Another Christmas season looms. Millions of Australians will attend a token church service or two, and familiar carols will be belted out. But most people will give only cursory thought to the events – about 2,020 years ago – which gave rise to these traditions.
Is the whole thing pious fiction? Some would insist it is. Others would say that, whatever actually happened, it had no cosmic significance.
What cannot be disputed is that the religion now known as Christianity emerged in the Roman province of Judea (part of modern-day Israel) in the mid-first century AD. It was "started up" by a few hundred people who had been followers of the man Jesus of Nazareth. They claimed that Jesus was, literally, God "made flesh", and their grounds for that claim were recorded in the documents which became the New Testament. Billions find those grounds convincing.
How much of the Christmas story can confidently be accepted as fact, and how much must be taken on faith?
According to New Testament scholar G.N. Stanton, "the infancy narratives contain both history and poetry, as well as considerable literary and theological artistry, all of which are closely interwoven and cannot easily be disentangled".
Countless experts have tackled these issues and what follows is the tip of an iceberg. For those who wish to learn more, Raymond Brown's The Birth of the Messiah may be the most comprehensive work to date.
The Gospels, as ever, are the starting point. But herein lays a curious problem: only two of the four, Matthew and Luke, deal with Jesus' birth at any length. There is overlap between them on key points – which is significant, because the authors worked independently of each other – but there are also notable differences of emphasis.
Tradition has it that Matthew's main source was Joseph, Jesus' (human) father, and that Luke's was Mary, his mother.
With that in mind, it's convenient to scrutinise the Christmas story in two stages.
First, its main factual elements: these are either realities of history or not, assessable on the balance of probabilites by the usual methods. Second, the specifically supernatural elements of the story.
When was Jesus born?
Awkwardly, it was not in 1 AD – even though the term "first century" is popularly understood as connoting the one hundred year period immediately following Jesus' birth. (AD stands for Anno Domini (Latin for the year of our Lord) and BC for before Christ.)
The sixth-century Italian monk who formulated the dating system which the world now uses, Dionysius Exiguus, made a mistake. He miscalculated the date of King Herod's death relative to the founding of Rome.
Most historians agree on the period 7 BC – 5 BC as the most likely range of dates for Jesus' birth. This would square with the firmly-established fact that Jesus was crucified by the Romans in or about 30 AD, in Jerusalem, when a man in his mid-thirties.
Certainly, his birth cannot have been later than 4 BC, because it happened "during the time of King Herod" (Matthew 2:1; see also Luke 1:5). No one disputes that Herod died in that year.
6 BC would be consistent with Luke's statement that Jesus' birth coincided with "the first census that took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (Luke 2:2).
It used to be objected that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 AD. But there is now archaeological evidence that Quirinius had served an earlier term there as a governor (or military "ruler" or "proconsul"), beginning around 11 BC. There is also firm evidence that a Roman census was conducted in Judea in 7 BC. This was a different census to that conducted in 6 AD (and to which Luke refers separately in Acts 5:37).
(Incidentally, the precise date on which Christmas is celebrated in the West – 25 December – is a convention only. No date is specified in the Gospels, not even a season. The eventual choice of 25 December was made in the early fourth century, during the reign of Emporor Constantine, for various theological and political reasons.)
Who were Jesus' parents?
There is near-universal agreement among experts that their names were indeed Joseph and Mary, as the Bible says. In the words of Professor John Meier, "the[ir] identification … is secure".
Where was Jesus born?
As almost everyone knows, the Bible says Bethlehem, a little town in Judea. (See Matthew 2:1, Luke 2:4, John 7:42.)
Many scholars have challenged this, on the basis that Jesus grew up with his parents in the Galilean village of Nazareth, to the north. They assert that the evangelists substituted Bethlehem in order to "fulfil" an Old Testament prophecy that the Jewish Messiah would come from there (cf. Micah 5:2). They reject the biblical explanation, viz., that because Joseph's descendents were from Bethlehem, he was required to return there with his family for the purpose of the Roman census (Luke 2:1-5)
Considered in isolation, the problem cannot be resolved definitively. But whether the birth took place in Bethlehem or Nazareth, few experts question one remarkably distinctive aspect of the story: that the new-born baby Jesus was laid down in a "manger", a type of feeding trough. (See Luke 2:7.) Why invent that peculiar detail?
This does not necessarily mean that the birth took place in a stable, let alone in the close company of mooing cows and bleating sheep. The Gospels are silent on those points, and it's possible the family spent the night in the open. That would be consistent with the nearby presence of shepherds.
Did three wise men visit the baby Jesus?
This is another beloved feature of the Nativity story. Matthew refers to an unspecified number of "Magi" (Greek for wise men) who "came from the East to Jerusalem and asked 'Where is the one who was born king of the Jews?'"
After being summoned to confer with King Herod, they made their way to Bethlehem, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (See Matthew 2:1-11.)
Sceptics allege that these are further embellishments, included by Matthew to "fulfil" Old Testament prophecy (e.g., Numbers 24:17, Psalm 72, Isaiah 60) and to link the young Jesus from the outset with non-Jewish peoples.
Again, however, there are historical facts bolstering the Gospel account. Many scholars have postulated that the Magi were highly-born astrologer-priests, most probably from Mesopotamia. I will come presently to the "star" which, according to tradition, guided them to Judea and, ultimately, Bethlehem.
Did Herod order a "massacre of the innocents" in consequence of Jesus' birth?
According to Matthew's Gospel, some time after Jesus' birth, Herod arranged the slaughter of all boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem who were two years old and under (Matthew 2:16). Herod's plan – which failed, because Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt – was to "get" Jesus at all costs and thereby eliminate a potential threat to his rule.
Once again, many sceptics dismiss this episode as an invention to "fulfil" prophecy (in this case Hosea 11:1 and Jeremiah 31:15). It is true that there is no specific mention of the event by Roman historians, but Josephus in Jewish War I mentions a similar mass-execution order by Herod. The account in Matthew's Gospel is at least consistent with what is known about Herod's tyrannical rule.
(It would also provide further confirmation of a birth date of c. 6 BC. Jesus would have been a toddler at the time of Herod's edict, which would likely have been issued near the end of Herod's life, in 5 – 4 BC.)
Enough of history. Although atheists and agnostics may sneer, it is apt to examine some supernatural elements of the Christmas story. (Of course, these are all secondary to its most vital element – Jesus' divine identity – but that is a massive subject on its own.)
Was Mother Mary a virgin?
For a long time I struggled with this notion. Not because "divine impregnation" is inherently unlikely – if God exists, nothing is impossible for Him – but because it seemed hard to reconcile with other passages in the Gospels. Why was Jesus disdained by his own family (see, e.g., Mark 3:21) if his parents had certain knowledge of his true nature?
Hard historical evidence for the Virgin Birth is scant: there is much more powerful evidence for the Resurrection. Nevertheless, Mary's virginity is expressly or impliedly affirmed in all four Gospels (cf. Mark 6:3; John 3:16, 16:28) as well as a New Testament epistle (see Hebrews 7:3). Catholics believe that Mary remained a virgin always, but I adhere to the Protestant view that she and Joseph subsequently had natural children.
There is cogent extra-biblical evidence that the very early Christians believed in the Virgin Birth. It is there, of course, in the Apostles' Creed and is also a tenet of Islam.
Sceptics advance various counter-arguments. One centres on the true meaning of the word "virgin" in the relevant biblical passages, a highly esoteric debate. Another argument is that this is yet another example of the evangelists "fulfilling" Old Testament prophecy (cf. Isaiah 7:14) and/or of inventing a story for theological reasons.
Two considerations above all tend to confirm the trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts.
First, there undoubtedly was a second-century rumour – widely put about by opponents of Christianity, including the Greek philosopher Celsus – that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary and a Roman legionary. Why would Christians have invented, much less staunchly defended, a story which gave rise to such a humiliating charge? In the Gospel version, Joseph himself was disturbed by the news of Mary's pregnancy, and tried quietly to call off the marriage – a detail which rings true. (See Matthew 1:19.)
Second, yet more fundamentally, where did the idea of divine impregnation come from? There are no close parallels in the Old Testament, though the evangelists struggled to find some. The Virgin Birth appears a prime example of the biblical phemenomon identified by Craig L. Blomberg:
[Various] Old Testament references are reworded or reapplied in ways that make it much more likely the Gospels writers were trying to show how the Old Testament fitted the events of Jesus' life and not the other way around. (My emphasis)
Several of the other Old Testament "prophecies" reflected in the Christmas story can be seen in the same vein.
Did angels, stars and comets accompany Jesus' birth?
Here, to put it mildly, we are in problematic territory.
The existence or otherwise of "angels" – benevolent and invisible spiritual beings who mediate between God and His followers – is a subject which divides Christians themselves. Yet, however perplexing it may be for some, their existence is repeatedly affirmed in the New Testament, in terms which are not obviously metaphorical (see, e.g., Hebrews 1:14).
As far as the Nativity is concerned, the Gospels record several discrete episodes. Famously, the Angel Gabriel is said to have gone to Mary and foretold her pregnancy (Luke 1:26-38); a few months later, when Mary had fallen pregnant, an (unamed) angel persuaded Joseph not to renounce her (Matthew 1:20-24).
Angels are also supposed to have appeared on various occasions after Jesus' birth, most notably to "shepherds abiding in the fields watching their flocks by night" (Luke 2:8-15 (KJV)). And there were three further visitations to Joseph (Matthew 2:13, 19-20, 22).
What are we to make of all this? Joseph's experiences are explicitly described as "dreams" and I am content to understand them as premonitions of some sort, brought about by God through the Holy Spirit. Likewise the young Mary's strange encounter (which she may well have kept to herself until the end of her life, when the evangelists were gathering their material).
The account of the "star" seen by the Magi (cf. Matthew 2:2, 7-10) is intriguing. Though possibly a literary embellishment, or even (as the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches) a supernatural occurrence, there is another alternative. It may have been something quite real.
Modern astronomers have made numerous suggestions as to comets, constellations and planetary configurations visible in the Middle East during the relevant years. Incredibly, the appearance of the night sky on any given date and at any given place in the recent history of the Earth can now be represented exactly.
Here is a link to an image of the night sky as it appeared looking south from Jerusalem on 12 November, 7 BC, between 6 pm and 9:30 pm!
Opinions about so iconic a subject as the birth of Christ will not readily be swayed by a short essay such as this. All one can ask for is open-mindedness.
Speaking for myself, the Christmas story holds water – including the Virgin Birth. If you believe on other grounds in the divinity of Jesus, it is not a giant leap. C.S. Lewis put the matter well:
I can understand the man who denies miracles altogether: but what is one to make of people who will believe other miracles and 'draw the line' at the Virgin Birth? … In reality the miracle is no less, and no more, surprising than any others.
Whether you regard that analysis as astute or as baloney, contemplation this December of Rembrandt's sublime paintings and sketches of the Nativity could do no one any harm. The birth of Jesus of Nazareth – however it happened – was the most important birth in history.
Roy Williams is a writer for the Bible Society of Australia's King James Version 400th Anniversary celebrations.