Sunday, December 10, 2006

Newsweek's Christmas Article

The latest edition of Newsweek has an article that's supposed to be about the influence of Jewish and Christian morals on the world, as reflected in the infancy narratives. The article is by Lisa Miller, and three other people (Anne Underwood, Julie Scelfo, and Joshua Alston) are credited with contributing to the article. You don't get too far into the story before you realize that the author wanted to address some other issues as well.

The article does have some merit. For example:

"A Roman father could, for any or no reason, choose to kill his newborn infant either by cutting the umbilical cord too close or by leaving the baby outside, and the Jewish refusal to do so was seen as peculiar. 'The Jews see to it that their numbers increase,' wrote the historian Tacitus around A.D. 100. 'It is a deadly sin to kill a born or unborn child, and they think that eternal life is granted to those who die in battle or execution—hence their eagerness to have children, and their contempt for death.'" (page 3)

That's a significant difference between the ancient Jews and Christians and their contemporaries, and there are related differences on issues of life in today's world. But the article also frequently makes misleading comments about early Christian family structure, early Christian eschatology, and other subjects. We're discouraged from viewing the infancy narratives as historical:

"On close inspection, the details of the Nativity don't add up particularly well: the birth narrative appears in just two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, and they differ a great deal. Matthew starts with a genealogy, Luke with the story of the miraculous pregnancy of Mary's cousin Elizabeth. The Christmas story most people know from church pageants and television specials is a conflation of the two Gospels, putting Matthew's Magi together with the shepherds of Luke." (page 2)

Miller doesn't give us much reason to think that she's done a "close inspection" of the infancy narratives. Given the weak nature of her arguments above and her errors in the remainder of the article, it's doubtful that she knows much about the subject. Later in the article, we read:

"Near the end of the first century, Pope Clement argues that Jesus' unmarried state was in no way meant to be an example for everyone: 'the reason that Jesus didn't marry was that, in the first place, he was already engaged, so to speak, to the church; and, in the second place, he was no ordinary man.'" (page 6)

We have one extant document from Clement of Rome (First Clement). The comments she quotes don't appear anywhere in that document. And Clement can be called "Pope" only if the title is applied without an intention of suggesting that he viewed himself as a Pope or was so viewed by his contemporaries.

Notice what Newsweek has done. They haven't written an article that criticizes the historicity of the infancy narratives as directly and explicitly as the 2004 article by Jon Meacham did. Instead, they've produced an article that gives the appearance of putting Jewish and Christian morals in a positive light, yet, in the process, criticizes early Christian family structure, early Christian eschatology, and the historicity of the infancy narratives.

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