Friday, December 21, 2007

Can We Trust the Nativity Accounts?

A scene from last year's The Nativity. They did a pretty good job on the Biblical and historical accuracy meter, maybe an 8 on a scale of 10.

An interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his waffling views on the historicity of the nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke brings to the fore the question: can we trust the historical veracity of the accounts of Jesus' birth as found in the New Testament?

Here are the basic objections critics have regarding the nativity story:

1. Matthew's account and Luke's account are contradictory and incompatible.
2. A virgin conception is impossible, and a creation of later generations of Christians to buttress their faith in the divinity of Jesus.
3. The accounts are not grounded in known history.

The second objection, strictly speaking, is not an historical objection. It's a philosophical objection. A Christopher Hitchens would reply, yes, just as we'd be safe to object to to a claim that talking pink elephants rule Canada.

Now, I was a skeptic. True I was a teenager at the time, but the virgin birth never bothered me. It seemed to me that if God were real, he could (to use a phrase Mr. Hitchens might) do whatever the jolly He may care. It's a silly objection. It really is.

The first objection is a literary objection. Again, this doesn't strike me as very muscular objection because while on the surface they don't mesh, it's rather easy to reconcile the two. In other words, even though they tell the story in very different ways, they don't tell the story in ways that can't be merged.

The only substantial objection is the last: can it be grounded in history? And here the story does quite well. For example, places (Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem) and names (Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Herod, Augustus) are correct for the time period. Herod is an especially telling figure; his assault on the toddler boys of Bethlehem are exactly the sort of behavior we would expect of him, based on his historical portrait (in Josephus' Antiquities).

For a much longer (and much better!) examination of these issues, see Mark D. Roberts' extended discussion from back in 2004.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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