Saturday, December 24, 2005

The History Channel's Coverage Of Christmas

I mentioned that The History Channel would be running some programs related to Christmas over this weekend. One of those programs is set to air tonight, and I intend to watch it and post a review here. However, the other one I planned to review (titled "The Search for Christmas") aired yesterday, and I was only able to see a little over half of it. Though I can't review the whole program, I thought I'd post some comments on the portion of it I did see, to give people an idea of what the program was like and what we might expect from the programs set to air later today.

As I've said before, programs of this nature on non-Christian networks tend to fall into one of two categories. Either they take a largely negative view of the historicity of the infancy narratives or they suggest that there isn't much evidence to go by. To get more positive coverage of the historicity of the traditional Christian view, you generally have to go to Christian television, such as John Ankerberg's program. This program on The History Channel, at least in the portion I saw, fell into the category of suggesting that there isn't much evidence to go by. Near the beginning of the program, the narrator tells us that "the answers, though elusive, may still be within our grasp". Later, we're told that "the answers are all the more elusive" because of Matthew and Luke's "strikingly different" accounts. (See here for my discussion of why there are differences and why those differences aren't as problematic as critics often suggest.)

The program also repeats the common false contrast between "faith" and "history". We're told that historians "are not equipped or inclined to discuss miracles".

A lot of scholars were part of the program, and they did seem to represent a wide spectrum of views. Some scholars would defend the historicity of one portion of the infancy narratives, then argue against another portion. Some of the scholars featured were obviously liberal if one was to judge from what they said on the program, such as Marvin Meyer and John Crossan. Others, though, were more difficult to categorize. Often, one scholar would mention some evidence against something, then another would mention evidence for it, without much done to resolve the issue. Critics of the infancy narratives don't have much evidence to go by. They're largely speculating. But those who take a positive view of the infancy accounts have a lot of evidence to cite in support of their position. Thus, when a program such as this one on The History Channel only gives a little time to each issue covered, and the critics of the infancy narratives aren't asked the sort of questions they ought to be asked, those critics come off looking more credible than they actually are.

Some elements of the program were unexpectedly good. The narrator repeatedly harmonizes the angel visitations in Matthew and Luke by explaining that Joseph first disbelieved Mary, then believed her when he was told what happened by an angel in a dream. Instead of arguing that Matthew and Luke contradict each other on this point, the narrator seems to have correctly recognized that Matthew's gospel assumes Mary's knowledge of the reason for her pregnancy without mentioning that she knew. When Luke writes of the angel's appearance to Mary, he's adding a detail that Matthew probably knew about, even though he didn't include it. Maybe I misunderstood what I saw, but I got the impression that The History Channel was harmonizing the two gospel accounts on this point rather than treating them as contradictory. That's commendable, and I wish more people would approach the issues that way. I was also pleased to see John Crossan's denial of the historicity of the census followed by Richard Horsley's defense of it.

Overall, though, the program was disappointing. Large amounts of evidence for the infancy narratives were ignored, and the critics weren't questioned as they should have been.

Daniel Smith-Christopher repeatedly suggested that Mary had political motivations in what she did, and he suggested that she may have deliberately moved to Bethlehem in order to fulfill the Micah prophecy. But if Luke's account is historical, as the evidence suggests, then the census that brought Mary to Bethlehem was something she couldn't have arranged. And why would she have had Messianic expectations for her child to begin with if at least something unusual hadn't occurred previously with that child? If Smith-Christopher wants to accept the historicity of something like the angel visitation to Mary, then argue that Mary deliberately moved to Bethlehem in response, he can do so, but then he wouldn't be giving an entirely naturalistic explanation. If Jesus was conceived in the normal manner and there were no angel visitations or any other such thing, why would Mary be so convinced of her son's potential for Messiahship that she would move to Bethlehem? I don't know what Smith-Christopher's theological leanings are. But his theory doesn't accomplish the critics' usual objective of eliminating all supernatural elements from Jesus' childhood.

Another aspect of the program worth mentioning was its opposition to Roman Catholic doctrine. After mentioning the Immaculate Conception, the narrator explains that he's going on to discuss "less romanticized, more accurate" assertions about Mary. Later in the program, the perpetual virginity of Mary is portrayed in a highly negative manner.

The discussion of the December 25 date was bad. Some of the Christian motivations behind the date weren't mentioned, and evidence for Christians using the date before pagans isn't discussed. (See here for my treatment of the subject.)

I was surprised by the number of obvious errors that appeared on the program. The narrator tells us that Celsus' account of Mary's conceiving Jesus by means of sex outside of marriage originated in the first century. He should have said that it was the second century. Then we're told that Origen taught in Egypt in the second century. He should have said that it was the third century. We're also erroneously told that Clement of Alexandria was a bishop. At one point, it's suggested that the mentioning of Jesus' brothers and sisters in the New Testament is an apparent contradiction of the virginity of Mary. Later in the program, they clarify that it's a contradiction of the perpetual virginity of Mary, not the virgin birth of Jesus. But the initial comment of the narrator doesn't clarify that point. The same sort of thing seemed to happen repeatedly during the program. Statements would be made that were unclear or would later be overturned. The narrator would state something as a fact at one point, only to later explain that it either isn't a fact or might not be a fact. I don't think that the editors smoothed these things out as well as they could have. There are a lot of rough edges in the program.

As happens so often with media coverage of these Christmas issues, this program on The History Channel neglects large amounts of evidence for the traditional Christian view. It focuses too much on letting a spectrum of scholars state their opinions without getting into the issues in enough depth. The people at The History Channel, like so many others who address this subject, don't seem to understand some of the most significant questions that need to be asked, so they arrive at insufficient answers.