Newsweek vs. The New Testament
- Tuesday, December 14, 2004
With December 25 fast approaching, both TIME and Newsweek are out with special Christmas editions, complete with cover stories featuring beautiful works of Christmas art and articles addressing the nativity narratives from the New Testament. Unfortunately, the content of the articles hardly corresponds to the classical presentations found in the cover artwork. To the contrary--both articles cast doubt upon the historicity of the Christmas story.
Of the two, the Newsweek article is more problematic by far. TIME's article, "Secrets of the Nativity," is written by reporter David Van Biema, a skilled writer who often covers religious stories for the magazine. Even as the article opens with questions about the identity of the wise men, the nature of the star, and whether or not Jesus was born in Nazareth, rather than Bethleham. Van Biema goes on to report: "In the debates over the literal truth of the Gospels, just about everyone acknowledges that major conclusions about Jesus' life are not based on forensic clues. There is no specific physical evidence for the key points of the story."
Van Biema points to supposed divergences between the narratives found in Matthew and Luke. His article cites liberal scholars such as Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University and James Schaberg of the University of Detroit Mercy, with inadequate corresponding voices from conservative scholarship. Van Biema does cite Professor Paul L. Maier of Western Michigan University, who rejects the idea that the gospels cannot be harmonized. "Radical New Testament critics say it's a hopeless jumble," Maier notes. "I myself do not think it's impossible to harmonize them."
The TIME article raises serious questions about the Virgin Birth, in terms of both its historicity and its meaning. Schaberg, identified as "an iconoclastic feminist critic," argues that the virgin birth is about transmuting "a ritually taboo pregnancy into an occasion of glory in the birth of the Holy Child." In other words, there was no Virgin Birth, and it was simply an invention of the early church.
Throughout the article, Van Biema raises issues concerning the historical truthfulness of the New Testament birth narratives. Lurking in the background of this article is the late Raymond Brown, a Catholic scholar whose scholarly investigation of the birth narratives led him to deny the historicity of many scriptural claims. In Brown's view, the historicity of the biblical accounts was simply "unresolved."
In the end, Van Biema assumes that Christians will continue to look to the New Testament accounts for the meaning of Christmas. "Most Christmas worshippers, of course, are not currently focusing tightly on the Gospels' backstory. In this holiday season, they will be less interested in analyzing Matthew's message than in celebrating it, less concerned about parsing Luke's sentiments than in singing them."
This is mere sentimentality, of course, for if the New Testament accounts are not historically truthful, there is no basis for celebrating Christmas in the first place. If we cannot trust the New Testament to communicate truthfully, accurately, and faithfully what actually happened in the birth and infancy of Jesus, we have no basis for preaching the gospel--or telling anyone anything about Jesus Christ, for that matter.
But, if TIME's article raises questions about the historical truthfulness of the New Testament, Newsweek goes on to deny many essential biblical truth claims out of hand.
Attacking Birth of Jesus
In "The Birth of Jesus," writer Jon Meacham goes right to the heart of the matter, arguing that the infancy and birth narratives were simply invented by the early church in order to answer awkward questions and develop a fully-orbed theology and understanding of Jesus. He argues that "the Nativity narratives are the subject of ongoing scholarly debate over their historical accuracy" and that "almost nothing in Luke's stories stands up to close historical scrutiny."
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