In typical blog style, here I go again ruining everyone’s views of some of our favorite holidays…but I have to educate all of you!
10 key points for those who doubt the Christmas story
21 December 2005
The Evangelical Alliance today issued a robust response to those who would dismiss the Christmas story as a myth or seek to sideline Christian words and symbols in a misguided attempt not to cause offence. R. David Muir, Public Policy Director at the Evangelical Alliance, said, â€œI thoroughly concur with the recent call by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and his predecessor, Dr George Carey, for Christians to uphold the traditions of Christmas and the nativity story. Christians who trust the Gospel writersâ€™ account of the birth of Christ are not indulging in mere wish-fulfilment. There is evidence for what they write and it deserves to be taken seriously.â€
Rev Dr David Hilborn, Head of Theology at the Alliance, offers a summary of recent historical, archaeological and scientific research and urges sceptics to bear the following facts in mind:
1. Isnâ€™t the whole Jesus story pure fiction?
Jesus is referred to as a real historical person by several first and second century writers who have no interest in promoting his cause. The Roman historians Tacitus, Pliny the Younger and Suetonius, the Jewish chronicler Josephus, the Samaritan-born Thallus, the Syrian prisoner Mara Bar Serapion and the satirist Greek Lucian all discuss his life and deeds. Indeed, the fact of Jesusâ€™ existence is exceptionally well attested as compared with other key figures of the ancient world.
2. Donâ€™t even the different Gospel accounts disagree about Jesusâ€™ birth?
The birth of Christ is recorded in two of the four gospels: Matthew (1:18-2:23) and Luke (1:26-38; 2:1-20). Very few incidents in Jesusâ€™ life and ministry are common to all four evangelists. There is certainly variation between Matthew and Luke. Yet despite these differences, Matthewâ€™s and Lukeâ€™s accounts are finally complementary rather than contradictory. They agree on the crucial details that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit while Mary was still a virgin and betrothed to Joseph, that her child was to be called both Jesus and Christ, that he was in the line of David, would inherit Davidâ€™s throne as â€˜King of the Jewsâ€™ and that he was divine.
3. Was Jesus born in the year 0?
Certainly not â€“ because there is no year zero in the calendar, which moves seamlessly from 1BC to 1AD. In any case, there is nothing in the biblical accounts which dates Jesusâ€™ birth explicitly to a particular day, month or year, although it is located within the Governorship of Quirinus and the Kingship of Herod. Historians argue how these two tenures relate, but they can be plausibly reconciled.
4. Was there really no room at the Inn?
We cannot know precise hotel vacancy rates in Palestine two millennia on. But with so many people moving about and looking for rooms because of the census it is unsurprising that there may only have been some kind of animal yard, cave or stable to accommodate them.
5. Was Jesus really born of a virgin?
As to whether Mary herself was likely to have been a virgin, her betrothal to Joseph would almost certainly have been ‘arranged’. Their engagement would have lasted a year, during which time they would have continued to live in their own homes and would have been expected to have abstained from sexual relations. Besides all this, as we have seen, both Matthew and Luke stress that Jesus was not only born of a virgin but also conceived of the Holy Spirit. If one accepts this it should really not be so hard to accept that the birth took place through a virgin.
6. Was there really ‘a star in the east’?
It has usually been accounted for in one of six ways: It may have been Halleyâ€™s Comet, which appeared in 11BC – although this is rather early for the birth of Jesus. It may have been another comet. It may have been a planetary conjunction. It may have been a nova. Novae happen regularly: a faint star suddenly glows much brighter, and then fades. It may have been a supernova. Or it may have been a lunar occultation or â€˜eclipseâ€™ of Jupiter. However we seek to explain things cosmologically, it is clear that stars do not usually â€˜stopâ€™ over places. We are meant to understand that God is involved in Jesusâ€™ birth in a miraculous way.
7. Were there really three wise men?
Wise Men (â€˜Magiâ€™) certainly existed. The Greek historian Herodotus described them as a tribe of the Medes who had a priestly function in the Persian empire. The Old Testament prophet Daniel confirms this, and adds that that they are a class of ‘wise men’ who practise astrology and interpret dreams and oracles (Dan. 1:20, 2:27; 5:15). The idea that they were three in number has been inferred from their three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
8. Was there really a â€˜Slaughter of the Innocentsâ€™?
This incident is not corroborated by sources beyond the Bible. However, this action is quite consistent with what historiansâ€™ record about the last years of Herodâ€™s reign. External sources attest that he was violent and tyrannical. The other point to make is that Bethlehem was a small town. Hence a relatively small number of children are likely to have been killed in its ‘vicinity’. Indeed, even quite conservative scholars have put the figure as low as 12. In the scale of world events, it is not so surprising that it failed to make the ancient history books.
9. Was the birth of Jesus really foretold through angels and dreams?
These details of the birth narratives are never likely to be ‘proved’ by historical research. All the same, it is clear is that there are still many reports today of angelic encounters and prescient dreams. This suggests that, even if they cannot be laboratory tested, the mention of such things by Matthew and Luke can scarcely be confined to the realm of ancient myth.
10. Does faith need facts?
Christianity is not a legend or a fable. It makes historical truth-claims, and it has historical origins. It is centred on a real man, born at a specific time in a particular place. Granted, determining whether that man is also the Son of God, the Lord and Saviour of the world, must ultimately involve an act of faith. But it is misleading to divorce the â€˜faithâ€™ element from the â€˜factâ€™ element.