Saturday, November 12

Dear Jesus, Happy Birthday, Love Dateline NBC

In a special edition of 'Dateline NBC,' Keith Morrison asks, "What if everything you thought you knew wasn’t the whole story?

Oh no, a major network is trying to challenge my beliefs!
STONE PHILLIPS: With this report, we're not trying to challenge or change anyone's beliefs. We just wanted to take one more look at this revered and much-beloved story to learn more about the theology and the history behind it ....We turned to experts of history, theology and religious studies. The aim is to shed a new, fuller light on the birth of a child believers call the "Light of the World."

So, you 79% of the American public so concerned about Holy lightning bolts shooting through your telephone at the merest hint of blasphemy that you tell pollsters you believe the virgin birth story is literally true--even if the Bible doesn't say so--relax, stop whipping the children, sit back and prepare to have all your prejudices soothingly confirmed by people who have college degrees, just like real scientists! Oh, and be sure to patronize our many fine sponsors.

Here's the list of experts. Note that one of them is a "liberal" and another is Jewish! That's balance. See if you can spot the "historian" Stone told you about:

•John Dominic Crossan : Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, DePaul University and a prolific author of books about the historical Jesus , former priest, and liberal theologian
•Craig Evans: professor of New Testament, Acadia Divinity College, moderate evangelical
•Scott Hahn : professor of Scripture, Franciscan University, traditional Catholic scholar and teacher
•Lesley Hazleton: author of "A Flesh-And-Blood biography of the Virgin Mother"
•Amy Jill Levine: Jewish scholar and teacher of the New Testament at Vanderbilt University
•Ben Witherington : author and professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, a conservative evangelical

Okay, I admit it. When I saw the promo last week I took it on faith that there wouldn't be a single non-believer on hand. Which just goes to show that faith can work miracles.

We begin our scholarly exegesis with a couple minutes discussing how rough Mary must have had it tending goats, based on no history whatever but a keen understanding of how hard it is to walk in thin sandals, and how we don't know anything about Joseph, either, but that's of no importance since nobody worships him. Let's get to the controversy, already:
In fact, you may be surprised to learn the Nativity story is based on just two brief, quite different, and sometimes apparently conflicting New Testament accounts—the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Over the years, the two versions have blurred into one—the Christmas story most people celebrate.

Most scholars believe both stories were written some 70 to 80 years  after the birth of Jesus. Secular history contains no mention, anywhere, of events in the story.

Now, unlike NBC, I don't claim to know what most scholars believe, but I do know that you'll typically find a range of about 60-80 AD for Matthew and 80-100 AD for Luke, and there are still some people around who think Matthew preceded Mark; it's probably best, when things aren't established, to acknowledge the fact instead of resoving the matter with a straw poll, but never mind. Oh, and that "sometimes apparently conflicting?" I defy the most fervent literalist to show how Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 do not outright contradict one another. But let's get to it; I'm sure with that range of experts on hand this'll be a lively discussion:
Evans: Our records are admittedly sparse, sometimes just nothing is there. And so there’s always a certain amount of guesswork, a certain amount of just, well, probability, and we have to learn to live with that.

That's it? Two sentences and our in-depth look at the birth of Jesus is now finished dealing with its total lack of historicity or coherence? Oh, I see, we need to spend five more minutes discussing how tough life was in Nazareth when the Romans were always in a bad mood and your sandals were really thin.

Pah. At a time when many of our nation's respected theologians and Non-practicing-Christian television buffoons are demanding everyone else respect their sacred holiday, they don't have enough self-respect to confront problems head on? The two "sometimes apparently conflicting" Nativity stories in the Gospels are, quite simply, pieces of historical fiction. They don't make sense internally, they don't jibe with the historical record, and they contradict one another. That much has been known since the 19th Century. It's beyond dispute. To give a panel of experts a chunk of prime time to discuss the matter while ignoring the question is like debating Intelligent Design with the assumption that the earth is 6000 years old as a given.

The Nativity stories were written at a time when the early Church's recruiting efforts were aimed at Jews. They jump through all sorts of hoops--sometimes comically--to show Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Keith Morrison thoughtfully holds some up for the panel to jump through:
And why, according to Luke, were they heading to Bethlehem?  A decree that everyone in the empire would travel to his or her ancestral home to register in a census so they could be taxed. 

Or so Luke tells us, but there’s a problem in the story: a problem that has occupied many generations of scholars.
Crossnan: Luke tells us the story that at the time Jesus was born Augustus had to create a census of the whole earth. Now every scholar can tell you there was no such census ever.
Witherington: Well, I wouldn’t say so.  I mean, it’s an absence of evidence.  Which is not the same as evidence of absence. Augustus wanted the provinces  enrolled. “We want taxes.  We want money.  We want every part of the empire doing their duty.” We have plenty of records of Augustus taking census all over the empire.

Oops, the liberal spilled a little truth there. Let me wipe that up for you.

Here's the little problem with that "absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence" thing (which worked so well for Rumsfeld, eh Professor Witherington?): it couldn't have worked that way. Judea wasn't part of the Roman empire, it was a client state. Rome had no power to tax Judeans, and if it had it wouldn't have sent them all on trips to their imaginary homelands; it would have taxed them where they were.

Which is another problem for Luke, because where Joseph was was Galilee, and Galilee was an independent empire. Joseph would have been exempt from the whole thing.

Look, don't mind me. Please, get along to the discussion of whether Bethlehem would have had an inn, even though it has no connection to the story, and the details of 1st century midwifery, though presumably God would have made sure the birth went okey-dokey. I'm not even gonna mention the bit about the virgin birth being the result of an inexcusable misreading of Isaiah. I'll just sit here and thrill to your speculation that Luke got the story Mary, marvel at the brave debunking of Christmas-pageant Magi as "kings", and wait for the inevitable moment when Professor Witherington tells us that even though there's no evidence for the Slaughter of the Innocents, it's true because he knows Herod could have done it, the meanie. I won't even mention that the chronology is so screwy we don't even know which Herod it's supposed to be. That's why God created the remote.


Anonymous said...

My favorite part is how Matthew and Luke both invent genealogies to show that Jesus descended from David, and their genealogies agree on precisely two names: David and Jesus. I'm not exactly sure why they felt the need to bother, since Joseph isn't the father of Jesus anyway.

handdrummer said...

For what it's worth, Lesley Hazelton is Jewish, a feminist and an historian. At least she was when I knew her in the early 90's while she taught at Penn State.

Not that that negates in any way your general thesis. Just being a fact wonk.

(aeysfrlm = Icelandic National Cinema Commission)

Anonymous said...

You'll doubtless be happy to know that the National Geographic Channel is managing to make time in its busy UFO/sea monster/Hogzilla programming for an intriguingly pro-male *and* pro-fundie documentary about The Historical Adam, no shit.

They're promising reconstructions of what he looks like, and I'm hoping for one of those "Jesus is black, Ronald Reagan was the devil" moments.
Not holding my breathe, though.