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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Are there contradictions in the Christmas story?

Question: Hello Aaron,
If you don't mind speaking for those who consider themselves
"biblical literalists", what do you do with the fact that the birth
story of Jesus is very different in Matthew and Luke - i.e. in
Matthew, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem where Jesus is born in a
"house" and then after going to Egypt to escape Herod they go to
Nazareth to live. In Luke they live in Nazareth and then go to
Bethlehem for the census and for Jesus' birth. Other than these
facts I could believe that they ar each telling a different part of
the story but these little pieces seem to be irreconcilable.
This is not a challenge, just a curiosity as to how my conservative
brothers and sisters resolve this little quandry. I am doing a book
study on Borg and Crossan's The First Christmas. Trust me, I don't
buy into everything that Borg and Crossan write but often find they
pick up the political this-world emphasis of the Gospels.
Will

Answer: Hi Will,

Thanks for the e-mail.

Your question is good so I'll get right to it. First of all, I'm not
sure if the term "Biblical literalist" means the same to me as it does
to you, and neither am I sure if the term best describes my approach
to Scripture. I don't believe in reading the Bible with a wooden
literalism taking every word at face value. On the other hand, I
don't believe in reading the Bible in a way that puts subjective
interpretation on an equal footing with the intentions of the Biblical
authors. I think that between the two interpretational extremes of
fundamentalism and liberalism is what I would call theological
conservatism.

Perhaps a better term to describe my position is that of a Biblical
realist. As a Biblical realist I follow two golden rules. Rule
number one is I believe the best way to determine the meaning of a
passage is to determine what the Biblical authors intended to convey
to their original audience. This requires that we delve into the
worldviews of the original audience. I think that too often modern
readers squabble over factual details that would have been
unimportant to the original recipients of the Biblical authors'
writings. In our 21st century mindset, something is not true unless
it is a fact. Ancient minds didn't think this way. To the ancient
mind, the story is what mattered. Something could still be true even
if all the "facts" didn't line up in exact detail. This is why I'm
not bothered when people point out to me minor contradictions in
Scripture that deal only with the "facts" and not the theological
intent of the original author. Notice I said minor. Even an ancient
audience wouldn't have believed a story presented as an actual event
if none of the details added up. The second rule I follow is to
interpret Scripture with Scripture, and this includes the
understanding that the Bible is progressive revelation culminating in
the person of Jesus Christ (side note: This is why I abandoned
Christian Zionism, because I discovered that the New Testament authors
didn't interpret the Old Testament in the same way that I was brought
up with).

Having said that, in this case, I don't see a contradiction between
Matthew's account and Luke's account concerning the details you are
describing. In Matthew's account, Matthew doesn't say that Joseph and
Mary were living in Bethlehem at the time Mary conceived. All Matthew
says is that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the
east to see him. Matthew doesn't tell us where Joseph was living when
the angel appeared to him. Luke's account that Mary and Joseph lived
in Nazareth and then traveled to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus
simply gives more detail to what Matthew was describing. I think
it's probable that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem for up to two
years before they fled to Egypt, but, again that was after Jesus was
born, not before. Both accounts agree that Jesus was born in
Bethlehem and that he grew up in Nazareth, even if Luke omits the
detail about the flight to Egypt. I think both accounts fill in the
details that the other leaves out.

Hope this helps,

Aaron

8 comments:

Aaron D. Taylor said...

To keep the discussion going, I went ahead and posted Will's response. This wss a part of an e-mail exchange that took place.

I appreciate your words distinguishing between "fact" and truth.
This is very important to me as well and is key to my interpretative
technique with the BIble. So my question was much more to probe
after the thinking of "wooden literalism", as you put it. I was
assuming that you weren't necessarily one them, but could still speak
for them... which you in fact did by holding out that the two stories
can be harmonized. i disagree - not that I think this is critical
to the story, mind you - but it's Matthew 2:23 that is the key verse
making it very difficult to interpret the story as though Joseph is
returning to his home - Nazareth - that he left previously.

Inconsistencies like this speak to me of later story tellers and
interpreters entering into the equation - i.e. Matthew and Luke; but
still I don't deny that they speak the truth, just their angle and
interpretation of it. my greatest struggle with the "wooden
literalists" is their denial that they are doing any interpreting at
all that there is a static text that says ONE thing. The fact that we
are reading it in English necessarily means there is interpretation
going on and then we have to be open to there being a myriad of
interpretations for one particular text.

Aaron D. Taylor said...

Good point Will. Matthew 2:23 does indeed make it difficult to reconcile the two accounts. The irony is, I think the accounts can be harmonized, but only if you get pretty technical. For example, the statement "And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth" technically doesn't deny that Joseph lived there previously. The problem with this interpretation though is that
it's not the most natural reading of the text.

So, the real question is, how technical should we get with Scripture in attempting to harmonize the facts together? Can we get so technical that we miss the point?

I have to admit that it's very hard for me to accept that Matthew and Luke were simply writing their version of the truth, as if there is no objective reality, only interpretations.

For me, I think the key is evaluating what are the facts that the Apostles themselves thought were important. For example, does any major doctrine of Christianity change if Joseph and Mary did or did not live in Nazareth before Jesus was born? I don't think so. Were the apostles as concerned about this detail as modern day readers might be?
Again, I don't think so.

On the other hand, if Jesus didn't actually die on a cross and rise again three days later, would that make a difference? I think so. This is why I think that on the crucial matters, the Apostles leave no doubt as to what a follower of Christ should believe or not believe. This is why the Biblical authors went into great detail to record the facts surrounding this event, as imperfect as the facts may be. Even in a court of law, if there is 100% synchronization of the facts from more than two or three different witnesses, the judge or the jury is likely to view the case with suspicion.

It may be true that the narrative portions of Scripture need not be interpreted the same way we would read an Associated Press release, but the parts of Scripture where Jesus and the Apostles cleary spell out basic Christian doctrine and practice (like the Sermon on the Mount or Paul's letter to the Romans) I think should be given more weight.

As difficult as this subject is for me, I think the conclusion of the matter is to keep the main thing the main thing, and that is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.

Pete said...

Note to Will: This isn't just a problem with the Christmas story. It's the problem of the Synoptic Gospels. I think that if you look into this matter and study it, you will probably come to the same conclusions that Aaron has. If you want to get technical, there are a lot of places in the Bible where facts don't quite match. However, what Aaron said is something to think about. The story is what really matters.
For example, if I were telling you a story about how a friend had been involved in a major car crash and had gone unconscious at the sight of all of their own blood but somehow survived, and then another person tells you the same story except that the person was unconsious through the whole event, are they lying, or did they maybe mess up the little detail in telling the big story?
Pete

Aaron D. Taylor said...

Good point Pete, but I think Will would agree with you on that. I'm a little uncomfortable with Will's statement that there are a myriad of interpretations for one particular text. This statement seems to say that every interpretation is equally valid. If that were true, then language would be meaningless. I'm not sure if that is what Will is saying. Perhaps Will could clarify this point.

marhaban said...

Christmas story questions...

Do you think the virgin birth story was historically factual or added after the fact because the myth/story was powerful and one that resonated with roman tradition?

If it is factual, how do we resolve that with the family tree going from Joseph back to David? Was this part thrown in for people who did not believe the virgin birth story? Was it just to show that Joseph was worthy to be his adoptive dad? What do you think?

Aaron D. Taylor said...

Pete,

Would you like to answer Marhaban's question? I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Pete said...

Thanks Aaron,
In my view, this is an easy one to explain. It's all about Jewish culture. For Jews(in Biblical times), a geneaology has a lot less to do with genes than it does upbringing. For instance, if a Jewish man's brother died before he had children with his spouse, the brother was obliged to give the woman children (trying not to get too graphic here). Those children would actually have the genes of the man who in the family tree would be called "uncle". The dead man who had not taken part in the creation of the children would actually be credited as their father. This is just an example of how DNA donation is not required in order to belong to a line of a family.
So, no, this part was not thrown in for people who don't believe the virgin part. Neither was it to show that Joseph was worthy to be called the father of Jesus. No doubt Joseph was NOT worthy of this just as Mary was NOT worthy of being called Jesus's mother. No human could ever be worthy of such a thing. Therefore, the reason that Joseph is mentioned as a descendant of David, is fulfillment of God's promise to David as well as prophecy. For it is through Joseph that Jesus would be listed as a descendant of David, whether Mary was herself a descendant of David or not ( that's a different ball of wax that I'm not really educated enough to attempt to tackle).
Do I think that the virgin birth is factual? I think that it is accurate and real. I would not be surprised to find small "factual" errors in the details of the story considering that it was written after the fact. Most scholars agree that the earliest these stories were put to paper is about 40 years after they happened. I'm sure that if you ask your mother or father about the day you were born and the whole story separately, you would get two very accurate and similar stories, but there may be some small discrepancies. In America, a land run by courts filled with technical terms about what truth is, many would say that makes the stories a lie. I would disagree.
I doubt that the story was made up to appeal to Romans, since the whole life story of Jesus and his disciples, was very challenging to the Roman empire in its time. So if it would have been added, it would have been after Rome had changed and accepted Christianity, which is well after the manuscripts of Matthew and Luke were written. There are very few who would hold to that conspiracy theory as it has very little to stand on if any at all.
So to answer your questions in order:
1. It is accurate and true. Possible(not necessary) minor discrepancies.
2.No it was not added, but it was written many years after it happened.
3.The lineage of Joseph shows the ancestry of Jesus....DNA donor or not.
4.No, this was not thrown in for people who do not believe in the virgin birth. It was to show the Jewish people that God made good on his promise.
5. Neither Joseph nor Mary were worthy, they were simply favored and chosen. No human is worthy of......anything.
6. I think that the Christmas story is great, and that just as the rest of the Bible, takes some faith. I can't factually prove to you that it happened that way. Faith is required for all beliefs, whether Christian, atheist, or Santa Claus. I choose to put my faith in God's Word and try and understand any discrepancies that there may be. You don't have to agree ( but I'm hoping you do ).

Anyway, I hope that helps. If not, sorry for wasting your time. I had fun trying to explain it.
Pete
P.S. If I have presented some errors, feel free to correct me Aaron or anyone.

marhaban said...

Pete, Thanks for the response.