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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Every Christmas its the Same
Newsweek and Time expose the myths of Christmas

In a Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown converses with Lucy who complains, "Every Christmas its the same . . . ." I feel much the same way about the news that I found in the following article from the New York Daily News:

Just in time for Christmas, America's two largest news magazines devote this week's cover stories to debunking the story of Jesus' birth.
Among the conclusions in Time and Newsweek: Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem; there is little evidence of three kings following a star, and the story of the virgin birth may have been borrowed.

"The Nativity saga is neither fully fanciful nor fully factual but a layered narrative of early tradition and enduring theology," Newsweek writes in examining the Sunday-school version of the birth of Christ.

This may be unwelcome "news" to most Americans. A Newsweek poll found that 55% of Americans believe every word in the Bible is literally true, 67% believe the entire Christmas story is literally true and 79% believe Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary with no human father.

"In the debates over the literal truth of the Gospels, just about everyone acknowledges that major conclusions about Jesus' life are not based on forensic clues," Time notes. "There is no specific physical evidence for the key points of the story."

Quoting esteemed religious scholars, the mags poke holes in New Testament scribes Matthew and Luke's divergent explanations of how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem, with Time asserting that most scholars now place his birth in Nazareth.

Every year its the same. Time and Newsweek rush out with their special editions telling everyone the "truth" about various aspects of Christianity. Of course, there is no possibility that the versions contained in the Bible are true. It just couldn't be the case. No, instead we have to believe the accounts of the "esteemed scholars" who have decided (with no real evidence) that Jesus had to have been born in Nazareth (if they believe he was born at all), that Matthew's account of the wise men didn't really happen, and that Mary wasn't really a virgin after all.

Of course, they are not going to interview anyone who holds a traditional or conservative view that this may actually be true. That would be silly. So, exactly who are these scholars that the magazines turn to? While I have not yet seen the Time article, the Newsweek article is available on-line and it confirms my suspicions. The "esteemed religious scholars" cited by Newsweek are--get ready for this--none other than our old friends, the Jesus Seminar.

The Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars devoted to recovering the Jesus of history, is a battalion in this long-running culture war. One of its members, Robert J. Miller, a professor of religion at Juniata College, wrote "Born Divine: Jesus and Other Sons of God," a 2003 book which argues that the Nativity narratives can be seen as Christian responses to the birth stories of pagan heroes like Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus—literary efforts depicting Jesus as a divine figure in a way Greco-Roman listeners and readers would understand and appreciate.

For those not familiar with the "scholarship" of the Jesus Seminar, I refer you to the CADRE Jesus Seminar webpage on the group. The nutshell description is probably best stated by Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason: "the Jesus Seminar doesn't conclude the Gospels are inaccurate. That's where they begin before they've looked at one single shred of actual historical evidence. When you start with your conclusions, you're cheating. You haven't proved anything at all." The article continues:

Yet almost nothing in Luke's story stands up to close historical scrutiny; [Father Raymond] Brown[, author of Birth of the Messiah] finds it "dubious on almost every score." Augustus conducted no global census, and no more local one makes sense in Luke's time frame. Setting Jesus' birth at a moment when the princes of this world are exerting temporal power over the people is a deft device, though, for the theological point of Jesus' arrival is that anyone who chooses to believe in him will ultimately be subject only to God.

While Father Brown is not held in the same contempt as the Jesus Seminar by conservative scholars (his assumptions are spelled out in his book), he does bring assumptions with which I cannot agree to his research that makes it difficult to take his work as the definitive answer. As noted by Michael E. Geisler in his article "Brown’s Birth of the Messiah … revisited":

[Father Brown] takes for granted that no one of the evangelists was an “eyewitness” (p. 27), therefore discounting the traditional view that Matthew and John were the final authors of their gospels. This idea is bolstered by his view (standard among many modern critical scholars) that Matthew and Luke were written in the 80s or 90s, thus allowing a number of years to go by so that traditions could be developed about Christ’s life that would not be dependent on strict history. His main thesis is that in the infancy narratives Matthew and Luke are above all theologians, who wrote their accounts in the light of a post-resurrectional theology of Christ. He was the Messiah of the Old Testament and the Son of God — and therefore his conception and childhood had to be marvelous.

Contrary to Father Brown's opinion, there is much reason to believe that there was a such a census that occurred at about the time of Jesus death and that it was conducted in the manner described by Luke. Consider the following from the Christian Think Tank:

"A sixth reason for placing the nativity of Jesus in 3 or 2 B.C. isthe coincidence of this date with the New Testament account that Jesus was born at the time when a Roman census was being conducted: "There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the IRoman] world should be registered" (Luke 2:1). Historians have not been able to find any empire-wide census or registration in the years 7-5 B.C., but there is a reference to such a registration of all the Roman people not long before 5 February 2 B.C. written by Caesar Augustus himself: "While I was administering my thirteenth consulship [2 B.C.] the senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people gave me the title Father of my Country" (Res Gestae 35, italics added). This award was given to Augustus on 5 February 2 B.C., therefore the registration of citizen approval must have taken place in 3 B.C. Orosius, in the fifth century, also said that Roman records of his time revealed that a census was indeed held when Augustus was made "the first of men"--an apt description of his award "Father of the Country"--at a time when all the great nations gave an oath of obedience to Augustus (6:22, 7:2). Orosius dated the census to 3 B.C. And besides that, Josephus substantiates that an oath of obedience to Augustus was required in Judea not long before the death of Herod (Antiquities I7:4I-45). This agrees nicely in a chronological sense with what Luke records. But more than that, an inscription found in Paphlagonia (eastern Turkey), also dated to 3 B.C., mentions an "oath sworn by all the people in the land at the altars of Augustus in the temples of Augustus in the various districts." And dovetailing precisely with this inscription, the early (fifth century) Armenian historian, Moses of Khoren, said the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was conducted by Roman agents in Armenia where they set up "the image of Augustus Caesar in every temple.''. The similarity of this language is strikingly akin to the wording on the Paphlagonian inscription describing the oath taken in 3 B.C. These indications can allow us to reasonably conclude that the oath (of Josephus, the Paphlagonian inscription, and Orosius) and the census (mentioned by Luke, Orosius, and Moses of Khoren) were one and the same. All of these things happened in 3 B.C." Quoting Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan, Jerry Vardaman and Edwin Yamauchi, eds. Eisenbrauns:1989, pp. 89-90.

The bottom line of all of this for the Christian reader is the following: Be aware! The article in Newsweek (and probably in Time as well) takes great liberties in its telling of the facts, reading primarily from scholars who hold a more liberal view of the creation of the text than that held by historic Christian belief. There is much out there that can be used to support the accounts of Matthew and Luke, and perhaps I will detail some of them over the next few days as we head into Christmas. If you are interested, it is possible to find these resources through the Internet and I encourage you to do so. In the meantime, it is best to remember that news providers have biases and prejudices (as was demonstrated by the last election), and you should read these articles as critically as possible.

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