Friday, December 23, 2005
Alan F. Segal:
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Although the birth stories in the Bible may be happy tales of religious hope, many New Testament scholars simply dismiss them as legendary, contradictory, and unhistorical. Here's why. The New Testament contains no clue as to the time of Jesus' birth, though the theme of shepherds watching their flocks in the field by night suggests any time but winter. Christmas, the celebration of Jesus' birth, was placed in December in the fourth century to correspond to the Saturnalia, a popular pagan Roman holiday. We have no record of the census (mentioned only in the Gospel of Luke) in the Roman Empire under Emperor Augustus. Likewise, we have no record that Herod savagely decreed the murder of the male children of Bethlehem (mentioned only in Matthew among the gospels). The birth stories in Luke and Matthew contradict each other not only in the details, but in fundamental ways. Even the famous star over Bethlehem, which would cinch the date of Jesus' birth, is famously ambiguous: Either it was a miracle of a traveling star—which no one else at the time noticed—or it was an astronomic commonplace, leaving us with too many comets, super novae, and planetary conjunctions to locate the year of Jesus' birth with certainty.
In fact, we have absolutely no record of Jesus' existence in any contemporary historical source. All reports of Jesus' life come from believers. . . .
Almost all Christians see their own beliefs as grounded in the authentic New Testament facts; the criterion [of "dissimilarity" --see full debate for more on this method] suggests that very few facts are actually undisputable.
For all the rigor of the standard it sets, the criterion demonstrates that Jesus existed. Here are some facts in the Gospels that embarrassed the early church: Jesus was baptized by John (a great theological problem). He preached the end of the world (which did not come). He opposed the Temple in some way (and this opposition led directly to his death). He was crucified (a disreputable way to die). The inscription on the cross was "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" (the church never preached this title for Jesus and shortly lost interest in converting Jews). No one actually saw him arise (though evidently his disciples almost immediately felt that he had). Ironically, it's the embarrassing nature of these facts that assures us of their authenticity. The exalted figure of Jesus as a heavenly redeemer and the Lord of the Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, was the response of Jesus' closest disciples to the events of Easter morning. These are tenets of faith, not claims that can be demonstrated historically.
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Whatever we are supposed to make of the stories of Jesus' conception and birth, arrogance and religious self-congratulation have no basis in these familiar narratives. I hope that's not banal. Heaven knows it's a point that bears repeating. But I've found that the most devout, and those who have drunk most deeply of their religion, rarely need reprimanding about arrogance. Instead, it's most often those with just enough religion to make them dangerous! So, whether as a celebrant or an observer of Christmas, the stories point us to something worth celebrating, but in humble celebration.
John S. Kloppenborg:
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But there is an easy confusion between statements of empirical fact and statements of value and belief. We need to be cautious about which is which, especially in the documents that we study, which don't make this distinction at all. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein puts it, "there is a great difference between disagreements as to whether there is a Last Judgment and whether there is a German airplane overhead." The point is not simply that one cannot verify empirically that there is a Last Judgment; the point is that the statements are of a different order. Statements of empirical fact can be probabilistic; we can hedge our bets. The plane above my head is perhaps German but it could be American; or maybe it isn't a plane at all—maybe it's a bird. It would be odd to say, however, "I believe that there might be a Last Judgment" or "It is probable that God spoke to Moses but I'm really not sure." Religious beliefs are not merely probabilistic, for in that case they would be, as the philosopher David Hume argued a propos of miracles, far less probable than most of the other beliefs we hold about the world—in other words, hardly worth holding at all.
To apply this to the debate at hand: I take the belief in the virginal conception to be a statement of religious belief—that is, a theological statement in Larry's terminology. Therefore, it is wrong to confuse it with a statement about gynecology or embryology. That doesn't make it "less" than an empirical statement any more than "murder is a crime" or "the maintenance of human dignity is a good" are of less value or importance than empirical statements. This also means, however, that whether I can trace the tradition of the virginal conception to a stage earlier than, say, A.D. 80, or A.D. 70, or A.D. 40—all of which would be tentative, historical, and probabilistic conclusions—has nothing to do with the meaning and function of the belief in the virginal conception as a religious belief. So in that sense, I agree fully with Alan that there is no reason why Christians ought to stop celebrating Christmas, or Jews Hanukkah, since the beliefs involved in those two celebrations are not the kind of beliefs that are empirical or need historical foundation. . . .