Monday, December 29, 2014

Why scholars believe the Christmas story isn't historical, part 4

Back to the WINAH series. Reason #4 that scholars doubt the historicity of the Christmas story is that both Matthew and Luke's narratives contain miraculous phenomena, and miracles don't happen.

There. I've said it.

Actually, I've simplified the issue more than I'm comfortable doing. Some scholars might be okay with an outright rejection of miraculous phenomena, just as some scholars would immediately say that "anti-supernatural bias" should have no place in serious historical investigation (though strangely, a rejection of "anti-supernatural bias" only seems to leave the door open for Christian miracles...but I digress).

As for me, well, I teach a class called "Religion, the Supernatural, and the Paranormal" (syllabus here), which might imply that I have a certain amount of openness to the notion that some very weird stuff has happened and continues to happen throughout the world (Winston Zeddemore frames the matter slightly differently). So I am not one to automatically rule out the "miraculous." However, I do tend to be more receptive to miraculous claims that are multiply attested--things that more than one person claims to have experienced. Therefore, I don't think it's impossible that people really (whatever that means) saw Jesus alive after his death; after all, there are a number of independent reports of such phenomena from early Christian writings, and other reports of post-mortem contact with the dead in what appear to be flesh and blood bodies are numerous.

And multiple attestation is precisely what most of the miraculous phenomena (and non-miraculous as well, as we will see in future posts in this series) in the infancy narratives lack. Matthew's star marks out a single house in Bethlehem as the residence of the Messiah, and yet no other independent sources testify to this incident. Outside of Matthew and Luke, no other sources report that Jesus was the product of a virginal conception and birth. Yes, Matthew and Luke do seem to both report this independently, but in this case, there is a fairly plausible alternative explanation for how such a tradition arose that doesn't require a miracle.

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