Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why scholars believe the Christmas story isn't historical, part 1

In the livescience.com article, I have the following super-Grinchy quote about whether the Christmas story really happened:
"My overall take on this, which would be the opinion of most other biblical scholars as well, is that there is very little in the Christmas story of the Gospels that is historically reliable," said Brent Landau, a religious studies scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.
Although the article discusses some of the arguments against the historicity of the infancy narratives that scholars have made, I wanted to take some time to go through these arguments a bit more systematically. I had thought I would discuss all of them tonight, but my write-up of reason #1 got pretty long. So I'm instead going to do these one by one for the next few nights, to make your Christmas merry and bright!

For reason #1 that scholars doubt the historicity of the infancy narratives, follow me below the jump.

1. The biggest problem with the historicity of the Christmas story is that the two gospels that contain infancy narratives--Matthew and Luke--tell completely different stories that contradict each other in several important ways. Read Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 for yourself, and the differences in content are overwhelming: they have virtually nothing in common. Shepherds in Luke, Magi in Matthew. Census in Luke, no census in Matthew. Slaughter of the innocents in Matthew, no dead babies in Luke.

And on and on. But what may not be so easily apparent is that the stories aren't just different from one another, but are actually contradictory on certain points. The best way to get at this is to ask this  question: according to each author, why is Jesus born in Bethlehem but grows up in Nazareth?

Luke's answer to this question is the one that most people are familiar with. In Luke, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth in Galilee. Because of the Emperor Augustus's census, they journey to Bethlehem, and while they are there, Jesus is born. An accident of history, except that Luke believes that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah, whom Micah 5:3 predicted would be born in David's hometown of Bethlehem. And after the census, the family returns to their home in Nazareth, where Jesus grows up.

Now, consider Matthew. Matthew 1 doesn't tell us where Mary and Joseph were living, but at the start of chapter 2, it says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. So there's no discussion of Nazareth, and when the Magi get to Bethlehem in 2:11, they go into a "house" where Mary and the baby are. So if one reads this without Luke's story in mind, it sure sounds like the reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem was because that's where his parents lived. Nazareth only comes into the picture because Herod seeks to kill the child: Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt, an angel tells Joseph that Herod is now dead, but when the family returns to Israel, Joseph is afraid because Herod's son is now in charge of Judea. So he's told in a dream to take the family to Nazareth, where Jesus grows up.

So both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus is born in Bethlehem and grows up in Nazareth. But this can hardly be called an agreement on their part, because their explanations for how this takes place are completely different. Rather than attempting a very awkward harmonization of these two narratives, scholars believe that both Matthew and Luke started with two main data points in common: that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, and that Jesus was the Messiah--and therefore must somehow have been born in Bethlehem. And they each go about solving the Nazareth-Bethlehem dilemma in their own way.

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