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The MOST Theological Collection: Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics

" Appendix 3: Areas of Contention"


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"There are none so blind as those who will not see." So runs the old saying. We think of it in Scripture studies, when the development of new techniques- chiefly the approach by literary genres, and Form and Redaction Criticism-has made us able to solve so many difficulties that seemed impossible early in this century, yet today is precisely the time when many scholars are claiming they cannot solve problems, and are saying there are errors in Scripture. Yet so many of the problems are positively easy to solve. The answer to some of them has been known for a long time.

My book, Free From All Error (Prow Press, 1985), gives answers to many of the most serious charges that require a long answer. In this chapter we will give examples of easy problems, that can be handled briefly.

1) Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.

In his "Life of Paul" in Jerome Biblical Commentary, Fitzmyer writes, in speaking of the three retellings of the story of Paul's conversion in Acts, "Although there are variants about certain details in the three accounts (whether the companions stood by speechless or fell to the ground; whether they heard the voice or not-and although Jesus addresses Paul 'in the "Hebrew" language' he quotes a Greek proverb, the essential message conveyed to Paul is the same.... The variants may be due to the different sources of Luke's information."318

So Fitzmyer sees three contradictions, and says perhaps Luke used different sources, which disagreed. We know Luke used sources, and if any writer were to repeat two sources which did not agree, we would know by that very fact that he did not assert (see our remarks on asserting and genre in Appendices 1.6 and 11) that either of them was fully accurate. It would be as if he said, "Here is what I found. Two things do not agree. I cannot tell you which is which."319

However, there is no need at all to resort to that measure, since the solution has been known for a long time.

In Acts 9:7 we read that the men with Paul "stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one." Yet in 22:9, "Those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice." This seems like a contradiction but it is not. Elementary Greek students know that the Greek verb akouein, to hear, can mean to pick up a sound, or to pick it up and also understand it.

Even the English listen has a spread of meanings: to use the ears, or to obey. And in Matthew 13:13 we find, in the quotation from Isaias: "Hearing they hear not." Similarly in John 12:28-29, Jesus in public speaks to the Father and, "Then a voice came from heaven, 'I have glorified it [His name] and I will glorify it again.' The crowd standing by heard it, and said that it had thundered." It seems they heard the voice, but did not understand what it said.

Next, in Acts 9:7, the men with Paul "stood amazed," whereas in Acts 26:14: "We had all fallen down on the ground." To solve this question, one needs not even elementary Greek, just a little common-sense thought. Imagine being there, seeing the light from the sky, hearing something without knowing what was said. It would not be strange to be literally taken off one's feet. But then, what would the normal person do? As soon as possible he would scramble to his feet and stand there looking shocked.

The third point is this: in Acts 26:14, "I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts to kick against the goads.'" Fitzmyer worries that the voice spoke in Hebrew (which might stand for Aramaic), whereas the saying about the goad is known in Greek, but not in Semitic. Again, the answer is simple. Some sayings cannot be translated into another language, especially if they involve a play on words. But others can. Clearly, this one could be understood in many languages. It means merely that "The call of Christ from now on will constrain you, and you, mulish fellow, will find it hard to keep on resisting."

2) R. Bultmann

Bultmann is the chief pioneer in applying Form Criticism to the New Testament. In his New Testament and Mythology he wrote, "... some of its features [the New Testament] are actually contradictory. For example, the death of Christ is sometimes a sacrifice and sometimes a cosmic event. Sometimes His person is interpreted as the Messiah and sometimes as the Second Adam. The kenosis [emptying] of the pre-existent Son (Phil. 2:6 ff) is incompatible with the miracle narratives as proofs of His messianic claims. The virgin birth is inconsistent with the assertion of His pre-existence. The doctrine of the creation is incompatible with the conception of the 'rulers of this world' (1 Cor. 2:6 ff)...."320

The lack of understanding is shocking. First, if the death of Christ is a sacrifice, which it is, that does not make it any less a cosmic event, a turning point in history. Again, to be the Messiah foretold by the prophets does not prevent His being also the Second Adam, as St. Paul calls Him, that is, the new head of the human race, who reverses the damage done by the First Adam.

Further, if the Second Person of the Holy Trinity-who pre-exists, who has always been-wishes to take on human nature, He can surely do so. His eternal existence does not hinder that at all. As to the doctrine that God created the world, He can still permit evil spirits to have a hand in doing their evil to the extent that they might be called "rulers of this world" in 1 Cor. 2:6. (Actually, the line in 1 Cor. is unclear. It could easily refer to the Roman and Jewish authorities who condemned Jesus to death.) St. Paul says they would not have done so had they known who He really was. About the kenosis-this is St. Paul's expression in Phil. 2:7: "He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant." Paul is probably copying a liturgical hymn here, but no matter whether he or someone else wrote it, the meaning need not be at all what Bultmann supposes. In fact, what he supposes is utterly impossible. Bultmann seems to imply that if Jesus gave up His divinity He could not have worked miracles. First, God cannot stop being God: it is total nonsense to even suggest such a thing. Further, if we were to suppose He could, for the sake of argument, we must assume that others than God can work miracles. Prophets in the name of God often do that. Even evil spirits by powers natural to them can do some marvels. So there are multiple errors in the greatest of form critics.

3) W. Pannenberg

In his book, Jesus-God and Man, he writes, "In its content, the legend of Jesus' virgin birth stands in irreconcilable contradiction to the Christology of the incarnation of the pre-existent Son of God found in Paul and John."321 This is much the same as part of the nonsense we have just seen in Bultmann. The pre-existent, the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, if He wanted-and He did-to take on human nature, could surely do so by way of a virgin birth. There is no shadow of conflict in the two things at all.

4) John L. Mckenzie

In his A Theology of the Old Testament, McKenzie makes some very remarkable statements. First, he says that there is an inconsistency between the fact that the Old Testament prohibited images of God, and yet used many anthropomorphisms, speaking of God with human traits.322 He sees a further problem in the location of God symbolically where the Ark reposed. But, he adds, the Old Testament "neither sought nor achieved theoretical consistency."

We comment: The Ten Commandments prohibit images of God, but images are one thing (people prone to idolatry might adore them); anthropomorphisms are another. In the latter, we speak of God as having anger, as coming to see the tower of Babel, etc. These are just ways adapted to the human understanding of a primitive people, ways of trying to make divine realities clear to them. There is no possibility of adoring anthropomorphisms. Even today we have difficulty expressing the concept contained in the anger of God. He has no emotions, being a pure spirit. The phrase means that He disapproves of something, and will act, will punish, as a man in anger would do.

Next, Yahweh has no image, but His presence is thought to be specially at hand over the Ark of the Covenant. There is no problem. A spirit is present wherever he acts, for a spirit does not occupy space as we do. So all this means is that where the Ark was, God was specially pleased to act. So there is no conflict with being imageless.

McKenzie also has a misunderstanding about words of Ezekiel. He contrasts the proverb then current (18:2) about the fathers eating sour grapes, and the children's teeth being on edge, with the response of Ezekiel that each is responsible only for his own sins.323 McKenzie thinks the response of Ezekiel is "unrealistic." We all are in a way involved in collective guilt; he says, "We do suffer for the sins of others."

McKenzie misses a distinction. Ezekiel denies that God directly punishes a son for his father's sins, or vice versa. He would not deny that there are indirect results of the sins of one on the other. First there is an objective moral order and the unity of the Communion of Saints such that when one does well, it is beneficial to all; when one sins, the others are not punished, but just lack the added benefit they might have had. Secondly, there is no such thing as a victimless crime. If a man is depraved in character, that has repercussions in society in general, at least by way of bad instead of good example. Peer pressure in example is very powerful. Or in a family, the bad ways of a parent may give bad example to the children. Some children react away from copying such behavior; others do copy it. But in no case are these things a direct punishment (Ezekiel rejected that) even though they are an indirect effect or consequence, not a penalty.

McKenzie is also disturbed about the fact that the book of Jonas implies God's compassion for the Assyrians, noted for terrorism. He thinks that this runs counter to the belief in God's election of Israel and the covenant.

We comment: It is true that in the eyes of the Jews, and others too, the Assyrians were the worst of people because of deliberate terrorism in war. But there is no clash between the teaching of Jonas and the covenant. Jonas shows that since God takes care of even Assyrians, He must love all men. But the covenant shows a special favor over and above this general love. So there is no conflict at all.

There is another problem: McKenzie thinks that Amos, Micheas and Jeremias foretold the destruction of the temple, while the prophet Haggai pleaded for collection of funds to build a temple.324 He wonders if we could speak of the same prophetic spirit in all these prophets.

Strange unperceptiveness! The first three prophets he lists foretold the coming destruction of the temple as a punishment for sin. After the punishment and the exile were over, God wanted the temple rebuilt. No clash at all.

Still another worry,325 says McKenzie, appears from the fact that Ezechiel 26:7-14 promised Nebuchadnezzar victory over Tyre. He or a scribe had to retract this later (Ezechiel 29:17-20).

But the victory did come, as even the New American Bible admits in a note on Ezechiel 29:18: "The fulfillment of Ezekiel's prophecy against Tyre (chapters 26-28) was a thirteen-year siege of the city by Nebuchadnezzar (587-574 B.C.). Tyre seems to have been taken, but its resources were exhausted and the booty was small. Therefore Ezekiel now prophesies that Nebuchadnezzar will collect his wages as God's instrument in the punishment of Tyre by plundering Egypt."326

As to the fact that Ezechiel 29:18 says flatly, "neither he [the king] nor his army received any wages from Tyre"-this is just familiar Semitic exaggeration. It was small, but there was some booty, as the NAB said. (Some think Tyre gave tribute instead of surrender).

Critics rather generally agree, says McKenzie, that Amos 9:8-15 are an addition made to the original collection of words of Amos. He thinks this quite likely, "especially since 9b is a direct contradiction of 9a."327

In the NAB verse 9 reads, "For see, I have given the command to sift the house of Israel among all the nations, as one sifts with a sieve, letting no pebble fall to the ground." Verse 10 adds: "By the sword shall all sinners among my people die." Jerome Biblical Commentary says about verse 9: "An ambiguous verse, it is difficult to know whether it is a threat or a promise." If it is ambiguous, one can hardly claim a plain contradiction as McKenzie does! The verse probably means a threat of exile in which all sinners will be punished, but a remnant (a persistent Old Testament theme) that a few faithful ones left over will not go into exile-or they will go, but finally be restored.

We take one more example from McKenzie. He thinks that Isaiah in Chapters 36 and 37 sounds like the false prophets at the royal court in the ninth century who said all was well. Neither Isaiah nor the false prophets rebuke the sins of kings and people. Isaiah just promises deliverance. "The verification of this oracle by the events presents a historical problem which biblical theology cannot solve."328

Chapters 36-37 of Isaiah tell of the threat to Jerusalem by Sennacherib of Assyria in 701 B.C. McKenzie wonders why there is only a promise of deliverance, and no threats against Hezekiah. The answer is so easy. That king had made great religious reforms and was a devout king. We find his reforms described in detail in 2 Chronicles 29-31. The start of Chapter 37 of Isaiah tells how Hezekiah put on sackcloth, and prayed when he learned of the threat. So the Old Testament depicts him as receiving the reward due to his piety. Even Assyrian inscriptions agree substantially that Sennacherib did not capture Jerusalem-though those texts love to boast-but was satisfied instead with a tribute (2 Kings 18:13-16).329

5) The factuality of the infancy gospels

Here we are not tying the discussion to any one writer, since so many are inclined to question, in varying degrees, the factual character of Matt. 1-2 and Luke 1-2.330 However, the material belongs in Appendix III, since, with only one exception, we can find the needed answers rather easily.

Basic to the discussion is the question of the genre of these chapters. Many think it is midrash-others do not. But there is much disagreement on how to define the genre of midrash.331 There is a tendency to think midrash is a rather loose genre, with a core of history, but with developments and additions made on the basis of the Old Testament. However, to say the genre of the Infancy Gospels is midrash is not the same as to say they contain no historical facts; again, authors differ.

So we will review the chief specific claims against factuality of these chapters.

First, it has been remarked that in Matthew the angel speaks to Joseph; in Luke, the angel speaks to Mary. Of course, if we can fit together the two accounts-and we will do that-there is no real problem. Each Gospel, probably drawing on different sources, reports part of the events.

Second, some say the accounts cannot be reconciled since in Luke, it seems that the Holy Family has residence in Bethlehem. Luke 2:11 speaks of the Magi as entering the house, whereas in Matthew, Jesus is born in a stable. However, the difficulty is only apparent. After Jesus was born in the stable, it is not at all possible to think Joseph would continue to stay there during the early days of the life of Jesus. No, most naturally, he would find a house as soon as possible. So the Magi found them there. The fact that Herod ordered a slaughter of infants up to two years of age clearly implies that some time had elapsed.

More basic is the question of fitting together the accounts of Matthew and Luke as a whole. First there are some basic facts that are found in both: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the reign of Herod, of Mary, a virgin engaged to Joseph who was of the house of David. An angel announces His coming birth, which is to be through the Holy Spirit. The name Jesus is imposed before His birth, and He is identified as Savior; The Holy Family finally settles in Nazareth.

The center of the problem is about the fact that Luke makes no mention of a visit of Magi, or a flight into Egypt, followed by a return to Nazareth. Matthew on the other hand does have these events, but does not mention a presentation in the Temple, or a "census." Luke 2:39 says: "And when they had completed all these things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their town of Nazareth." So Luke goes directly from the presentation in the temple to a return to Nazareth.

First, we notice that Luke and Matthew probably had different sources. Second, Luke does not say "right away" or any such thing. Further, it is widely thought that Luke may telescope two events, e.g., some think there were two council meetings in Jerusalem. Joseph Fitzmyer, speaking of Acts, says "many of Luke's accounts are known to be telescoped résumés."332 We admit such a possibility readily. So there is no problem in admitting that Luke, for his own reasons, or because of the nature of his sources, may have telescoped events here, i.e., may have decided not to mention the flight into Egypt.

However, it is not difficult to see the sequence of events, combining the accounts of both Matthew and Luke: Mary and Joseph come from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the enrollment. They find no place suitable for the birth of Jesus, and hence, temporarily go to a stable. However, as soon as possible, naturally, Joseph would find a house to use. It is there that the Magi find them. However, some time has already elapsed since the birth of Jesus, during which He is circumcised on the eighth day, and presented in the temple. Some time after that, the Magi arrive, and are warned in a dream to go back by another way. Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt and he does so; later he returns to Nazareth. So there is no difficulty in finding a way to fit the events together.

The only considerable difficulty is about the "census" at the time of the birth of Jesus. No record is found outside the Gospel of a census at the time supposed for the birth of Jesus, which is commonly dated about 6-4 B.C. The suggestion is even made that the mention of the census is only a "literary device" to connect Jesus to Bethlehem, city of David.

But there really is a solution, found in some remarkable new research by E. L. Martin, in The Birth of Christ Recalculated.333 It has received very favorable comments and reviews from Classicists, Biblical archeologists, and astronomers. For example, Greece and Rome, The Journal of the Classical Association (Oxford University Press, April, 1981) said, "New light has been thrown on the date of the nativity.... Martin tackles the problems convincingly." Professor lack Finegan, noted writer on biblical archaeology, said, "Your arguments are very persuasive." The Los Angeles Times of Dec. 10, 1980 reported, "at least 10 planetariums in the United States, Germany and Greece are revising their shows this Christmas season to correspond with the dating theories of Ernest Martin.... Scores of others are considering a shift." Among these is the noted Griffith Observatory.

Astronomers are especially interested because the whole question of the date of the birth of Christ turns on an astronomical point. Flavius Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, reports that Herod died soon after a lunar eclipse.334 Of course, astronomers can tell us when such eclipses would be seen in Palestine around the time of the birth of Christ. They give us these dates: March 23, 5 B.C.; Sept. 15, 5 B.C.; March 13, 4 B.C.; and Jan. 10, 1 B.C. Calculations of the birth of Christ have usually been based on the eclipses of 5 and 4 B.C. Martin, however, shows by multiple arguments that the eclipse in question must have been on Jan. 10, 1 B.C.335 One reason is that the events Josephus says came between the eclipse and the Passover (also mentioned by Josephus) simply could not fit within the days available on the eclipses of March 13, 4 B.C. and March 23, 5 B.C. Other grave difficulties rule out Sept. 15, 5 B.C. But the eclipse of January 10, 1 B.C. fits readily and accords with several other facts, which we will now enumerate.

But first, we follow up: If it was the eclipse of 1 B.C., then the difficulty about the census vanishes. For we know that there was an enrollment-Luke's apographe is broad enough to cover that easily-to take an oath of allegiance to Augustus before he received the prestigious title of Father of his Country in 2 B.C. A Greek inscription has been found in Paphlagonia (N. Asia Minor) which tells us that in 3 B.C. all the people in the land took an oath of loyalty to Augustus.336 Further, the Armenian historian Moses of Khorene reports that in 3 B.C. such an oath was taken there.337 Also, the 4th century A.D. historian Orosius reports that in 3 B.C. "all the peoples of the great nations took oath in this one name of Caesar."338 So the lost "census" has been found, and turns out to be a different kind of enrollment, independently attested by several ancient sources, as taking place in 3 B.C. Jesus then would have been born in 3 B.C.

Tertullian in his Adversus Iudaeos also tells us that Jesus was born in the 41st year of the empire of Augustus.339 Some have been puzzled over this method of dating. But there were several ways of dating the power of Augustus. Tertullian seems to date it from 43 B.C., the time when Augustus, along with Anthony and Lepidus, received supreme power by a special grant as the Second Triumvirate. This is a less usual way of counting, but it gives us the right date, 3 B.C. We can see Tertullian means that year because in the same passage he adds that Augustus had power 28 years after the death of Cleopatra, who died in 30 B.C., which would give 2 B.C. as the birth of Jesus. Further, Tertullian says Augustus lived 15 years after the birth of Christ. Augustus died in 14 A.D. So, if Tertullian subtracted 15 from 14 A.D. (neglecting the fact that there would have been two years 1 B.C. and A.D.), he would reach 2 B.C. So we get 3 or 2 B.C. as the date of the birth of Christ.

Also, Classicists have had great difficulty with the events of an obscure decade, 6 B.C. to 4 A.D.340 The chief problem is that we know Augustus received his 15th acclamation for a major victory, achieved by one of his generals, around this time. If we pick 4 B.C. for the War of Varus in Palestine, which came after the death of Herod, we cannot find a victory to warrant the acclamation, which came in 1 A.D. But if we make the birth of Christ 3 B.C., then the war would be running at about the needed time, and finished in 1 A.D.

One difficulty remains: Luke says Quirinius was in charge at the time of the enrollment. But we know the governors of Judea during the period, and Quirinius is not listed. Again a very plausible solution is at hand. Quirinius fought an important war against the Homonadenses, in Cilicla, north of Judea. The probable date of the war is about 5-3 B.C.341 Now if the regular governor of Judea, whoever he may have been, knew in advance-everyone did-of the coming great honor to Augustus, probably early in 2 B.C., he would likely have gone to Rome for obvious reasons. He would then need someone to mind the store for him in his absence. Quirinius, a very competent general, was at hand, as we have seen. So he conducted the enrollment for the regular governor. Luke uses the word hegemoneuein for the role of Quirinius. It is not the noun governor, but a verb which can mean to be governor, but is really a generic word, capable of meaning a different kind of leader. And of course, Quirinius, in our reconstruction, would really be acting governor.

The honor to Augustus was a very great one. Suetonius tells us that there was first "a universal movement" by the people to give him that honor.342 The people sent a deputation to him at Antium. He at first declined. Then a crowd again offered it to him outside the Theater. Finally the Senate followed suit. Augustus was deeply moved: "Weeping, Augustus answered-I quote his exact words as I did for Messala-Fathers of the Senate, finally I have achieved my highest amibition."343 With a "universal movement" of the people starting the process, the coming of the honor must have been widely known long in advance, long enough to induce the governor of Judaea to come to Rome to take part in the festivities, and, of course, to strengthen his own situation.

The honor was so great that the next emperor, Tiberius, declined to accept it.344

We see, then, that there are no real obstacles to taking the Infancy Gospels as at least basically factual.

We can recall too the way Vatican II spoke of these events, as we explained in Appendix II.2.c.

We recall too the evidence we saw in Chapter 9 of new research showing the meticulous care Luke took in translating Hebrew documents. The evidence we summarized runs the same in these two chapters of Luke as it does in the rest of his Gospel.345


318 Jerome Biblical Commentary, II, p. 218.
319 Cf. Free From All Error, pp. 87-91.
320 In KM, p. 11.
321 W. Pannenberg, Jesus—God and Man. tr. L. Wilkins and D. Priebe, Westminster, Philadelphia. 2nd ed. 1977, p. 143.
322 John L. McKenzie, A Theology of the Old Testament, Image Books, N.Y., 1976, p. 52.
323 Ibid. pp. 120-21.
324 Ibid. pp. 126, 128.
325 Ibid. p. 104
326 Josephus, Against Apion 1.156; Antiquities 10.228.
327 McKenzie, pp. 105-06.
328 Ibid. p. 112.
329 Cf. J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts, rev. ed. Princeton, 1955, p. 287ff.
330 Examples of those who strongly defend historicity: J. Danielou, The Infancy Narratives tr. R. Sheed, Herder & Herder N.Y., 1968; R. Laurentin, The Truth of Christmas Beyond the Myths, Desclée et Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1982. Examples of those who in varied degrees reject historicity: J. Fitzmyer, Luke, in Anchor Bible 28, Doubleday, N.Y., 1981 esp. pp. 304-21, 392-93, 402-05; F. C. Grant, "Matthew, Gospel of" in Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon, N.Y., 1962, III. p. 306.
331 Cf. A. Wright, The Literary Genre Midrash, Alba House, Staten Island, 1967.
332 In Jerome Biblical Commentary II, p. 237 §4.
333 E. L. Martin, The Birth of Christ Recalculated, 2nd ed. Foundation for Biblical Research, Pasadena, 1980.
334 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities, 17.§§ 167-92.
335 Martin, op. cit., pp. 28-56.
336 Cited in N. Lewis, & M. Reinhold, Roman Civilization. Sourcebook II, Harper & Row, N.Y., 1966, pp. 34-35.
337 Cited in Martin, op. cit., p. 96.
338 Paulus Orosius, Histories 6.22 and 7.2-3.
339 Tertullian, Adversus Iudaeos 8. In Adversus Marcionem 4.19 Tertullian says census (plural) were taken by governor Saturninus. Many scholars date Saturninus 9-6 BC. chiefly because they cannot figure out the dating in Adversus ludaeos, cited above. But Martin, op. cit., p. 74, dates him 4-2 B.C. appealing (on p. 100) to Josephus, Antiquities 17.57.
340 Cf. R. Syme, "The Crisis of 2 B.C.," in Verlag der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Beck, Munich, 1974. Other problems solved by Martin's solution are explained in Martin, pp. 76-86.
341 Dates proposed by Fitzmyer, op. cit., p. 402, in accord with the views of Martin, pp. 100-102.
342 Suetonius, Augustus § 58.
343 Ibid.
344 Tacitus, Annals, 1.72.
345 Specific data on the locations in which Luke uses the special Semitism, apodotic kai, can be seen in W. Most, "Did St. Luke Imitate the Septuagint" in Journal For The Study of the New Testament 15, 1982. pp. 30-41.

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