” interpretation, an interpretation that “can be” defended (even if the possibility is less likely than other interpretations).

There is nothing ‘wrong’ with confessional goals in interpreting biblical texts, if it is clear that it is done in the service of Christians, for Christian Bible-reading. But on the other hand, if your goal is critical exegesis, it is insufficient to simply raise “possible” interpretations, without critically assessing which of these interpretations are also probable or at least plausible interpretations of the text. Yet that’s what I’ve seen here in response to James’ and my posts: the raising of a “possibility” in order to preserve a harmonizing, and so confessionally acceptable, interpretation. That’s fine for church, but not for the academy.

That’s why I wasn’t interested in narrowing interpretation of the two Jesus birth stories down to a single “problem” verse, such as Luke 2.39, and discussing “possible” ways to avoid a clear contradiction. That is a game for inerrantists, infallibalists, etc, including their more sophistic academic counterparts.  No – if you are interested in establishing the meaning of the text (as opposed to harmonizing the most “problematic” bits), you have to respect the whole context of the narratives before you. And so I return to my earlier post, in which I went through each narrative (with an eye on all relevant intertexts), respecting the narrative integrity of each text, and showed how they fundamentally differ, in every part of the narrative, in respect of two central elements: their geographical procession and their identification of Joseph’s initial hometown. The geographical processions are radically different, and have much to reveal about the different ideologies of each Gospel. Luke proceeds from Nazareth to Bethlehem and Jerusalem and back to Nazareth. But Matthew proceeds from Bethlehem to Egypt and involves a resettlement in Nazareth. In Luke, Nazareth is Joseph’s initial hometown; in Matthew, Bethlehem is Joseph’s initial hometown. The narrative progressions are different, and the contradiction exists at this wider level of the entire narrative, and cannot be reduced to a single verse seen as a “problem” to the would-be harmonizer.

If you try to base your interpretation  on a “possible” interpretation of the Bible (however forced or tendentious) by concentrating on ‘solving’ the most “problematic” verses, then you might succeed at the Evangelical game of harmonization, but not at critical scholarship.