The credibility of the Christmas story

As the Christmas season is drawing to a close, I thought I might put up a post with some useful links for people wishing to argue for and against the credibility of the Christmas narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and let readers draw their own conclusions.

On the skeptics’ side:

The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View by Aaron Adair. Onus Books, 2013.

The Nativity: A Critical Examination by Jonathan M.S. Pearce. Onus Books, 2012.

For Jonathan M.S. Pearce’s recent posts on the Nativity, see here:

Debunking the Nativity: The Gospel Sources
Debunking the Nativity: The Virgin Birth
Debunking the Nativity: The Mistranslation of “Virgin”
Debunking the Nativity: The Male Genome
Debunking the Nativity: Contradictory Genealogies
Debunking the Nativity: To Bethlehem or Not to Bethlehem
Debunking the Nativity: Boney M
Debunking the Nativity – Quirinius vs Herod and the Ten Year Gap

On the believers’ side:

FIRST, Re the date of the Lukan census: it should be pointed out that Josephus isn’t infallible, when it comes to dating. He may be wrong about the date of the census.

See Joseph misdated the census of Quirinius by John H. Rhoads, in JETS 54.1 (March 2011) 65–87.

SECOND, Even if Josephus is right on the date of Quirinius’s census (as he probably is), Luke may be describing an earlier census than the one conducted in 6 A.D. Quirinius wasn’t the official governor of Syria during this census, but Luke’s account of the census may be broadly accurate.

See Once more: Quirinius’s Census by Jared Compton, a Ph.D. student in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. First published in Detroit Baptist Theological Journal, Fall 2009, p. 45-54. Excerpt from the conclusion (emphases mine – VJT):

Here we may gather up the evidence to present a composite picture:

(1) Luke’s census is not a historical impossibility.[49] Rather at all points, historical analogies can be drawn.[50]

(2) Quirinius was not the official governor of Syria at the time of Jesus’ birth. The Syrian records and the current accepted chronology of Jesus’ life simply prevent this conclusion. However, Quirinius’s personal chronology is not fully known, particularly around the years of Jesus’ birth. Thus, it is not impossible that he held another office at the time which Luke appropriately describes with (h[gemoneuontoj thj Suriaj) hegmoneuontos tēs Surias, a description as we saw which could also appropriately describe the office from which he took his well-known census. In short, it is most likely under this otherwise unattested office that Quirinius officiated over what Luke describes. To say more would go beyond the present evidence; to say otherwise, would, as we saw, strain the syntax. As such, I. Howard Marshall is probably right when he suggests that Luke’s full vindication lies buried somewhere, waiting to be unearthed.[51]

In his article, Compton seem to favor the suggestion that Quirinius was (briefly) governor during an earlier term, from around 3 B.C to 2 B.C., prior to his governorship in 6 A.D. to 12 A.D. (It’s not known who was governor during this brief two-year period; some scholars think it was Lucius Calpurnius Piso.) On this reading, “Luke is…stating that just before Quirinius was governor of Syria in [4/]3–2 B.C.[47] there was a census in Herod’s domain.”[48] If Jesus was actually born in 6 B.C. (see point 3 below), then this census would have actually taken place under Publius Quintilius Varus.

Compton also makes the following points regarding the historical plausibility of Luke’s census:

First, extant records point to censuses both in Roman provinces[15] (with some taking place regularly and, presumably, involving non-Roman citizens[16]) and even occasionally in client kingdoms.[17] Second, extant records indicate that Rome at times accommodated local customs in such censuses.[18] Third, extant records indicate that Herod’s relationship with Augustus had turned sour near the time of the census, making his client status a less formidable obstacle.[19]

Richard Carrier, in his article, The Date of the Nativity in Luke (6th edition, 2011) has argued that censuses would not have been conducted in client kingdoms of Rome, which would rule out a census during the reign of Herod the Great.

Glenn Miller’s lengthy but comprehensive reply to Richard Carrier on censuses in client kingdoms can be found here:

Does the data about Apamea and the Ciete support the view that Rome carried out registrations in client kingdoms? (Part 1 – Cappadocia)

Does the data about Apamea and the Ciete support the view that Rome carried out registrations in client kingdoms? (Part 2 – Apamea)

Miller makes a strong case that Carrier simply hasn’t done his homework.

Miller is currently at work on Part 3 of his series of articles.

THIRD, Re the Star of Bethlehem, here’s a good article, arguing that it probably referred to Jupiter appearing in the constellation of Aries (believed by astrologers to be a symbol of Judea) in 6 B.C.:

Was the Star of Bethlehem the Planet Jupiter? by Rodd Pomeroy, Real Clear Science December 19, 2016. Excerpt:

Put forth by Michael Molnar, a retired astronomer from Rutgers University, the tale goes something like this:

“The Three Wise Men – who likely hailed from Babylon, an ancient state in present-day Iraq – almost certainly were astrologers with knowledge of the Old Testament prophecy that a new king would be born of the family of David. Somewhere around April 17th in 6 B.C., they witnessed Jupiter rising in the east in the constellation Aries, then considered the symbol of Judea, after which Jupiter was hidden by the Moon. The wise men would have interpreted these heavenly events as a sign that a great Jewish king had been born or would be born soon, so they set off towards the Kingdom of Judah to search for him, arriving in Bethlehem eight months later…

“After his own decade-long investigation, University of Notre Dame cosmologist Grant Matthews recently revealed an account that largely coincides with Molnar’s. His calculations also show that Jupiter and the moon were in the vicinity of the constellation Aries in 6 B.C. Such a stellar grouping won’t happen again for a very long time.”

FOURTH, here’s how a celestial body could lead wise men to Jerusalem, without the need to posit any miracles:

Astronomy CAN explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem – but the three wise men wouldn’t have arrived until Jesus was eight MONTHS old by Professor David Weintraub. “Daily Mail”, 24 December 2014. Highlights from the article:

  • According to the New Testament, King Herod, asked the wise men when the star had appeared, because he was unaware of any such star
  • Astronomers have also been baffled by how King Herod didn’t know of such a bright star, and how a star “in the east” could guide men south
  • But “in the east” is a literal translation of the Greek phrase en te anatole
  • This describes when a planet that would rise above the eastern horizon just before the sun would appear, and then disappear in the morning sky
  • If this was the case, however, the wise men would have been guided by Jupiter wouldn’t have arrived until Jesus was eight months old

Key excerpts:

“The three wise men, motivated by this ‘star in the east,’ first travelled to Jerusalem and told King Herod the prophecy that a new ruler of the people of Israel would be born…

“Astronomer Michael Molnar points out that ‘in the east’ is a literal translation of the Greek phrase en te anatole, which was a technical term used in Greek mathematical astrology 2,000 years ago.

“It described, very specifically, a planet that would rise above the eastern horizon just before the sun would appear.

“Then, just moments after the planet rises, it disappears in the bright glare of the sun in the morning sky. Except for a brief moment, no one can see this ‘star in the east.’…

“What about the star parked directly above the first crèche? It refers to a particular moment when a planet stops moving and changes apparent direction from westward to eastward motion.

“This occurs when the Earth, which orbits the sun more quickly than Mars or Jupiter or Saturn, catches up with, or laps, the other planet.

“The portent began on April 17 of 6 B.C. with the heliacal rising of Jupiter that morning, followed, at noon, by its lunar occultation in the constellation Aries.

“It lasted until December 19 of 6 B.C. when Jupiter stopped moving to the west, stood still briefly, and began moving to the east, as compared with the fixed background stars.

“By the earliest time the men could have arrived in Bethlehem, the baby Jesus would likely have been at least a toddler.”

For another take on the movement of the Star of Bethlehem, see Responding to the “Go To” Skeptic on the Star of Bethlehem by Jimmy Akin (a leading Catholic apologist), in response to Aaron Adair. Key excerpt:

“Adair summarizes the argument this way:

Matthew talks about a Star that travels south towards a particular destination, leading on eastern sages, until it comes to its destination, stops and hangs over a particular hovel in the small town of Bethlehem. No object in the sky can do such a thing, not by a long shot.

“The text of Matthew does not, in fact, require the star to move in an abnormal manner…

“The bottom line for our purposes is that the [Greek] aorist tense is not devoted to actions that happen in an instant, and so Adair is wrong to infer from its use in Matthew that the Star “instantly” came and stood at a particular place in the sky.

“It is true that the Star came to stand above the house where Jesus was, but the use of the aorist does not tell us that this happened through a sudden, instantaneous arresting of its motion.

“It may have moved in an entirely normal manner to arrive above the house for the magi to see…

“We see that Adair’s argument from the Greek is flawed and does not prove what he wishes it to.

“Whether you take proago to mean “lead” or simply “go before,” we do not have any indication that the star moved in an unusual way.

“The trip to Bethlehem likely took between one and four hours (depending on things like whether they were mounted, the darkness, and the unevenness of the terrain), so the star would have moved between 15 and 60 degrees in the night sky.

If that much. They might have left before it got dark, so the actual motion may have been even less.

“There is no reason why the star could not have been in the southern sky, moved in a normal east-west arc, remaining in the same basic part of the sky as they journeyed.

“Then, when they approached the house—from whatever angle they approached it — they noted that the star was in the part of the sky above the house.

“Nothing in the text of Matthew — in English or in Greek — requires the star to move in an abnormal way.”

FIFTH, for a good takedown of alleged pagan parallels to the virgin birth, see:

Pagan Parallels to the Virgin Birth? by Ben Burton.

Re the mechanics of the virgin birth, here’s my own take. The data from Scripture and tradition indicates clearly that Jesus took flesh from the Virgin Mary, so we might suppose that God somehow interposed to convert one of the Virgin Mary’s X chromosomes into a Y, after the chromosomes divided.

God would have also had to modify Jesus’ DNA to make sure that He did not get a double copy of any defective genes His mother may have possessed, and to initiate genomic imprinting, which requires genetic input from both parents in the ordinary course of events. These modifications would not have presented any problem to the Divine Author of Nature.

Apparently, one of Jonathan M.S. Pearce’s own skeptical commenters didn’t think the problem of where Jesus got His Y chromosome was a very telling argument against Christianity.

As for Pearce’s objection that a virgin birth would mean Jesus wasn’t fully human, I have to disagree. Human beings are human beings, no matter how they originate. If human cloning ever became technically possible, no-one would doubt that children created in this way were fully human.

SIXTH, re the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, see the following two articles:

Do the “Infancy Narratives” of Matthew and Luke Contradict Each Other? by Tim Staples and Born in Bethlehem by Joel Kramer. Scroll down to the video in the article by Kramer, which is well worth watching. The video argues that Jesus was actually born in a cave for animals, at the back of a house.

For evidence outside of the Bible that shows that Micah 5:2 was regarded by many Jews as a Messianic prophecy involving the town of Bethlehem, see here: The Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

SEVENTH, re the conflicting genealogies of Jesus, which are perhaps the most problematic aspect of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth, see the following article by Jews for Jesus:

The Genealogy of the Messiah by Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Nov 1, 1987.

Fruchtenbaum does a good job of answering the popular objection that if Joseph was not Jesus’ real father, then both genealogies are futile attempts to link Jesus to anybody.

It has to be acknowledged, however, that the genealogies are highly symbolic as far as their numbering is concerned: 14×3 generations (Matthew) or 77 generations (Luke). As such, it would be very unwise to take them literally.

What do you think of the Christmas narratives in Matthew and Luke? Over to you.

16 thoughts on “The credibility of the Christmas story

  1. What do you think of the Christmas narratives in Matthew and Luke? Over to you.

    I accept them as nice stories, probably part myth. But I’m not wanting to rain on anyone’s Christmas parade.

    Personally, I’m not a particular fan of Richard Carrier. He quite reasonably points to problems in the traditional stories. But then he takes that as evidence for his preferred mythicism. I would need more positive evidence of mythicism than he provides.

  2. One more time. Also – people travelled to their place of birth to be counted. Really?

  3. Hi Richard,

    Your timeline leaves out the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are our first records of the Nativity. The scholarly consensus holds that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were composed, independently of one another, between 80 and 95 A.D., but some scholars take a different view. Here is an article which argues that Luke’s Gospel was written around 60 A.D. And here’s a short article arguing that Matthew’s Gospel was written before 70 A.D.

    I’m not saying that these articles are right. All I’m saying is that they may well be, and that if they are, the Christmas narratives may turn out to rest upon an eyewitness tradition.

  4. vjtorley:
    Hi Richard,

    Your timeline leaves out the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are our first records of the Nativity. The scholarly consensus holds that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were composed, independently of one another, between 80 and 95 A.D., but some scholars take a different view. Here is an article which argues that Luke’s Gospel was written around 60 A.D. And here’s a short article arguing that Matthew’s Gospel was written before 70 A.D.

    I’m not saying that these articles are right. All I’m saying is that they may well be, and that if they are, the Christmas narratives may turn out to rest upon an eyewitness tradition.

    If they were written sometime between 60 and 90 A.D., it is very unlikely that they were direct eye witness testimonies. The median life span of that time makes it very unlikely.

  5. I am now in Jerusalem. Just as in Bethlehem, mangers abound this time of year, especially in the Christian Quarter. Still 2 more Christmases in the next 3 weeks to come.

  6. Acartia: If they were written sometime between 60 and 90 A.D., it is very unlikely that they were direct eye witness testimonies. The median life span of that time makes it very unlikely.

    As Carrier points out, there was a major war in 66AD, with substantial loss of life and (importantly to us) relevant documents.

    Neil:

    “Personally, I’m not a particular fan of Richard Carrier. He quite reasonably points to problems in the traditional stories. But then he takes that as evidence for his preferred mythicism. I would need more positive evidence of mythicism than he provides.”

    I somehow doubt you have read very carefully. Carrier’s evidence “for” mythicism is almost entirely circumstantial. Carrier’s core argument is that (1) there is essentially NO documentation of the early Christian church of any kind, not from the Jews or the Romans or the Greeks or the Christians themselves; and (2) One would expect exactly such documentation to have been by far the most likely to be preserved, had it ever existed. Even Greek and Roman histories have had the periods when Christ was to have been born or done his ministry carefully removed and not a trace of it remains, not even indirect references to it.

    Carrier argues that this condition fits better with mythicism than with historicity. YMMV.

  7. Acartia,

    If they were written sometime between 60 and 90 A.D., it is very unlikely that they were direct eye witness testimonies. The median life span of that time makes it very unlikely.

    I think you are probably right but they were probably able to interview the eye witnesses such as Peter.

    There are also writings from Peter such a 1 Peter.

  8. It has to be acknowledged, however, that the genealogies are highly symbolic as far as their numbering is concerned: 14×3 generations (Matthew) or 77 generations (Luke). As such, it would be very unwise to take them literally.

    Good point. Matthew leaves out a lot, not to mention it leaves out the 9 generations from Abraham to Noah, and 10 generations from Adam to Noah. It would appear to me Matthews genealogy is more of a heuristic or memory aide built around 14×3 because there is a double counting in there since there are 41 generations when 14×3 = 42.

    So Matthew would have 41 + 9 + 10 = 60.

    Luke has 17 more individuals than Matthew.

    However, one part that is meant to be literal is that there is a sacred line of descent even if there are names skipped, the names that are there are literal.

    One compelling evidence for me is the Abraham modal haplotype. In Christ’s genealogy is Abraham. Abraham had a son (Isaac) by his wife, the legitimate line of Isaac, and then a son (Ishmael) by his wife’s maid Hagar, the illegitimate line. Curiously the Arabs have always identified themselves with Ishmael. The Jews identified themselves with Isaac. Genetic studies confirm a common male ancestor around the time of Biblical Abraham. The point is, the physical evidence may indicate however many names were skipped in the genealogy, there weren’t that many, and if the interpretation Sigfried Sherrer is correct with mtEve at 6,500 years ago, then the literal interpretation is very close to the truth — as in, not many skipped or omitted names. That suggests to me the genealogy is of divine origin.

    Btw, the 3rd chapter of Luke (the genealogy of Christ) is my favorite passage in the Bible.

  9. Carrier has a following among non-scholars. His atheist peers in academia have an extremely low opinion of him as evidenced by this evaluation by a fellow atheist:

    Richard Carrier is a New Atheist blogger who has a post-graduate degree in history from Columbia and who, once upon a time, had a decent chance at an academic career. Unfortunately he blew it by wasting his time being a dilettante who self-published New Atheist anti-Christian polemic and dabbled in fields well outside his own; which meant he never built up the kind of publishing record essential for securing a recent doctorate graduate a university job. Now that even he recognises that his academic career crashed and burned before it got off the ground, he styles himself as an “independent scholar”, probably because that sounds a lot better than “perpetually unemployed blogger”.

    But in the minds of New Atheist true believers, far from being a failed academic (and more recently, thanks to some rather dubious life choices, itinerant beggar), Carrier is a towering figure of vast historical wisdom. This is because if there is a tenet of New Atheist Bad History that needs defending, Richard Carrier is usually there to help. Not surprisingly, Carrier is therefore a leading proponent of the Jesus Myth thesis, though given that this is a topic held in dismally low regard by real academics and one peddled mainly by cranks and loons, that’s not much of an accolade.

    Two years ago Carrier brought out what he felt was going to be a game-changer in the fringe side-issue debate about whether a historical Jesus existed at all. His book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield-Phoenix, 2014), was the first peer-reviewed (well, kind of) monograph that argued against a historical Jesus in about a century and Carrier’s New Atheist fans expected it to have a shattering impact on the field. It didn’t. Apart from some detailed debunking of his dubious use of Bayes’ Theorem to try to assess historical claims, the book has gone unnoticed and basically sunk without trace. It has been cited by no-one and has attracted one lonely academic review, which is actually a feeble puff piece by the fawning minion mentioned above. The book is a total clunker.

    So the failure of his academic career and the disaster of his attempt at a groundbreaking opus has left the perennially unemployed Carrier with a lot of time on his hands. Luckily he has a number of obsessive vendettas to keep him busy. The main one of these is with leading New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, though he also has a beef with me. Recently, to his great joy, he was able to indulge in both at once.

    Alleged “Asscrankery”. Or Something.

    Carrier’s obsessive one-way slanging match with Ehrman stems from the fact that Ehrman has committed two grievous sins against him; both as unforgivable as they are grave. First, Ehrman dared to single Carrier out for criticism in his popular book Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012). Carrier responded with his usual tsunami of many words (see above about him having a lot of spare time), which did little more than try to establish some feeble nitpicks about issues peripheral to Ehrman’s arguments. Ehrman responded to these slightly crazed and highly prolix rants with two coolly urbane and entirely professional replies ( here and at greater length here) which, among other things, show why he is an esteemed and respected scholar and why Carrier … isn’t. But then Ehrman committed his second, much worse sin. As Carrier’s responses become more sneering, more frenzied, more intense and even more tedious in their length, Ehrman did the unthinkable – he chose to completely ignore Carrier as a silly little nobody and simply didn’t engage with him further. And nothing angers a pathological narcissist like being ignored. Mighty was Carrier’s tiny wrath!

    http://historyforatheists.blogspot.com/2016/07/richard-carrier-is-displeased.html

    Added to that Carrier has now barred from atheist functions because of allegations of sexual harassment.

  10. Care to cite those studies?

    I’ve done so several times at TSZ. You ignored them. You can google them yourself for Abraham Modal Haplotype.

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