Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Response To CBS' "The Mystery Of Christmas"

For some reason, the "48 Hours" program on Christmas didn't air here, at least not at 10 P.M. Maybe it aired in other parts of the country or at a different time here. I don't know. CBS has posted a transcript, though, and I'll respond to it.

Judging from that transcript, it was quite a bad program, worse than I expected. I noticed five scholars cited, and three of them were highly liberal. Of the two I wasn't able to identify as liberals, one was quoted in defense of a candidate for the star of Bethlehem, but I don't think he commented on any other subject. And there was one conservative quoted at length, Ben Witherington. However, Witherington was often quoted making assertions without discussing much of the evidence supporting those assertions, so his inclusion didn't add much to the case for the historicity of the infancy narratives.

The following are quotes from the transcript (in red), followed by my responses (in black).

"Unlike fundamentalist Christians, White concludes that the Gospels include plenty of creative writing."

Notice the misleading framing of the argument, as if people who disagree with the highly liberal views of Michael White are "fundamentalists".

"'They are not writing history. They are trying to tell you the meaning of history. So to do that, they have to take historical events, of course. But they will adapt them. They will change them. They will create,' says Crossan....'If they had a complete videotape of everything Jesus did and said, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would still say, 'Well, no, I'm going to adapt that for my community,'' Crossan says, with a laugh."

Crossan doesn't give us any reason to agree with his conclusion about the non-historicity of the gospels, and his conclusion is contradicted by the known genre of the gospels (Greco-Roman biography), the demonstrable historical nature of other material in the gospels and Acts, and the fact that both the earliest Christian and the earliest non-Christian interpreters of the gospels interpreted them as historical accounts, including the infancy narratives. For more on this subject, see here.

"'Born in Bethlehem is a clue that we are making the claim that this child is the Messiah,' says Crossan. 'But nobody else seems to know anything about it in the New Testament…. It doesn't seem, for example, that John, in John's gospel, has any idea that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.'"

John doesn't discuss Jesus' infancy, so saying that he doesn't mention a Bethlehem birthplace is sort of like saying that Paul doesn't mention it in Philemon. Why would we expect him to? And to interpret John 7:42 as evidence of John's ignorance of a Bethlehem birthplace is unreasonable, since the comments in that passage are those of some enemies of Jesus, not a view John is advocating, and the same passage questions Jesus' Davidic descent. The concept that John rejected Jesus' Davidic descent, one of the most common Jewish Messianic expectations, yet viewed Jesus as the Messiah anyway, is unlikely. The book of Revelation, which is widely agreed to at least be Johannine, even among scholars who deny that it was written by the apostle, refers to Jesus as a descendant of David (22:16). Early church leaders who had been in contact with John or who were part of or were in contact with churches associated with John refer to Jesus' Davidic descent and His birth in Bethlehem (Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, etc.). There is no tradition of a non-Davidic descent for Jesus or a birthplace other than Bethlehem. And both facts were corroborated by the early enemies of Christianity. For more on these subjects, see here on Jesus' Davidic descent, and see my upcoming Apologetics Log segment this Saturday, which will be on the subject of Jesus' birthplace. The concept that John 7:42 reflects a rejection of Jesus' Davidic descent and Bethlehem birthplace by the apostle John (or some other author of the gospel of John) is absurd. It's unproveable and contradicted by multiple lines of evidence.

"'It's probably the case he was born in Nazareth,' says White. 'He's called 'Jesus of Nazareth.' And that would've been the norm, that is, wherever you're born is the namesake that you will carry with you.'"

A person could be named by his birthplace, but people were sometimes given a placename other than their birthplace. Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17:34), for example, was so named because he was associated with the Areopagus, not because he was born there. The second century bishop Irenaeus of Lyons seems to have been born in Smyrna, but was bishop of a church in Lyons. Luke, who refers to Jesus' being born in Bethlehem, also refers repeatedly to Jesus as "Jesus of Nazareth" (Luke 24:19, Acts 10:38). The historian Paul Maier summarized the issue well during an interview on the December 3, 2003 broadcast of the "Bible Answer Man" radio program:

"Jesus spends, probably, not more than 50 days in Bethlehem. For all I know, He never visited the city again, except on the way back from Egypt, and then briefly. He spends all of His childhood in Nazareth. He spends His early ministry in Nazareth. He grows up in Nazareth. And so He should now be called 'Jesus of Bethlehem'? I mean, this is ridiculous! I just have very little patience with this sort of sloppy, avant-garde, sensationalist, revisionist scholarship."

But CBS has patience with that sort of scholarship. It was the dominant view of the program.

"'We have no historical evidence that such a massive slaughter or any kind of event like that ever occurred,' says White. He adds that there is no historical evidence he is aware of that the holy family fled to Egypt."

CBS later quotes Ben Witherington answering White's argument. As Witherington explains, Bethlehem was a small town, so there was no "massive slaughter". And any expectation that other sources mention the flight into Egypt is ridiculous. Who would mention it? Who would have thought it appropriate to record the presence of a Jewish family in Egypt and to preserve such a record for future generations? Matthew knew of the supernatural elements involved, so we can understand why he would mention it. But who else would we expect to mention it? For more on events such as the Slaughter of the Innocents and the flight to Egypt, see here.

"One has to wonder why an eye-popping story like the virgin birth gets absolutely no mention in the gospel of Mark, written decades before Matthew or Luke."

Mark doesn't discuss Jesus' infancy at all. He mentions enough of the other miracles surrounding Jesus' life to sufficiently convey the supernatural nature of that life. Again, asking why Mark doesn't mention the virgin birth is sort of like asking why Paul doesn't mention it in Philemon. Why would we expect him to?

"To put Jesus on a par with Caesar, Crossan says, Luke borrows from Roman myths about the emperor’s birth."

Here, as elsewhere, Crossan is at odds with most of modern scholarship. The birth narratives are highly Jewish, and there are significant differences between the infancy narratives and Roman mythology. See here.

"Today, Christmas is the holiday, not Caesar’s birthday. Ironically, it falls on a day that was once a Roman festival. 'It was probably chosen at that time in December,' argues Crossan, in order to replace the winter solstice holiday."

For a discussion of the December 25 date and the origins of Christmas in general, see here.

"But before the virgin birth became official church doctrine, some other early Christians had their own ideas and their own Gospels."

Notice how misleading that statement is. What is "official church doctrine"? Considering that Luke's gospel seems to have been considered Divinely inspired scripture early on (it apparently is cited as such in 1 Timothy 5:18), how much more "official" would this doctrine that Luke records need to become? The false gospels CBS goes on to discuss don't predate Matthew and Luke, nor do they predate 1 Timothy and some other documents that cite Matthew or Luke as scripture.

"But millions of people don’t want to lose any part of Christmas. They include Ben Witherington, a conservative Bible scholar and an evangelical minister."

Go to the transcript of this program at CBS' web site. Use the Ctrl F feature on your keyboard to search for the term "liberal". You won't find it appearing anywhere in the transcript. Yet, CBS uses terms like "conservative" and "evangelical minister" to describe Ben Witherington.

"In the time of Jesus, miracles and magic were a very real part of everyday life."

In what sense? Did people think that virgin births and angel visitations, for example, occurred every day? No. See Glenn Miller's article here on the issue of the alleged gullibility of ancient people. See also my article here on the uniqueness of the Christian view of Jesus' childhood.

"But it is clear that many of the earliest Christians had no trouble worshipping Jesus without believing his birth was anything special. Pagels says even if you don’t believe the story of the birth, it doesn’t negate the miraculous nature of Jesus. 'Apparently the author of John and the author of Mark would say, 'We don't need those stories to affirm the uniqueness and the power of Jesus,'' she says."

Mark and John don't discuss Jesus' childhood. To equate their not discussing the subject with their disagreeing with what Matthew and Luke report on the subject is unreasonable. The early Christian churches were highly networked and were highly concerned with maintaining doctrinal standards. The infancy narrative material is found throughout the early Christian world. Concepts such as Jesus' Davidic descent, His virgin birth, and His birth in Bethlehem are universally accepted and reported as if there's no dispute. The apostle John was in contact with a lot of churches, as we see reflected in Revelation 2-3, and some of his disciples lived into the second century. Polycarp even lived into the second half of the second century. In the places where John's influence extended - Ephesus, Smyrna, Polycarp, Irenaeus, etc. - we see early affirmation of the details of the infancy narratives. There's no reason to think that somebody like John would disagree with what Matthew and Luke wrote. To the contrary, John 7:42 proves that John was aware of such prophecies, and it's highly unlikely that he would have been a Christian if he thought that Jesus had failed to fulfill those common Messianic expectations. If John sided with the crowd in that passage, in the sense that he didn't think Jesus fulfilled either prophecy, then why do the second century sources who had been influenced by John conclude just the opposite?

Earlier this week, I wrote an article outlining a few things to look for in this week's media coverage of the historicity of the infancy narratives. This CBS program failed to sufficiently address any of the four issues I mentioned. All of the issues I discussed either were ignored by CBS or were addressed, but addressed poorly. The viewers of the program were misled about the genre of the gospels, weren't told about the large amount of evidence we have for Luke's credibility as a historical source, weren't told about corroboration of the infancy narrative material by non-Christian sources, etc. As a result, thousands of lives influenced by CBS have been moved further from the truth.