Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Credibility of Christmas

Recently, in Newsweek magazine, Bart Ehrman wrote an article in which he claimed that the accounts about Jesus’ birth in the Gospels are basically myths.  I usually ignore such attempts to sell magazines.  But in this case, I thought the article was so poorly argued, and so one-sided (even more than Ehrman usually is) that it would be worthwhile to offer a critique.  So, here is my attempt to cover the same ground that Ehrman covered, rewriting the article in an attempt to convey Ehrman’s perspective more candidly while revealing some shortcomings in his premises, analysis, and conclusions.  (Just to emphasize:  what follows is not my view!  I am attempting to portray the ultra-liberal views that are the foundation of Ehrman's article, and to convey what is wrong with those views and with some of their premises.)  


     Months ago, a member of the Jesus Seminar announced the discovery of a papyrus scrap (without specifics about where it came from) which attributes to Jesus a reference to his wife.  This papyrus, it turns out, is a forgery made by someone who depended upon the printed text of the Gospel of Thomas.  But let’s not get bogged down with details.  That’s still a great way to introduce the subject of spurious compositions composed during the first few centuries of Christianity, and the traditions they encourage.   And after sharing that fascinating trivia, we can use it as a transition-point to my real subject:  taking swipes at the accuracy of the New Testament.
     A composition called the Proto-Evangelium of James, written in the mid-late 100’s, has generated a lot of traditions about Christmas.  This text, not anything in the New Testament, is the source of information such as the name of Mary’s mother (Anna), Mary’s background as a child dedicated to serve in the temple, and the story of how an old widower named Joseph was chosen to take up the task of serving as her chaste husband-protector.  This text, too (or, one might say, the sources of this source), is the source of the tradition that the individuals known in the Gospels as Jesus’ brothers and sisters were his step-siblings, from a previous marriage.  [This is one of those secret, lost books that is freely accessible online – see, for example, the English translation at ; its further contents can be read as easily as they can be described.]
      Meanwhile:  Pope Benedict XVI has written a book, Jesus of Nazareth:  The Infancy Narratives, in which he affirms the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ birth as historically accurate.  Oh woeful day.  We all know, when we examine the accounts supplied by Matthew and Luke about Jesus’ birth and the events connected to it, that they have some problems.  They are different from each other!  Not that I would believe them if they were in strict agreement.  If they were the same, I would immediately tell you that one is based on the other, and therefore I would give the two accounts no more weight than a single testimony would have.         
     One problem is that the genealogy in Matthew is different from the one in Luke.  This obviously means that the genealogies in Matthew and Luke were both “invented” to show that Jesus was a descendant of the Jewish patriarchs.  Without the genealogies, readers of Matthew and Luke would have assumed that Jesus was a Gentile.  The theory that the lists present different names for Jesus’ grandfather and great-grandfather because of a levirate marriage has been proposed by defenders of the veracity of the Gospels, and is therefore impossible.  The same goes for the notion that Matthew focused on the royal lineage in a summarized genealogy to show that Jesus legally qualified to be the Messiah, while Luke’s genealogy follows the physical line of descent all the way back to Adam (echoing, along the way, the genealogy of David found in the Old Testament book of First Chronicles) to emphasize Jesus’ human nature. 
     Another example:  Luke states that Augustus issued a decree that all the world (oikoumene) should be registered for a census.  Clearly, this not only means the entire Roman Empire, but it must also means the entire empire at once.  The alternative interpretation, to the effect that Luke alluded to a census that occurred in stages, is just silly:  Luke would naturally expect his readers to picture a census in which everyone in every province of the Roman Empire simultaneously registered.
     Another example from Luke:  it is crystal clear that when Luke says that Joseph went to Bethlehem to be registered “because he was of the house and lineage of David,” Luke intended for his readers to understand that Joseph did this because all of David’s descendants were duty-bound to do so.  The alternative, that Joseph went there because he would rather be known officially as a citizen of Bethlehem than as a citizen of Nazareth, is flatly impossible.  Clearly, this is just an imaginary, non-historical detail, like Luke’s statement that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart.”  Luke never met Mary and therefore could not have obtained any information from her about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.
     Likewise, Matthew’s statement that the wise men visited the Holy Family in a house is a clear sign that his account is non-historical.  The idea that a considerate husband, planning to visit the temple in Jerusalem for purification-rites after his wife gave birth, would purchase, rent, or borrow a room in a house in (or near) Bethlehem, instead of insisting that his wife should return to Nazareth and then make a fresh journey to Jerusalem, is intrinsically implausible.        
     The Christmas star, likewise, presents a historical difficulty:  for after we reject the idea that this was some sort of miracle, our scholarly honesty compels us to conclude that nothing natural could fit the description of what Matthew says the wise men experienced:  something, after being seen in the east before the outset of their journey to Jerusalem, was seen again by the wise men as they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and “came and stood” over the house where Jesus was.  Christian researchers who are also astronomers have pointed out that a series of planetary conjunctions could fit this description rather well; others have suggested that the star was a comet.  But of course objective historians know that such answers are not satisfactory; to them, the very multitude of paths to the resolution of this question is itself evidence that none of them can be correct.   Furthermore, the most insightful historians conclude that the whole episode is sheer fiction:  Matthew – that is, “Matthew,” not the apostle Matthew, but someone else – had read Old Testament passages about a star accompanying the rise of a king, and about kings presenting gifts to the king of Israel, and interpreted them as Messianic prophecies; then he created this part of the birth-narrative to convince his readers that those prophecies were fulfilled by Jesus.
     Many Christians might take offense at my claim that the Christmas-stories in the Gospels are fiction, but there is really no need to do so.  The good news announced in the Gospels does not have to be news about something that actually happened.  When you tell a hungry person that you have a meal for him, he will rejoice, and will no longer be hungry, whether your report is true or not.  Even when he discovers that your statement is not historically true, he will thank you for cheering him up with a profound metaphor that he misinterpreted.  Similarly, the story of Christmas can be regarded as a comforting fairy tale, eliciting joy and good cheer for all, rather than as a report about an actual Creator who miraculously revealed His nature in the historical person known in the Gospels as Jesus Christ.  When Christians see the Gospels’ accounts of Christ’s birth as I have seen them, they will become better Christians, as I have become.  Only then will they really see, and apply to their lives, as I have to mine, the great theological truths that God has revealed through these fictitious stories!


Okay, that's enough of that.  In closing:  I do not want to give the impression that Matthew and Luke have given us nothing to wonder about.  Having gathered their data from those closest to the events surrounding Jesus' birth -- Mary, and Jesus' family-members -- they present us with summaries, knowing, considering the miraculous nature of the events they record, that no amount of detail would satisfy those who, as a premise of their study, deny the miraculous.  The enemies of the Christian faith who want to find grounds for cavil will do so; they will eagerly describe and distort any unresolved detail as if it is an ominous threat to the reliability of the whole account.  But it seems to me that if anything is incredible about all this, it is not the factualnessof the Gospels' accounts about the birth of Jesus Christ.  What's not credible here is Ehrman's determination to use specious reasoning to draw the New Testament accounts into question, under a pretense of friendly erudition.