Thursday, November 24, 2005

The reliability of the Gospels

Tuesday, Joe Carter blasted Brian Flemming's documentary The God Who Wasn't There, which claims that Jesus never existed. I have to say that I agree with Carter on this one for a few reasons, though the one I'll lay out here is one he isn't going to like much.

Many people don't realize it, but the standard nativity story, performed every year by grade school kids across the globe, appears in no single book of the Bible. Instead, it mixes stories from two books, and specifically contradicts the Bible on one point.

Here's how the book of Luke tells the story: Caesar Agustus gives his order for the whole world to be taxed, causing Joseph and Mary to travel from Nazereth to Bethlehem. There, she gives birth in a manger because all the inns were full. Shepherds show up, then go "spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child." Later (41 days later, if I'm reading Leviticus 12 right) they take him to Jerusalem. Then they go home to Nazereth.

Now Matthew: Joseph takes Mary home as his wife. She gives birth in Bethlehem. What are they doing Bethlehem? This isn't explained, but the reader could be forgiven for thinking they lived there. Lucky we have Luke to correct that misperception. Then, the Magi visit Jesus at a house - not a manger - in Bethlehem. Apparently they found a house to stay in while waiting to take Jesus to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the Magi have tipped off Herod as to Jesus' location (the shepherds were more discreet when they were spreading the word). Well, Joseph is warned in a dream, they flee to Egypt, and return after Herod dies.

This is the part I don't quite understand. Did God give Herod a heart attack so that Mary and Joseph would be able to return to Jerusalem within the 41 day window? If so, why didn't he do so before they had to flee? Now that I'm on it, would they have even had the time for a two-way trip to Egypt in those 41 days? Maybe Herod was really slow in sending out his soldiers, giving Mary and Joseph time to stop in Jerusalem before fleeing to Egypt? Google could not help me with this issue, maybe someone can explain this to me in the comments.

To finish up Matthew's version, Joseph is afraid of Herod's brother, so the family goes to live in Nazereth rather than Bethlehem. Must have gotten pretty well settled in Bethlehem for Joseph to want to return there rather than where he had been living in Nazereth.

Okay, enought with the sarcasm. What we have here is two stories that cannot be reconciled, making one and probably both false. That such elaborate legends could form by the time the Gospels were written flies in the face of all apologetic attempts to claim that Jesus' miracles could not have been legends.

Why, then, does this cause trouble for Flemming? The one thing the stories seem to agree on is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazereth. They had good polemical reasons to have him born in Bethlehem, city of David, but probably had heard him called "Jesus of Nazereth" too many times to deny that he was raised there. They were, in other words, not making up a myth out of whole cloth but building one around an inconvenient. Not much comfort for Christians, but one reason for atheists to drop this claim that Jesus never existed.


Ahab said...

Guess you overlooked Mt. 2:23. Having Jesus raised in Nazereth also fulfilled a prophecy.
So I don't think you are justified in assuming that Luke included Nazereth because it was an inconvenient historical fact.
Although I don't know enough about the claim that Jesus never actually existed to have made a decision one way or another myself, I don't think you can dismiss it as easily as you appear to think.

Anonymous said...

Spelling Nazareth correctly might help you make your case.

Hallq said...

Actually, no such prophecy appears in the New Testament, and it's odd that Luke would mention Nazareth only to fulfill a prophecy without mentioning the prophecy. It seems more likely that Matthew matched an imaginary prophecy to an actual fact than a imaginary prophecy to an imaginary fact.

Ahab said...

I'm guessing you meant the Old Testament rather than New Testament. In any case, there is no need to think that the prophecy would have to be in the Old Testament (although some think it refers to Judges 13:5): it could have been part of an oral tradition relating to the Messiah. And considering that Luke does not explicitly mention any prophecy that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, why expect him to for Nazareth?

It's obvious from the discrepencies between the two narratives that some things were made up. I see no reason for assuming the gospel writers would prefer making up an imaginary prophecy rather than an imaginary fact. As far as we can tell, they did make up at least two imaginary facts: the slaughter of the innocents and the worldwide census of Augustus. Not to mention the virgin birth of Jesus. :-)

If you are going to argue for the historical existence of Jesus you can't simply assume that there was already widespread and acurate knowledge of where he grew up in order to support your interpretation of the scriptual evidence. That seems to be circular reasoning to me

In any case, I'm not persuaded that there was not originally some man in Israel aroud whom all the N.T. legends have grown. So I wouldn't want to push the a-historical position too strongly. But I'm not so sure its all that crazy a view either. From the little I've read of Doherty's case, it seems to mainly rely on early christian writings like the epistles of Paul and is not really concerned with discrepencies between the different gospel accounts. If one thinks about it, it is rather strange that Paul is so silent regarding the earthly ministry of Jesus. Paul's mission seems to be derived from a personal, mystical experience and not from the teachings and activities of the pre-crucified, wisdom-teaching, miracle-working Jesus that are found in the gospels.

Hallq said...

Paul's near silence about a human Jesus is strange - but it's a near-silence, not a total silence. In Galatians, for example, he mentions meeting Jesus' brother, and the reference has every appearance of being to a flesh-and-blood being rather than another mystical one.

Ahab said...

Well, yes, he did meet James in Jerusalme, so that was a flesh and blood meeting. But apparently adelphos was used as a term in mystery religions. So the actual reference to Jesus is a little more ambiguous.
A more difficult verse for Doherty, also in Galations, is Paul's mention that Jesus was 'born of woman'.

You could do worse than check out Carrier's review of Doherty's book over in the Library section of the site, if you are interested in Doherty's thesis. That gives a fair summary of the book.

Hallq said...

I've read the review, which I find annoyingly vague on some points - we hear how Doherty's thesis explains so many facts better, without hearing what those facts are.

Two questions - adelphos is the Greek word for brother used there, correct? Also, do you know of any other Internet Infidels writiers with historical expertise?

Ahab said...

Yes, adelphos is greek for brother. Sorry about that, I should have been clearer in my post.

Sorry, I can't point you to any specific infidel authors who are experts in the field of ancient history. As I'm sure you are aware, there is the Biblical Criticism & History forum. I don't read it all that often, but a few of the posters there seeem pretty well versed on biblical matters. Doherty has been posting there too.
I believe the professional experts have pretty much rejected or not even bothered to respond to Doherty's claims.

Personally, I don't think it really makes much difference whether or not there actually was a living man that we could legitimately call Jesus. Look at the differences between the synoptic gospels and John. Or the widely different portraits of Jesus in the non-canonical literature. People who do believe Jesus lived on earth have had great difficutly trying to agree on which elements of the different stories of Jesus are accurate. He seems to me to be a blank slate on which one can project their own desires and wishes.

I also don't see Doherty's view being all that threatening to the Christian religion. I know a lot of the tradional believers will give the knee-jerk reaction that Jesus' death and resurrection have to be historically true or their faith is in vain. But I think the crucial thing fo a Christian is that God recognized the validity of Jesus' sacrifice: it did result in atonement for the human race. Seems rather irrelevant whether or not that sacrifice occurred in Israel, Moscow or up in the sub-lunar aether.

Hallq said...

True, I suppose it doesn't really matter whether Jesus existed. Most Christians think it matters a lot though, and it's worth conceeding it to them if they've got a case.