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The Nativity: Fact or Fiction?
23 December 2006
In Genesis 3:15, God says to Satan ‘And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on your head and you shall bruise him on the heel.’ Numerous Christian and Jewish Bible scholars have interpreted this verse as the first prophecy of the Messiah (see documentation). Known as the Protevangelium, it is the first Gospel promise made to sinful mankind, whose willful rebellion in the Garden of Eden brought forth death, suffering, and a corruption of God’s perfect creation.
This verse makes two implicit promises. First, it hints at the virginal conception, as the Messiah is referred to as the seed of the woman. This is contrary to the normal biblical practice of naming the father, and not the mother, of a child. Second, it hints at the Messiah’s suffering and ultimate victory.
Christmas is the traditional time to celebrate the birth of the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ. Christ’s birth is not only a fulfillment of several Old Testament prophecies. It is a real event supported by highly credible, historical evidence.
The narratives of Christ’s nativity are found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Critics have often asserted that these accounts markedly differ from one another, casting doubt on their historical reliability. In addition, they contain supernatural events which those with a naturalistic worldview find hard to accept.
However, an open-minded analysis will reveal that the Nativity was a historically credible event and that the supernatural accounts are not at all improbable, given the existence of God. The investigation will focus primarily on Luke’s Gospel, since his narrative is the longest and his reputation as an accurate historian is well known in scholarly circles.
Luke was a Greek physician and historian. He was the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, together accounting for 25% of the entire New Testament.1 In addition, he was a close companion of Paul, the Jewish Pharisee who converted to Christianity after initially beating, imprisoning, and executing early Christians.
Luke’s Gospel opens with an explicit declaration of intent to establish an accurate historical record of the life of Christ. And his historical investigation is based on direct and indirect eyewitness accounts from Paul, Peter, James, Mark, Mary (Jesus’ mother), and other early Christians.2
Luke’s historical scholarship is held in the highest esteem. Consider the words of Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (1851–1939), the archaeologist and professor from Oxford and Cambridge Universities:
Luke is a historian of the first rank … This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.2
Renowned archaeologist, John McRay, states:
He’s erudite, he’s eloquent, his Greek approaches classical quality, he writes as an educated man, and archaeological discoveries are showing over and over again that Luke is accurate in what he has to say.1
When did Luke write the Nativity story?
Many scholars date Luke’s Gospel around AD 80. However, they tend to ignore the cogent arguments of the liberal New Testament scholar J.A.T. Robinson for dating all the Gospels from AD 40–65 (see a summary of the reasons, and more information). Thus Luke should be dated around AD 60, since it is the first of Luke’s two-volume work.3 But even if the older were true, then Luke’s Gospel was written about fifty years after Christ.
Why is this important? Temporal proximity is a crucial factor in establishing historical
reliability. In other words, the closer the writings are to the actual events, the
more likely they are to be accurate and free from legendary contamination.
A.N. Sherwin-White (1911–1993), the eminent classical historian from Oxford University, conducted a careful study of Greek and Roman history to determine the rate at which legend accumulates. The evidence revealed that not even two full generations would be enough for legendary development to wipe out the historical core of a historical story, as he says:
The agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time ... . Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, [showing that] even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core.4
Ironically, adding at least two generations to Jesus’ death lands you in the second century AD, the exact time when the apocryphal gospels begin to appear. Therefore, Luke’s nativity narrative, even if written about fifty years after Christ, is well within two generations. Thus Sherwin-White had good reason to say:
For the New Testament of Acts, the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming … any attempt to reject its basic historicity, even in matters of detail, must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.5
How does Luke’s Gospel compare to other famous historical texts?
There are two generally reliable accounts of Hannibal (247–183 BC ) crossing the Alps in 218 BC to attack Rome. Polybius (c. 200 – c. 118 BC), a Greek historian, chronicled Hannibal’s invasion at least 50 years after the actual event.6 Livy (c. 59 BC – AD 17), a Roman historian, wrote of Hannibal’s invasion about 190 years after the actual event.7
Another famous event in history was Julius Caesar (100–44 BC) crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC without disbanding his army.8 Suetonius (c. 69/75 – after 130), a Roman historian, wrote his historical account of Caesar crossing the Rubicon at least 110 years after the event,9 and it is considered to be generally reliable. In addition, the two earliest biographies of Alexander the Great, written by Arrian and Plutarch, were written over 400 years after his death.2 And these biographies are considered to be generally trustworthy. See also the comparison in The Bible's Manuscript Evidence.
Aren’t there discrepancies between Luke’s and Matthew’s Nativity accounts?
An ill-informed skeptic might view these discrepancies as contradictions. However, a historian would note that these apparent inconsistencies are all in the secondary details. Despite the differences in secondary details, there is a historically reliable core that is common to both Gospels. The virgin Mary is told by an angel that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit. She is told to name the boy Jesus. The baby Jesus is born in Bethlehem, and after a short time, they return to Nazareth.
The two historical accounts of Hannibal crossing the Alps are completely inconsistent in their secondary details.10 However, no classical historian doubts that Hannibal crossed the Alps to attack Rome. There is still a historical core to a historical story that is considered very credible.
Ironically, the differences in the secondary details between the two Nativity narratives can be viewed as positive evidence for the story’s authenticity. They reveal that we have two independent narrators recording different aspects of the same great event (see also The Gospel accounts of the birth of Christ are harmonizable and historically reliable).
Aren’t there problems with Luke’s census?
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Images like this show the wise men visiting the baby in the stable. However, this event was about a year after the birth.
Many critics assert that there is no evidence of the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. However, there is evidence for three different censuses around the time of Christ. First, Josephus (c. 37 – c. 100 AD), the famous Jewish historian, records a census around AD 6.11 Second, a papyrus dated from AD 48 indicates that the entire family was involved in a census.12 Third, an official government order in AD 104 records how the Roman Prefect of Egypt ordered all people to return to their own homes to carry out the census.12 Therefore, there is historical precedent for the type of census that is described in the Gospel of Luke.
Luke also writes that the census was conducted when Quirinius was governing Syria, during the reign of Herod the Great. The problem is that Herod died in 4 BC and Quirinius didn’t begin ruling Syria until AD 6. However, renowned archaeologist Sir William Ramsay concluded from various coin inscriptions that Quirinius ruled Syria on two separate occasions.12 Also, some Greek language scholars have declared that Luke’s text should actually be translated, ‘This census took place before Quirinius was governing Syria.’ (See this discussion on the census for documentation.) Either way, credible explanations exist.
How can we accept the miraculous events of the Nativity?
It has already been established that Luke is considered one of the most reliable historians of all time. The argument that his documentation of supernatural occurrences somehow undermines his reliability can only be utilized by presupposing that the God of the Bible does not exist. On the other hand, if one presupposes the existence of the God of the Bible, then the account of His miraculous intervention at the Nativity is perfectly logical and internally consistent. See also Miracles and Science.
Christ’s birth is one of the greatest events in all of history. Although the popular media and most educational institutions largely ridicule the biblical version of the Nativity (see Time and Newsweek blatantly attack Christian doctrine for a refutation of a systematic attack two years ago), a fair-minded analysis paints a different picture. Foretold by Old Testament prophecies, supported by historical evidence, and logically feasible based on the existence of the God of the Bible, the Nativity is much more than just a nice story. It is the story of the Creator of the universe bursting into human history as a physical descendant of the first Adam. Yet, unlike the first Adam who became a sinful man, Christ was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). As the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), Christ was born into this world to suffer a humiliating death on the cross in order to die for the sins of the whole world. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16; see also Good News!)
References and notes
- Strobel, L. The Case for Christ, p. 97, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1998. Return to text.
- Craig, William Lane, The Evidence for Jesus, 2005. Return to text.
- Strobel, Ref. 3, p. 34 Return to text.
- Sherwin-White, A.N., Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, pp. 189–19, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1963. Return to text.
- Sherwin-White, Ref. 6, p. 189. Return to text.
- Polybius, The Histories or The Rise of the Roman Empire 3(50ff.), c. 140 BC., Return to text.
- Titus Livius, Ab Urbe condita (History of Rome, lit. ‘From the founding of the city’) 21(32):6–37(6), 19 BC. Return to text.
- The Rubicon is a river in modern-day northern Italy marking the border between the ancient provinces of Cisalpine Gaul and Italy. Roman generals were supposed to disband their armies before crossing it on their return to Rome. By refusing to do so, Caesar was declaring war. Return to text.
- Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars 1:31–33, AD 121. Return to text.
- Strobel, L. Ref. 3, p. 216 Return to text.
- When did the Luke 2 census occur? ChristianAnswers.net Return to text.
- Strobel, L. Ref. 3, pp. 101–102 Return to text.