Nativity story: The facts of  the matter

By Jonathan Dinger

Some of you may have read an opinion piece on the nativity story that called into question such things as authorship, reliability and accuracy of dates and names that are found in the Biblical accounts in Matthew and Luke on the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. While some of these questions were valid, the conclusion that the account we have is unreliable is simply untrue because the author left out several recent facts (and others not so recent) that have come to shed light on what we know as the Christmas Story.
Sadly, this recurs over and over, and those of us who actually live and breathe and work full time in this “world” of ancient texts and faith find that we have to offer correctives to various “armchair quarterbacks” who use outdated information or have may have a personal agenda that assumes that the assertions of Scripture cannot possibly be true. Regardless of whether you hold to the major theological implications of the story (the God became a human being; that this was a miraculous birth; that this was the fulfillment of prophecy and so forth), there are numerous pieces of information we can rely on from the accounts of the Gospel authors. At the very least, I can provide information that virtually all biblical archaeologists agree on, whether or not they are people of faith.
The author asserts that we don’t know the authors of Matthew and Luke. First, this is not necessary for it to be truthful, as neither book claims any certain individual as author. But we have multiple sources that lived within the age of the publishing of these books who are either eyewitnesses of the events described in the Gospels (John, who dies at the end of the first century. These books are authored before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. — which astoundingly, the author accedes to when he says these were written 30 years after Jesus’ death. More on that in a moment… We also have Eusebius and Papias and Polycarp all bearing witness to Mattheian and Lucan authorship.)
By the way, the authorship of the Iliad and the Republic and Shakespeare is all “legendary” as well, since we have no autographs from any of those, and the gap between authorship and extant copies is many, many times longer than the NT accounts.
He says that these accounts are 30 years after Jesus, but this is an astounding admission. He says it as if that’s a long time. The gap between the Iliad and Homer is 500+ years. The NT is 30 years. Meaning that there’s still people living who can contest the accounts, including the disciple John, whose own injunction not to change anything, a period or comma, from this testimony under the threat of hell. He certainly would have disputed false claims about Christ, especially because his birth was so intrinsic to Johannine theology of the incarnation. No mention of this?
The author shares information about the census and the governorship of Quirinius, which have been disproven many years ago. Norman Geisler in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (1999) shares in detail how archaeological evidence now shows that Augustus did in fact conduct a census that displaced subject populations in Egypt, Gaul and Cyrene. He did this more than once. We also know that Quirinius was governor twice, as will happen when political leaders to whom you attach your fate get assassinated or removed from power (remember President Grover Cleveland, who was president twice?). Quirinius was governor of Syria twice: in 6 B.C. when the census was taken and in 8 A.D., the (only) time the author cites. Surely, he did better research on this and discovered this amazing fact, which showed Luke to be a tremendous historian, revealing information we “smart moderns” didn’t know? In fact, in Acts 5:37, Luke is such a good historian that he distinguishes between the two censuses, which any credible Biblical researcher would have known.
So here’s what we do in fact know about the Nativity account.
1. Tradition and historians living within one generation of Christ tell us faithfully (at least more faithfully than any other ancient text by far) that a disciple of Jesus with a particular interest in pointing out how Jesus fulfilled OT prophecy (Matthew) and a companion of Paul (Luke) recorded events of this time that are widely validated and dated within one generation of the events themselves. Unheard of testimony which could have been refuted by eyewitnesses or their children. (We do still believe George Washington was our first president, don’t we? Pretty accurate? Were you alive then, or do you rely on the trustworthy testimony of others from 200+ years ago? Well, we’re relying on the testimony of those who lived within 30 years of the events.
2. Augustus was Caesar of Rome and Herod was the Roman puppet “king” in Jerusalem. As was Roman practice, a census was taken for taxation purposes. This moved Joseph and Mary (who were engaged, but she was pregnant) from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, their ancestral home from which King David came. These fulfill OT prophecy about the Messiah, that Jesus would be called a “Nazarene” and be born “in the city of David.” This takes place approximately 4-6 B.C. We know this. It is undisputed by any reputable archaeologist.
3. Jesus was born and laid in a feeding trough. The town was so crowded because of the census that all the “no vacancy” signs were out. We don’t know if there were animals around. We don’t know for sure exactly what day. Probably in the spring, but in that region, lambs were birthed at more than one time of the year. Shepherds came at the announcement of the angels. They were amazed and then gave testimony to Jesus’ birth.
4. After things tone down (days, weeks or months perhaps), it appears that Mary and Joseph settled into a house (Luke’s testimony) where astronomers from Persia (or beyond) came to worship the infant and bring gifts to honor him. They inquired first with Herod and it made him so nervous that when they did not come back and report to him, he sent soldiers to Bethlehem in a rage to execute all babies under two years of age. This probably means that the wise men journeyed after a sign in the heavens (a star, a comet, a configuration of planets?) alerted them to this birth foretold in ancient texts. Herod, known for his extravagant brutality, probably didn’t “need” to kill all babies up to 2 years old. One year olds would have been enough. But he wanted to be (horrifically) certain that he killed any potential rival. He even killed a bunch of his own kids in jealously.
5. After the wise men depart, Mary and Joseph and Jesus escape to Egypt and remain there until Herod dies, and they then head back to Nazareth where Jesus grows up in the Galilee.
So what’s so confusing about the history? The accounts of Matthew and Luke (with John as an eyewitness who could dispute it) mesh together beautifully. There is no problem or so-called “contradiction.” Much of this information has been pulled out of the dirt and has reliable records (at least far more reliable than any other ancient text by an exponential factor) that attest to this series of accounts. What’s intriguing is that people like the author have disputed these facts and then continue to use the same refuted “facts” when they’re disproven. Is there an agenda here? Absolutely.
Here’s the deal. The birth of Christ narratives is not just about a beautiful crèche scene or pastoral “silent night” where we love each other and celebrate generosity and family love. That’s sweet and nice, but it’s not the point of the stories.
Matthew writes his narrative to remind us that this child fulfilled prophecy after prophecy from the Old Testament, from his birth to his death, so that we might be convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Messiah promised to save us all from sin.
Luke writes his account to verify and ground this birth in the events of human history. It’s not a feeling or “mindset” or “movement.” It’s God keeping his promise to humanity and humbling himself in such a way that we would receive him, not mystically or spiritually but tangibly. A baby you can hold. A mother and father who’ve endured the scorn of their neighbors and family. A heavenly plan fulfilled in human history and reality.
John writes for us an even deeper truth. “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” God alone bends so low. Taking on human flesh and subjecting himself to the embarrassing humilities that we all suffer — from having to be fed and changed and held. He became a human being to teach, to live, and to die. That we might know we have One who knows our humanity and its challenges. That He might honor the entire human race by taking on our humanity yet doing so in a way that saves us from our sin. This is the greatest journey ever made. A tremendous act of love and sacrifice.
And I suspect that’s what caused offense. Horrible, isn’t it? That we would be loved so much?
The Rev. Jonathan M. Dinger is the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Pocatello.