So, I've been thinking about some further observation I can make regarding the content of my recent post on "Canadian Draft-Dodgers and the Historical Jesus," and I'll add them here.
The most significant point to be made regards a distinction historical judgment and historical explanation. When I found the two documents to which I referred (a 1917 US draft registration card filled out by an Albert Bernier in Waterbury, Conn., and a 1921 Canadian census form detailing the household of an Albert Bernier) and determined that this Albert Bernier was most likely my great-grandfather I made a historical judgment. When I from that observed that this data together indicated that he was in Waterbury, Conn., from no earlier than 1917 until no later than 1920, that two was historical judgment. They had not yet risen to the level of explanation, as they tell me nothing about my great-grandfather's motivations in first moving from Québec to Waterbury, and then back again. Explanation only occurred when I suggested that he was, like many Québécois, concerned about being drafted into World War I army (which Canada entered in 1914) and thus moved to Connecticut to avoid this possibility; and that then, not long after the war was over, he returned to Québec.
There is an interesting parallel here with historical Jesus studies. So much of historical Jesus has been fixated upon determining what Jesus said or did. This was of course the origin of the criteria. This however was to focus attention upon historical judgment rather than explanation. It moreover asked the wrong question with regards to judgment. It sets out to ask "Did Jesus do or say this thing attributed to him in the gospels?", but that only works as a question if one supposes that what we have in the gospels are a miscellany of potential events, and that the work of historical judgment is to determine which potential events were in fact actual. That is just silliness of course, as the gospels are not a miscellany of events.
This leads to a second observation. Historical investigation proceeds not from data but rather from questions. Well, that requires some qualification. The questions that we ask of course usually rise out of our observation of the data. But it becomes investigation proper when we articulate a clear question, the answer to which we seek by inferences drawn from consulting the data. An example. I note that both Matthew and Luke contain accounts of Jesus' conception, in which it is said that although his mother became pregnant with him prior to her marriage to his putative father, that's okay because it was the Holy Spirit who got her in a family way. I ask myself, "Why do they contain these accounts?" Historical investigation begins. I note that whilst Matthew links this with Isaiah 7:14, the prophecy that a virgin will conceive (that this might be a misreading of Isaiah is quite beside the point for my present purposes), Luke makes no such linkage. He sets out to show that Mary was a faithful servant of the Lord and seems to be linking up the virgin birth with HB themes around miraculous conception. Now, it seems to me that the very fact that he makes different doctrinal points than Matthew suggests that the two evangelists are not in the first instance motivated by doctrinal concerns; rather, it strikes me that each has learned something about Jesus that they have sought to situate within an appropriate theological perspective.
Now, what is that thing that they have learned? Most basically, it seems probable that they have learned that there are questions about Jesus' paternity, questions that would on the one hand potentially invalidate the claim to Davidic lineage and on the other potentially impugn Mary's reputation. What is striking about both accounts is that neither denies that Joseph did not father Jesus. That would be the easy thing to do. It's at this point decades after Jesus was born, so it would not have been hard for them to say "What are you talking about? They were married when Jesus was conceived." Rather, each presents an account that will redeem Mary's reputation, transforming her from a loose woman to a God-bearer. Each further introduces material that will nonetheless salvage Jesus' Davidic claim, presenting him as Joseph's son-by-adoption, and thus his legitimate heir. Again though it is striking: why not simply say that Jesus was Joseph's actual son, thus avoiding this problem? As I have argued, the doctrinal commitments to the virgin birth seem intended to account for the fact that Jesus was indeed not Joseph's son; that is, the issue of his paternity is antecedent to rather than derivative of these doctrinal commitments. Thus there should have been no doctrinal impediment to simply denying that Jesus was anyone other than Joseph's legitimate son.
So I am driven to a conclusion: such denials were not tenable at the time that Matthew and Luke were writing. This to say, the questions regarding Jesus' paternity were not easily answered by reference to his human parentage. I thus am led to the conclusion that they were writing at a time and in a context wherein there were persons around who were hostile to Christian claims about Jesus' messianic status and had a strong argument against the notion that Joseph was his father. It is possible also that there were questions about Joseph's Davidic descent: hence the genealogies. From this I am further inclined to think that Jesus really was conceived out of wedlock, and perhaps not actually Joseph's biological son; if I am indeed correct to think that not only Matthew and Luke but also their hypothetical and hostile interlocutors acknowledged this to be the case then it is not unreasonable to think that they were collectively not mistaken on the matter.
But again: the interesting thing about this is that I have no source telling me that such doubts were current at the time that Matthew and Luke were writing, nor that they were thought to be credible. I have rather inferred that from the data. And nary a criteria to be found.