The Gospel According to Steve Martin

It's Christmas, that joyous time of year when the mainstream media goes in search of apostate scholars to re-assure them that the Gospel is all a bunch of hooey.

Here's a recent piece that appeared on called “What Is the Real Christmas Story?” It's a roundtable discussion featuring a number of biblical scholars that looks at the tale of the Nativity as told by Matthew and Luke.

In the course of it, the conversation turns to the matter of the worldwide “census” that Luke reports in his Gospel:

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1-2).

One of the first people out of the gate to render a verdict on this particular passage is John Dominic Crossan, a biblical scholar and former priest at DePaul University who also gets trotted out by the mainstream media during that other joyous season, Easter, to assure us that the body of Jesus was eaten by wild dogs. Crossan, who is, like Buzz Lightyear, always sure, declares emphatically: “Luke tells us the story that at the time Jesus was born Augustus had to create a census of the whole earth. Now every scholar can tell you there was no such census ever.”

Let us pause and think about this dogmatic article of the Crossan creed for a moment. The Gospels are, in large part, a work of pious fiction according to Crossan. The resurrection never occurred. It's just a comforting tale early believers came up with to deal with the loss of Christ. The portrayal of Jesus as born at Bethlehem is something the Gospel writers have to concoct in order to identify Jesus with the Messiah. And so, to get him there, Luke tells the story — of a worldwide taxation enrollment.

I drum my fingers on the table top and reminisce. Comedian Steve Martin used to do a routine in which he smiled broadly with that distinct smile of his and said, “Remember a couple of years back when the earth (wry pause) … exploded? Remember how they built that giant space ark and loaded all of humanity into it, but the government decided not to tell the stupid people what was going on so that they wouldn't panic….” The light of understanding would then break across his face as he surveyed the faces of the audience and he would quickly backtrack saying, “Oooooooh! Uh…. Never mind!”

I can't help but think of that as I read Crossan's take on Luke. We are being asked to believe that the Gospels are works of cunning fiction by people laboring under some huge need to bring others under the spell of their delusion of a risen Christ. Part of their messianic delusion requires them to link the Nazarene carpenter with King David by portraying him as born in “the city of David,” Bethlehem. And so they do what to get Jesus there in time for his birth and debut as the Son of David?

Well, a lot of options are open to the creative Gospel writer whose only goal is to write a tall tale. You could just say that Mary's grandmother took sick and she went to visit her. You could claim that Joseph bought a plot of land and didn't want to leave Mary behind while he went to inspect it. You could cook up an angelic visitation commanding the Holy Family to go to Bethlehem and wait for their son to be born. Any of these stories have the tremendous advantage of being extremely hard to refute decades after the event. And since you've already stuffed your Gospel full of miracles, what's one more angel?

But no. According to Crossan, Luke tells the equivalent of Martin's space ark story: “Remember, a few decades back when the entire world was enrolled for taxation?” He invites, not just somebody to refute it, but everybody in his entire audience. That's an awfully strange thing to do if the enrollment never happened and an awfully odd way to establish the bona fides of your main character.

But, of course, when Crossan tells you that “there was no such census ever,” what he really means is “We have no solid evidence of the census that survives outside the New Testament.” Likewise, we also have no solid evidence of a great deal of the conquest of Gaul outside of one book by Julius Caesar. Yet nobody says that means the conquest never happened. And so the amazing possibility arises that Luke is actually reporting something that happened, which he and his audience both know of, but which is poorly attested outside the New Testament.

Memo to the media: Consider the possibility that biblical authors are not as preposterous as some biblical scholars.

Mark Shea is senior

content editor for