A Coincidentally Bad Argument for the Nativity


With the early successes of my tongue-in-cheek War on Christmas, it’s time to open up another front. I recently came across an article defending the Nativity’s historicity via a friend on Facebook. I figure, I already dealt with the Pope, so another apologetic effort for the Nativity is work the while. This comes from J.W. Wartick, a grad student in apologetics at Biola University according to his info page, so that probably makes him a better read on defenses of the faith than the Pope. So let me take a look at what he proposes here that makes the stories of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels more historical than fiction.

First, J.W. brings up a method that seems to have only been recently resurrected by Christian philosopher Timothy McGrew called unintentional coincidences. Very basically, if two accounts are independent but the details of one fill in the gaps of another, than increases the historical veracity. The example is given from Jesus’ exchange with Pilate between Luke and John; in Luke Jesus, when asked if he is a king, says “if you say so”, but Pilate finds nothing wrong with him, criminally speaking. But Pilate is supposed to crush anyone that declares themselves king in Caesar’s lands. In John’s version, Jesus explains his kingdom isn’t earthly, so Pilate finds nothing criminal in him being called a king. But John doesn’t have the accusation by the Jews of him being called king. Thus, the two Gospels fill in their gaps. Hopefully that gives an idea of how unintentional coincidences are supposed to work.

But why does this make a story more likely historical? The logic of that claim is not spelled out, though it seems premised on two sources not be dependent on each other or some common source. But in reality, that is how bad history is done. A historian cannot just take details from one version of events, add them to another, and the synthesized version be “the truth”. The details from each version of events need their own demonstration of their validity; if you take one bad source of a story but combine it with another bad one, you don’t get historical gold. Take the Roswell incident, for example. There has been plenty of tales told about that with people adding details together. One person talks of mysterious, unearthly materials, another of the bodies, another of the Men in Black, add that all together and you can get a coherent story of what happened in 1947 along with an elaborate cover-up. But the problem is that that story was due to bad reporting and imagination mixing with reality. Even with 100 bad reports of what happened at Roswell, you won’t get anywhere near what happened: no aliens, but instead some government high-altitude balloons for espionage purposes in Project Mogul.

Moreover, the assumption needed for what is going on is independence between Gospels. However, J.W.’s example undermines things because a considerable amount of scholarship says that the Gospel of John is dependent on the Gospel of Luke (1). But this discussion is further undermined by considering the other and older stories of the same incident. In Mark 15, Jesus similarly answers Pilate’s question about Jesus being a king, but Jesus neither explains what this means to Pilate as in John, nor does Pilate find no guilt in Jesus as in Luke. Similarly, there isn’t anything of the sort in Matthew’s version. But we do know that Luke used Mark (and possible Matthew, though that is not a consensus view). What it looks like then is the story is having the gaps filled in with later tellings of the story; plot holes from one version are filled in by another. Thus Luke explains why Pilate would have put Jesus in the situation where he could have been released (though why he needed permission from a crowd is unclear). In John, Pilate is told of the various crimes Jesus is supposed to have done (18:29-30), so it is there that Pilate is supposed to have heard about how Jesus was called a king, which assumes either his predecessor’s material or simply that the reader also knows Jesus is claimed King of the Jews (John 12:13) and just doesn’t repeat it again at this point of the story. There is nothing miraculous here.

In reality, the addition of more details to fill in a story is not something found in history, but it is a part of folklore. The more a story is told, details are attached and narrative problems are resolved (2). Sometimes those fixes introduce new plot holes, sometimes it assumes something from the background knowledge of the audience. Either way, it’s not how history is done. That’s why historians want documents and sources as close the events as possible, because it them becomes nearly impossible to separate fictional additions from the true core. So if this method is going to be used for the Nativity, it doesn’t have much hope.

Nonetheless, let’s look at the arguments J.W. has, including some not using the unintentional coincidences method.

First up is Joseph. In Luke, we get very little about how Joseph dealt with having Mary come to be pregnant without his, um, help. Nothing is said of his discomfiture or misgivings about Mary. In Matthew, Joseph considers leaving the marriage but is talked out of it by an angel. Matthew fills in a gap for Luke, thus unintentional coincidence. Here at least we don’t have the problem of Matthew knowing Luke (though the reverse is possible), so this example would actually be better than the one J.W. cited in his post about unintentional coincidences. However, Luke basically says nothing about Joseph, and he doesn’t even exist outside the first two chapters of Luke. Joseph literally does nothing except be a descendant of David and go to Bethlehem for a census. But again, citing one possible fiction to fill in the plot hole of another doesn’t make it more true. By that logic, the BBC TV show from two years ago that dramatized the Nativity makes the Gospels more historical because it made Joseph’s decision to trust Mary far more dynamic (and it was the crux of the drama itself).

There can be a simple explanation for why Luke didn’t talk about Joseph: it didn’t matter for his narrative. His version of the Nativity is all about Mary; there’s just something about her. To reverse things, why would we expect Luke to talk about Joseph’s misgivings? In fact, if you consider Luke did give the reason Joseph was okay with things that we found in Matthew (Joseph was told it was okay in a dream from an angel), that would make the story even more incredible and less likely true. If you fix a plot hole with an amazing claim, you don’t make the story better historically, you make it worse.

This can be shown mathematically. Take the set of all ways that Joseph could have been okay with Mary having become pregnant without intercourse with him. You can imagine many ways, some perhaps more probable than others. Joseph may want to protect Mary since he knows she’d me stoned to death otherwise; Joseph may be impotent and another man impregnating Mary saves him from being seen as less than a man; he doesn’t know it’s not his (Mary could have been pregnant and not shown before her first intimate night with Joseph); etc. And all of those scenarios are more probable on their own than an angel came and told Joseph that Mary was actually impregnated by magical forces. In fact, we can believe that Joseph had a dream of this sort, but it is not necessarily the case an actual angel was involved and Mary was miraculously impregnated. So you have the set of all possible ways Joseph could be okay with Mary pregnant as is, all those individual probabilities must add up to 100% to account for all the ways that “Joseph is OK with Mary being pregnant” is true, and you chose the most unlikely of those scenarios without any additional evidence in its favor. Suppose that there is a one in a thousand chance that this is the reason Joseph is okay (a way overly-optimistic probability compared to the other possible ways to explain the same situation); that means that the prior probability of this tale being true (Joseph is okay with a pregnant Mary without his seed making it happen) 1000 times less likely than just the story without the detail. It doesn’t matter where this detail comes from; it is simply one of the least likely possibilities (perhaps lower than alien mind control). Literally filling in the detail made the story much, much less plausible. This is how bankrupt the coincidence method is–it leads you to the opposite conclusion of what you should.

More generally, you can look at it with a basic axiom of probability: the probability of A is less than or equal to the probability of A&B. P(A) <= P(A&B). It should be obvious that some something to be true is more like that something is true as well as something else. But what this argument has here is that because some other source says B, combine that with A, and you get P(A&B) > P(A). Perhaps it’s no wonder I don’t see this argument in history books; it is obviously false. It actually an example of the affect fallacy–something seems more real, therefore it’s more likely to be true. For example, is it more likely that the peace delegates will fail or that the delegates will fail and a war will start? Many pick the latter, but the former must be more probable. That is what is going on here with this coincidence argument, unfortunately.

Moreover, even if this poor argument made the story more likely historical, J.W. (or McGrew who is using this sort of argument) do not say how much it makes the story more likely true. Does it make it slightly more probable, 10 times more probable? And even if 10 times more probable, with the virgin birth we are talking a very low prior probability since there have been no documented cases of parthenogenesis in mammals, including humans, but there have been fictions (i.e. Perseus). So to even say that the claim is more probable is rather useless if the final probability is much lower than 50%. It also doesn’t consider the problems of the obvious contradictions between the stories: the Holy Family lives in Nazareth or Bethlehem; Jesus is born before Herod dies in 5/4 BCE or during the census of 6/7 CE; etc.

J.W. also mentions the genealogies that are rather different. He claims that Luke is actually talking of Mary’s lineage, but that is in clear contradiction to what the text says; it says Jesus is the (supposed) son of Joseph, who is of Heli, who is of… Mary isn’t mentioned, and claiming otherwise is one of those desperate moves by apologists. Raymond Brown in his Birth of the Messiah long ago dismissed this, and it just gets in the way of really understanding the Gospels. Moreover, Matthew’s use of the genealogy has theological purpose, making a set of three sets of 14 generations between notable figures and events in Jewish history. But for Luke, there are significantly more generations between Jesus and David (42 vs. 28). They just don’t fit together even assuming a bad excuse.

J.W. also says that having a genealogy isn’t what you expect in fiction but from history. Well, I found extensive genealogies in the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien, there are genealogies in Greek and Roman myth, and fictions like the Song of Fire and Ice series have a lot of genealogical information, even using it to further the plot (i.e. how Eddard Stark discovered that Joffrey was not a son of King Robert Baratheon). No, a genealogy can be a part of fiction; it just needs a purpose. For Matthew, the most interesting purpose I know of that has been argued comes from Jane Schaberg in The Illegitimacy of Jesus, and it’s one of the few really well-founded explanations of why there are four women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus. Perhaps her theory isn’t the correct one, but we have to consider things such as Schaberg’s interpretation before we go off and say just having a genealogy makes something history.

Continuing with Joseph, J.W. notes that Joseph is never mentioned in Mark, even in a case where one would think that he would have been when Jesus’ family had come to find him (Mark 6:3). Again, the first mention of Joseph is in Matthew who depends on Mark, so it could well be Matthew adding details. It wouldn’t matter whatever name Jesus’ father had for Mark, so any detail by Matthew would fill in the gap. But ignoring that, J.W. wonders why Jesus’ father wasn’t mentioned at all but his mother and siblings were. J.W. thinks that means Jesus had no biological father. That’s one possibility. May I propose another? In this setting the towns people are referring to those that had come to find Jesus. Perhaps Joseph didn’t show up and what is why he isn’t mentioned? There is the tradition that Joseph was old and died before Jesus’ ministry began, which probably came to exist to explain the lack of Joseph outside of the Nativity stories. More prosaically  Joseph could have simply been at home working while the rest of the family went off to find Jesus. Moreover, the statement is coming from the towns people; are they the ones thinking that Jesus was born without sex? Then why are they not believers in him? It makes no sense of the narrative.

And again, even suppose that people did think Jesus was actually miraculously conceived. Does that mean he was? People thought Mary had a miraculous birth (see the Infancy Gospel of James as discussed before), but outside of Catholic circles this isn’t believed by most Christians. Same for Alexander the Great. The belief in a miraculous birth can be explained by things other than an actual case of parthenogenesis. But so far it cannot even be established that people thought Jesus was a miracle baby in his lifetime. If anything, the story of the Jesus’ ministry shows that those even in his home town of Nazareth didn’t think him so special (having him nearly killed as Luke tells it).

To conclude, the methodology used by J.W. is not a sound historiographical method, and where it is used there are far better explanations for why the stories are the way they are. Even if the method was sound, nothing is done to show that it makes the story actually probable, and it doesn’t deal with the things that make the story highly problematic. It’s also rather odd to talk about the interesting coincidences of the Nativity stories fitting together on some points, yet it ignores the places were they irreconcilably conflict! If you want to say a story is likely true you have to consider both points for and against it before coming to a conclusion. That is all the more true when the consensus of scholars is that the Nativity stories have the lowest historicity of the stories of the Gospels, something that has been pretty much the case since the mid-19th century.

(1) See Waetjen, The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple: A Work in Two Editions; Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John, pp. 15-26; Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel; Smith, John Among the Gospels; Price, The Pre-Nicene New Testament, pp. 665-718; Brodie, Birthing of the New Testament, pp. 254-7 for discussion.
(2) Cf. Jan Harold Brunvand, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (1987).

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5 thoughts on “A Coincidentally Bad Argument for the Nativity

  1. ” But in reality, that is how bad history is done. A historian cannot just take details from one version of events, add them to another, and the synthesized version be “the truth”. The details from each version of events need their own demonstration of their validity; if you take one bad source of a story but combine it with another bad one, you don’t get historical gold”

    I’m sorry, but have you ever taken a single class in historiography? Did you even read the post explaining undesigned coincidences? Your hyper-criticism of history must leave you in a bind about Alexander the Great, the writing of the Illiad and Odyssey, and the like.

    • Most classicists don’t consider the poems of Homer as history. The mixing of Bronze and Iron Age weapons is just one of the things that makes us realize we have something more complex. As for Alexander, we have some good sources for his life. Arrian, for example, used the writings of two of the generals that served with him and treats them critically. But we also have folklore, such as Zeus coming in as a snake to impregnate his mother. There were also novels/romances written about his adventures, and they aren’t great for learning about the real Alexander.

      We have to care about the sources used. We know there is fiction even in histories. See Michael Grant, “Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation.” It’s similar with medieval histories as well. And in modern times, I mentioned the myths that have surrounded the Roswell crash.

      • I never said the Iliad and the Odyssey were history. And you missed completely the point of the argument. It is not that details filled in by others are automatically confirmed. It is that the way these details fit together is like a puzzle piece. It’s very much in line with forensic statement analysis.

        And again, I think you need to check your historiography. You doubt the accounts of Jesus, yet it is okay for you to have sources that are copies hundreds and hundreds of years after the fact–and that is accurate. Why is that?

      • If you didn’t consider the epics of Homer as history, then why did you group them with the history of Alexander? As for why the records about Alexander are better is because our sources cite their sources, used primary sources, and they conform with our data we have (archaeological, nuministic, etc.). Moreover, we can’t explain the history of this part of the world without his military successes and the empires he left.

        We can compare that with Suetonius on Nero. Some of what he says has good sources, but much is folklore and not trusted by historians. You will see that with most any commentary of Suetonius, especially in Nero.

        For Jesus, we have unknown authors using unknown sources without any certainty in methodology that contradict each other, make amazing claims, and whose literature can be explained as more exegesis that history. Scholars such as Michael Vines argues that G. Mark is a Jewish novel (“The Problem of Marken Genre”). So yeah, I am as critical of the gospels as have scholars for the last ~150 years, starting with David Strauss if not earlier.

        As for your method, the coincidences are picked to fit but ignore what they don’t agree on. And it depends on independence which often can’t be shown. And is even the opposite (such as with Luke and John). It also doesn’t consider other explanations, including folkloric expansions and deletions.

        This might explain why no modern history book I’ve read talks of such a method, but instead you cite long gone apologists and one modern Christian philosopher and not a historian. Do you know of any modern historiography books that do this? I’d like to know; they may explain it differently.

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