Thursday, July 17, 2014

Insights from unlikely corners: "Infidel" and the Gospel genealogies

Summer is giving time for reading, including some things I don’t normally take time to read.  I recently got interested, for example, in the story of the Somali/Dutch/American Ayaan Hirsi Ali after listening to/watching her online in several debates (like here) and presentations (like here) on Islam.  She offers a powerful personal story and a strong critique of Islam, particularly with regard to its impact on women, as well as a compelling demonstration of conscience.  She left Islam for atheism.  One might wish (or might still hope?) she could have crossed paths with Christians who would have offered her a more compelling and winsome presentation of Biblical Christianity.  At any rate, I got a cheap used copy of her first biography Infidel (Free Press, 2007) through and have been working through it during the evenings this week (It's like candy after reading Bauckham!).

Aside from her compelling personal story and what she has to say about Islam and the West, I was particularly struck by the opening pages of Infidel in which Ali begins by noting how as a five year old child she was taught the genealogy of her father’s subclan back for three hundred years.  She adds:  “Later, as I grow up, my grandmother will coax and even beat me to learn my father’s ancestry eight hundred years back, to the great clan of the Darod…..” (p. 3).  She also notes how when Somalis meet they usually rehearse their family lines to see if they can trace a common ancestor and thus solidify their relation.  To a modern Western (American—at least) this is alien.  My ancestral memory ends with my grandparents.

I read this just after doing a lecture on the birth of Jesus for my "Life and Teaching of Jesus" summer course, and it made me think of the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3.  In his 1881 commentary on Luke, Frederick Godet notes that first century Jews would have regularly committed to memory and even held written records of their family lines, and he speculates that Luke might well have had access to records from Mary among the resources he amassed for compiling his Gospel (cf. Luke 1:1-4; 2:19).

Tradition (represented, for example, in Augustine’s Harmony of the Gospels) upheld the historical value of the genealogies and harmonized the divergences between Matthew and Luke’s accounts. Some did this by positing that Matthew presents the line of Jesus via Joseph as his “legal” father and Luke presents the line of Jesus via Mary, his natural mother.  Modern scholars, on the other hand, have typically tended to see the genealogies as holding little if any historical value and being hopelessly confused and irreconcilable.  For many historical-critical scholars, influenced by modern redaction criticism, the genealogies are simply seen as theological fabrications of early Christianity.

Reading Ali’s reflections on the strict learning of her family’s “bloodlines,” however, makes me wonder if contemporary Somali culture might be closer the first century Jewish culture in which Jesus lived and about which Matthew and Luke wrote.  It seems perfectly reasonable, for example, that the family lines of Jesus would have been remembered and meticulously and faithfully transmitted. The early Christians who collected and revered the NT writings, including the Gospels and their authoritative accounts of the life of Jesus, were not fools.  They knew that Matthew and Luke’s genealogies were different (most notably Matthew and Luke diverging at David with Matthew following the line through Solomon and Luke through Nathan).  They did not , however, see this divergence as irrational or contradictory.  It is therefore reasonable both to think that the genealogies of Matthew and Luke were accurate and that they were compatible.


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