Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Radically Liberal Christmas

I recently read an article about three books on Christmas that just came out. I have the book by Marcus Borg and John Crossan, and I'm about 100 pages into it. (See the endorsements for their book, by Brian McLaren and others, here.) I've ordered the other two books, but haven't received them yet.

Another recent article in the Boston Globe features the book by Borg and Crossan, and the author interviewed Borg. Notice Borg's comments on economics and the war in Iraq. His book, co-written with Crossan, has a lot to say about the political context of ancient Israel and its alleged implications for us today. They have little to say, though, about some of the other contexts of the infancy narratives, such as how the earliest Christians and their opponents interpreted the passages and what those sources said about the historicity of the accounts. On pages 27-28, we read:

"The issue of the factuality of the birth stories is recent, the product of the last few hundred years. In earlier centuries, their factuality was not a concern for Christians. Rather, the truth of these stories (including their factual truth) was taken for granted. Their truth, and the truth of the Bible as whole, was part of conventional wisdom in Christian areas of the world. It was part of 'what everybody knew.' Believing them to be true (including factually true) was effortless. Nobody worried about whether they were factually true. All of the interpretive focus was on their meaning....Premodern Christians saw them [other accounts in the Bible] as stories of the way things happened. There was no reason for them to think otherwise. It didn't take faith to believe in them, just as it didn't take faith to believe in the factuality of the nativity stories....Many of us have a childhood memory of hearing the birth stories this way. Most of us who grew up Christian took their factuality for granted when we were young children, just as people in the premodern Christian world did. We heard them in an early childhood state of mind known as 'precritical naivete.'...Whether the stories were factual was not an issue. Indeed, Marcus can remember as a child looking for the star of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, thinking that perhaps it appeared every year on the night of Jesus's birth....But this precritical way of seeing the birth stories has become impossible in the modern world, for Christians and non-Christians alike. The reason is the impact of the Enlightenment, which began in the seventeenth century with the emergence of modern science and scientific ways of knowing." (The First Christmas [New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007])

None of those assertions are documented. The entire book has eight endnotes, taking up only a portion of one page (p. 259).

Borg and Crossan's claims above are highly misleading, whether that's a result of poor communication, ignorance on their part, or something else. As I've documented in the past (for example, here, here, and here), the early Christians and their opponents were interested in the historicity of the infancy narratives. The early Christians cite extra-Biblical evidence to corroborate the historicity of the accounts. The early enemies of Christianity question or deny some of what those accounts report. Etc. Many of the arguments that Borg and Crossan use in their book were used by critics of Christianity in the earliest centuries of church history, and Christians frequently interacted with those objections. Read Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho, Julius Africanus' Letter To Aristides, Origen's Against Celsus, John Chrysostom's Homilies On Matthew, Augustine's Harmony Of The Gospels, etc. As Robert Wilken notes:

"The question of the mythological and legendary character of the Gospels did not first arise in modern times. The historical reliability of the accounts of Jesus' life was already an issue for Christian thinkers in the second century....What Porphyry wrote about Daniel [the late dating of Daniel that Borg and Crossan mention and utilize in their book] was so revolutionary, and so disturbing to Christian interpreters, that his critics sought to refute him in detail and at length....Pagan critics realized that the Christian claims about Jesus could not be based simply on the unexamined statements of Christians...The question of faith and history, so much a part of modern theological discourse since the Enlightenment, was also a significant part of the debate between pagans and Christians in the ancient world....Christians and pagans met each other on the same turf. No one can read Celsus's True Doctrine and Origen's Contra Celsum and come away with the impression that Celsus, a pagan philosopher, appealed to reason and argument, whereas Origen based his case on faith and authority....Pagan critics realized that the claims of the new movement [Christianity] rested upon a credible historical portrait of Jesus. Christian theologians in the early church, in contrast to medieval thinkers who began their investigations on the basis of what they received from authoritative tradition, were forced to defend the historical claims they made about the person of Jesus. What was said about Jesus could not be based solely on the memory of the Christian community or its own self-understanding." (The Christians As The Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], pp. 112, 138, 147, 200-201, 203)

These earliest centuries of church history, discussed by me and by Wilken above, are the most significant centuries we can consider in this context. The earliest Christians and their opponents didn't have the mindset Borg and Crossan suggest they had.

And even later generations surely wouldn't have had such a mindset. Christians of later centuries would have been reading Justin Martyr, Origen, Augustine, etc. They would have seen the citations of extra-Biblical evidence in such authors, and they would have seen those authors' interactions with the arguments of non-Christians. Borg and Crossan refer to what was believed in Christian parts of the world, but Christians of the Middle Ages, for example, would have sometimes interacted with people from non-Christian regions of the world. There were atheists and other skeptics in premodern times, even in parts of the world where Christianity was highly influential.

There are a lot of problems with Borg and Crossan's book. Their liberalism is so radical that they conclude:

"Thus, in our considered judgment, Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 contain, and were intended to contain, minimal historical information - probably just the three items that Jesus was a historical figure whose parents were Mary and Joseph and whose home was at Nazareth in Galilee." (p. 38)

That's an absurd conclusion, as we've argued at length elsewhere (see the links here and here). They claim:

"We are not concerned with the factuality of the birth stories. Though we comment on this issue and controversy in Chapter 2, our concern is neither to defend them as factual nor to trash them as nonfactual." (p. ix)

I'm about 100 pages into the book, and, so far, they comment on issues of factuality frequently. They often portray the infancy narratives and other portions of the Bible in a negative light without any supporting evidence, and sometimes they do so when it has little relevance to what they're discussing (for example, the speculative scenario on p. 78 in which Jesus' father dies around 4 B.C., which contradicts Luke 2:41-51; the allegation on p. 90 that Ruth "seduces" Boaz; etc.). It seems that Borg and Crossan want to put forward an image of kindness and a desire to avoid controversy, as if their disagreements with those who are more conservative don't concern them much, while, at the same time, acting otherwise.

But I agree with Borg and Crossan about the significance of the Christmas season:

"The stories of Jesus's birth are the foundation of the world's most widely observed holiday. Christmas is celebrated by the world's two billion Christians, a number about twice that of the next largest religion, Islam. Moreover, because of the cultural and commercial importance of Christmas in Western culture and beyond, it is observed by many non-Christians as well. Indeed, no other religious holiday is so widely commemorated by people who are outside of the tradition that originated it....Indeed, in contemporary Western culture and even for many Christians, the commemoration of Christmas exceeds the commemoration of Easter. Because of the importance of Christmas, how we understand the stories of Jeus's birth matters. What we think they're about - how we hear them, read them, interpret them - matters. They are often sentimentalized. And, of course, there is emotional power in them. They touch the deepest of human yearnings...Moreover, for many Christians, they are associated with their earliest memories of childhood. Christmas has emotional power....They [the infancy narratives] speak of personal and political transformation." (pp. vii-viii)

Why, then, aren't Evangelicals doing more to argue for and defend the historicity of the infancy narratives? Why don't we hear more about these issues in sermons, in Sunday school classes, from Evangelical blogs, radio programs, and books, etc.? The liberal media choose to focus on liberal scholars like Raymond Brown and more radical liberals like Borg and Crossan, but why haven't Evangelicals done more to offer an alternative? We don't control the media, but even if we did, what recent books would we have to offer in contrast to something like Brown's book, Borg and Crossan's, or Vermes'? How many Evangelical radio programs that you've listened to this Christmas season have had much to say about the historicity of the infancy narratives? When they address the subject, do they go into much depth? Do they recommend many, or any, good resources on the subject?

1 comment:

  1. you're question of why evangelicals aren't talking about this more, is a good one. I am actually doing a three-part post on the issue. You can check it out at