What does Newsweek Know About Jesus?

For its Dec. 10, 2012 edition, Newsweek featured a story, "What Do We Really Know About Jesus?" A better title might have been, "What does Newsweek know about Jesus?" The gist of the article is that the gospels are full of historical errors; yet nevertheless, "for those with a broader vision, a more generous appreciation of literature, and a fuller sense of theological meaning, the story of the Christ-child and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen, in the lives of those who believe that stories such as these can convey a greater truth."

In other words, it's a lie, but one whose story can affect the readers in a positive fashion. (The same might be said to apply to Gone With the Wind, The Hobbit, or any other piece of fiction.)

Let's take a brief look at what the article considers some of the "historical inaccuracies" of the Christmas story:

NEWSWEEK: ...they [the gospel writers] both want to relate Jesus to the ancestral line of the Jewish patriarchs, but neither of them has access to the kind of reliable data they need for the task."

Yet genealogical records were maintained. The Jewish historian Josephus notes that precise records were kept of those who were descended from priests; and that even from Egypt and Babylonia "they send to Jerusalem lists in writing of all their ancestors, even the most ancient of them, along with the names of those who can testify to the facts." ("Against Apion" 1.7)

But in the archives there were still kept written lists of those who were descended from [pure] Hebrew families and those who were descended from converts... as well as all those of mixed blood who had departed with them from Egypt. (Eusebius, Eccelsiastical History, 7.13, quoting from a letter of Sextus Julius Africanus)

NEWSWEEK: The whole world? Luke must mean "the whole Roman Empire." But even that cannot be right, historically. We have good documentation about the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there never was a census of his entire empire.

Augustus took a number of censuses of Roman citizens, however.

And an inscription in Eastern Turkey refers to "oaths sworn by all the people in the land at the altars of Augustus in the temples of Augustus in the various districts", in 3 B. C. Moses of Khoren, an Armenian historian of the early 5th century, in speaking of the Christmas census, says that at the same time the Romans placed "the image of Augustus Caesar in every temple". (Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan, Jerry Vardaman and Edwin Yamauchi, eds. Eisenbrauns: 1989, pp. 88-90)

Josephus notes that the Pharisees (or a sect of the Pharisees) shortly before Herod's death, would not take the oath to Caesar: "Accordingly, when all the people of the Jews gave assurances of their good will to Caesar, and to the King's government, these very men did not swear, being above six thousand..." [Josephus, "Antiquities", Book XVII, Chapter 2, paragraph 4)

Orosius, a fifth-century author, wrote:

"[Augustus] ordered that a census be taken of each province everywhere and that all men be enrolled. So at that time, Christ was born and was entered on the Roman census list as soon as he was born. This is the earliest and most famous public acknowledgment which marked Caesar as the first of all men and the Romans as lords of the world ... " (Orosius, Adv. Pag. VI.22.7, VII.2.16; trans. by De ferrari, R.J. The Fathers of the Church, Washington, D.C.: Catholic U. Press, 1964), vol. 50, p. 281, 287.)

Augustus himself may refer to this in his Res Gestae:

"While I was administering my thirteenth consulship [2 B.C.] the senate and the equestrian order and the entire Roman people gave me the title Father of my Country" (Res Gestae 35)

(Herod is customarily thought to have died in 4 B.C., because Josephus says there was an eclipse of the moon just before he died, which fits that year. But there were eclipses and partial eclipses in other years right up to 1 B.C.)

NEWSWEEK: Let alone one in which people had to register in their ancestral home. . . Is everyone in the entire Roman Empire returning to their ancestral home from a thousand years earlier? Imagine the massive migrations for this census.

Was this necessarily a custom in the entire empire? Or only in certain provinces? In any event, a papyrus fragment from Egypt circa 104 A.D. records a similar instruction:

Gaius Vibius Maximus, Prefect of Egypt, says: since the enrollment by household is at hand, it is necessary for all who for any reason are outside their nomes [districts] to return to their domestic hearths, that they may also accomplish the customary dispensation of enrollment and continue steadfastly in the husbandry that belongs to them." (cited in Deissman, Light from the Ancient East, pp. 270-271)

NEWSWEEK: This is not a story based on historical fact. It is a narrative designed to show how Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem -- whence the Messiah was to come -- when everyone knew in fact that he came from Nazareth.

If I were manufacturing "facts" to demonstrate that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, why would I be so inept as to pin it to a census throughout the whole Roman world? Everyone would know whether or not this census had taken place, and could easily refute it. Instead, why not just invent a personal reason for Joseph and Mary be in Bethlehem -- something that no one would be able to check or refute? (Were the gospel writers -- supposedly dedicated fakers -- really that blatantly incompetent?)

NEWSWEEK: In Matthew, for example, the wise men follow the star to Bethlehem, where it stops over the house where Jesus is . . . How is it that a star -- or any celestial body -- can lead anyone to a particular town? And how can it then stop over a particular house?

Because of the prophecy in Numbers (24.17) it was often believed that a star would herald the messiah:

R. Shimon ben Yohai taught: My master Akiva used to explain, "A star shall rise out of Jacob" -- this means Kozba [I. E., Bar Kokhba, "son of a star", the leader of the second Jewish revolt]... when R. Akiva saw Bar Kozba [his name changed after he failed, to "son of a lie"], he said, "This is King Messiah!" (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 68d)
In the sixty-sixth, King Messiah will reveal himself in the land of Galilee, and a star on the east side will swallow up seven stars from the north side. And a flame of dark fire will be suspended in heaven for sixty days... (Zohar, 1.119a)

Associating a star with the advent of the messiah was not an invention of the gospel writers; it was a popular expectation. (As for "how"-- how was a pillar of fire supposed to lead Israel through Sinai?)

NEWSWEEK: The accounts of Jesus' life in the New Testament have never been called "histories"; instead, they have always been known as -- "Gospels -- that is "proclamations of the good news." These are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts.

Doublethink? Newspeak? "Lies are truth"?

Odd; the gospel writers did not think they were writing fiction:

We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1.16)

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us (I. John 1.3)

For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard. (Acts 4.20)

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