Monday, July 08, 2013

A Review Of Jonathan Pearce's Book On The Infancy Narratives

Jonathan M.S. Pearce, an atheist, recently published a book arguing against the historicity of the infancy narratives, titled The Nativity: A Critical Examination (England: Onus Books, 2012). You may have seen his blog. His material has been promoted by John Loftus, and he occasionally posts at Debunking Christianity. He debated Randal Rauser on the infancy narratives on a podcast this past Christmas season. His book has been getting some positive reviews at and elsewhere, like here.

In his book, Pearce tells us that he's going to address "all" of the relevant counterarguments (5). In the book's foreword, David Fitzgerald refers to Pearce "methodically examining" the Biblical texts and addressing "the seemingly endless armory-worth" of arguments produced by defenders of the infancy accounts (1).

The second sentence on the back cover asks whether the infancy narratives have "much support in the academic world". Pearce sometimes appeals to scholarly majorities (7). He speaks highly of some of the works on the infancy narratives that are regarded well in scholarly circles. He refers to Raymond Brown's The Birth Of The Messiah as "excellent" and describes Brown as a "great" scholar (in the section titled "A note about the book" and on 14).

What should we expect of a book that claims to be so vigorous in addressing counterarguments and so concerned about mainstream scholarship? We should expect more than we get.

The book is only a little more than 150 pages long. He either ignores or says little about a large number of arguments that have been offered against his position. For example, he rejects the traditional authorship attributions of the gospels without much of an effort to interact with the arguments for those attributions (7-9). There's no interaction with, say, Martin Hengel's case for the earliness of the gospel titles and attributions of authorship. Or C.E. Hill's arguments for hostile corroboration of the gospels. To take another example, Pearce repeats much of what Richard Carrier wrote about Luke's census without interacting with some of the counterarguments that have been circulating for years, including ones offered directly in response to Carrier. Pearce makes a lot of dubious claims about Luke's census without interacting with the work done by Brook Pearson, Stanley Porter, Chris Price, Stephen Carlson, and other individuals in recent years. A vast amount of internal evidence, patristic evidence, ancient hostile corroboration of the infancy narratives, and modern scholarly arguments are ignored or given insufficient attention. Pearce frequently ignores what his own sources tell him. Don't expect to see him interacting much with the "great" Raymond Brown's "excellent" book when Brown argues for Jesus' Davidic ancestry or when Brown argues for the historicity of other aspects of the infancy narratives.

Pearce appeals to the notion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (11-13). Jesus' status as God incarnate and "any" of his reported miracles, as well as other events that "defy the laws of nature as we know them", are "almost by definition, the most improbable set of claims" (13). He makes a naked appeal to an antiprophecy assumption to support the conclusion that Matthew must have been written after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.D. (21) He makes no effort to interact with, say, Stephen Braude's research into paranormal phenomena or Craig Keener's recent work on miracles.

The David Fitzgerald who wrote the foreword to Pearce's book is a Christ myther (somebody who denies that Jesus existed). You can't get much further out of the scholarly mainstream than that. Pearce repeatedly treats the view that Jesus didn't exist with respect (Foreword, 8, 27, 32), more respect than he shows for some Christian positions that are far more defensible and have been held by many more individuals, including a much larger number of scholars. Near the end of his book, Pearce spends a few pages discussing the theory that Nazareth wasn't inhabited at the time when Jesus is supposed to have lived there (144-147). Pearce doesn't deny Jesus' existence or Nazareth's existence as an inhabited town during Jesus' purported lifetime. But he repeatedly gives space (in so short a book) to the arguments of people who do hold such positions. Over and over, Pearce puts forward theories far outside of the scholarly mainstream, often telling readers in the process that he isn't endorsing the positions he's putting forward. He muddies the waters with highly dubious claims, often with little or no supporting argumentation, sometimes adding the qualifier that he doesn't even believe the claims he's presenting. In addition to Jesus' nonexistence and the nonexistence of Nazareth, we hear about:

- the author of Luke's gospel borrowing from Josephus (17, 20)

- the notion that the author of Luke "could not have written prior to 94 A.D." and may have written "much later" than that year (17)

- the idea that the infancy narratives are later additions to gospels that didn't originally circulate with those passages (22)

- the concept that the author of Matthew "perhaps" suggests sexual immorality on Mary's part when he includes women like Rahab and Bathsheba in his genealogy (28)

- alleged parallels between Mithras and Jesus (n. 2 on 29)

- the "food for thought" idea that Luke 2:43-50 might have been borrowed from The Infancy Gospel Of Thomas, thus "pushing even further back" the date for Luke (34)

And so on. You get the impression that Pearce wants to plant a lot of seeds of doubt without applying much scrutiny to those seeds.

The back cover suggests that the infancy narratives contain "little or no historical truth". David Fitzgerald, in the foreword, claims that the infancy accounts are "completely incompatible" (2). In Matthew 2, according to Pearce, "every verse" referring to the magi or Herod is "fraught with issues", to the point that there's "no truth" underlying the accounts (101). He tells us that "every single claim" in the infancy narratives "can be soundly doubted" (151). We have "no proper account of Jesus' life" in the infancy accounts, which he suggests are "patently false" (151).

He arrives at such a negative view of the infancy narratives largely by contriving objections and ignoring counterarguments. I'll discuss some examples below, but a lot more could be mentioned.

His chapter on the Bethlehem birthplace ignores some significant contextual factors, ignores many of the relevant Biblical and extrabiblical sources, and doesn't interact with most of the counterarguments to his case for a Nazareth birthplace. Yet, he finds space to contrive the objection that Paul should have mentioned the Bethlehem birthplace when referring to "the Jewishness of Jesus" (51). Paul doesn't directly mention any birthplace of Jesus, including Nazareth, and there were many ways to refer to Jesus' Jewishness without a direct reference to his place of birth. Given factors like the close connection between Davidic ancestry (which Paul directly affirms) and the Bethlehem birthplace, the apparent reference to Luke's gospel as scripture in 1 Timothy 5:18, and the acceptance of the Bethlehem birthplace by so many sources close to Paul, it's more likely that Paul believed in the Bethlehem birthplace than that he didn't. Pearce objects that the birth in Bethlehem is mentioned in just two early documents (50), which is only true if he has direct references in mind, yet his position involving a Nazareth birthplace has even less support.

He asks how Joseph could have afforded to do the traveling referred to in the infancy narratives (95-96, 149). Joseph may have depended on hospitality and temporary work, among other possibilities. Regarding hospitality in a culture like Joseph's, see Kenneth Bailey's chapters on the infancy narratives in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2008). The sort of temporary work that existed in the ancient world, which was much different than what many of us are accustomed to in modern contexts, is illustrated by Jesus' parable in Matthew 20:1-16. There was no process of filling out a résumé, arranging an interview days ahead of time, waiting to hear back from the employer days or weeks later, etc. You could quickly find work and quickly get paid. See the discussion, with many sources cited, in Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 480-484. References to temporary work and travel among the lower classes are widespread in the Bible and ancient extrabiblical sources. Pearce asks why the gospels don't refer to Joseph as working during his time away from home, if he was doing so (96). But that's the sort of less important detail that narratives often leave out. Similarly, we're not told how often Joseph and his family rested along the way, where they got their food, etc. Even if there was some unusual way in which Joseph attained the funding for his travels, such as by receiving an inheritance from a relative shortly before the events narrated in the infancy accounts, Matthew and Luke would have been under no obligation to mention it. Similarly, if the gifts of the magi were used to fund the traveling that occurs later in Matthew 2, Matthew wouldn't need to mention it. The issue of how the traveling was funded isn't of much significance, especially when hospitality, temporary work, and other factors present in the ancient context rendered such travel credible.

Pearce makes much of the alleged irrational behavior of Herod, the magi, and other figures in Matthew 2. He makes too many unreasonable claims for me to address all of them here. I'll just cite several examples. He asks why Herod would be so concerned about a child who probably wouldn't grow up to become king until after Herod was dead (142). But the attention the child was already receiving from the magi was a present threat and offense to Herod, even if the child wouldn't become king until significantly later. Pearce comments that Herod's inquiry about the timing of the star in Matthew 2:7 is "relevant if and only if they [the magi] were not to return to him [Herod]…As Strauss points out, his [Herod's] anger shows he was not expecting this and gets away with being able to calculate such a morbid ruling because he had somehow asked them for the relevant information before he needed it!" (108) But Herod could have had any of multiple reasons for asking what he did in Matthew 2:7. Even if he considered it probable that he would successfully manipulate the magi, he could still desire to have another plan to fall back on if needed. And asking when the star appeared would be a highly natural response to the context of Matthew 2:7, since the timing of the star would be relevant to so many issues (curiosity about such an unusual phenomenon, why Herod hadn't heard any previous reports of the star, the degree to which the child was a threat relative to his age, etc.). The idea that Herod would only be concerned about the timing of the star when he had been betrayed by the magi is ridiculous. Similarly ridiculous are Pearce's assumption that the people of Jerusalem "knew of the birth of the Messiah" just because they were troubled at what some magi were claiming (105), his assumption that sending assassins with the magi (107) wouldn't produce too much of a risk of raising the magi's and the Bethlehemites' suspicions, his assumption that Herod would be able to discern how many assassins were needed to overpower any resistance by the magi and an unpredictable number of people in Bethlehem, etc. Remember, the magi were claiming to have been supernaturally led to Israel. They professed to have guidance that Herod's inner circle didn't have. If Herod thought he was dependent on the magi for confirmation that the child was in Bethlehem and which child was the one, and he thought it likely that he could manipulate the magi, then proceeding as he did prior to Matthew 2:16 would be an efficient way of finding and executing the child. As far as Herod acted irrationally, he also acted irrationally on other occasions that Pearce accepts as historically credible (129-130). In fact, on the pages just cited, Pearce suggests that those previous actions of Herod may have inspired Matthew's account. If the previous actions could so plausibly inspire Matthew's narrative, then why should we think Matthew's account is inconsistent with how Herod would have behaved? And Herod wouldn't be the only historical figure to have chosen the second, third, or worse option available to him rather than a better alternative. People often make bad decisions, for a variety of reasons, especially when they're as mentally unstable as Herod, acting under such unexpected circumstances, with a sense of urgency, etc.

There are places where Pearce either contradicts himself or leaves unclear how he reconciles two positions that have a strong chance of being inconsistent. At times he seems to accept the traditional Christian understanding of the Bethlehem prophecy of Micah 5 (49, 56), but he questions it at other points (50, 105). On the one hand, "Jews and Christians alike" expected the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem (49). On the other hand, Pearce tries to cast doubt on ancient Jewish expectation of a Bethlehem birthplace (105). Sometimes he parallels Matthew 2 with the events in Luke prior to 2:39 (135, 150, first two sections of his debate with Randal Rauser). However, elsewhere he raises the possibility that Matthew 2:16 places Matthew 2 in a later timeframe, and he even appeals to that view himself (95). He suggests that Luke places his census in 6 A.D. (75), and he often approvingly refers to Richard Carrier's material on the census, where the same position is taken. But elsewhere, he approvingly quotes Tim Callahan dating Luke's census to the lifetime of Herod the Great (86), a position Carrier rejects. If Pearce only intended to affirm what Callahan said on some other topic(s), I don't see why he quoted some of Callahan's comments on the timing of the census, which he could easily have left out.

In the foreword to the book, David Fitzgerald claims that Mark and John don't portray Jesus' birth as unusual "at all" (1). Pearce tells us that the gospels are "arguably" our "only sources of information about Jesus" (7). Paul doesn't even "allude" to the virgin birth (32). The Bethlehem birthplace isn't corroborated by Mark, John, Paul, or any other early source outside of Matthew and Luke (50). According to Pearce, the gospels suggest that while Jesus' public ministry was being carried out, "no one" knew of any miracles prior to that public ministry (124, 126). The suggestion is repeatedly made that the infancy narratives are corroborated by other sources far less than they actually are. Fitzgerald and Pearce ignore arguments against their position from Mark 6:3, John 8:12, 1 Timothy 5:18, and other Biblical passages. They also ignore the vast majority of extrabiblical evidence corroborating the infancy narratives.

Pearce refers to the "Immaculate Conception" of Jesus, with capital letters (42). Does he think the Roman Catholic doctrine is about Jesus' conception? Augustine is cited with an incomplete reference to "Contra Faustum" (n. 1 on 47). Pearce refers to "inns" with regard to Luke 2 (88, 90), apparently unaware that the passage isn't referring to an inn. He refers to Elizabeth as Mary's "cousin" (94). He misspells Philip Schaff's name both times he uses it (131, 157). He comments that Jesus "could not carry out any miracles" in Nazareth in the gospels (143), even though the gospels repeatedly say that he did perform miracles there (Matthew 13:54, 13:58, Mark 6:2, 6:5, implied in Luke 4:30). And see below for further examples of such errors. These kinds of mistakes don't amount to much if you take, say, one or two of them in isolation. But they're more important cumulatively. Everybody occasionally makes a mistake. All of us are going to be ignorant of some issues in a context as large as the infancy narratives. The problem is that Pearce makes so many mistakes, and seems to be ignorant of so much, while making such high claims about his efforts and being so critical of his opponents.

A good illustration is his treatment of Justin Martyr on pages 28-29. He includes a quote of Justin that's taken from a book by F.C. Conybeare. The source of the passage in Justin's writings isn't identified, so you have to find it for yourself. It's found in section 48 of Justin's Dialogue With Trypho. Conybeare's rendering of the passage and Pearce's interpretation of it are very misleading. Conybeare has Justin identifying as Christians some people who reject the virgin birth, after which Justin makes a comment that Pearce interprets as a claim that most Christians reject the virgin birth. But Justin actually says neither. Rather, he refers to Jews who reject the virgin birth, and he says that he'd believe in the virgin birth even if most who hold his views were to reject it. Justin isn't claiming that most Christians reject the virgin birth. Rather, he's referring to what he'd do if most were to reject it. For a modern edition of the Dialogue With Trypho that corrects both of the errors in Pearce's book, see Michael Slusser, ed., Dialogue With Trypho (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2003), 73-74 and note 3 on those pages. And see J. Gresham Machen's discussion of this passage in Justin, as well as the evidence for majority acceptance of the virgin birth in early church history, in The Virgin Birth Of Christ (Birmingham, Alabama: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2011), 2-43.

To make matters worse, Pearce introduces his misleading quote of Justin with a claim that Justin accepted the virgin birth "not on evidence, but on prophecy" (29). The two aren't mutually exclusive. And Justin doesn't say anything about "not on evidence, but on prophecy". Rather, Justin thinks he has good evidence for the likes of Old Testament prophecy fulfillment and the historical reliability of the gospels. To Justin, the gospels are credible historical accounts composed by the apostles and their associates, similar to Xenephon's memoirs of Socrates (see Sara Parvis and Paul Foster, edd., Justin Martyr And His Worlds [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2007], 71-74).

The problem isn't just Pearce's ignorance of Justin. It's that he seems to know so little about the patristic era and patristic scholarship in general.

Many of the problems I've outlined above recur in Pearce's debate with Randal Rauser in late 2012. In his opening comments, Pearce claims that there's no corroboration "at all" for the Slaughter of the Innocents and Luke's census in extrabiblical sources. In the same section of the debate, he makes the remarkably simplistic claim that Jesus couldn't have had both a genealogy of 28 generations and a genealogy of 77 generations. Apparently, he's suggesting that we somehow know that the authors of the genealogies both intended to be exhaustive, even though Matthew only goes back to Abraham and repeatedly makes obvious omissions and employs gematria. In the second and third sections of the debate, Pearce claims that Matthew has Jesus in Egypt "a few years" and "several years". Where does Matthew suggest such a thing? In the second section of the debate, he refers to Mary as nine months pregnant when she travels to Bethlehem for the census. How is he getting that conclusion from Luke's text? In the third section of the debate, he claims that Jesus' parents aren’t identified anywhere outside of the writings of Matthew and Luke. What about Mark 6:3, John 1:45, and 6:42? I'm just giving a few examples of problematic claims he made during the debate. More could be cited. And this was a debate that occurred months after his book was published. It's not something he did in the early stages of researching his book.

In light of his track record, what Pearce says about Christians is noteworthy. He refers to how Luke "stole" material from Matthew and might have "plagiarised" Josephus (17). According to Pearce, many Christian apologists aren't arguing with a "straight face" (53). He accuses at least one of the gospel authors of "lying" (58). If the census in Luke 2 didn't occur, then it follows that the author of the gospel "lied" (63). He's "not to be trusted" (63). Pearce tells us about his "extreme annoyance" at Christians who use a particular argument about Luke's census (85). N.T. Wright is referred to as an "apologist" (137). By contrast, Robert Price is referred to as "Scholar Robert M. Price" (n. 1 on 34).

I don't see anything in Pearce's book that justifies his confidence or the contempt he shows toward so many people who disagree with him. He had already placed himself in a deep hole by not interacting with so many of the counterarguments against his position when he wrote his book. Since then, his predicament has gotten worse (e.g., the first volume of Craig Keener's commentary on Acts has come out, and it undermines some of Pearce's claims about Luke).


  1. It spite of the obvious failings of Pearce's arguments, he received adulation for his scholarship in this book, that's the way of the world, sigh. I haven't purchased his book and based on this review, I'm not inclined to waste my time and money on it. I suspect I've heard the bulk of his views before from other people.

    There was one thing in your comments that I didn't follow though. It seems that Pearce used an astounding argument against the plausibility of Josephs travel to Bethlehem as something that he couldn't have afforded. Am I understanding correctly? Every Jewish male was required to trek to the Temple (six miles from Bethlehem) at least three times a year. Would almost every Jewish man be unable to make those required trips so would Pearce assert that therefore invalidates the Torah since nobody was able to follow its requirements? The fact that you entertained Pearce's absurd argument by proposing that Joseph may have done odd jobs along the way was mystifying to me. Or was Pearce referring to the trip to and from Egypt? For that sojourn they had the Magi's gifts which may have been significant. For someone as brilliant as you saying what I think you're saying doesn't make sense. I've got to be missing something.

  2. It's interesting that in seven years he hasn't picked up any new tricks. His lousy attempt at claiming Luke was forcing a prophecy fulfilment of Psalm 83 (which is pure nonsense) would only work if he were to assume miracles don't happen, similar to how you mention he argues that Matthew had to be written after the fall of Jerusalem because they predict it. And I certainly saw the contempt during the debate with him shaking his head no while Lydia was speaking. It's so bad it comes out in his writings which you'd think he'd like to sound as calm and dispassionate writings.