Saturday, December 06, 2014

A Professor's Misleading Christmas Quiz

Leonard Hitchcock, professor emeritus at Idaho State University, recently posted a quiz consisting of misleading questions about the infancy narratives. It's a good illustration of how ignorant many skeptics are about matters surrounding Jesus' birth and how inaccurately they often frame the issues.

He begins by commenting that "The source used in formulating the quiz questions was the New Testament, specifically the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are the only accounts of Jesus’s birth provided by that document." Many other New Testament documents and other early sources address Jesus' birth and the surrounding events in some manner, as I demonstrated in a series of posts last year.

After dubiously limiting his sources to Matthew and Luke, Hitchcock tells us that "The questions are multiple-choice: choose (a) or (b)." As we'll see, the correct answer is often something other than the two options he asks us to choose from.

Here's the first question:

When was Christ born? (a) A few years before the death of King Herod in 4 BCE (Matt. 2). (b) The birth took place during the term of Quirinius as governor of Syria, who replaced the immediate successor to King Herod, Archelaus, in 6 AD and held that position until 12 AD (Luke 2).

Matthew 2 doesn't mention "a few years". And Hitchcock is ignoring disputes over the translation and interpretation of Luke 2. See here, for example. As I demonstrated in a series of posts several years ago, there was widespread agreement among the earliest interpreters of the New Testament that Jesus was born under Herod the Great during the closing years of the B.C. era. It's doubtful that there would have been such widespread agreement if Luke had actually dated the birth about a decade later than Matthew dated it. The same series of posts I just linked also demonstrates that Luke's gospel places Jesus' birth in that timeframe in other contexts. It's not as though Luke 2:2 is all we have to go by. There are other indicators of the date of Jesus' birth elsewhere in Luke, in Matthew, and in many other early sources. Hitchcock is ignoring the large majority of the evidence and the widespread agreement among the sources he's ignoring.

Hitchcock continues:

Where did the birth take place? (a) In the house of Joseph and Mary in the town of Bethlehem (Matt. 2.11). (b) In a shelter for farm animals near an inn in Bethlehem (Luke 2.7).

Matthew 2:11 isn't telling us where the birth took place. It's addressing events postdating Jesus' birth by close to two years (Matthew 2:16). And Luke 2 refers neither to a shelter for farm animals nor to an inn. See Stephen Carlson's article here. As Carlson argues, Luke seems to be referring to a house, which means that he and Matthew are in agreement, not disagreement. The error is Hitchcock's, not Matthew or Luke's.

Hitchcock goes on:

Who visited Christ’s birthplace shortly after his birth? (a) Wise men who had inquired of King Herod in Jerusalem regarding the birth of a new “King of the Jews” and were led by a moving star to Bethlehem (Matt. 2. 1-11). (b) Shepherds who were informed by an angel of the birth and the location of the holy family (Luke 2.8-16).

Again, Matthew is addressing events close to two years after the birth (Matthew 2:16), not "shortly after" in the timeframe of the shepherds' visit.

Hitchcock's next question makes the same mistake, so I'm bypassing it and moving on to his fifth question:

Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem? (a) It was the home of his parents, Joseph and Mary (Matt. 2). (b) Joseph and Mary were required to travel to Bethlehem, from their home in Nazareth, to enroll in the census decreed by Caesar Augustus, since Bethlehem was the home of Joseph’s ancestors, including King David (Luke 2.1-5).

Matthew 2 says that Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem without commenting on whether it was "the home of his parents". Notice the absence of geographical references in Matthew 1, in contrast to the presence of so many references in chapter 2. Since Matthew avoids making geographical references in chapter 1, then starts including them in chapter 2, it's problematic to assume that he intended for the geographical reference in 2:1 to be read back into the earlier chapter. If Matthew didn't know where the events of chapter 1 occurred, and was silent on the matter because of his ignorance, then the assumption that he had Bethlehem in mind all along is a fault of readers like Hitchcock, not Matthew. And Hitchcock is wrong about the significance of Joseph's ancestry in Luke 2. See here.

Hitchcock goes on:

Why was Jesus raised in Nazareth? (a) Joseph and Mary feared Herod’s successor, so when they returned from Egypt they chose not to return to their home in Bethlehem but instead to settle in Nazareth (Matt. 2.22-23). (b) After the visit to Jerusalem with the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph returned to their own city, which was Nazareth (Luke 2.39).

See Carlson's article linked above regarding Luke 2:39. Since Luke implies that Joseph had property and/or family in Bethlehem in the opening of chapter 2, it's dubious to read 2:39 the way Hitchcock does. Most likely, Joseph and Mary had ties in both cities, so they could have settled in either place. They would have taken multiple considerations into account in making their decision. Luke 2 mentions a settling in Nazareth, but doesn't deny the motivation for that settling addressed in Matthew 2.

Hitchcock's last question:

Who were Joseph’s paternal ancestors, going backward in time? (a) [Joseph], Jacob, Matthan, Eleazar, Eliud, and Achim….. ending with Abraham (Matt. 1.14-16). (b) [Joseph], Heli, Matthat, Levi, Melchi, and Jannai……. ending with Adam (Luke 3.23-24).

That's a question Christians have been addressing for nearly two millennia, and Hitchcock makes no effort to interact with any of the answers Christians have provided. Even a scholar as liberal as Raymond Brown, who rejected harmonization of the genealogies, acknowledged that harmonization is possible and that it's common for genealogies of the same individual to differ to a significant extent. See here.

Hitchcock then makes some concluding remarks:

It must be kept in mind that these two gospels were originally anonymous — Matthew and Luke are simply traditional attributions – and both gospels were written more than 30 years after the death of Christ.

The author of an ancient document could be identified in multiple ways: by an accompanying oral report, in a document's title, on a tag attached to the document, on the spine of a codex, etc. Hitchcock gives us no reason to think that the gospels were initially anonymous in every one of those contexts. And the notion that they were anonymous in every one of those ways is highly problematic. See here and here. Let's see Hitchcock interact with the counterarguments of somebody like Martin Hengel or Richard Bauckham. The relevant early manuscripts we have (manuscripts that are complete enough) name the gospel authors in their titles. How would Hitchcock know that such naming of the authors was neither part of the earliest copies nor part of the copies circulating shortly after the earliest ones? Furthermore, both Matthew and Luke contain internal evidence corroborating the external reports attributing the documents to those two men. See here and here. Hitchcock also fails to address other arguments in favor of what the early external sources report, like the evidence I discuss in the two posts just linked.

Hitchcock continues:

It is noteworthy, however, that while they agree that Mary was a virgin and that Jesus was descended from King David and was the messiah, they disagree about most other details of the nativity story.

Here's an article in which I give thirty examples of agreements between Matthew and Luke concerning Jesus' childhood, including on matters that are unusual, that meet the criterion of embarrassment, or are corroborated by non-Christian sources, for example.

Hitchcock writes:

Scholars tend to favor Matthew’s dating of Christ’s birth, though there is no evidence outside of the New Testament that either Herod’s massacre of the children, or Quirinius’s census actually took place.

There's extrabiblical Christian and non-Christian corroboration for both. See here and here. And though we have more than one source for the Slaughter and the census, we commonly accept historical claims made by only one source. For example, Steve Mason explains that Josephus is our only source for most of what he (Josephus) writes (Josephus, Judea, And Christian Origins [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009], 16). When arguing against the Biblical accounts, critics of the infancy narratives sometimes rely on something Josephus said that isn't found in any other source. Furthermore, where else are we supposed to find references to the Slaughter and the census? Matthew is the only early Christian source to narrate events around the time when Jesus was two years old. Is John supposed to go off on an irrelevant tangent about the Slaughter while addressing the wedding in Cana? Should Paul bring it up while writing to Philemon? My article on the Slaughter linked above explains why we don't have much reason to expect sources other than Matthew to mention the event. Similarly, we don't have much reason to expect other early sources to mention the census. Matthew addresses the timeframe of the census in Matthew 1, but the chapter is short and focused on Jesus' genealogy and other matters. There's no reason to expect Matthew to mention the census there.

Hitchcock tells us:

The authors agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but that may or may not suggest that it is a fact, for both believed that Jesus had fulfilled all the relevant prophesies in the Old Testament, one of which, in Mic. 5.2, is that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Unfortunately for the gospel authors, Jesus was widely known to be from Nazareth. Matthew deals with this by claiming that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’s birth and only later, after the sojourn in Egypt, moved to Nazareth. Luke contrives a different solution, telling us that Joseph’s original home was, indeed, Nazareth, but that the Roman census forced him to move his family temporarily to Bethlehem, where the birth took place, after which they returned to Nazareth.

I've already addressed the demonstrably false claim that Luke tells us that "Joseph’s original home was, indeed, Nazareth". The Bethlehem birthplace is affirmed not only by Matthew and Luke, but also by Paul, John, and many extrabiblical sources, including non-Christians. See here. The early move to Nazareth, which is an unusual scenario and one that meets the criterion of embarrassment and is therefore unlikely to have been fabricated, is evidence that the gospel writers weren't free to make up whatever they wanted to make up. They weren't writing on a blank slate. When both early Christians and early non-Christians report that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but moved to Nazareth shortly afterward, the best explanation for why they reported that scenario is that it's what happened.

Hitchcock writes:

In all other respects, Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the months following the birth are totally contradictory and there is no external evidence to substantiate either story.

Notice his use of the highly inaccurate phrases "all other respects", "totally contradictory", and "no external evidence". He's not just wrong. He's very wrong.

Hitchcock didn't do his homework. The professor flunks.

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