December 17, 2004
Meacham on the (non)virgin birthBy James Arlandson
During this Christmas season and the aftermath of the election in which devout Christians played a large role, Jon Meacham, managing editor at Newsweek, writes an analysis of the birth of Christ. Not surprisingly, the article is seriously confused and flawed. It does not address the underlying assumptions that prejudice his interpretation of facts and his conclusions.
This critique of Meacham touches on complicated areas, like the (im)probability of miracles, which cannot be examined more thoroughly here, but it at least provides an expos� of Meacham's prejudices.
His confusion and hidden assumptions can be clarified, as it were, in three syllogisms, which boil down to doubts about miracles and, more importantly, about the trustworthiness of the four Gospels, specifically about the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which recount the Nativity of Christ. The doubts about miracles and the reliability of the texts are linked. If miracles are highly improbable, then all texts that assume miracles are highly unreliable. We tackle the unreliability of the Gospel texts first.
Meacham says that the 'Nativity narratives are the subject of scholarly debate over their historical accuracy' (p. 1) He then pits literalists and the American public against critical faith and scholarship (p. 1), implying that unthinking commoners are fools. Then, appearing as an objective journalist (but he is not), he finally takes a middle ground: 'If we dissect the stories with care, we can see that the Nativity sage is neither fully fanciful nor factually accurate' . . . (p. 2). We should have no doubt about which side he favors. More revealingly, he pairs together Mel Gibson's film the Passion of the Christ with Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, as if two are equally historical or equally fictional.
So why did Matthew and Luke take flights of fancy in their half—accurate Nativity 'saga'? One reason, according to Robert J. Miller, to whom Meacham refers (p. 2), is to respond to supernatural birth stories of pagan heroes like Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus. Matthew and Luke borrow from these themes in 'literary efforts' (as opposed to matter—of—fact historical accounts) to depict Jesus as divine. Second, Matthew and Luke must account for Jesus's humiliating death on Golgotha, so the human figure must be made divine from his birth to his resurrection (though he historically is not), and both the beginning and the end of his life must be part of God's plan. Third, the two Gospelists strove to convince Jews and gentiles of the divinity of Christ and to control rival factions that would say something else, and this convincing and control includes a miraculous birth as the promised Messiah for the Jews, thus fulfilling Bible prophecy, and as a son of God for the pagans. In short, since the two Gospels have a strong point of view or a purpose for being written, they are historically unreliable and inaccurate. Meacham's assumption can be boiled down to this syllogism:
(1) All ancient texts with a strong point of view are historically inaccurate and unreliable.
Though valid, is the logic sound? No, because one must assume that the first premise is true, though Meacham believes that he has come up with evidence to support it. However, let us assume for the sake of argument that Matthew and Luke write from the three points of view that Meacham outlines, summarized above. Surely this does mean that the two authors are completely unreliable and inaccurate. This is a criterion that is too high, for it is exceptionally rare to find any text in the ancient world that does not have a strong point of view—not to mention a text today.
For example, Thucydides, the Fifth Century B.C. historian of the Peloponnesian War, is considered the Dean of historians because he achieves a high—level of objectivity. But even he has a point of view, which becomes clear as his account unfolds. Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars has a strong point of view, but that does not mean that his book is worthless historically. It is filled with facts that historians need to fill out the picture of his Gallic campaigns—though his account must be used with caution. Each ancient text, therefore, ranging from the Gospels to tendentious ancient historians, must be studied in its own right, and the ancient texts should not to be doubted out of hand simply because they have a strong point of view.
Furthermore, Meacham appears to assume that the Gospels cannot be trusted if they do not have independent historical verification. For example, he casts doubt on the historicity of Matthew's account of Herod's slaughter of male babies under two years old in Bethlehem because 'history' does not record it. Therefore, the Gospel of Matthew is unhistorical. (Bethlehem was a small village, so how many male babies could it have so that 'history' would bother to record the slaughter?) Using liberal scholar Raymond Brown as a reference, Meacham challenges Luke's account that Augustus imposed a census on the Roman world so that taxes could be collected. 'History' does not confirm it. Therefore, the Gospel of Luke is unhistorical. (Did all records in the Roman world survive? Are there no historical gaps? Luke could have 'contrived' an easier motive to get the Holy Family to Bethlehem than a worldwide census and tax). Meacham assumes the anti—historicity of Matthew and Luke and argues from that shaky assumption.
Next, Meacham takes another tack throughout his article to show the Gospels are unreliable. He uses parallelism in ancient texts to demonstrate that the Gospels cannot be trusted. For example, he refers to Suetonius' biography of Caesar Augustus (p. 6) and Virgil's Fourth Eclogue (p. 7), both of which describe miraculous births. Meacham's point, which he has absorbed from scholars, is that if stories of miraculous births are circulating around the Greco—Roman world, then how do we know that this miracle in the Gospels is true? The Gospel miracle gets lost in a sea of uncritical hagiographies, which fuse together in a broken, off—key symphony. Again, Meacham's argument can be boiled down thus:
(4) All ancient texts narrating miraculous births are equally unreliable.
The problem, as before, lies in the first premise. Does each text have independent verification? It will be argued in syllogism (7)—(9) that the two Gospels have such verification, like a large manuscript tradition. But more importantly, circumstantial evidence (circumstantial to us today, but not to the eyewitness disciples) suggests that something happened back then after Christ's crucifixion to spark a worldwide revolution, which one does not find in Augustus' life and death, namely a verifiable resurrection. The emperor used raw power and military might to spread his influence; the disciples used simple preaching.
Were the disciples deliberately lying about the resurrection? The spirit of the Gospels says no. They were surprised at the crucifixion, baffled and confused. So were they mass—hallucinating? Not likely. The resurrection as a confirmation of other miracles has been argued more thoroughly, here, so we do not need to rehash it. Nevertheless, even if one does not go as far as believing in a virgin birth or a resurrection, one can still distinguish differences between texts. Not all texts are equally unreliable.
Meacham seems to have an idea in the back of his head about the four Gospels, especially Matthew and Luke and their birth narratives. He refers to it in these words: 'To many minds conditioned by the Enlightenment, shaped by science and all too aware of the Crusades and corruptions of the church, Christmas is a fairy tale' (p. 2). In other words, his mind is skeptical of miracles because of anti—religious bigotry that played out in the Age of Enlightenment and because of the sins of the church. Meacham is right about this. Many doubt because they have seen abuse and corruption or have themselves been abused by the humans in the church—their reasoning is based on emotion. Beyond emotion, though, the Enlightenment, especially David Hume, has cast doubt on miraculous events. Reflecting this doubt, Meacham's unspoken argument can be summarized in this syllogism:
(7) All miracles are highly improbable.
This syllogism reveals the heart of the issue. Meacham fluctuates between doubt and belief, and his article reflects his zigzagging and confusion.
It is revealing of the hyper—skeptic's dilemma that he cannot correctly claim that all miracles are impossible, because that would beg the question. It already assumes that miracles cannot happen, yet that is what is under investigation. Before they settle on this absolutist claim, moreover, they have to investigate the entire universe to rule out all miracles. Thus, wise skeptics say that miracles are highly improbable, and in this they are right. But at least the door to miracles is left ajar, if only a little.
This syllogism has every virtue except usefulness and a knockdown punch. Of course all miracles are highly improbable (the first premise); that is their very nature. In contrast, millions of babies are conceived and born by natural means, and each physical process yields a highly probable outcome. But do highly improbable events happen? Someone wins the lottery, though his number or any number may not win on that draw. The lottery officials draw again until someone wins. And, as C. S. Lewis ingeniously reminds us in his book Miracles, your own birth is highly improbable—not the science of it—but your existence, when you consider how many unions of your ancestors it took to come down the lineage to produce you. People have free will, and all it would have taken for your non—existence is one of the couples in your family tree to have gone their separate ways, and you would not now exist. How does one calculate the probability of free will? Yet here you are. Therefore, highly improbable events and outcomes cannot be used against miracles, so the first two premises leave the door open to miracles.
However, the virgin birth still has a unique quality about it; it is rare beyond calculation, so it may be argued that it has such a high degree of improbability built into it that one is safe not to believe it—so Meacham and enlightened scholars argue. But this is where a confluence of events must be used to reduce the improbability a bit.
First, it is beyond dispute that the thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament have produced a reliable text. The multitude of manuscripts can be cross—checked, and spurious additions and scribal errors can be eliminated. So the New Testament documents are not as unreliable as Meacham assumes. And we have already concluded from our analysis of the first syllogism that ancient texts with a strong point of view cannot be dismissed out of hand as inventions and fictions.
Second, Meacham is correct when he refers to the resurrection of Christ as guiding the church, though incorrect to imply that the church worked backwards from there and invented the virgin birth (p. 2). The resurrection confirms that the virgin birth did occur, not that it was invented from unreliable sources in the earliest church (p. 2). If one unique miracle like a resurrection can occur, why not a virgin birth or walking on water? As noted, volumes have been written on the historicity of the resurrection—and this opens the door to other miracles.
Third, miracles happen today, despite skepticism. Plenty of scientific accounts confirm this. People who once had various diseases no longer do, as a direct result of prayer. Again, the door to miracles is therefore open.
Finally, adhering to miracles of long ago does require faith, whereas our knowledge of natural events like childbirth does not. There is a gap between our belief and our knowledge of past events 2000 years ago, even though the first disciples claim they saw Jesus' miracles with their own eyes. Today, this requires a leap of faith, but not a blind leap. The confluence of the first three events provides the ledge and makes visible the other side, before one takes the leap.
Meacham's article is confused and biased in favor of the liberal take on Biblical scholarship. But he gives the appearance of being a 'searcher,' and this adds an endearing quality to the article. After all, strong convictions and belief seem dogmatic and therefore unattractive, fundamentalist. But one does not need to be a fundamentalist (Meacham's code word is 'literalist,' some of whom burned Bibles over a translation of one word, p. 5) to believe in the virgin birth or in the reliability of the Gospels.
Religious belief is not irrational—great intellects like Augustine, Aquinas, Christine de Pizan, and Kierkegaard believed. Meacham was right to quote Shakespeare's play Hamlet. The title character tells his friend Horatio: 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy' (1.5.187—88). Existence is not strictly and only material; there are other—worldly beings and occurrences.
Real miracles can and do happen. Therefore, it is not outlandish or unenlightened to believe in the virgin birth—the door of the Wardrobe in Lewis's first Narnia chronicle is open.
Jim Arlandson (PhD) teaches introductory philosophy and world religions at a college in southern California. He has written a book, Woman, Class, and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson 1997).