2018-01-19

A Scholar’s Gift of Discernment Between Truth and Fiction

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by Neil Godfrey

When he was twelve years old . . . . they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:42, 46f)

How might a historian determine if there was any historicity to Luke’s story of Jesus at twelve years old sitting in the temple impressing the teachers with his understanding?

Moses I. Finley, a historian of ancient times, confessed to not knowing of any way a historian today could establish the happenings we read about in the works of ancient historians unless we have some independent corroborating evidence from the time contemporaneous to the event. Ancient historians, he said, were faced with huge gaps in their knowledge of the past and very often they simply could not resist the urge to fabricate stories to fill in those gaps. Consequently,

For the great bulk of the narrative we are faced with the ‘kernel of truth’ possibility, and I am unaware of any stigmata that automatically distinguish fiction from fact. . . . .

However, there are biblical scholars who do have the gift of discernment that Finley lacked and who are able to apply it ably to the gospels:

If I may quote my former article (see note 3), I still hold the view there expressed (p. 362) : Jesus shows, in the story in Lk. 2, 42-50, ‘just such self-reliance and intelligent interest in the religion of his country as might be expected in a boy of genius and deep natural feeling. . . . The hero of a folktale would have found his way by some mysterious guidance to the Temple. … A wonder-child in a popular story would have confuted the doctors of the Law, or at least made it clear that he knew all they did and more. … To my mind, the tale cries aloud that it is a perfectly authentic happening.

(Page 131 of Rose, H. J. (1938). Herakles and the Gospels. The Harvard Theological Review, 31(2), 113–142. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1508025)

That was in 1938, I admit. Surely scholarship has advanced since then and we would not expect to find such naivety tolerated today, would we?

5 Comments

  • 2018-01-19 23:36:09 UTC - 23:36 | Permalink

    Or Luke could have been inferring from the fact that he thought Jesus was a brilliant orator who regularly provided challenging parables and pithy one-liners that Jesus was also a precocious, interactive child.

  • Bob Jase
    2018-01-20 02:46:28 UTC - 02:46 | Permalink

    “Surely scholarship has advanced since then and we would not expect to find such naivety tolerated today, would we?”

    Scholarship maybe, Christian apologetic scholarship hell no.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2018-01-20 05:14:57 UTC - 05:14 | Permalink

      Oh, but that line is so very hard to find.

  • 2018-01-20 03:46:04 UTC - 03:46 | Permalink

    The Life of Josephus provided a model for the tale of the 12 year old Jesus (Josephus was 14) discussing difficult concepts with the learned ones in the city.

    I was myself brought up with my brother, whose name was Matthias, for he was my own brother, by both father and mother; and I made mighty proficiency in the improvements of my learning, and appeared to have both a great memory and understanding. Moreover, when I was a child, and about fourteen years of age, I was commended by all for the love I had to learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to me together, in order to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law.

    • Steven C Watson
      2018-02-13 16:41:19 UTC - 16:41 | Permalink

      If I had been that super-brainy, I would have decamped to Babylon before it all went pear-shaped. Everyone who might know otherwise was dead or enslaved, so he felt free to big himself up with the preposterous. The same for examining all the Jewish “philosophies”. Five minutes reflection and you see there was hardly the time for him to have made more than a cursory examination of most of them. So it turns out our “reliable” sources are a bit dodgy; it doesn’t say much for the rest of the enterprise does it?

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