Monday, December 09, 2019

How To Concisely Argue For A Traditional View Of Jesus' Childhood

There are a lot of ways to argue for a traditional view of the childhood of Jesus, and we've been making those arguments for a long time. But it's often helpful to be able to argue concisely for what you believe. That can be hard to do when a subject is as large and complicated as the earliest years of Jesus' life. We are addressing years of his life, after all, unlike the narrower focus of Easter, for example. But here are a few summary arguments I recommend using:

- Reliable sources on Jesus' childhood were available to the early Christians and their opponents for a long time. Close relatives of Jesus lived for more than half a century after his birth. For a discussion of the credibility of the early reports about Jesus' relatives in general, see here. Regarding how long individuals like Mary and James lived, see here and here. And those relatives held some prominent positions in the early church, as we see in Acts, Galatians 1:19, 2:9-12, 1 Corinthians 9:5, the letters of James and Jude, etc. Keep in mind that Jesus' relatives were critical of him at times, so his enemies would have had an interest in and ability to get information about his background from those relatives. Some of Jesus' neighbors, coworkers, and contemporaries in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth also would have lived past the time of his death, even for decades in some cases. The same is true of the religious authorities and others who opposed him and had him executed. Just as the early Christians passed on information from generation to generation, so did their enemies. The early Christians and their opponents produced many documents in the earliest decades of Christianity, not just the ones we possess today, as I argue here. And see here for some comments from Larry Hurtado about how the literacy of the early Christians is often underestimated.

- We have a lot of evidence for a traditional view of Jesus' childhood. Much of what the early Christians report about the childhood of Jesus meets modern historical standards, like multiple attestation, the criterion of embarrassment, and the criterion of coherence. For some examples, see here and here.

- There's a significant lack of support in the ancient sources for skeptical alternatives to a traditional Christian view of the childhood of Jesus. For example, the early opponents of Christianity not only don't seem to have opposed the Bethlehem birthplace of Jesus, but even corroborated it. Not only does Celsus not agree with the popular modern notion that the virgin birth claim didn't arise until decades after Jesus' death, but he even attributes the claim of a virgin birth to Jesus himself (in Origen, Against Celsus, 1:28). See here for a further discussion of how inconsistent many modern skeptical views of the virgin birth are with ancient non-Christian sources. For more examples of what ancient non-Christian sources said about Jesus' childhood, see here. On the modern skeptical assertion that Luke's census account is radically inaccurate, see this post. On modern skeptical claims about the authorship of the gospels, see here. And so on. As with the other two points above, you'd have to be selective in choosing one or more examples to illustrate the point, but we've provided many to choose from.

To summarize these three points even further:

1. the presence of reliable sources
2. the presence of evidence for a traditional Christian view
3. the absence of support for skeptical alternatives among the ancient sources

And you could make it even easier to remember as: presence, presence, absence.

The importance of these three points can be seen by thinking about how easily the relevant circumstances could have been different than they are and what implications would follow if they were different. What if individuals like Mary and James hadn't lived as long as they did, the earliest Christians hadn't shown so much interest in writing, etc.? What if there wasn't so much information about Jesus' childhood that meets the evidential standards for historically reliable material? What if the early opponents of Christianity had made significantly different claims about Jesus' childhood, such as by corroborating the Christian claims much less than they did?

This approach I've outlined doesn't cover every issue, and you still have to address whatever objections are raised. It's a good way to start a discussion and summarize your view, even if it doesn't end the discussion.

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