Saturday, January 02, 2010

Skeptical Floundering On The Infancy Narratives

Last Saturday's Unbelievable? radio program featured a discussion of the historicity of the infancy narratives. Robert Stovold, an atheist who has written against the traditional Christian view of Christmas, argued against two Christian guests, Charles Foster and Anthony McRoy. The Christian guests made some good points, but their case was much weaker than it could have been.

Regarding the concept that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, see here. If a rock is thrown into water, we don't expect the water to take on the properties of the rock. Rather, we expect the water to react to the rock in accordance with its properties as water. A supernatural event in nature would be perceived by natural means, such as eyesight and hearing. The concept that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is vague, would result in an infinite regress if it's defined in a particular way, and, as it's commonly used, assumes without argument that the evidence we have isn't extraordinary.

Stovold suggests that Matthew "lied" about Old Testament prophecy fulfillment, but the sort of appeal to typology, paraphrasing, and rephrasing for emphasis that we see in Matthew's handling of Old Testament texts was neither dishonest nor innovative. Such practices were common in ancient Judaism, and Matthew's audience had access to and familiarity with the Old Testament independent of Matthew. They weren't dependent on Matthew for their knowledge of what was written in a source like Isaiah or Hosea. If Matthew's intention had been to lie, it would have been quite an incompetent and ineffective form of lying. It's more likely that Matthew was honestly doing what other Jews of his day honestly did. Yes, typological prophecy fulfillment has less evidential significance than non-typological prophecy fulfillment, and a paraphrasing or rephrasing of a prophetic text in order to emphasize a point doesn't tell us the evidential value of the original text, but Matthew's material doesn't have to have the highest evidential value possible in order to be honest. To accuse him of lying is unreasonable.

Stovold spent a lot of time addressing alleged parallels to the infancy narratives in non-Christian sources, and the Christians on the program discussed some of the differences between the Christian accounts and those other sources. But we should also remember that such background issues are just one line of evidence among many that would need to be considered. Many unhistorical accounts do involve unusual or supernatural events surrounding an individual's birth. But if God were to act in the world through the life of an individual, He might have something unusual or supernatural occur in the context of his birth. Birth is a major event in human life. It's major in fiction, but it's also major in non-fiction. Even if we thought that the prominence of unusual births in fictional accounts casts doubt on the New Testament infancy narratives, we'd still have to go on to consider other factors, such as the earliness of the sources, their general credibility, and how other sources responded to the claims. The sort of background issue Stovold kept pointing to, regarding the general credibility of accounts of unusual births, is just one factor among others, and we have good reason to trust Matthew and Luke with regard to the other factors involved.

Concerning the virgin birth, see here.

On the census, see here.

On the Slaughter of the Innocents, go here.

Regarding the Bethlehem birthplace, see here.

For material on the infancy narratives in general, go here.

One of the highlights of the discussion was Stovold's floundering on the issue of alleged parallels to the virgin birth. Listen to minute twenty-seven of the program. Notice that Stovold changes the subject to the Slaughter of the Innocents, then, after being reminded that the topic was the virgin birth, once again changes the subject by shifting to miraculous births. Skeptics often approach the virgin birth and the infancy narratives in general in such a manner. They keep moving from one topic to another after their previous objection was shown to be inadequate, redefining their argument along the way. But Stovold does it so explicitly and in so short a period of time. If you don't listen to the whole program, at least listen to minute twenty-seven. It's representative of what so many skeptics do.

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