Suppose you were to read an overall negative article about a man who outwardly appeared to be respectable—but then, suppose you found out that, unbeknownst to the readers of the article, it was actually penned by his ex-wife? Wouldn’t that make you at least a little suspicious about the article’s contents?
So it is with Newsweek’s cover story on Jesus (Dec. 17), entitled, “The Myths of Jesus.” They show a Nativity scene with bubble quotes asking these questions: “Who Was Jesus?” “How Many Wise Men Were There?” “Did He Have a Wife?” “In a Manger or a Cave?” “Why Bethlehem?” Just in time for Christmas, they choose to stir up doubt.
What the article doesn’t tell you is much about the author’s (Dr. Bart D. Ehrman) own background. Newsweek mentions him as the author of “Did Jesus Exist?” and “Jesus Interrupted.” But he formerly professed to be an evangelical Christian, who writes best-selling books that purport to debunk the reliability of the New Testament, such as “Forged,” which postulates that much of the New Testament was forged (a charge easily dismissed).
I’m not saying that Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, a respected scholar and professor of religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, can’t be fair and balanced per se. But the average reader of Newsweek isn’t told about his biased perspective, nor is it hinted. As could be expected, knowing Dr. Ehrman’s life work, the article overall leads one to doubt the historical veracity of the Gospels, at least when it comes to the birth narratives.
After writing about a highly suspicious late document about Jesus (c. A.D. 300+)—a document that conservative and liberal scholars would agree is totally questionable—he asks, “Are the stories about Jesus’ birth in the New Testament any less unbelievable?” (p. 27).
Of the census in Luke 2 (the one called by Caesar Augustus where “all the world should be taxed”), Ehrman writes, “This is not a story based on historical fact.” (p. 28).
Yet Dr. Paul L. Maier of Western Michigan University once told me in a television interview: “When Augustus died, he had two bronze plaques erected in front of his mausoleum in Rome in which he listed the 36 things for which he most wanted to be remembered. Point No. 8: ‘I took a census of the Empire three times.’”
Ehrman also mentions the common problem of the two seemingly contradictory genealogies of Jesus (Matthew 1 vs. Luke 3). It’s difficult, but not insurmountable. The short answer is that Matthew tells the nativity story from Joseph’s perspective and does the same with the genealogy. Luke tells Mary’s story and includes the annunciation and the Magnificat (Mary’s song). The genealogy in Luke is believed to be that of Mary.
Generally, the Jews did not list women in the genealogies. In their “Biblical Encyclopedia,” McClintock and Strong observe that when the blood of the grandfather passed to a grandson through a daughter, the name of the daughter was omitted and the daughter’s husband was counted as the son of the grandfather. In Matthew 1:16, Jacob is the father of Joseph. Yet in Luke 3:23, Eli (the father of Mary) is listed as the father of Joseph.
The answers to the types of issues Ehrman raises in Newsweek can be answered in standard books like the “Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties” by the late Dr. Gleason Archer.
The bigger issue Ehrman raises is the view that the Gospels may be fine at communicating religious notions, but don’t look to them for historical reliability. Of the Gospels in general, Ehrman states: “These are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts.” (p. 28). This seems to separate “religious truths” from “historical facts.” But Christianity is based on historical facts.
Ehrman asserts, “… these gospel sources, whatever else they are, are not historically reliable descriptions of what really happened when Jesus was born.” (p. 28).
A friend of mine is an up-and-coming Jesus scholar named Mike Licona, theology professor at Houston Baptist University. Dr. Licona has debated Dr. Ehrman on occasion. I asked Dr. Licona for a few statements about the historical reliability of the Gospels.
He emailed me: “Ehrman’s statement that the Gospels are meant to declare religious truths rather than historical facts is overly simplistic and misleading. Luke 1:1-4 and John 21:24 (cf. 1 John 1:1-3) dispel such a position. One may reject what the Gospels report. But to say the authors did not intend to declare historical facts is terribly naive.”
Licona also notes, “This is not to say that everything the Gospels reported was meant to be interpreted in a historical sense. Their authors employed the literary conventions of their day just as modern biographers employ those of today. But Ehrman goes too far, and his understanding of ancient biography appears misguided.”
There are details about the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus that could never be verified by historians. (How could a historian prove a birth by a virgin?) But there are many details that can be verified, and we see the Gospels proving reliable time and again.
Not to confuse Easter with Christmas, but if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead—in actual history (if that’s a “religious truth,” but not an “historical fact”)—then Christianity is bogus and ought to be explicitly abandoned. But Jesus did walk out of that tomb, and that’s why 2,000 years later, a major news magazine ran yet another cover story about Him, albeit a largely negative one.