Christmas is upon us, the season of joy and merriment, the season, it seems, of massacres reminding us of other massacres. I have a book out called The Nativity: A Critical Examination, which is available from the sidebar over there. As a result of the book’s release this year, I have been doing a number of public talks on the historicity of the Nativity and have even recorded a radio debate with Randal Rauser which should be available any time soon.
My last talk was to the Dorset Humanists, and it went down really well. As one member said:
And thank YOU Jonathan. Your informed, articulate analysis of the nativity story was absolutely fascinating, & great fun to boot, plus being the perfect accompaniment to our Yuletide social afterwards, as it made the conversation & debate over the mulled wine very lively, didn’t it? I look forward to reading your book so that I am well armed with cogent facts to respond to my apologist friends! I know that David will be trying to secure your services for a repeat visit on ‘Free Will’ in the Spring. Happy New Year to you & I very much look forward to hearing you speak again in 2013.
Which of course is very nice (I will hopefully be speaking to them on the topic of free will this coming year).
So let us look at the claims of the (only two) Gospels which actually mention the birth of Jesus. Which is itself a problem, worse than if only two biographies of Abraham Lincoln actually mentioned his assassination! Here is a quote from aforementioned book as taken from the conclusion. For the accounts to remain reliable, or at least literally true, there is much mental gymnastics to do…
After such an analysis, what conclusions can be drawn? It seems clear to me that the claims of the two Gospels, Matthew and Luke, are incredibly problematic. On the surface, it seems fairly obvious to vouch that one narrative must be wrong (at the very least) in order to allow one to remain intact and coherent. However, this does not go far enough. It seems perfectly evident that neither of the accounts stand up to critical scrutiny, even if taken in isolation. Using extra-biblical sources, but more importantly, probability and plausibility, we can deduce that the infancy narratives almost certainly did not occur, certainly in the manner in which is claimed by the Gospel writers. The literal understanding of the biblical birth narratives is not sustainable.
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 Jesus’ family 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,Nazarethexisted as a proper settlement at the time of Jesus’ birth.
- Believe that the prophecies referred toNazarethand 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 toJerusalemand then toBethlehemwhere 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 fromEgyptwas 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.
As I have said in my talks, this is the crux of the historical issue. These infancy narratives are THE ONLY moments and events in the Gospels as a whole which are historically verifiable. That is to say, there are claims in there which can be cross-referenced with outside sources and with the other Gospel (ie Matthew to Luke and vice versa). We have claims about a census and claims about the king (Herod), and claims about important others (Magi, scribes) which could and should be heard about extra-biblically. We also have other events which ARE recorded which offer suggestive evidence for the stealing of ideas:
The Journal of the British Astronomy Association itself concludes (Jenkins 2004, p. 338), “This lack of an agreed interpretation in itself points to the conclusion that the Star of Bethlehem was not an actual astronomical event.” In fact, the author suggests that Matthew may well have seen the comet of 66 CE which would have given him something to think about when constructing his own account. Not only that, but, as Jenkins continues:
In addition, during these times it is a historical fact that a deputation of Magi did come from the east to bring gifts and pay homage, and they did return home by another route. Also a bright comet with an impressive tail appeared overJerusalem.
In AD 66 Tiridates, the King of Armenia, led a notable procession of Magi to pay homage to Nero. After Nero had confirmed Tiridates as the King of Armenia ‘the King did not return by the route he had followed in coming’, but sailed back toArmeniaby a different route. He came through Illyricum and north of theIonian Seaand returned by sailing from Brundisium to Dyrrachium.
This was Halley’s Comet which appeared brightly overJerusalemand which was potentially a portent for the Jewish-Roman War and the destruction of theTempleinJerusalemin 70 CE. Jenkins argues that Matthew was probably using this comet as a basis for the Star of Bethlehem and the arrival of the magi from the East. This does appear to be a very good hypothesis indeed. From the evidence we have, it appears wholly unlikely that a comet was actually witnessed at the time of Jesus’ birth, and certainly not in the manner described. At the end of the day, a comet is not a star.
We can cross-reference claims of Herod and the census with other sources. we can cross-reference claims of genealogy with the other Gospel. In EVERY claim of substance in the two Gospels, the Gospels are left wanting. Seriously wanting. Imagine I cam to you with a ‘new document’ found on a year in the life of Caesar that we have no other information on. This is ‘new’ evidence. There are twelve points in this document – twelve claims. Imagine, then, that we are able to cross-reference the first four, and they are found to be empirically false or problematic. Imagine, now, that the other eight claims are unverifiable – there simply IS no other information or historical document or artifact which can corroborate or disprove the claims. Given that 100% – all four – of the first claims of this document are obviously false, what epistemic right do we have to believe the rest of the document?
Now substitute the Gospels for this imaginary Caesar document. The first claims of the two Gospels are demonstrably false. And these are the ONLY verifiable claims in the New Testament, about the life of Jesus. What right do we have to believe the other claims? Using what reliable epistemological method can we claim that the life of Jesus happened as claimed?
The Gospels are of unknown provenance. Luke is supposed to be a ‘reliable historian’, and yet when they are measured up against verifiable facts, they lose. Take any other claim of the NT – say, the Wedding at Cana. Who was involved? Can the claims be cross-referenced? Is there any other evidence for the miracle? The point is, you can take any and every miracle claim in the NT and look for verification and all you are met with is silence, which is neutral AT BEST. The simple fact is, none of the miracle claims, or any other claims about Jesus, are verifiable, and yet people put their lives on the claims’ truth value. What epistemic right do they have to do this given that the only times the NT claims are verifiable, they are shown to be false?