My Talk for Skeptics in the Pub, Cologne on the Star of Bethlehem

Along with the big Star of Bethlehem conference in Groningen, I was in Cologne before that to give a talk about the same subject to Skeptics in the Pub. That talk was also recorded and edited nicely by the folks there, and that is now up on YouTube. (Note: the intro is in German, but my talk is in English.)

Only downside with this was that I did not do my best to stay close to the microphone, and that means my voice goes in and out a fair bit. I’m used to talking with my voice picked up by different devices, so I’ll need to remember that for the future. Still, you can get all the contents of my talk reasonably well, and the presentation went really smoothly. Plus, great folks at SiTP Koeln. They had some really good questions, but it doesn’t look like the Q&A was recorded.

I also didn’t know this before I went there, but Cologne is the city were, allegedly, the bodies of the Three Kings/Magi are kept; the city’s coat of arms reflects this, and the cathedral with those bodies is a UNESCO site, and it is a lovely building. 2014-10-22 10.22.50

A bit of review of me and my talk can be found here and here (auf Deutch). Hopefully I can find an excuse and go again to this group.

Also, the holidays are approaching, so if your group needs a speaker on a timely subject, let me know.


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. Continue reading

The Pope on the Nativity Part 2 from my last post, I will take a look at some of the historical claims of the Nativity of Jesus from the Bible and see how Pope Benedict XVI defends them in his most recent book.

First, let’s make a note of an argument that His Holiness seems to use several times in defending the historicity of the stories from modern critics. Many scholars will point to the theological reasons as to why the author of a given Gospel would tell such a story, which in turn gives us reason to suspect that the tale make not be historically authentic. Benedict, on the other hand, says that that is not sufficient to consider the tradition inauthentic. Perhaps not, but it should make us suspicious. Besides, this is not the only reason scholars doubt things such as the birth in Bethlehem or the miraculous conception of Mary. There are other things to consider.

We can actually see that Benedict doesn’t follow his own argument when he considers traditions that accrued to the biblical version of the Nativity. For example, His Holiness looks at the belief that an ox and a donkey were at the manger, but he notes that this is not mentioned in Gospels. However, he figures that this “lacuna” (p. 69) was filled in using a reworking of Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib.” And this is very reasonable argument to make us think the detail was created via scriptural exegesis turned into narrative details. But his reason for not considering the story of the ox and ass as historical is the same reason that Bible scholars become suspicious of other details in the New Testament that also fit a similar potential creation. The scholars then look at what the strength of the historical tradition is, as does Benedict here (noting how it isn’t found in our older sources). But the Pope doesn’t do that when it comes to the Bible itself, making for a disingenuous approach, especially when he doesn’t consider the other reasons historians are suspicious of most of the infancy narratives of Jesus.

Take the birth in Bethlehem, for example. Continue reading