The Year of the Nativity: Consensus, Harmonization, and Plausibility

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by Tim Widowfield

Herod the Great

Yes, it does seem odd for Vridar to have so many Christmas posts this year. I normally watch the holidays go by and think to myself, “I should have written something about that.”

In any case, I promise this will be my last Christmas post of the year, which should be an easy vow to keep, since it’s already the 28th.

In a previous post, I wrote about the date of the nativity. This time we’ll look at the year of Jesus’ birth. Considering all the ink scholars have spilled over this subject, and all the contortions many of them have gone through to push for specific dates that “work” (even so far as to move the death of Herod to 1 BCE), it’s a wonder there is a consensus. And yet, almost everywhere you look, you’ll find the date range of 6 to 4 BCE.

Only the most diehard apologist would try to harmonize Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the nativity. They diverge at nearly every point. Moreover, most critical scholars recognize the birth stories as legends. Both Matthew and Luke contain two momentous events which, had they actually occurred, would have given us a precise date for Jesus’ birth. In Matthew, Herod the Great slaughters all the young children in Bethlehem. In Luke, Augustus calls for “all the world to be taxed.”

Neither of these events happened, and therein lies the problem. They are legendary accounts told for religious, doctrinal reasons. And here’s a good rule of thumb: Once you’ve tossed rotten fruit into the dumpster, don’t climb back in to see if you can find some edible bits. In other words, resist the temptation to find a kernel of truth in fictional accounts, especially when you have absolutely no corroborating external evidence. There’s no shame in saying, “We don’t know, and we may never know.

For an ancient figure like Jesus, 6 to 4 BCE is a very tight range, especially for a person in the lower classes. To arrive at that extraordinarily precise window, we have to toss out Luke’s supposed reference to the Census of Quirinius, where he “got the date wrong.” Scholars fall back on Luke 1:5, which begins: “In the days of Herod the King of Judea . . .”

The kernel in this spoiled repast, this botched banquet, is the fact that both evangelists mention Herod. So it “must be” historical. Once you whittle away the stuff that can’t be true, you’re left with the stuff that has to be true.

The most industrious NT scholars can mine even more facts from these legends. For example, you know what else Matthew and Luke agree on? Ben Witherington tells us:

The remarkable story of the virginal conception is found in two different accounts: Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38. What is most remarkable about these stories is that they try to account for something extraordinary that, so far as we can tell, Jews were not expecting—a Messiah coming into the world by means of a virginal conception. (Witherington, “Primary Sources,Christianity Today)

This historical treatment of the nativity ranks as number one on my list of “why-would-anybody-make-it-up?” arguments. Witherington notes that the prophecy in Isaiah simply says a young woman will conceive. And even if the Septuagint used the word “virgin,” he argues, there is no need for her to remain a virgin after the conception and after the birth.

Notice, by the way, that nearly every English translation of Isaiah 7:14 uses the word virgin instead of young woman — even the great NIV, which promises it follows the Hebrew text faithfully throughout the OT. Well, they try to follow the Hebrew, but sometimes the Greek just makes more doctrinal sense. Besides, who wants to stir up those easily triggered American Evangelicals?

Anyhow, Pastor Ben says Jesus’ birth “must have” occurred in unusual circumstances.

At a minimum, the historical conclusion is that Jesus’ origins were unusual. It seems unlikely that early Christians would invent a story about a virginal conception knowing it would inevitably lead to charges that Jesus was illegitimate (a charge in fact we find in the third-century debate between Celsus the Jew and Origen, and one perhaps hinted at in Mark 6:3 and John 8:41). It was enough that their Savior had a scandalous death; early Christian writers were not looking to add more implausibility to the account. (Witherington, “Primary Sources,Christianity Today, emphasis mine)

Here is the argument in a nutshell: If you’re a member of a new cult based upon a divine, miracle-working, demon-ass-kicking, death-defying god-man, the last thing you’d want to do is “add more implausibility to the account.” It sounds funnier in this context, but many Jesus historians use the same argument to “prove” the story of the Cleansing of the Temple, the Entry into Jerusalem, and the Crucifixion itself. “Why,” they ask, “would anybody make it up?”

It works in other contexts, too. Why wouldn’t Joe Smith just say he found the golden plates while digging a well? Why add more implausibility to the account by saying an angel visited him? Clearly, Moroni “must have” really come to see him and directed him to the spot. No other explanation makes sense.

Why would anybody invent a story about Xenu blowing up volcanoes? Surely, if L. Ron Hubbard wanted his followers to believe the story, he wouldn’t have added to the implausibility by making the spacecraft look like DC-8 aircraft. It must, therefore, be true.

And, similarly, we “know” Jesus came from Nazareth. Witherington explains:

Second, Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a backwater town in Galilee. No historical scholar doubts this. It was not the kind of thing Jesus’ admiring biographers would make up, for no one was looking for a Messiah who came from Nazareth; indeed no one was looking for one who came from Galilee in general (John 1:46). (Witherington, “Primary Sources,Christianity Today, emphasis mine)

Who knows what other “facts” might be rescued from history’s dumpster? Stay tuned. We live in interesting times!

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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15 thoughts on “The Year of the Nativity: Consensus, Harmonization, and Plausibility”

    1. Actually, I apologize for being glib, Ian and June. If you need me to explain anything to you, I will try to oblige, time and weather permitting.

      Incidentally, if you were worried that I was arguing for the existence of Xenu and his spaceships or for the historicity of Moroni’s visit to Joseph Smith, rest assured that I was being sarcastic. I was trying to demonstrate that an argument for historicity based on what we think people would or would not invent does not work. New religions aren’t concerned with plausibility or believability, especially those that rely on the magic of miracles to thrill their followers.

  1. There are a couple of different flavors of this argument. One is the so-called “criterion of embarrassment,” which is used to justify the belief that the crucifixion occurred. The idea is that being executed this way was something that Jesus’ followers ought to want to cover up, and since they couldn’t, they had to own it.

    This isn’t the same as embellishing the event with even more fantastical features, which I believe is the core of your argument.

    Of course, the argument can get around this by observing that the Crucifixion is a certification by the Roman authorities that Jesus was a dangerous revolutionary, hence it could be regarded as an embellishment, and not subject to the criterion of embarrassment.

    1. There are two arguments I was making. First, critical scholars who think the nativity stories are wholly legendary will still often say that Jesus was born between 6 and 4 BCE, not remembering that those dates are based on legends. Second, the idea that something is more likely be true because people would not invent implausible stories flies in the face of experience. We’re not dealing with a liar who is trying to invent a convincing alibi; we’re dealing with believers who see visions and read scriptures to find out what did and will happen.

      Often the more implausible the story, the better. That’s what we call “miracles.”

    1. Judging from these references many early “church fathers” were not unduly bothered by birth dates, averaging between 3 and 2 BCE, that had nothing to do with either Quiraneus’ census or the lifetime of Herod the Great. The time period 3 to 2 BCE coincides with the War of Varus which followed the death of Herod. They were writing before the Christian legend was completely locked down and made canonical.

      1. Perhaps the “scholars” should start looking beyond the canonical Greek texts and start examining Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, early Arabic, Garsoni, Coptic and Aramaic texts not written under the influence of post Nicean dogma or over-written by post Theodosian theocratic censors.

  2. Attis was castrated- ouch, that hurts.
    How embarrassing.
    Therefore Attis was real.
    I mean to say, his followers wouldn’t make that up would they?

    Actually my favourite ‘how embarrassing’ verification of myth as real is the story of the Japanese god Susanoo who was created from ‘washing of the nose’ or, in a more prosaically worded version, nasal snot.

  3. I’m still leaning towards Jesus being a title given by non-Essenes to their ‘teacher of righteousness’ some century or so before the supposed birth of Jesus. Of course, said teacher must have been damned health to still be around in 49 CE to be a problem in Rome as Chrestus.

  4. The Septuagint “parthenos” explanation is most likely the best source for the Matthew/Luke “virgin birth” story, but both the New English Bible (Protestant) and the New American Bible (Catholic) have the “young woman” translation for the Isaiah passage.
    But where do either of them say she was still a virgin after he baby was born? Also, Matthew only assert that Joseph had no sexual relations with her until after the birth, but not that he did not do it after, and Luke only talks about an angelic intervention in the conception, similar to Elizabeth (also Sarah in the story of Abraham). That does not even mean that Joseph had nothing to do with it. Perhaps it means to say that Mary worried that she may not be able to conceive? She was only virgin until that time?

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