Both Newsweek and Time Magazine have come out with articles about the birth of Christ. Ordinarily, the only time I bother to read either magazine is when I'm waiting to see the doctor, and flip through whatever magazines happen to be lying around.
But given the intrinsic importance of the issue, I've decided to make an exception to my rule--although the quality, or lack thereof, of the two articles, offers no incentive for me to revise my usual policy.
Before we dig into each article individually, a number of preliminary points need to be made:
1. If you want to have an honest debate over the birth of Christ, the fair and balanced way of doing it would be to invite a liberal and a conservative NT scholar to debate the issue. Side A would give an opening statement. Side B would comment on the opening statement. Side A would reply to his comment. Then Side B would give an opening statement. Side A would comment on the opening statement. Side B would reply to his comment. Then Side A would give a closing statement, followed by a closing statement from side B. You might wrap up the debate with a round table discussion in which a moderator was to ask an equal number of liberal and conservative panelists to comment on the debate. That would be an honest debate.
By contrast, Meacham and van Biema control the flow of information. They only tell you what they think is important. They quote little snippets from so-and-so, or summarize the views of anonymous scholars. But this is not how either a liberal or a conservative scholar would marshal his arguments if he had a free hand in writing his own article on the subject.
We are not getting any representative idea of how a conservative scholar would make his case. In particular, we are not getting the supporting arguments. The journalist functions as a filter to screen out whatever he doesn't want the reader to hear--whatever doesn't comport his journalistic agenda.
2. Both articles try to cast doubt on the Gospel accounts by the mere fact that they differ in their treatment of the subject. But if this is reason to infer, in the words of Meacham, that neither account "is fully fanciful nor fully factual," then, by parity of reasoning, we are justified in saying that neither the Newsweek nor the Time Magazine article is fully factual since each of them differs in its treatment of the subject. One could easily perform a comparative study of the two articles, parallel to the so-called Synoptic problem, and try to derive the same sceptical conclusions.
3. Both Meacham and Van Biema pose a pseudo-problem, which then they propose to solve. They make heavy weather over the fact that the setting of nativity stories alternates between Bethlehem and Nazareth. But how is that a problem?
At this point we need to draw a few elementary distinctions. To say that I don't know how to relate two events can either mean that (i) the events present an actual or apparent contradiction, or else (ii) there is not contradiction in view, but I simply lack enough incidental detail to put them in order or explain what motivated the action.
Now, what do Matthew and Luke say about the setting of the nativity accounts? Matthew says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Mt 2:1). After he was born, one or two years later (2:7,16), the Magi paid him a visit. At that time, the Holy Family were living in a house of some sort. After the Magi came and went, the Holy Family fled to Egypt (2:14). After their Egyptian sojourn, they moved to Nazareth (2:23).
Luke indicates that Mary and Joseph were living in Nazareth before Jesus was born (Lk 2:4). While she was pregnant, they made a trip to Bethlehem, where she gave birth (2:4-6). His birth was witnessed by shepherds and angels (2:8-20). Afterwards they made a trip to Jerusalem (2:22ff.). And after that they returned to Nazareth (2:39).
Now, none of this presents the reader with either an actual or apparent contradiction. Remember what a historical discrepancy would amount to: a solid object cannot occupy the same space at the same time.
Where does one Evangelist either say or imply that the Holy Family was residing in one place and time when another Evangelist says or implies that the Holy Family was living elsewhere at exactly the same time? Am I missing something?
Luke says that Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth before Jesus was born. Matthew doesn't say where they were living before Jesus was born. Luke states that Jesus was born in a stable, after which the Holy Family made a trip to Jerusalem for the circumcision of Jesus and purification of Mary--while Matthew states that, at a later date, the Holy Family was living in a house. Both Matthew and Luke say that the Holy Family eventually settled in Nazareth.
There is plenty of time between the first noel and the first epiphany (1-2 years, Mt 2:7,16) to fit in a trip to Jerusalem. Of course, any reconstruction is someone speculative, but to impute a contradiction to the two accounts also entails a conjectural reconstruction of how the elements could or could not be harmonized.
4. Both Meacham and van Biema lean on the argument from silence. Their assumption and insinuation is that if everything happened the way Matthew and Luke tell us, we should expect corroborative evidence for the various steps of the story.
But such an argument from silence ignores two obvious problems:
i) It assumes that period historians would take an interest in, and have knowledge on, the circumstances surrounding the birth of a working-class Jewish boy in Palestine.
ii) It overlooks the fragmentary state of the record. As a leading scholar puts it,
"How very little we really know about Syria in the 1C BC and the 1C AD, above all about the religious atmosphere prevailing there in that period, or about Judaea under the Roman prefects between AD 6 and AD 41 (which is even closer to the heart of the NT scholar)!" M. Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity (Fortress 1980), 3-4.
"Of the sixteen books of Tacitus' Annals, which are fundamental to our knowledge of Roman history in the 1C AD, books 7-10 are missing. They are important for the history of the NT period as they covered the years 37-47 and also dealt with the situation in Judaea under Tiberius and Caligula," ibid. 7.
"It is a special gift of providence that the works of Josephus have survived when those of his Jewish competitor and opponent, Justus of Tiberias, have been lost. By far the greater part of our knowledge about Jewish history in the Hellenistic period from the time of the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great comes from Josephus. A whole series of names and narratives from the gospels and Acts only become really comprehensible in the light of the more detailed report by the Jewish historian," ibid. 7.
There are other, minor sources of information which Hengel goes on to mention--in relation to later phases of NT history, but what is impressive is not how little corroboration we have of NT history, but how much we enjoy despite the ravages of time.
5. Both Meacham and van Biema quote or summarize scholars when it suits their purpose, but they fail to distinguish between scholarly opinion and scholarly argument. Merely to quote some scholar's opinion is unconvincing without the supporting evidence.
Moreover, Meacham and van Biema cite a number of no-name "scholars" from third-tier institutions. The only big name that comes up on a regular basis is Raymond Brown.
Furthermore, Meacham and van Biema often content themselves with generic summaries of some school of thought. Now, I realize that reporters are addicted to anonymous sources, but is there some compelling reason why they refrain from naming a liberal or conservative scholar? Presumably, this is not the same as protecting the identity of a Mafia informant, is it?
I suspect the reason they don't name their sources is that a lot of this information is derived from third-hand, word-of-mouth reportage.
Let's move on to van Biema article: "Behind the First Noel,"
"How peculiar it is to find that the actual Gospel Nativities are the part of Jesus' biography about which Bible experts have the greatest sense of uncertainty—even more than the scripture about the miracles Jesus performed or his sacrificial death. Indeed, the Christmas story that Christians know by heart is actually a collection of mysteries. Where was Jesus actually born? Who showed up to celebrate his arrival? How do the details of the stories reflect the specific outreach agendas of the men who wrote them?"
What experts? Liberals? Conservatives? No conservative scholar has the greatest sense of uncertainty over the nativity accounts.
What makes an expert an expert on the nativity stories? Is Dominic Crossan an expert. A few years ago, Jacob Neusner wrote a review of a book by Crossan. He commended Crossan for his engaging prose style, but not for his command of the primary sources.
"Agendas?" What about van Biema's agenda? Assuming that the gospel-writers have an agenda, if an "outreach" agenda discredits their record, does a journalistic agenda discredit his article?
"In the debates over the literal truth of the Gospels, just about everyone acknowledges that major conclusions about Jesus' life are not based on forensic clues. There is no specific physical evidence for the key points of the story."
What is the "forensic," "physical" evidence that Augustus ever existed? Do we need a DNA sample to write history?
"Despite agreeing on the big ideas, Matthew and Luke diverge in conspicuous ways on details of the event. In Matthew's Nativity, the angelic Annunciation is made to Joseph while Luke's is to Mary. Matthew's offers wise men and a star and puts the baby Jesus in a house; Luke's prefers shepherds and a manger. Both place the birth in Bethlehem, but they disagree totally about how it came to be there."
I've already addressed the general allegation, but to comment on a few of the particulars:
i) Since Joseph and Mary were both parties to the arrangement, is there some reason why both of them would not be let in on the secret?
ii) Van Biema is conflating two different events--Christmas and Epiphany-- separated in time and space, and then imputing a conspicuous divergence in the details. But the confusion lies with van Biema. The account of the Magi is not a nativity account. The adoration of the Magi happened at a later date. By then the Holy Family had moved out of the "manger." Van Biema's analysis is simply inept.
iii) Matthew and Luke don't disagree at all, much less "totally," on how it came to be there. Luke tells us, while Matthew is silent. That is not any kind of disagreement.
"These days, however, some feminist readers like Vanderbilt University's Amy-Jill Levine, editor of the forthcoming Feminist Companion to Mariology, are more interested in what might be called Mary's feistiness."
Isn't this agenda driven?
"After Mary's Annunciation, she visits Elizabeth, and the fetus in Elizabeth's belly miraculously leaps up in recognition of God's promised Messiah."
The "fetus"? Is this a Roe v. Wade rendering of Luke?
" Such filigree, scholars concur, would have been foreign to Matthew, who wrote sometime after AD 60, a decade or two before Luke."
Where is the supporting evidence for this dating-scheme? What about scholars like Guthrie (New Testament Introduction), Robinson (Redating the New Testament) and Bock (BCNT 3) who date the composition of Luke to before AD 70?
For that matter, what reason is there, besides the entropy of critical consensus, not to date both to the 40s? This is not a preliterate or illiterate culture. If you know how to write in the 60s or the 80s, you also know how to write in the 40s, give or take.
" Unlike Matthew, Luke is thought to have been a pagan rather than a Jewish convert to Christianity…"
He is? What about scholars who think he was probably a convert to Judaism (a proselyte or God-fearer) before he became a convert to Christianity? His Christian faith would be a natural extension and completion of his adopted Jewish faith.
" His version's heraldic announcements, parallel pregnancies, angelic choirs and shepherd witnesses bear a tantalizing resemblance to another literary form, the reverential "lives" being written about pagan leaders in the same period. In such sagas, a hero is not a hero unless his birth reflects the magnificence of his later achievements, and such super-nativities, originally attached to great figures from antiquity like Alexander the Great, were at that point bestowed upon Roman leaders within decades of their actual deaths."
i) Once again, what is the date of these other literary forms?
ii) A "tantalizing resemblance"? Does the "life" of Alexander, or some Roman emperor, involve a parallel pregnancy, virgin birth, angelic choir, and band of shepherds? Show us the details.
iii) The "hero"? Van Biema is channeling the shade of Joseph Cambell. The technique is to fabricate a "monomyth" by mushing a lot of stuff together without regard to time, place, or divergent details. Such an ahistorical construct is imposed on the data rather than derived from the data.
iv) There were angelic heralds, preternatural pregnancies, and shepherds aplenty in the OT too. No need to roam further afield.
v) J. Gresham Machen went over all this ground some 75 years ago in his classic monograph on The Virgin Birth of Christ.
" By the time Luke wrote, says John Dominic Crossan, author of The Birth of Christianity, 'Christians are competing in a bigger world now, not just a Jewish world ... And in this wider world, Alexander the Great is the model for Augustus and Augustus often becomes the model for Jesus.'"
This is an assertion masquerading as an argument. Where is the supporting evidence?
"Says John Barclay, a New Testament expert at the University of Durham, England: "Theologically, this is the one thing that people will go to the stake for. If they defend the historicity of anything in the Christmas stories, they will defend this.'"
No, that's not where the lines fall. As a rule, those who affirm the virgin birth affirm everything else while those who deny the virgin birth deny everything else.
"Raymond Brown was one who did not. Brown, author of the landmark work The Birth of the Messiah, dean of historical Jesus scholars until his death in 1998 and a Sulpician priest, observed that the idea of divine conception in the womb appeared to be part of a theological progression. The very first Christians thought that Jesus had become God's Son at his Resurrection; Mark, the first Gospel written, seemed to locate the moment at his baptism in the Jordan; and it is only by the time that Matthew and Luke were writing that believers had dated his Sonship to before his birth."
i) If this is part of a theological progression, then we should expect the Fourth Gospel to be even more miracle-laden than Matthew and Luke. John would have more angels. More stars. But John doesn't have an account of the Virgin Birth.
ii) Actually, Mark has a very high Christology. Mark begins his Gospel by equating Christ with Yahweh (Mk 1:3). At that level, there is no room for theological progression.
" Thus, if Mary was the eyewitness source for the Holy Spirit's direct involvement in Jesus' birth (and who else could it be?), her testimony was lost to Christians for half a century before Luke somehow picked it up."
Once again, this assumes, without benefit of argument, the late dating of Luke.
"Facts like Jesus' relatives' seeming ignorance of his messiahship in Mark and John and other clues…"
What other clues? Aside from the "Messianic Secret," Christ's half-brothers knew his Messianic claims, but acted in disbelief until Easter morn.
"Fellow Jews early on challenged Matthew's Gospel assertion that it fulfilled a prophecy in the Book of Isaiah that the Messiah would be born to a "virgin." (Isaiah's Hebrew actually talks of a "young girl"; Matthew was probably working from a Greek mistranslation.)"
i) The Septuagint, which is the Greek version in question, was translated from the Hebrew by pre-Christian Jews.
ii) I would add that the exact translation of Isa 7:14 is something of a red-herring. The important point is not the precise semantic domain of the Hebrew word or its Greek rendering. The point, rather, is whether Isaiah meant to refer to a virgin, and chose the best available word (Heb.='almah) to convey his intent, and wehther the Septuagintal translators, in turn, chose the best available word (Gr.=parthenos) to intersect with the Hebrew.
As a man who makes his living with words, it would profit van Biema to master the elementary distinction between sense and reference.
" Critics may also have alleged that Jesus' birth early in Mary's marriage to Joseph was the result of her committing adultery; much later Jewish sources named a Roman soldier called Panthera. Those accusations, some scholars believe, account for the verse in Matthew in which Joseph considers divorcing Mary before his dream angel allays his doubts."
This assumes that Matthew was responding to early accusations. Where's the evidence? "Much later sources" are hardly evidence of a pre-Matthean slander.
"Jane Schaberg, an iconoclastic feminist critic at the University of Detroit Mercy, has long maintained that parts of Luke's introduction to the topic echo the beginning of an Old Testament passage on rape…"
Isn't this another agenda-driving interpretation?
" Stephen Patterson of Eden Theological Seminary lists divinely irregular conceptions in stories about not only mythic heroes such as Perseus and Romulus and Remus but also flesh-and-blood figures like Plato, Alexander and Augustus, whose hagiographers reported he was fathered by the god Apollo while his mother slept."
i) Except that neither Evangelist says that Jesus was conceived by means of carnal relations between Mary and a god or demigod. Quite the contrary.
ii) This free associative method was debunked by Bruce Metzger in his essay, "Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity," in Historical and Literary Studies: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian (Leiden, 1968), 1-24.
" Brown found no merit in it. "Every line of Matthew's infancy narrative echoes Old Testament themes," he argued. "Are we to think that he accepted all that background but then violated horrendously the stern Old Testament [rule] that God was not a male who mated with women?" Other scholars claim that Luke especially might have been familiar with pagan models closer to the spiritual interaction that today's Christianity believes marked Jesus' conception."
What pagan models in particular? As usual, we are treated to an empty claim, unredeemed by any specifics.
" Those sticking with Bethlehem point out, not unreasonably, that both Matthew and Luke place Jesus' birth there. The skeptics note that they reach the town by such extravagantly different means that one has to wonder whether they weren't trying too hard to get there."
As anyone who bothers to read Matthew and Luke can see for himself, neither writer ever says how Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. How can they present different means, much less "extravagantly" different means, of getting there when both are entirely silent on the subject? Has van Biema ever read the accounts for himself?
" By Matthew's account, Joseph and Mary are Bethlehem residents and Jesus is born at home. But his very birth necessitates their flight to Egypt (and eventually Nazareth) because Jerusalem's vicious regent, Herod, is determined to murder the Bethlehem child he has learned will one day be King of the Jews. None of that gripping story, however, can be found in Luke. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary, Nazarenes, are on a brief if inconvenient visit to Joseph's ancestral home of Bethlehem, complying with a vast census ("All the world should be enrolled") ordered by the Roman Emperor Augustus. Meanwhile, Mark, written closer to Jesus' actual lifetime, omits Bethlehem and refers to Nazareth as Jesus' patrida, or hometown."
i) Notice, according to van Biema's very own summary, that Matthew doesn't say how they got there. So his supporting argument falsifies rather than validates his claim.
ii) The reason Matthew includes the material about the flight into Egypt and back is to draw attention to the fulfillment of OT typology. That would be more meaningful to his Jewish readers than Luke's Gentile readers. Indeed, van Biema goes on to say that very thing.
Van Biema then says that Luke discusses the nativity in relation to the census to show that Christians were loyal Roman citizens. Perhaps. But in any case, these are not by any means mutually exclusive explanations. Matthew didn't invent Judaism. Luke didn't invent the Roman Empire. These are cofactors in a common history of the period.
This is not "extravagant." To the contrary, that is a perfectly lucid rationale.
iii) Matthew doesn't say that Joseph and Mary are year-round residents. Once again, Van Biema is conflating two separate events. When they first arrive they stay in the manger (according to Luke) as an emergency measure. Later, they secured semi-permanent lodgings (according to Matthew). Jesus is not "born at home."
iv) The whole effort to box the Holy Family into a single hometown is silly. They lived in a mobile society, just like we do.