Monday, December 22, 2008

The Neglect Of Christmas Apologetics

Recent polling in England probably reflects where the United States is headed:

"Young people were particularly doubtful about the nativity, with 78 per cent of 16-24-year-olds saying they were not convinced of its historical reliability....Almost a quarter of those questioned who described themselves as Christians admitted they did not believe certain aspects of the Bible's teaching about Jesus....A separate study by Mothers' Union, a Christian charity, showed that more parents encourage their children to believe in Father Christmas than in the nativity."

And I suspect that most of those who affirm the historicity of the infancy narratives could be persuaded to abandon that belief without much difficulty. The church should be giving far more attention to Christmas apologetics.

Early this year, I participated in an email discussion about why Christians seem so uninterested in studying and arguing for the historicity of the infancy narratives. Here are a few points I made at the time:

- Many of the problems with Christmas apologetics don't seem to exist with Easter apologetics. There are far more books on Christ's resurrection than on the issues surrounding the infancy narratives. Arguments for the resurrection are much more advanced than the arguments for the infancy issues. Apologetic material seems to be included much more often in Easter sermons than in Christmas sermons. Etc. Any explanation for the lack of Christmas apologetics has to take into account the far larger amount of Easter apologetics that we've seen. Many of the problems you've mentioned either don't exist in the context of Easter or exist to a lesser degree. In some ways, that difference is justified. Scripture says more about the resurrection than it does about Jesus' infancy. Scripture often refers to the importance of the resurrection (every gospel concludes with it and the events surrounding it, Acts 17:31, 1 Corinthians 15:14, etc.). We have better evidence for Jesus' resurrection than we have for something like the virgin birth or the Bethlehem birthplace. And Easter focuses on Jesus' resurrection, one event, whereas Christmas involves more issues and, thus, more complexity. Still, the fact that it's understandable that there are more and better apologetics for Easter than for Christmas doesn't explain why the Christmas apologetic material is so poor. I think that Easter has in some ways been handled much better than Christmas by the Christian world. It's an example of what could be done with Christmas, but hasn't been done so far.

- I think that Christmas is so important to people in some non-apologetic contexts, such as emotional memories and relationships with relatives, that people often don't want to think about apologetic issues that seem disruptive to their enjoyment of the season. They don't want their family reunions and Christmas shopping disturbed by questions about the historicity of what the holiday celebrates. They want to keep the season highly emotional and positive, and thinking through issues like the historicity of the census and where Jesus was born seems disruptive. I don't think that people associate Easter with the sort of emotions, relationships, etc. that are associated with Christmas. People are more occupied with other things at Christmas than they are at Easter.

- Some of liberal scholarship's objections to the infancy narratives can appear more credible on the surface than they are upon closer scrutiny. For example, in both the scholarly literature and at lower levels, it seems that there's been widespread acceptance of the concept that the events of the infancy narratives are too distant from the people who wrote about those events in the gospels. If Matthew and Luke wrote in the second half of the first century, how much access would they have had to information surrounding events of several decades earlier? It seems to me that many people, even conservative scholars, underestimate the significance of the early church's access to sources like Mary and James. I've seen little acknowledgment, even among conservative scholars, of the fact that issues like where Jesus was born and other circumstances surrounding His birth would have been of interest to both the early Christians and their enemies long before the gospels were written. People would have been thinking about and discussing the issues long before the gospels came along. Just as Paul's relative silence about Jesus' public ministry shouldn't lead us to the conclusion that there wasn't much early interest in the subject, the same is true of silence about the infancy material in the earliest sources. My impression is that scholars often recognize this fact with regard to something like Jesus' public ministry, but rarely acknowledge it with regard to the infancy events. I find it hard to believe that an issue like where Jesus was born wasn't prominently discussed even before Jesus died. Yet, scholars often act as if there probably wasn't much consideration of the infancy events until around the time when the gospels were written. Even conservative scholars seem to often underestimate how much interest in the events of Jesus' infancy the earliest Christians would have had. It seems that much of what conservative scholars have recognized and argued with regard to Jesus' public ministry, the resurrection, the ministry of Paul, etc. hasn't been applied to the infancy narratives. The evidence for the infancy material isn't as good, but many of the same principles could be applied to a lesser extent. They aren't applied as much as they ought to be. I suspect that liberal scholarship's emphasis on the gap of time between Jesus' birth and the gospels has left a major impression even on many conservative scholars, so that even conservatives often view the infancy narratives as having little apologetic potential. They have difficulty moving beyond that false initial impression. I think the same occurs with many conservative Christians outside of scholarly circles. Some liberal arguments initially seem much more significant than they actually are, and many people don't get beyond that initial perception.

- One of the rare Christmas apologetics books I've seen in recent years is Lee Strobel's The Case For Christmas. It's a small book, and my understanding is that it does little more than reproduce some chapters from The Case For Christ. (Thus, I haven't read it.) Judging from rankings, it seems that the Christmas book has been selling much less than Strobel's other Case books. I don't recall seeing Strobel interviewed for the Christmas book as much as he's been interviewed for the other Case books. The fact that he and Zondervan chose to reproduce chapters from an earlier book, as opposed to giving more space and more originality to a Christmas book, seems significant. If Lee Strobel can't sell Christmas apologetics, I wonder who could. I suspect that one of the reasons for the rarity of material on Christmas apologetics is that it's been tried by publishers from time to time and has largely failed.

I think we could cite some other reasons for the neglect of Christmas apologetics, but whatever the reasons for it, Borg and Crossan are right about the significance of Christmas and the Christmas season. It's a major lost opportunity.

A little more than thirty years ago, during the Christmas season of 1976, Raymond Brown wrote the foreword to the first edition of The Birth Of The Messiah (New York, New York: Doubleday, 1999). In that foreword, he noted that the infancy narratives were in some ways "the last frontiers" to be crossed in gospel scholarship, an area of neglect among both liberals and conservatives (p. 6). A few decades later, other scholars (recently Joseph Kelly, Geza Vermes, Marcus Borg, and John Crossan, for example) have joined Brown in advancing a liberal view of the infancy narratives, with much influence in academia and the media. Conservatives, within and outside of scholarship, have been more apathetic.


  1. The Telegraph story I linked mentions a film produced by St. Helen's Church in Bishopsgate, London. You can view the film here. It's a good introduction to the historicity and significance of the infancy narratives. The historian Paul Barnett is interviewed, and though he doesn't go into much depth, his comments are a good introduction to the subject for the average person. More churches ought to do what St. Helen's is doing, and more.

  2. Archbishop of Canterbury:“Yes I do. I think I trust the beginning of Matthew’s gospel in broad outline, "

    He 'thinks' he trusts it in 'broad outline'?