Monday, December 12, 2005

Is the Infancy Narrative Material Common and Easy to Fabricate?

John Chrysostom made a significant observation:

“But no one else hath made that place [Bethlehem] illustrious or eminent, excepting Him [Jesus] alone.” (Homilies on Matthew, 7:2)

Critics of Christianity often suggest that the purported supernatural elements of the religion are what we would expect people to fabricate in such circumstances. For example, it's often suggested that we should expect followers of a deceased religious leader to make up stories about a resurrection, as if the Christian accounts of Jesus' resurrection are commonplace, the sort of thing we would expect to happen. But N.T. Wright, after studying religious movements in Israel around the time of Jesus' death, commented:

“So far as we know, all the followers of these first-century messianic movements were fanatically committed to the cause. They, if anybody, might be expected to suffer from this blessed twentieth century disease called ‘cognitive dissonance’ when their expectations failed to materialize. But in no case, right across the century before Jesus and the century after him, do we hear of any Jewish group saying that their executed leader had been raised from the dead and he really was the Messiah after all.” (cited in Paul Copan and Ronald Tacelli, editors, Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000], p. 183)

Similarly, if what we see in the infancy narratives is what we would expect people to make up when starting a religious movement, then why aren't such accounts common? As John Chrysostom said, why has only Jesus made Bethlehem eminent? If everybody starting a Jewish messianic movement would make up a claim about a Bethlehem birthplace, why haven't we seen other people doing it? Echoing Chrysostom's remarks, Justin Martyr commented:

“Now it is evident to all, that in the race of Abraham according to the flesh no one has been born of a virgin, or is said to have been born of a virgin, save this our Christ.” (Dialogue with Trypho, 66)

There are other accounts of supernatural events surrounding a person's birth, but in the Jewish context of Christianity claims like these weren't commonplace. We can narrow the field even further by asking how common it would be to make claims like these in documents written in a historical genre like Greco-Roman biography by people who were in contact with close relatives of the person in question, writing when eyewitnesses and contemporaries of that person were still alive. It would be possible to fabricate accounts in this sort of atmosphere, but a possibility isn't a probability, and we should appreciate just how distant the possibility is in this case. A church that was in contact with people like Mary, James, and Jude probably wouldn't have come to a universal belief in such concepts as a virgin birth and a Bethlehem birthplace if those purported facts weren't indeed factual.

The fact that the accounts of Jesus' infancy are so unusual doesn't prove, by itself, that the accounts are true. But it is one piece of evidence among others, and it's often underappreciated in these times when it's so common for people to try to minimize the unusual nature of Jesus' life. Just as it's not common for people to think that somebody has risen from the dead, it's also not common for people to think that somebody had a childhood like the one the early Christians attributed to Jesus.

When people claim that the early Christians were mistaken about Jesus' resurrection, we ask how the early Christians would have come to the place of being mistaken about such a thing. We should ask the same question with regard to the events surrounding Jesus' birth. We don't have as much evidence for those events as we have for the resurrection, but the concept of the early Christians' being universally mistaken about Jesus' childhood is similarly implausible. If somebody is going to claim that Jesus was born somewhere other than Bethlehem, for example, so that His true birthplace was universally lost and universally replaced by a false account (a false account corroborated by non-Christian sources), we ought to ask for an explanation of how such a thing would occur. The infancy narratives would be far more difficult to fabricate than people often suggest.