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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