Monday, December 19, 2016

Responding To The Media's Annual Christmas Coverage

We're now in the last several days of the Christmas season, when we usually get most of the media's coverage of Christmas issues. I'll cite a few of the more significant examples I've come across so far this year, and I'll recommend some resources.

Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, wrote a piece on the star of Bethlehem for the Evening Standard in England. The Daily Sun in Arizona also has an article on the star. So does Forbes. I've posted a response to the Forbes one, in their comments section, if anybody is interested.

U.S. News & World Report reposted an article on the infancy narratives in general. It repeats some common objections to the accounts:

In considering the birth of Jesus, it should be noted straight away that two of the New Testament's four Gospels and the writings of the Apostle Paul are completely mute on the circumstances of Jesus' birth.

The two Gospels that do address the birth of Jesus provide differing accounts. In Matthew, Jesus' birth is preceded by dreams that come to his father Joseph, paying little attention to his mother Mary. In Luke's narrative, the emphasis is largely on Mary, with little attention to Joseph. Matthew tells the story of the star and the wise men, while in Luke the news of Jesus' birth is shared with shepherds. In Matthew the wise men present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, while in Luke the baby is laid in a manger because there is no room in the inn.

The point here is not that the two stories are mutually inconsistent. Rather it is this: the human beings who wrote these texts had different purposes in mind, and these purposes are clearly reflected in their accounts….

To be sure, it is possible to read the Bible as a newspaper account. Yet literalism is fraught with difficulty, in part because the Bible often tells a story in different ways (such as the two birth narratives of Jesus and the two creation accounts in Genesis), and in part because even those telling the story often seem to recognize that they are operating at the level of myth.

The claim that "two of the New Testament's four Gospels and the writings of the Apostle Paul are completely mute on the circumstances of Jesus' birth" is refuted here. Regarding how different Matthew and Luke's accounts supposedly are, I provide thirty examples of agreements between the two authors here. See my recent discussion of their annunciation accounts for several examples of how well those passages align with each other. For a discussion of the alleged contradictions between the two infancy narratives, as well as a discussion of how significant their agreements are, see here. The notion that Matthew and Luke were writing in a non-historical genre is refuted here and here.

If you come across any other media stories like these, ones that you think are significant in some way, let me know. You can post a comment here or send me an email (see my Blogger profile).


  1. Who did the Father pay the ransom price (Jesus life) to?

    1. Himself
    2. Devil
    3. Death
    4. None of the above

    1. i) In Christian theology, it's not the Father, but the Son, who "pays the ransom price".

      ii) It's not literally a random price that's paid to someone. That's a metaphor. Rather, it's the satisfaction of divine justice through penal substitution/vicarious atonement. If someone sins, retributive justice necessitates punishment to make amends for the transgression. To balance the scales of justice. The sinner can suffer punishment, or in the case of Christian atonement, the Redeemer takes the sinner's place.

  2. John 3:16“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,..

    God told Abraham that He would provide his own sacrifice...


    So would not that be God paying the ransom by giving his son as the payment?

    1. i) There's some equivocation here. It's the death of Christ that actually redeems sinners. Not merely something the Father does, but something the Son does. So is it the Father to "pays" or the Son who "pays". In a sense, both. Yet what makes it a random isn't the "giving," but the sacrifice. The voluntary self-giving of the Son to make vicarious atonement on behalf of sinners. The Son makes himself a sacrificial offering, with the Father's authorization.

      ii) And the "payment" language is a theological metaphor. The atonement isn't paid to a second party. That gets carried away with picture language.

    2. I can agree to them both doing a part.

      How do you define ransom? I understand the common greek definition, but like you said it's a metaphor and I see ransom as being literally what God did in Egypt when he rescued or saved the. So when I see ransom I see redemption, rescuing, saving etc..

  3. Here's another story on the star of Bethlehem, from Fox News. It came out in early December, but I missed it at the time. The article is about a hypothesis being promoted by "Grant Matthews, professor of theoretical astrophysics and cosmology in the Department of Physics in the University of Notre Dame’s College of Science". Apparently, he's been studying the star for more than a decade and is about to publish a book arguing that the star was a planetary alignment.

    His view seems somewhat similar to Michael Molnar's and other positions that see the star in terms of planetary alignments and astrology. For a refutation of such views, see here, here, and here. Those posts also address the notion that the magi were Zoroastrians from Babylon or Persia. I argue that they were from Arabia instead.

  4. U.S. News & World Report has reprinted a piece by David Weintraub, a professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University, arguing for Molnar's view of the star. I've already addressed some of the problems with that view. What I want to do here is respond to some dismissive comments Weintraub makes about supernatural explanations of the star.

    Early in the article, he writes:

    "Is the star's biblical description a pious fiction, or does it contain some astronomical truth?"

    Those aren't the only options. He acknowledges the possibility of a supernatural star later, but only addresses it briefly:

    "One can claim that Matthew's words describe a miracle, something beyond the laws of physics. But Matthew chose his words carefully and wrote 'star in the east' twice, which suggests that these words hold a specific importance for his readers."

    The terms used by Matthew aren't defined by modern astronomical standards. We have to look at how the terms were used in their ancient context. And in that context, Matthew's terminology was broad enough to include more than what we today would normally call a star. The terms he uses could refer to a supernatural entity, and that's how Matthew's earliest interpreters took the passage. Since Matthew was writing in a supernatural context (e.g., God's past use of supernatural phenomena like the pillar of fire in Exodus, the miracles surrounding Jesus' childhood), a supernatural star lines up with Matthew's descriptions far better than any natural alternative does, and the earliest interpreters of the passage seem to take it as referring to a supernatural entity, then Matthew probably was referring to a supernatural star.

  5. Marcelo Gleiser, "a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College", has an article at NPR responding to a recent book on the star of Bethlehem. I've reviewed the book at Amazon and Goodreads, and I've discussed it in previous posts on this blog (see here, here, and here).

  6. Here's a response I've just written to a recent article in an Israeli newspaper about the date of Jesus' birth. My response addresses the genre of the gospels, Luke's census, the origins of the December 25 date for Christmas, and other issues.

  7. The Charleston Gazette-Mail has an opinion piece by John Kesler that discusses issues involving the historicity of the infancy narratives. It covers a lot of ground I've already addressed many times, like the alleged inconsistencies between Matthew and Luke and the supposed lack of reference to the events in question in other sources. I'll just respond to one comment he made:

    "As Professor John Dominic Crossan has stated, the gospel authors weren’t writing history; they were writing gospel."

    That fails to address what a gospel is if it isn't history. It also fails to interact with the large amount of evidence we have that the gospels are Greco-Roman biographies, meaning that they're written in a historical genre.

    I've written some reviews of Crossan's book on the infancy narratives (authored with Marcus Borg), and you can access those reviews here.

  8. Candida Moss, a New Testament scholar at the University of Notre Dame, had an article on Christmas issues in the Washington Post last week. She repeats some common objections to a traditional Christian view of the events surrounding Jesus' birth, like whether the New Testament accounts are consistent. I've addressed those issues here many times.

    It's worth noting, though, that a scholar as liberal as Moss acknowledges this much about the origins of the December 25 date:

    "Some have argued that the date of Jesus' birth was selected to supplant pagan festivals that were held at the same time. But while Pope Julius I set the date of Christmas (for Western Christians) in the 4th century, Christians did not deliberately adapt pagan rituals until the 7th century, when Pope Gregory the Great instructed bishops to celebrate saints' feast days on the days of pagan festivals. The real reason for the selection of Dec. 25 seems to have been that it is exactly nine months after March 25, the traditional date of Jesus' crucifixion (which can be inferred from other dates given in the New Testament). As Christians developed the theological idea that Jesus was conceived and crucified on the same date, they set the date of his birth nine months later."

    She doesn't discuss the evidence for the acceptance of December 25 in Hippolytus, the Donatists, etc. prior to the fourth century. But at least she acknowledges more than most critics do.

    She goes on to cite Stephen Carlson on a proper understanding of Luke 2:7. That's progress, too.

    And she comments that Jesus "could have been as old as 2 - a walking, talking toddler - when the wise men arrived." She doesn't explain how the later timeframe Matthew seems to be addressing in Matthew 2 lines up with her suggestion that Matthew and Luke are inconsistent. If the timeframes the two authors are addressing are so different, how much should we expect their material to overlap? But at least Moss is acknowledging the implications of Matthew 2:16, which many scholars and other critics don't.

    It's good to see a liberal scholar acknowledging so many significant points in an article in the Washington Post.