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Supplements » The Sociology of Knowledge and Doubting the Christmas Story (January 2006)
The Sociology of Knowledge and Doubting the Christmas Story by David Holloway
The sociology of knowledge
Ever since the evolution of the "sociology of knowledge" in Germany in the 1920's - popularized to the English-speaking world by Karl Mannheim - we have known that our social environment powerfully conditions beliefs. The sociology of knowledge is common sense.
The principle is simply that when, for example, post-modern intellectuals say that we must be open to this or that aberrant behaviour or new set of anti-Christian views, it is not just reason that dictates these new attitudes. There is a "plausibility structure" in place which means people are conditioned to feel that such new morality or new beliefs are reasonable. This "feeling" of reasonableness often has little to do with logic and much to do with social conditioning. Today this social conditioning is effected not least by education, the media and legal enactments.
This "common sense theory" seemed later to be supported by a psychological experiment - the Asch Experiment. Here a volunteer is told he (or she) is taking part in a visual perception test. What he doesn't know is that the other participants are actors and he is the only person taking part for real. This test is actually about group conformity. In the experiment the group (made up of actors and the one volunteer) are told that they will be tested regarding their perception of line length. Their task is simply to look at a line on the left of a screen and say which of the three lines on the right is equal to it in length. The actors have been told to match the wrong lines, with all the actors following the lead of the first actor. The volunteer is then monitored to see if he gives the correct answer or if he goes along with the opinion of the group and gives the wrong answer. In the experiment I saw (on film), in the first test the correct answer was line two. The first actor then said, "one", the second then said, "one" and the third said, "one". Then came the turn of the volunteer who paused and with surprise and hesitancy in his voice said, "two". Then the final actor said, "one". In the second test (with a different set of lines) again the correct answer was two. This time the first three actors said, "three"; and this time, after a long pause, the volunteer also said, "three", followed by the final actor saying "three". This was the comment on the experiment: "The Asch Experiment has been repeated many times and the results have been supported again and again. We will conform to the group. We are very social creatures. We are very much aware of what people around us think. We want to be liked. We do not want to be seen to rock the boat. So we will go along with the group. Even if we don't believe what people are saying, we still go along."
In terms of the sociology of knowledge, and with regard to moral beliefs, Peter Berger, the sociologist, expresses this as follows:
"With the possible exception of a few areas of direct personal experience, human beings require social confirmation for their beliefs about reality. Thus the individual probably does not require others to convince him that he has a toothache, but he does require such social support for the whole range of his moral beliefs. Put differently, physical pain imposes its own plausibility without any social mediations, while morality requires particular social circumstances in order to become and remain plausible to the individual. It is precisely these social circumstances that constitute the plausibility structure for the morality at issue ... It follows from this that there is a direct relation between the cohesion of institutions and the subjective cohesiveness of beliefs, values and worldviews ... There are always exceptions - deviants or mavericks, individuals who maintain a view of the world and of themselves even in the absence of social support. These exceptions are always interesting, but they do not falsify the sociological generalization that human beliefs and values depend upon specific plausibility structures."
The Asch Experiment suggests that if a large enough majority becomes too irrational, any belief - not just beliefs about morality - can be socially conditioned. Beliefs about hard facts can be distorted by a corrupt society. This seems to be happening at the moment; and it seems to be happening with regard to belief in the accounts of the birth of Jesus in the New Testament. Nor is this surprising. There is now enormous social pressure to de-Christianize Christmas. Sadly many Christians seem to be falling prey to this pressure. Michael Saward, a clergyman and writer, gives some alarming statistics.
Ancient and modern doubts
Michael Saward, however, begins with some ancient doubts:
"His name was Celsus and he didn't have much time for the Christian faith. He claimed that Jesus 'had invented his birth from a virgin,' a poor village girl 'turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter ... because she was convicted of adultery and disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child ... who proclaimed himself a God.' She had 'become pregnant by a Roman soldier, named Pantheras.' Not exactly in keeping with our Christian celebration of 'a virgin most pure,' who, 'as the prophets do tell, hath brought forth a baby.' What is clear, however, is that the claim to a virgin conception is very early and flatly rejects the extraordinary assertion of Karen Armstrong (an ex-Catholic nun, probably no longer a Christian) that it is a 'mythical expression of a religious truth' which is 'a late addition to the original story.'"
This appeared in The Church of England Newspape just before Christmas (2005). An explanation could have been added that Celsus was a 2nd century pagan philosopher whom the early Christians decided was simply wrong. Be that as it may, Michael Saward was writing because he was disturbed at the amount of scepticism he has come across with regard to the virginal conception of Jesus. Nor is this just from modern pagans - the successors of Celsus - but from within so called Christian circles. Saward quoted a survey that led him to say this: "39 percent of Anglican evangelicals and 54 percent of Anglo-Catholics believe in the Virgin Birth. As the two groups most committed to the New Testament and Christian historical theology, these minimal figures are horrific. So when they say the Nicene Creed week by week, what do they mean?"
If the survey is accurate (and we were told it was by Peter Brierley of Christian Research which is normally reliable), first of all it shows that old labels, like "evangelical" and "Anglo-catholic" can be meaningless. Many may now feel they need to echo Lord Shaftesbury, the great evangelical layman and humanitarian reformer of the 19th century when he said: "I knew what constituted an Evangelical in former times. I have no clear notion what constitutes one now." We should not, however, be surprised at what is going on. It merely underlines the truth of assertions about the sociology of knowledge.
The early church, as in the case of Celsus, had to face similar questions and doubts. But after careful consideration they were agreed that Matthew and Luke had got things right and that the sceptics had got things wrong - as a matter of fact. The "church" then itself acted socially and institutionally to support that conclusion, not least by incorporating the facts into its creeds. But today in modern Europe, education and the media are now institutionally stronger than the church. So Charlie Moule, a New Testament Professor at Cambridge, has written about "a strangely perverse attitude." This is where people too readily accept what he calls "the latest irresponsible speculation by the journalistic charlatans." These are people who treat, in a cavalier fashion, the documents and evidence of the New Testament. When then doubts about the text of the Bible are continually being taught in our schools and broadcast in the media, unless you are one of Peter Berger's "mavericks" - those "individuals who maintain a view of the world and of themselves even in the absence of social support" - you will "go with the flow" before too long.
The Christmas 2004 (European) edition of Time magazine had as a cover story "Secrets of the Nativity". It was sceptical over the virgin birth, the visit of the wise men, and "Luke's description of an empire-wide census at the time of Jesus's birth, with Palestine's part conducted by the Syrian governor Quirinius." It said, "this seems inaccurate. There is no other record of a census in Palestine at the time, and Quirinius was not yet governor. But he did administer an infamous census on Augustus' behalf some 12 years later in AD 6 [Jesus' birth is often estimated to be in 6 BC]." Luke, the article suggests, was making this census fit in with the birth of Jesus to show that Christians were law abiding citizens and not revolutionaries. The tone of the article was seen in its doubts about Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and the suggestion that Herod's slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem was not fact but introduced to parallel Pharaoh's murder of male Jews at the time of the Exodus. The article, however, admitted there were ...
"three responses among scholars. Traditionalists promote theories meshing Matthew's and Luke's versions. Says Paul L. Maier, a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University: 'Radical New Testament critics say it's a hopeless jumble. I myself do not think it's impossible to harmonize them.' Others champion one Gospel writer while discounting the other. A growing majority, however, conclude that there is simply not enough textual agreement to declare Bethlehem a historical given."
Note the phrase "a growing majority" in that last sentence. This, of course, is difficult to prove. But whether true or false it generates "social (press) support" for a denial of the basic facts of the nativity story. What is interesting is that the conservative scholar interviewed was not a New Testament scholar but an ancient historian. Consistently you find that modern experts who approach the New Testament from the view point of secular ancient history find Luke (who records Jesus' birth) convincing. A.N.Sherwin-White, an Oxford Roman Historian, is amazed at the scepticism of some New Testament critics. Having examined the New Testament, especially Luke and Acts, from the view point of Roman law and culture he finds it remarkably reliable. Contrast that with the comment of one New Testament scholar Time quotes: "I do not see these stories as historical reports but as literary creations. As the latter, they are not history remembered but rather metaphorical narratives using ancient religious imagery to express central truths about Jesus' significance". So wrote Marcus Borg, from Oregon State University.
But if you are continually told through the Press, TV or Radio that there is a "growing majority" who disbelieve the New Testament documents as historical but just see them as poetic stories, before long you will believe these assertions of "experts". That will happen even though the sceptical arguments are not convincing. Such is the psychological pressure on human beings to conform. That is why you need to be in another environment where you have access to, and social support for, other knowledge - a "believing" church.
But what can be said about some of the details regarding the nativity of Jesus that are regularly denied? Take the Star that Matthew said led the Wise Men to Bethlehem to "the place where the child was" (Matthew 2.9). Sceptics say this is simply a creation by Matthew from Numbers 24.17 where Balaam prophesies the rising of a star out of Jacob. That is hard to believe.
There, indeed, have been various theories about this Star. The pages of the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society make for more interesting reading than much that comes from Moule's "journalistic charlatans". Much goes back to 1603 and the great German Astronomer Johannes Kepler. He calculated that the "star" was the result of a new planetary object at the same time as a planetary conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. This theory was then revived in the modern period and dated at 7 BC. Others have claimed that the star is the Comet in Capricorn of 5 BC which was probably a nova. Yet others claim it is the Comet in Aquila, also a nova, and dated at 4 BC. But one of the most sophisticated papers on the Star from the quarterly journal is in vol 19 (1978) pp 517-520. It is by a distinguished Austrian astronomer, Konradin Ferrari d'Occhieppo. The summary of his paper is as follows:
"The original text of St Matthew's gospel (2.1-12), if understood literally with due regard to the general concepts and to the numerical results of the contemporary Babylonian astronomy, alludes to two definable and extremely distinguished stages of the great planetary conjunction in 7 BC. The appearance of the Star staying over where the child was can be fully explained by the intervention of the zodiacal light. Additional evidence for the planetary conjunction hypothesis (PCH) comes from a passage in the papyrus Bodmer V, MB."
And in the text of his paper he concludes: "In my opinion, by the consistency of data resulting from Babylonian astronomical sources with St Matthew's report about the Star, the hypothesis of a legendary invention (myth) by Matthew is definitely excluded." Whatever the final truth and with Matthew no doubt seeing the symbolism of the events, there are certainly reasonable alternatives to the view that Matthew is simply mythical.
Then there is the issue of the Census that Luke refers to in chapter 2:1-3. Verse 2 says: "This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria." This was the reason Mary and Joseph had to leave their home town of Nazareth and make their way to Bethlehem.
We have independent evidence for a census - the Venetian Stone discovered in 1674. On it are the words: "On the orders of Quirinius I carried out the Census in Apamea, a city state of 117,000 citizens." But this Quirinius was the governor of Syria from AD 6 to AD 9. That is a decade after Jesus birth. So is Luke factually wrong? Time magazine thinks so. However, we know that censuses took years to complete. One in Gaul spread over four decades. It is quite possible that Augustus decreed the census earlier when Saturninus was governor of Syria, but that Quirinius completed it some years later. So one New Testament scholar translates it as "this enrolment [census] was before that made when Quirinius was governor of Syria." Others argue that Quirinius was possibly in office for two terms, first at the time of Christ's birth and then AD 6-9. If this was the "first" census, the "second" is referred to in Acts 5.37. The point is there are various ways of making sense of Luke's comment without having to dismiss it as fabrication for theological purposes.
And with regard to Herod and his brutality, it is surprising that anyone could doubt the "slaughter of the innocents." As R.T.France writes in his Tyndale New Testament Commentary on Matthew 2.16: "The ruthlessness of Herod's later years, particularly where a potential rival was concerned, is well documented." For example, Josephus the 1st century Jewish historian writes: "he was a man who was cruel to all alike and one who easily gave in to anger and was contemptuous of justice."
The virginal conception
Finally with regard to the virginal conception itself, let me repeat six key considerations we must never forget.
First, the starting point is the Gospel narratives themselves. Matthew and Luke both have the same central core - namely that Mary remained bodily a Virgin in the conception of Jesus and did not have intercourse with Joseph. Yet both evangelists clearly were drawing on very different sources for their information. Few, therefore, would deny the following: "that a virginal conception through the power of the Holy Spirit is one of the few points on which they agree and that this tradition antedated both accounts (Raymond E. Brown - a [fairly liberal] New Testament scholar). The story of the Virgin Birth goes right back to the earliest period. Indeed, the infancy narratives are clearly of Palestinian origin. They reflect Jewish fears of Herod the Great and Jewish piety centred on temple worship in Jerusalem. The traditional view is that the ultimate source of the narratives is the holy family - Joseph for Matthew and Mary for Luke. We must also remember that James, Jesus's brother, became head of the church at Jerusalem. He was, therefore, in a position to correct any Palestinian traditions where they were obviously untrue.
Secondly, the claim that "virgin births" are common in other religious literature has to be challenged. For religious literature mostly has accounts of "holy marriage". Here a "god" in human or superhuman form sexually impregnates a woman. But that is quite unlike the accounts of the virginal conception in the Gospels.
Thirdly, the story of the Virgin Birth cannot simply be dismissed as a midrash - and for this reason. In Judaism a midrash was essentially a commentary on a passage of Old Testament scripture which then "took off". The midrashist had a text in front of him which he elaborated often in a most fanciful way. But the text was the starting point. However, Matthew clearly is not starting with a text. He has a series of traditions about the birth and childhood of Jesus. Into these he weaves scriptural references. He is not adapting the narratives to fit [Old Testament] scripture. If anything he is adapting scripture to fit the narratives. The quotation in Matthew 2.23 ("he will be called a Nazarene") is a very drastic adaptation - it has no known reference! Matthew is not taking Old Testament texts and then writing myths to fit. If he were doing that he would have chosen more evocative sections of the Old Testament. And, from contemporary Jewish practice we know that basic events were never concocted out of texts. The Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran show how texts are made to fit contemporary events and not vice-versa. There always was a substratum of fact. Even the critic must admit that Matthew started with the basic outline of the infancy narrative.
Fourthly, Luke himself tells us that he was interested in the truth - "it seemed good to me ... to write an orderly account ... that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught" (Luke 1.3-4). Even if contemporary Jews had a more cavalier approach to history writing, there is every reason for thinking that the early Christians had a very different attitude to history. That was because other Jews located the saving events of God in the distant past; or, if they were of an apocalyptic turn of mind, in the future; but the early Christians said they were located in the recent past. Hence we must presuppose they had an interest in what actually happened.
Fifthly, the Old Testament said the Messiah would be born of David's line. The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus was believed to be the Messiah. Why then invent an untrue story that separates Joseph (of David's line) from the process of conception?
Sixthly, if Mary had not been a virgin, no one would have created a myth to suggest she was a great example of obedience. The strict moral climate of the day would have classed her fornication as highly disobedient.
Those are some of the considerations that give us confidence in the New Testament and in the teaching of Christians down the centuries as it is summarised in the Creeds. As we say so regularly, "He [Jesus] was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary." The virginal conception was a supernatural miracle. It confirmed the fact that Jesus is, indeed, God incarnate - fully man, but without sin.