The situation is this. I maintain that, to hold to the notion that the accounts are historical, one has to jump through hoops. However, the Christian might say that one or two claims in the accounts may be false, but that does not mean that the other claims are false. But in this approach lie many issues. For example:
1) If we accept that some claims in the accounts are false, does the Christian special plead that the other claims are true?
2) The claims are so interconnected that to falsify one or two of them means that the house of cards comes tumbling down.
3) If we establish that at least some of the claims are false, how does this affect other claims within the same Gospel? How can we know that claims of Jesus’ miracles are true given that the reliability of the writer is accepted as questionable?
And so on. In my book, The Nativity: A Critical Examination, I think I give ample evidence that allows one to conclude that the historicity of the nativity accounts is sorely and surely challenged. All of the aspects and claims, that is. There are problems, for sure, if one accepts that some claims are false but others are true. But the simple fact of the matter is that all of the claims are highly questionable.
Here are the hoops that a Christian must jump through. They are flaming hoops, and the Christian can do nothing to avoid being burnt, it seems. From my book:
In order for the Christian who believes that both accounts are factually true to uphold that faithful decree, the following steps must take place. The believer must:
• Special plead that the virgin birth motif is actually true for Christianity but is false for all other religions and myths that claim similarly.
• Deny that “virgin” is a mistranslation.
• Give a plausible explanation of from whence the male genome of Jesus came from and how this allowed him to be “fully man”.
• Be able to render the two genealogies fully coherent without the explanation being contrived or ad hoc.
• Believe that the genealogies are bona fide and not just tools to try to prove Jesus’ Davidic and Messianic prophecy-fulfilling heritage.
• Be able to explain the inconsistency of the two accounts in contradicting each other as to where Joseph lived before the birth (without the explanation being contrived or ad hoc).
• Somehow be able to contrive an explanation whereby Herod and Quirinius could be alive concurrently, despite all the evidence contrary to this point.
• Believe that a client kingdom under Herod could and would order a census under Roman diktat. This would be the only time in history this would have happened.
• Find it plausible that people would return, and find precedent for other occurrences of people returning, to their ancestral homes for a census (at an arbitrary number of generations before: 41).
• Give a probable explanation as to how a Galilean man was needed at a census in another judicial area.
• Give a plausible reason as to why Mary was required at the census (by the censors or by Joseph).
• Give a plausible explanation as to why Mary would make that 80 mile journey on donkey or on foot whilst heavily pregnant, and why Joseph would be happy to let her do that.
• Believe that Joseph could afford to take anywhere from a month to two years off work.
• Believe that, despite archaeological evidence, Nazareth existed as a proper settlement at the time of Jesus’ birth.
• Believe that the prophecies referred to Nazareth and not something else. • Believe that the magi were not simply a theological tool derived from the Book of Daniel.
• Believe that Herod (and his scribes and priests) was not acting entirely out of character and implausibly in not knowing the prophecies predicting Jesus, and not accompanying the magi three hours down the road.
• Believe that the magi weren’t also merely a mechanism to supply Herod with an opportunity to get involved in the story and thus fulfil even more prophecies.
• Believe that the magi were also not a reinterpretation of the Balaam narrative from the Old Testament, despite there being clear evidence to the contrary.
• Believe that a star could lead some magi from the East to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem where it rested over an individual house and not be noted by anyone else in the world.
• Believe that the shepherds were not merely midrashic and theological tools used by Luke.
• Believe that there is (and provide it) a reasonable explanation as to why each Gospel provides different first witnesses (shepherds and magi) without any mention of the other witnesses.
• Believe that, despite an absence of evidence and the realisation that it is clearly a remodelling of an Old Testament narrative, the Massacre of the Innocents actually happened.
• Believe that Herod would care enough about his rule long after his death to chase after a baby and murder many other innocent babies, a notion that runs contrary to evidence.
• Believe that God would allow other innocent babies to die as a result of the birth of Jesus.
• Believe that the Flight to and from Egypt was not just a remodelling of an Old Testament narrative in order to give Jesus theological gravitas.
• Give a plausible explanation as to why the two accounts contradict each other so obviously as to where Jesus and family went after his birth.
• Explain the disappearance of the shepherds and magi, who had seen the most incredible sights of their lives, and why they are never heard from again despite being the perfect spokespeople for this newfound religion.
• Provide a plausible explanation as to why Jesus’ own family did not think he was the Messiah, given the events of the nativity accounts.
Once the believer in the accuracy of these accounts can do all of the above, in a plausible and probable manner, then they can rationally hold that belief. I would contest that it is rationally possible to ever hold such a belief.
But does a Christian have to hold the belief that all of the claims are true? This is something which I have mentioned several times. The difficulty here for such a (liberal) Christian is how to arrive at any kind of a rational basis as to what they accept and what they reject. Given that it has been shown that every single claim can be soundly doubted under critical examination, it is difficult to build a case for any veracity within the combined, two-prong approach of the infancy narratives. There really is no solid rational foundation to an acceptance that, for example, the virgin birth claims are true, but the magi are probably false; or that the magi were real and factual, but the star was not; or that the shepherd encounter truly happened as reported, but that the census never took place. It would be fairly arbitrary at best. Many of the events are crucially interconnected.
The ramifications for pulling the rug out from under the believers’ feet is that we are left with no proper account of Jesus’ life until, really, he starts his ministry. Furthermore, we have no real evidence for the claims that Jesus is the Messiah and is derived from Messianic and Davidic heritage. As a result, we have only the accounts of the miraculous events surrounding Jesus’ ministry and death. However, the same problems afflict these accounts: they are uncorroborated by extra-biblical, non pro-Jesus attestation and rely on unknown authors writing in unknown places. What is particularly damaging, as I have already set out, is that if the birth narratives can be shown to be patently false, and the narratives involve sizeable accounts from two Gospel writers, then how can we know what other purported facts are true? If these infancy miracle claims are false, then what of the myriad of other miracle claims – the walking on the water, the water to wine, the resurrection? It is a serious indictment of these writers (especially since Luke is declared as being a reliable historian by so many apologists ).
The undermining of these narratives does not disprove that Jesus was the Son of God, or that he had Davidic lineage, or whatever else these passages were trying to establish, per se. However, one has to recognise that some really damaging chinks are undoubtedly beaten into the apologetic armour of claims of Jesus’ divinity.