Friday, November 11, 2005

A Review of NBC's Program on Jesus' Birth

I watched NBC's "Dateline" program on Jesus' birth earlier tonight (go here for the transcript), and it was about what I expected. It wasn't as bad as some of the programs on Christianity that we've seen from ABC and PBS, for example, but it did have some problems.

The program began poorly, with Stone Phillips saying that their intent wasn't to change anybody's beliefs, as if there's something wrong with doing that. I do want to change people's beliefs. That's one of the reasons why I'm writing this article. I think that if you compare NBC's presentation of the evidence to what I'm presenting here, what I'm presenting carries more weight. You ought to believe in the historicity of the infancy narratives. If you don't, I want to change your beliefs. NBC took the common approach of portraying faith as something that doesn't concern itself with evidence, but that sort of faith isn't Christian faith, and it doesn't make sense.

There were some good aspects to the program, such as the inclusion of some conservative scholars. And the scholars were identified as "liberal", "moderate", "conservative", "Evangelical", etc. That was a good idea, and I'd like to see more programs of this nature do it. They sometimes let the scholars interact with one another. At one point, John Crossan denied the historicity of Luke's census, then was followed by Ben Witherington defending its plausibility. And NBC treated Witherington's position as more credible. There were some points where a conservative view was favored or wasn't criticized, but overall the program leaned in the direction of saying that there isn't much evidence to go by. One of the closing portions of the program briefly had Ben Witherington commenting on how the infancy accounts are miraculous, and they presented his comment in a context about how historical the accounts are and what evidence we have for them. The implication was that Witherington was accepting the Biblical narratives without having evidence leading to that conclusion, and I doubt that Witherington wanted to be portrayed that way.

Some of the most significant issues involved in a historical evaluation of the infancy narratives weren't addressed much, if at all: the sources available to the gospel writers and the concern people of that time would have had for the facts surrounding Jesus' infancy, the genre of the infancy narratives, the historical reliability of Matthew and Luke, the internal evidence for the infancy accounts, etc. Some of the best evidence for the infancy narratives wasn't included. I've never seen any mainstream media source, whether on television, in print, or elsewhere, present much of the evidence favoring the traditional view.

Sometimes the program would say that there are apparent inconsistencies between the accounts in Matthew and Luke, but they would go on to assert that there are some contradictions. Near the end of the program, it was claimed that Matthew's gospel tells us that Joseph and Mary went to Nazareth for the first time after leaving Egypt. But Matthew doesn't say that. None of the contradictions that NBC suggested or asserted are actually contradictions. But they didn't make much of an issue of it. There were fewer assertions or suggestions of error than I was expecting. The segment on the census in particular surprised me. Not only did they not use it as a basis for dismissing large segments of the infancy narratives as unhistorical, as critics often do, but they even gave the conservative scholar Ben Witherington the last word on the subject and seemed to favor his defense of the event's plausibility. Overall, not much was made of alleged errors in the accounts, but the general impression that was given was that some elements of the accounts that have traditionally been considered historical aren't historical.

The program focused more on an alleged lack of evidence for the infancy narratives than it did on alleged errors. As I've documented in my Apologetics Log series in recent weeks (linked above), we have a lot of reasons to trust the Biblical accounts, and much of that evidence was ignored by NBC.

On the issue of the gospels' genre, for example, we were told that the accounts could be "history or parable", but we weren't given much evidence by which to make a judgment. And NBC let one of its guests say that the gospels were written as theology, not history, and Keith Morrison (the host of the program) went on to suggest that the woman who said it was correct. Yet, we know (see the link above) that the gospels were Greco-Roman biographies, we know that the infancy narratives have many indicators of a historical intent within them, and we know that they were interpreted as historical accounts by the earliest extant Christian and non-Christian interpreters. This is the sort of information that would help people decide whether to believe somebody like John Crossan or somebody like Ben Witherington instead, yet this information is rarely presented in the mainstream media.

I was disappointed to see the concept of parallels between the infancy narratives and paganism treated so uncritically. Parallels were drawn between Jesus' virgin birth and supernatural births in paganism, and a pagan parallel was suggested for the star of Bethlehem. Mention was made of an association between December 25 and a pagan holiday, but nothing was said of Christian use of that date prior to the pagan holiday, nor were we told of the Christian reasons Christians had for choosing that date. (See my recent article on the subject here.)

At one point, it was suggested that the gospel writers portray Jesus as born in Bethlehem because they wanted to portray him as fulfilling a Messianic expectation. The implication was that Jesus wasn't actually born there. But we weren't given any evidence for a different birthplace. There is no early tradition of another birthplace. The evidence for Bethlehem is early, widespread, and corroborated by non-Christian sources. As I'll be documenting later this year in my Apologetics Log series, the Bethlehem birthplace is highly probable. The evidence for it is much more significant than critics suggest, even more significant than many conservative scholars suggest.

We're told on one occasion in the program that there's no secular (probably meaning non-Christian) reference to the events of the infancy narratives. It's true that we don't have Josephus discussing the star of Bethlehem, Tacitus mentioning the slaughter of the Bethlehem children, or anything like that. And we have no reason to expect such a mention of the events. However, we do have some evidence as to what the early opponents of Christianity thought of the birth accounts. In the New Testament, the Talmud, Justin Martyr, Origen, and other sources, we have statements or suggestions as to what the early opponents of Christianity were saying about Christianity, including what they thought of some events related to the infancy narratives. Origen tells us, for example, that the Bethlehem birthplace was corroborated by multiple non-Christian sources (Against Celsus, 1:51). As I explain in more depth in my Apologetics Log series (and will address more in later segments), both the early Christians and their early opponents would have had an interest in Jesus' background. The concept that the early Christians could have fabricated accounts several decades after Jesus' birth, and that both they and Christianity's enemies would have disputed so little of it, is unreasonable. Critics need to explain why the infancy accounts were so widely accepted, sometimes even corroborated by non-Christian sources. Instead, critics, including critics in the media, generally ignore the issue.

Not only is the widespread early acceptance of the infancy accounts not addressed much by critics, but often they'll even go in the opposite direction. They'll suggest that the accounts are questionable because they appear in only two sources, Matthew and Luke. NBC took this approach. They claimed that we have only two sources. While it's true that Matthew and Luke are the only first century sources to go into much depth, we have evidence for other first century sources agreeing with the accounts in Matthew and Luke and corroborating individual elements within the accounts. Tomorrow, I'm going to begin a four-part series on this blog on that subject.

Some parts of NBC's program were worse than I expected and some were better than I expected, but it was generally what I thought it would be. It wasn't the worst mainstream media coverage I've seen, but it was wrong or misleading on a lot of issues, and it neglected large amounts of evidence supporting the Biblical accounts. Over the next several weeks, I'll be discussing more of that evidence here and on the NTRM message boards.