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The Truth of the Nativity Story

Academic critics of the Faith have attacked its historical value for decades

Trent Horn

Aside from the Christmas tree, the most recognizable symbol of Christmas is the nativity scene. Whether it’s a plastic scene set up in a public park or a group of elementary school students clothed in tunics and fake beards, the nativity is warm reminder of how God humbly entered our physical world.

Although most Christians don’t dwell on the specifics of the nativity story, academic critics of the Faith have attacked its historical value for decades. The late Fr. Raymond Brown said the following in his landmark, 700-page commentary on the subject:

“Close analysis of the infancy narratives makes it unlikely that either account is completely historical. Matthew’s account contains numerous extraordinary or miraculous public events that, were they factual, should have left some traces in Jewish records or elsewhere in the New Testament (the king and all Jerusalem upset over the birth of the messiah in Bethlehem; a star which moved from Jerusalem south into Bethlehem and came to rest over a house; the massacre of all male children in Bethlehem). Luke’s reference to a general census of the Empire under Cesar Augustus which affected Palestine before the death of Herod the Great is almost certainly wrong . . . .” (The Birth of the Messiah, 36)

Let’s examine those elements of the nativity story that Brown and other critics consider the most unbelievable. But before we begin that task, we must answer one objection that tries to undermine any attempt to defend the historical nature of the infancy narratives.

Contradicting accounts

According to critics, Matthew 2:1-23 tells us that Mary and Joseph lived in a house in Bethlehem where Mary gave birth to Jesus and the couple received the magi. Later, the family fled to Egypt and after Herod’s death returned to Judea and settled in Nazareth. But according to Luke 2:1-7, Joseph and Mary already lived in Nazareth. They went to Bethlehem to enroll in a census, and Jesus was born there in a manger. The family later returned to Nazareth without making any trip to Egypt.

Are these accounts at odds with one another?

They would be if each one were an exhaustive description of everything the Holy Family did. But because some details are omitted from either Matthew or Luke’s account does not mean the accounts aren’t accurate in what they do relate.

This objection also assumes that the events in Matthew’s Gospel take place immediately after Jesus was born. But Matthew 2:1 says, “[W]hen Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.” In other words, Matthew never says that the magi were present at Jesus’ birth. He only says that “in the days of Herod the king” the magi came to Jerusalem.

In addition, after the magi failed to return to Herod after visiting Jesus, Herod ordered all of Bethlehem’s male children under the age of two to be killed. But if the magi had gone to visit the newborn Jesus only six miles from Jerusalem and failed to return to Herod after a few days, then why would Herod need to kill toddlers? This implies that much more time had passed between Jesus’ birth and the magi failing to return to Herod, thus motivating his plan to kill any child that could be the young king, even if he were nearly two years old.

This additional period of time allows us to construct a timeline that makes sense of both accounts.

A summary of the infancy narratives

  1. Joseph and Mary live as a betrothed couple in Nazareth when the angel Gabriel visits Mary (Luke 1:26-38).
  2. The Holy Family travels to Bethlehem, where Mary gives birth to Jesus (Luke 2:1-20).
  3. Jesus is circumcised (Luke 2:21) and then presented in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2:22-38). The Holy Family probably acquired a home in Bethlehem through one of Joseph’s relatives in order to be near Jerusalem and then chose to make this a more permanent dwelling.
  4. Sometime after the birth of Jesus, possibly as long as two years later, the magi visit Herod and then the Holy Family in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-12).
  5. The magi leave and do not report back to Herod. As a result, Herod slaughters the young male children of Bethlehem in order to ensure the child’s destruction. Fortunately, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt in order to avoid the massacre (Matthew 2:13-18).
  6. Joseph returns from Egypt after the death of Herod the Great and chooses to live in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem in order to avoid Herod’s brother Archelaus (Matthew 2:19-23). Since Matthew did not describe the initial journey to Bethlehem, he informs the reader about Joseph’s decision to move to “a city called Nazareth.” This does not mean Joseph had never lived in Nazareth. It only means that the readers of Matthew’s Gospel might have been unfamiliar with the city and needed it explained.

Let’s go through this timeline to discuss the features that critics consider the most difficult to explain from a historical point of view.

Luke’s missing census

According to Luke 2:1-4, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.”

According to the critics, this is wrong on several accounts. Specifically, no such empire-wide census ever took place, and, even if it had, Joseph would not have been required to travel to his place of ancestry for it. While a census was taken in A.D. 6, it was limited to Judea in order to inaugurate the beginning of Roman rule in that region.

Did Luke simply bungle this particular detail about Jesus’ life? That shouldn’t be our first assumption, since in all other respects Luke is a careful historian. For example, he correctly describes Herod’s family drama (Luke 3:19), the offices Herod and his family held (Luke 3:1), and even demonstrates knowledge of Herod’s lower-level servants (Luke 8:3).

What kind of census?

One plausible explanation is that Luke is not describing an empire-wide census for tax purposes but a registration that took place before the A.D. 6 census. The King James Version of the Bible renders the latter part of Luke 2:1, “there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” But a better translation of the word rendered “taxed” (or apographesthai) is “registered.”

So what kind of registration could Luke be talking about? Josephus tells us that during Herod’s reign, “all the people of the Jews gave assurance of their good-will to Caesar, and to the king’s government” (Antiquities 17.2.4) These loyalty oaths were not uncommon, and it could be this kind of civil registration to which Luke refers. In fact, Augustus described such an oath in a funeral inscription that was composed some time before his death. He said, “When I administered my thirteenth consulate [2 B.C.], the senate and Equestrian order and Roman people all called me father of the country, and voted that the same be inscribed in the vestibule of my temple.” (Res Gestae Divi Augusti 35)

Several Church fathers, including Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, and the early Church historian Eusebius, say Christ was born during this time, which makes the details about the “enrollment” in Luke’s gospel much more plausible. The major objection to this view is that Christ was born before the death of Herod the Great, which most scholars say occurred in the year 4 B.C. However, new scholarship has emerged  that challenges this view and places Herod’s death closer to 1 B.C. (See A.E. Steinmann, “When did Herod the Great Reign? Novum Testamentum, vol. 51, no. 1, pp. 1-29).

But even if we reconcile the census with Christ’s birth, there is still a problem.

The Quirnius conundrum

Luke 2:2 says, “This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” But according to the Jewish historian Josephus, Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until the year A.D.6, long after the events of the nativity were supposed to have taken place.

But the Greek word translated as “governor” in this passage (or hegemon) can mean simply “leader.” It could refer to the position of a general that oversaw a province, which was called a legate in Latin. Or it could refer to a lower administrative position like a procurator or a prefect. Luke uses hegemoneuontos to describe Pilate’s being a leader, even though Pilate was a procurator or prefect and not a governor like Quirinius.

Luke also knows about the census that took place in A.D. 6, because in Acts 5:37 he correctly associates it with the rebellion of Judas the Galilean. The fact that he says in Luke 2:2 that this was the “first” enrollment under Quirinius may be his way of acknowledging that it took place before the more well-known census in A.D. 6.

Historical Jesus scholar and former Anglican bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, agrees:

[M]ost translations of Luke 2.2 read “this was the first [protos] census, when Quirinius was governor of Syria,” or something like that. But in the Greek of the time, as the standard major Greek lexicons point out, the word protos came sometimes to be used to mean “before,” when followed (as this is) by the genitive case. A good example is in John 1.15, where John the Baptist says of Jesus “he was before me,” with the Greek being again protos followed by the genitive of “me.” I suggest, therefore, that actually the most natural reading of the verse is: “This census took place before the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Who was Jesus?, 89).

The mysterious star

For our next difficulty we leave Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in Luke’s manger and travel to Jerusalem. The magi have just told Herod that they have seen the star of the newborn king of the Jews and have come to bid him homage. Herod sends them to find the child and, according to Matthew 2:9, “When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.”

But isn’t it scientifically inaccurate to say that the star “went before them” in order to lead them on their way and then “came to rest” over where Jesus was? It is if you rely on less accurate translations of the Bible that speak of the star “guiding” or “leading” the magi (e.g., the NIV).

But the text never says or even implies this.

First, the magi had to go to Jerusalem to ask Herod where the king would be born (Matthew 2:1-6). If they were following the star to the site of Jesus’ birth, such a request would be unnecessary. Second, Matthew 2:10 says in Greek that they “rejoiced with exceedingly great joy” upon seeing the star. The magi’s unexpected joy shows that the star’s appearance wasn’t necessary for their journey. It was instead a joyful surprise that confirmed where they were.

Finally, within the context of the story, the Greek words used in these passages have mundane rather than miraculous meanings. In Matthew 2:9, the word translated “went before” (or proegen) is also used in Matthew 21:9 to describe the crowds going before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. The crowds didn’t physically lead Jesus into Jerusalem but merely went in the direction he was going. Likewise, the magi’s star moved at the normal rate in the night sky without actively leading them towards their destination.

Likewise again, the Greek word translated as “came to rest” is estathe, which more accurately means “stood” or “came to stand” over the house. This only means the star was in a providential and temporary position, not that it ceased its natural motion.

Herod’s missing massacre

Matthew 2:12 tells us that the magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they departed for their country by another way. Herod, upon realizing their failure to report to him, ordered all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two to be executed.

Now, it’s true no one but Matthew records Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, but that is not a sufficient reason to say Matthew made up the story. Such an act of cruelty corresponds with Herod’s paranoid and merciless character. Josephus records how Herod was quick to execute anyone who he perceived to threaten his rule, including his wife and even his own children. (Antiquities 15.7.5-6, 16.11.7). Two Jewish scholars have even made the case that Herod suffered from paranoid personality disorder” (Kasher and Witztum, “King Herod,” Studia Judaica, 2008).

Also, first-century Bethlehem was a small village that would have included, at most, a dozen males under the age of two (Paul Maier, Chronos, Kairos, Christos II, 178). Josephus, if he even knew about the event, probably did not think an isolated event like the killings at Bethlehem needed to be recorded, especially since infanticide in the Roman Empire was not the moral abomination as it is in our modern world.

Herod’s massacre would not have been the first historical event Josephus failed to record. We know from the ancient historian Suetonius (The Twelve Caesars, “Life of Claudius,” 25) and from the Book of Acts (18:2) that the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in A.D. 49, but neither Josephus nor the Roman historian Tacitus record this event.

Josephus also failed to record Pontius Pilate’s decision to install golden shields in Jerusalem that angered the Jewish population so much that they petitioned Emperor Tiberius, who ordered Pilate to have them removed. The Alexandrian philosopher Philo was the only person who recorded this conflict (Embassy to Gaius, 38).

Sometimes historians choose not to record an event even if it is particularly gruesome, and their reasons for doing so cannot always be determined.

Don’t put away your nativity scene

In conclusion, we may not be able to use the tools of history to prove the virginal conception and humble birth of Jesus are as historically certain as other aspects of Jesus’ life (like his Crucifixion or his Resurrection from the dead). But those same tools can help us show that objections to the historicity of these events can be answered and that the rational Christian should not have second thoughts about setting up his annual nativity scene.

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