Thursday, December 09, 2004

The first noel-2

" Traditionalists promote theories meshing Matthew's and Luke's versions. Says Paul L. Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University: 'Radical New Testament critics say it's a hopeless jumble. I myself do not think it's impossible to harmonize them.'"

So why doesn't van Biema proceed to tell the reader how Maier proposes to harmonize the two accounts? Didn't he ask him? If not, why not? If so, why didn't he include the explanation?

"Luke's description of an empire-wide census at the time of Jesus' birth, with Palestine's part conducted by the Syrian governor Quirinius, seems inaccurate. There is no other record of a census in Palestine at the time, and Quirinius was not yet governor. But he did administer an infamous census on Augustus' behalf some 12 years later, in AD 6."

i) This is an argument from silence.

ii) It presumes a standard of comparison. Why assume that Luke is less accurate than Tacitus or Josephus? Why is Luke erroneous, but Josephus is inerrant?

Isn't Luke a 1C witness to 1C history? Why is he deemed to be less reliable than Tacitus or Josephus--especially when he is closer in time to the events than either of them? Luke wrote in the early to mid-60s, Josephus in the mid-to-late 70s (The Jewish War) and early to mid-90s (Antiquities of the Jews), while the Annals of Tacitus date to the 2C.

iii) It is beyond the scope of my review to delve into the census of Quirinius. The reader should consult the relevant entries in the standard reference works (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4:12-13; The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 3:1308-11; The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 5:5-6) as well as excursus 2 of Bock's commentary on Luke, 1:903-09; Arndt's explanation in Bible Difficulties & Seeming Contradictions (Concordia 1987), 68-71; Cranfield's discussion in "Some Reflections on the Virgin Birth," On Romans (T&T Clarke 1998), 157-58, Barnett's discussion in Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity (IVP 1999), 97-99, chapter 11 of E. Martin's The Star that Astonished the World (ASK 1996), and B. Witherington's article on the "Birth of Jesus," in the Dictionary of Jesus & Yhe Gospels, J. Green et al. eds. (IVP 1992), 60-74.

To illustrate, let's summarize Martin's discussion. In a nutshell, his argument is as follows: based on interlocking sources of info from Josephus, Tertullian, Justin, Orosius, Moses of Khorene, and the Paphlagonian inscription, Martin argues that the census was not for purposes of taxation, but for the citizens for the Roman Empire to take a loyalty oath to Augustus as the Pater Patriae.

He also argues that, according to Josephus, there was a chronological gap between the governorship of Saturnius and the governorship of Varus. He then argues that Quirinius was the acting governor to fill this gap.

The gap took place during the summer break of 2 BC. He argues that the reason for the gap is that August was when Augustus celebrated his Silver Jubilee as well as the 750th anniversary of Roman, such that all the bigwigs would want to be in town at that time for the celebration.

"The blank space that Brown reported in the 1st century astronomical accounts where there should have been notice of Jesus' star has not prevented thousands of enthusiasts from attempting to locate it retroactively."

"Blank space?" "Enthusiasts"? Within the last few years, two professional astronomers independently published two book-length investigations of the Matthean account, both put out by academic publishing houses: Mark Kidger, The Star of Bethlehem: An Astronomer's View (Princeton U 1999); Michael Molnar, The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi (Rutgers U 1999).

Once again, it wouldn't hurt van Biema to acquaint himself with the relevant literature before he advertises his ignorance to the world.

" In keeping with his view of Joseph and Mary as year-round residents, Matthew has the Magi visit a "house." Luke introduces the manger as part of his view of them as involuntary short-timers."

Van Biema reminds me of a conductor's quip about the great Heldentenor: "at least you knew where you stood with Melchior because he always made the same mistakes." Once Van Biema gets a bad idea fixed in his brain, he just keeps harping on it.

" How do the experts interpret these lines? As you might guess, they wonder where Luke got them. The first angel's language, some note, was less biblical than ... imperial. Brown called it 'a christology phrased in a language that echoes Roman imperial propaganda.'"

i) Maybe. But all the key terms ("sign") and titles (soter, christos, kyrios) have their antecedents in LXX usage, and the heavenly host is another OT motif. Van Biema should take a look at Fitzmyer's commentary (AB 28) on Luke, 1:409-12.

ii) In addition, the imperial cult antedated Luke on any dating scheme you please, whether early or late.

Moving on from Van Biema's hit-piece to Meacham's hatchet job, the subtitle is, itself, highly prejudicial: "how the gospels mix faith and history."

But why oppose faith and history in this invidious fashion? Doesn't Meacham have faith in what he's writing? Doesn't he want the reader to believe in the factual accuracy of his article? Isn't he writing to persuade as well as inform?

" The clash between literalism and a more historical view of faith is also playing out in theaters and bookstores."

Another false antithesis. Why posit a clash between what is literal and what is historical? Should the reader apply this disjunction to Meacham's own article?

" This is why modern, grounded, discerning people do make leaps of faith, accepting that, as the Gospel of John put it, 'the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.'"

Why equate Christian faith with a "leap" of faith? Why can't Christian faith be a reasonable faith?

" If we dissect the stories with care, we can see that the Nativity saga is neither fully fanciful nor fully factual but a layered narrative of early tradition and enduring theology."

Why should we "dissect" the Gospels? They were not put together to be taken apart. It isn't possible, at this distance, to reconstruct the editorial process.

Does Meacham's many-layered analysis represent the original viewpoint of the Evangelist, or an artificial grid imposed on the text by Meacham and his fellow sceptics?

"The first followers, we should always remember, believed that the Risen Lord was going to return and usher in a new apocalyptic age at any moment."

Did they? I've dealt with this bogus claim in my essay on hyperpreterism.

" As the years rolled by and the world endured, however, the Apostles and the first generations of church fathers realized they were not witnesses about to be swept up into heaven but earthly stewards of a message that had to be written down, explained and defended."

How does Meacham happen to know this? How do you document the existence of oral tradition? If it's oral, it doesn't leave a paper trail, right?

Meacham is regurgitating the old evolutionary theory of the Bible--an oral stage followed by a literary stage. Doesn't Luke indicate that there were many literary digests of the life of Christ at the time he put pen to paper (Lk 1:1)? Only Mark's effort has survived, but his was not the only one or even the first in line.

Doesn't this make sense? You use the spoken word when dealing with people face-to-face, and the written word when dealing with people at a distance. That is why the Apostles were avid letter-writers.

" To make their case in this congested theological universe, the Gospel writers collected traditions in circulation and told Jesus' story."

Isn't this an overstatement? It may apply to Luke. But does it apply to John?

"John P. Meier, a Roman Catholic priest and professor at Notre Dame, the author of a monumental series, 'A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus,' points out that there is no convincing evidence Jesus himself ever spoke of his birth."

And there is no convincing evidence that Jesus himself never spoke of his birth. An argument from silence is a doubled-edged sword.

"Neither Mary nor Joseph (who is not a figure in the years of Jesus' public life) appears to have been a direct source."

Once again, how is Meier or Meacham in a position to know that? Mary and Matthew both belonged to the church of Jerusalem (Acts 1:13-14). And Luke certainly had occasion of visit the church of Jerusalem, with or without Paul.

"In 1965, the Second Vatican Council held that while the Scriptures are ultimately "true," they are not necessarily to be taken as accurate in the sense we might take an Associated Press wire report about what happened at a school-board meeting as accurate. The council focused on the importance of paying attention to "literary forms" in Scripture. The Gospels are such a "literary form," and the accounts of Jesus in the canon are not history or biography in the way we use the terms. Classical biography, however, was a different genre. Writers like Plutarch invented details or embellished traditions when they were reconstructing the lives of the famous, and the Christmas saga features miraculous births, supernatural signs and harbingers of ultimate greatness similar to those found in pagan works. If we examine the Nativity narratives as classical biography, then the evangelists' means and mission—to convey theological truths about salvation, not to record just-the-facts history—become much clearer."

i) This is yet another fact-free assertion. To begin with, the Gospel-writers already had a preexisting tradition of historiography at their disposal--it's called the OT.

ii) In addition, Meacham is simply ignorant of the major literature on Greco-Roman historiography as well as the historicity of the Gospels and Acts.

He should read Keener's commentaries on Matthew and John, France on Mark, Bock on Luke, Witherington on Acts. He should read France on Matthew: Evangelist & Teacher. He should read Blomberg's commentaries on Matthew and John, as well as his book on Jesus and the Gospels--not to mention his book on The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. He should read Hemer on The Book of Acts In the Setting of Hellenistic History. He should read The Book of Acts in Its Ancient Literary Setting, Winter & Clarke, eds. He should read Stonehouse on the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels, as well as Barnett on Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity. That's just for starters.

As to comparative mythology, I've already made mention of Machen and Metzger. We could throw in Everett Ferguson on the Backgrounds of Early Christianity for good measure.

" The earliest and sparest Gospel, Mark's (circa AD 60), begins at Jesus' baptism by John as an adult, skipping the Nativity altogether. The latest and most philosophical, John's (circa 90), links Jesus with God at the very birth of the universe."

Where is the supporting evidence for this dating-scheme? I myself would date Mark to the 40s or 50s, and John to the 60s--after the demise of Peter.

" So we are left with Matthew and Luke, Gospels composed between AD 60 and 90."

Between 60 and 90? That's quite a spread! If he dates their composition to after the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70), then this comes into conflict with his thesis about the imminent return of Christ. Matthew and Luke could not very well believe that Jesus would return with the sack of Jerusalem if they were writing after the sack of Jerusalem. So something has to give. Which is it?

" By asserting Mary's virginity, Matthew and Luke are taking the device of the miraculous conception farther than any other Jewish writer had before."

"The device?" In what sense is the virgin birth a device? I've heard of a birth-control device, but not a virgin-birth device!

" If the virginal conception were a historical fact, however, it is somewhat odd that there is no memory of it recorded in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry or in the Acts of the Apostles or in the rest of the New Testament."

i) Why is it odd? It occurs where we would expect it to occur--in the gospels, which are a biographical genre. There is no expectation that it would crop up in a non-biographical genre.

ii) What would occasion its introduction in the ministry of Christ?

iii) Actually, Cranfield, for one, finds further allusions to the Virgin Birth in Mk 6:3, Jn 1:13; 6:41f.; 8:41; Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4, & Phil 2:7. Ibid. 153-54. And, of course, there's Isa 7:14 hovering in the wings.

" It is also striking that in parts of the Gospels Mary herself appears unaware of her son's provenance and destiny."

Her incomprehension would be the same apart from the particulars of the Virgin Birth.

" If Jesus had been conceived by a human father before Joseph and Mary had begun their lives together as husband and wife (either by Joseph himself, a soldier or someone else), then the Holy Ghost would have provided a convenient cover story for the early church."

i) "A cover story"? But just a few paragraphs before, Meacham told his readers that "The last thing the Christians wanted was to appear to be yet another mythological cult, worshiping some kind of demi-god; their deep Jewish faith in the commandment to have 'no other gods before me' foreclosed that possibility. 'Incredible tales' were for the idolatrous." Does Meacham listen to his own words?

ii) And a few more paragraphs before that, Meacham told his readers that " Miraculous conceptions have deep roots in Jewish tradition: the aged Sarah bearing Isaac, the barren wife of Manoah bearing Samson, the barren Hannah bearing Samuel (and, according to Luke, Mary's kinswoman Elizabeth, both aged and barren, bearing John the Baptist just before Mary conceived Jesus)."

All true. But if preternatural pregnancies enjoy such precedent in OT history, how is the Virgin Birth a convenient cover story?

" Matthew makes an even more explicit connection with the Jewish past, stating outright that Jesus is answering ancient expectations. Citing Isaiah 7:14—'Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us'—the evangelist writes: 'Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet.' A problem with this elegant passage from Isaiah is that it may have long been mistranslated and misinterpreted."

It should be needless to say that the exegesis of Isa 7:14 is well-trodden ground. For a defense of the traditional interpretation, the reader should consult: M. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus (Baker 2003), 3:17-32; 199-210; J. Motyer, "Content and context in the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14," TynB 21 (1970); E. Young, Studies in Isaiah (Eerdmans 1954).

"What is clearer is that the visit of the Magi came to be seen as a fulfillment of Psalm 72…There is no historical evidence of such a visit, but the symbolic significance is obvious."

"History records no such Herodian slaughter…"

i) Of course, ancient historians only write about the rich and famous. By that standard, there's no historical evidence that more than a few hundred people ever existed in the ancient world. There is no historical evidence of trees in the state of Georgia in 1066. There is no historical evidence that fish were swimming in the Columbia River in 1492. In fact, there is no historical evidence that the Columbia River even existed in 1492. At least, I know of no period historian who has recorded the presence of trees and rivers and fish at this place and time. Is it therefore reasonable to conclude that although Alexander the Great was a real person, since historians wrote about him, that Alexander never had a great-grandfather, if no historian wrote about his great-grandpa? Is it reasonable to conclude that there were no trees in Georgia or fish in the Columbia River absent a written record to that effect?

There are no written records for most of the things that ever were or ever occurred in the past. Is it reasonable to conclude from this that most of the time, nothing at all took place? That the timeline consists of long stretches of nothingness punctuated a little blips of being?

ii) Notice the perversely tendentious character of Meacham's denial. If Cicero or Tacitus or Josephus say that something happened, then we have a historical record of the event; but of Matthew or Luke or John say that something happened, then there's absolutely no evidence that it ever happened!

The chief value of corroboration is not to confirm every detail, which is unrealistic to expect, but to attest the trustworthy character of the reporter. If what he says holds up on the points at which it can be tested, then that carries a presumption of fidelity on the points at which it cannot be tested.

And a disagreement between two sources is not, of itself, prejudicial to one source over against another.

" There is, of course, no way to know whether Luke's story of the heavenly host announcing Jesus' arrival to the shepherds really happened; one has to believe in angels, and explain away the fact that the Gospels fail to note any ensuing communal or individual recollection of this spectacular birth, one witnessed by the rustics (in Luke) and the Magi (in Matthew), in the years of Jesus' public life."

i) Of course, should you operate under Meacham's rules of evidence, then if the Gospels did record an ensuing recollection of this event, that would be further evidence that it never occurred!

ii) To say that there's no way of knowing assumes that you can only know something directly. But if you know someone who knows it, if you know that your source of knowledge is reliable, then you know whatever it tells you to be true.

"In the gnostic 'Gospel of Philip,' Pagels points out, the Gospel author reinterprets Jesus' birth, suggesting that while Jesus was born biologically to Mary and Joseph, he was reborn spiritually as the son of God…Such a view prompted a fierce counterattack from Irenaeus, a late-second-century church father who believed that Jesus was utterly unique—that he had been born in a unique way and had been raised from the dead in a unique way."

i) The Coptic Gospel of Philip dates to the 4-5C. I'd like to see the steps by which Elaine Pagels is able to trace this back to the time of Irenaeus or before.

ii) How is it that liberals make so much of the very brief interval between the life of Christ and the canonical Gospels, but so very little of the far wider interval between the life of Christ and the Gnostic gospels?

When all is aid and done, the question is not how an inspired book which was written 2000 years ago could confront a modern reader with a few obscurities; no, the real question is how an uninspired book which was written 2000 years to could confront a modern reader with so few obscurities. It is the low view of Scripture, and not the high view of Scripture, which cries out for a special explanation. It takes less faith to be a believer than an unbeliever.

The first noel-1

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."

What scholars?

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.