“NATIVITY LEGENDS” OR HISTORICAL FACTS? A Response to Free Inquiry

“NATIVITY LEGENDS” OR HISTORICAL FACTS? A Response to Free Inquiry

© 2013, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

It’s that time of year again.  Christmas is approaching, and with it a bevy of annual traditions: Christmas carols, decorations, coloured lights on houses, shopping for gifts – and, of course, the farrago of assaults by atheists and liberal scholars on the historical truth of the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.  The latest such is “Joseph Ratzinger and the Nativity Legends” by Etienne Vermeersch, in Free Inquiry magazine.[1]  Thus far, all such assaults have failed. Let us examine Vermeersch’s case and see whether he has managed to break with tradition by actually offering a valid argument against the Nativity accounts.

Before we begin, though, we must point out that Vermeersch’s article is directed specifically against Joseph Ratzinger’s book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.  It is not our intention to defend this specific book or the teachings of Joseph Ratzinger, the former head of the Roman Catholic church’s Office of the Holy Inquisition[2] who became Pope Benedict XVI; Roman Catholicism is “a different gospel, which is not another” (Galatians 1:6b-7a).[3]  We are only examining Vermeersch’s arguments against the Nativity accounts in the Gospel books.  With this understanding, let us proceed.

Is There a Double Standard Regarding Claims of Miracles?

Vermeersch begins by presenting a paraphrase of an account from “Buddhist … scripture” about Siddhartha Gautama’s (Buddha’s) birth, in which his mother Maya sees him enter her womb in the shape of a white elephant, at which point “All of nature rejoiced: trees and plants blossomed, rivers stopped flowing, and musical instruments played without being touched.”  He is subsequently born by painlessly exiting from Maya’s side and “he could walk immediately and at each step a lotus flower appeared on the ground.

Vermeersch juxtaposes this with a paraphrase of the Nativity account of Jesus from the Gospel According to Matthew.  He then wonders why “We consider stories of miracles from other cultures to be fantasies, but when it comes to the Bible, even sensible people lose their critical faculties.

Yet the answer is not difficult to see.  We do not discount miracle stories out of hand, as Vermeersch does, but we do apply “critical faculties,” as Vermeersch does not do, to assess their credibility.  In the case of Siddhartha, we first note that he supposedly lived ca. 563-483 BC, yet the earliest available biographical documentation about him comes from the late 1st century AD[4], almost six centuries after the putative events.  That means it is certainly not eyewitness testimony, and it is far too late to carry weight.

Add to this the fact that the earliest biographical material about Siddhartha does not include miracle accounts, but portrays him as a prince who was isolated in his father’s palace to keep him ignorant of the unpleasant facts of disease, aging, and death; when he found out about these he went into extreme distress; he took up asceticism but failed to alleviate his own pain; he finally decided to starve himself to death and after seven days without food he thought he saw a “vision” that “enlightened” him to the “true nature” of reality.[5]  Given that hallucinations are a known side-effect of starvation, this story could possibly be true, though Siddhartha’s hallucinations tell us nothing about the “true nature” of reality.  The salient point for us, however, is that the miracle stories clearly were very late additions to the story of Siddhartha, and not original to it.  These two facts, then, require the dismissal of Buddhist miracle claims.

On the other hand, the life, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the best attested facts of ancient history, recorded in four separate accounts, all of them based on eyewitness testimony, and all written during the lifetime of eyewitnesses who could have debunked them had they been false.[6]  Even the hostile witness of the Talmud Bar Sanhedrin 43a seems to ascribe Jesus’ miracles to sorcery rather than denying them, thus apparently tacitly admitting that He performed miracles.

Add to this the fact that Jesus’ healing of the blind man at Bethsaida, recorded in Mark 8:22-25, is an unmistakeable description of post-blind syndrome.  This condition occurs only when sight is actually restored to a person born blind or blind for more than five years, and it was only discovered when our medical knowledge developed in the mid 20th century to the point where we could heal certain cases of blindness.  It was not even guessed at before that, and so the only way it could be described in Mark 8:22-25 is if the eyewitness saw an actual example of healing[7].  These two facts require us to accept the Gospel testimony about Jesus’ miracles.

In sum, then, there is no double standard regarding miracle stories.  They are all judged based on the supporting historical evidence, and on this basis the accounts in the Gospel books must be taken seriously, while the “stories of miracles from other cultures” must be discarded.

What about Mary’s Journey?

Next, Vermeersch offers what he describes as “an extreme illustration of this gullibility” (presumably, he means the “gullibility” of those who take the Nativity accounts as history), viz.

[I]mmediately after the ‘annunciation by the angel,’ [Mary] visits her niece Elizabeth in Judea.  Imagine that!  In a culture where women, not to mention unmarried women, were barely allowed to leave the house on their own, a pregnant twelve-year-old girl sets off, on foot, on a journey of more than one hundred kilometres, through a dangerous region.  And for what reason?  To pronounce the Magnificat – inspired by a biblical passage (1 Samuel 2:1-10), although in those days girls were poorly instructed concerning the Scriptures.

Rather than being “an extreme illustration of this gullibility,” however, what we have here is a display of Vermeersch’s extreme carelessness, if not outright ignorance.  It is difficult to make more mistakes in such a small amount of text than Vermeersch does here.

  1. First, he says that Mary went to visit her “niece” Elizabeth.  The text tells us that Elizabeth was Mary’s συγγενής (sungenēs), which means “relative,” which could be a niece but need not be, and since Mary is very young while Elizabeth is “well advanced in years” (Luke 1:7, 18), Elizabeth is certainly not Mary’s “niece.”  Such an obvious error on Vermeersch’s part does not enhance his credibility.
  2. Second, he tells us that in that culture women “were barely allowed to leave the house on their own.”  While this meme has been passed from commentator to commentator, it is simply not true.  There are plenty of examples of women out of their houses and, to all indications, on their own in the Gospel books and Acts.[8]  Vermeersch should try reading the Gospel books and Acts and noticing what they say instead of incautiously accepting and passing on memes.
  3. Third, he describes Mary as “a pregnant twelve-year-old girl,” on the basis of his claim that “According to Jewish practice of the time, a girl’s betrothal was arranged around her twelfth birthday, and, hence, so was Mary’s.”  Wrong again; twelve was the minimum age for betrothal, not the universal age[9] or even necessarily the usual age.  Furthermore, the betrothal would usually last at least a year, which meant that Mary could have been twelve – or thirteen, or fourteen, or fifteen, or even sixteen.
  4. Fourth, Vermeersch tells us that Mary set off “on foot.”  That is possible, but it is also possible that she rode an ass, a common form of transport.[10]  The text doesn’t tell us what she did.  However, pregnancy at this early stage would not have inhibited her ability to do either.
  5. Fifth, Vermeersch postures as if the idea of a “journey [on foot] of more than one hundred kilometres, through a dangerous region” is unthinkable.  He has clearly been spoiled by living in an age of motorized transit.  He does not seem to realize that such lengthy journeys on foot were normative in New Testament times: “Within Palestine the Gospels indicate regular movement of people, including annual visits to Jerusalem for the Passover … These journeys were usually made on foot and lasted a number of days, e.g. 5 from Nazareth to Jerusalem[11] – which would be about the length of the journey Mary was making here, and which was the same sort of journey she made every year (Luke 2:41)!  Furthermore, “By NT times the Roman peace and authority had made travel relatively safe and constant.[12]  Nor need we assume that Mary was travelling by herself when she went to visit Elizabeth.  Contra Vermeersch’s argument, therefore, there is nothing hard to believe in Luke’s account of Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth.
  6. Sixth, Vermeersch claims that the “reason” Mary went to visit Elizabeth was “To pronounce the Magnificat.[13]  No, she went to see the sign of which Gabriel had told her (Luke 1:35-37), and possibly to assist her relative during her third trimester, and perhaps to avoid the scandal that would inevitably have happened back home when her pregnancy became obvious.  It was certainly not “To pronounce the Magnificat”; it should be obvious even to Vermeersch that she could have pronounced the Magnificat equally well from the comfort of her own home.
  7. Seventh, Vermeersch asserts that the Magnificat was “inspired by a biblical passage (1 Samuel 2:1-10).”  Yet a comparison of the two passages does not show nearly enough similarities to indicate that the former was inspired by the latter.  Rather, the presence of a number of songs of praise after God’s great acts in the Old Testament (Exodus 15:1b-18, 20-21; Judges 5:1-31) suggests that Mary is simply following a Hebrew practice here rather than being inspired by a specific “biblical passage.
  8. Eighth, Vermeersch passes on another meme, that “in those days girls were poorly instructed concerning the Scriptures,” without offering any supporting evidence.  This meme is based on a misunderstanding of a statement by Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud Mishnah Sotah iii,4[14] whereas both the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 4:9-10, 6:6-7, 11:18-19) and the Talmud (Mishnah Nedarim 35b) make it clear that girls are to be taught the Scriptures.

In sum, then, in one short paragraph designed to cast doubt on the veracity of the Nativity accounts, we see no fewer than eight noteworthy errors.  One could be pardoned if he begins to find it difficult to take Vermeersch seriously henceforth.

What about Jesus’ Family?

Vermeersch’s next gambit is to claim that

stories of this type … confront readers who accept the possibility of miracles with so many anomalies as to induce total perplexity.

Let us assume, Vermeersch says, that the various events of the Nativity accounts happened – the annunciation, the visitation to Joseph, the virgin birth, the angelic host announcing Jesus’ birth to shepherds, the star, the visit of the “wise men,” the words of Simeon and Hannah in the temple – and that “Mary kept all these things in her heart (Luke 2:19).”  He then offers three supposed anomalies, all of which revolve around the fact that Jesus’ family members at later points did not act consistently with an understanding that He is the Messiah.

Before we assess Vermeersch’s putative anomalies, we must point out that his underlying point here is mistaken.  He wants us to assume that, if the Nativity miracles happened, then Joseph and Mary would have been completely convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and would never subsequently have had doubts.  That is wrong; the human mind has a noteworthy ability to experience doubt when things are not unfolding as we expect.  Witness, for example, John the Baptist, who heard the voice of God Himself identifying Jesus as the Messiah (John 1:29-34) but some time later, after He was in prison and things were definitely not going as he’d expected, he sent disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?” (Matthew 11:1-3).

So any possible doubts by Joseph and Mary years after the nativity are neither impossible nor an argument against the historicity of the resurrection miracles.  While this fact already obviates all of Vermeersch’s claims of anomalies regarding the attitude of Jesus’ family, let us examine these claims anyway.

First, if the Nativity miracles happened, Vermeersch asks, how is it that when Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem after one of the annual Passover visits, His parents “did not understand the words of the then-twelve-year-old Jesus when they finally found him in the temple (‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?,’ Luke 2:50)? … how can it be that Joseph and Mary had not realized during twelve years of parenting that their son was actually the Messiah, the son of God?

Immediately, we note that these were not the “words of the then-twelve-year-old Jesus.” What He actually said was, “Why did you seek Me?  Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?”  Now, even in light of the miraculous events of the Nativity, the meaning of Jesus’ words here are not obviously clear; being the Messiah does not come with a stated indication that as a twelve-year-old (and as far as we know this is the only time He did it) He must stay in the temple asking questions for three days; the meaning would only unfold as time went on.  We should also like to ask Vermeersch, if this was legendary material written later to make Jesus look “messianic,” would not the author have instead written something like, “And then His parents understood that He was indeed the Messiah”?

Second, in the same vein, Vermeersch wonders, if the Nativity miracles happened and Jesus’ parents understood that He was the Messiah, why is it that “According to Mark 3:21, Jesus’s family (hoi par’ autou) ‘went out to lay hold on him for they said ‘he is beside himself.’

The short answer is because they thought that He was beside Himself.  Vermeersch overlooks the fact that, while there was some dispute over some aspects of the Messiah’s mission, there seemed to be a universal understanding that He was to be a military/political leader who would overthrow the Romans by force and restore independence to Israel and then rule them as a king (e.g. John 6:15; Acts 1:6).  What Jesus was doing was so diametrically opposed to this understanding that His family[15] may indeed have thought He was beside Himself, not because they didn’t know that He was the Messiah but because what He was doing was so outré in comparison to what they thought the Messiah should be doing.

Third, Vermeersch asks why “according to John 7:5, his own brothers did not believe in him … had [Mary] never bothered to tell her other children” about the Nativity miracles? Is Vermeersch really unable to understand this?  Jesus was Mary’s firstborn son (Matthew 1:25), so obviously His brothers never saw the Nativity miracles and had no personal knowledge of them.  While it is not likely that Mary never told them about these miracles, it does not necessarily follow that they believed what she said; it goes without saying, however, that their lack of belief does not mean that the miracles didn’t happen.  This should be obvious, even to Vermeersch.

It is entirely possible, of course, that Jesus’ brothers sincerely believed that their mother had simply had a vivid dream, or had been hallucinating or drinking too much.  Furthermore, sibling rivalry, which is usually a factor under even ordinary circumstances, would surely be exacerbated if your mother is telling you your big brother is the Messiah and you’re just another guy named Jo(ses or James or Judas or Simon), and would be a disincentive for them to accept Mary’s testimony.

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention that at least one and almost certainly two of Jesus’ brothers did become believers, James (as Vermeersch himself points out later in his article), and Judas, the author of the Epistle of Jude.[16]  Possibly all four brothers became believers, though whether or not this happened is immaterial to the question of the truth of the Nativity miracles.

So, then, although Vermeersch appeals to “so many anomalies as to induce total perplexity,the supposed anomalies he proposes regarding the Nativity miracles are not anomalies at all, as even a little bit of effort of thought makes clear.  Colour me unperplexed.

What about the “Mythopoetic” Tendency?

Next, Vermeersch avers that

often a “mythopoetic’” tendency arises around famous characters.

Yes, indeed, as we’ve already seen in the case of Siddhartha Gautama, to whom miracles were ascribed many centuries after his death, and contrary to the earliest accounts of his life.  But this has no relevance to the Gospel accounts, which are eyewitness testimony written in eyewitness times (between AD 39 and ca. AD 65)[17], and presented as historical facts[18] in a time when they could have been refuted by eyewitnesses.  So it is not possible to explain them away as “mythopoetic” alterations.

Where Was Jesus Born?

Vermeersch now trots out a standard liberal trope, viz. that the Gospel writers invented the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem “to support particular doctrines.”  He claims that

Luke and Matthew argue for the same thing (birth in Bethlehem) but with incompatible stories; this is proof of their utter incredibility.

His case, though, is risible; almost everything he says is a blatant error.

Vermeersch asks, “how could an inconspicuous preacher from Galilee claim this title [Messiah]?  Well, as a descendant of David, he could!”  He then suggests that

later traditions prefer a virgin conception – which if true precludes this continuity of the male line.

Therefore, says Vermeersch

Matthew and Luke (around 90 CE) try to emphasize Jesus’ kinship to David by situating the birth in David’s city of Bethlehem (in Judea).

In other words, the Gospel writers need to have Jesus as a descendant of David, but the virgin birth precludes that, so they invent the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem as a substitute.

This is obviously wrong.  The Messiah had to be an actual physical descendant of David (and Vermeersch does not state any objection to the fact that Jesus was “a descendant of David”).  Anyone not a physical descendant of David was disqualified, regardless of his birthplace.  Vermeersch’s stated reason for the supposed invention of the birth in Bethlehem, then, is a non-starter.

It should also be noted that the virgin conception is not based on “later traditions,” as Vermeersch claims.  The Gospel books of Matthew and Luke do not date to “around 90 CE”; Matthew, the first Gospel book, was published in AD 39-40 – earlier than any of Paul’s letters – and Luke no later than AD 54.[19]

Furthermore, the virgin birth does not preclude Jesus’ descent from David, since Mary herself was also a descendant of David,[20] and inheritance could pass on through a woman if her father had no sons (Numbers 27:1-11).  So every motive advanced by Vermeersch for inventing a birth in Bethlehem is seen to be bogus; the only reason, then, to record Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is that that is where it happened.

Let us now look at Vermeersch’s claim that Matthew and Luke’s accounts are “bungling” and “incompatible” and utterly incredible.  First, insists Vermeersch, “According to Matthew, Jesus’s parents lived in Bethlehem; the Wise Men met them in their house (elthontes eis tên oikian) (Matt. 2:11); and after their return from Egypt an angel has to encourage them to go to Galilee,” but Luke has the opposite, viz. According to Luke, they live in Nazareth, but Augustus’s census sent them to Bethlehem.”  So according to Vermeersch, Matthew has Jesus’ parents moving from Bethlehem to Galilee, whereas Luke has them moving from Galilee to Bethlehem.

Yet again, Vermeersch is wrong.  While Luke 1:26-27 indicates that Nazareth is the place where the betrothed Mary lived (undoubtedly in the house of her parents), nothing is explicitly said about where Joseph originally lived.  Certainly Joseph and Mary were both in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, as both Matthew and Luke testify, but Vermeersch’s attempt to prove that they already resided there permanently on the basis of the Wise Men’s visit to “their house” fails, since the Greek that Vermeersch himself provides does not say “their house but “the house.”  (“Their house” would require the addition of autōn to the phrase.)  Furthermore, contra Vermeersch Jesus was not “born in a stable” but in a house in which they stayed while in Bethlehem,[21] and it may well have been this very house in which they were when the Wise Men visited them.

Actually, it seems reasonable to assume that Joseph was from Bethlehem, which is why he had to return there – so Vermeesch’s objection that Joseph having to return to “a city of one’s ancestors as of about a thousand years earlier – is preposterous beyond imagination” dissipates.[22]  Combining the accounts of Matthew and Luke yields the following:

Joseph of Bethlehem was betrothed to Mary of Nazareth.  After Mary returned from her visit to Elizabeth, Joseph went to Nazareth to be with her until the baby was born, but when Augustus’ edict was issued, they were forced to go to Bethlehem, where Mary would have been put up in a guest room in a local house (most probably Joseph’s family’s house), in which room there was insufficient space for a birth and infant care, so she used the main room with the manger making do as a crib.  They may still have been in this house when the Wise Men visited.

Jesus’ parents may have intended to reside permanently in Bethlehem, especially if it was indeed Joseph’s home town, but they had to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous plan.  Upon their return from Egypt following the death of Herod, Joseph clearly intended to go to Judea (Matthew 2:22a) – and we would expect him to return to his hometown Bethlehem – but his concern about the danger posed by Archelaus, reinforced by God’s warning about that in a dream, induced him to change his plans and take up permanent residence in Mary’s home town of Nazareth (Matthew 2:22b-23), which then became the place of Jesus’ childhood.

This reconstruction is consistent with the testimony in Matthew and Luke and has none of the incompatibilities that so exercise Vermeersch.[23]

We should draw attention to one more point that Vermeersch makes here:

In my opinion, even the linking of Jesus’s birth with Herod may have been determined by the desire to present him as the legitimate successor of this last great king of all Jews, the temple builder.

This statement reveals a truly appalling ignorance on the part of Vermeersch.  Herod was not even a Jew!  He was an Idumean, and had no legitimate claim to the throne of Israel.  Any link with Herod, therefore, would discredit Jesus, not legitimate His Messianic claim.

We conclude this section by commenting on Vermeersch’s bald assertion that,

In short, Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.

As we have shown, the testimony of those in a position to know is clear that Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem.  We await Vermeersch’s explanation as to why we should prefer the unsubstantiated allegation of an “emeritus professor of philosophy” more than twenty centuries removed from the events to the writings of those with access to eyewitness testimony.

The Significance of the Virgin Conception

Vermeersch avers that “The virgin conception arranged by God has no biological significance” because, as a real human, Jesus had to have had “two pairs of twenty-three chromosomes … [that] would have to code for normal proteins,” so if He did not receive a pair from Joseph, He must have received a pair “through (divine) genetic manipulation.”  Vermeersch is correct about this latter point; Jesus was fully human (Hebrews 2:17), which means that one pair of His chromosomes was indeed created supernaturally by God.

But then Vermeersch embarrasses himself by stating, “Because DNA was unknown in antiquity, a belief in virgin conception, however enigmatic, was not absurd. But in our own day?” as if a knowledge of DNA makes a virgin conception “absurd.”  Actually, it was known just as well in Jesus’ day as our own the virgins do not conceive, which is why the virgin conception required a miraculous act by God – which included the very “(divine) genetic manipulation” Vermeersch himself mentioned!  Miracles by definition entail the overriding of the natural way in which things happen, and a knowledge of DNA only reveals further details about what God overrode to bring about the virgin conception; it doesn’t make it “absurd.”  The significance of the virgin conception and birth, then, was not biological (and it is strange that Vermeersch would think that it should be); it was a miraculous sign attesting the special and unique status of Jesus.

Jesus’ Brothers

 In his final section, Vermeersch attacks the Roman Catholic “semper virgo” doctrine, viz. that Mary remained a virgin throughout her entire life, so that Jesus had no actual brothers or sisters whose mother was Mary, and Vermeersch is right to attack this doctrine, as it is unbiblical and pernicious.  Vermeersch adduces NT passages that show beyond doubt that Jesus had brothers and sisters who were children of Mary, as well as the testimony of Josephus about James, “‘the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.’”  He correctly points out that

The objections to these statements have been invalidated time and again.  How odd that a pope does not find it fitting to address them.[24]

It is not at all odd; since Ratzinger has no answer, he keeps silent.

However, Vermeersch cannot seem to abide being right, for he immediately makes yet another mistake, writing that Ratzinger “bases his beliefs on an unwavering faith in the factual reliability of the Holy Scriptures,” yet he says this just after he has shown us how Ratzinger ignores what the Holy Scriptures say when it conflicts with Roman Catholic doctrines.

Conclusion

Throughout his article, Vermeersch makes a number of incautious statements that seem to be designed to prejudice the reader against the Gospel books, statements that are non sequiturs at best.  To wit,

In 2012 (yes, in the twenty-first century)” as if no one should be taking the Nativity accounts seriously in this day and age.  Is this supposed to be an argument?  An event that happened in history does not become expunged retroactively as time moves on.

Regarding the discussion of the Nativity events, Vermeersch writes, “He could have kept it short (‘those are legends’).”  Does Vermeersch think that a snide bald assertion is an argument?

According to Vermeersch, “‘The best Christian exegetes’ consider the Nativity events to be ‘meditation in narrative guise.’”  By what standards are these exegetes to be counted as the “best” ones?  The degree of their agreement with the beliefs of Vermeersch is not an objective standard.  And disbelieving the Bible hardly qualifies one as a “Christian” exegete of any quality.

All of this is quite typical of the attacks levied on the Gospel books by liberal scholars.  When all is said and done, Vermeersch has put forth a series of claims that may seem plausible to the ignorant and unwary, but, as we have shown, are completely without merit.  No one should be taken in by them.


Endnotes

[1] Vermeersch, Etienne. “Joseph Ratzinger and the Nativity Legends,” translated by Stuart Silvers. Free Inquiry 34(1), December 2013/January 2014, pp. 43-44.

[2] By the time Ratzinger held this office, its name had been changed to The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, its second name change; the original name had acquired significant negative brand recognition.

[3] In other words, it is not a gospel at all.  For details, see “Roman Catholicism” at https://truthinmydays.com/roman-catholicism/.

[4] Oxford Dictionary of Asian Mythology, excerpted at http://www.answers.com/topic/buddha

[5] Violatti, Cristian. “Siddhartha Gautama.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Posted on December 9, 2013, at http://www.ancient.eu.com/Siddhartha_Gautama/

[6] See our forthcoming article series on “The Historical Reliability of the Gospel Books.”  In the meantime, see Wallace, J. Warner. Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013); Ewen, Pamela Binnings. Faith on Trial. (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2013); and Wenham, John. Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke; A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992)

[7] Mano, D. Keith. “Miracle at Bethsaida.” National Review 49 (April 21, 1997), p. 26.  A person born blind or blind for five years or more has two problems, not one: the eyes don’t work, and the visual cortex of the brain, which interprets visual data, no longer operates.  If only the eyes are healed, visual data is received but it is not correctly decoded in the brain, so that walking men and trees in the background can be confused so that it can appear as “men like trees walking.”  Normally Jesus healed the two problems at once, but this time He healed the eyes only first and then the visual cortex separately – so that centuries later when our medical knowledge increased sufficiently, we would know beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus did actually perform miracles.

[8] e.g. in Matthew there are examples in 9:20-22; 15:22-28; 20:20-21; 26:6-7; 26:69; 26:71; 27:55-56; 27:61; and 28:1-10.

[9] Marshall, I. Howard. New International Greek Testament Commentary: Commentary on Luke. (Exeter: The Paternoster Press/Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), p. 64

[10] Douglas, J.D. et al. New Bible Dictionary. Second Edition. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press/Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1982), p. 39

[11] ibid., p. 1213

[12] ibid.

[13] Mary’s hymn of praise (Luke 1:46b-55) has come to be called the Magnificat, from the first word of the hymn in the Latin translation of the passage: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum …”

[14] Weeks, Noel. The Sufficiency of Scripture. (Edinburgh/Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1988), pp. 142-143

[15] The fact that Mary is mentioned a number of times during Jesus’ public ministry whereas Joseph is completely absent suggests that Joseph was deceased by this time, and so we cannot know what his opinion of things might have been at this time.

[16] See, for example, Carson, D.A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), pp. 459-460

[17] See the references in Footnote 6, and especially Wenham, op. cit., for the dating of the Synoptic Gospel books.

[18] See, e.g. Luke 1:1-4; John 19:35.

[19] Wenham, op. cit.

[20] The genealogy of Jesus given in Luke 3:23-38 is traced through Mary’s father Heli, as a careful analysis of the Greek text indicates.

[21] κατάλυμα (kataluma), rendered “inn” in many translations, should actually be translated as “guest room.”  The manger was a feed trough that was either built into the floor or was a free-standing wooden structure in the main room of the house.  See Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pp. 28-33

[22] It is not at all clear why Vermeersch assumes that Joseph’s family ties with Bethlehem were sundered a millennium previously.

[23] Vermeersch mentions that “There was indeed a ‘census’ in Judea around 6 CE, but it affected only current residents and concerned property taxes.”  Yet these claims are wholly dependent on the testimony of Josephus, who was further removed in time than Luke and is not nearly as careful an historian.  In any case, αὕτη ἡ ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου can be translated “This census was before Quirinius was governing Syria.” And we have already responded to his point about the “family trees.”

[24] Unlike Hebrew, the Greek of the NT does have specific words for “relative” – συγγενής (sungenēs) – and for “cousin” – ἀνεψιὸς (anepsios) – so the standard Roman Catholic dodge that “brother” really means “cousin” or “relative” when Jesus’ brothers are mentioned is nonsense; had the writer intended to mean “cousin” or “relative,” he would have written sungenēs or anepsios, not ἀδελφὸς (adelphos = brother) as in Mark 6:3 et passim.

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