Time Magazine's "Secrets of the Nativity"
by David Van Biema
I have just finished reading this article, and wanted to share some initial impressions and thoughts.
Overall, the article is quite good, and at least compared to the reports on this site about Newsweek's article, reasonably balanced. Also, I must mention that the artwork that accompanies it is wonderful, from the cover picture of the nativity (Adoration of the Shepherds, by Camillo Procaccini), to numerous other paintings from various artists around the world. One of the most moving to me personally was "Tahitian Birth of Christ" by Paul Gauguin presenting a black Mary and Child, together with a black angel watching over them.
The body of the article begins with a story of a young child being dressed up by her father to play a shepherd in a local church Christmas play, then moves to the questions about the central parts of the story itself. Each heading is followed by a brief citation of a popular hymn, and then a discussion of the scholarly view on the historicity, theological meaning, and ideology of this portion of the story. The quotes taken from those scholars is all too short, making it impossible to appreciate the argument being presented, but this is probably impossible to avoid given the medium of a popular magazine seeking to cover such a massive story. After all, many books over many hundreds of pages have been offered, presenting virtually every possible opinion and belief about the birth narrative of Jesus. Among the scholars quoted are Raymond Brown (more on this below), Dom Crossan (of Jesus Seminar fame), feminist scholars Amy-Jill Levine and Jane Schaberg, John Barclay, Stephen Patterson, and even the conservative evangelical scholar, Paul Maier. But as I said previously, the citations of these individuals is so brief that it serves as little more than literary sound bites of bumper sticker length. The quotes seem chosen largely to help move the story along, rather than to enlighten us.
What comes from a presentation of such a variety of views, however, is a demonstration that there is more than one view of each of the topics under discussion, and that alone is refreshing. As one example, the question of the birthplace of Jesus is considered:
"...Strange as it may seem, a majority of scholars now lean in the latter direction (that Nazareth is Jesus' birthplace, rather than Bethlehem). Those sticking with Bethlehem point out, not unreasonably, that both Matthew an Luke place Jesus' birth there. The skeptics note that they reach the town by such extravagantly different means that one has to wonder whether they were trying to hard to get there...
...That variation has produced three responses among scholars. Traditionalists promote theories meshing Matthew's and Luke's versions. Says Paul L. Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University: "Radical New Testament critics say it's a hopeless jumble. I myself do not think it's impossible to harmonize them." Others champion one Gospel writer while discounting the other. A growing majority, however, conclude that there is simply not enough textual agreement to declare Bethlehem a historical given."
(Time, December 14, 2004, pg. 44-45)
All things considered, this is a presentation with which I can find little fault. There is no question that the harmonization efforts of scholars like Maier find few adherents among modern scholars, but the conclusion offered in the article does not give that effort short shift, nor is it dismissive out of hand. In my opinion this is a fair presentation of the scholarly view, while remaining respectful of more traditional beliefs. Each of the other topics, "The Annunciation", the "Virgin Birth", "The Star", "The Magi", "The Manager", and "The Angels" is given similar treatment. None are ridiculed or dismissed out of hand. Each is considered not for its historical probability, but also for its theological meaning, as well as what it would have meant to the Jewish and Gentile audiences of Matthew and Luke respectively.
To be candid, I could hardly have asked for more.
But now for the beef, and it is, perhaps not surprisingly, about the treatment of Raymond Brown's argument on the historicity of the virgin birth (small aside, but it is more technically accurate to speak of the virgin conception, as Brown himself notes, but that is a quibble here). The article is clear:
"To suggest that this (and Matthew's verse, "that which is conceived in [Mary] is of the Holy Ghost") is anything other than reported fact is to court blasphemy... Says John Barclay, a New Testament expert at the University of Durham, England: "Theologically, this is the one thing that people will go to the stake for. If they defend the historicity of anything in the Christmas stories, they will defend this."
Raymond Brown was one who did not (emphasis added)... [Brown] observed that the idea of divine conception in the womb appeared to be part of a theological progression... Applying modern standard he called the question "unresolved."
(Ibid., pg. 43-44)
This is a classic example of quoting out of context in order to demonstrate that Brown believes something that he does not. As I emphasized in the above quotation, Brown is said to have not defended the virgin conception. The author correctly notes that he calls the question "unresolved" based on modern standards. But this is only half of the truth. This is what Brown actually said in context:
"On purely exegetical grounds (in his 1976 edition of BBM) "I came to the conclusion that the scientifically controllable biblical evidence leaves historicity of the virginal conception unresolved"; yet there was better evidence for historicity than against."
(R. Brown, BBM, 1993, pg. 698)
The full argument takes up two full sections within _Birth of the Messiah_ (pages 517-531, 697-712. PLUS he wrote an entire book just on this subject alone called _The Virginal Conception and Resurrection of Jesus_, 1973), and as is typical of Brown, deeply nuanced, well researched, balanced in the presentation of its evidence, and especially cautious in its conclusions. Yet, he does affirm that he considers the event itself to be better explained as historical than not, and this article not only does not demonstrate knowledge of this fact, but actually denies it.
In case anyone did not notice, this sits badly with me, and demonstrates, in my opinion, that the author is unfamiliar with Brown's work, and was told this tidbit, and did not bother to dig deeper. Here again, in Brown's own words:
"To many scholars who have long since dismissed the virginal conception as theological dramatization, this conclusion may seem retrogressively conservative. (And I would shock them more by affirming that I think that it is easier to explain the NT evidence by positing historical basis than by positing pure theological creation.)..."
(Ibid. pg. 527-8)
I will end my rant here, but, hopefully, my point is sufficiently made by now.
Once again, the article in Time is, all things considered, quite good. I would even recommend it for the layman who is unfamiliar with the fact there is even a debate within the scholarly world on the commonly held beliefs about the birth of Jesus. If nothing else, it will provide a brief glimpse into that debate, and some of the people involved in it, so those so disposed they can go deeper, and investigate the matter more carefully.
Time Magazine's "Secrets of the Nativity"