Last Saturday, the ‘Good Weekend’ magazine published by the Sydney Morning Herald (and the Melbourne Age?), ran an article by Fenella Souter entitled “Truth, Lies and Santa Claus: Exploding the Myths of Christmas” (not available online).
It was highly sceptical towards the narratives surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus recorded in the Bible.
Retired Bishop Paul Barnett, PhD, lecturer in Ancient History at Macquarie University, and Visiting Professor, Regent College, Vancouver, a published specialist in the field of New Testament history, has already responded on his own website, and I commend his article to you.
You can download a much better formatted 2 page PDF version of his article courtesy of the Anglican Church League here.
But I had a few additional beefs with Fenella Souter’s article…
Sure, she pointed out some issues with later Christmas traditions, e.g. Mary riding on a donkey, the fact that Dec 25 seems to have been chosen as the date for Christmas celebrations a few hundred years later, Mary’s perpetual virginity and immaculate conception. But these are not in the Bible and, as such, raise no issues with the Bible’s truthfulness. Biblical Christians should have no trouble rejecting these beliefs as false or irrelevant as well.
But here are some of Souter’s mistakes or undocumented claims…
1. She says it’s a surprise “how many believers, eminent biblical scholars have struggled with the logic and contradictions of this simple Christian staple, so taken for granted”.
However she does not name a single such scholar at this point of the article (and only three in total later on, none of whom have qualifications in ancient history, as we shall see).
How can any of her readers check whether these unnamed scholars really say what Souter claims in her sweeping statement, and if so, whether their arguments stand up to scrutiny?
2. In noting the different features of the birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, she says Luke has Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem “with a heavily pregnant Mary on a donkey”.
Luke says no such thing at all. There is no mention of a donkey in their journey to Bethlehem or anywhere else in the birth narratives of Luke’s Gospel. Souter is wrong.
3. She also claims Luke has “Mary and Joseph travelling to the stable in Bethlehem”. Once again, she is incorrect, since Luke nowhere mentions a stable (and nor does Matthew).
(The stable is a presumption of others later, presumably on the basis that since a manger [or food trough] is mentioned as the place the baby was laid, then it must have been in a stable out the back of the inn (also mentioned). However, anyone familiar with farming knows that there can be food troughs both indoors and outdoors, and since it was warm enough for the shepherds to be living in the fields nearby keeping watch over the flocks at night (Luke 2:8), then it is not totally inconceivable that Jesus spent his first night with his parents outdoors under the stars.)
But the big point is that Luke never says anything about stable. Once again Souter was wrong to say otherwise.
4. Souter claims “a virgin birth would have been a far less preposterous idea then. The ancient pantheon bristles with them.” Oh yes?
She then claims others greats said to have been conceived without sex include the Hindu god Krishna, Buddha, Mithra (sun god of Persia, from 600BC, who allegedly had many other parallels with Jesus, including crucifixion and resurrection to atone for sins); with Pythagoras and Plato retrospectively given supernatural arrivals. She does not supply any references to the ancient texts which supposedly make these claims about these characters.
What many readers may not realise is that the supposed parallels are not nearly as close as is often claimed. Just do some google research – check several articles – and you will see the alleged parallels between Jesus and Mithra are pathetically weak. In some cases, where parallels do arise, the parallel in the pagan religious document appears to post-date the Gospel writings. (In other words, authors writing about some of these other characters many have pinched ideas from the Gospels that were beginning to circulate.)
The best thing to do when someone claims this is to ask them to please be specific with references to primary documents from ancient times, about other human characters from history which pre-date the Gospel accounts of Jesus, and were said to be born of a virgin, miraculously conceived by a deity, and who also healed the sick and were executed to be resurrected again.
I very much doubt you will get a flood of answers!
5. Souter quotes “British novelist and historian Marina Wariner” for her explanation that the early Christian scholar Origen said God foreshadowed the Incarnation of his Son with a sequence of beliefs and creed and symbols (which she at least implies includes those found in pagan religions too) that made it easier to accept.
My point here is not to discuss what Wariner says Origen said. My point is to tell you that Wariner has no qualifications at all in history that I can discover.
Her own website confirms that she has an MA in Modern Languages (French and Italian) from Oxford. That is her only graduate qualification I could see mentioned. Wariner is a writer. She is also a Professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at Essex University. Certainly she has been given multiple honorary doctorates, but as far as I can see they tend to be DLitts. Nothing is mentioned about the field of history.
So why is Souter quoting her as an authority in the area of ancient history?
6. One scholar Souter quotes is a Richard Trexler. He was actually an historian, a Professor of History at Binghamton University, New York. But his area of specialty was Renaissance Italy, especially Florence, not ancient middle eastern history. Likewise the only other scholar cited by Souther is John Shelby Spong, who trades on his denial as an episcopal bishop of all the fundamental tennets of Christianity. To my knowledge, Spong has no qualifications in the field of ancient history.
Why does Souter not quote any specialist ancient historians of the Middle East or of its surrounding areas and religions?
There is no doubt that qualified scholars differ in their historical judgments about the reliability of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. There are some puzzles like reconciling parts of the geneaology each provides for Jesus.
However Souter’s own bias is obvious from sentences such as this one describing Christian believers as “people accustomed to suspending disbelief, something of a prerequisite when reading the Bible”.
Paul Barnett has shown how Souter glosses over the similarities between Matthew and Luke, as well as some briefer incidental corroborating material in other NT sources such as Paul, John and Peter’s writings.
I add that in judging the gospel birth narratives as lacking credibility, Souter’s article also fails by making factual errors and unsubstantiated assertions, while citing as experts scholars who have no qualifications in the primary relevant field of ancient history.