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Nativity Naivete

Widely read Australian journalist Andrew Bolt’s recent ‘expose’ of the Gospel Nativity stories and the Genesis creation story reminds me of the overreaching first-year Arts student—every year has one—who’s stumbled across questions he himself has never pondered and has the temerity and naiveté to pose them in class as fresh problems not yet confronted, let alone resolved. There are contradictions and irreconcilable differences in the Bible’s most important narratives, we are told; millions of Christians throughout the centuries failed to spot what Mr. Bolt has discovered upon reading the latest populist tome by Robin Lane Fox.

Inconsistencies and plausibility

Before we look at the specific scriptural errors exposed by Andrew Bolt, something more general needs to be said. Naysayers need to realise that Christians could concede all of the alleged problems proposed by Bolt and others and it would make very little difference to the broader plausibility of Jesus' life. Inconsistencies would only pose problems for a particular view of scriptural inspiration. It would not change the overall historical trustworthiness of the narrative, since even our best sources for Greek and Roman events contain numerous inconsistencies and apparent factual errors. The same is true of modern works of history.

In other words, one can approach the New Testament as a collection of entirely human documents, expecting to find all the faults and infelicities common to all historical writing, and the doubting Thomas’ still have the problem that the Jesus story looks like it really happened.

There is no avoiding the fact, once you move beyond reading one or two of your favourite sceptics’ writings, that the overwhelming majority of specialists in secular universities around the world agree: Jesus lived in first-century Galilee, taught about a coming ‘kingdom of God’, fraternized with ‘sinners’ and tax-collectors, gathered a group of twelve disciples as a symbol of a renewed (twelve tribes of) Israel, enjoyed an unusually wide reputation as a healer—however that is explained—clashed with the Jerusalem temple authorities, was crucified by order of Pontius Pilate under the mocking charge ‘king of the Jews’ and, shortly afterwards, was hailed as the resurrected Messiah by the first generation of his followers.

Attempts to deny these accepted facts have roughly the same credibility in historical scholarship as Six-Day Creationism does in professional science, and only someone unaware of the vast body of literature on this subject, which probably eclipses the literature on Alexander and Caesar combined, could suggest otherwise.

The point of this is to say that a robust theory can still hold together even if there are inconsistencies in the details. If a theory, whether historical or scientific, has enough evidence from other lines of reasoning, it will continue to garner trust even if difficulties remain. I freely admit there are problems in the New Testament that remain unresolved. But not for a second do I think this undermines the New Testament account of Jesus. It just means we need to wait for more data.

This introduces the second thing worth remembering. Historians of antiquity offer their judgments on the basis of a very limited data set. Specialists will freely admit that we possess today less than one percent of the documents, inscriptions and buildings that existed in the first-century Graeco-Roman world. Acknowledging this leads to one of the golden rules of historical analysis: absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. Just because an event mentioned in one source can’t be corroborated by another source does not mean that the event didn't happen. When 99% of our information from the period has been lost, one must be very careful adjudicating over what did not happen?

Bethlehem or Nazareth?

All of this said, the problems raised by Andrew Bolt are both trifling and by no means insurmountable—and we have known about them for more than a century! First, he says that, whereas Matthew has the holy couple living in Bethlehem, Luke has them in Nazareth, only traveling to Bethlehem for the census and then returning ‘home’. Herein lies a contradiction, it is thought. But a quick read of Matt 1-2 shows that Matthew does not say Joseph and Mary were residents of Bethlehem, only that this is where they were when Jesus was born. In other words, Matthew picks up his story in Bethlehem, whereas Luke picks it up earlier in Nazareth. Incidentally, the fact that Luke can say that Bethlehem was Joseph’s ‘own town’ may suggest that the living and property arrangements of the holy family were more complicated than we usually imagine. In any case, there is no contradiction here, just an unwillingness on the part of Andrew Bolt to read the Gospels with the same subtlety and respect he affords to documents in his journalistic sphere.

The differences between Matthew and Luke, by the way, are one of the reasons most specialists are confident these Gospels were not copied from each other. This makes the things they have in common all the more significant. As with testimony in a court of law, absolute agreement between witnesses is usually a sign for the historian of collusion, but basic agreement with significant variation, as in Matthew and Luke, is a sign of independent testimony to real events. Both Gospels agree Jesus was born before Herod the Great died, both agree on the names of his birth parents and the fact that they were unmarried, both agree on the place of his birth, both agree that the family descended from King David (as did thousands of others, by the way) and both agree that some time afterwards the family went (back) to Nazareth. That’s a lot of agreement for sources that are independent of each other.

Andrew Bolt endorses the old chestnut that Luke and Matthew invented Bethlehem as the birthplace because they needed to secure his connection to King David’s family town. This is unconvincing. The fact is, neither Mark (the first Gospel written) nor John (the last one written) say anything about a birth in Bethlehem. If Bethlehem was so important for Jesus’ credentials that Matthew and Luke had to make it up, why didn’t the other two Gospels bother to mention it? And, if Bethlehem was in fact not important enough for Mark and John to invent a reference to it, what reason is there for thinking that Matthew and Luke were so motivated? Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is not proven but it certainly isn’t discredited.

The census under Quirinius

The only real historical problem with the nativity is Luke’s mention that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem during an imperial census associated with Quirinius, governor of Syria. Andrew Bolt rightly points out that the only census we know about in this period was in AD 6. It caused a mini-revolt, which is why we hear about it from the first-century Jewish writer Josephus. But Jesus was born before the death of Herod the Great in early 4 BC. Most scholars give the date of Jesus’ birth as 6-5 BC (five years before himself; a consequence of a small mistake in the establishing of the Western calendar during the sixth century, not any biblical funny business). Those who rush to find a mistake here should recall two things. First, Luke actually says “this was the first census while Quirinius was governor.” It’s true that we only have evidence for a single census in AD 6, but Luke obviously knew of more than one. Presumably, he knew of the one in AD 6 and a former one around the time of Jesus' birth. The fact that he can so casually call it the ‘first census’ suggests that he expected his readers to know about the two censuses. Allied to this, secondly, is the need to remember that we have less than 1% of the documentation from this period. It is overzealous to disqualify Luke’s evidence when 99% of the relevant evidence is missing.

But what about Quirinius himself? He was definitely governor of Syria in AD 6 and, best we can tell, the governor in 6-5 BC was either Saturninus or Varus. So, did Luke simply get the governorship incorrect, misnaming the man in charge of the ‘first census’. If so, this is a tiny error, on par with those found in our very best Greek and Roman sources (and in modern historians’ works). It certainly isn’t cause for sceptical gloating. The fact that the naysayers get so excited about this one, is an indication of how meager the arguments against the Bible really are.

That said, in the published literature there are at least six solutions to the problem of an earlier governorship for Quirinius, including the proposal that Quirinius co-administered the census with Saturnius or Varus but was singled out by Luke because of the fame he acquired from the later AD 6 census. We have no evidence for this but it is a possibility one could propose, if one thought Luke was usually a reliable source. Personally, I wouldn’t want to endorse any of the scholarly ‘solutions’—even the one just mentioned—because I am perfectly happy living with an unresolved historical question about such a small feature of the Gospels. Perhaps future discoveries will confirm a mistake on Luke’s part; perhaps they will exonerate him. There is a long, long list of examples of sceptics denying certain details of the Gospels only to be embarrassed by later discoveries: a five-colonnade pool of Bethesda, the baths of Siloam, the ‘prefecture’ title of Pontius Pilate, residences of first-century Nazareth and numerous others. It would only take the chance discovery of a document placing Quirinius in Syria ten years earlier and all the naysayers would be moving their sceptical tomes to the back of the library book shelves.

Similar thoughts apply to the claim that Augustus would not have required subjects to return to their home towns. We just don’t have enough information about censuses in antiquity to make that judgment. From the little we know, we can say that this would have been unusual, but we cannot say it is an implausible fiction. After all, it must be remembered that Luke was writing within the Roman empire itself and relatively close to the events described. Whether he invented the census or accurately reported it, he obviously would have known—certainly better than any 21st-century writer—what would and wouldn’t have sounded plausible to his readers.

Creation contradictions

Andrew Bolt’s second attempt at biblical criticism requires only brief comment. From the opening narrative of the New Testament he winds back to the opening story of the Bible itself: “I’m embarrassed to admit that I learned only for the first time from Fox’s book this week that the very first pages of Genesis are also internally contradictory—and about the most fundamental story of all.” He goes on to point out that Genesis 1:26-27 speaks about Adam and Eve being created simultaneously and Genesis 2:5-22 has Eve being fashioned after Adam. He lays out the Bible passages for us and urges, “Check for yourself.”

Well may Bolt be ‘embarrassed’ because, while all this may be a revelation to a journalist, it is Old Testament 101. In fact, my Sunday-schooled 16 year old could point out that there are two accounts of creation; and that they’ve both been placed at the front of the Bible to draw out different points about the creation. The first stresses macro issues like God’s ordering of the cosmos; the second zeros in like a magnifying glass on the special place of humanity in God’s creation. These are not “internally inconsistent accounts of the creation”; they are deliberate snapshots taken from different angles and with different zooms. And, obviously, the original author of Genesis was perfectly happy to place these accounts side by side. Unless Bolt thinks the biblical writer was an idiot—unable to spot the differences between things that fall within three paragraphs of each other—we have to conclude that the ‘contradiction’ is itself a modern fiction.

Worse still, had Mr. Bolt attended an Old Testament 101 class, he would have learnt that many mainstream scholars believe the first few chapters of were never intended to be read in the clunky concrete way Bolt treats them. This is not a nervous backtracking in the face of the awkward discoveries of modern science. It is a way of reading Genesis going back to Augustine in the fifth century, Clement in the second and Philo in the first. None of these towering ancient theologians read Genesis in a literalistic fashion. They all believed the ‘six days’ of Genesis 1, for example, was a literary device designed by the author to convey order and beauty. If they’re right, and most biblical interpreters today agree, then obviously the original author or compiler of Genesis would have had no problem putting two highly literary accounts of creation side by side in order to make different points about God’s good creation. Andrew Bolt’s neophyte epiphany about biblical contradictions is akin to an engineering student sitting through an English Lit. class and then remonstrating about the impossibility of ‘Juliet’ being the ‘sun’.

This brings me back to my opening analogy about the embarrassing questioning of the first-year Arts student. Andrew Bolt has read just enough to sound learned to his other class mates but not quite enough to realize that the disappointed look on his lecturer’s face is a response to tedious naiveté, not the student’s brilliance.

John Dickson is a Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, Senior Research fellow of the Department of Ancient History (Macquarie University) and Lecturer in the Historical Jesus in the Department of Jewish and Biblical Studies (University of Sydney).

This article originally appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.