A couple of years ago, ComRes publish a poll1 showing that 61% of respondents view Christmas as mainly for children rather than adults. I am certainly not in that 61%! The more Christmasses I have had, the more in love I have grown with the season and all its festive paraphernalia. I cannot help but get excited when Mariah Carey starts to be played on the radio, the pubs start serving mulled wine, and our streets light up in colourful LEDs.
And beneath the presents, pomp and partying, lies the strange biblical story of the baby Jesus being born in a stable manger in Bethlehem c.2000 years ago. So what are we to make of the biblical Christmas story? Is it a fictional fairy tale penned to keep children well-behaved? Is it an ancient myth that has spiralled down the ages? Or is there historical truth behind Christmas?
The Story of Christmas
The majority of the Christmas story comes from the gospel of Luke, which will be familiar prose for those who attend Christmas carol services. Here is the story as told by the apostle Luke2:
1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
2 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.
The Evidence for the Story?
To investigate the historical credibility of Luke’s story of Christmas, there are three questions worth posing:
- Is the author a credible historian?
- Is there corroborating evidence that backs up the story?
- Is there any evidence that disproves Luke’s account?
(a) Is the Author a Credible Historian?
It is firstly interesting to note that Luke opens his gospel in chapter 1:1-4 by unequivocally claiming that what follows is a faithful and accurate reportage of historical events. He addresses his book a friend “Theophilus”, and states that his book is a thorough (“carefully investigated” v3), comprehensive (“everything from the beginning” v3), and systematic (“orderly account” v4) historical document.
What is also notable is that the vast majority of historical scholarship affirms both Luke’s credibility as a highly reliable and accurate historian, and his identity as the true author of the gospel of Luke in our bibles. These conclusions stem from a significant body of ancient historical documents, external from the bible, that mention the apostle Luke, such as Iranaeus’ Adversus haereses (180AD)3 or the Muratorian Canon (c.170AD)
The scholarly conclusions are impressive. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay writes: “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… [he] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians”4. Professor of classics E. M. Blaiklock writes “For accuracy of detail, and for evocation of atmosphere, Luke stands, in fact, with Thucydides [the father of scientific history]” 5
Thus Luke has won the status in historical scholarship as a legitimate and faithful ancient historian.
(b) Is There Corroborating Evidence that Backs up the Story?
However, for me, what is even more impressive is volume of trusted historical documents that corroborate the events depicted in the gospel of Luke, such as the writings of Tacitus, Josephus and Pliny the Younger. If the bible did not exists, and we would still have trusted documented historical evidence that Jesus (references in brackets):
- Jesus grew up in Nazareth (The Babylonian Talmud, vol III, Sanhedrin 43a, 281)
- He was a wise man (Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII,33)
- He went around teaching (Lucian of Samosata,The Death of Peregrine, 11-13)
- He was called “the Messiah” (Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII,33)
- He claimed to be God (Pliny the Younger, Letters,96)
- He had many disciples (Josephus, Antiquities, XVIII,33)
- He did supernatural acts ( and The Babylonian Talmud, vol III, Sanhedrin 43a, 281)
- He was arrested and crucified under Pontius Pilate on the eve of Passover ( Joesphus and Talmud)
- Three days later, lots of people were claiming to have seen the risen Jesus ( Josephus)
In addition to the historical record, the archaeological backing for the events of Luke is substantial. In the early 1900s, 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. This lead Ramsay to his unequivocal conclusion quoted above4.
Therefore, history and archaeology have provided swathes of corroborating evidence that back up the claims made by Luke in his gospel.
(c) Is There Any Evidence that Disproves Luke’s Account?
In popular discourse, there are various parts of the biblical Christmas story that have had their historical validity queried. I write about these in more depth in my article Archaeology: Digging for Christmas. However, in my experience, the most common argument against the historical credibility of Luke’s account of Christmas is the purported occurrence of the Empire-wide census in Luke 2:1.
On the face of it, it does seem like an unlikely story; it would be extraordinary for a government to demand that every citizen return to their birthplace in order to participate in a census. In fact, the claim that no such census ever occurred even made it into the fountain of all knowledge that is BBC’s QI television programme as a true, undisputed fact.
However, the archaeological evidence tells a different story. 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 allotments6
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.
And aside from the census, I know of no historical or archaeological discovery that has disproven any of the reported facts in Luke’s account of Christmas, or indeed any of the events in the four gospels.
The Message of the Story
For me, the evidence behind the biblical Christmas story is compelling. The Christmas story seems to be firmly rooted in real historical events that occurred in Israel c.2000 years ago.
But what are we to do with this story? If this story is really true, what does it mean for us?
I think the meaning behind the story is elegantly summed up in the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds in Luke 2:10-11:
10 But the angel said to them [the shepherds], “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.
There are three keys points to highlight: the announcement, atonement and acceptance.
(a) The Announcement (v10)
The angels announce the birth of Jesus as “good news that will cause great joy for all the people”. The Christmas story is not just a message for Christians: it is news that the whole world is to receive. The meaning of Christmas, if heard, understood, and acted on correctly, will bring life-changing joy. As Founder of Christianity Explored Rico Tice often says “If it [the Christmas story] is not the best news you’ve ever heard, you can be sure you’ve misunderstood it”7
Christmas story is not a drama to be entertained by, or lecture to be memorised: it is a message that should change us.
(b) The Atonement (v11a)
So why is the message of Christmas “good news”? In verse 11 the angels explain: “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you”. The baby Jesus was born to ultimately bring salvation to the world.
As Jesus grew up and became a preacher, he taught that all people have rejected and broken God’s moral code, by trying to live with ourselves as lord of our life, rather than Him; the bible calls this “sin”. And because God is a God of unfailing justice, who cannot leave sin unpunished, we all deserve judgement and punishment for our sins; the bible calls this “hell”. If we remain as we are, all of us deserve judgement.
However, God loved us enough to not leave us like this. On the first Christmas day, Jesus, the Son of God, became a human being born of the Virgin Mary. And Jesus grew up to eventually die by Roman crucifixion on a cross. On the cross, Jesus took upon himself all the sins of the world, and with them, the punishment that we deserve. Jesus died so that our sins could be wiped away, so that we need not face God’s judgement, but may live forever in paradise with Him. The Christmas story is a great story of rescue, as the saviour of the world was born.
(c) The Acceptance (v11b)
The angels conclude v11 by declaring Jesus as “Lord”. Jesus taught that in order to accept salvation and gain eternal life, we must individually make the decision to put our trust or “faith” in Jesus as saviour and Lord. This means acknowledging that we are sinful and in need of salvation, trusting in Jesus’ saving death on the cross, and accepting Jesus as Lord of our life (like the angels, and later the shepherds). Salvation is a free gift available to all, as the carol proclaims: “light and life to all He brings”8. But like all gifts, it needs to be accepted before it can be enjoyed. And we accept the Jesus’ gift by putting our faith in Him.
When I accepted Jesus as my Lord, it changed my life, and for the first time I began to properly understand the true joy of the good news of Christmas. So this Christmas, why not have a look at Jesus for yourself? For the Christmas story promises:
“No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in”9
- Luke 1:1-4, 2:1-21 (NIV)
- Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 4.
- Ramsay, The Bearing Of Recent Discovery On The Trustworthiness Of The New Testament, 222, 1915
- Blaiklock, The Archaeology of the New Testament, p. 96, Zondervan Publishing Houst, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1970.
- As quoted by John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1991), 155
- Rico Tice, quoted from an interview for Christianity Explored Ministries. Video at: https://www.facebook.com/ChristianityExploredMinistries/videos/133837080640688/
- Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Charles Wesley)
- O Little Town of Bethlehem (Lubbock, Marchand, Mclachlan)