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Posted by on Dec 19, 2013 in Biblical Exegesis, Books, Epistemology | 35 comments

Merry Christmas Everybody – it never happened though, and here’s why (and also why we shouldn’t believe anything else about Jesus)…

Christmas is upon us, the season of joy and merriment, the season, it seems, of massacres reminding us of other massacres. I have a book out called The Nativity: A Critical Examination, which is available from the sidebar over there. As a result of the book’s release this year, I have been doing a number of public talks on the historicity of the Nativity and have even recorded a radio debate with Randal Rauser which should be available any time soon.

My last talk was to the Dorset Humanists, and it went down really well. As one member said:

And thank YOU Jonathan. Your informed, articulate analysis of the nativity story was absolutely fascinating, & great fun to boot, plus being the perfect accompaniment to our Yuletide social afterwards, as it made the conversation & debate over the mulled wine very lively, didn’t it? I look forward to reading your book so that I am well armed with cogent facts to respond to my apologist friends! I know that David will be trying to secure your services for a repeat visit on ‘Free Will’ in the Spring. Happy New Year to you & I very much look forward to hearing you speak again in 2013.

Which of course is very nice (I will hopefully be speaking to them on the topic of free will this coming year).

So let us look at the claims of the (only two) Gospels which actually mention the birth of Jesus. Which is itself a problem, worse than if only two biographies of Abraham Lincoln actually mentioned his assassination! Here is a quote from aforementioned book as taken from the conclusion. For the accounts to remain reliable, or at least literally true, there is much mental gymnastics to do…

After such an analysis, what conclusions can be drawn? It seems clear to me that the claims of the two Gospels, Matthew and Luke, are incredibly problematic. On the surface, it seems fairly obvious to vouch that one narrative must be wrong (at the very least) in order to allow one to remain intact and coherent. However, this does not go far enough. It seems perfectly evident that neither of the accounts stand up to critical scrutiny, even if taken in isolation. Using extra-biblical sources, but more importantly, probability and plausibility, we can deduce that the infancy narratives almost certainly did not occur, certainly in the manner in which is claimed by the Gospel writers. The literal understanding of the biblical birth narratives is not sustainable.

In order for the Christian who believes that both accounts are factually true to uphold that faithful decree, the following steps must take place. The believer must:

  • Special plead that the virgin birth motif is actually true for Christianity but is false for all other religions and myths that claim similarly.
  • Deny that “virgin” is a mistranslation.
  • Give a plausible explanation of from whence the male genome of Jesus came from and how this allowed him to be “fully man”.
  • Be able to render the two genealogies fully coherent without the explanation being contrived or ad hoc.
  • Believe that the genealogies are bona fide and not just tools to try to prove Jesus’ Davidic and Messianic prophecy-fulfilling heritage.
  • Be able to explain the inconsistency of the two accounts in contradicting each other as to where Jesus’ family lived before the birth (without the explanation being contrived or ad hoc).
  • Somehow be able to contrive an explanation whereby Herod and Quirinius could be alive concurrently, despite all the evidence contrary to this point.
  • Believe that a client kingdom under Herod could and would order a census under Roman diktat. This would be the only time in history this would have happened.
  • Find it plausible that people would return, and find precedent for other occurrences of people returning, to their ancestral homes for a census (at an arbitrary number of generations before: 41).
  • Give a probable explanation as to how a Galilean man was needed at a census in another judicial area.
  • Give a plausible reason as to why Mary was required at the census (by the censors or by Joseph).
  • Give a plausible explanation as to why Mary would make that 80 mile journey on donkey or on foot whilst heavily pregnant, and why Joseph would be happy to let her do that.
  • Believe that Joseph could afford to take anywhere from a month to two years off work.
  • Believe that, despite archaeological evidence,Nazarethexisted as a proper settlement at the time of Jesus’ birth.
  • Believe that the prophecies referred toNazarethand not something else.
  • Believe that the magi were not simply a theological tool derived from the Book of Daniel.
  • Believe that Herod (and his scribes and priests) was not acting entirely out of character and implausibly in not knowing the prophecies predicting Jesus, and not accompanying the magi three hours down the road.
  • Believe that the magi weren’t also merely a mechanism to supply Herod with an opportunity to get involved in the story and thus fulfil even more prophecies.
  • Believe that the magi were also not a reinterpretation of the Balaam narrative from the Old Testament, despite there being clear evidence to the contrary.
  • Believe that a star could lead some magi from the East toJerusalemand then toBethlehemwhere it rested over an individual house and not be noted by anyone else in the world.
  • Believe that the shepherds were not merely midrashic and theological tools used by Luke.
  • Believe that there is (and provide it) a reasonable explanation as to why each Gospel provides different first witnesses (shepherds and magi) without any mention of the other witnesses.
  • Believe that, despite an absence of evidence and the realisation that it is clearly a remodelling of an Old Testament narrative, the Massacre of the Innocents actually happened.
  • Believe that Herod would care enough about his rule long after his death to chase after a baby and murder many other innocent babies, a notion that runs contrary to evidence.
  • Believe that God would allow other innocent babies to die as a result of the birth of Jesus.
  • Believe that the Flight to and fromEgyptwas not just a remodelling of an Old Testament narrative in order to give Jesus theological gravitas.
  • Give a plausible explanation as to why the two accounts contradict each other so obviously as to where Jesus and family went after his birth.
  • Explain the disappearance of the shepherds and magi, who had seen the most incredible sights of their lives, and why they are never heard from again despite being the perfect spokespeople for this newfound religion.
  • Provide a plausible explanation as to why Jesus’ own family did not think he was the Messiah, given the events of the nativity accounts.

Once the believer in the accuracy of these accounts can do all of the above, in a plausible and probable manner, then they can rationally hold that belief. I would contest that it is rationally possible to ever hold such a belief.

As I have said in my talks, this is the crux of the historical issue. These infancy narratives are THE ONLY moments and events in the Gospels as a whole which are historically verifiable. That is to say, there are claims in there which can be cross-referenced with outside sources and with the other Gospel (ie Matthew to Luke and vice versa). We have claims about a census and claims about the king (Herod), and claims about important others (Magi, scribes) which could and should be heard about extra-biblically. We also have other events which ARE recorded which offer suggestive evidence for the stealing of ideas:

The Journal of the British Astronomy Association itself concludes (Jenkins 2004, p. 338), “This lack of an agreed interpretation in itself points to the conclusion that the Star of Bethlehem was not an actual astronomical event.” In fact, the author suggests that Matthew may well have seen the comet of 66 CE which would have given him something to think about when constructing his own account. Not only that, but, as Jenkins continues:

In addition, during these times it is a historical fact that a deputation of Magi did come from the east to bring gifts and pay homage, and they did return home by another route. Also a bright comet with an impressive tail appeared overJerusalem.

In AD 66 Tiridates, the King of Armenia, led a notable procession of Magi to pay homage to Nero.  After Nero had confirmed Tiridates as the King of Armenia ‘the King did not return by the route he had followed in coming’, but sailed back toArmeniaby a different route. He came through Illyricum and north of theIonian Seaand returned by sailing from Brundisium to Dyrrachium.

This was Halley’s Comet which appeared brightly overJerusalemand which was potentially a portent for the Jewish-Roman War and the destruction of theTempleinJerusalemin 70 CE. Jenkins argues that Matthew was probably using this comet as a basis for the Star of Bethlehem and the arrival of the magi from the East. This does appear to be a very good hypothesis indeed. From the evidence we have, it appears wholly unlikely that a comet was actually witnessed at the time of Jesus’ birth, and certainly not in the manner described. At the end of the day, a comet is not a star.

We can cross-reference claims of Herod and the census with other sources. we can cross-reference claims of genealogy with the other Gospel. In EVERY claim of substance in the two Gospels, the Gospels are left wanting. Seriously wanting. Imagine I cam to you with a ‘new document’ found on a year in the life of Caesar that we have no other information on. This is ‘new’ evidence. There are twelve points in this document – twelve claims. Imagine, then, that we are able to cross-reference the first four, and they are found to be empirically false or problematic. Imagine, now, that the other eight claims are unverifiable – there simply IS no other information or historical document or artifact which can corroborate or disprove the claims. Given that 100% – all four – of the first claims of this document are obviously false, what epistemic right do we have to believe the rest of the document?

Now substitute the Gospels for this imaginary Caesar document. The first claims of the two Gospels are demonstrably false. And these are the ONLY verifiable claims in the New Testament, about the life of Jesus. What right do we have to believe the other claims? Using what reliable epistemological method can we claim that the life of Jesus happened as claimed?

The Gospels are of unknown provenance. Luke is supposed to be a ‘reliable historian’, and yet when they are measured up against verifiable facts, they lose. Take any other claim of the NT – say, the Wedding at Cana. Who was involved? Can the claims be cross-referenced? Is there any other evidence for the miracle? The point is, you can take any and every miracle claim in the NT and look for verification and all you are met with is silence, which is neutral AT BEST. The simple fact is, none of the miracle claims, or any other claims about Jesus, are verifiable, and yet people put their lives on the claims’ truth value. What epistemic right do they have to do this given that the only times the NT claims are verifiable, they are shown to be false?

  • Richard Edwards

    Just as well most of the fun Christmas traditions are pagan in origin. :op

  • pboyfloyd

    Very nice summary John. Why do you think there are still Christians? Ignorance?

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thanks buddy. They are in the causal circumstances that lead them to believe so. Cognitive dissonance, mainly.

  • Peter

    And Merry Christmas to you! You mentioned it before, so when is your next book coming out and what is the subject? Thanks for your previous ones, great stuff. 

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thanks so much, Peter! I am working on 4 book projects just now. One I cannot yet talk about; one a philosophical fictional romp into post-outbreak ‘zombie’ type stuff (a great vehicle for morality, moral dilemmas etc); a critical look at William Lane Craig and the Kalam Cosmological Argument; and an anthology of deconversion accounts which I am co-editing. Busy, busy!

      • Peter

         Good to hear, and you will be busy. Loved your previous books especially Unholy Questions that was a hoot. All the best for the New Year.

        • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          Thanks so much for the feedback! Are you from the UK or the States? Or elsewhere?

          • Peter

             Jonathon I’m from the great frozen north, a crazy Canuck. So far only about 5″ of snow and fairly mild. Just setting us up, me thinks. Take care

        • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          btw Peter, if you have have time to post favourable reviews on Amazon….;)

          • Peter

             Good idea, never thought of that but I will in the New Year.

      • Andy_Schueler

         one a philosophical fictional romp into post-outbreak ‘zombie’ type stuff

        Really looking forward to this one!
        incidentally – there is a recent Zombie flick playing in east London called “Cockneys vs. Zombies”:
        http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1362058/
        Not as good as Shaun of the Dead, but quite funny and definitely above average material for a Zombie flick ;-).

        • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          Thanks for the heads up, Andy!

      • Pious_Ted

        “…post-outbreak ‘zombie’ type stuff (a great vehicle for morality, moral dilemmas etc);…” – Jonathan

        I hope you will make those zombies move nice and slow (like they did in the good old days). Having zombies move fast (a la ’28 Days Later’) was too alarming. I want zombies to move nice and slow… so you can get away.

        • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          I have gone for the slow jog approach! As in, a shambling stumble, but a bit faster than the proper slow zombies. This post is a repost of a year ago, and I have squeezed in enough time to have written about 30,000 words so far, so it’s slow going. Just too busy!

  • David Marshall

    Jonathan: I started reading your article, until I got to this gaping and rather telling error:

    “So let us look at the claims of the (only two) Gospels which actually mention the birth of Jesus.  Which is itself a problem, worse than if only two biographies of Abraham Lincoln actually mentioned his assassination!”

    I wasn’t planning to blog today, but this seemed significant, so I just posted a quick response. 

    http://christthetao.blogspot.com/2012/12/is-christmas-ahistorical-jonathan.html

    You have a Merry Christmas too, though, and all the rest.

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thanks David. Will take a look.  Spelled my name wrong, though…

    • NoCrossNoCrescent

      So you don’t at all think it is a problem that in John Jesus appears on the seen as an adult and in Mark there is no mention of virgin birth, or place of birth of jesus?

      • David Marshall

        A problem for what? 

        • NoCrossNoCrescent

          So you see no problem at all in the fact that Mark and John forgot, or neglected to tell us, about the Virgian birth, Davidic descent, or all other miracles surrounding the birth of Jesus? Well, what else did they think “wasn’t important” enough to put in their narratives? We shouldn’t be concerned that they are not telling us the whole truth?

          • christthetao

            What kind of “problem” are you referring to?   Nobody ever tells “the whole truth,” of course, and never will. 

          • NoCrossNoCrescent

            You know, novels such as Count de Monte Christo and Gone with the Wind have sequelae written after the respective originals. The existence of new details in later “versions” not only means they are fictional, but the original was fictional as well. After all, if the juicy details in Matthew and Luke had actually happened, why would Mark (an earlier author) think they were “not important” and just give us a bare bones story?

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      As I said to David on his blog:

      DavidOf course, the whole post runs up a cumulative case against the historicity of the accounts, which is played out in my book.The fact is, your defence, for want of a better word, is merely a series of coulds and maybes, which already cedes a lower than 50% probability.We know almost nothing about the provenance of the Gospel accounts. Three of them fail to include the most incredible claims of Jesus’ birth: a baby-killing KING of the country chasing the family into Egypt, the family coming out of Egypt to fulfill a prophecy which makes him Messianic, important gentiles coming from abroad to worship the Messiah and then never being heard from again, a celestial site in the skies which is greater than any other in observed cosmological history and so on.Now you can claim ‘well it could be this’ but if this was the evidence presented to you for an equally outrageous claim from another religion, you would rightly dismiss it. Take Raymond Brown, for example. An eminent scholar concluding the same as me. I even have it on good faith that William Lane Craig thinks the accounts historically unreliable, only believing them as a result of his Christian faith.You have to deal with probabilities here. Is the evidence provided better explained by a hypothesis that the accounts are historically reliable or by the theory that they are not? I think the answer is painfully obvious.And to suggest that there are cosmological answers is woeful. They have all been easily refuted, the most recent being Frank Tipler’s hypernova nonsense.The language you have used in this post clearly overstates your confidence. You cannot, in frank terms, be confident of the historicity of the accounts. I have just done a radio debate with Randal Rauser on this very issue, and he even refuses to debate all the claims that are verifiable, only falling back on 1) virgin birth 2) Bethlehem birth 3) Mary and Joseph as parents!!!No, you have to do better than this.Merry Christmas, though.

  • pboyfloyd

    Funny thing. I’m watching the last few minutes of the movie, The Nativity, which has Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, of course,  trekking across the desert to Egypt!  After a pointless hike down to Bethlehem, they go on a pointless hike to Egypt.

    But they fulfill a few contrived prophecies! 

    I personally like the smooth transition by the apologist when the subject of the accounts of the Gospels come up. Since the Gospels are out there for everyone to read and reread and criticize to their hearts desire, the apologist will divert the conversation to ‘the sources’.

    It’s easy to see why. Suddenly the critic is arguing linguistics and possible original sources for the stories, which, it would seem to me, requires quite a bit of expertise, instead of, “This is what it says here, that’s what it says there, they both can’t be right, and the only reason for the plot twists is the fulfilling of prophecy!”

    I believe this type of diversion is called ‘a pivot’ in politics.

  • David Marshall

    Jonathan: Sorry for the spelling error.  I also forgot to link you.  Will check responses after a bit of Christmas shopping and other seasonal stuff . . .

  • Derek Matt

    Jason Engwer of Triablogue has kept up with the most recent critical scholarship on the birth narratives for the last five years, the index of which can be found here:

    http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2012/11/christmas-apologetics.html

    Assertions about Nazareth are addressed by JP Holding of tektonics.org here:

    http://www.tektonics.org/jesusexist/nazex.html

    and by Maurice Casey in his book Jesus of Nazareth (pp. 128-31, 163-4)

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Thank you Derek. But…
      I deal with one of Engwer’s arguments in my book. It is bad. His arguments on the nativity are not good. 

      JP Holding, I don’t rate either. His personality get in the way of most of his points, but that aside, he falls into the same category as triablogue.

    • pboyfloyd

      I don’t think we should have to study up on Engwer’s opinion of other authors concerning the supposed events of the Nativity, expecially since he isn’t dealing directly with Jon’s points. Instead he gives his critical opinion(backed by other apologists, of course), on the significance of the traditional Christmas infancy narratives.

      But we could criticize any work of fiction for it’s significance.

      He goes on to explain, yet again, methods of historians, how books on the same topic could be harmonized, and so on, when these books have NOT been harmonized by historians. I, for one, think that these apologetics are deliberately off-point and argue around the subject, with the objective of minimizing the points in contention, talking around them so much, referencing other apologists who do the same, so much, that they are whiting them out in a blizzard of words.One reference to a book about whether Nazareth existed at the time in question must be another attempt to dazzle us with this brand of ‘brilliance’.Derek, you just ‘answered’ Jon with a homework assignment. “Dig through Tribalogue and all his references, summarize the his positions that I(Derek) feel refutes yours, take two aspirins and call me in the morning!”

  • David Marshall

    And here’s my cross-posted response:

    The armies of Gondor made their stand at Minas Tirith, temporarily abandoning
    Osgiliath. Having defeated Sauron’s troops there, they easily regained
    Osgiliath.

    If miracles happen, especially if the resurrection happened
    (which speaking of Tolkien, he called the “eucatastrophe” of human history), the
    birth narratives are just a mopping-up exercise.

    If you didn’t notice, I included Craig’s position in my OP.

    I’d be happy to trade you books on the gospels, if you were closer, and postage weren’t so pricy.  I summarized my own argument for the historicity of the gospels again in a book Randal also contributed to, that just came out, called Faith Seeking Understanding.  But the birth narratives are not really where the battle is fought, I don’t think.

  • David Marshall

    If I ever go out collecting really silly arguments against Christmas, I hope I’ll remember to add this one to the collection. 

    So here’s NC2′s Iron Law of Historical Biography, everyone: if a later biography includes details that an earlier biography does not include, BOTH must be pure fiction. 

    Congratulations.  You’ve just simplified the task of librarians around the world.  They can now take all the books labeled “biography” and cart them over to the “fiction” section, and have done with biography altogether. 

  • Derek Matt

    Jonathan:

     

    “I deal with one of Engwer’s arguments in my book. It is bad.
    His arguments on the nativity are not good.”

    Engwer engages with Christian scholarship as well as objections
    from the most extreme (only credible on the internet) skeptics like Carrier.
    Your list is (mostly) just the same canards that Christian scholars and
    apologists have addressed many times. Thus I have no reason to be confident in
    your appraisal of his posts. I put the link up so your readers know you’ve not
    gone unchallenged.

    “JP Holding, I don’t rate either.”

    That’s your problem. His material shows why the ‘Nazareth myth’
    is not a respectable historical position (he fills a nice niche since these
    positions are often too ridiculous to be addressed in the scholarly
    literature).

    “His personality get in the way of most of his points,”

    He does like to take people to task, but they deserve it. Most
    online atheist personalities are frustrated wimps in their day-to-day lives,
    and the internet affords them the chance to be tough guys for a change. In any event, it is
    the quality of his evidence and argument that count, not his personality.

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Engwer engages with Christian scholarship as well as objections

      from the most extreme (only credible on the internet) skeptics like Carrier.
      But the fact that you find Engwer credible shows such confirmation bias because his work really isn’t very good, and he finds plausible things which simply aren’t, no doubt due to his presuppositional stance. I use Engwer in my book only in the conclusion to show two extremes of Christian thought, ranging from theological truth (such as Raymond Brown, a far superior scholar – the best in the field – but not historical truth (as well as people like Dawes and Kasemann) all the way to more literalists like Engwer and Holding).

      The problem with Engwer and Holding, and any more conservative scholar, is that the number one objective is that the biblical claims remain true, and almost always, this is in some historical context of truth. You only have to look at the client kingdom issues, the census and other simply indefensible claims of the Lukan narrative. The fact that there are so many attempted harmonisations for the census is at times hilarious. It appears to the outsider like the Christian is scrabbling around hopelessly trying to find anything that can remotely be applied to a harmonisation. The fact that Luke clearly connects ancestry causally with his going to Bethlehem is enough to invalidate the Lukan accuracy. There simply is no precedent. None. I don’t want to trawl through the arguments again, though we can if you wish. It comes down to probability. If you find their arguments more probable, then you are on the wrong side of historical analysis, and are seemingly willing to wish away contradictions as if they weren’t there.

      Simply put, none of the census vs Herod harmonisations (for example) are good enough. And that is but one issue from a plethora.

      Secondly, as mentioned in my book, the myth of nazareth is not the strongest of arguments – I am agnostic. But what the Catholic church did with the ‘Jesus era’ house is more telling. Fascinatingly shows us what Christians are prepared to do to defend the historicity of the narratives.

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      I’ll tell you what, Derek, let’s pick something a little different (the census is a little overworn).

      I’ll write a post on Herod and th issues with Matthew’s use of him. If you want, you can respond to why you think it historically reliable to claim that Herod did as Matthew recounted.

      Sound like a plan?

  • Derek Matt

    pboyfloyd:

     

    “I don’t think we should have to study up on Engwer’s opinion of
    other authors concerning the supposed events of the Nativity,”

    It’s your problem that you’re too lazy (scared?) to read beyond what
    you already agree with.

    “expecially since he isn’t dealing directly with Jon’s points.”

    Engwer deals with much of what Jonathan lists. Indeed much of it
    is unoriginal. Moreover, I did not put it up to refute anything, only to link
    to material that shows there is another, very active side to this debate that
    he is so predictably trying to downplay.

    “Instead he gives his critical opinion(backed by other
    apologists, of course), on the significance of the traditional Christmas
    infancy narratives.”

    Indeed. Exactly what Jonathan is doing. Of course Engwer quotes
    both scholars and apologists. Avoid using apologist as a pejorative. Jonathan
    is. I am. You are too.

    “He
    goes on to explain, yet again, methods of historians, how books on the same
    topic could be harmonized, and so on, when these books have NOT been harmonized
    by historians.”

    Nonsense.
    What you mean is you don’t agree with the harmonizations. You don’t understand
    historiography:

     

    http://www.tektonics.org/harmonize/lincoln01.html

     

    See
    especially Holding’s comparison of treating four modern biographies of Abraham
    Lincoln with the same uncritical bias that most atheists use on the Gospels:

     

    http://www.tektonics.org/harmonize/lincoln02.html

     

    “One
    reference to a book about whether Nazareth existed at the time in question must
    be another attempt to dazzle us with this brand of ‘brilliance’.”

     

    There
    is no dispute. Nazareth existed when Jesus was alive. Only non-experts who kowtow
    to their atheist readers like Zindler and Salm assert this nonsense. Casey is
    one of the leading experts alive on first century Aramaic, and he is no friend
    to anything that can be called conservative or evangelical Christianity. His
    opinion is worth more than Zindler’s, Salm’s and Jonathan’s combined.

  • Eliott0

    I’ve read with interest your points and I am 100% behind you remembering that here you are referring to just one incident (the Nativity) of the NT.   Unfortunately I was unable to see you at the Humanist meeting in Bournemouth, so Jonathan I hope you’ll be able to squeeze another visit next year.

    • http://www.www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Hi there Eliott

      Thanks!

      I am hoping to do a talk on free will on March 27th or somewhere around that time. Would be great to see you there.