Thursday, 13 December 2012

What does Bart Ehrman really know about Jesus?

Bart Ehrman, textual critic, has written an article disputing the biblical accounts of Jesus' birth. In it he disputes traditional beliefs, apocryphal claims, and biblical claims. I have no interest in discussing non-canonical writings here, though I am likely to concur with Ehrman about this, but wish to clarify popular belief and refute his antibiblical assertions. I will list the claims here but it is worth reading the article in full first.

Ehrman claims that the Bible does not mention
  1. What year Jesus came into the world;
  2. That Jesus was born on December 25;
  3. An ox and an ass in his manger;
  4. That it was 3 (as opposed to 7 or 12) wise men who visited him.
Ehrman suggests the following equivalency:
  • The Proto-Gospel of James is incredulous;
  • The New Testament gospels are incredulous.
  • He suggests that if we disbelieve the Proto-Gospel of James we should also disbelieve the New Testament gospels.
He also complains that
  1. Matthew and Luke are the only two (New Testament) gospels that contain infancy narratives;
  2. Matthew and Luke are inappropriate to use as historical sources.
He mentions that the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are historically problematic because they appear irreconcilable. Specifically
  1. Luke and Joseph give genealogies of Jesus’ father, Joseph but they are different;
  2. Joseph and Mary make a trip from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register for a census that never occurred;
  3. A star—or other celestial body—cannot lead anyone to a particular town or stop over a particular house;
I will consider each of these claims in turn.

Many of the modern ideas about Christmas are not entirely correct. Unfortunately Ehrman has not entirely identified popular misconceptions. The Bible does specify when Jesus was born. It states that the birth was at the time of Augustus' registration (Luke 2:1), that Herod was still alive, and that Jesus was about 30 in Tiberius' 15th year (Luke 3:1, 23). There are several other pointers in the Bible as to the time of Jesus' birth which narrows it down to a year or two as we are not fully certain concerning the intersection of the biblical dates with the Julian calendar.

Ehrman is correct in that we are not clearly given an exact date when Jesus was born, though there are clues that may allow specifying the day. The choice of December 25 may be a reasonable day to celebrate Christmas as there is some evidence that it may correspond to the Magis' visit.

There one presumes Ehrman means near the manger rather than in it. There may or may not have been animals around the time of the birth. It is of little consequence, but given that a manger is a feeding trough for animals their presence would not be remarkable. He would have been better to argue that Jesus was not born in a stable.

The 3 Magi possibly derives from the 3 gifts, but Ehrman is correct in that the Bible does not specify their number, or the number of their retinue.

Ehrman's comparison of the Proto-Gospel of James to the New Testament gospels fails on at least two accounts. Firstly, if a work on a topic is palpably false, it does not mean that every work on that topic is just as false. Demonstrating errors in James does not bring Luke into disrepute. Secondly, it seems there is some (unintentional) equivocation around incredulous. To the materialist all miraculous stories are incredulous. It is the miraculous that seems incredulous. Of course if God exists, the miraculous is hardly unbelievable—as if God is constrained by his own creation. To the theist, incredulity has little to do with miracles and everything to do with plausibility of the story. Jesus turned water into wine because they had run out of wine, he healed the crippled and the blind to make them well, and he frequently used such events to teach about the kingdom of God. Compare James' angels feeding Mary, Jesus walking immediately after birth, Mary's hymen remaining intact post-partum. It is not that miracles like these are beyond God's power: ravens fed Elijah. The problem is the miracles are to what purpose? This is the miraculous solely for the sake of miracle. It is incredulous not because there are miracles in the story, it is incredulous because it lacks meaning.

His next two complaints are a non-issue. There are only 4 New Testament gospels, only 2 gospels having material about Jesus' infancy is fully half of all the gospels. His statement that Matthew and Luke are inappropriate historical sources is just assertion. Luke is frequently regarded as a pre-eminent historian.

For all the length of the article Ehrman only identifies three problems specific to what is actually written in the Bible. He is wrong on all three counts.

The genealogies are not both of Joseph. Matthew's (incomplete) genealogy is of Joseph who is married to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke's is of Jesus via Mary. Jesus was the son as it was supposed of Joseph. Jesus was in fact the son (decendent) of Heli, Heli being the father of Mary. Luke has earlier told us that Mary was a virgin and Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and not Joseph.

Next, there are a couple of problems with the census dismissal. The first problem is Ehrman fails to find corroborating evidence for such census and uses this missing information and reason to dismiss Luke's claims as fiction. Even if Luke were to contradict another historian this does not disprove Luke, if Luke is otherwise more reliable then he deemed more likely to be telling the truth. Yet in this passage it is not even Luke versus others, it is Luke versus no one. Why can we not believe Luke here? Luke is an impeccable historian. And he lived during this era. The second problem is that it probably was not a census. Luke says registration. A census is assumed by some interpreters but not mentioned by Luke. There could be other reasons to register. Some have suggested this registration was to offer an oath of allegiance to Augustus, about the time he was named Pater Patriae.

Lastly, the clue to the star is that it appeared to the Magi. Although God could have made a dazzling light appear in the sky to guide the way this would have been visible to everyone. The Magi saw meaning in various stars that others did not see. It was the conjunction of stars and planets (wandering stars) that led them to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem.

Reconciling the gospel nativities is not that difficult. Though some difficulties may exist in the texts, others difficulties seem to arise from an assumption that the gospels are errant.

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