A Catholic View - The Gospel according to Steve Martin

Photo: "Joseph and the Virgin at the census," Chora Church, Istanbul/Shutterstock Photo: "Joseph and the Virgin at the census," Chora Church, Istanbul/Shutterstock

How an old comedy bit undermines the debunkers of the Christmas story

It’s Christmas, that joyous time of year when the media goes in search of scholars to reassure them that the Gospel is all a bunch of hooey. Some time back, a piece appeared on MSNBC.com entitled “What is the Real Christmas Story?”

In the course of it, the conversation turns to the Gospel of Luke: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” (Luke 2:1-2)

John Dominic Crossan, a biblical scholar and former priest (who asserts that Jesus’ body was eaten by wild dogs), declares: “Luke tells us the story that at the time Jesus was born Augustus had to create a census of the whole earth. Now every scholar can tell you there was no such census ever.”

Let us pause and think about this. The Nativity account is supposedly concocted to identify Jesus, the Son of David, with Bethlehem, the city of David. And so, to get him there, Luke tells the story of a worldwide taxation enrollment.

Ahem. Comedian Steve Martin used to do a routine: “Remember, a couple of years ago, when the earth” — wry smile — “blew up?” He’d go on: “The earth blew up and was completely destroyed? And we escaped to this planet on the giant space ark? Where have you people been? And the government decided not to tell the stupider people ’cause they thought that it might affect —” Pause. The light of understanding would break across his face as he surveyed the audience, and he would quickly backtrack: “Ohhhh! OK! Uh, let’s move on!”

I can’t help but think of that as I read Crossan’s take on Luke. We are asked to believe that the Gospels are works of cunning fiction. Now, there are a lot of options open to the creative writer whose only goal is to write a yarn connecting Jesus to Bethlehem. You could just say that Mary’s grandmother took sick and she went to visit her. You could claim that Joseph bought a plot of land and didn’t want to leave Mary behind while he went to inspect it. You could cook up an angelic visitation commanding the Holy Family to go to Bethlehem and wait for their Son to be born. Any of these stories have the tremendous advantage of being extremely hard to refute decades after the alleged event. And since you’ve already stuffed your Gospel full of miracles, what’s one more angel?

But no. According to Crossan, Luke tells the equivalent of Martin’s space ark story: “Remember, a few decades back, when the entire world was enrolled for taxation?” He invites, not just somebody, but everybody in his entire audience to refute it. That’s an awfully strange thing to do if the enrollment never happened and an awfully odd way to establish the bona fides of your main character.

But, of course, when Crossan says “every scholar can tell you there was no such census ever,” what he really means is “every scholar I agree with. Don’t listen to scholars who say there was such a census.” Scholars like Scott Hahn, Curtis Mitch and Michael Barber, who all argue persuasively that there was such a census, that witnesses such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus of Rome and Epiphanius attest it, and that we can, in fact, reconcile the dating of the death of Herod, the census of Augustus and the role of Quirinius.

Do we have all the evidential holes completely patched up? No. But then we can’t say that for the assassination of John F. Kennedy either. Still, who believes that because witnesses disagree on details, JFK’s assassination is a myth invented by skilled creative writers? Similarly, any creative writer who starts by trying to sell a story of a worldwide census to a world that never had such a census is not skilled.

Far wiser, therefore, to assume that something, rather than nothing, happened. Then we look for the evidence and find that — surprise — it appears to exist.

Northwest Catholic - December 2016

Mark Shea

Mark Shea is a member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Seattle. His website is www.mark-shea.com

Website: www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea