Ideology and Invention image

Ideology and Invention

One more quick thought on the discussion about the Bible between Pete Enns and me. I was just listening to the superb discussion between Enns and David Instone-Brewer on Justin Brierley's Unbelievable radio show (on which, since I've mentioned it, he does seem to get some extraordinarily high quality guests. Next week he's got Nigel Biggar debating Stanley Hauerwas on just war and pacifism, for goodness' sake). Anyway: Enns was talking about the possibility of invention and embellishment in the birth narratives of Jesus, and then he made an apparently innocuous remark to which, if you've heard Enns on biblical difficulties, you'll have heard many equivalents. He said (from about 1.03.50):

I can see, for example, in the context of the Caesar-cult, that it makes perfect sense for Luke to have the Magi come, it makes perfect sense for me to have that there, because Jesus is the true king of the world. Or, you know, a virgin birth. Or, for Matthew, shepherds, right? For a God to come to the lowly, the unexpected, which supports (in my opinion) Matthew’s theology, which is summarised in the Sermon on the Mount: God is doing the unexpected ... So could I see them making this up? Absolutely. It doesn’t mean they made it up, but I can see it, in terms of an ideology.

My concern here is not primarily with the obvious blunder, namely that it is Matthew (not Luke) who describes the coming of the Magi, and that it is Luke (not Matthew) who describes the visit of the shepherds; everyone makes mistakes. Nor is it with the fact that Enns says this in a discussion in which he stresses his credentials as a biblical scholar; even biblical scholars make mistakes, and it may well be that he kicked himself for this one after the programme. Nor is it with the idea that the evangelists deliberately selected and arranged their material to suit their agendas; that I take as axiomatic. Rather, it is the fact that even though Enns has got the details absolutely upside-down, he is still able to posit an “ideology” that could account for the Gospel writers “making this up.” He is so persuaded that the Bible is full of invented stories, written to support existing ideologies, that he sees them even when they don’t exist. (Richard Dawkins, interestingly, makes exactly the same point, with exactly the same error, in The God Delusion.)

The fact is, you can argue almost anything to be an ideological invention if you adopt this approach. Matthew made up X because God is doing the unexpected. Luke made up Y because of the Caesar-cult. John made up Z because, well, John. Once the rot sets in, no text is safe, no matter how innocent, and no ideologically-driven explanation is beyond plausibility, no matter how preposterous. As such, the only ideologically-driven invention here - though, as I say, I’m certain it is a genuine mistake - is that of Peter Enns, not Matthew or Luke.

Having said all that, I thought it was a great discussion, and one well worth listening to if you’ve found the wider debate interesting. And I still think Enns is making some very important challenges, which need to be heard and thought through carefully, even if I strongly disagree with him on how he responds to some of them. Also, just for the record: I do really like reading him. Rhetorical Strategies notwithstanding.

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