Christian Scholarship Led me to Reject Christianity

One of the reasons I have rejected Christianity is that I studied the Bible. That's right. I studied the Bible. As I did so, I didn't just read works published by Zondervan or InterVarsity Press. I read the works by Christian scholars from a wide variety of scholarly sources. I didn't read atheist works about the Bible so much as I mainly read scholarly Christian literature. What Christian scholars wrote led me to reject Christianity. For those of you who read my "Letter to Dr. James Strauss" in my book, you know some of the books I read, and almost every book I mentioned (and there were plenty I didn't) was written by a Christian, or someone within the Christian tradition.

Now as we approach the Christmas season, Let's see what Christian scholarship says about the infancy birth narratives. Raymond Brown is the author of the massive 752 page book titled, Birth of the Messiah (updated 1999), and "Gospel Infancy Narrative Research from 1976 to 1986" (CBQ 48: 469–83, 661–80). Here are four points about the contents of Matthew and Luke that Brown mentioned in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (1996) ["Infancy Narratives in the NT Gospels"] (emphasis is mine):

(1) [Brown discusses the agreements between Matthew and Luke’s gospels, but those are obvious and not part of my point]

(2) Matthew and Luke disagree on the following significant points. In chap. 1, the Lucan story of John the Baptist (annunciation to Zechariah by Gabriel, birth, naming, growth) is absent from Matthew. According to Matthew, Jesus’ family live at Bethlehem at the time of the conception and have a house there (2:11); in Luke, they live at Nazareth. In Matthew, Joseph is the chief figure receiving the annunciation, while in Luke, Mary is the chief figure throughout. The Lucan visitation of Mary to Elizabeth and the Magnificat and Benedictus canticles are absent from Matthew. At the time of the annunciation, Mary is detectably pregnant in Matthew, while the annunciation takes place before conception in Luke. In chap. 2 in each gospel, the basic birth and postbirth stories are totally different to the point that the two are not plausibly reconcilable. Matthew describes the star, the magi coming to Herod at Jerusalem and to the family house at Bethlehem, the magi’s avoidance of Herod’s plot, the flight to Egypt, Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem children, the return from Egypt, and the going to Nazareth for fear of Archelaus. Luke describes the census, birth at a stable(?) in Bethlehem because there was no room at the inn, angels revealing the birth to shepherds, the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus in the temple, the roles of Simeon and Anna, and a peaceful return of the family to Nazareth.

(3) None of the significant information found in the infancy narrative of either gospel is attested clearly elsewhere in the NT.In particular, the following items are found only in the infancy narratives. (a) The virginal conception of Jesus, although a minority of scholars have sought to find it implicitly in Gal 4:4 (which lacks reference to a male role), or in Mark 6:3 (son of Mary, not of Joseph), or in John 1:13 (“He who was born . . . not of the will of man”—a very minor textual reading attested in no Gk ms). (b) Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem, although some scholars find it implicitly in John 7:42 by irony. (c) Herodian knowledge of Jesus’ birth and the claim that he was a king. Rather, in Matt 14:1–2, Herod’s son seems to know nothing of Jesus. (d) Wide knowledge of Jesus’ birth, since all Jerusalem was startled (Matt 2:3), and the children of Bethlehem were killed in search of him. Rather, in Matt 13:54–55, no one seems to know of marvelous origins for Jesus. (e) John the Baptist was a relative of Jesus and recognized him before birth (Luke 1:41, 44). Rather, later John the Baptist seems to have no previous knowledge of Jesus and to be puzzled by him (Luke 7:19; John 1:33).

(4) None of the events that might have been “public” find attestation in contemporary history. (a) There is no convincing astronomical evidence identifiable with a star that rose in the East, moved westward, and came to rest over Bethlehem. In Matthew’s story this would have happened before the death of Herod the Great (4 b.c. or [Martin 1980] 1 b.c.). There have been attempts to identify the star with the supernova recorded by the Chinese records in March/April 5 b.c., or with a comet (Halley’s in 12–11 b.c.), or with a planetary conjunction (Jupiter and Saturn in 7 b.c.; Jupiter and Venus in 3 b.c. [Martin 1980]). (b) Even though the Jewish historian Josephus amply documents the brutality in the final years of Herod the Great, neither he nor any other record mentions a massacre of children at Bethlehem. Macrobius’ frequently cited pun (Sat. 2.4.11) on Herod’s ferocity toward his sons is not applicable to the Bethlehem massacre. (c) A census of the whole world (Roman provinces?) under Caesar Augustus never happened, although there were three Augustan censuses of Roman citizens. It is not unlikely that Luke 2:1 should be taken as a free description of Augustus’ empire-cataloguing tendencies. (d) Luke’s implication that Quirinius was governor of Syria and conducted a “first census” (2:2) before Herod’s death (1:5) has no confirmation. Quirinius became legate of Syria in a.d. 6 and at that time conducted a census of Judea, which was coming under direct Roman administration because Archelaus had been deposed (Brown 1977: 547–56; Benoit DBSup 9: 704–15). (e) Although this item differs somewhat from the immediately preceding one, Luke’s idea that the two parents were purified (“their purification according to the Law of Moses”: 2:22) is not supported by a study of Jewish law, whence the attempts of early textual copyists and of modern scholars to substitute “her” for “their” or to interpret the “their” to refer to other than the parents.

A review of the implication of nos. 1–4 explains why the historicity of the infancy narratives has been questioned by so many scholars, even by those who do not a priori rule out the miraculous. Despite efforts stemming from preconceptions of biblical inerrancy or of Marian piety, it is exceedingly doubtful that both accounts can be considered historical. If only one is thought to be historical, the choice usually falls on Luke, sometimes with the contention that “Those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2) includes Mary who was present at the beginning of Jesus’ life. See Fitzmyer Luke I–IX AB, 294, 298, for the more plausible interpretation that it refers to the disciples-apostles who were eyewitnesses from the beginning of Jesus’ public life (Acts 1:21–22) and were engaged in a preaching ministry of the Word. There is no NT or early Christian claim that Mary was the source of the infancy material, and inaccuracies about the census and purification may mean that Luke’s infancy account cannot be judged globally as more historical than that of Matthew.

[For Richard Carrier's assessment of the date of the Nativity in Luke see here.]


Anonymous said...

For instance, Luke has Joseph and Mary living in Nazareth from where they traveled to Bethlehem for the Roman census (Luke 1:26; 2:4). After Jesus was born, Joseph took his family from Bethlehem to Jerusalem for up to 40 days (Luke 2:22), and from there straight back to Nazareth (Luke 2:39).

But Matthew has Joseph’s family living in Bethlehem (2:11) for up to two years after the birth of Jesus (Matt 2:16)! And after the Magi leave, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt and stay there until Herod died (Matt. 2:15). After Herod died, Joseph was told in a dream to return to the land of Israel, and he headed for his home in Bethlehem of Judea. But since he was afraid to go there, he settled in Nazareth (Matt. 2:21-23), for the first time!

Brother D said...

If I read christian 'scholars' works I would probably ditch Christianity as well. The fundamental questions is: how is the bible revealed to men: by the Spirit? or by intensive study, reason, logic etc?

If the bible is revealed by the Spirit of God then the whole idea of christian 'scholars' is ridiculous.

If the bible is revealed by scholarship then the Spirit is of no use and we might as well use the pages of the bible as fuel for a fire.

"The world cannot accept Him [the Spirit of truth], because it neither sees Him nor knows Him ... But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth" (John 14:17; 16:13)

so much for "christian scholarship"
If the Spirit did'nt reveal the truth to these men, they could spend eternity with their faces buried in books and never understand the truth.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water is rarely good practice, throw out the scholars, keep the bible. Satan is quite the bible scholar, unfortunately for Him, he does'nt "get it" either.

Anonymous said...

DBULL, your comment tells me that you are uneducated. Only the uneducated looks down their noses on scholarship or education. Educated people rarely, if ever do. Why do you think that is? Only the uneducated disparage education, and scholars educate us. Anti-intellectualism is counter to the command to "love God with...all of your mind," by the way.

openlyatheist said...

How many times have we atheists been told by apologists that we need to consult the "great Christian scholars"; Lewis, Plantinga, Origen, etc, because our understanding of Christianity is poor?

Then, when scholarship fails, we are told we shouldn't have listened to those scholars in the first place.

Damned if we do, damned if we don't.

Brother D said...

LOL, Dear John, yes, you are right, I am uneducated..I actually did laugh out loud when I read that, for which I thank you. Scholarship is a wonderful thing when applied to the things of this world. We can compare degrees later.

Scholarship is an exercise in futility when applied to the things of God. My question remains, how does a man come to understand the scriptures, by the Spirit of God, or by scholarship? My uneducated question vexes you, otherwise you would have answered it with something clever, which you did not. Instead you attacked me personnaly. Thanks again for the laugh-DBULL

Anonymous said...

But the conclusion that a given personage did not exist because of variations in the sources is a non sequitur...and thats even assuming there is no explanation.

At most, you have an argument against inerrancy or preservation.

Your OWN presuppositions are showing.

Anonymous said...

And what convinced me that you are not on the level Loftus is your own autobiographical account in your book.

You admit you shit on your wife and lied to your congregations, and we are supposed to believe you now?

Sorry, its not enough.

I "lack belief in your claims."

Anonymous said...

Anonymouse, ad hominem

You cannot criticize another person lest you walk a mile in his shoes. But you're right about one thing...Christians are judgmental and intolerant. Thanks for reminding me once again about why I left the fold.

Deal with my arguments, or else I could explain everything you believe away as the result of what you've experienced and done too.

Anonymous said...

man .. it is year 2006. and you still read the bible like history.
Christianity is about man + christ. I have a friend who is dying in al sabah hospital in kuwait, should i tell her believe in christ and she will be save, or believe in nothing at all because there is no god, no heaven and no soul.
Soon all of us will meet our death or shall we say our creator.

An atheist will never have any guilt or accountability when he died. I like that idea. I am free , i can have countless wives , i can even fuck my daughter or mother, kill somebody as long as i am strong and powerful. I am the master of myself , i will reject the bible or other teachings , except those that suits my interest

bible teaches us about morality not history. If you don't believe in christianity because of the loose facts that you read, i think the basis of you faith (if atheist has one) is incomplete.
Morality my friend is the one that makes a person a christian. We don't read the bible , we only hear them during the mass.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for directing me here. I'll be honest, nothing of this is particularly new or compelling for me. In my mind, considering scholars on both sides and just my understanding of Scripture and the times, all of these issues can reasonably be resolved and stay within orthodox belief. I say "reasonable" because that is a different standard than absolute proof. Historical events cannot be proven, evidence can be given--some make a better case for their evidence than others.

I would agree that reducing the birth accounts to the nice, cute & cuddly manger scenes is not doing the world a service. Their world was much more complicated than we give them credit for, and thus makes it much harder us to put all the pieces together from this distance.

Hopefully you will find (or God will deliever) something that will allow your faith to fall back into place and make sense again. I certainly can't make that happen for you, nor make the decision for you--but I hope you haven't wholly given up the pursuit.

Of course, I have to add...

Merry Christmas!

Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life,

1 Peter 3:15