A site affiliated with the BBC recently ran a story by Spencer Mizen on the historicity of a traditional Christian view of Jesus’ childhood. It repeats a lot of claims that are frequently made. I’ll point those who are interested to my collection of resources on Christmas issues. To Mizen’s credit, he often cites Ben Witherington’s defense of a traditional Christian perspective. But Witherington, at least in what Mizen quotes, just repeats common observations that don’t go into enough depth. Christians, especially scholars like Witherington, never should have been so focused on such insignificant arguments to begin with, and it’s even worse when they keep repeating those arguments each year. I’ll cite one example to illustrate the problematic nature of how the issues are approached by both Mizen and Witherington:
Matthew and Luke both tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and that his mother, Mary, was a virgin when she gave birth. But these are the only episodes of the nativity story in which the two accounts converge….
For some academics, the discrepancies between Luke and Matthew’s accounts cast further doubt on the nativity’s historical credibility, but not everyone agrees. “If the evangelists were going to make up a story about the origins of Jesus, and keep their story straight, you would expect their stories not to differ in detail,” argues Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. “The fact that they do, suggests we are dealing with two independent witnesses talking about the same events, with the same core substance affirmed by both.”
There’s some truth to Witherington’s response, but the core substance that Matthew and Luke have in common is far larger than Mizen suggests. Christians seldom make that point, and it’s even rarer for them to make the point as persuasively as they should. See my article here that discusses forty examples of agreements between Matthew and Luke. The number of agreements is significant, but so is the nature of the agreements, as I discussed in another article:
Matthew and Luke agree about Jesus’ childhood in ways that meet the criterion of embarrassment. They agree in exercising restraint in contexts in which it would have benefited them to have not been so restrained. They agree on unusual details that couldn’t have been anticipated by Old Testament Messianic expectations, the culture of their day, or some other such source. They agree on points that add coherence to what we read in Paul, Mark, and other early sources.
Anybody who’s interested in getting more information about these issues can read the two articles I’ve linked above. Even conservative Christian scholars typically cite less than half the agreements between Matthew and Luke that they could mention, often citing numbers as small as eight or ten, if even that many. The nature of the agreements is typically underestimated as well. Mizen bears more responsibility than Witherington for the problems with the article I’m responding to. But we wouldn’t be getting so many articles like that if Christians were putting more effort into arguing as they should on these issues.