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Friday, December 24, 2004

Newsweek's Meachum Should Quit Before He Hurts Himself More

Newsweek Managing Editor Jon Meachum is in The Washington Post today with another effort to debunk Christ and Christmas. He would have been better advised not to have published this piece because it provides more evidence that he simply doesn't know his subject very well. You can click on the headline of this posting to read Meachum's "Between Faith and Reason, Room for Hope."

Meachum opens with an inane attempt to position himself as the reasonable moderate between "the usual cultural warriors" going "through their predictable manuevers" regarding the authenticity of the Christmas story. By contrast, he describes himself as "a moderate, churchgoing Episcopalian - and I suspect that more than a few people share my discomfort with both evangelical and unbelieving extremists. Like most things in life, faith tends to become increasingly complicated the more you contemplate it."

The problem here is that Meachum hasn't contemplated the grounds of his faith enough; he has simply accepted the tired cliches of Form Criticism and then predictably accuses the Gospel authors of making it all up.

Here's the heart of Meachum's case:
"Matthew leans heavily on ancient suggestions about the Messiah, often writing that something 'was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet.' A telling example: For Jews, it was essential that the Messiah come from Bethlehem, but Jesus was a Nazarene."
"What to do? Matthew simply puts Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, then moves them to Nazareth after a dramatic flight to Egypt rescues Jesus from a Herod-ordered massacre of the innocents - a massacre for which there is no historical evidence. In Luke's account, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth but go to Bethlehem to answer a census order by Caeser Augustus - a global census for which there is no historical evidence that fits Luke's chronology."

One can almost heart Meachum giggling as he writes those sentences, just like the clever high schooler who has discovered a banned book and delights in displaying his thorough knowledge of that one book. In fact, Meachum displays an incredible ignorance of modern scholarship, including especially the discoveries of archeology.

Let's look at Meachum's treatment of Luke, based upon the Form Critics accusation that there was no historically verifiable Roman census during the tenure of Quirinius as Roman governor of Syria.

Here are the facts, as described by Josh McDowell, "The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict," page 63:

"First of all, archeological discoveries show that the Romans had a regular enrollment of taxpayers and also held censuses every 14 years. This procedure was indeed begun under Augustus and the first took place in either 23-22 B.C. or in 9-8 B.C. The latter would be the one to which Luke refers.
"Second, we find evidence that Quirinius was governor of Syria around 7 B.C This assumption is based on an inscription found in Antioch ascribing to Quirinius this past. As a result of this finding, it is now supposed that he was governor twice - once in 7 B.C. and the other time in 6 A.D. (the date ascribed by Josephus).
"Last, in regard to the practices of enrollment, a papyrus found in Egypt gives directions for the conduct of a census. It reads: 'Because of the approaching census, it is necessary that all those residing for any cause away from their homes should at once prepare to return to their own governments in order that they may complete the family registration of the enrollment and that the tilled lands may retain those belonging to them."

McDowell then quotes Dr. Norman Geisler's summary of the Luke/Census issue:
"Several problems are involved in the statement that Augustus conducted a census of the whole empire during the reign of both Quirinius and Herod. For one, there is no record of such a census, but we now know that regular censuses were taken in Egypt, Gaul and Cyrene. It is quite likely that Luke's meaning is that censuses were taken throughout the empire at different times and that Augustus started this process.
"The present tense that Luke uses points strongly toward understanding this as a repeated event. Now Quirinius did take a census but that was in 6 A.D., too late for Jesus' birth and Herod died before Quirinius became governor.
"Was Luke confused? No, in fact he mentions Quirinius'later census in Acts 5:37. It is most likely that Luke is distinguishing this census in Herod's time from the more well-known census of Quirinius: 'This census took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.'"

Knowing these things, it is difficult to read Meachum's Post piece without wondering how a person so lacking in knowledge could become the managing editor of a major news weekly. An answer to that puzzle, however, might be found in grasping Meachum's real accusation against Luke. Very simply, Meachum, like his Form Critic inspirations, accuses Luke of lying while puffing himself up as a more sophisticated intellect, thanks to his expertise in dealing with "increasingly complicated" matters of faith.

It is important here to know that Luke claimed to have "carefully investigated everything from the beginning" before writing his Gospel book. He makes a similar claim of having accurately investigated the events and people he writes about in Acts, his account of the journeys of Paul.

So for Meachum to claim Luke got it all wrong regarding the Roman census, the procedures that governed those events and Quirinius' terms as governor of Syria is to flatly contradict Luke's profession of competence and accuracy.

It is interesting to note here that Sir William Ramsay, one of the great archeologists of the 19th Century, set out to discredit Luke as a reliable historical source. Ramsay was a student in the German historical school that produced the Form Criticism behind Meachum's comments. What Ramsay found instead of what he expected was Luke as "a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements trustworthy ... this author should be placed among the very greatest of historians."

So we are left with the conclusion that Meachum's Post piece and the 12/13 Newsweek cover story that preceded it were motivated by an agenda that is of a piece with attitudes that are evident throughout the MSM, which is to debunk, discredit and otherwise render irrelevant traditional Christianity. Doing so requires ignoring all evidence to the contrary and thus presenting only the conventional wisdom that passes for sophistication among the elites that rule the MSM.

Put another way, Meachum is merely recycling fashionable myths that have been thoroughly refuted by those willing to look at the facts, all of the facts.