blogs in SIN (Skeptic Ink Network, not the motley crowd of vices, hopefully), made one of those daft comparisons this morning that helps focus and clarify thinking about history:
So let us look at the claims of the (only two) Gospels which actually mention the birth of Jesus. Which is itself a problem, worse than if only two biographies of Abraham Lincoln actually mentioned his assassination!
Jonathan is talking about historical evidence for the Christmas story. So when he says it is "worse" that only two gospels talk about Jesus' birth, he presumably means, worse for the credibility of those accounts.
But reading this, a question smacks you in the face, "Are birth accounts and death accounts of famous people really comparable, when it comes to historical believability?"
There has been some (silly) controversy over where Barack Obama was born. But there is no controversy whatsoever over the fact that he was born somewhere. Nor is there any doubt that John F. Kennedy was fatally shot in Dallas, Texas.
The assymetry could hardly be more striking:
(a) Jesus was not famous when he was born. He may have had some visitors, but they had to be informed about his value supernaturally. And then most of them scattered to the hills to tend their sheep again, or went back to Persia (China?) to look for more stars. So the number of direct witnesses 65-85 years later would have been few to none.
(b) Jesus' birth occurred more than 30 years before his death. Those few who attended the former, and did not scatter, would mostly or all have died by the time the gospels were written. This need not have been the case with the thousands of people who witnessed his miracles, or the more than 500 who saw him after the first Resurrection Sunday. If they were young in 33 AD, they could easily have lived and remembered, until 80 or even 100 AD.
(c) Ancient historians often seemed unsure about the circumstances of birth of even extremely famous people whose lives were well-known.
(d) From (a) and (b), and to some extent from (c), it follows that the evidence for Jesus' death and resurrection would have been exponentially more secure, historically-speaking, than the evidence for his birth.
(e) It may well be, though, that Luke interviewed his mother, and got the goods, and his version of Christmas morning is largely accurate. If so, lucky us, historically speaking.
(g) The gospels were written by Christians within a larger community that would have shared numerous early accounts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, often from eyewitnesses who were still living. (As Richard Bauckham argues in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.)
Skeptics often go after the Christmas story -- no doubt in part because of the latent Scrooge impulse that runs like the San Andreas fault just below the surface of Gnuistan. Partly, too, they do so for the same reason that they say things like, "The gospels are a compilation of late stories that were tacked on after the fact, as Mark 16 and John 8 demonstrate," taking the exception as the rule, rather than recognizing how the contrast between such exceptions and the texts of the gospels as a whole demonstrates the general credibility of most gospel material.
One can't blame an opponent for attacking what they perceive as weak points in one's defense. But this tendency does, I think, reflect the overall strength of the gospels as historical narratives, including the key facts of Jesus' teaching, miraculous works, remarkable self-understanding, death, and his resurrection from the dead, by which he conquered death and brings "Joy to the World."
I love the Christmas story. The stable, ox and ass, shepherds and wise men, and of course star, make a beautiful scene of wider significance and deep symbolism. The story of Herod is profound and politically significant. As an historian, I can't prove that the first Christmas happened exactly as Luke and Matthew said, nor that it didn't. Many of Jonathan's objections have been dealt with by Christian scholars. In general, Luke seems exceptionally careful and accurate, so I think it would be foolish to dismiss his story too quickly. And historian Paul Meier points out that there do seem to have been a few celestial events about the time of Jesus' birth that line up well with that account.
But that Jesus came to earth, and that he brings the world hope, is I think beyond reasonable doubt.
And that is the essence of what we celebrate at Christmas. That justifies the candy canes, the stars on the tree, the tree itself that evolved from the Germanic World Tree and the Rood on which the hero Jesus died, the gifts we give one another, and the songs we sing on this day, and over the weeks preceding it.
Jonathan is a reasonably cheerful skeptic, and wishes his readers a "Merry Christmas Everyone" before saying "it didn't happen, though."
Merry Christmas back at you. And many happy returns.
In large part because it really did happen.
And humanity has never been the same since.