John Beversluis, "The Gospel According to Whom? A Nonbeliever Looks at The New Testament and its Contemporary Defenders" 5:2

I'm posthumously posting six chapters from an unfinished book sent to me for comment in 2008 by the late John Beversluis (see Tag below). This is part 2 of 2 parts of his fifth chapter on the virgin birth narratives. I would disagree with Beversluis that Jesus was good moral person who offered good moral advice, but he was influenced by Thomas Paine and Jefferson's writings. [On this issue see Dr. David Madison's excellent newly dropped book!]


2. Did the Slaughter of the Innocents Really Occur?

Much more important than the exegetical and highly speculative question of whether alleged events like these were really fulfillments of prophecy is the historical question of whether Herod’s alleged Slaughter of the Innocents really occurred. There are several excellent reasons for thinking that it did not.

For one thing, Luke never mentions it. Neither does Mark or John or any other New Testament author. Second, there is no record of any such massacre in the writings of any Jewish or Roman historians, including Josephus and Tacitus, who did not avert their eyes from dastardly deeds and who overlooked few gory details. Josephus had a particular aversion to Herod and meticulously catalogs his many despicable acts, including the murder of his wife, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, and many others who met with his displeasure. However, he does not so much as mention the Slaughter of the Innocents. This (except for Matthew) complete and unbroken silence should be enough to convince any fair-minded reader that it never happened and that the story should be dismissed as a pure legend. Later historians unanimously agree that Herod was ruthless to the core and clearly capable of ordering the mass murder of infants. But the historicity of an atrocity is not established by observing that the alleged perpetrator was capable of committing it. As I have said before, the argument from silence is never conclusive; but if an atrocity of this magnitude had really occurred, it is nothing short of astonishing that in the whole history of the world nobody except Matthew paid the slightest attention to it.

But the most damning textual evidence is found, not in what other authors do not say, but in what Matthew and Luke do say. What is loosely called “the Christmas story” is actually a conflation of two very different stories.

Matthew reports that Jesus was born in a house in Bethlehem, that he was visited by magi who had been following a star, that both they and Joseph were warned by God about Herod and his malicious scheme, that the enraged and jealous Herod ordered the slaughter of an unknown number of male infants in hopes of killing him, that Joseph and his little family fled to Egypt almost immediately after Jesus was born and did not return until two years later after Herod had died. The whole scenario is menacing and a dark cloud hangs over the heads of the main characters.

In Luke everything is sweetness and light. He reports that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (presumably in a stable) and laid in a manger (one does not usually find mangers in houses), that he was visited by shepherds who had not seen a star but had been informed of Jesus’s birth by a “heavenly host,” that Mary enjoyed an apparently tranquil period of recovery, that Jesus was taken to the temple when he was eight days old to be circumcised, that after her “purification” Mary also went to the temple and, according to Mosaic law, offered a sacrifice of two turtle doves or pigeons (2:22), that Jesus was then brought to the temple and presented to the Lord amid public rejoicing. Luke adds that a certain woman by the name of Anna was so happy that a savior had been born that she “spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (2:36-38). Would she have done that knowing full well that Herod was seeking the life of this very child and that his spies were everywhere? Luke concludes his story by saying that, after all this, Joseph and his family made a leisurely trip back to Jerusalem. There is not one word about an enraged and jealous tyrant greatly feared by Joseph (Herod is not even mentioned), there are no tattletale magi, no incessant warnings of impending doom by God, no flight to Egypt, and no slaughter of the innocents.

Not only does Luke say nothing about a flight to Egypt; Mosaic law prohibited any kind of travel for new mothers. That is clear from Luke’s allusion to Mary’s so-called “purification”—a ritual which required a woman to remain at home and in virtual seclusion for forty days after giving birth. According to Leviticus 12:2-7, if a woman conceives and gives birth to a male child, she will be “unclean” for forty days; during that time she was not allowed to touch any “hallowed thing” or to enter the temple. After the forty days had elapsed, she must sacrifice two turtle doves or pigeons in order to be “cleansed of the issue of her blood.” It is no exaggeration to say that the factual differences and the emotional contrasts between these two accounts are so pronounced and incompatible that were it not for the fact that the names “Jesus,” “Mary,” and “Joseph” are common to both, they could easily pass as accounts of the births of two different babies.

3. Where Did Joseph and Mary Originally Live?

In addition to all these disagreements, Matthew and Luke disagree about the simple question of where Joseph and Mary originally lived. Luke says it was Nazareth. That is where Mary was living when the angel Gabriel told her that she would soon be with child. That is the city from which she and Joseph set out for Bethlehem and to which they returned after Jesus has been presented in the temple. Moreover, he is repeatedly referred to as Jesus of Nazareth and the Nazarene (Matthew 13:34; Mark 6:1, Luke18:37; Acts 2:22). He is introduced to Nathaniel by Phillip as Jesus of Nazareth (4:16). And the inscription on the cross identifies him as Jesus of Nazareth (John 19:19).

Matthew never explicitly says where they originally lived, but he strongly implies that it was in Bethlehem. That is where he says that Jesus was born and there is no suggestion that his parents were only there temporarily and on some kind of official business, such as a census. It is also from Bethlehem that they fled to Egypt when warned by God of Herod’s decree that all male children under the age of two must be slaughtered. And when they returned from Egypt after Herod’s death, they originally planned to go back to Bethlehem and decided to take up residence in Nazareth only because they were afraid of Herod’s successor. Archleaus. Their original plan to return to Bethlehem would make no sense if they had only been there for a census. Unlike Luke, who returns them to Nazareth as their original home, Matthew gets them there only because of an unforeseen and dangerous set of circumstances, which conveniently enables him to point out that their installation in Nazareth is the fulfillment of yet another prophecy (v. 23) That Matthew clearly implies that they originally lived in Bethlehem is further borne out by his statement that the magi visited Jesus in a house.

Attempted harmonizations have never been lackingl. Some suggest that Joseph wanted to return to Bethlehem: not because that was where he and Mary had lived originally, but because that was where he had been born. But what would have prompted Joseph to make this decision after he left Egypt rather than before he left Nazareth and went to Bethlehem to be taxed? Indeed, Matthew is completely silent about both Nazareth and the census—both of which are presupposed by this explanation. Others have suggested that Nazareth was the original home of Mary who later moved to Bethlehem with Joseph. However, this account omits the census altogether. And with good reason. If Joseph lived in Bethlehem all along and only went to Nazareth so he could move Mary and her belongings to Bethlehem, then the census was not his reason for going to Bethlehem after all. Furthermore, if impelled by no necessity such as the census, why would a the couple set out for Bethlehem so late in a pregnancy? And if they were determined to do so, why were they so distraught upon finding that there was no room for them in the inn? If Joseph lived in Bethlehem, why did they not just go to his home? Matthew and Luke are hopelessly at odds on all these counts.

4 Additional Problems 
Another question needs to be asked. From whom did the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke get their information about these alleged events? McDowell (Ready, 187-90) and Geisler (ST, 461-93 and I Don’t, 251-74) confidently assert that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. Were they? As we have seen, the author of Luke admits that he was not an eyewitness and that he got his information from people who were? So, in the case of the birth of Jesus, that leaves the author of Matthew. Who were his sources?

Actually, a long list of very specific questions needs to be asked. Precisely who told him about the star, the magi, the house where Jesus was found, the meeting between the magi and Herod, his jealousy and rage, his order to kill all male children under the age of two, the dreams, the warnings, etc.? Who was present when Herod issued the command to kill all male infants under the age of two? It certainly could not have been Matthew (or whoever wrote the Gospel ascribed to him). Was somebody else eavesdropping in Herod’s palace and taking notes? If so, who was it? Moreover, such a command could not possibly have been issued and carried out without there being some record of it. So there had to be some kind of document. What did it say? Who read it? What happened to it? Why did every ancient historian fail to mention it?

The same questions need to be asked about the author of Luke. His story is so familiar that few readers pause to reflect about how strange it is and to ponder the many questions it raises. Precisely who told him about the shepherds, what the angel told them, how they reacted, and what they said to each other afterwards, namely, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which has come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us” (v.15)? These words were allegedly spoken by the shepherds “abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Unfortunately, we are not told who else was out there “abiding in the field” and close enough to hear what they said, so they could later report it to the author of Luke’s Gospel. Was somebody out there all night long keeping the shepherds under twenty-four hour surveillance? Was somebody also present at the nativity scene jotting down who came to worship the newborn king of the Jews? If so, who was it? If not, who imparted this information to the author of Luke?

Other questions deserve answers. What became of the sheep after the shepherds abandoned them or, for that matter, of the shepherds themselves if they had been hired by somebody to watch over the sheep and later found themselves called upon to explain why they had abandoned their charges and disappeared into the dead of night in search of a newborn king whose birth had been reported to them by a “heavenly host” which had illuminated the entire sky but yet had been seen them alone? Furthermore, what was the purpose of the angelic apparition to the shepherds? The obvious answer is: to proclaim the birth of Jesus. Luke explicitly says that the shepherds, having seen Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, “made known abroad” the birth of this child. He adds that “all who heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds” (v. 17-18). But if that is true, why does Matthew say that it was the magi who first reported the birth of Jesus and that their news “troubled” Herod and “all Jerusalem with him”? What happened to all the people who had allegedly heard about it from the shepherds? Furthermore, why was the announcement made to them in a deserted field in the middle of the night? Why not publicly, openly, and before masses of people? The privacy of the story—bordering on secrecy—is suspicious: dreams (in the case of Joseph and the magi) and angelic visitations to solitary individuals (in the case of Zacharias, Mary, and Joseph) with not a single corroborating witness. These are precisely the circumstances and lack of confirming evidence one would expect if the entire story were a legend.

Questions like these should not be dismissed as the idle quibbles of an irritating troublemaker bent on “picking the Bible apart.” They are precisely the kinds of questions that need to be asked if we are ever to make even minimal sense of these stories. When Lieutenant Colombo or Detective Chief Inspectors Morse or Tennison closely interrogate a suspect, they are not trying to be irritating or difficult; they are trying to construct and piece together a coherent account of the matter under investigation. They cannot rest content with generalities and vagaries. However, if anybody closely examines the synoptic Gospels—the birth of Jesus in particular—they will be accused of doing precisely that. They will also be accused of spoiling the story and destroying its beauty and simplicity. What these defenders of the Gospels fail to see is that the beauty and simplicity depend on hushing up the details. Nor do they see that it is they rather than critical readers who are not taking the Gospels seriously. If a scrutiny of details destroys the beauty and simplicity of a story, then its beauty and simplicity were much too fragile and hence not worth preserving. Such defenders of the Gospels are like amateur historians who like to chatter about “the ancient Greeks and Romans” and grow irritated the minute a real historian asks for specific names, dates and places. If such people are make-believe historians, such Christians are make-believe students of the New Testament.

It seldom occurs to readers of the synoptic Gospels to ask these kinds of questions. The fault is not completely theirs. They have excellent role models. It apparently never occurred to the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke either. Having written their very different, inconsistent, and wholly undocumented accounts of the birth of Jesus, it never occurred to them—as it surely would have to responsible Greek historians like Herodotus and Thucydides, responsible Jewish historians like Josephus, and responsible Roman historians like Tacitus, Seutonius, Pliny, and Galen—to provide posterity with some reason for thinking that what they said is true beyond their having said so.

Not only do the authors of the synoptic Gospels provide no reason for thinking that what they say is true beyond their having said so. Neither do McDowell, Geisler, and others like them. Contrary to their robust assurances to the contrary, they do not present evidence that proves that the synoptic Gospels were written by eyewitnesses and that what they say is true. Instead, they quote various authors of the New Testament who claim to have been eyewitnesses and who claim that what they say is true. For example, Luke quotes Jesus telling his disciples:

And ye are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24: 48)

And John (who did not write a synoptic Gospel but who was a disciple) writes:

This is the disciple which testifieth of these things and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true. (John 21:24)

Similar claims are made by other authors who did not write the Gospels:

For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)


That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life. (1 John 1:1)


And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged upon a tree: Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly; not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us. (Acts 10:39-41)

Geisler’s books are filled with passages like these. But what follows? Nobody denies that these statements are in the New Testament. And plenty of others could be added to this short list. However, it does not matter how many similar passages one collects. They prove nothing. The reason is simple. From the fact that somebody claims that something happened, it does not follow that it did happen. Similarly, from the fact that somebody claims to have been an eyewitness, it does not follow that he was an eyewitness. Apologists like McDowell, Geisler, and others like them seem convincing only because their readers fail to understand that they start their entire discussion by begging the question. Since that is so, we know without reading their books what conclusions they will arrive at. In short, the attempt to prove that the contents of the Bible are true is based on the assumption that the contents of the Bible are true. The whole procedure is patently circular. It also reveals a blatant inconsistency: all these apologists are all prepared to admit that the authors of other early Christian writings such as The Gospel of Peter, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, etc. made spurious claims to authorship, thereby conceding the whole point at issue. From the fact that somebody claims to have been an eyewitness, it does not follow that he was an eyewitness.

Evangelical Christian champions of the Bible typically respond to claims like these with a flurry of pseudo-questions. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli are representative (Handbook, pp. 156-57) Why, they ask, would the authors of the synoptic Gospels go to such lengths to fabricate and perpetuate what they knew was a myth and possibly even a lie? What would have been their motive? What was in it for them? How could they have indulged in such blatant deception (and even self-deception)? Why would they be willing to die for what they knew was a hoax? What enabled them to go to their deaths “with hymns on their lips”? Who originated the lie?

These pseudo-questions should be ignored. In suggesting that these desperate remedies are the only alternatives to reading the synoptic Gospels as accurate reportage by eyewitnesses, Kreeft and Tacelli are throwing dust in our eyes. It is striking that although they raise questions like these, they never cite any serious New Testament scholar who does. The reason is obvious. There is nobody to cite. No mainstream New Testament scholar has ever suggested that the authors of the synoptic Gospels deliberately fabricated and perpetuated a lie. That is not the sort of claim that serious scholars make. It is the sort of claim that a certain kind of Christian apologist manufactures in hopes of making opposing points of view seem implausible and even ridiculous. Here is deist Thomas Paine on the subject. Speaking of the synoptic Gospels, he says:
I am not one of those who are fond of believing there is much of that which is called willful lying, or lying originally . . . [I]t is not difficult to discover the progress by which even simple supposition, with the aid of credulity, will, in time, grow into a lie, and at last be told as a fact; and whenever we can find a charitable reason for a thing of this kind, we ought not to indulge in a severe one. (The Age of Reason, p. 170)
The same sentiment was expressed by Strauss:
[T]he idea of a deliberate and intentional falsification, in which the author clothes that which he knows to be false in the appearance of truth, must be entirely set aside as insufficient to account for the origin of the mythus. (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, p. 81).
Kreeft and Tacelli ought to cut out passages like these and tape them to their bathroom mirrors as a constant reminder of the kind of charity—not to mention, integrity—that writers like Paine and Strauss exercise towards them, but which they themselves fail to exercise towards people holding opposing views.

So should Geisler. Here is a Christian apologist who is willing to borrow arguments from Charles Colson—Richard Nixon’s ex-hatchet man who once boasted that he “would walk over his own grandmother if necessary to re-elect Nixon” and who was later found guilty of obstruction of justice and disbarred. Here is “born again” Colson on the synoptic Gospels:
Watergate involved a conspiracy to cover up, perpetuated by the closest aides to the president of the United States . . . who were intensely loyal to their president. But one of them, John Dean, turned state’s evidence, that is, testified against Nixon, as he put it, “to save his own skin . . . Now, the fact is that all that those around the president were facing was embarrassment or political disgrace. Nobody’s life was at stake. But what about the disciples? Twelve powerless men, peasants really, were facing not just embarrassment or political disgrace, but beatings, stonings, execution. Every single one of the disciples insisted, to their dying breaths, that they had physically seen Jesus bodily raised from the dead. Don’t you think that one of those apostles would have cracked before being beheaded or stones? That one of them would have made a deal with the authorities? None did. (I Don’t, pp. 292-93)
Kreeft, Tacelli, Colson & Co. start by assuming that there were eyewitnesses, thereby begging the question, and then further assume with no supporting evidence that all (or most) of them were martyred. The only such martyrdom we hear about is James, the brother of John, who was allegedly beheaded (Acts 12:2). There is no documented account of any other apostolic martyr. These “traditions” are later and pure legend. 

Before discussing the substantive content of this passage, permit me to interject a preliminary remark. I cannot speak for other people, but I for my part find it distasteful in the extreme to be lectured to about the synoptic Gospels by the likes of Charles Colson.

Geisler begs to differ. “Colson is right,” he exclaims. “While many people will die for a lie that they think is truth, no sane person will die for what they know is a lie” (p. 293). He concludes that it is “a psychological fact” that “few, if any, persons would endure these experiences for what they knew was a lie” (ST, p. 484).

I think Geisler is probably right about that “psychological fact.” But, like Kreeft and Tacelli, he fails to see that it not only has no relevance to the synoptic Gospels but is, in fact, a red herring. For one thing, no serious New Testament scholar has ever suggested that the disciples knew that the story they were telling was a “lie” or a “hoax.” Nor is their willingness to die for the story evidence that it is true. Past history and news reports about religious cults in America in recent decades reveal how easy it is for impressionable disciples to idealize a charismatic person—a profound (or seemingly profound) moralist, a healer (or alleged healer), a fulfillment (or alleged fulfillment) of prophecy—and to see him as larger than life and even as a savior or a god. Examples such as Emmanuel Swedenborg, Sun Myung Moon, Jim Jones, David Keresh, Joseph Smigth, and even L. Ron Hubbard abound. The same could have been true of the authors of the synoptic Gospels. If the fact that many of Jim Jones’s followers voluntarily committed suicide in obedience to his divine (or apparently divine or divinely-inspired) command is not a cogent reason for believing that his teachings were true, why should the fact that many early Christians voluntarily went to their deaths “with hymns on their lips” be a cogent reason for believing that Christianity is true? The fact that a person is willing to die for his or her beliefs reveals the depth of his or her commitment to them. But no inference about the truth-value of the beliefs is possible. Whether people are willing to die for their beliefs and whether those beliefs are true are separate questions and must be answered separately.

Moreover, as we have seen, the synoptic Gospels were not written by disciples. Here is philosopher-theologian John Hick on the subject. Speaking of those who “continue to be unacquainted with modern biblical study,” he says:
It is widely agree that the earliest New Testament documents—some of the letters of Paul—were written about twenty years after Jesus’s death (i.e. around 50CE), with the earliest of the Gospels, that of Mark, some twenty years later and the remainder during the next thirty or so years, moving toward the end of the century. None of the writers was an eyewitness of the life they depict. The Gospels are secondary and tertiary portraits dependent on oral and written traditions which had developed over a number of years. (The Metaphor of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age, pp. 16-17, 29)
In short, the synoptic Gospels were not written by liars who knew that the story they were telling was false. They are later accounts of a person about whom their authors had no firsthand knowledge, whose character they have fictionalized and idealized, and whose words they have variously interpreted, perhaps inadvertently misreported, and freely embellished with ascriptions of deity.

The same position was taken by Thomas Jefferson—no mean New Testament scholar and the compiler of The Jefferson Bible:
[T]he whole history of [the synoptic Gospels] is so defective and doubtful, that it seems vain to attempt minute inquiry into it; and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right from that cause to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills. (Letter to John Adams, January 24, 1814, quoted in The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, ed. Norman Cousins, p. 257.)
Thomas Paine concurred: "Jesus was a virtuous and amiable man. The morality he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind." (The Age of Reason, p. 53). The chief target of Paine’s criticism is not Jesus himself or the morality he taught, but “the Christian mythologists” and the “wretched contrivance they have installed in its place” (The Age of Reason, p. 223)

According to freethinkers like Jefferson and Paine, the importance of Jesus Christ and what he taught can only be truly appreciated if he is rescued from “the Christian mythologists” and the “wretched contrivances” known as the synoptic Gospels. I concur. I will go further. Jefferson and Paine knew the Bible at least as well as Geisler and McDowell, and their intellectual honesty and resolute unwillingness to “harmonize” inconsistent passages in such sophistic ways makes them far more reliable guides.27/14


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