Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem Again: Possible Harmonizing Interpretations versus Probable Contextual Interpretations

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.

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The Two Stories of Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem

birth-jesus

At this time of year, it’s common to see pictures of the Christmas story or to hear someone retell the story: Jesus in a manger, wise men visiting with gifts, angels and shepherds, etc. But all of these depictions are based on two quite different accounts of Jesus’ birth: one in the Gospel of Matthew and the other in the Gospel of Luke. The two accounts are not only different, but contradictory.

The popular retelling of the Christmas story usually involves a conflation (or mix-up) and harmonization (blurring of differences and contradictions) of elements from these two different stories.

But let’s examine each of them, to seek to understand the distinct stories they each tell:

Story One: Luke

The Gospel of Luke tells the story of how Joseph and Mary travel from their hometown in Nazareth in Galilee, to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. Luke situates Joseph and Mary’s home in Nazareth. Before the birth of Jesus (Luke 2.3-4), Joseph, Jesus’ legal father, has to travel from his “own town” (2.39) of Nazareth in Galilee, to his “own [ancestral] town” (2.3-4) Bethlehem in Judea. Why do Joseph and Mary have to travel to Bethlehem so close to the time of birth of Jesus? Luke’s answer is that Joseph and Mary had to travel there due to the census of Quirinius, the governor of Syria:

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David” (Luke 2.1-4)

The idea that Joseph would have had to have traveled to Bethlehem, because it was the town of his ancestors, is most probably a complete fiction. It is fabricated on the basis of the belief that the Messiah/Christ must be a descendant of David.

Then, according to Luke, after Joseph and Mary had travelled to Bethlehem, Jesus was born in Bethlehem:

“While they were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son …” (Luke 2.6-7)

Luke then describes the circumcision of Jesus, and the purification of Mary (from the legal so-called ‘impurities’ of childbirth). Circumcision was carried out on the eighth day after birth (Lev 12.3), and the mother was considered ceremonially unclean for the 7 days following childbirth, and 33 days following the circumcision (Lev 12.2, 4). After this 40-day period, the mother had to provide a sheep as a sacrifice to restore her purity. This sacrifice could be changed to two turtledoves or pigeons if she were too poor to afford a sheep (Lev 12.6-8). As Luke 2.24 shows, Mary offered two turtledoves or pigeons:

“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”” (Luke 2.21-24)

Leviticus 12 sets out the relevant “law of Moses”, the requirements of which took a period of 40 days following childbirth. Luke is then quite clear that Joseph and Mary returned to their “own town” of Nazareth “when they had finished” these 40 days of legal requirements:

“When they [Joseph and Mary] had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” (Luke 2.39)

The phrase “when they had finished … they returned to Galilee” translates the Greek kai hos etelesan … epestrepsan eis ten Galilaian, literally: “as they completed [all the requirements of the Law]… they returned to Galilee.” Luke is clearly narrating the return to Nazareth as something that occurred just after Mary had completed the 40 days of legal obligations. What’s more, they are returning eis polin heuton (“into their own town”) of Nazareth. So Luke envisages a round trip, from Joseph & Mary’s hometown of Nazareth, to the purported ancestral town of Joseph (Bethlehem), to the Temple in Jerusalem, and back to Joseph & Mary’s hometown.

Story Two: Matthew

But Matthew has Joseph and Mary take an entirely different route, from an entirely different hometown!

In Luke, Jesus is still little more than a newborn baby when he leaves Bethlehem, leaving for Jerusalem after 40 days, the term of Mary’s purification (Luke 2.21-24, 39). By contrast, in Matthew, the wise men who visit provide information to Herod about Jesus’ age that leads to him killing all boys up to two years old. The clear implication of the narrative is that the wise men had given Herod information about the date of Jesus’ birth that led Herod to assume that Jesus was older than a mere one-month-old baby:

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” (Matt 2.16)

In Matthew, Joseph & Mary escape Bethlehem, with Jesus, and live in Egypt for a period. Moreover, in Matthew’s account, Joseph and Mary remain in Egypt for some time after this, awaiting the death of Herod. Yet, according to Luke, Jesus had travelled to Nazareth with his family only after 40 days:

“and [Joseph, the child and his mother] remained there [in Egypt] until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” … When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” ” (Matt 2.15, 19-21)

Often those who want to harmonize Luke with Matthew posit a trip to Egypt between the visit to Jerusalem and the return to Nazareth. But:

1. Such a harmonization abuses the straightforward statement in Luke that shows Joseph and Mary return home on completing the legal requirements of Leviticus 12. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth “as they finished everything required by the law”;

2. Such a harmonization ignores the presentation of Nazareth as the hometown of Joseph and Mary in Luke, versus Bethlehem in Matthew; and

3. Such a harmonization fails to adequately explain why, on being warned to flee straightaway to Egypt by an angel of Yahweh (once the wise men who had visited them, in Bethlehem, had left the place: 2.1-15), Joseph first travelled to Jerusalem (Luke 2.22) the very place where Herod himself reigned!

In addition, for Matthew, Joseph and Mary’s home was in Bethlehem.

Following the birth of Jesus, Joseph is commanded to go to Egypt, from their house in Bethlehem. If this “house” (Matt 2.11) is Joseph and Mary’s own house, this is complete contradiction to Luke’s account, which places Joseph & Mary’s hometown in Nazareth, Galilee. The term oikia (“house”) in Matthew most naturally refers to a family’s abode. Therefore, Matthew should be interpreted as understanding that Joseph and Mary were living in Bethlehem immediately before the birth of Jesus! As Raymond Brown explains:

“Presumably this was the house which served as the home of Joseph and Mary who were inhabitants of Bethlehem. The view is quite different from that of Luke 2.1-7. There have been many attempts, often quite forced, to harmonize the information.” (Birth of the Messiah, p. 176)

There is further evidence later on in chapter 2 of Matthew that Bethlehem was Joseph and Mary’s hometown. For, when Joseph is told to return to Israel:

1. Joseph’s first thought is to return to Judea (the province in which Bethlehem is located), not Nazareth (Matt 2.22). Naturally, Joseph and Mary wished to return to their hometown, which Matthew 2.22 reveals was in Judea. But Nazareth is in Galilee, not Judea!

2. Only after being warned in a dream not to return to Judea, Joseph goes instead to Galilee (Matthew 2.22).

3. On coming to Nazareth, Joseph is not described as returning to the home that Luke believes he has there. To the contrary, Joseph is described as “making his home” there. The phrase “made his home in a town called Nazareth” (Matt 2.23) reveals that Joseph is settling in a new place, which Matthew now introduces for the first time! Far from returning to his hometown, Joseph has arrived in a town that is altogether new to him.

4. What is more, it is only because of Joseph’s arrival in Nazareth at this time that Matthew sees fit to claim that Jesus will now fulfill the prophecy, “He will be called a Nazorean” (Matt 2.23).

So when we actually come to consider the logic of Matthew’s narrative itself, rather than leap to a forced harmonization with Luke, it is beyond reasonable doubt that Matthew must be interpreted as presenting Bethlehem, not Nazareth, as Joseph and Mary’s original hometown. As Raymond Brown summarises:

“Joseph’s first thought was to return to Judea, i.e., to “Bethlehem of Judea” (2.1), because he and Mary lived in a house there (2.11). Since Joseph and Mary were citizens of Bethlehem, Matthew takes pains to explain why they went to Nazareth. In Luke’s account, where they are citizens of Nazareth, the painstaking explanation is centered on why they went to Bethlehem (2.1-5).”

So, in contrast to Luke, Matthew has Joseph and Mary move from their house in Bethlehem, to Egypt, and then settle for the first time in Nazareth!

So, to summarize:

Luke places Joseph and Mary at home in Nazareth, Galilee, from before the birth of Jesus (Luke 1.26-27; 2.4). After a trip to Bethlehem, Judea (Luke 2.5), during which Mary gives birth to Jesus and has him circumcised (Luke 2.6-7, 21), they return home to Nazareth, Galilee. If he is presented to the temple in Jerusalem after 40 days as was the custom (Matt 2.21-38) – the return would be just following 40 days after Jesus’ birth (Luke 2.39).

But:

Matthew places Joseph and Mary’s original home in Bethlehem, Judea. Matthew does not believe that their original home was in Nazareth, Galilee. This is clear from the fact that they begin in Bethlehem, as shown by the visit to their home in Bethlehem, Judea by the wise men in Matt 2.1-12, and Herod seeking to destroy all Bethlehem infants in Matt 2.16-18; and especially as shown by the angel of the Lord telling them to return home to Israel in Matt 2.19-21 and Joseph’s decision not to return to Judea but to settle in a new town, Nazareth, Galilee.

Therefore, if you hear the Christmas story this year, it will probably involve a forced harmonization of two quite different and contradictory stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Gospel of Peter’s Walking, Talking Cross Again: On Foster’s published response to Goodacre’s unpublished paper

I recently offered an explanation of the weird resurrection scene in the Gospel of Peter, in which Jesus expands gigantically from earth to heaven, and his cross ‘walks’ out of his tomb and talks to God (“Whence the Giant Jesus and his Talking Cross? The Resurrection in Gospel of Peter 10.39–42 as Prophetic Fulfilment of LXX Psalm 18“).

During the editing process, I made the decision to cut my original discussion of Paul Foster’s published response to Mark Goodacre’s unpublished interpretation of the resurrection scene in the Gospel of Peter — as it was not quite relevant. In ‘A Walking, Talking Cross or the Walking, Talking Crucified One? A Conjectural Emendation in the Gospel of Peter’ (Society of Biblical Literature International Meeting [Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha Section], London, July 2011), as well as in an earlier blog post, Goodacre had argued for an emendation of σταυρός (‘cross’) to σταυρωθεντα (‘crucified [one]’, i.e. Jesus). Goodacre puts forward the possibility that ‘cross’ in an earlier Greek version of the Gospel of Peter had been written with the nomen sacrum ΣΤΑ. Early Christians often abbreviated certain divine names or titles, which they might have done with ΣΤΑ, which would then have originally stood for σταυρωθέντα (‘the crucified one’). But the scribe of the main surviving copy of the Gospel of Peter (the Akhmîm Fragment) misconstrued ΣΤΑ as σταυρόν (‘cross’). And so, the existence of a walking, talking cross in the Gospel of Peter, according to Goodacre, was the result of a copyist’s error. Goodacre’s proposed conjectural emendation therefore makes the text more ‘sensible’. It means that the Gospel of Peter does not make Jesus’s cross walk and talk, but rather Jesus (as ‘the crucified one’). After all, it would be much less surprising, at least for modern readers, to have a person walking and taking, rather than a cross. So Goodacre’s proposal has some degree of plausiblity.

I have argued in ‘Whence the Giant Jesus’ that the surviving text already makes perfectly good sense as a Christocentric interpretation of LXX Psalm 18. So it was not directly relevant to engage with Goodacre’s quite different alternative — although I did make mention of it. As you might expect, I favour my own explanation, rather than Goodacre’s conjectural solution (I mean, conjectural emendation is a last resort, am I right?)

Yet while Goodacre’s suggestion is only conjectural (without any direct textual support), I do consider that it was internally logical and possible. But Paul Foster disagreed. In a published article, Foster made three main criticisms of Goodacre’s proposal (‘Do Crosses Walk and Talk? A Reconsideration of Gospel of Peter 10.39–42’, JTS 64 [2013] 97–99).

I do not consider any of Foster’s three criticisms at all fatal to Goodacre’s case. That’s what my deleted footnote had discussed, and it may be worthwhile preserving my reasons.

In his published response to Goodacre’s unpublished paper, Paul Foster objects that

(1) the proposed nomen sacrum is rare;

(2) the author would then have inconsistently translated ΣΤΑ as σταυρωθέντα in GPet 13.56; and

(3) the emendation produces a text in which Jesus is simultaneously supported by the two men and walks behind them

(Foster, ‘Do Crosses Walk and Talk?, pp.  97–99).

The first objection, while cogent, is hardly fatal. Plenty of things we see in early Christian texts are rare or unique. This might be a rare case of ΣΤΑ being used for σταυρωθέντα.

The second objection is evidentially neutral, given the Akhmîm Fragment’s tendency to employ other nomina sacra inconsistently, as Goodacre already notes. Foster’s first two objections raise the question of probability, but are far from being decisive.

The third objection misreads Goodacre’s interpretation of the resurrection scene. Goodacre’s interpretation sees the ‘two’ men or angels from heaven not as ‘supporting’ the [crucified] one, but ‘lifting up’ the one (according to Goodacre’s translation of the rare verb ὑπορθοῦντας in GPet 10.39c). Then, the crucified one subsequently follows the two out of the tomb (10.39d). Although Foster’s own interpretation is different, he needed to acknowledge that, on Goodacre’s particular interpretation, the sequence was quite coherent.

Foster goes on to argue that the scene of a mobile, talking cross is not ‘absurd’, as Goodacre stated, given the examples of cross piety in early Christianity, in which the cross is given an independent role as ‘a salvific object’ which is involved in action or gets addressed by other characters. I have some sympathy for the underlying point that this is an example of cross piety, and my own article discusses the cosmic nature of the cross piety in the Gospel of Peter. But Goodacre’s ISBL paper was really only taking its point of departure from the perceived oddness of the content of GPet 10.39-42. His argument, however, is based on text-critical considerations, in particular the Akhmîm Fragment’s late date and the large number of ‘errors, riddles, and puzzles’ it contains (p. 8). Moreover, as Foster had acknowledged in his commentary, the motif of cross piety fails to account for the innovation of a walking and talking cross, which is ‘not typical of the other forms of cross-devotion exemplified in patristic texts’ (Gospel of Peter, 418). Quite right – something more that “cross piety” is required as an explanation for the unique mobile, talking cross of the Gospel of Peter.

Foster’s counter-arguments therefore fail to convince; Goodacre’s case for textual emendation offers a plausible solution for a problematic text, albeit one which relies on recourse to conjectural emendation. I think ultimately that the debate is superseded by the solution I offered. Yet I find Goodacre’s proposal, while not likely, to be internally consistent and logically possible.

Richard Carrier’s Reading Problems: An Example

After Christina Petterson had reviewed his book, On the Historicity of Jesus (2014), Richard Carrier concluded that Petterson’s review was “highly evangelical” and that Petterson herself was “fawningly Christian”.

As I was book review editor at the time that Petterson submitted her review, I asked Carrier how he had concluded that Christina Petterson was “highly evangelical”, and what evidence he had for calling her (elsewhere) “fawningly Christian”.

Given that Carrier is an historian who places a high value on the logical use of historical evidence, I wanted to see how he had treated this recent piece of historical evidence: a 2015 review of his book. How did he reach his conclusions about Petterson?

So I sent him a question on his website, and he has now kindly answered it.

DEANE DECEMBER 16, 2017, 10:25 PM

Dear Richard,

From the specific content of Christina Petterson’s review of your book, I wonder what evidence you have for calling it “highly evangelical”, and (elsewhere) what evidence you have for calling her “fawningly Christian”? If there is evidence of this in her review, I am sure that, like any good historian, you will not fail to produce it.

I eagerly wait to see your evidence.

Yours,
Deane Galbraith

REPLY

  1. You can see for yourself. I link to her article. It’s open access, so anyone can read it. Clues include her disparagement of the Jesus Seminar, and praise for James McGrath; her review in general reads like a James McGrath style poohpoohing of any challenge to orthodoxy, and never engages with the actual arguments of the book, which only a believing Christian would think to do. She’s defending orthodoxy. And assuming she need do no work to do it. While never once conceding the actual orthodoxy is that the Gospel Jesus is a myth (and the historical Jesus not like him). That’s all you need to know her agenda is defending Christianity, not scholarship (her Christian belief is likewise evident from her other writings).

    Although I think it’s fair to cut the word “evangelical” here, since it’s true, she doesn’t evangelize a kerygma in that article. So I’ve made that correction. I’ve gone back to its main descriptor: weird.

Carrier’s basis for calling Petterson “highly evangelical” and “fawningly Christian” was: her negative criticism of the Jesus Seminar, her positive appraisal of a piece written by James McGrath, combined with her negative review of Carrier. Based on this evidence, Carrier concludes that Petterson had behaved as “only a believing Christian would think to do”. Carrier further alleges that Petterson is “defending orthodoxy”, and that “her agenda is defending Christianity, not scholarship”. Furthermore, from Petterson’s “other writings”, he concludes that “her Christian belief is likewise evident”. Yet, he does now acknowledge that Petterson isn’t actually evangelizing in her review: “she doesn’t evangelize a kerygma”.

There is a good reason why Petterson wasn’t “evangelizing a kerygma” in her review of Carrier. She is not a Christian, and not religious, and never has been. She is an atheist.

This provides a good test, however, of Carrier’s inability to interpret his sources, and his ability to draw inferences from them that are simply not there. Carrier consistently assumes that anyone who disagrees with him must have an evangelical “agenda”. Sadly, this is conspiracy-theory thinking, not scholarly thinking.

Carrier has completely failed to interpret his source, taking inferences from it that simply were not there, and which were quite incorrect.

Does Richard Carrier use Bayes’ Theorem to detect Evangelicals?

In 2015, Christina Petterson wrote a fairly scathing review of Richard Carrier’s attempt to prove that Jesus was a mythical figure. The review of On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt appears in Relegere vol. 5, no. 2 (2015), pp. 253-258.

As book review editor at the time, I did not make inquiries into Petterson’s personal religious stance. Her religious views are a personal matter, and unless confessional assumptions had formed the basis for her review (and they did not), I would not have cared what those personal views were.

How then has Carrier detected that Petterson’s review was a “highly evangelical review”? This was Carrier’s description in a recent reply to Daniel Gullotta’s similarly negative article on his book. Carrier frequently claims that he strictly follows historical reasoning and logic. So I ask him: by what logic and reasoning did he conclude that Petterson’s review is “highly evangelical”? Is this a matter of evidence and logic? Or does Carrier, the historian, have as much difficulty in interpreting a relatively recent (2015) source as he does interpreting Philo? I just want Carrier to make clear his evidence and reasoning for concluding that Petterson’s review is “highly evangelical”.

I doubt that he can.

Perhaps Carrier’s ‘reasoning’ amounted to “I just feel it in my gut”?

I sincerely hope not. As Carrier rightly notes,

“Feeling it in my gut” is a dubious alternative, too easily hijacked by bias, and impossible to critique. Historians need to do better. They need to explain to us why their assertions of probability are valid. And “I feel it in my gut,” isn’t an explanation.

This isn’t an isolated (mis)reading. In a reply to Petterson (7 February 2017), Carrier described her as “fawningly Christian”:

fawningly Christian

Again, by what logic and reasoning did he conclude that Petterson was “fawningly Christian”? As I said, in accepting her review for publication, I did not detect any evidence in her review concerning her religious views.  So how did Carrier detect them? Please let me know.

And if Carrier reached his conclusion about Petterson’s “highly evangelical” review and “fawningly Christian” views on the basis of probability, I ask him to calculate his probability using Bayes’ Theorem. To quote Carrier again,

History is about reaching conclusions in probability. That requires competence in understanding probability.

So, I challenge Carrier: defend your categorization of Petterson as “fawningly Christian” and her review as “highly evangelical”, please. Make clear the evidence and logical reasoning on which you based these conclusions. And if you think your conclusions are only “probable”, please provide specific calculations of the probability based on Bayes’ Theorem.

I’m waiting…

 

What is the New Sheffield?

Professor Yvonne Sherwood with one of her PhD students

In 2014, the University of Sheffield closed what was arguably the most innovative and exciting Department of Biblical Studies in the United Kingdom. Sheffield Biblical Studies offered cutting-edge biblical scholarship in the subfields of literary criticism, cultural studies, political criticism, and Hebrew Bible/Old Testament historical criticism. Biblical Studies at Sheffield also boasted notable, colourful, and sometimes controversial scholars, including David Clines, Philip Davies, Keith Whitelam, Cheryl Exum, James Crossley, John Rogerson, Stephen Moore, David Gunn, Barry Matlock, Diana Edelman, Meg Davies, Andrew Lincoln, Yvonne Sherwood, and Loveday Alexander.

But now there is a …. New Sheffield!

In her introduction to the latest Biblical Interpretation, Yvonne Sherwood writes, “I say that our aim is to make Kent (in the south of England) a ‘new Sheffield’, and to draw on the ‘logo’ of this biblical studies city of the north” (“Futures, Presents and Gestures of Supersession: The Futures of Biblical Studies at the University of Kent“, Biblical Interpretation 25, no. 4-5 [2017], 436).  Sheffield has fallen to yet another supersession narrative in  biblical studies:

We are not saying that the north has fallen to the Assyrians (and you can allegorise ‘the Assyrians’ however you please), nor do we want to simply territorialise the new Sheffield exclusively here in some imperial gesture. The futures of ‘Sheffield’ are diasporic. But we feel a great need to strategically open up a new institutional space that specifically supports the kind of interdisciplinary work that Sheffield represented here in the United Kingdom. Our vision is to have a large international Ph.D. community, like the kind of community that met at the Monday weekly research centre and then went for lunch at the local pub, The Bathfield, in Sheffield’s pasts. Groups appropriate a name and a story for a reason. To us it seems important to define ourselves as one of ‘Sheffield’s’ futures: ‘Sheffield’ here signifying the kind of international and interdisciplinary biblical studies that is particularly open to other disciplines and that works between the biblical pasts and the futures of those pasts. (p. 436)

If it is objected that Sherwood’s aims are too bold, the retort must be that this type of chutzpah is ‘Very Sheffield’. In fact, Sherwood’s vision of an audaciously interdisciplinary biblical studies, one which combines the philosophical ‘turn to religion’ with a more metacritical biblical studies, seems precisely what was envisioned by the authors of the programmatic volume, The Invention of the Biblical Scholar: A Critical Manifesto (2011). Biblical Studies at the University of Kent successfully marries Sherwood’s literary criticism with Ward Blanton’s interventions in Continental philosophy.

And if there is any doubt, there’s this fact: the University of Kent now houses David Clines’ library. Boom.

The University of Kent: More Sheffield than Sheffield.

 

Michael Bird: Jesus had multiple erections throughout his life

Theologian Michael Bird (Ridley College) appeared on Australian national television last night, talking about Jesus’ erections.

Here’s the rush transcript of Michael Bird discussing the rigidity of Our Lord’s penis with ABC interviewer, Tom Ballard:

Michael Bird: I’ll tell you a real funny story. I taught religious education to some students … and I asked them a very provocative question. I said to them, ‘Did Jesus ever have an erection?’

Tom Ballard: ‘Did Jesus ever have an erection?’?

Michael Bird: I believe he did.

Tom Ballard: Multiple erections?

Michael Bird: Throughout the course of his life.

Tom Ballard: Would he have had an orgasm?

Michael Bird: I don’t know. He may have had, he probably had a nocturnal emission as a teenager.

Tom Ballard: OK.

Michael Bird: We all have…

Tom Ballard: Would he have… helped that along, if he was a red-blooded, normal man?

Michael Bird: What do you mean by ‘helped it along’? You mean like…

Tom Ballard: Would he have…

Michael Bird: … choked the chicken?

Tom Ballard: Yeah.

Michael Bird: Ah. I don’t know about that.

Tom Ballard: Just to be clear, you brought up Jesus and erections. I wanna make that very clear. I know I’m from the godless ABC, but that was your call, Sir.

So Michael Bird has made the daring theological proposition that Jesus Christ had erections, even orgasms, while refraining from commenting on whether the Son of God ever had a wank.

On national television.

If you watch the video above, you will see that Michael Bird goes on to sing a few songs from Jesus Christ Superstar with Tom Ballard. But let’s try to put that to the side, to concentrate on the weightier theological ramifications of the alleged tumescence of Jesus’ penis.

As it so happens, one of my varied fields of expertise is the erections of Jesus, as the New Adam. I can confirm that it is theological Orthodoxy that a Perfect Man, as was Adam before the Fall, and as was Our Lord throughout his earthly life, would only have had an erection if he had willed it with his mind. Yes, the prelapsarian Adam and Jesus had perfect control over the stiffness of their penises. They could control their penises with their minds! The penis, in this respect was just like any other part of the body, say the hand.

As I documented in my recent article,

The Perfect Penis of Eden“,

St. Augustine considered that penises today are mere shadows of the perfect penis of Eden, ‘neither arising nor subsiding at the bidding of the mind’ (De pec. mer. 1.57). Jesus came to Earth for the purpose, among other things, to restore a perfect penis to man.

So for Michael Bird to suggest that Jesus himself would have unwanted erections and unwanted nocturnal emissions is blatant Heresy. It may be classified as neo-phallo-Ebionitism, a variation on what was a dangerous early Heresy. Christian Orthodoxy, with St. Augustine, rightly holds that Jesus exercised perfect control over his penis, having the mind of the prelapsarian Adam. Michael Bird makes the gravest theological error in thinking that it is ‘fully human’ for Christ to have unwanted erections and wet dreams. For Jesus was made incarnate in the body of the unfallen Adam, not the fallen Adam whose mind no longer had perfect control over his penis. And as Our Lord had no use for an erect phallus, he willed it not.

With the utmost sincerity, I call upon Michael Bird to recant his heretical neo-phallo-Ebionitism, and affirm Jesus’ perfect control over his penis.