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I recently had the twee pleasure of seeing my twins in their annual Nativity play at their primary school. This is something that goes on in every single primary school up and down the nation, almost without fail. As I point out in my book on the Nativity accounts and the problems therein, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain such different narratives, which are not at all cohesive or coherent, that running the two stories as a single intertwined narrative is a bit like two cars driving in the opposite direction smashing together into  mangled mess, finding the wreckage two thousand years later, and then claiming that the wreckage is one single car with eight wheels and two steering wheels.

The thing is, not a single person in that audience where I was sitting, and not a single member of the six class cast of young children, questioned anything about the Nativity accounts. There might be, with such people in simple terms, a general skepticism involving whether the accounts were true at all, but the finer details are not really questioned at all. By this I mean, for example, the claims about the census are not really brought into question at all in any kind of serious critical manner.

I have mentioned this all before in the context of the Noah’s Flood story in that certain stories and claims bypass our critical analysis veto mechanism because they become embedded when we are so young. As I said;

So we have a situation where, from birth up through all their formative years, children, both at home and at (certain) schools, are fed cultural myths such as Noah’s Flood as factual stories. The problem here is critical, terminal often. What is happening is that children are fed improbable and implausible stories before they are taught how to rationalise and how to sort the implausible from the plausible, the patently ridiculous from the scientifically verified. These children are at the most educationally vulnerable point in their lives. And who are the people they trust the most? Who are the elders in their lives whose truths they take on unquestioningly? Their parents and grandparents, and their teachers and schools. The children have no hope of being able to decipher whether such truth claims (as in Noah’s Flood) are probable or not. They don’t even think to question such claims.

It is only after these cultural memories are embedded that children learn about life, about science, about how to tell a lie from a truth, about the notion that you can’t trust everyone, even those close to you.

Forward-wind five, ten, fifteen, twenty years and to a lady in a pub talking philosophy and religion. I say to her, “Do you believe in the flood myth of the Chinese [where I explain such claims] or the creation myths of the Aborigines [likewise]?”

Of course, the answer is an almost derisory “no”.

“Why? Why the special pleading for your Christian myth? I can personally see no difference between the two.”

I explain many of the above points to which she says, “Oh, I didn’t realise” or some such similar apology. When asked why she believed that myth over the others, she had no answer, and realised that. She left that night with a few more questions than she came with. What was doubly amazing is that she claimed not to have read the Bible for many years since it had been “shoved down her throat” as an adolescent. So here we have a “Christian” believing wild myths without even properly understanding the Bible, and at the same time dismissing, out of hand, other very similar claims.

The point is, is that people often don’t question received stories told as fact from their childhood. They use the future critical faculties they pick up on other religions, but as the OTF (Outsider Test for Faith) argument goes, they do not apply them to their own embedded, culturally inherited stories. These myths, whether Noah, the 10 plagues, the Genesis Creation, the Tower of Babel or Matthew 27, bypass the vetting process by point of fact of being embedded before the process was learnt. It is like a computer with viruses which eventually gets a virus scanner. But the virus scanner can only pick up new viruses which come onto the system, rather than already existing ones. Those pre-existing viruses last the life of the computer. Unless it has a motherboard break-down, goes to the shop, and gets refitted with new, decent software. In short, it has a mid-life crisis.

We can add to this the claims fo the Nativity accounts. It didn’t seem remotely implausible to anyone in the audience, child or adult, that there should be a census. Heck, I only know about client kingdoms and direct Roman rule through reading historical analyses on the historical-cultural context. And no one thought that returning to an ancestral home was at all dubious, because it kind of sounds reasonable. And this is because we don’t get told (we have to piece it together from claims in Luke’s later chapter) that he is some 41 generations removed from his ancestor in question.

Now, if the audience was told this, then there would be greater skepticism:

“And so Quirinius decreed there should be a census for tax purposes because the Romans had just taken Judea into direct control, some 10 years after Herod the Great’s death who appears alive in about 10 minute’s time, due to needing to know what tax income they would get. And all people were required to go to the town of their ancestor some 41 generations past, because this is how far removed David is from Jesus (even thought the interpretation of the Bethlehem prophecy is incorrect). Not 35, or 8, or 59. But 41. Without the use of the internet or Joseph worked out that David was his cherry-picked ancestor and Bethlehem was where David was from, even though this ewas in a different tax region from Nazareth and provided absolutely no pragmatic value to the Roman census-takers. And it turns out that the whole of Judea could, in 41 generations, also link themselves to David and thus there was no wonder that there were no rooms at the inns. The whole of Judea was also in Bethlehem.”

No one questions Luke and Matthew because they are couched in vague ways, or the claims are spread across various chapters or Gospels.

Read together, with all the requisite knowledge, these claims are ridiculous. But without this knowledge or desire to be critical, censuses and Herod seem together very plausible.

One commenter on another thread stated:

Luke’s readers either experienced a Roman census themselves or had heard of them.
The Romans conducted censuses regularly, about every generation or so.
Some of the censuses were famous, apparently, as noted by Luke 2:2.
Regarding this controversial ‘return to your hometown’ requirement,
the question is:

If Luke was trying to convince readers with his lies,
why would he insert a lie which he was reasonably confident his readers
would have recognized as utterly implausible/impractical/unhistorical or as an outright lie?

Why wouldn’t Luke instead present a more believable lie, something like
‘Joseph and Mary went to visit relatives in Bethlehem, and there she gave birth’ ?

Apart from the fact that Romans did censuses at different times depending on contexts (historical, political, geographical), this commenter doesn’t realise that Luke’s only option is to lie. Luke has already told us he has received his information from others. There are many ways claims can get spun changed and exaggerated. I personally doubt Luke sat there and spun a web of lies. But, either way, his claims are demonstrably wrong (especially if taken together with Matthew’s). It is worth reading Richard Carrier’s Not the Impossible Faith to see a good deconstruction of the idea that Luke’s readers had the desire or ability to verify the claims. It is a really good analysis of the verifiability of Luke from various angles.

The fact is, almost 100% of people take those accounts as given (i.e. the census and Herod as opposed to the general truth of Jesus), and not one of the audience (I wager) took them as “utterly implausible/impractical/unhistorical”. Well, apart from me, of course. Mostly, in the UK, no one really gives a fig.

Quite why Luke chose a census is impossible to tell, now. But that was the mechanism he chose and it demonstrably differs from Matthew’s.

And, as hinted, the use of the Bethlehem prophecy is already a problem. Here, I refer you to my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination:

So what are these prophecies? The main offending verse is Micah 5:2 which states:

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, 
Too little to be among the clans of Judah, 
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. 
His goings forth are from long ago, 
From the days of eternity.”

Let us remind ourselves of how this fits in with what Luke says of Bethlehem (2:4):

Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David…

1 Samuel 16 tells of how Samuel, a prophet, went to Bethlehem to anoint the king-to-be, on the behest of God. Samuel doesn’t expect it to be the youngest of the children of Jesse, a mere shepherd, but David it was and he was to be the great king. Jesse, being a ‘Bethlehemite’, would imply that David was one too.

The first issue with the Micah quote is that it is a mistranslation to claim that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem since the context and the grammar actually mean that one should conclude, as D.F. Strauss in The Life of Jesus (1860, p. 159) does, as follows:

…the entire context show the meaning to be, not that the expected governor who was to come forth out of Bethlehem would actually be born in that city, but only that he would be a descendent of David, whose family sprang from Bethlehem.

So Matthew and Luke, in using this as a prophetic basis for establishing Davidic heritage, mistranslate the prophecy and feel that they need to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem so that Jesus could be born in the place so apparently prophesied. If Jesus had been born in Nazareth, he still would have fulfilled the prophecies utilised by the Gospel writers.

If we look at the potential theological contrivances in the fulfilment of the prophecy that sees the Messiah being born in the ‘city of David’ in light of the added evidence of the genealogies, then it is hard not to be cynical. With a faulty and clearly manufactured set of family trees which rely on some dodgy usages of the Old Testament and genealogy, a shadow is cast upon the idea that Bethlehem, as a birthplace, is not only prophesied, but seemingly fulfilled.

it’s all so dubious.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...