B. Specific Objections to Christianity from Critics
There are two necessary approaches in Christianity, as the following
quotations from an opponent of Christianity makes clear: one is
a deeper, presuppositional area. The second, is dealing with
specific charges. Neither approach can be used successfully to
the exclusion of the other. Simply pointing out the presuppositional
problems, biases and the like, though necessary, will not be completely
convincing. The opponent will still get around to "but what
On the other hand, if we focus ONLY on the "what about...", we end up with a scattergun approach that never gets to the heart of the issue. The heart must be shot first; then we work on dismembering the extremities.
The information below is taken from Michael Arnheim. Is Christianity True? Buffalo: Prometheus Books. 1984. pp. 3, 9-13.
1. The Problem:
Michael Arnheim, a critic of Christianity, makes the problem Christians face as regards their beliefs very clear:
More than any other religion, Christianity stands four-square on the acceptance of an historical improbability: namely, that one particular man was no mere mortal but 'the Christ,' whose death changed the course of human history forever and who continues to exist as 'God the Son,' part of an indivisible threefold Godhead.
Islam certainly reveres Muhammad, but at no time has any claim been advanced for him beyond that of prophet, a title which, however defined, stops well short of imbuing its holder with divine status.
As for Judaism, it rests on no one figure -- not even Moses, who can lay claim to no more elevated title than that of prophet, an appellation he shares with a score of other Jewish leaders and teachers. What is more, neither Moses nor any of the other Jewish figures -- including the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- is ever portrayed as anything but fallible, frail, and imperfect.
Even Zarathustra, founder of the Zoroastrian faith (still practices in Iran and by the Parsees of India), imbued though he is with miraculous powers, never ceases to be mere mortal. (Arnheim, p. 1)
(Taken from Is Christianity True?
Buffalo: Prometheus Press, 1984. pp. 183-191)
"What is truth?" Pilate's taunt echoes down the centuries. This ringing challenge, unanswered and unanswerable, is placed in the Roman governor's mouth by John in response to Jesus' declaration, which can be interpreted as being arrogant, that his purpose in coming into the world was "to bear witness to the truth" (18:37-38).
How true is the biblical account of creation? The publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 sparked off one of the biggest religious disputes in history, which has still not died away. Even today there are "creationists" who reject the theory of evolution out of hand as being in conflict with the Book of Genesis, which is assumed to be literally true. If the biblical account is understood in this way, then clearly evolution and creation are irreconcilable and mutually exclusive explanations of the same set of phenomena.
Less fundamentalist religious thinkers, however, have come to see the problem in quite a different light. It is no longer a question of Genesis being right and Darwin wrong, or vice versa. Both explanations may be true in different ways, provided the biblical account is not understood in a narrowly literal sense. Both accounts, after all, offer us much the same progression of life forms, starting with plants and culminating in man. The chief obstacles to agreement have been, first, the Bible's time-scale and, secondly, its attribution of the whole process, and indeed of every stage within it, to a divine will. But as is now commonly recognized, neither of these obstacles is insuperable. If the Bible's "day" is understood as a figurative representation of millions of years, the first obstacle is easily cleared. As for the active role of God in creation, it does not really contradict anything in the Darwinian theory but merely offers a theological explanation of the motivating force behind the remarkable process of evolution.
Interestingly enough, the theological objections to Darwin's theory have come much more from Christians than from Jews. Indeed, seven centuries before Origin of Species the Jewish philosopher Maimonides had already declared in so many words that the biblical account of the creation was not intended to be taken literally, a view in which he was not alone among Jewish thinkers. Why then should Darwin's revelations have hit Christianity with such shattering force? The reason, I believe, is the same one we have already encountered on a number of previous occasions -- namely, that, unlike Judaism, Christianity depends for its very existence upon the acceptance of an improbable historical assertion as fact. For this reason, Christianity has always been more vulnerable to historical attack than Judaism. It is no accident that it is Christians, rather than Jews, who are concerned to find the remnants of Noah's ark on the summit of Mount Ararat; and it is no surprise that the genuineness of the Turin shroud should have become so central an issue to Christian clergy and laity alike, even in this supposedly enlightened twentieth century.
If it were to turn out that Abraham never existed, that Joseph was an Egyptian all the time or that the miracles attributed to Moses never happened, the validity of Judaism would not be in the least diminished. Judaism is indeed rooted in history, the long history of the Jewish people, but it does not depend upon the literal truth or accuracy of any particular even or biblical episode. The broad lines of Jewish history are deeply and indelibly etched on the map of time, and it is this ancient heritage of culture, law, and life that has given Jews throughout history the unique sense of identity which is Judaism.
Paradoxically, therefore, the fate of Noah's ark or Moses' miracles is less crucial to Judaism than to Christianity. For the slightest rent in the fabric of literal biblical truth may bring down the whole Christian edifice, resting as it does upon one very shaky historical premise, the story of Jesus as the Messiah (not to mention the added stress placed on the whole structure by the inconsistencies within that story). If the biography of Abraham, the founding father of the Jewish religion and also a prophet of Islam, is under attack, how can that of Christianity's founder remain unscathed? If Moses' miracles are rejected, how can Jesus' miracles be rescued? If Elijah's translation to heaven lacks credibility, why should Jesus' resurrection or ascension carry more conviction?
Is it any wonder that the church hierarchy should have reacted so violently against the Darwinian theory of evolution? But Bishop Wilberforce and Darwin's other clerical adversaries were not the only theologians -- whether consciously or unconsciously -- to identify the fate of Genesis with that of the Christian Gospel. Strangely enough, a very similar attitude is discernible amongst radical Christian theologians of the twentieth century. Just as their nineteenth century predecessors felt the need to rally to the literal truth of Genesis in order to save the Gospels from attack, so they reject the literal truth of the Gospels as part of their "demythologizing" of the Bible as a whole. The quotation that follows is a good illustration of the fate of some basic Christological doctrines under the impact of this attitude:
Jesus is "the man for others," the one in whom Love has completely taken over, the one who is utterly open to, and united with, the Ground of his being. And this "life for others, through participation in the Being of God," is transcendence. For at this point, of love "to the uttermost," we encounter God, the ultimate "depth" of our being, the unconditional in the conditioned. This is what the New Testament means by saying that "God was in Christ" and that "what God was the Word was." Because Christ was utterly and completely "the man for others," because he was love, he was "one with the Father," because "God is love." But for this very reason he was most entirely man, the son of man, the servant of the Lord. He was indeed "one of us"...The life of God, the ultimate Word of Love in which all things cohere, is bodies forth completely, unconditionally and without reserve in the life of a man -- the man for others and the man for God. He is perfect man and perfect God -- not as a mixture of oil and water, of natural and supernatural -- but as the embodiment through obedience of "the beyond in our midst," of the transcendence of love. (J. A. T. Robinson, Honest to God, 1963, p. 76).
There are essentially two equations here. The first equates the concept of "God" with a force within the individual rather than a God "up there" or even "out there." Then comes the equation of Jesus with this redefined "God." The resulting portrait is of a being who is at once fully human and fully divine, as the divine element is in any case no longer seen as something separate from the human element but as an integral part of it.
But what does all this really mean? Stripped of the jargon, the Jesus who emerges from this process of redefinition is no more than the usual exemplary "good man," an identification which creates more problems than it solves. The Jesus of the Gospels certainly preaches selflessness but he does not practice it. He tells his followers to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies, but we never catch him doing either. And, it cannot be stressed enough, what we are talking about is the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life -- not some hostile Jewish tract or some biting pagan satire. And what do we find? We find Jesus calling down curses upon the heads of his enemies (for example, Luke 11:42-52) or even employing physical violence against them (John 2:15). But, not only does Jesus fail to live up to his own injunctions in respect of enemies: his own family -- and not least his mother, Mary -- receives short shrift from him, as we have had occasion to observe in a previous chapter. As for his proverbial humility, there is little sign of it in the Gospels. On the contrary, as we have also seen previously, he is repeatedly portrayed as pompous and self-important.
The surprisingly frequent glimpses in the pages of the Gospels of a decidedly less than perfect Jesus are doubly significant. Not only are they in stark contrast to Jesus' teachings, but, for that reason among others, they also constitute good prima facie evidence of the historical Jesus.
And yet, by dismissing the "quest for the historical Jesus" as irrelevant, the radical Christian theology of the twentieth century has only succeeded in replacing an at least roughly accurate -- and, upon examination, none too flattering -- portrait of Jesus the Jew, which emerges from careful scrutiny of the Gospels themselves, with a vague and shadowy, highly idealized image of "Jesus, the man for others," the product not of historical evidence but of abstract theologizing.
But why, you may well ask, is there any need to attempt to portray Jesus the man at all -- especially if the whole exercise is as irrelevant as the radical theologians maintain? The answer is that the figure of Jesus is so pivotal to Christianity that Christians are unable to avoid thinking of him as a human being, no matter how much high-minded theologians may eschew any such exercise as futile, irrelevant or both.
Yet, as was pointed out in Chapters 6 and 7, keeping Jesus on an elevated theological level in the guise of "God the Son," avoids many of the difficulties associated with that much more problematical character, "Jesus the Messianic claimant." But to adopt this approach would be to return Jesus to being just another pagan god in yet another polytheistic mystery cult. In other words, the essential appeal of Christianity would be lost -- the appeal of a savior figure who is believed to have lived in the real world as a real flesh-and-blood human being.
There is also another reason why Christianity can never escape from the "quest for the historical Jesus," and that is the most important reason of all -- namely, that the Gospels are clearly written in terms of a living, breathing historical Jesus, whom they are intent on proving to have been the Jewish Messiah.
Even when disguised or hidden from view, the messianic claim lies at the very heart of Christianity. Most of the titles accorded Jesus and most of the powers with which he is invested stem directly or indirectly from this claim -- whether he is portrayed as savior, priest, or king, "prince of peace," "the good shepherd," "the light of the world," or simply as "Son of God" or "Christ." Salvation, priesthood, and kingship are three basic facets of the messianic role, and hardly less fundamental aspects of it are the Messiah's function as teacher, human example, and his special position as God's chosen agent on earth.
The messianic claim is undoubtedly Jesus' greatest asset. But there is one small snag. The title is exclusive. Like Cinderella's slipper, it will fit the true claimant and the true claimant alone. And the snag is that Jesus' claim is bogus. he was not born in Bethlehem; he was not a scion of the royal house of David; and none of the messianic prophecies fits him.
So why bother? Why go to all the trouble of fabricating evidence, falsifying records, and even on occasion concocting nonexistent biblical "proof-texts" just in order to claim a Jewish title for Jesus -- especially as the whole advertising campaign was directed not so much at a Jewish market as at pagans, most of whom would probably never have heard of Moses, let alone of King David or Bethlehem?
That is precisely Christianity's dilemma. Claiming the messianic title for Jesus entails falsifying evidence -- but not claiming it leaves little option to billing him as yet another pagan deity, which could hardly have appealed to the new religion's early leaders and propagandists -- Jews almost to a man.
There was, in any case, a glut of new-fangled cults and exotic gods already on the market, and it would profit Christianity little to be thought merely to have swelled their number. Antiquity in a religion was the best claim to respectability. This was recognized by the church fathers, and it was for this reason that Tertullian, writing in 197, made a point of Christianity's antiquity in his Apologeticus. Christianity, he stressed, was based upon the "very ancient books of the Jews," which were older by far than any product of the people of the pagan world.
Should it come as a shock to learn that part of this same work was given over to an attack on Judaism and that Tertullian later wrote a separate treatise entitled Against the Jews? It should not. For what we have here is simply another manifestation of that same Christian dilemma mentioned above. Christianity had to derive its authenticity and respectability from Judaism, notably by laying claim to the messianic title for its founder. But it was a claim that could only be substantiated by detailed historical evidence. As no such evidence existed, it had to be invented, but even then it was so crude as to convince only very few Jews. Hence arose the strange spectacle of a religion centered on a Jewish founding figure, laying claim to Jewish titles of honor and depending for its validity on Jewish history and prophecy, but drawing its membership less and less from the ranks of Jews and becoming increasingly hostile to Jews and Judaism alike.
It was Paul who first recognized this dilemma, saw a way out and in so doing became the true founder of Christianity as a new and separate religion. If the Jews would not accept Jesus as the Messiah, Paul decided, then those who did accept him would be dubbed the true Israel, the new Chosen People. And if those who were recruited to the new faith were not prepared to become Jews in the usual way, by circumcision, then the old covenant symbolized by circumcision would simply be deemed to have been superseded by a new covenant which dispensed with circumcision. The Jews' election as the Chosen People had been embodied in the "Old Testament," which was now joined by a "New Testament," which both supplemented and in practice also supplanted it.
In order to establish its independence of Judaism and to assert its superiority over it while at the same time resting upon Jewish concepts and beliefs, Christianity needed to prove that it was the true form of the ancient religion. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), a formulaic utterance supposedly spoken by Jesus, is a good example of this type of assertion. It is not enough for Christianity to claim to be true; It must claim to be the truth -- the only truth. The two flanking equations are even more terrifying in their arrogance and intolerance. "I am the way" is further amplified by the following phrase: "No one comes to the Father, but by me." By contrast with Judaism, in which every worshiper has the right and indeed the obligation to approach God on a one-to-one basis, Christianity keeps the worshiper at arm's length from God and forces him to go "through channels," except that there is only one channel and that a narrow one indeed. Finally we have, "I am the life," a rather unsubtly veiled threat: nonacceptance of Christianity is equated with death.
Christianity is what I have termed a creed religion, a religion based upon the acceptance of a particular set of beliefs and standing in sharp contrast to the normal type of religion encountered in the ancient world, communal religion, a category embracing religions as diverse as Judaism, Hinduism and the Roman state religion. Communal religions tend to be exclusive: they are hard to join as membership in the religion entails membership in the social community, and vice versa, so that conversion to a communal religion is not only difficult but often practically impossible. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely this exclusiveness which gives communal religions their generally tolerant attitude to other religions. After all, if you are reluctant for your neighbors to embrace your religion, you can hardly blame them for persevering in their own separate faith. Indeed, the whole outlook on life of the adherents of a communal religion takes it for granted that each separate nation, state or tribe will have its own religion -- formula for tolerance.
A creed religion like Christianity, by contrast, is constantly competing against all other religions -- and, what is more, doing so on their own home grounds. Its success is measured in terms of the number of converts it makes.
There can be no doubt of the success of Christianity by this criterion, but it is strange to find the same criterion used not only as a measure of success but also as proof of Christianity's truth.
The basis for this may be the assumption that "you can't fool all the people all the time" and therefore that the wider the acceptance that an idea or belief enjoys the truer it must be! But perhaps Adolf Hitler's remark about the effectiveness of the "big lie," a subject on which he must be acknowledge an expert, is nearer the mark.
Yet the equation between popularity and truth persists in the common mind. (It is hardly ever to be found as a serious argument advanced by scholars, though it does put in a rare appearance in that runaway best-seller among serious works of (radical) Christian theology, The Myth of God Incarnate, published in 1967.)
There is of course another very important reason for the hardy persistence of this equation in religious thinking, and that is the centrality (in western religion at any rate) of the question of reward and punishment. If Christianity were not true, runs a common line of argument, then why should it have prospered as it so obviously has?
This argument of course rest squarely upon the assumption that the success of a religion in attracting adherents and amassing wealth is a mark of divine favor and an endorsement of its truth.
But Christianity took a long time to become successful, and the argument of "truth from success" would therefore simply not have served the interests of the early church fathers. Despite the occasional bouts of persecution by means of which the Roman imperial government (inadvertently) boosted the number of converts to Christianity, after three hundred years the number of Christians in the Roman Empire, according to modern estimates, amounted to no more than about ten percent of the total population. It was only in the fourth century after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine that Christianity became a major religion in numerical terms. It is now quite clear that it was not the success of Christianity that attracted Constantine to it but Constantine's conversion that led to the religion's success. The emperor's conversion gave Christianity an aura of respectability it had previously lacked, but, perhaps even more important, the statute book was soon bristling with laws discriminating against non-Christians.
One need only take a glimpse at a much more recent religious success story in order to consign the "success-truth" formula forever to the dust heap to which it belongs. The success story I have in mind is that of the Mormons, or, as they prefer to be known, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Joseph Smith, the founder of the sect, claimed that he had been guided by divine revelation to a place not very far from his home in Palmyra, New York, where under a large stone he had found a number of ancient gold plates covered in a form of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Together with these mysterious documents he claimed to have found two miraculous stones, with the aid of which and "by the gift and power of God," he was able to translate the contents of the gold plates into English. The whole work, divided into fifteen books was published in 1830 and forms part of the scriptures of the sect and is invested with divine authorship.
The ancient plates themselves, according to Smith, were returned to heaven by an angel and are therefore unavailable for inspection. As for the contents of the Book of Mormon, it claims to tell the story of Jews who migrated to America in 589 BC (over two thousand years before Columbus and sixteen hundred before Leif Erickson) and eventually established Christianity there -- aided by a personal visit to America by Jesus -- and spread it amongst the indigenous population.
Even if we ignore the similarities between the Book of Mormon and a novel written by the Reverend Solomon Spaulding (who died in 1816), and the charge made by handwriting experts in 1977 that twelve pages of Smith's manuscript were in Spaulding's handwriting, there is nothing in the way of historical evidence to encourage acceptance of any of the claims made by Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon. And yet the claims are accepted by large numbers of highly educated, sophisticated modern Americans and other Westerners. Moreover, it cannot be sufficiently stressed, what the Mormons believe is the literal truth of the claims put forward by their founder. It may well be that the "latter-day saints" of two thousand years hence will entertain doubts about these claims and try to explain them away as myths. But, if that happens it will reveal more about the Mormons of the future than about the meaning a purpose of the Book of Mormon. For, whatever we may think, it is quite clear that the Book of Mormon was intended to be understood as literally true.
Exactly the same, I believe, is the case with the Christian Gospels. They too were written with the intention of being accepted as literally true -- for, as I have tried to show in the course of this book, Christianity depends for its validity upon the literal truth of the claims made for its founder. There are, of course, millions of Christians who willingly accept the Gospels in this sense and who deny the label of "Christian" to anyone who does not share their own fundamentalist faith (One such -- a student of mine at Cambridge University -- once confided in me his serious doubts as to whether the Pope was a Christian!) But, their intolerance at least has the virtue of being frank, forthright, and unabashed. Though their own belief in the truth of the Gospels is often total and they sometimes have trouble understanding how anyone can fail to share their commitment, it is nevertheless their very self-assuredness that makes them recognize that the question of acceptance of the Gospel claims for Jesus is the crucial test by which Christianity stands or falls.
Those Christians who adopt a more liberal, or even a radical, stance on this question are more difficult to pin down. These are people who cannot accept the Gospel claims as literally true but who also cannot bring themselves to admit that a rejection of those claims is a rejection of Christianity. They want to regard themselves as Christians without accepting the basis of the Christian faith. Hence the resort to high-flown jargon and the many attempts to explain the Gospel account away as mythical or figurative representations of a transcendent and not easily intelligible set of truths.
"Truth, in matters of religion," said Oscar Wilde, "is simply the opinion that has survived." It is in this sense, and in this sense alone, that Christianity can be said to be true. The only problem is that this definition of truth brings it dangerously close to what can only be called "the big lie."
2. Problems of Birth
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, according to Matthew and Luke.
John 7:41-42 and Mark 1:9, 6:1 seem to give the impression of never having heard of Jesus' supposed Bethlehem birth.
Luke is well aware that Jesus was associated in the minds of is contemporaries with Nazareth, not Bethlehem, so he feels obligated to explain to his readers how it was that this Galilean happened to be born so far from home.
Luke's explanation: The Roman Census. A royal decree was issued requiring everyone to return "each to his own city" (Luke 2:3).
This required Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem, which was "his own city." pp. 10-13
What, after all, is a census? Today, of course, we live in a much more numerate age than has ever existed before, and we are forever counting, measuring, calculating, and checking every conceivable thing, sometimes (or so it would appear) for no reason other than to exercise our numerate skills. In most modern states a census is taken every few years, and all it is is a head count, to see how big the population is. But, despite the seeming meaninglessness of it, it has an eminently practical purpose. The object is not only to see whether the population as a whole has grown or declined but also, among many other things, whether there has been a shift of population from some regions to others. In other words, a census is a very practical exercise. What interests the census-taker is where people are, not where they once were or where their ancestors may happen to have come from.
The Roman government, being essentially made up of down-to-earth, practical administrators, was even less interested in figures for their own sake than most modern governments. The Roman census in fact had a specific practical purpose: taxation. The government wanted to know how many people there were in each locality so as to be able to calculate the tax due from each. And where would Joseph have paid his taxes? Not in Bethlehem, even if his family had originally come from there, but in Nazareth, where, as even Luke is quite happy to admit, he was actually a resident. Seen in the light of history, therefore, nothing could be less in keeping with the true nature and purpose of a Roman census than a move from a person's actual place of residence to some remote supposed birthplace or ancestral hometown.
One little snag, though, is that the Roman census would not have affected Nazareth in any case, as Galilee was not under Roman rule but had its own ruler, the "tetrarch" Herod Antipas, son of King Herod.
But that is not the only problem connected with the census. Luke is obviously very anxious for us to accept his story about Jesus being born in Bethlehem, so he gives us a lot of detail explaining it. He actually goes so far as to specify the name of the Roman governor under whom the census was held: Cyrenius. There certainly was a governor by that name (or Quirinius, to put it in its proper Latin form) and, what is more, he is known from Roman sources to have held a census. But the mention of him by Luke in connection with the birth of Jesus creates more problems than it solves. Above all, there is a problem of date. Quirinius certainly conducted a census -- but at a time when Jesus would have been ten years old. As it happens, Quirinius' census can be precisely dated by means of the very detailed account given by the historian Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 18:1). According to him, Quirinius was sent to conduct his census shortly after Judea had been annexed by Rome, which occurred in the year 6 or 7 of the current era. This census was obviously intended to be an initial "stock-taking" now that Judea was to be governed directly by Roman officials.
Some Christian commentators have cheerfully admitted that Luke's dating of the census is a decade off and have simply left it at that. But most Christian writers on the subject have recognized that if they make this apparently trivial admission of error on Luke's part, the whole story of Jesus' Bethlehem birth falls apart. This has led to some desperate attempts to justify Luke's account of the census.
Aided by an inscription describing an unnamed Roman military official, apologists have rushed to suggest that perhaps Quirinius had had an earlier -- and totally unrecorded -- tour of duty in the area and that the anonymous official was none other than himself in this role, conveniently dated to the time of Jesus' birth. Besides the total lack of evidence for jumping to so improbable a conclusion, there is another little snag: the generally accepted date of Jesus' birth was at a time when Rome had no jurisdiction either in Bethlehem or in Nazareth, so there could have been no census to coincide with Jesus' birth.
This is because Jesus was born during the lifetime of King Herod "the Great." How do we know that? We have it on the authority of Luke (1:5), together with that of Matthew (2:1). The problem is that Herod died in 4 BC, fully ten years before Quirinius' census, and during Herod's reign no Roman census could have been held in his territory, which included both Judea and Galilee, that is, the locations of both Bethlehem and Nazareth.
It is clear from this that Luke has really tied himself into a knot. On the one hand, he dates Jesus' birth to 4 BC at the latest. On the other hand, he associates Jesus' birth with an event that happened a decade later. Which story do we believe, and does it matter?
Yes, it does matter. It matters because acceptance of Jesus' birthdate as falling in the reign of King Herod will finally put an end to the story of the Bethlehem birth, which, as we have already seen, is to be rejected on other grounds in any case.
One of the best-known details of the Bethlehem story is the incident about the inn and the manger. The charming and pathetic scene painted for us by Luke (and, incidentally, by him alone of the Christian scripture writers) has so captivated generations of children and adults alike that no one has stopped to ask some basic questions. Such as: What were Joseph and Mary doing looking for accommodation at the inn in the first place? Hotels, inns, hostelries, and the like were few and far between in the ancient world as a whole. Travelers normally stayed with friends or relations. Why did Joseph and Mary not do so? After all, was this not Joseph's hometown? That, according to Luke, was the whole reason for his journey to Bethlehem. Or are we to believe that there was not a single member of his family left there?
The more closely we examine the Bethlehem story, the more it disintegrates before our very eyes. To take another point: Why did Mary accompany Joseph to Bethlehem? Not only is it foolhardy for a woman in the last stages of pregnancy to undertake a long and perilous journey, but no one has ever claimed Mary's family came from Bethlehem, only Joseph's. If Joseph and Mary had been husband and wife at the time, that would explain her accompanying him, but they were not married. (There is more on this interesting fact.)
So far we have confined our discussion to Luke's account of the birth of Jesus. but what about Matthew, who also places the birth in Bethlehem (2:1)? Unlike Luke, Matthew says not a word about any census, nor is there any mention of an inn or a manger. On the contrary, Matthew's account gives us the impression that Bethlehem was the permanent home of Joseph and Mary, and Jesus is said to have been born in a "house" (2:11). When Nazareth is first mentioned, Matthew finds it necessary to give a special explanation of Joseph and Mary's decision to settle in Galilee rather than in Judea (2:22), thus perpetuating the initial impression of Bethlehem rather than Nazareth as Joseph and Mary's normal place of residence.
But if this had really been the case, then why does Luke tie himself in knots in order to explain the couple's presence in Bethlehem? Presumably because Luke knew that Bethlehem was not where they came from but felt impelled to get them there by hook or by crook in order to establish Bethlehem as Jesus' birthplace. Matthew is equally concerned to set the birth in Bethlehem, but he adopts a different technique. Instead of inventing a story in order to transfer Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, he slyly gives us the impression that they had been living in Bethlehem all the time! But his concern about a Bethlehem birth for Jesus comes out nevertheless. It comes out particularly in his (slightly distorted) quotation of the well-known passage from the prophet Micah (5:2) predicting that it would be from Bethlehem that the Jewish Messiah would arise (Matt. 2:6).
Here we have the key to the whole problem of Jesus' birth. Both Matthew and Luke want to prove to their readers that Jesus was the Messiah predicted in the Jewish prophetic writings. One of the essential prerequisites of the Messiah was that he be born in Bethlehem. Therefore, in order to "qualify," Jesus had to be equipped with a Bethlehem birth. If we had only Matthew's account of the birth and not Luke's we might well have believed that Jesus had indeed been born in Bethlehem. But Luke gives the game away by concocting an elaborate and demonstrably false story in order to "prove" the Bethlehem birth, thus unwittingly tarring the whole episode with the brush of fiction.
By contrast with both Matthew and Luke, John, the author of the fourth Gospel, is not much interested in establishing Jesus' credentials as the Jewish Messiah in the traditional Jewish sense. John's Gospel, it is generally agreed, was written for a non-Jewish readership, which explains why the claim that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah as prophesied in the Jewish Scriptures is played down in this book.
In other words, John had no axe to grind as regards Jesus' birthplace, so it is all the more intriguing to see what he has to say about it. Interestingly enough, he relates an incident which bears directly on this issue. He tells us (7:40 ff.) that the Jews of Jesus' time were debating the question of whether or not to accept Jesus' claim to be the Messiah, the chief objection to acceptance being Jesus' Galilean origin (7:41). Those rejecting Jesus' messianic claim confront him with the prophetic prerequisite: "Has not the scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?" (7:432) Does John make Jesus or one of his disciples object and explain that Jesus was indeed a descendant of David and that he had been born in Bethlehem? No. On the contrary, John takes it for granted that Jesus did not meet these prerequisites of Jewish messianic prophecy. For John this did not matter; therefore there is all the more reason to believe him on this point.
a. Rome did rule Palestine. "As a Roman client king in Palestine, Herod enjoyed far reaching domestic and foreign privileges. He had the right, for example, in some cases to wage war against foreign nations. But he was responsible to the Romans, and had to furnish troops on demand and render tribute for certain territories." Bo Reicke. The New Testament Era, The World of the Bible from 500 BC to AD 100. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968, p. 93.
b. According to Mat. 2:1 Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod I. This means that Jesus was born at the latest in 4 BC. Luke presupposes the same facts in the first chapter of his Gospel: John the Baptist was born during the reign of Herod I (Luke 1:5) and Jesus was six months younger (Luke 1:26).
In 2:1f Luke associates the birth of Jesus with a census or enrollment for taxation that was ordered by Augustus and carried out in the time of Quirinius.
The only such enrollment for which we have evidence is the one that took place AD 6. However, Luke states that the census that Jesus' parents took part in was the first, as if to distinguish it from the later census Quirinius was involved with.
Luke 2:4 states that Jesus' parents, whose residence was Galilee, had to travel to Bethlehem in order to record property that they owned there. This is most easily explained if the enrollment took place under Herod, when the kingdom was not divided, as was the case after his death in 4 BC. It is highly implausible that, after the division of the kingdom, taxpayers under Antipas took part in the taxation of Quirinius, for this later taxation applied only to the former territory of Archelaus (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews.) In short, the birth of Jesus is best understood as having occurred during the time of Herod I.
We simply lack records of this earlier, first census, though there is an inscription which records Quirinius' involvement in a war in Syria before 6 BC. (J.A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982, p. 388).
c. No one took them in or helped them in Bethlehem because that was their home town, from which they had fled because Mary was pregnant and unwed -- they had been ostracized by friends and family. The Roman census forced them back to Bethlehem, where perhaps they ultimately were reconciled (after they married and the baby was born).
Of course no one would have helped them. Get real.
See article The Genealogy of Jesus
Some argue that the followers of Jesus were desperate to manufacture a Davidic descent for Jesus and so made up the genealogies to prove that. The reason they needed this, was otherwise he couldn't be the Messiah.
However, beyond the genealogies, there are indications outside of Matthew and Luke to suggest that he was descended from David:
Romans 1:3, 2 Tim 2:8, Rev. 5:5, Rev. 22:16, Mark 10:47 and 48.
Matthew and Luke alone claim a virgin birth, while Mark and John make no mention of it.
"In general, the absence of some supposed fact from a source is not very good evidence against the truth of that fact. After all, every writer must select his facts from a large pool, and he will do so in accordance with what he considers significant, the point being that no two writers can be guaranteed to have exactly the same set of priorities. But a virgin birth is so remarkable and so miraculous an even that it is hard to understand how any author could omit a mention of it -- and least of all an author as concerned as both Mark and John were to show that Jesus was a remarkable man of miracles! We can only conclude that these two writers either did not know the story of Jesus' virgin birth or else did not believe it. In either case, it is a telling blow against our acceptance of it." (pages 16-17)
Virgin birth is suggested by John in 1:1-14; note especially 1:13-14. Consider also Hebrews 1 and Philipians 2. That Jesus is presented as far more than simply a human being, with a divine origin, would seem strong indication. Notice also Paul's remark in Romans 1:3 "regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David..."
The use of Isaiah 7:14 by Matthew 1:23 is criticized.
1. almah instead of bethulah, means just a young woman, not necessarily a virgin. Odd identity of "virgin" attributed to LXX translation and the use of the Greek word parthenos which means "virgin" and not "young woman"
Neither Greek nor Hebrew had a word exactly equivalent to the English word Virgin -- that is the reason for the necessity of adding that "she had not known a man". The issue of bethulah vs. almah is basically moot.
2. The virgin referred to Isaiah's wife, and Emmanuel was Mahershalalhashbaz.
Dual fulfillment; also, this method of using the OT was standard procedure during NT times. It is a modern criticism of the use of these passages, not an ancient one because there was no fault at the time with how the Christians were using the scriptures.
3. There is a long-standing Jewish and pagan tradition that Jesus was conceived in adultery but his natural father was even identified by name -- as a Roman soldier called Panthera. According to Celsus, a pagan who wrote in about 180, not only was Mary guilty of adultery with Panthera but she was also convicted on this charge and driven out by Joseph, giving birth to Jesus secretly (Origen, Against Celsus I. 28, 32, 69).
Unsubstantianted, undocumented, and contradictory to scripture. Where would such a story have originated, and one who is antagonistic to Christianity is hardly a reliable witness of this sort of thing. He has an ax to grind.
4. Jesus attitude toward his mother seems to betray the fact that he is of illegitimate birth.
John 2:3-4, Luke 11:27-28, Mark 3:31-35 (cf. Matt. 11:46-50, Luke 8:19-21)
To read a negative or hurtful attitude toward his mother in this betrays a biased reading. It is contradicted by what John records of Jesus in John 19:25-27.
d. The name Jesus
"they will call his name Emmanuel" (Matthew 1:23)
LXX has either "you" or "she will call his name Emmanuel"
The DSS have a third possibility "his name will be called Emmanuel".
Where does "they" come from?
It's odd that he would make so much of this, particularly since the DSS version matches Matthew's by way of transformational grammar. What is the essential difference between "his name will be called" and "they will call?"
"Jesus is simply the Greek equivalent of the common Hebrew name Joshua, whose most famous bearer was Moses' lieutenant and successor, the conqueror of Canaan, Joshua the son of Nun. Matthew's explanation of its meaning is incorrect. "Jesus" does not indicate that the bearer of the name is to be a savior, but exactly the opposite -- that he is to be saved. The literal meaning of the name is "saved by God" or "helped by God," which, unlike Matthew's fanciful translation, invests God, not the bearer of the name Joshua/Jesus, with special powers!" p. 26
Matthew does not claim to be translating his name. Rather, he is giving the explanation for the selection of that name for the Son of God. Cf. the naming of Ishmael (Gen. 16:11-12) Abraham (17:5), Jacob (25:26), Israel (33:28), and the like in Genesis (see also the naming of the twelve sons of Jacob in Genesis 29:31-30:24). These are all pre-existing names pressed into service because they resembled or reminded the parents of what would occur. Moreover, since Jesus is God, bearing the name "Yahweh saves" is hardly inappropriate.
e. The Star, the Magi, and the Slaughter of the Innocents
Much is made of the fact that Matthew alone talks of the star, the Magi and the slaughter of the innocent. See above again about negative evidence.
The star could not have happened, too miraculous.
Same with the Magi.
And there is no evidence in any sources of Herod having slaughtered children in Bethlehem. (however, such behavior is consistent with what we know of the man's character. Bethelehem is a minor and small town; such an event might have been overlooked or underreported)
a. The empty tomb
Attempt is sometimes made on the basis of 1 Cor 15:50 that Paul denied a physical resurrection for Jesus.
Contradictions are seen between Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1-8 and Luke 24:1-3.
The resurrection is the strongest argument for the truth of the gospel, because it is hard to understand what happened to the disciples without it, especially considering that there were other pretenders to the Messiahship at the same time -- and shortly thereafter (cf. Bar Kokhbah revolt). Why did Jesus stand out?
Be sure you reread the section Mystical Experience Argument.
4. Fulfillment of Prophesy
1. Isaiah 9:6-7
Attempts are made to retranslate Isaiah 9:6 to say: "A wonderful counselor is mighty God, an eternal father is the prince of peace", following the pattern of such names as Emmanuel and Isaiah, which proclaim the greatness of God rather than a man.
2. Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Attempts are made to identify the "servant" as referring to Israel based on the fact that in Isaiah 42:1 and 44:1-2 the servant is Israel.
The difficulty with identifying this servant as Israel though comes in the question of whose sins then is he bearing and who is the "our" if it is not Israel?
Copyright © Quartz Hill School of Theology. All Rights Reserved.