John Beversluis, "The Gospel According to Whom? A Nonbeliever Looks at The New Testament and its Contemporary Defenders" 5:1

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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). In this fifth chapter Beversluis writes about the birth of Jesus. This is part 1 of 2 parts. I've highlighted a few gems from him.

CHAPTER FOUR: A PREGNANT VIRGIN:

Matthew and Luke are the only Gospels that record the birth of Jesus (Matthew 2:1-23 and Luke 2:1-19). Mark says nothing about it and starts his Gospel thirty years later with the appearance of John the Baptist on the scene. The Gospel of John is, as always, a case unto itself. It starts with a famous (and Hellenistically flavored) passage about “the Word” (logos) that existed “in the beginning” and goes on to say that this Word was not only with God, but was God (John 1:1). The only allusion to the birth of Jesus is the subsequent remark that this Word “was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:11)—a remark that is so oblique that anybody unfamiliar with Matthew and Luke would never guess John was talking about the same person whose birth they record in their Gospels. John has no interest in the so-called “baby Jesus.” He sees his birth in cosmic metaphysical terms—as the incarnation of a pre-existing celestial Logos who not only was God, but who also the Creator of universe (“All things were made by him; and without him was not made anything that was made” (1:3). This heavy-duty (and stoically-influenced philosophical) terminology is completely foreign to Matthew and Luke who are comparative lowbrows concerned only with various factual details about the story.

Luke says next to nothing about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth and confines himself largely to the birth itself—the journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the angelic annunciation about the birth of a savior to the shepherds, and their impromptu visit to Bethlehem. In the process of telling his story, he makes several allusions to specific historical persons and events that purport to be factually accurate but are in fact inaccurate. Matthew lacks most of the information found in Luke, but adds other information that is equally inaccurate and often inconsistent with Luke. Although he needs only thirty-one verses to tell his story of the birth of Jesus, in the process he manages to cite no less than five Old Testament prophecies of which the events he reports were the alleged fulfillment. (These alleged fulfillments of prophecy have been so thoroughly discredited that I will pass over most of them without comment. Full details can be found in The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy referred to earlier.) Since the accounts found in Matthew and Luke are intimately connected, I will consider them together.

1. Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, and Herod

Luke 2 opens with one of the most familiar passages in the Bible:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. (2:1-4)
The verb “taxed” (KJV) is misleading. The Greek is apographesthai, which means “registered.” In short, Augustus had decreed that a census (apographe) should be taken. Already there are problems.

Caesar Augustus (whose given name was Gaius Octavius Thurinus) came to power after the assassination of his granduncle, Julius Caesar, in 44 B.C.E. The following year he joined forces with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus to form the so-called Second Triumvirate—a dictatorship of three that ruled Rome from 43-31. He became the first emperor of the Roman Empire in 27 B.C.E.—receiving the title honorary title “Augustus” or “revered one”—and ruled until his death in 14 C.E.

The Roman Empire was vast, but it did not include the whole world or even the whole known world. So it is not only false but absurd for Luke to suggest that Augustus had issued a decree that “all the world” (pasan ten oikoumenen) should be taxed. That would be the decree of a madman. Furthermore, taxing was never simultaneous and encompassing the whole empire; it was intermittent, piecemeal, and carried out province by province. Nor was it standardized and uniform, but determined by population with fixed quotas for individual provinces (Bunsen, p. 404).

There was indeed such a census while Cyrenius, i.e., Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, was governor of Syria, but it did not require Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. When conducting a census, Rome did not require individuals to return to their cities of birth, but registered them in their present city of residence because that is where they were most likely to own property. Nor would there have been any reason for Mary to accompany him. Only men were taxed. But while there was indeed such a census, it could not have taken place until 6 C.E. at the earliest, since that is the date Josephus gives as marking the beginning of Quirinius’s tenure as governor (Antiquities 18.1.1.1). Josh McDowell contests this on the ground that there is evidence that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice and that the governorship alluded to by Luke was the second, the first being about a dozen years earlier around 7 B.C.E. Unfortunately, he does not document this claim, which is contradicted by almost all recent New Testament scholarship, but simply asserts that the evidence he has in mind is “an inscription found in Antioch” which ascribes the office of governor to Quirinius (Evidence, p. 63). However, he neither quotes the inscription nor tells us which one it is or where we can find it.

What he has in mind is anybody’s guess. He might be referring to an inscription, known as the Lapis Venetus, which praises a certain Aemilius Secundus who was decorated for bravery during a military campaign overseen by Quirinius while he was governor of Syria in 6 B.C.E. But that inscription does not mention a previous governorship, so it is irrelevant to his claim. Or he might be referring to another inscription, known as the Lapis Tiburtinus (or the Tivoli inscription), which alludes to somebody honored by Augustus for distinguished military service. But that inscription does not even mention Quirinius, so it is even more irrelevant. McDowell’s Blind Man’s Bluff strategy is reminiscent of that employed by his archeological hero, William Ramsay, who once made the wild guess that the honored party was Quirinius and that the honor bestowed was a second stint as governor of Syria, thereby implying a previous stint early enough to coincide with an alleged earlier census (The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament). According to Ramsay, “Luke is a historian of the first rank” and his history “is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness” (Paul: The Traveller and The Roman Citizen, p. 222).

This high estimate of Luke’s historical accuracy is also endorsed by Geisler, who cites eighty-four factual claims found in the last sixteen chapters of Acts—allegedly also written by Luke—(containing names of cities, sea-routes, Jewish ceremonial law, location of rivers, common ways of obtaining Roman citizenship, etc.) which have been confirmed by historical and archeological research and then argues that since Luke is correct in all these cases, he must also be correct when he goes on to record thirty-five miracles in these same chapters “with the same level-headed efficiency.” He adds that only somebody with a “pure anti-supernatural bias” would deny this (I Don’t, 260). Having advanced this lamentable argument, he assures his readers that considerations like these make skeptics “very uncomfortable” (p. 260). He is, of course, very wrong. Actually, they should make Geisler “very uncomfortable.” His argument is a non-sequitur. I might as well argue that from the fact that I have advanced eight-four factual claims about George W. Bush’s presidency that have been independently confirmed by journalists and historians, it follows that I must also be right in claiming “with the same level-headed efficiency” that George W. Bush can walk on water, heal the sick, and raise the dead; and that only somebody with a “pure anti-supernatural bias” would deny this. As a matter of fact, the two sets of claims are completely unrelated; so no inferences can be made from one to the other.

Geisler further evades the issue by asserting that Luke names eleven historically confirmed rulers in the first three chapters of his Gospel, including Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanius tetrarch of Abilene. By way of response, the skeptic can say, “Yes he does and he is absolutely right. All this can be cheerfully conceded.” However, Geisler is strangely silent about the problems involving Herod and Quirinius. And that is the crux. Nobody claims that Luke was always wrong, only that he sometimes was.

Nineteenth century New Testament theologian David Friedrich Strauss’s assessment of Luke as a historian is not quite so enthusiastic. Speaking of his account of Herod and Quirinius, he says:
The Evangelist . . . in order to get a census, must have conceived the condition of things such as they were after the deposition of Archelaus; but in order to get a census extending to Galilee, he must have imagined the kingdom to have continued undivided, as in the time of Herod the Great. Thus he deals in manifest contradictions; or rather he has an exceedingly sorry acquaintance with the political relations of that period; for he extends the census not only to the whole of Palestine, but also . . . to the whole Roman world” (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, p. 155).
McDowell’s strategy is obvious: when facts are unavailable, the determined evangelical Christian can always resort to guesswork disguised as research. Geisler’s strategy is more subtle but equally disreputable: assemble a list of undeniable and independently confirmed facts, then make a series of outlandish assertions, and argue that since you were correct about the former, you must also be correct about the latter. Why are (otherwise intelligent) people taken in by such transparently fallacious arguments? I never cease to marvel at how these would-be scholars, who think nothing of accusing their non-believing opponents of intellectual dishonesty and worse, continue to shamelessly manufacture “evidence” to support claims previously embraced without evidence and solely on the authority of Scripture and then pretend that they hold these claims on the basis of solid evidence.

Not only does McDowell provide no evidence in favor of his claim that Quirinius held a previous post as governor; there is decisive evidence against it. In the first place, Caesar Augustus could not possibly have ordered such a census in 7 B.C.E. because at that time Judea was not yet under Roman jurisdiction. It was still a so-called “client-kingdom,” i.e., a kingdom under Roman control, broadly speaking, but not under direct Roman rule. Second, there is no record of any census for a client-kingdom in Judea or anywhere else. Third, there is no record of anybody ever holding the office of governor twice in the same province. Finally, we know who was governor of Syria during the period that McDowell identifies as Quirinius’s first tenure. Sentius Saturninius was governor from 9 to 6 B.C.E and Quintilius Varus from 6 to 3 B.C.E. So there was no vacancy that Quirinius could have filled. Before publishing the next edition of Evidence, McDowell needs to do his homework.

His eagerness to install Quirinius as governor of Syria as early as 7 B.C.E. might be prompted by the inconvenient fact that Herod (i.e., Herod the Great) died in 4 B.C.E., which means that about ten years had elapsed since his death and the census Luke says took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6 C.E. and during which Jesus was born. That troublesome decade creates several problems. First, Quirinius and Herod could not possibly have been contemporaries, as Luke explicitly states. Second, Jesus could not possibly have been born “in the days of Herod the king,” as Matthew explicitly states (Matthew 2:1). Third, Luke could not possibly be right in saying that Zacharias and Elizabeth, the future parents of John the Baptist, who was born six months before Jesus, lived “in the days of Herod” (Luke 2:5).

On the other hand, if Jesus did live “in the days of Herod,” he must have been born about two years before Herod died—i.e., around 6 B.C.E. since, according to Matthew (2:16), Herod ordered the massacre of all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two—an age that would have been superfluous if Jesus was younger. But in that case, not ten but twelve years had elapsed since the death of Herod and the census alluded to in Luke 2. In short, the dates recorded by Matthew and Luke are incompatible. The chronology is simple and undeniable: if Jesus was born “in the days of Herod,” then Joseph could not have been involved in the census of 6 C.E.; if he was involved in that census, then Jesus could not have been born “in the days of Herod.” Hence McDowell’s urgent need to smuggle Quirinius into the picture at least a decade earlier while Herod was still conveniently alive. Hence also his breezy allusion to an unidentified “inscription” in an unidentified location “in Antioch.” But to no avail. I conclude that McDowell’s apologetically motivated revisions of Quirinius’s resume should be dismissed as textbook examples of special pleading.

There are other problems. As John Loftus has astutely observed:
What husband would take a nine-month pregnant woman on such a trek from Nazareth at that time when only heads of households were obligated to register for a census . . . But if he did, why did he not take better precautions for her birth? Why not take Mary to her relative Elizabeth’s home just a few miles away from Bethlehem for the birth of her baby? According to Luke’s own genealogy (3:23-38), David had lived 42 generations earlier. Why should anyone have had to register for a census in the town of one of his ancestors forty-two generations earlier? There would be millions of ancestors by that time . . . [W]hat was Augustus thinking when he ordered [this census]? Under no circumstances could the reason for Joseph’s journey be, as Luke says, that he was “of the house and lineage of David” because that was of no interest to the Romans. (page number needed)
Matthew adds several additional pieces of alleged information about the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus that involve Herod. First, he says that an unidentified group of “wise men” (magoi) arrived from “the east” following a star. Actually, the Greek term magoi does not mean “wise men,” as the KJV carelessly renders it; and it certainly does not mean “kings.” These are not the so-called “three kings” we hear so much about every Christmas. “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is just another piece of sentimental Yuletide fiction. The magi were not kings. The whole notion of kings worshipping the newborn Jesus is a later tradition tenuously based on two Old Testament passages whose contexts clearly reveal that they are not prophecies of the birth of Jesus: Isaiah 60: “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” and Psalm 72:10: The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.” A still later tradition gave these shadowy figures the names Balthasar, Melchoir, and Gaspar. Matthew says nothing about kings. Nor does he say that there were three of them. But even if he had, why would anybody have believed him? Do kings normally wander the earth in packs of three looking for other kings to worship? The whole idea is absurd. If the KJV had translated the term “magoi” accurately, this ridiculous fable would have been avoided. It means “astrologers,” or sorcerers” or “magicians.”

What these theological and sociological misfits are doing in the story has never been adequately explained. Their very appearance on the scene is shrouded in mystery. The mystery deepens as we discover that they know that Jesus “is born” the king of the Jews (Matthew 2:2). A host of questions cry out for answers. First, how did a group of Gentile astrologers from “the east” learn about this? We are not told. Second, where, precisely, is “the east”? As usual, the imprecision is astounding. Does Matthew mean Arabia or Mesopotamia or Babylon or Persia? Again, we are not told. However, what we are told makes the situation worse instead of better. Matthew reports while the magi arrived in Jerusalem knowing that a king of the Jews had been born, they did not know where to find him. That is to say, they did not know the prophecy found in Micah 5:2 according to which the king of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem. That is not surprising. The magi were not Jews and therefore would have had no knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. But then it seems reasonable to conclude that they would also have had no knowledge of any king of the Jews either. But they did. How did they acquire it? We are not told that either.

Nor are we told how they knew that the equally mysterious “star” was a harbinger of his birth and that it would escort them to his birthplace. Their own explanation does not get us very far. Quite bluntly, it does not bespeak wisdom—or even average intelligence. They pathetically explain that they had seen his “star” in “the east” and had been following it—apparently for some time. But that is utter nonsense from a purely astronomical point of view. Individual stars do not move across the night sky. Even if one did, it would be impossible for any human being to “follow” it. But there is a much more elementary error here—a geographical error. If the magi lived in “the east”—understanding “east” as broadly as possible—as east of Jerusalem—and had seen his “star” in “the east,” and had been following it, they would have been traveling in the opposite direction from Jerusalem. What they (or Matthew) should have said is that they were from “the east” and had seen his “star” in the west. But quite apart from where they were from, how they ever managed to get to Jerusalem, and how they knew that Jesus was the king of the Jews, a much more important question remains unanswered, namely, why would they, being non-Jews, have the slightest interest in any of this—much less, be inclined to pay homage to him? But there they are in Bethlehem looking for the newborn king. It is at this point that Herod comes into Matthew’s story.

He reports that when Herod learned that the magi were in Jerusalem, he was “troubled”—and “all Jerusalem with him” (2:3). Both claims are extremely odd. How did Herod learn about their presence? And how on earth did “all Jerusalem” learn about them? Even in the age of CNN, e-mail, and blogs, the arrival of three obscure astrologers in a city the size of Jerusalem would not spread that quickly. In any event, having learned of their presence, Herod immediately summoned the chief priests and scribes and demanded to know where “Christ,” i.e., the promised annointed one, would be born. Having been informed of the prophecy in Micah 5:2, he summoned the magi themselves and asked when the star first appeared (Matthew 2:7). Matthew does not tell us what their answer was until v. 16. For the present he just says that Herod ordered them to go to Bethlehem, to search diligently for the child, and to report back with news of his whereabouts, so that he—Herod—could worship him too.

The magi apparently saw nothing fishy about Herod’s alleged intention to worship a king when he was king himself and dutifully set out for Bethlehem, rejoicing that the “star” was still up there to guide them. After following it for an unspecified length of time, they arrived at “the house” (ten oikian)—not the stable!—where they “saw the young child with Mary his mother” (2:11). Since Matthew does not say that they also saw Joseph, the presumption is that he was not there, although Geisler would probably point out that Matthew does not say the magi found only Jesus and Mary, so Joseph might have been there too—not to mention, cattle, oxen, donkeys, and who knows what else! In addition to their many other disagreements and inconsistencies, Matthew and Luke cannot even agree about where Jesus was born—in a stable or in a house—unless, of course, we adopt a Geisler-inspired strategy and argue that both statements could be true, since insofar as a stable houses beasts of the field, it is a kind of house!

I leave it to others to explain what this “star” was and how it “went before them [i.e., the magi], till it came and stood over where the young child was” (Matthew 2:9), and why, if it was hovering right over the spot, nobody else noticed it—not to mention, why, given the laws of physics, the house was not instantly incinerated together with the rest of the planet earth! Clearly, this nocturnal phenomenon was not a star. Stars do not remain stationary above a particular building. But, then, what was it? Ad hoc solutions have never been lacking: a meteor, a comet, an asteroid, etc. But these suggestions are even more preposterous. Stars at least seem to be fixed in place, but comets and meteors flash across the sky and are gone almost the minute they appear. To see that, the magi would have had to be staring at the sky all night, hardly daring to blink.

After worshipping Jesus and giving him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the magi leave. God thereupon speaks to them in a dream—i.e., presumably in separate dreams—warning them not to report back to Herod and to return to their own country “another way” (2:12). We are not told why the magi, being non-Jews, uncritically accepted the accuracy of this warning from a deity in whom they did not believe and, in all likelihood, had never even heard of. Nor are we told why God did not speak to the magi in a dream earlier, warning them not to visit Herod in the first place and telling them that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem Himself instead of making them wait to learn this from the Herod. The authors of the synoptic Gospels typically gloss over crucial details and are content to paint with a very wide brush. Over the centuries, their readers have been conditioned to find this policy perfectly acceptable, and anybody who does raise questions about details like these is looked upon as rebellious, blasphemous, and likely to lead others astray. In any event, the angel of the Lord thereupon speaks to Joseph in a dream too, warning him that Herod wants the child dead and urging him to flee to Egypt, taking Mary and Jesus with him, and to stay there until further notice. Joseph obeys.

By this time, Herod has caught on. Furious that he has been “mocked” by the magi—the Greek term is enepaichthe—which is more accurately translated as “deceived”—he orders that every boy in Bethlehem and its immediately vicinity, age two and under, to be put to death (v. 16). Herod’s order reveals that the magi must have told him that they had first seen the star about two years ago—otherwise, the age of two would not have been specified so precisely. The fact that the star had been visible for about two years has three consequences that are fatal to Matthew’s whole story. First, since Herod did not issue this command until after the magi failed to return, it seems reasonable to assume that his original plan had been to do away with Jesus himself after discovering his whereabouts from the magi. So the Slaughter of the Innocents was Plan B. But if Herod only decided on Plan B after the magi failed to return, why did he ask them how long they had seen the star before they left? Strauss identifies the problem with penetrating clarity:
It was not until he had discovered the stratagem of the magi, that [Herod] was obliged to have recourse to the more violent measure for the execution of which it was necessary to know the time of the star’s appearance. How fortunate for him, then, that he had ascertained this time before he had decided on the plan that made the information important; but how inconceivable that he should make a point which was only indirectly connected with his original project, the subject of his first and most eager interrogation (v. 7)! (The Life Of Jesus Critically Examined, p. 164)
The second problem is this. Since the magi had first seen the star about two years ago, it follows that Jesus could no longer be an infant but must already have been about two years old. That, in turn means that he would no longer be in Bethlehem—much less, in the house in which he had been born and had allegedly been visited by the magi. In short, the information Matthew includes about how long the star had been visible undercuts his own account of the nativity. The third problem is the worst—and, for Matthew, the most embarrassing—of all.
If Jesus was no longer in Bethlehem, it would have been pointless for Herod to order the Slaughter of the Innocents, hoping to kill the new king of the Jews. The massacre was carried out two years too late.
Having reported Herod’s monstrous command with astonishing matter-of-factness, Matthew drops the subject, thereby revealing his total lack of interest in chronological continuity, and briskly reports that Herod died two years later, after which “the angel of the Lord” appeared to Joseph in yet another dream, assuring him that it was safe for him to leave Egypt and to return to Bethlehem since “they are dead which sought the young child’s life” (Matthew 2:20). However, when Joseph finds out that Herod’s son Archelaus was reigning in his father’s place, he was not so sure about that. Afraid to return to Judea, in spite of God’s explicit assurance of safety, he decided to go to Nazareth instead. At this point, the attentive reader is in for another surprise. Unlike Zacharias, who was struck dumb for doubting the words of the angel of the Lord, Joseph was not so much as scolded.

The final destination of Nazareth provides Matthew with yet another alleged fulfillment of prophecy: Joseph settled there “that it might be fulfilled by the prophets [plural], He shall be called a Nazarene” (v. 23). There are two problems here. The first is that there is no such prophecy in the Old Testament. The second is that the city of Nazareth is not so much as mentioned. Nazareth was a despised city and the general impression one gets is that the less said about it, the better. In fact, when Philip tells Nathaniel that “we”—i.e., he and the other disciples—“have found him of whom Moses and the prophets had written”—namely—Jesus of Nazareth—the monumentally unimpressed Nathaniel replies, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). In addition to misinterpreting and mistranslating passages from the Old Testament in order to extract prophecies of the birth of Jesus from them, Matthew here manufactures one out of thin air.

Before moving on, it is worth pointing out that Joseph’s fears (and God’s warning) were groundless. Puzzlingly, the author of the Gospel of Matthew knew that perfectly well. Matthew 14:1-2 makes it very clear that Archelaus had never even heard of Jesus; and when he finally did, he thought he was John the Baptist risen from the dead. This is decidedly odd in view of the fact that, according to Matthew 2:3, when Herod heard of the birth of the king of the Jews, he was troubled and “all Jerusalem with him.” Are we being asked to believe that everybody in Jerusalem knew about the birth of Jesus, king of the Jews, except Herod’s own son and heir to the throne? And that he also knew nothing about his father’s attempt to do away with this new-born king by ordering the Slaughter of the Innocents? That would tax the credulity of even the most gullible reader. The moral is clear. The author of a Gospel really ought to refrain from telling stories which contain statements that he himself knows are false.

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