Monday, December 10, 2007

73% of Britons know where Jesus was born

First Followers points to a survey in today's Daily Telegraph that attempts to show how ignorant Brits are about the Nativity Story:

Britons who don't know where Jesus was born
By Jonathan Petre, Religion Correspondent
A survey found 27 per cent of Britons aged 18 and over were unable to identify Bethlehem as Jesus's birth place, while the figure rose to 36 per cent of people aged between 18 and 24.

One in ten of those questioned thought the answer was Nazareth and a similar number said Jerusalem.

The poll also found that more than one in four people - 27 per cent - were unaware that an angel told Mary that she would give birth to a son, with some saying she was informed by the shepherds.

Most people surveyed believed that Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Nazareth rather than Egypt when they escaped from King Herod, and a few even said the holy family's destination was Rome.

The survey also revealed that just over half did not know that John the Baptist was Jesus's cousin . . .
It's a regular feature around this time of year to have a survey like this. A couple of year's ago, The Times attempted to trick clergy into providing wrong answers to questions too in order to grab a headline. The article pulls a classic stunt in the presentation of dull statistics and instead of drawing attention to the bland but relevant fact that according to its survey, the vast majority answered the key question correctly, it focuses instead on the 27% figure who did not. So the headline becomes "Britons who don't know where Jesus was born" rather than "the vast majority of Britons know where Jesus was born".

There are other problems too. It is true that Elizabeth is described as Mary's kinswoman (συγγενίς, Luke 1.36), but it may be a little too specific to talk about John the Baptist as Jesus's "cousin", and this is a detail that is distinctive in Luke. I don't think that it is shocking that "just over half did not know that John the Baptist was Jesus's cousin". Rather, it's impressive that so many know this (possible) minor detail in Luke's account. And it is worse. Look at how the question is framed, "3. Who was Jesus' cousin?" This is not the right way to frame a question if you are trying to find out whether people are aware of a possible relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. I think the 26% who said that they did not know might have been on the ball here. And the 6% who said "James" may also have been right, at least if they were following Jerome.

And then take the last question, which is really badly worded:
4. Where did Joseph, Mary and Jesus go to escape from King Herod when Jesus was a young child?

22 per cent correctly said Egypt. Of the 78 per cent who were wrong, 52 per cent said Nazareth, five per cent said Babylon and one per cent said Rome.
The correct answer is, of course, Egypt (Matt. 2.14). But Nazareth is not so daft an answer, since it is where the family had arrived by the end of Matthew's story (Matt. 2.23) and they were going there to escape another Herod, Archelaus. True, Archelaus was an ethnarch and not a king, but then Mark calls Herod the Tetrarch (Antipas) a king too (Mark 6.14), so if some of the British punters in this survey got their Herods mixed up, who can blame them?

In other words, this piece is a fine example of how to turn a not-very-well-worded survey into a news story.

7 comments:

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Aren't there scholars who argue that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth instead of Bethlehem, or is this one of those "according to the Bible" questions?

steph said...

I'm not actually sure what a Briton is ... I would want to know how many were surveyed and how many of those surveyed were practising Christians. But even so the questions treat the New Testament as fact and don't make allowances for ambiguities, contradictions or alternative interpretations. Some of these answers are debatable like Jesus' birthplace and cousin.

Hypatia said...

I understood that Bethlehem was a manipulation to make it appear that prophecy had been fulfilled.

Geoff Hudson said...

In a very small survey, one Briton asked, isn't it strange that we have two birth stories? Perhaps there was originally only one. In fact at the start of Luke, the Briton could be forgiven if he thought that the story was to be about 'John the Baptist' son of Zechariah.

James F. McGrath said...

I suspect that this was an 'according to the Bible' question but asked by someone who didn't realize you need to specify that.

The same problem with surveys can be seen in religion and science. If you are a Christian who accepts evolution and are given a choice between 'recently created by God' and 'developed over millions of years and God had nothing to do with it', neither answer will reflect your viewpoint, and so you contribute either way to the impression that people are all polarized into two camps.

Anyone want to make a survey that is properly nuanced? Would having the same questions but a range from 'strongly agree' to 'strongly disagree' help?

Jaume said...

More and more people, particularly in Europe, pay more attention to what independent scholars are saying about Jesus and early Christianity, than to traditional teachings from the Bible or the Church, so I guess that many of those who answered "Nazareth" were pretty sure that they were giving the right answer and that the Bethlehem birth is a pious legend.

Doug Chaplin said...

FWIW, the first question was worded: "According to the story in the Christian Bible, where was Jesus born?" and that "According to the story" is, I think implicit in the other questions, having been asked at the start. That doesn't necessarily make them well-worded questions, and also ignores the fact that there are two stories in the Christian Bible, but then this is the Torygraph!