Teaching Information Literacy Using the Bible (or, Is Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem “Fake News”?)

Teaching Information Literacy Using the Bible (or, Is Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem “Fake News”?) December 22, 2017

It has been a long while since I radically revised my one-semester course on the Bible to focus on information literacy. The has, however, almost entirely focused on the wise use of sources about the Bible, and not what we can learn about bias and trustworthiness from within the Bible itself. But the Bible includes religious and political propaganda, and claims that are most likely historically counterfactual. As one commenter put it when responding to a post about Jesus’ birthplace being Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, the claim that he was born in Bethlehem is “fake news.”

We can see this in the way each of the two Gospels in the New Testament that tries to have Jesus of Nazareth be born in Bethlehem accomplishes it in very different ways. Here is what I wrote about that subject on Facebook yesterday (in a discussion of a blog post of mine from a previous year about “Contradictory Christmases”):

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is simply to be found in a home in Bethlehem, where his family lives, with no indication whatsoever that they are from somewhere else. He is usually thought to be about 2 years old, since based on information about the star that heralded his birth, Herod kills all male children in Bethlehem who are 2 years old or younger. They flee to Egypt, and after Herod dies they want to return to their home in Judaea. But because Archelaus, Herod’s son, is on the throne, they fear to return and make their home in Galilee. The impression given is that this is how they end up in Galilee.
In Luke, the family is from Nazareth. The census under Quirinius, which takes place after Archelaus is deposed by the Romans, is cited as the reason they go to Bethlehem. Once Jesus is born, they go up to Jerusalem to fulfill what Leviticus 12 requires, which is that a woman undergo a purification rite after childbirth a little over a month after the birth. Luke tells us that once they did everything that the law requires there, they returned to their hometown of Nazareth.
Even apart from the discrepancy in dating (a couple of years before Herod the Great dies, vs. after Herod the Great’s son is deposed), the geographical movements simply do not fit together in any straightforward way.

And so I was very struck when the ASOR blog shared an article by Brendon Benz called ‘The Bible as Tool for Learning to Evaluate Competing Voices in an Age of “Fake News”.’ Here is the conclusion:

Again, the leading themes in the Bible and its interpretation are important on literary, historical, and theological levels. However, if they are received without challenge – if they are accepted absent a hermeneutic of suspicion – the reader will fail to hear the opposing voices that are embedded in the text. By contrast, if one approaches the text critically, it can serve as an important tool for helping ourselves and our students develop skills for disentangling the web of information with which we are confronted, of recognizing the potentially negative impact of prevailing storylines, and of hearing alternative points of view – even if we do not agree with them.

David Brin asked whether fact checking is really possible. The Wall Street Journal observed that librarians are busier than ever, an encouraging sign that people are not all just relying on their own abilities plus Google.

There has also been a call for skeptics to take the “pro-truth pledge” and take a stand against fake news. Unfortunately, calling oneself a skeptic, or even trying to be one, does not safeguard against fallibility or deception. The main reason for that is that our own thought processes, our process of reasoning and drawing conclusions, takes place in our minds in a manner that is at best partly accessible to us.

Returning to fake news and the Bible, Hemant Mehta noted the church billboard asking people to skip church since “it’s all fake news.” Ironically, Mehta then went on to give a guest blogger a platform for fake news, someone who does not accept the evidence for there having been a historical Jesus.

See also Mehta’s post about studying journalism at Liberty University, in which he writes, “Questioning dogma is what good journalists do, but Liberty is not a place where students are allowed to do that when it comes to certain issues.” Also relevant is the article in New Scientist emphasizing the need for critical thinking rather than mere gut feelings.

What do you think? Can the contents of the Bible be useful in teaching information literacy skills?

The Bible as Tool for Learning to Evaluate Competing Voices in an Age of “Fake News”

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  • John MacDonald

    “What do you think? Can the contents of the Bible be useful in teaching information literacy skills?”

    I think studying the bible is excellent for teaching critical literacy skills. The profound honesty of critical biblical scholar that we generally have to err on the side of caution and “bracket” the historicity of material that does not meet sophisticated historical criteria of authenticity is an excellent foundation/avenue to remedy the assumptions of a society that accepts the truthfulness of anything simply because it’s published on the internet.

  • Nick G

    A warning about the author of the “pro-truth pledge”. See also the earlier articles referred to, and Tsipursky’s responses, and judge for yourself.

  • Nick G

    Can the contents of the Bible be useful in teaching information literacy skills?

    I doubt it, because of the amount of specialized knowledge needed to apply them at more than a fairly elementary level to a multi-authored, multi-edited (in both cases, by unknown individuals) collection of documents written over several hundred years, in more than one ancient language, and in cultural contexts remote from anyone today.

  • arcseconds

    ‘Hermeneutic of suspicion’ is a phrase due to Paul Ricœur, and it refers specifically to the kind of interpretation performed by Freud, Marx, and Nietzche, where texts are not accepted at face value but are instead seen as manifestations of unconscious drives, class interests, or the will to power respectively.

    While it’s true that authors have motivations and give voice to things they aren’t aware of, interpreting them entirely in terms of say sublimating their libido and dealing with their Oedipus complex is a good way of never encountering the text honestly yourself, so I would not be recommending such a hermeneutic as a way of improving information literacy.

  • arcseconds

    Also, the black box referred to in the ‘Black Box Problem’ isn’t the human mind, but corporately-held data and algorithms, which provide us with much of our data and also hold a lot of data on us that we can’t access.

    Was that an information literacy test? Did I pass?

    • If I say “with flying colors “ without making sure that what I think I know and have heard is correct, do I fail your test? 🙂

      • arcseconds

        I can smell an infinte regress a mile away, James, you can’t entangle me quite that easily

  • John MacDonald

    Ehrman just shared his ideas as to why he thinks Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem, which agree with Dr. McGrath’s interpretation:

    “Only two of our sources say he was, and they are irreconcileably contradictory (in my opinion) in their accounts of how it happened. That suggests they had *reasons* to want him born there, and Micah 5:2 comes to mind. Since neither account is historically plausible, then they appear to be legendary” – Bart Ehrman

  • arcseconds

    James, this post partly (along with a similar post on Remnants of Giants) provoked an interesting discussion as a result of Bill Heroman’s disagreement (where he calls you a thickie):


    I’m not trying to start a fight here, but I would be interested in your take on this, particularly given your interest in science fiction and fandom.

    I think people are talking past each other to some extent, as Heroman seems to have very different goals to scholars, or at least historians, perhaps most clearly expressed (in these posts: I haven’t read anything more of his blog) in this comment:


    He is interested in narrative, and wants to bracket or postpone (or maybe even ignore?) questions of historicity, and in particular wants to help the believer on the pew think more critically about their imagined narrative. And he explicitly references fans of novels and tv shows in defending the appropriateness of doing this. And he’s frustrated that scholars aren’t helping him and are being all elitist and telling people what they can reasonably imagine.

    And I kind of think he might have a point here.

    Even as literary critics we may point out that the world that the Gospel of Matthew enjoins us to entertain is different from the world so enjoined by the Gospel of Luke, which you do point out reasonably clearly in your original ‘Contradictory Christmases’ post. So I think Heroman dismisses this too quickly and is a bit mean to you as a result.

    But as fans of the Jesus Saga, perhaps we’re more interested in what the New Testament tells us about the matter?

    This, I submit, would be what fans of a science fiction franchise would do. With two sources both regarded as canonical but appearing to tell very different stories, fans would attempt to harmonize so long as the problems aren’t too severe, and what counts as ‘too severe’ differs from person to person. E.g. I’d rather pass over in silence on the difference of appearance of Klingons in original series Trek (as I would other cosmetic differences) rather than give a strained explanation, but apparently others prefer something involving viruses.

    To put it another way, a fan is interested in the world projected by the whole canon, not by individual works. And Heroman is right to say that if we read Matthew and Luke as a single text, it doesn’t require very much violence to construct one narrative. As a fan-work, therefore, your average Christmans pageant is, I suppose, fine.

    (I’m pretty confident that fandom would provide a good analogous example to the two different birth narratives, but I can’t immediately think of one off hand. )

    On the other hand, I’d like to think we could aspire to greater heights than having traditional believers simply think about their ‘head-canon’ more critically…

    • Thanks for this comment. I found Bill’s remarks frustrating, because I don’t dispute that harmonization of Matthew and Luke is as easy as embracing TOS, TNG, and Discovery Klingons – with or without the addition of the retcon provided by the Enterprise episode “Affliction.” My approach was explicitly one informed by historical questions and methods, and thus asking not merely about whether one can appreciate and in some sense reconcile two narratives, but whether the information they provide is best understood as two perspectives on the same events, or as depictions of events that fit together at best awkwardly.