The Reason for the Season: Myth or History?


The angel Gabriel visits Mary

Image by BrianMKA via Flickr

I admit it. I’m not a holiday guy. I enjoy a lot of the aspects of Christmas that many of you do – spending time with friends and family, giving and receiving gifts, having time off from work, etc. On the other hand, Christmas can be a major hassle when you are someone who likes to procrastinate. It’s Christmas eve and I still am needing to brave the snow and get presents. Blergh.

Anyway, one of the things I enjoy most about Christmas is the rich theology found in the songs we sing this time of year. And I’m not talking about Have a Funky Christmas. (Yes, that was a N.K.O.T.B. reference I just dropped). No, I’m talking about some of the older hymns. Take O Night Divine, for instance.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees
Oh, hear the angel voices.
Oh, night divine,
Oh, night when Christ was born!

These sort of songs seemed really absurd to me before I became I Christian. I think comedian and co-creator of the Chappelle Show sums it up well when he said

If you’re not religious, Christmas songs might as well be about Harry Potter.

We may as well sing hymns to Frodo Baggins or Edward Cullen if we’re going to sing about Jesus, because after all, the Christmas story is just that – a story. Right? Well,  there’s a lot I can say here, but let’s just focus on one particular aspect of  the historicity of Jesus, and that’s Luke; the writer who has given us the most detailed account of the Christmas story. In his prologue Luke is very clear in his introduction that he’s writing as a historian.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us,  it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. – Luke 1:1-4

Who was Luke? He was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ life, but we see from the 16th chapter of Acts (the other book in the Bible that he wrote) he inserted himself in the story when he suddenly starts using the first-person plural: “we set sail from Troas to Samothrace”. From then on it’s “we” “we” “we” all the way home…er, ahem…until the end of the book, which some scholars believe was completed around 62 A.D.  That means Luke went with Paul on his missionary journeys. This is further confirmed in Paul’s letter to the Colossians when Paul writes “Luke the beloved physician greets you.”

So we can safely say that Luke had ample opportunity interview eyewitnesses of Jesus’s life while in Jerusalem. Eyewitnesses as in…? Well, we get a big clue by subtracting from the Gospel of Luke everything found in the other gospels and seeing what is peculiar to Luke. We find that many of Luke’s peculiar reports are connected to female followers of Jesus: , i.e. Joanna,  Susanna, and significantly, Mary, Jesus’s mother, who may have had a thing or two to say about Jesus’s birth.

So what? Was Luke the kind of historian who got his facts straight? Dr. Colin Hemer, a classical historian, thinks so.  He listed 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts confirmed by history and archeology. The famous archeologist Sir William Ramsey investigated Acts’ historicity with a heavy dose of skepticism, but to his own surprise did an about face after examining the evidence. He concluded after his research that “ Luke is a historian of the first rank…(Luke) should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” We can deduce that the good doctor took painstaking care in reporting the details in his records.

So if Luke is trusted in his records of natural history, what about the 35, yes count them, 35 miracles he recorded in the same book? There seems to be no reason to disbelieve Luke if he’s been right on so many other points. But virgins don’t get pregnant, you might say. If God does exist, then the virgin birth and all the other miracles are more likely than they would be if theism is false. And there are many good reasons to believe that theism is true and not false. 

I’d like to quickly highlight one significant event that Luke records: Paul’s trial before King Agrippa.

To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”  But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”

If these facts of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection weren’t well-known, Agrippa could have called down Paul, but he didn’t. Well, why didn’t he?

I know…I can already hear someone bringing up David Hume’s objection – bias, bias. But the question should not be “weren’t these writers biased?” but “why did they convert?” I already stated why we can trust Luke, but let’s tackle the bias issue for a second. Seriously, what did they have to gain? It couldn’t have been for fame or money, because instead of earthly glory they got rejection, persecution, torture and martyrdom.  And it should occur to us that sometimes passion can make a person all the more diligent, not deceitful.

Anyway, I hope this gives you all some food for thought during the Christmas season. This is just one of the many reasons we can be sure what we’re celebrating is not merely self-comforting fiction, but something grounded in history.

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