Friday, December 19, 2014

Historical Problems With the Christmas Story

[Sick of me hearing me talk about historical problems with the Bible?  I agree, Ihavebeengoingon -about  - it - a - lotlately.  Feel free to ignore this post if you've hit your limit.
I'm writing this for two reasons.  One reason is because during the Christmas season, I constantly get the urge to tell people all about these historical problems, and not everyone wants to listen to me go on at length about it.  So writing this blog post is my outlet for it.  Secondly, I'm going to tie in some of these issues in a forthcoming book review I'll be writing soon, so I wanted to first write down clearly what these issues were.]

The first problem with the birth of Christ narrative is that it appears to be a late addition to the Jesus story.  None of the earliest Christian documents mention anything about the virgin birth or the trip to Bethlehem or any of it.

So what are our earliest documents?  The letters of Paul are the first written Christian documents.  This is slightly confusing, because in the Bible Paul's letters are placed after the Gospels.  But the New Testament is not arranged in order of publication date, and actually Paul's letters (or at least the 7 authentic ones (W)) were written before any of the Gospels, somewhere around 50 to 60 AD.  There are no references in Paul's letters to the virgin birth or the divine conception or being born in Bethlehem.

Our earliest Gospel is Mark (probably written around 70 AD), and Mark has absolutely no reference to the birth of Christ, or any of miracles which supposedly accompanies it.  In Mark's Gospel, the story starts when Jesus is already an adult.
It's not until the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, written somewhere between 70 AD and 90 AD, that the stories of the birth of Christ even appear.  This late date alone should raise a lot of questions, and presents the possibility that the story of Christ was being more and more mythologized as time went on.
(John, although it was the last Gospel to be written, also says nothing about the birth of Christ.  It is hypothesized that although John is the latest Gospel, it comes from a completely separate tradition than the Synoptic Gospels, and in that tradition there apparently were no miraculous stories about the birth of Christ.)

Both Matthew and Luke are copying from the Gospel of Mark (for a fuller explanation of why scholars know Matthew and Luke are copying from Mark see this post on the Synoptic Problem here).  So wherever they can use Mark as a common source, they're relatively on the same page.  The problem comes when they're writing about things that Mark left out of his Gospel: the birth of Jesus, at the beginning of the story and the appearances of the resurrected Jesus at the end of the story.  In both of these instances, they write completely separate and contradictory stories. (The resurrection stories are also problematic for similar reasons--they appear to be a later addition, and they contradict each other.  However the problems with the resurrection account must be another post for another time.)

There are two points of similarity in the separate birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.  Both have the virgin birth, and both have Jesus born in the town of Bethlehem.  These might have been the two touchstones which had developed in the Christian community since the time of Mark's Gospel, and which the subsequent Gospel writers were obliged to address in some way.

The virgin birth is not surprising.  Almost every religious figure in the ancient world had a story of miraculous birth attached to them, and the virgin birth story was already a cliche by the time of Christ (see complete list at Wikipedia Here).

The birth in the town of Bethlehem seems to be in response to a particularly Jewish problem with the prophecies of the Messiah.  Jesus was well known to have been from Nazareth (see Paul's letters and the Gospel of Mark.)  But the Old Testament prophecies dictated that the Messiah had to come from Bethlehem.    Therefore both Matthew and Luke have to square this circle somehow--get Jesus down to Bethlehem to be born, but then back up to Nazareth to grow up.  And, operating from completely different play books, they solve the problem in completely separate ways.

In Matthew's Gospel, Mary and Joseph start out living in Bethlehem.  But because of the persecution of King Herod the Great, they have to flee to Egypt.  Eventually, God gives them the signal that it is safe to return, but they are warned in a dream not to return to Bethlehem, and instead go up to settle in Nazareth instead.

In Luke's Gospel, Mary and Joseph start out living in Nazareth, but have to go down to Bethlehem for some crazy census that (for some reason) requires everyone to go back to their ancestral towns.  Jesus is born in Bethlehem, and then they return to Nazareth.

Notice how suspicious all of this looks already before we even get into the historical problems with each respective account.  The fact that these are late additions to the story would be suspicious enough, but then Matthew and Luke completely contradict each other on every point.

There are some Christian fundamentalists who have put enormous intellectual energy into ironing out all the contradictions between Matthew and Luke.  (For example, the famous contradiction that Luke has Mary and Joseph starting in Nazareth, and that Matthew has Mary and Joseph starting in Bethlehem has been explained away many times.)  But as Yale Professor Dale Martin says, the two accounts don't feel like two separate halves of the same story--they feel like two completely different stories that are made to be read independently.

Even if you ignore the outright contradictions, the sins of omissions are still troubling.  Luke, for example, states clearly in his preface: "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning" (Luke 1:1-3).  But if Luke investigated everything so carefully, then how did he completely miss all the information that Matthew has in his Gospel?

And where are Matthew and Luke getting their information from anyway?  If Matthew has a reliable source, then Luke is clearly not aware of it, and if Luke has a reliable source, then Matthew clearly has no access to it.  It raises a lot of suspicions that at least one of them is just inventing details.
(Just about all the details that we associate with the Christmas story come from only one of the two narratives, and the other Gospel writer appears to be clearly unaware of it.  Luke is unaware of the star of Bethlehem, the visit of the 3 wisemen, and Herod's massacre of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt, et cetera.  Matthew is unaware of the huge census that encompassed the whole Roman world, and Jesus being born in a stable because there was no room at the inn, and the angels appearing to the Shepherds, et cetera).

But aside from the internal contradictions in the New Testament, neither one of the Gospels lines up well with outside established history.
First of all, the star over Bethlehem is problematic.  Of course it's impossible to prove a negative (i.e., we have no account of some contemporary first century historian taking the time to explicitly note down anything like "no strange star over Bethlehem today"), but we have no positive account for this in any other source besides Matthew.  Besides which stars, as we normally think of them, are millions of miles away.  They cannot hover over one specific town.

Also from the Gospel of Matthew: King Herod the Great's massacre of the infants in Bethlehem is recorded in no other historian, and no other place in the Bible.  Not even the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote extensively about King Herod, seems to be at all aware of such a massacre.

On to Luke.
Luke identifies Jesus as being born in the time of King Herod the Great and when Quirinius was governor of Syria. But both of these names are known to historians, and Herod the Great died in 4 BC, and Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until 6 AD.
Furthermore, Luke records that a census took place throughout the whole Roman Empire, and this was the reason why Mary and Joseph had to move to Bethlehem.  But to the best of our knowledge, no such census took place, and historians are relatively sure that if such a massive census had taken place, we would know about it.  The reign of Caesar Augustus, (when Luke places the census), is one of the more well documented periods in Roman history, and we have absolutely no record of the census in any historical account, or anywhere in the Bible outside of Luke.  To the best of our knowledge, the Romans never conducted any massive census that encompassed the whole Roman empire.  They did conduct local censuses in regional areas occasionally, and when they did there's almost always evidence left behind from these local censuses (tablets, papyrus fragments).  But there is absolutely no evidence of the census that Luke talks about.

Furthermore, in the Gospel of Luke there is a further bizarre detail about this census: everyone had to return to their ancestral town.  So Joseph had to go back to the town of Bethlehem, not because he had ever lived there, but because he was from the house of David.  David's line itself hadn't lived in Bethlehem for centuries--before they disappeared from history, the Davidic bloodline had been ruling and living in Jerusalem.  But some 1,000 years ago David had originally been from Bethlehem, and so now (according to Luke) Joseph has to return all the way to Bethlehem for the census.
 But this is not normally the way the Romans conducted censuses, and furthermore it doesn't even really make logical sense.  Can you imagine the huge upheaval it would cause to a society to have everyone stop their work for several days to move back to the towns their ancestors were from?  (Nowadays most people wouldn't even be able to tell you where their ancestors had lived 1,000 years ago, and it's reasonable to assume the ancient world would have had the same problem.)

Neither does it make any sense to imagine the Romans would have had any interest in the numbers of people that could be traced to ancestral towns.  The Romans conducted censuses for the purposes of tax collection, which meant they would only have been interested in where people were living currently, and what their assets were currently.  They had no interest in where anyone's ancestors were from.

What's more, the Romans only conducted censuses in areas that they directly administered.  During the time of King Herod the Great, Judea would not have been a Roman province, but a client state under King Herod. (Which is why "King" Herod was, after all, referred to as a king.)  So Herod would have been responsible for sorting out his own taxes, and simply paying a tribute to Rome.

Direct Roman rule in Judea was not established until 6 A.D., at which point the Roman governor Quirinius did conduct a census (W).  This census may have been what Luke is getting confused with, but it was only a local census (not the whole Roman world, as Luke reports) and nobody had to move back to their ancestral homes.
And even then it still would not have included the Galilean town of Nazareth—In 6 AD Galilee, unlike Judaea, was still a client state ruled by a client king and would not have been included in a Roman census or direct taxation. Since Luke positions Mary and Joseph as living in the Galilaean town of Nazareth, they would still have been exempt from the census.

The angels in Luke proclaim the birth of Christ in language that is very similar to how the Romans talked about the the birth of Caesar Augustus:  "good news," "bring peace", et cetera.  This isn't a historical problem per se, but it does raise questions about why God, or the angels, or the writer of Luke, or whoever is responsible for these words, feels the need to copy from the language of the Romans so directly.

Finally, there's the question of where this whole story is coming from in the first place.  Matthew and Luke, even if they really did write these Gospels, wouldn't have been present at the birth of Christ.  (And by the way, modern scholars are almost certain Matthew and Luke did not write the Gospels attached to their names--for more on that, see here).
One church tradition says that Matthew and Luke are going directly to Mary as their source.  But then why did Mary tell them each completely separate and contradictory stories?  And how would Mary even know most of this?  Mary wouldn't have been present when the angels appeared to the Shepherds.  Mary wouldn't have been present when the wisemen talked to King Herod.  Mary couldn't have known what the wisemen saw in a dream--especially since she never saw the wisemen after they had that dream.  The Gospel says the wisemen simply returned to their homes in the faraway East by a different route.  So how could anyone ever find out what they had dreamed that night?
So are these stories coming directly from the mouth of God?  Is this just divine inspiration?  But then how come God has given us two separate and contradictory stories for the birth of Christ?

Sources:
Lest I be accused of trying to appear smarter than I am, I should clarify that absolutely none of these historical problems are my own ideas or discoveries.  This is all based on information I got from:
The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible by Robin Lane Fox [My review here]
Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman [My review here]
Yale Lectures on the New Testament by Dale Martin [My comments here]
The Historical Jesus Lectures by Thomas Sheehan [itunes link here]
and The Bible Tells Me so by Peter Enns [My review coming soon]

Update:
I just found a Youtube video on the same subject:


Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Syria, China, Capitalism, and Feruson

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