Every December 25, a vast majority of Christians — and members of other religions — celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. In the Bible, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke flesh out the Christmas story. In today’s skeptical age, an increasing number of Christians doubt the accuracy of the Bible’s Christmas story, however.
The Bible says that Jesus was born of a virgin, was visited by shepherds who saw a host of angels, was visited by magi who saw a star to mark His birth, and was laid in a manger. Fewer American Christians believe all four of these aspects of the story, however.
The Christmas story inescapably includes miracles, but there are good reasons to accept the Bible’s witness about Jesus’ life. Here are five reasons not to reject the Christmas story.
1. There is no evidence disproving it.
Surprisingly little evidence has survived from the ancient world. “We wrongly assume that a lack of corroborating evidence for a claim proves that the claim is bogus,” John Dickson, founder of the Centre for Public Christianity and author of the forthcoming book A Doubter’s Guide to Jesus, told PJ Media in an interview.
“We forget that most of what actually happens in our lives—the touchdown you scored in your teens, the story of your wedding day, the final words your mother spoke to you on her death bed—will leave no corroborating evidence for historians to play with years later,” he explained.
A skeptic might ask why Pontius Pilate never mentions Jesus in any letters. To this, Dickson would respond, “we have no letters at all — zero, zip, zilch — from Pontius Pilate (or even Emperor Tiberius).”
“In the same way, it’s true we have no corroborating evidence from the pen of Herod the Great mentioning the birth of Jesus, the visit of the Magi, or the massacre in Bethlehem, because, in fact, we have no records at all from Herod’s court,” the author added. “We have to piece together what happened from the 1 percent of material that did survive from the ancient world. And that must include the Gospels themselves.”
2. Don’t reject historical documents just because of miracles.
Dickson also warned against the common idea that just because a document contains reports of a miracle, it must be unreliable. “Some accounts of Alexander the Great, for example, contain miracle stories. This doesn’t undermine the general course of Alexander’s life and career,” he noted.
The author also referenced an event in the life of the Roman Emperor Vespasian. He was said to have performed a healing — and it could have been an orchestrated PR stunt. Accepting the historical documents on this would involve “accepting that some such event took place, even if we remain agnostic about whether the event was ‘miraculous.'”
“In the same way, we have two sources, written independently of each other and in the first century, which affirm that Jesus of Nazareth was born without the sexual union of his human parents Mary and Joseph. What do we do with this?” Dickson asked.
He suggested that “this story must have been well-known enough from the earliest stages to make its way into independent sources. Given that members of Jesus’ immediate family were still alive and prominent in the Christian movement well into the 60s A.D., this story of Jesus’ conception must have been promulgated by the family itself. Does this prove the ‘virgin birth’? Of course not. History cannot prove miraculous events.”
John Stewart, executive director of Ratio Christi International, also warned against dismissing miracles out of hand. “Before rejecting the details of the Christmas story, it would be wise to evaluate our assumptions, and see if our beliefs are based on evidence or on an unfounded bias in favor of philosophical naturalism (the belief that there is no God, no supernatural, no miracles),” he told PJ Media.
3. The Gospels are reliable.
Stewart also argued that the Gospels are reliable accounts. “In the past 30 years scholars concluded that the Gospels are written in the style of ancient Graeco-Roman biographies (‘bioi’), in the same style as Roman historian Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars,” he told PJ Media. “Since bioi have a strong relationship with history, this finding was the death knell for the liberal notion that the Gospels were religious fiction, divorced from history.”
He quoted the Gospel of Luke’s prologue: “it seemed fitting for me … having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order … so that you might know the exact truth” (Luke 1:3-4).
“Luke’s Gospel claims to be investigative journalism with accounts derived from eyewitnesses and placed in an historical context. This is hardly ‘once upon a time’ or ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,'” Stewart quipped.
He also noted that “there is compelling evidence that the Gospels were written while eyewitnesses were still alive, possibly prior to A.D. 70 (since there is no mention of the fall of Jerusalem), by eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) and those who relayed the accounts of eyewitnesses (Mark and Luke).”
Another mark in favor of the Gospels is the inclusion of embarrassing details about the disciples — the story of Peter denying Jesus, the disciples being too afraid to stand at the crucifixion, and Thomas’ unwillingness to believe Jesus had risen from the dead, for example. If these were fictional accounts, rather than history, why make the founders of a religion look bad?
4. The Quirinius contradiction.
Skeptics often bring up Luke 2:2 in discussions about the historicity of Christmas. This verse places Jesus’ birth at the time of a census taken when “Quirinius was governor of Syria.” According to Josephus, Quirinius conducted a census in 6 A.D. Matthew’s account makes clear, however, that Jesus was born under Herod the Great, who died between 4 B.C. and 1 A.D.
In remarks to PJ Media, Dickson noted that “this would be a very minor inconsistency.” Furthermore, due to the lack of contrasting accounts, there are many ways to explain Luke 2:2.
“Best we can tell (from the sole source on it), the Governor of Syria around 5 B.C. (around the time Jesus was born) was C. Sentius Saturninus, about whom we know almost nothing,” the author noted. He suggested that Quirinius could have served as co-governor with Saturninus, since very little is known of Quirinius’ career between 12 B.C. and 6 A.D.
Dickson also noted that Luke recorded, “this was the first census when Quirinius was governor.”
“In other words, Luke knew there were two or more censuses. We only know of one (6 A.D.) but Luke seems to be distinguishing between a later census (the one we know of) and an earlier one that coincided with Jesus’ birth,” he said.
The actual Greek terms in Luke 2:2 also make this verse particularly difficult to understand. There are three different ways to translate the original version: the census was the first of many taken when Quirinius became governor; the census was before Quirinius became governor; or the census was before a later census at the time Quirinius became governor.
In other words, even if the contradiction is real and Quirinius was never governor of Syria at the same time as Herod was king of Israel, Luke could easily be translated in a way that resolves this difference.
5. The earliest recorded Christmas story.
Perhaps ironically, the accounts in Matthew and Luke are not the oldest version of the Christmas story. Christians call the miracle of Christmas the “Incarnation,” since the Son of God took on human form as Jesus Christ. This teaching goes all the way back to the oldest part of the New Testament.
“We can know that the earliest Christians believed Jesus left heaven and was incarnated,” Michael Licona, associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University, told PJ Media. “The apostle Paul provides us with this information in an ancient hymn in Philippians 2:6-11. It is the earliest Christmas story in the Bible.”
Philippians 2:6-11 says of Jesus:
though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This passage, known as the “carmen Christi,” or “song of Christ,” uses words St. Paul does not usually use in his letters. While scholars agree that St. Paul wrote the book of Philippians, they have suggested that this passage is an older hymn — and thus predates the Pauline epistles, which were written around the 60s A.D.
Some scholars have even suggested that the “carmen Christi” goes back to the 30s A.D. — within one decade of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That may not sound impressive in an age with instant replay on YouTube, but for a mostly oral culture in which writing was hard to come by and reserved for the most important things, a ten-year gap between an event and its recording is impressive. Most of the ancient documents that have survived today date back to hundreds of years after the events happened.
One of the major reasons Christians believe the miracles of the first Christmas is because they believe the underlying meaning of Christmas — God took on human flesh in the Incarnation. Only by doing this could God reconcile Himself to a sinful humanity and pay the infinite price of humans’ rejection of Him.
If God became man, it stands to reason that that event would be accompanied by miracles like a virgin birth, angels singing to shepherds, and a star calling magi to the scene of the birth. Indeed, these smaller miracles pale in comparison to the miracle of the infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator entering a frail, limited human body.
Christians must believe this miracle of God Himself humbling Himself to become man, for it is the center of the gospel that Jesus Christ made it possible for humans to repent of their sin and restore their fellowship with the Creator. This is what Christmas is really about — and it is indeed a miracle. But that doesn’t make it unbelievable.
When the best historical evidence points to a miracle, and no evidence contradicts it, history may not require accepting the miracle — but it might be unreasonable to reject it.