The Nativity in History

Christmas time’s a comin’; Christmas time’s a comin

That’s a song that I did not need to hear right now, but it’s somewhat appropriate considering that very soon people will begin practicing for Christmas plays and musical performances, and the enemies of the faith will most certainly begin rolling out their attacks on the historicity of Christmas, or attacking traditions, or whatever.

Please don’t take my tone as being dismissive about the season because I love Christmas. I love the lights and the trees, and it’s a magical time of year…I mean, I proposed to the woman who is my wife at Christmas time, so it’s a special time for me personally, but… it’s also a sad time because there’s a lot of people—mostly ignorant and unreasoning people—who for noble and ignoble reasons just seem to clog my social media feeds with nonsense.

A prime, and early out of the gate example is Neil Carter over at Godless in Dixie. Neil has transitioned from writing blogs to doing a podcast, and his most recent episode is titled “The Christmas That Wasn’t”, so you can kind of guess where it’s going. Now, I’m going to be interacting with his transcript of the episode simply because it is more suited for this medium.

Neil begins,

“Growing up, my favorite superhero was definitely Superman. Hands down, no one else captured my childhood imagination more completely than he did. I was also taught to idolize Jesus growing up, and it always delighted me that my boyhood idol so closely mirrored the object of my religious devotion as well.

I was more of a Star Wars and Transformers comics guy growing up, but I guess that’s just the difference in generations. I wasn’t much of a Superman, or any other superhero-type, they just didn’t appeal to me. I guess that’s just the generational difference though. But, there’s no denying that the creators of the Superman comics drew on numerous sources and experimented with different origins and explanations before settling on what we now know as the character. Indeed, many have compared the character Kal-El/Superman to Jesus, but if anything, it is the human tendency to mimic tropes that makes the comparison reasonable. From a literary perspective, it’s an interesting comparison of the two, however Neil quickly veers off into abject fantasy and misrepresentation by writing,

Both of them were, in a sense, born “from above” but came to earth to be our savior. Both somehow had ongoing relationships with their real fathers through a kind of communication that was indirect and atypical, and both struggled with their identity to some degree as hybrids living in a world that didn’t fully understand what they were about.

Well, not exactly. The character Kal-El was not sent to earth to be a savior, rather he was sent to earth to save him from the destruction of his home planet. And later film and television versions of the character give him a interactive computer program to interact with his dead father. And he was not a hybrid—the product of two different species—but a native and natural Kryptonian. Similarly, the historic Christian belief about Jesus was that he was fully human and fully God, not a mixture that would require loss of function in either of the two distinct natures of Christ. I could go on but once you start actively comparing the two the alleged similarities begin to disappear.

See also: The Fickle Mistress of History

Under the heading, “The Lost Years”, Neil writes,

“Curiously, they also disappear after their earliest years only to reappear again as fully grown adults, ready to dive into their life’s calling as saviors of the world, leaving the rest of us wondering what happened to them during all those lost years?

So what? But after much opining about those “lost years”, he finally gets to something of a point,

“How are we supposed to know how we are to act as children? Doesn’t that strike you as a significant oversight on the part of the Holy Spirit, who was supposed to be the Author of the Bible? If the kingdom of heaven belongs to little ones such as these, why does the New Testament do so little to address the spiritual lives of children?

Is it just me—and I don’t mean to sound dismissive—but isn’t that something of a ridiculous question to ask? What is childhood meant to be other than the training ground for teaching people to be adults. This is what happens when you have an incoherent doctrine of scripture: you ask ridiculous or unimportant questions. I mean, stuff like this gives me an eye-twitch because of how absolutely inane it is.

Not to be outdone, Neil mentions the Gnostic gospels,

“Incidentally, there were stories written about the younger Jesus, they just didn’t make it into the Bible, perhaps because they portrayed him as a mischievous imp.

Not to mention that they essentially deny his humanity and are dependent upon the gospels themselves. You know, facts.

Under the heading, “Man from Nowhere” Neil writes,

“As a grown-up who has formally studied the Bible, I know now why there isn’t anything at all in the Bible about the boyhood of Jesus: It’s because he didn’t do anything noteworthy prior to declaring himself a spokesman for God in his early 30s. Before he began his ministry as an itinerant preacher in Galilee, no one looked at him as an unusual person, worthy of any extraordinary attention. I’m guessing he was always a bit of a mystic, maybe even prone to absorbing and articulating thoughtful maxims with passion and clarity. But certainly no one declared him the virgin born Son of God. That story doesn’t seem to have come along until much later.

Looks like someone is assuming something that needs to be proven. Oh, wait,

…the Gospel of Mark, says nothing at all about being born of a virgin, nor does it say anything about his birth being special. It would seem that whichever community produced the collection of stories we now call Mark had no awareness of a birth narrative attached to the object of their affections. (Emphasis original)

This is where not having a meaningful grasp on the practices of historiography in the ancient world, as well as latching on to Markan priority in order to make an argument—a circular argument mind you—tells off. It’s not that Mark can’t have his own priorities when he’s writing his gospel, can’t tell the story that he wants to tell, with his own focus, on his own content in his own way…nope, it has to be a carbon copy of the others.

See Here for The Problems with Dating the Gospels

Now, I’m gonna hypothesize here. I don’t have any evidence to support this, but maybe, just maybe, given the fact that we know that the early papyrus was prone to lose the first and last part of the text. So maybe, just maybe Mark had a birth narrative that became lost in the rivers of time. Like I said: I can’t prove it, but then there’s a lot of assertions that Neil has made in the past that don’t have any evidence so…

Under the heading of “Some Key Problems”, Neil writes,

“It’s odd enough that Matthew’s gospel tells one story while Luke’s tells a completely different one.

Do they really though? Both agree that Mary was a virgin. Both agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Matthew gives an abbreviated version that seems to be from Joseph’s perspective and Luke appears to give us Mary’s. Same story, two points of view. Not to say that such an observation should be obvious because Neil immediately writes,

“They even both detail that angelic emissaries were needed to deliver a message from God to the lucky parents, although they each report a different recipient for the divine message.

Two different people with entirely different concerns related to the same event. This gives me a headache trying to figure out what the problem is. It seems to be, state what is obvious from the context, then completely ignore the context of each story, then assert that there’s a problem by ignoring the authorial intention and focus of each work.

Then Neil writes this nugget:

“…even the most important detail that they agree on stands out as an historical problem because it is based on a mistranslation of a verse from the Old Testament:

In Isaiah 7:14, it says that “The young woman (Hebrew: almah, ָהַעְלָמ) will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” But the Greek translation of that verse in the Septuagint rendered the word “virgin.” To be clear, it’s not that you can’t possible interpret that word “almah” to mean virgin, it’s just that it’s a really odd way to translate the word.

Is it really an “odd way” to translate a word from one language to another? I mean, the assertion is that the Hebrew word “almah” can only mean “young woman”, and never “virgin”, the problem is that language scholars, such as R. Laird Harris, have noted that,

“There is no instance where it can be proved that ‘almâ designates a young woman who is not a virgin. The fact of virginity is obvious in Gen 24:43 where ‘almâ is used of one who was being sought as a bride for Isaac.” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, p. 672. Emphasis added)

Furthermore, as Dr. Michael Heiser writes in his excursus on Isaiah 7:14 in the Faithlife Study Bible,

“[The] argument against Matthew using Isaiah 7:14 to speak of a virgin fails to consider that Isaiah may not have originally intended to speak of a woman who had never been sexually active. The point of the prophecy was not the woman—it was the child. The prophecy was originally given to King Ahaz and was fulfilled in his own lifetime, as Isaiah 6–8 makes clear (see Isa 7:16). Matthew saw an analogy with the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14—a supernatural birth,… (emphasis added)

The fact that there may be a more technical word in Hebrew, doesn’t diminish the semantic overlap of a less technical word, further it proves that the person raising the objection, as Heiser notes, is truly missing the point.

Neil probably realizes that anyone who cares to find out the truth behind the all the hoopla and read more than just their Bible, tries something else,

“What’s more, Matthew’s gospel makes it sound like Joseph and Mary were from Bethlehem (it records no census trip, and two years later when the wise men show up, Bethlehem seems to be their permanent residence) while Luke’s insists that they were really from Nazareth and were only in Bethlehem because of a “worldwide” census.

Okay. Let’s think carefully here and ask, what exactly are the facts?

First, after documenting just some basic facts surrounding the conception of Jesus, Matthew places a time jump in his narrative to after the birth, when the holy family was residing in Bethlehem. Contrary to Luke’s account, which includes its own time jump, he doesn’t provide any grounds for why they may be there, he just picks up and moves on. Second, Matthew doesn’t even mention Nazareth until later, to make a further analogical connection to the prophetic tradition. It’s almost like he assumes that his audience already knows the some of the background or doesn’t feel that he needs to include it, whereas Luke, who is writing to a different audience, from a different perspective feels the need to make further explanation.

Neil continues,

“Never mind that we have no extant record of such a census ever being taken, nor would it even make practical sense to demand that everyone return back to the original place of their ancestors’ births.

That’s an awesome example of an argument from silence, not to mention the fact that it ignores the established tradition in Jewish law regarding matters of debt, taxation, and inheritance in extant Jewish law.

Luke doesn’t even get the right name of the governor for the region, and that while selling himself as the one whose gospel will give us the most thoroughly detailed and accurate account of the events depicted therein.

….all historical records invalidate Luke’s naming of Quirinius as the governor of Syria during this time period, placing him at least a full decade later than the time of Herod’s death (the same Herod who appears, still very much alive, at the time of Jesus’s birth). (Emphasis original)

I’ve addressed this objection in my post on Luke, so I’m not going to bother recapitulating it here, but also in a summary survey of the literature found here indicates that there may be more flexibility in the joints and that many of the assumptions that have been taken for granted, such as Herod’s death and the dates, frequency, and types of censuses that occurred. As such, Neil’s argumentation here is well out of line with much of the scholarship on the subject.

See also: Brook Pearson’s Re-Examination of Luke’s Census in Catholic Biblical Quarterly

Under the heading, “Something’s Not Right, Here” Neil continues, after giving a brief recounting of several remarkable things that occurred following Jesus’ birth,

“…in Mark 3 we learn that as soon as Jesus had begun preaching publicly, his family—including his mother Mary—sought to take him away because, and I quote, “He is out of his mind” (see Mark 3:20-35, and note the inclusion of his mother at the end of the story). Does that even make sense?

Yes. It does. In the culture of the first century, which was steeped in concepts of honor and the fact that Jesus was drawing what could be perceived in that culture as unsightly attention by the public humiliation of the religious authorities was obviously concerning to the family,

“Mark 3:21, 31-35 also shows a family guarding its collective honor when one of its members appears to be endangering it. In this case it is most clear that they are hiding what they perceive to be the censurable conduct of a family member not simply in the interest of his reputation but for the sake of the reputation of the whole family (on which so much in village life depends).

-David A. deSilva. Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Intervarsity Press. Downers Grove, IL. 2000. p. 199

In that case, it was much easier for the family to save face by attributing what Jesus was doing to madness rather that intent. It would also explain why the allegation that Jesus was demon possessed to explain his demonstrations of power became prevalent. Which is why when Neil says,

“What makes the most sense here is that Jesus broke away from his family and began preaching without the approval of his own mother, who up until this point knew nothing of his future fame.

when, considered against the cultural backdrop of the time, rather than the tendency to be prideful and self-promoting, like our culture tends towards, it makes sense, regardless of what Mary may or may not have either known or understood that she would struggle with cultural norms. Remember that even Jesus himself had to deal with popular misconceptions and misunderstandings about the nature and purpose of the messiah. Neil wants to equate this to an unbelievable “big fish” story. The problem is that there are big fish stories that are true, even if unbelievable on first presentation. It’s either his ignorance of the culture, or his ignoring the context of the episode in its place in the greater narrative that he’s tripping over.

The last, and seemingly largest section, is titled “The Earliest Christians Didn’t Have Christmas”. Neil begins,

“Students of the Bible know that the gospels weren’t the earliest Christian writings. That honor belongs to the Pauline epistles, the letters Paul wrote to the surviving churches in his care before he died in the mid-60s C.E.

Okay…and that means what, exactly? The fact that the Pauline epistles are generally seen as the earliest writings of Christianity doesn’t really mean anything. Paul’s writings are incredibly important because they seem to indicate when the Gospels, at least of Matthew and Luke, entered into history because he appears to either directly quote or allude to them. But after mentioning that, Neil resorts to a common tactic, writing,

Paul never says a word about a virgin birth, nor does he say anything about the events surrounding his miraculous entrance into the world, hailed by kings and angels alike. (Emphasis original)

So? There’s a lot of things that Paul doesn’t mention. So, that’s arguing from silence. We can’t argue from what Paul doesn’t say, we have to argue from what he does, less we get accused of arguing from silence, which is fallacious. Neil wants to argue that this silence is a “big deal” and I go, why? Paul dealt with immediate controversies and questions directed to him from the various churches whose writings have been preserved in scripture. The only time that we have any mention of Jesus’ birth in Paul is in Galatians 4:4. That means that to ask any questions about the circumstances of that birth, on has to defer to the sources that address them (eg Matthew and Luke).

Neil wants to assert that the virgin birth is somehow analogical to the Exodus, the problem is that Neil shows that he’s simply ignorant of the facts (also here). The problem is that we do have sources that directly speak to the issues that he raises, he just chooses not to treat them with the same courtesy or veracity as other historical sources. Neil complains that other New Testament authors don’t rehearse any of the nativity narratives, and it just leaves me going, so what? What purpose would such serve in what they were writing? Nothing.

Jumping ahead, Neil writes,

“[…The] earliest Christians just didn’t have Christmas. That tradition appears to be one of the last additions to make it into the canon, and it would appear that most of the earliest apostles (and their imitators) knew nothing of the stories that believers today accept with little question.

Yeah, no. Steven Hijmans, in his landmark studySol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas” notes that speculation about the date of Christ’s birth appeared early in church tradition and that there were a number of different dates that were shopped around, but celebrating such was considered to either be aligning with pagan practice (per Origen) or empty and unsupported superstition (per Clement of Alexandria).(p. 377) This demonstrates that such concerns were, in fact, early and we’re likely a result of Christians wanting to further demonstrate both their allegiance to Christ as well as their further differentiation from Judaism. The fact that there was speculation related to the birth so early reinforces not only the existence but the acceptance of the gospel presentation and necessity of the nativity, contrary to Neil’s assertion.

Neil wonders why Christmas is so important when contrasted against Easter? The Christian response is that without the one, there wouldn’t be the other. It’s in the incarnation that the crucifixion and resurrection find their meaning. This is not to say that there’s often improper emphasis placed on certain traditions, but that doesn’t have any effect on its significance. However, Neil often conflates popular representations with the narrative itself, evidenced by the opening sentence in his final paragraph,

“I’m just pretty convinced it never actually happened.

I would add, “like that”. Any careful reading of the birth narrative should recognize a clear compression of events to reduce the space of the narrative as well as to group events into the tightest place possible because the author desires to get the narrative moving. Matthew’s is the most compressed, clearly in a hurry to get to the teaching of Jesus, where Luke spends greater time unpacking and setting his scenes due to his cinematic method of narrative, using dialogue to move the story. This casual dismissal is simply being ham-fisted with the narrative.

As we have seen, Neil has to exert much bluff and bluster to make his arguments are canned, and are often fallacious. Like most popular-level atheists, he shows no familiarity with what he’s criticizing in regard to literary or historical basis or the available scholarship. Neil readily and rightly dismisses a common popular misapprehension and misrepresentation of the narrative but confuses that with the narrative itself, using the misconception to dismiss the reality. Neil is a smart guy, he just lets his atheism cloud his understanding.

[Editorial note: this post was composed in early November, which is why it begins the way that it does. It was not noticed until recently that the publishing scheduling for posts put it the week of Christmas. How neat is that?]