Debunking the Nativity: The Gospel Sources

Debunking the Nativity: The Gospel Sources December 3, 2016

I am going to run a series this Christmas time to skeptically evaluate the nativity of Jesus, running alongside my previous book on the subject (The Nativity: A Critical Examination), which I think you should all buy. All of you.

This initial piece will concern the sources. And the first thing to note about the sources for the nativity is that there are only two sources: Matthew and Luke. Indeed, it is a bit of a problem that this remarkable story is only mentioned in half of the Gospels. Why would this be? What a magnificent story, which potentially includes being hunted down by the king of the country (who murdered innocent children) and being chased abroad to live in Egypt until it is safe. Jesus then comes out of Egypt to fulfil a prophecy that marks him as truly the Messiah. Why would only Matthew (Luke contradicts this directly) have this, with all three of the rest of the Gospels omitting such kingly and murderous escapades?

Two Gospels, John and Mark, neglect to mention anything to do with the birth; and the birth narratives solidify Jesus as Messiah, as connected to Adam, and as being greater than Moses, Daniel and any number of great Old Testament names.

Neither Matthew and Luke were eyewitnesses, and so we must wonder where they got their information from. Joseph disappeared off the map, and one presumes perhaps died early, whereas Mary was still in the picture. She could really have been the only eyewitness since most other people went away (Magi and shepherds) never to be heard from again. If Mary was the only eyewitness, then how can there be such irreconcilable differences between the two accounts? There are direct contradictions, and this makes little sense of the notion that the original eyewitness(es) must have been the same one or two people. Of course, being written some 50-70 years after Jesus died, we have further transmission issues, with their unknown provenance and demands on authenticity and accuracy.

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What interests me is how there are so many examples of speech in the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and often passages of speech to which there were probably no witnesses (Jesus talking to Herod) available to the Gospel writers. All these speeches seem to have been remarkably well-preserved considering the people listening would most likely have been illiterate or certainly did not have notebooks or Dictaphones handy. This raises the question as to the authenticity of the direct speech reported in the Gospels, and whether these speeches were historically factual.

So the situation we have is that these accounts of Jesus were written by unknown people in essentially unknown places, and at a time we can only make good guesses at. None of the Gospels detail their sources as you would expect from good historians. Some earlier and contemporaneous historians to the Gospel writers such as Thucydides, Polybius and Arrian included some of their sources, and some of the lesser historians such as Suetonius did so too. These vital references to sources are missing in the case of all the Gospel accounts. This essentially means that the verifiability of the events which are claimed to have happened is nigh on impossible.

Another problem with assessing the historicity of the Gospels is knowing which passages are reporting historical fact and which are written as symbolic passages; allegories to put forward a particular theme. In 2011 renowned New Testament scholar Mike Licona was forced to resign from his teaching post and position as research professor of New Testament at Southern Evangelical Seminary and was ousted as apologetics coordinator for the North America Mission Board. This was because, in one of his books The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, he examined a passage in Matthew 27 which reports resurrected saints parading around Jerusalem. In researching this passage, Licona came up with a theory which annoyed the biblical literalist camp. The problem is that there is no other evidence to support this extraordinary biblical claim. As Licona said, “Based on my reading of the Greco-Roman, Jewish, and biblical literature, I proposed that the raised saints are best interpreted as Matthew’s use of an apocalyptic symbol communicating that the Son of God had just died.”[1] Because he was bucking a conservative trend of not reading the passage literally, he had to go as his colleagues and peers were more literal in their understanding of the text. This just shows that one scholar can read an account as being symbolic whilst another concludes antithetically. This will come into play later in the book as I look at whether or not the birth narratives have a symbolic overlay to heighten the importance of what was probably a very ordinary birth to compete with other myths and religions of the era as well as with a Roman Emperor.

Another issue with the Gospels in general is the fact that they are not attested by extra-biblical sources. This means that no other source outside of the Bible, and contemporary with the events or with the Gospel accounts, reports and corroborates the events claimed within the Gospels. Theists make much out of what is mentioned in extra-biblical sources such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius and so on but all that these sources can validate (when they are not shown to be interpolations or edited additions) is that Christians, who followed Christ, existed. Not really the greatest of conclusions.

Archaeology doesn’t particularly support the accounts of a historical Jesus, or any of his Apostles.[2] There are some events and places referred to which are of course verified, but that amounts to the analogy of the places and events of Victorian London being mentioned in Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle being real; it in no way follows that Sherlock Holmes was a real historical figure.

A further problem is that the accounts were written by people with a vested interest in seeing the life and teachings of Jesus evangelised to those in the world around them. One might question the reliability, for example, of a biography of David Koresh or Sathya Sai Baba (and the many miracles his followers have claimed of him) if it were written by their most fervent of followers. People who believe after the time of some such events that they were miraculous will create accounts of those events which might not reflect their true nature, ex post facto. In this way, the Gospel writers, without knowing Jesus, come to believe that he was resurrected and carried out miracles (without witnessing them) and then go on to write his biography with those beliefs firmly embedded. Are we in a position to truly trust these sources, given the magnitude of their claims and the biases which they must obviously have? These claims purportedly prove (or strongly evidence) certain supposed events which the authors themselves did not witness.

One final point to make before looking at the two accounts individually is made very well by the great Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown in The Birth of the Messiah (p.35):

But if originally there was one narrative, how did it ever become fragmented into the two different accounts we have now? As I hinted above, the suggestion that Matthew is giving Joseph’s remembrance of the events, while Luke is giving Mary’s, is just a pious deduction from the fact that Joseph dominates Matthew’s account, and Mary dominates Luke’s. In point of fact, how could Joseph ever have told the story in Matthew and not have reported the annunciation of Mary? And how could Mary have been responsible for the story in Luke and never have mentioned the coming of the magi and the flight to Egypt?

Which essentially builds up a case that these original Gospel sources are not what Christians hope they are. They are not watertight eyewitness testimony with verifiable provenance.

Far from it.

NOTES

[1] Interpretation Sparks a Grave Theology Debate by bobby Ross Jnr., Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/november/interpretation-sparks-theology-debate.html (retrieved 12/2011)

[2] E.H. Cline (2009) in Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions), p. 103


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