Independent Online proves that it doesn’t know basic facts about Christianity

News outlet betrays ignorance whilst claiming that “one in five Brits do not know Jesus Christ born on 25 December”

Puzzled

On 6 December the Independent Online published an article which claimed,

Christmas 2017: One in five Brits do not know Jesus Christ born on 25 December, study finds

Despite ubiquity of nativity plays and Christian teaching in schools, many still puzzled as to why we celebrate annual holiday

The occasion of the article was some new research by History, commissioned to mark the launch of its new show The Real Jesus of Nazareth, featuring Robert Powell who once played the rôle of Jesus in the 1977 TV adaptation Jesus of Nazareth — which to this day is my favourite screen adaptation of the life of Christ.

According to the article, the

[r]esearch revealed that — despite the prevalence of nativity plays and Christian teaching in schools — millions are still confused about why we celebrate Christmas.

It went on to list a number of basic facts about Christianity which significant percentages of UK adults, according to the research, simply did not know.

“The Independent Online has actually shown its own ignorance of Christianity to a degree perhaps more surprising than that of the populace.”

For example, that one in five did not know the reason we celebrate Christmas; or that the same percentage couldn’t name his (earthly) parents as Joseph and Mary.

I was actually rather impressed with the statistic that, according to the study, eighty-five percent of respondents believed that Jesus spoke Hebrew.[1]

However, the Independent Online has actually shown its own ignorance of Christianity to a degree perhaps more surprising than that of the populace.

Right or wrong? “Jesus Christ born on 25 December”

“We may almost excuse [the Independent Online] the assertion — almost certainly untrue in fact — ‘Jesus Christ [was] born on 25 December.’”

We may almost excuse them the assertion of the headline — almost certainly untrue in fact — “Jesus Christ born on 25 December.”

After all, 25 December is when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. However, it is well known that we simply don’t know the actual date of his birth; and that 25 December was apparently chosen as a way of supplanting the pagan Sol Invictus festival instituted by the Emperor Aurelian in 274 A.D.[2]

One may, of course, well put it to the Independent Online: “Why not be correct about it and simply say, ‘One in five Brits do not know whose birth we celebrate on 25 December’?”

Right or wrong? “A shepherd, a star and a donkey”

Another factually incorrect, but also possibly excusable, assertion by the Independent Online’s article, was that,

“Just eight in ten knew that a shepherd, star and donkey had starring roles in the story of Jesus’ birth …”

“The accounts of the birth of Jesus in Matthew chapters 1—2 and in Luke chapter 2 never actually mention a donkey.”

True, shepherds (although not a shepherd, singular, even in the Gospels!), a star and a donkey are staples of the annual children’s nativity play. But in fact, no donkey has a “starring role” in the accounts of Jesus’ birth. Of course, with Joseph and Mary travelling from Galilee to Judea at the time of the birth, and later fleeing to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, it may well be assumed that a donkey was used as the form of transportation for Mary and for the as-yet-unborn, and later infant, Jesus. But in fact the accounts of the birth of Jesus in Matthew chapters 1—2 and in Luke chapter 2 never actually mention a donkey![3]

Wrong! “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were four of the twelve disciples”

What is quite inexcusable, however, in a supposedly respected national journal, is the astonishing assertion below:—

“The nation’s knowledge of the story of Jesus’s later years is sadly lacking too, with 20 per cent unaware he had 12 disciples.

“One in five had no idea that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were four of them.”

It seems that the writers of the Independent Online can’t get their facts straight themselves.

“The nation’s knowledge of the story of Jesus’s later years is sadly lacking too, with 20 per cent unaware he had 12 disciples. One in five had no idea that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were four of them.”

Independent Online, 6 December 2017

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the names of the four Gospels in the New Testament.

Nowhere, though, does the New Testament state that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were among the twelve disciples of Jesus. Nor does later Christian tradition assert any such thing.

It is generally believed that two of the Gospel writers were among the twelve disciples of Jesus.

So the Gospel attributed to Matthew — none of the Gospel writers actually signed their names anyway on the Gospels they composed, and we are reliant on early Christian tradition to furnish us with their names[4] — is believed to have been composed by the Matthew who is named as one of Jesus’ twelve disciples in Matthew 10:1-4.

“None of the Gospel writers actually signed their names on the Gospels they composed, and we are reliant on early Christian tradition to furnish us with their names.”

The writer of the Fourth Gospel keeps signing it as from “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (e.g., John 21:20, and compare John 21:24), so it is certain that this Gospel is from one of the twelve disciples. Early Christian tradition identifies this writer as the disciple John.

But as for the other two Gospel writers, we are quite sure that they were not among the twelve disciples. Rather, they were later followers of Jesus.

We have it from Irenaeus bishop of Lyons, writing around 180 A.D.,[5] that Mark was a companion of the apostle Peter and wrote down his Gospel from the things Peter had related to him, after Peter’s martyrdom (or “departure” as Irenaeus euphemistically calls it). This Mark is also sometimes identified with the anonymous young man who was following Jesus at the time of his arrest and who had to flee away naked (Mark 14:51-52) — not one of the twelve disciples.

“Conclusion: At least two of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were certainly not among the twelve disciples of Jesus.”

As for Luke, he was a Gentile (a non-Jew) whom the apostle Paul seems to have picked up at the city of Troas in north-west Asia Minor, as suggested by Acts 16:8-10.

Conclusion: At least two of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were certainly not among the twelve disciples of Jesus.

It is unclear from the Independent Online article whether this howler is down to them, or to History which commissioned the study.

However, given the Independent Online’s failure to pick up and correct such an obvious error, one has to wonder where this publication is getting its religious correspondents and editors from. Perhaps, after all, a more appropriate headline would have been:

Christmas 2017: Three out of four Independent Online writers do not know basic facts about Christianity

Should Christians be concerned?

What, then? Should we be worried by the apparent decline in knowledge about Jesus and about Christianity in popular culture?

“As Christianity falls ever more into the collective ignorance, increasingly it becomes impossible for people to assume they are Christians […] simply by virtue of attending a church service once at Christmas and once at Easter — or even simply by virtue of being British.”

Personally I don’t feel threatened by this. As Christianity falls ever more into the collective ignorance, increasingly it becomes impossible for people to assume they are Christians (and therefore among the ‘saved’) simply by virtue of attending a church service once at Christmas and once at Easter — or even simply by virtue of being British.

I believe that this national assumption — which undoubtedly at times has been fed by the established Church — is one of the key things which has stopped people in the UK from believing in the real Jesus over the last 100 years.

C.S. Lewis expressed a similar point of view in his 1951 essay ‘Is Theism Important?’ Let me leave you with it. He says there:—

“When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, ‘Would that she were.’ For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially, the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The Post-Christian man of our own day differs from him as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.”[6]

 

 

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[1] I should point out that modern biblical scholarship distinguishes between Hebrew — the language of Israel in Old Testament times and the main language in which the Old Testament is written — from Aramaic, the language spoken by Jews in Palestine in the first century A.D. and therefore by Jesus. Previously both languages were referred to as Hebrew — compare, e.g., Acts of the Apostles 21:40 in the modern NIV translation and the old King James Version.

[2] See Andrew McGowan, How December 25 Became Christmas, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/, although Professor McGowan contests this popular view of how the date was chosen.

[3] For the interested reader, the other two canonical Gospels — Mark and John — do not relate histories of the birth of Jesus at all.

[4] For example, Irenaeus bishop of Lyons (c. 180 A.D.) names all four Gospel writers in his Against Heresies, Book III, ch. 1, §1. See http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.ii.html.

[5] Ibid.

[6] C.S. Lewis, ‘Is Theism Important?’ Quoted in P.H. Brazier, C.S. Lewis—Revelation, Conversion, and Apologetics (C.S. Lewis: Revelation and the Christ), Pickwick Publications, 2012. See https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=dC1NAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA10&lpg=PA10.

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