It would be imprudent to start talking about the issues with the textual accounts of the nativity without at first acknowledging their background and discussing the state of play with regards to their historical and textual pedigree.
Much of what I say may already be common knowledge to some of the readers, and yet to others it may be new territory. Let us start by looking at the context of all of the Gospels in order to determine something about the who, what, where and why of the texts.
As with everything biblical, there is a spectrum of approaches to the interpretation of the texts; who and when they were written, as well as what type of texts they are, for what reasons they were committed to ‘paper’ and whether they represent historical fact or religious symbolism. Quite often in biblical exegesis (the study and interpretation of texts) scholars are prone to starting with a conclusion and then massaging or searching for evidence that supports that conclusions, as opposed to surveying all the evidence, piecing it together and seeing in what direction it takes you. One should build a conclusions from the brickwork of evidence rather than vice-versa.
The general consensus amongst scholars is that the Gospels were written by non-eyewitnesses. That means that the people who are giving us arguably the only sources of information about Jesus never actually met him. To make matters worse, the Gospel of Mark (if one assumes Markan priority which means that Mark was written first) was generally thought to have been written about forty to fifty years after the death of Jesus (around 70 CE), probably in Syria. As such, all of the other Gospels were written later, and most probably in other countries, using the lingua franca, Greek, and not the native tongue of Jesus, Aramaic.
It is also generally thought that Mark, along with an unknown source called Q by modern scholars, provided the source material for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.
The names ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’ were names later ascribed to the writings by early church fathers but modern scholars rarely believe that the names have any real relevance to the authors of the works.
It is essentially unclear what the sources for Mark were, but it is assumed they included a mixture of certainly oral and possibly written pieces of sayings of Jesus, the passion narrative (Easter Story), some miracle stories and so on.
What interests me is how there are so many examples of speech in the bible, particularly the New Testament, and often passages of speech to which there were probably no witnesses (Jesus talking to Herod) available to the Gospel writers. All these speeches seem to have been remarkably well-preserved considering the people listening would most likely have been illiterate or certainly did not have notebooks or dictaphones handy. This begs the question as to the authenticity of the direct speech reported in the Gospels.
Furthermore, there are situations whereby there can only have been one or two actual eyewitnesses to an event reported. However, and even if one assumes that the eyewitnesses survived the forty years until the Gospels were written (given low life expectancies), there are differences and discrepancies in the accounts that should not be there given that the original source must have been the same person or few people. An example might be the empty tomb narratives whereby different people were claimed to have been present, one reporting one angel, another two and a third reporting none. If modern newpapers were reporting an event in which all witnesses saw, say, two angels, you can guarantee that all the papers would agree on that one main fact given its extraordinary claim.
So the situation we have is that these accounts of Jesus are written by unknown people in essentially unknown places, and at a time we can only make good guesses at. None of the Gospels detail their sources as you would expect from good historians. Some earlier and contemporaneous historians to the Gospel writers such as Thucydides, Polybius and Arrian included some of their sources, and some of the lesser historians such as Suetonius did so too. These vital references to sources are missing in the case of all the Gospel accounts. This essentially means that the verifiability of the events which are claimed to have happened is nigh on impossible.
Another problem with assessing the historicity of the Gospels is knowing which passages are reporting historical fact and which are written as symbolic passages; allegories to put forward a particular theme. In 2011 renowned New Testament scholar Mike Licona was forced to resign from his teaching post and position as research professor of New Testament at Southern Evangelical Seminary and was ousted as apologetics coordinator for the North America Mission Board. This was because, in one of his books The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, he claimed that a passage in Matthew 27 which reports resurrected saints parading around Jerusalem. The problem is that there is no other evidence to support this extraordinary claim. As Licone said, “Based on my reading of the Greco-Roman, Jewish, and biblical literature, I proposed that the raised saints are best interpreted as Matthew's use of an apocalyptic symbol communicating that the Son of God had just died.” Because he was bucking a conservative trend of not reading the passage literally, he had to go as his colleagues and peers were more literal in their understanding of the text. This just shows that one scholar can read an account as being symbolic whilst another concludes antithetically. This will come into play later in the book as I look at whether or not the birth narratives have a symbolic overlay to heighten the importance of what was probably a very ordinary birth to compete with other myths and religions of the era as well as with a Roman Emperor.
Another issue with the Gospels in general is the fact that they are not attested by extra-biblical sources. This means that no other source outside of the bible, and contemporary with the events or with the Gospel accounts, reports and corroborates the events claimed within the Gospels. Theists make much out of what is mentioned in extra-biblical sources such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius and so on but all that these sources can validate (when they are not show to be interpolations or edited additions) is that Christians, who followed Christ, existed. Not really the greatest of conclusions.
Archaeology doesn’t particularly support the accounts of a historical Jesus, or any of his Apostles. There are some events and places referred to which are of course verified, but that amounts to the analogy of the places and events of Victorian London being mentioned in Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle being real; it in no way follows that Sherlock Holmes is real.
A further problem is that the accounts are written by people with a vested interest in seeing the life and teachings of Jesus evangelised to those in the world around them. One might question the reliability, for example, of a biography of David Koresh or Sathya Sai Baba (and the many miracles his follower have claimed of him) if it were written by their most fervent of followers. People who believe, after the time of some events, that they were miraculous, will create accounts of those events which might not reflect their true nature, ex post facto. In this way, the Gospel writers, without knowing Jesus, come to believe that he was resurrected and carried out miracles (without witnessing them) and then go on to write his biography with those beliefs firmly embedded. Are we in a position to truly trust these sources, given the magnitude of their claims and the biases which they must obviously have? They are claimed to prove (or strongly evidence) certain claims which they themselves did not witness.
This brings me on to a certain maxim which was popularised by Carl Sagan, but which already existed in some form or other since the philosophising of David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher. Sagan, the popular scientist who died in 1996 claimed that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". This is a self evidently true maxim, even though many theists seek to deny its power. This is because they misunderstand its best application. This claim is a statement which is mostly aptly applied to secondary or tertiary evidence. Let me exemplify what I mean, by way of five claims and how most people would assess them:
Claim 1: I have a dog.
Nothing more than verbal testimony needed.
Claim 2: I have a dog which is in the bath.
As above, with one eyebrow raised.
Claim 3: I have a dog in the bath wearing a dress.
I would probably need a photo of this to believe you.
Claim 4: I have a dress-wearing dog in the bath with a skunk wearing a SCUBA outfit.
I would need some video evidence at the least
Claim 5: I have the above in the bath, but the bath water is boiling and the animals are happy.
I would need video and independent attestation that the video was not doctored and this is what appeared to be happening.
Claim 6: All of the above, but the dog has a fire-breathing dragon on its shoulder and the skunk is dancing with a live unicorn.
Well I’ll be damned, I’ll need video, plus video of the video, plus independent attestation from multiple recognisably reliable sources, and assessment and evaluation by technological experts and biological experts, plus a psychological evaluation of the claimant etc.
The point of this exercise is to show that when evaluating evidence that is not first hand we have different criteria for assessing its veracity, depending on the type of claim. It is actually all about probability: claims which are highly improbable require a great deal of evidence, even if they are physically (naturalistically) possible claims. The claim that I climbed Mount Everest without using my right arm, and only one eye, is of something which is physically possible but ultimately very unlikely. As a result, people would naturally demand more evidence than me telling them in a casual conversation. The more improbable my claim, the more incredulous; the more incredulous, the higher the demands for evidence. This is just intuitive. If we then make the claim about as unlikely as can possibly be: that a man-God dies and is resurrected (or for any of his miracles), then these claims are of events which defy the laws of nature as we know them. This is, almost by definition, the most improbable set of claims. As a result, they should demand the highest level of evidence.
If we look at Matthew 27:51-53, we can put this into context:
And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.
This is a truly miraculous and improbable claim. The passage claims that at the death of Jesus, the saints rose out of their tombs, a host of resurrected bodies, and paraded around Jerusalem. What is the evidence that we have in order to judge whether this claim is veracious or not? An anonymously written non-eyewitness account produced some decades after the event by a fervent follower and evangeliser that is unverifiable and some 2000 years old. Even more strangely is the fact that these public resurrected saints appeared to “many” in Jerusalem and yet we have no other accounts of this event, no corroboration from any other source – and this would have been the most amazing sight in any of the witnesses’ lives. WE should apply the criteria that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence for the reasons mentioned. This is such an event and it has only very poor evidence to support it. As a result, this claim should be discarded as either false or highly dubious. At the very best, I would recommend agnosticism over its verisimilitude.
I am sure that you can imagine what comes next. If we substitute Matthew 27 with the miraculous accounts of Jesus’ birth, then we are left with the same conclusion. However, I will save such an analysis for later. Suffice to say that the level of evidence provided by the Gospels, as a whole, is poor, and most likely not good enough to satisfy the probabilities of the claims being made therein.
In : Books
Tags: "25 reasons to disbelieve the nativity" nativity
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