I’ve been to many Christmas services over the years. And in my experience, the standard Christmas message usually opens with a summary of the average person’s Christmas season, involving celebrations, shopping, family time and general happiness at superficial things. However, my experiences of the Christmas season are nothing of the sort. For me, Christmas means tearing my hair out over exam revision ahead of January modules or mock exams, being carted around to freezing churches and attempting to move my fingers over my violin in one of 7 or 8 carol services in the space of two weeks, and watching utter garbage on the television.
But regardless of all that, one thing remains pretty much constant through most people’s Christmas season- weird stuff happens. People’s daily routines go out the window, people find new desires to talk to individuals they usually never talk to, and the food consumed makes absolutely no sense; I’ve never met someone who has chosen to eat hot wine, liquidised bread or whatever goes into eggnog, at any time of the year other than Christmas!
So why does all this happen? Why does life (at least in the UK) change so drastically at Christmas? Is this just the British public doing what they do best, and partying given any thin excuse? Or is this bizarre time of year grounded in some bizarre reality?
The Christian Christmas Claim
Christianity claims the 25th December is a commemoration of the birth of a baby named Jesus c.2000 years ago. The Christian narrative of the first Christmas is a whacky one involving frightened shepherds tracking a moving star, Eastern travellers carrying expensive oils and perfumes, and arguably the greatest possible biological anomaly, in a human virgin birth.
So did any of this actually happen? This article aims to look at if there is any evidence, and in particular archaeological evidence, for the Christmas story.
Evidence for the Gospel Accounts?
In the bible, the Christian Christmas narrative comes largely from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are the first and third books of the New Testament.
In my article Can We Trust the Gospels?, I unpacked a little of the analysis historians do to assess whether a historical document is reliable, and how well the gospels stand up to scrutiny. However, with this article, my aim is to look at the discipline of archaeology, and whether archaeological findings back-up or refute the credibility of the Christmas narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Can We Trust the Authors?
Before I turn to archaeology, I think it is worth introducing the writers whose work I am scrutinising in the first part of this article. The biblical characters of Matthew and Luke are fascinating ones. Matthew (or “Levi” in Hebrew) was a tax-collector who became one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. For several years, Matthew was at the epicentre of the public and personal life of Jesus. This makes Matthew an eye-witness to a huge number of events of Jesus’ life, as well as someone who had direct lines to Jesus’ close friends, family, and anyone else from whom detailed information about the life of Jesus could be gleaned. Luke was a medical physician and disciple of the apostle Paul. Luke was also a historian, who dedicated a huge amount of time to methodically and meticulously investigating the historical Jesus, including speaking to the people Jesus knew and going to the places Jesus visited.
Matthew and Luke, are therefore people well placed to write accurate and detailed biographies of the historical Jesus, and I think there is strong external and internal evidence that the gospels of Matthew and Luke were written by Matthew the tax collector and Luke the physician. This includes corroborating evidence from writers such as Irenaeus, a 2nd Century church leader, in AD 180 who wrote: “Matthew published his own Gospel in Rome and founded the church there… Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher.” (1)
For more on the evidence for the gospel writers really being who Christians claim, see Can We Trust the Gospels?.
Does Archaeology Back-Up the Credibility of the Gospels?
In recent decades, the gospel of Luke has been subject to a huge amount of scrutiny by the archaeological profession. Arguably the most thorough of this was done in the early 1900s, when renowned archaeologist and historian Sir William Ramsay dedicated many years to analysis of the geographical references in Luke’s gospel, and its sequel Acts of the Apostle, and comparing them to archaeological digs in Asia Minor, numerous of which he carried out himself. Ramsay analysed Luke’s references to 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands, and to his surprise, did not find a single error. Ramsay’s conclusion was unequivocal: “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy…this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians” (2)
In fact, there have been several instances in which scholars initially thought that the gospel writers were wrong, but subsequent archaeological findings have confirmed that the gospel writers were correct from the start.
For example, Luke chapter 3 opens with:
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene– during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (3)
The emboldened character has been the source of controversy; Luke claims that Lysanias was the tetrarch (ruler of the principality) of Abilene in c. AD 27. However, it is established historical fact that Lysanais was not a tetrach but a ruler of Chalcis, around 500 years earlier that Luke’s proposed date. Skeptics saw this as an error of Luke’s writing, thus throwing into question his historical credibility.
However, a subsequent archaeological discovery was made of a temple inscription found at Abila, and dating to between AD 14 and 29. It named Lysanias as the Tetrarch of the locality: “For the salvation of the August lords and of all their household, Nymphaeus, freedman of Eagle. Lysanias tetrarch established this street and other things”. (4) This discovery showed beyond doubt that Luke had been correct in his documentation: it turns out there were two government officials named Lysanias!
Another example of archaeological evidence backing up controversial historical claims is the story of Jesus’ healing of a paralysed man at the pool of Bethesda, in John 5: 1-15. In verse 2, John describes the pool as “surrounded by five covered colonnades (or “porticos”)” (5). Like the narrative of Lysanias, it was known that these types of pools generally did not have five porticos, so critics cited this as a gospel inaccuracy.
However, digs conducted in the 19th century by archaeologist and architect Conrad Schick discovered the Pool of Bethesda c. 40 feet below ground, and just as John wrote, it had five porticos!
These are two of numerous examples of archaeology backing up specific and sometimes controversial claims made my the gospels, thus providing weighty evidence that they are accurate and reliable historical sources.
Archaeological Evidence for Christmas
As well as analysing the historical credibility of the general writings of Matthew and Luke, the question also needs to be asked: is there specific evidence for the Christmas story? This is perhaps a trickier question than it appears. The birth of Jesus was obviously a highly private affair, that apparently took place in a small, insignificant location. Even the eye-witnesses of the baby in the manger are scarce, and the ones that were present do not make easy sources for record-taking historians; the shepherds were probably uneducated, illiterate men with no recounted defining characteristics one could use to track down and interview them, and the Magi, upon visiting the baby Jesus, fled for their lives from King Herod. Therefore documented historical records for the actual birth of Jesus are understandably scarce.
However, despite the lack of documented evidence, there are certainly components of Christmas narrative that can be investigated archaeologically.
It is quite a common notion banded around that the census that forced Mary and Joseph to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem never happened. And on the face of it, it does seem like an unlikely story; it would be an extraordinary ask for a government to demand that every citizen return to their birthplace in order to participate in a census. In fact, the claim that such no census ever occurred even made it to the fountain of all knowledge that is BBC’s QI television programme as a true, undisputed fact.
Naturally, I decided to look into this, and found that this claim of no such censuses ever happening is simply totally false. Relatively recent discoveries of Ancient census forms have shown that censuses were indeed carried out in this era and area, which involved citizens having to travel back to their place of birth.
One document, British Museum papyrus 904, is from the year AD 104 and reads:
Gaius Vibius Maximus, Prefect of Egypt (says): Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments (6)
Another document, Oxyrhynchus papyrus 255 from AD 48, details that families needed to follow the father of the house to his birth place.
We now know that these types of censuses were regular and followed a 14 year cycle, and thus the archaeological evidence points strongly in favour of the census described in the Christmas narrative taking place.
The Existence of Nazareth
It surprises many Christians to learn that skeptics have asserted for a long time that the town of Nazareth never actually existed. However,the archaeological profession now strongly disagrees, due to a number of fairly recent discoveries.
One of the most significant discoveries was of a inscription found in Caesarea dating to the late 3rd Century that lists 24 priestly “courses” (or families), with each course coupled with the name of their residing town. The inscription includes the Hapizzez family who were registered to the town of Nazareth. (7) This completely nullified any doubt that Nazareth was a indeed a real Ancient settlement.
In addition, archaeological digs have uncovered 1st Century tombs in the vicinity of where Nazareth is proposed to have been located, which would establish the village’s limits (because Jewish law stated that burials had to take place outside the town’s boundaries). The renowned archaeologist Jack Finegan, concludes “From the tombs … it can be concluded that Nazareth was a strongly Jewish settlement in the Roman period.” (8)
Is There Archaeological Evidence for Christmas?
Those of you who know me will know that the discipline of archaeology is very far outside my area of expertise (although for various reasons, it’s recently become a little personal interest of mine). Therefore all I’ve been able to do is give a superficial glance round the archaeological evidence for the historical Christmas narrative. However, it seems to me that archaeological discoveries have built a strong case for the celebrations we indulge in every December being rooted in a real narrative of a baby born in Bethlehem c. 2000 years ago.
This feels like a weird place to end this article, given my conclusion is simply “the evidence says that c. 2000 years ago, a baby was born”. For 2000 words, this is a pretty unexciting culmination.
However, I cannot end here. For me, there is one more thing that needs investigating- the identity of the baby in the manger. This baby grew up to become the most revolutionary man who has ever walked the Earth. More accounts of his life were written that for is contemporary Emperor of Rome, his teaching produced the biggest world religion in human history, he cultivated the most devote of followers and the most violent of enemies, and he made arguably the most outrageous and ridiculous claims a human can make: he claimed to be God in human form, and by trusting in His death, He can grant us eternal life in Heaven. In the fourth and fifth chapters of my book Evidence for the Existence of God (which can be found in full on the banner at the top of this blog), I investigate the historical evidence surrounding this man Jesus (Historical Evidence Part 1 and Part 2) and try deduce what history makes of the identity of the baby in the manger. It was an investigation I initially did around 3 years ago, and what I found totally changed my life!
So as you enjoy the Christmas festivities and celebrations, why not have a look for yourself at the child behind the Christmas story? If you are anything like me, you may be surprised and what you find!
1. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 3.4
2. William M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (1915), 222
3. Luke 3: 1-2 (NIV), emphasis added
4. P. Bockh, Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum 4521
5. John 5:2 (NIV)
6. As quoted by John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1991), 155
7. Avi-Yonah, M. (1962). “A List of Priestly Courses from Caesarea”. Israel Exploration Journal 12: 138.
8. Jack Finegan, The Archaeology of the New Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press., 1992), 46