Monday, December 19, 2005

What To Look For In This Week's Media Stories On Christmas

In an earlier blog entry, I mentioned some television programs that will be airing this week on the subject of the historicity of the infancy narratives. In anticipation of those programs, I want to outline a few of the issues we should be focusing on when evaluating what we see.

1. The Availability Of Reliable Information. When you watch these television programs, ask yourself whether the programs mention the availability of sources such as Mary, James, Jude, and other relatives of Jesus. Do they mention the existence of genealogical records in first century Israel? Do they mention that the people of Bethlehem, people involved in Herod's government, records of any census that had occurred, and other such sources that probably had reliable information would have been accessible to the early Christians? Or, instead, will these programs give the impression that the gospel writers and their sources didn't have much reliable information to go by?

2. Interest In Jesus' Background. Will these television programs explain to the viewers that elements of Jesus' background such as His Davidic ancestry and His birthplace would have been of interest to both the earliest Christians and their earliest enemies? Will they mention that there was widespread expectation that the Messiah would be a descendant of David and expectation that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem? Those Messianic expectations would have led people to look into Jesus' background long before the gospels were written, surely even before Jesus had died. Jesus probably would have discussed such issues with His disciples and with His enemies, so if what was being reported early on was different from what the gospels would later report, we would expect to see evidence of conflicting traditions in the historical record. We don't.

3. The Credibility Of The Early Sources. Will we hear about Luke's proven credibility as a historical source? On the issue of gospel authorship, will we hear the often repeated assertions about the alleged anonymity of the gospels, or will we hear the more substantive arguments of conservative scholarship in favor of the traditional authorship attributions? Will we be told about how Matthew, Luke, and other relevant sources were in contact with people like Mary and James? Matthew was in contact with Jesus Himself, as was John, who also lived with Mary for a while. In that sort of context, we would expect the early Christians, including Matthew and Luke, to know a lot about Jesus' background.

4. The Genre Of The Relevant Documents. The gospels are Greco-Roman biographies. That's a genre of a highly historical nature. Luke's infancy account follows just after his comments in Luke 1:1-4 about his concern for research and historical accuracy. The earliest Christian and non-Christian sources to comment on information related to Jesus' infancy discuss those issues as if they're interpreting the accounts as reports of historical events.

Think about these issues and others like them as you watch these television programs. Do they mention the early non-Christian corroboration of some of the material reported in the infancy narratives? Do they mention any of the arguments of conservative scholarship for the traditional authorship attributions of the gospels? Do they mention that many reported events of antiquity are accepted by historians even when they're found in only one source? Etc.

I'm not expecting much from these programs. The programs won't just consult Christian scholars, and even many scholars who are Christians don't make a case for the historicity of the infancy narratives as well as they could. I expect all of these television programs to either present a negative view of the infancy narratives or suggest to the viewer that the evidence is largely inconclusive.