Saturday 26 January 2013

The Virginal Conception - Is Mark Goodacre right to criticise Francesca Stavrakopoulou? (Part 2)

I'm critiquing Mark Goodacre's podcast that criticizes an interview Francesca Stavrakopoulou gave to BBC Radio Five Live. (For Part 1 see here).

Could Matthew read Hebrew?
Goodacre goes on to a different argument next, proposing that his opponents have to adopt a position summarized with this line,

"The argument assumes that Matthew can't read Hebrew and suggests that he was solely, entirely dependent on the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible." (podcast 6:21)

That is, if you think Matthew supported his idea of the virginal conception with the Greek word παρθένος from the LXX translation of Isaiah 7:14 then you must think that Matthew can't have read Hebrew; if he had been able to read Hebrew he would have known perfectly well that עַלְמָה does not mean virgin.

You will undoubtedly have noticed that this is already a little contradictory of Goodacre, as he believes (erroneously - see previous post) that עַלְמָה does have at least a connotation of "virgin". But setting that aside, is Goodacre's proposition for his opponents a necessary assumption for adherents of that view, including Stavrakopoulou?

A moment's thought would indicate "no". It is perfectly possible for people to work from translations even when they are literate in the original language. Matthew was writing in Greek; it is very likely that he was not intimately familiar with a rather obscure passage (as it was in his time) of Isaiah dealing with conversations with king Ahaz in 734BCE. It is entirely plausible that he scoured the LXX for proof texts (Goodacre is happy with him scouring the Hebrew bible for proof texts) without going to the trouble of checking the Hebrew - and it would have been considerable trouble to do so, given that he must have had the LXX text available to him already; it is unlikely that Matthew was sitting in some sort of library with access to all the scrolls he could wish for.

Even if one were to begin to accept Goodacre's argument at face value, then presumably Matthew's original readership didn't have access to the Hebrew text - or at least Matthew wasn't concerned that they'd catch him out.

Either way, Matthew is at least unconcerned that the Hebrew text fails to speak of a virgin. I think it is rather more likely that Matthew simply didn't check the Hebrew - he was satisfied by what he found in the Greek, and thought something along the lines of "that'll be sufficient for my readership", and it turned out that he was largely right (perhaps I need to do a post on Justin Martyr and Trypho - but that'll be a long way off).

Was Matthew Jewish?
Goodacre goes on to extol Matthew's Jewish credentials, unfortunately without consideration of whether he might have been a Hellenistic Jew.

Then Goodacre develops the theme a little further, in a way which I think is the most unfair in all the podcast. Note how he frames the argument of his opponents, including presumably Stavrakopoulou:

"It is unlikely, I think, that he was so ignorant of ... the Hebrew bible. And so I think the idea that Matthew is some kind of idiot that didn't quite manage to get the nuances of the Hebrew bible and was, you know, dependent on the LXX the Greek translation is problematic." (podcast 6:55)

Now I think this is uncharacteristic of Goodacre - he is generally much more fair-minded than this, from what I've heard of him. So I suspect this is an aberration which, when he considers it, he'll regret. He has resorted to an internet-style debate tactic of presenting a false dichotomy, attributing one pole of it (a most extreme one) to his opponent. He really should ask himself, is it likely that Stavrakopoulou (or anyone else agreeing with her line of argument) thinks that Matthew is an ignorant idiot?

Of course not. In fact his set up that Matthew must be one or other of these two extremes:
1) A Christian Jew, steeped in Hebrew scriptures and Jewish traditions, or
2) An ignorant idiot, who didn't know Hebrew scriptures and Jewish traditions
is simply fallacious.

On the contrary, it is well known in modern biblical scholarship that Matthew does not get everything right about contemporary Judaism. Some have argued that Matthew was a hellenistic Jew, others that he might not have been Jewish at all but only keenly interested in Judaism and self-taught in its traditions.

Udo Schnelle in The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings puts it this way (p220):

Whether Matthew was a Jewish or Gentile Christian is still a disputed point among scholars. The Gospel provides data that support each possibility.

He provides helpful footnotes with details of sources for scholarly debate on both sides, and goes on to give lists of passages and points in support of both positions. He doesn't entirely resolve this tension and misses one of the biggest arguments against Matthew being Jewish (his failure to understand Hebrew synonymous parallelism - Matt 21:5-6) but does summarize:

The tension between these two lists is best understood to mean that the evangelist Matthew is the advocate of a liberal Hellenistic Diaspora Jewish Christianity that had been engaged in the Gentile mission for some time. (p.221)

Summing up so far
Thus, so far Stavrakopoulou has come out of this squeaky clean, and Goodacre less so. But Goodacre will catch up, just wait for the next post.

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