Nativity Scene / Ian Britton, via FreefotoI’ve mentioned the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman a few times on this blog. The most recent edition of Newsweek contains a piece he wrote, about what we do and don’t know about the Jesus Christ and his birth (locally-cached article):

As Christians around the world now prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, it is worth considering that much of the “common knowledge” about the babe in Bethlehem cannot be found in any scriptural authority, but is either a modern myth or based on Gospel accounts from outside the sacred bounds of Christian Scripture. Some obvious examples: nowhere does the Bible indicate what year Jesus came into the world, or that he was born on Dec. 25; it does not place an ox and an ass in his manger; it does not say that it was 3 (as opposed to 7 or 12) wise men who visited him.

So not only do most Christians believe things about Jesus and his birth which are not in their Bible, what’s actually contained within that Bible has more than a few holes:

For centuries scholars have recognized that the birth narratives of the New Testament are historically problematic. For one thing, the two accounts—the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two chapters of Luke—are strikingly different from one another, in ways that appear irreconcilable. To start with, they both give genealogies of Jesus’ father, Joseph (it’s an interesting question why they do so, since in neither account is Jesus a blood relative of Joseph), but they are different genealogies: he is said to have a different father, and grandfather, and great-grandfather, and so on. It is not that one is a genealogy of Mary and the other of Joseph. Both Gospel authors are crystal clear: they are giving Joseph’s genealogy. …

Moreover, both accounts contain contradictions with the known facts of history. Just take Luke as an example. Only in this Gospel do Joseph and Mary make a trip from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register for a census when “the whole world” had to be enrolled under Caesar Augustus. The whole world? Luke must mean “the whole Roman Empire.” But even that cannot be right, historically. We have good documentation about the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there never was a census of his entire empire. Let alone one in which people had to register in their ancestral home.

If one assumes — as most Christians do — that the gospels are “history,” in the sense of being a direct and accurate record of true historical events as they happened, this can, indeed, be troubling. But as Ehrman points out, this need not be the case:

The accounts of Jesus’ life in the New Testament have never been called “histories”; instead, they have always been known as ­“Gospels”—that is “proclamations of the good news.” These are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts. For believers who think that truth must, necessarily, be based on history, that probably will not be good news at all. But for those with a broader vision, a more generous appreciation of ?literature, and a fuller sense of theological meaning, the story of the Christ-child and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen, in the lives of those who believe that ?stories such as these can convey a ?greater truth.

Cue the inevitable sanctimonious outrage … against Ehrman for having written it, and Newsweek for having printed it. Cue the accusations that Ehrman, or Newsweek, or both somehow “hate” the Baby Jesus and that they’re “dissing” him. Cue the outrage that they insolently chose the precious Christmas season to unleash their attack on Christianity and on Christians everywhere.

This is only natural, and they largely can’t help themselves. For Christian fundamentalists … unwilling to accept that the content of their Bible might be “true” only as metaphor or inspiration … Ehrman’s piece is blasphemy of the highest order. Because fundamentalists have been the most vocal wing of American Christianity over the last several decades, they’ve laid the foundation for what most Christians in the US think about the Bible — even if their own denominations don’t teach the fundamentalists’ kind of Biblical literalism — and that means most other, non-fundamentalist Christians will also be offended at what Ehrman wrote. But the bottom line is that what he says is nothing new, and is not at all strange to anyone who’s familiar with the material in question. Which ultimately, and ironically, is all the more reason why no one ought to be offended by it at all. There’s nothing new or novel here. No major revelations. Just old news … to those who know the early Christian texts and the religion’s history.

Photo credit: Ian Britton, via Freefoto.

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