Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Myth? Pushing "Evidence" Beyond the Christmas Story

"Shepherds Delight" by Neal Fowler is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Memes are circulating faster than ever. Stories "go viral" in a matter of minutes. Fictitious emails, doctored pictures, and urban legends rehashed as fact spread like wild-fire thanks to Facebook and Twitter. Having fallen prey to several of these in the past, I have become alert to some tell-tale signs and usually follow up by going to to see if it's "too good to be true." Nine times out of ten it is.

The other day my dad asked me to sit and watch a video with him called "Bethlehem: Beyond the Christmas Story" from Day of Discovery, hosted by Jimmy DeYoung. I have no previous experience with this ministry or the scholarship of Mr. DeYoung, so I had no idea of what to expect.

DeYoung presents a theory that the birth of Jesus took place in a room that shepherds used to birth sacrificial lambs. This room is purported to be at the base of an edifice we know only through Scripture and some rabbinic writings--Migdal Eder (Tower of the Flock). According to him, the shepherds that were tending to their flocks in the fields of Bethlehem were no ordinary shepherds but rather levitically trained shepherd who watched over the flocks destined for Temple sacrifice. As such, he claimed, they would have been familiar with the prophesies about the messiah's birth in Bethlehem. Then he offered up another intriguing morsel to tie up all the loose ends.

This final claim really caught my attention because it sounded so odd to me. He stated that when these shepherds delivered a lamb, they would wrap them in swaddling clothes and lay them in a manger until they calmed down. They didn't want the disoriented lamb to thrash around and twist a limb and thus be ineligible for sacrifice.

The supposed proof that unified this theory was that the angels never told the shepherds exactly where to go in order to find the baby Jesus. According to this theory, they didn't need to because a message of messiah born+wrapped in swaddling clothes+lying in a manger=the birthing room at Migdal Eder. Interesting theory...and also a little too neat and tidy for my taste. Lambs wrapped in swaddling clothes sounds like the very kind of thing people would have latched on to and talked about a lot, so why am I just now hearing about it? It's not like I have my head in the sand. I read commentaries and other material on 1st century culture and customs--books by guys like Victor Matthews, Craig Keener, Kenneth Bailey, N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington III. So I set out to check the sources (if it gets overly detailed, this is because there are scores of blogs and websites that are touting unsourced hearsay in this matter).

To make this easier, let's break it down into individual claims:

1. Shepherds at Bethlehem were temple shepherds, caring for flocks destined for sacrifice.

2. There was a birthing room under Migdal Eder (the Tower of the Flock) in or around Bethlehem.

3. Shepherds wrapped new born sacrificial lambs in swaddling clothes and laid them in mangers to keep them from harming themselves and disqualifying themselves for sacrifice.

First of all, DeYoung uses Alfred Edersheim, a 19th century scholar who relied on late source material for many of his deductions. Since Edersheim's time the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi library have shed new light on the 1st century life and thought. Still, I wanted to be generous and thorough, so I pulled a copy of Edersheim's The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah to see what he actually wrote. His claim that Migdal Eder was linked in Jewish expectation to the Messiah finds it's source in the targum (translation/commentary) Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 35:21. However, current scholarship dates this targum to the 4th century A.D., so this doesn't necessarily tell us what 1st century expectation was.

 Edersheim makes a case for priestly shepherds based on a couple of passages from the Mishnah (Shekalim 7:4 and Bava K. 7:7). These seem to check out and reputable scholars, such as Keener, have allowed for the possibility.

However, Edersheim says nothing about the structure of Migdal Eder (and neither do the Biblical texts Genesis 35:21; Micah 4:8), nor does he say anything about these priestly shepherds swaddling newborn lambs. So, I referred to all reputable sources in my personal library that might speak to Migdal Eder or priestly shepherds or swaddling. My conclusions have led me to believe that...

Mr. DeYoung, secondly, seems to use anecdotal evidence or pure conjecture to make this theory more appealing. 

If such a practice as swaddling sheep and laying them in a manger were documented by historians, I am confident that I would have found some evidence for it in the works of careful and thorough commentators and historians as F.F. Bruce, William Barclay, Ben Witherington, Craig Keener, or N.T. Wright. However, the only place I can find any evidence of such a practice is on blogs, none of which cite any sources.

Also, DeYoung repeatedly claims that it was a 2-story stone tower, but where he gets this information is beyond me. He states that the remains of such a tower have not been discovered, but then he states that there was a room in the lower level of this tower where the shepherds would birth sheep. DeYoung admits that they have looked for the remains of this tower but could find none, so without archaeological or textual evidence for the design of such a structure I have no idea how he can make these claims.

 If someone can prove me wrong, I would love to see hard evidence. Sometimes I feel like the Grinch, but thinking Christians need to be careful to investigate information before they pass it along. Don't take everything you read or see at face value.

That being said, my conclusions are that the status of this tale is: unknown. While there is some Biblical and extra-biblical evidence for such a place as Migdal Eder in the vicinity of Bethlehem and possibly tied to the revealing of the messiah, we have no proof or usable evidence for what such a tower would look like. Moreover, while the Bethlehem shepherds may have been priestly shepherds, we have no documentation on how they delivered their sheep.  If I could re-title Mr. DeYoung's theory, I would have to call it Migdal Eder: Beyond the Evidence of the Christmas Story.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Demolishing the Intellectual and Moral Pretensions of Christianity?: My Review of Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation

If you are an intellectual Christian or aspiring to such, at some point you will need to engage the so-called "Four Horsemen of the New Atheism"--Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennent, and Sam Harris. These four men (Hitchens lost a battle with cancer in 2011) are not so much atheists as anti-theists. Their books are popular and influential. As such, I believe that we, as Christians, need to be informed and able to articulate a response. So when I spotted Sam Harris' little book, Letter To a Christian Nation, on the discount rack at the bookstore, I snatched it up and bumped it to the top of my reading list.

 Weighing in at 91 pages, I thought it would be a quick read. I was wrong. I was wrong because I was compelled to dialogue with the book, rather than passively read it. I filled the margins and spaces between sentences with questions and retorts of my own. I would go back through an argument and find the holes and fuzzy logic. It was mentally stimulating to read someone with whom I disagreed at nearly every turn. I rather enjoyed it and just might make it a habit.

This "letter" was written in response to so-called Christians who had "written to tell [him] that [he was] wrong not to believe in God" after the publication of his first book, The End of Faith (vii). He states that "the truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism. While we may want to ascribe this to human nature, it is clear that such hatred draws considerable support from the Bible. How do I know this? The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse" (vii).

First of all, it saddens me that so many "Christians" resort to anger and bad-mouthing people for whom Christ died--even if those people refuse to accept it. This adolescent reaction stems from the inability to give thoughtful and learned answers for the hope they have. It is a sign of fear or a clear indicator that other idols occupy the place of Christ in their hearts. While such snarling is unbecoming of a disciple, it does not diminish the reality of the Christian gospel. 

Harris fails to cite any of these "murderously, intolerant" rantings. Later in the book he does lampoon certain passages, leaving me to suppose that these could be the verses that Christians threw at him. He deems these verses morally wanting, but in engaging these passages he smuggles in his own premise that these Old Testament laws are "timeless wisdom." He fails to read them in their context and commits the same intellectual fallacies as the Christians he is berating.

Interestingly enough, Harris is of the opinion that "there is, in fact, no worldview more reprehensible in its arrogance than that of a religious believer" (75). By this point in the letter he has used a snide and snarky tone for seventy-five plus pages, made sweeping assumptions, groundless claims, and moral judgments of his own. He blames religions, in general, for most of the world's conflicts. His basic thought seems to run that:

 Religions give people different opinions about the way the world should be run. Different opinions lead to conflict and war. The world needs to talk its problems out, but religions stand in the way of discourse. However, my atheistic scientific naturalism holds no presuppositions and is therefore neutral and the only way forward.

In other words, "if you don't hold to my worldview, then you are a narrow-minded idiot." I can only imagine Mr. Harris flailing a baseball bat while he spews his disgust over the moral judgments of Christian and Islamic worldviews (and, oh yes, he conflates these two every chance he can get). As Alister McGrath points out in his book Why God Won't Go Away, "Any worldview based on an exclusivist metanarrative (a controlling story) has the potential to provoke hostility...Get rid of religion, and conflict and violence will simply find other occasions for their emergence and other grounds for their justification" (71, 79). The anger than emerges out of the "new atheism" in books like this, as well as on atheist websites and forum demonstrates this clearly enough.

In the end, I found this letter to be pure rhetorical tripe that relied on false inferences, unsubstantiated claims, non sequitur arguments, straw men, and gross double standards. He fails to show how atheism provides a moral framework for a world filled with love and self-sacrifice. 

On the one hand, he spins religion as a by-product of evolution, but then claims that it causes the greatest evils. He claims to believe in objective truth, believes that certain behaviors are moral reprehensible and should be punished, makes a case for abortion as a lesser of two evils, and yet sits in judgment on a god that would ever dare to kill anyone. 

His ethics are utilitarian when they suit his needs, but he moves to emotionally based appeals when they don't. In brief, it falls far short of "demolish[ing] the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms" (Harris, ix).