January 1, 2022 - Christmas Evidence

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Today we’re going to talk about evidence for the truth of the Christmas story. Two weeks ago, we talked about evidence for the Virgin Birth of Jesus. On this holy day, we want to tackle still another question raised by modern critics: Is the story of Jesus’ birth, as narrated by Matthew and Luke, a fabrication – a fairy tale with about as much truth as Santa Claus? The issue involves questions as to whether Jesus was really born in Bethlehem, was there really a census, was there really a star, and were there really Magi? And was this even the actual day when Jesus was born?

First: Does it matter? It’s a matter of opinion. If we propose that it doesn’t matter whether any of these events really happened, then Jesus’ birth takes its place next to the legends of Santa Claus and Muhammad’s ascent to heaven. If we go that route, then the choice between faiths becomes a pointless dispute over “My concocted narrative is better than your concocted narrative.” (Or maybe all our claims are equally well-meaning but dubious.)

The evidence that the canonical Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are true lends credibility to the rest of what the canonical Gospels have to say. One does not even have to accept every last detail. Whether the Magi saw a supernova witnessed by the Chinese in 5 BC, whether they saw a conjunction of planets in 7-6 BC, or whether they were guided by a moving light that no one else could have or would have seen, none of that is important, if the rest proves to be plausible. Scientists such as Sir John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins (director of the Human Genome Project) do not accept every detail in the Gospels, but because they are convinced that Jesus truly rose from the dead, they are careful not to jump to skeptical conclusions about hard-to-believe claims in Scripture.

So, was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Both Matthew and Luke agree that he was, but they get there by completely different routes. Luke’s version is centered on Nazareth; Luke just has to explain how the holy family got to Bethlehem. Matthew’s version is centered on Bethlehem; he has to explain how Jesus ever got to Nazareth. Whether this is a flat contradiction that calls both versions into doubt, or whether this is what we would expect from independent testimony, we will decide based on whether our attitude toward the Bible is one of default skepticism or default trust. One does not have to believe in the “inerrancy” of the Bible to believe that the Gospel accounts here are innocent of error until proven guilty. (If one doubts that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem, then one might then ask why Matthew would invent the manger as a detail, or why Justin Martyr testifies to the location of the stable where Jesus was born, or why the emperor Hadrian defiles a shrine in a cave at Bethlehem in 135 AD.)

Historians have disputed Luke’s claim that there was any census under Quirinius until 6 AD.  They base their objection on evidence from the historian Josephus.  Suddenly, bumbling Josephus becomes more reliable than Saint Luke!  But wait.  Ethelbert Stauffer (Jesus and His Story, 33–35) argues that Luke 2:1 is referring to the apographÄ“, the preliminary tax assessment, while what Josephus is talking about in 6 AD was the final head count (a different word, used in Acts 5:37). Stauffer argues that if Joseph had any property rights in his ancestral hometown, he would have had to appear there during this preliminary inventory, and while only the father had to appear in the case of Roman citizens, here in a province like Judea, women also had to appear.

(By the way, notice that Joseph and Mary are doing the opposite of what illegal immigrants do. Rather than evading the law, Joseph and Mary are obeying the law even when it was costly to do so, and when it would have been tempting not to cooperate.)

What about the star? A meteorologist named Ernest Martin argues in his 1996 book The Star That Astonished the World that the path of Jupiter in 2 BC fits the details given in Matthew. In the previous year, Jupiter passed so close to Regulus (the brightest star in the constellation Leo) that it may have appeared like a crown above the star, which could have easily been seen by the Magi as a sign of the birth of a king in Judea.

The behavior of Jupiter would help explain what otherwise might appear as a questionable account of the star of Bethlehem going ahead of the Magi and standing still over the place where Jesus was (Matthew 2:9). Apparently, before dawn on December 25, 2 BC, Jupiter stood still before beginning its yearly backtracking motion. Seen from Jerusalem, Jupiter stood at 68 degrees above the southern horizon, right over Bethlehem. I am unsure whether the theory is true, but here we see how a star that leads the Magi and then stands still, can suddenly turn from fancy into plausible fact.

Were there really Magi? A scene similar to the coming of the Magi in Matthew takes place in 66 AD, where Parthian magoi from the East come to Rome to bow before Nero, bearing gifts (Suetonius, Nero 13, 30; Tacitus, Annals 16:23). It’s entirely possible that the same thing also happens to Jesus 70 years earlier. After all, signs in the sky had been seen not long before Jesus was born which were taken to be good omens for the emperor Augustus.  The God who rules the stars had a very different king in mind.

Where was Jesus born? It was not an “inn” where there was no room for Jesus’ birth. The proof is in Mark 14:14 (= Luke 22:11), where Jesus books the same kind of place to eat the Last Supper (using the same Greek word). “Guest room” seems to be the best way to translate the Greek term katalyma used here and in Luke 2:7. The word pandocheion, used in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), is the word for what we would call an inn. Since katalyma is only used 3 times in the NT, a look at the 14 times katalyma is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible is in order.

In the Greek OT, the first time katalyma is used is in Exodus 4:24, where God meets Moses at a “lodging place” on the way back to Egypt and seeks to kill him; here, it likely means a camping place rather than a structure. Similarly, in 1 Samuel 1:18, Hannah and Eli are staying in a katalyma somewhere near the sanctuary in Shiloh, where they have come for an annual sacrifice (no word for lodging place is found in the Hebrew).

In 1 Samuel 9:22, katalyma seems to mean “banquet hall,” as it does in Mark 14:14 = Luke 22:11; here, it is where Samuel hosts Saul and his servant for a meal, along with about 30 townspeople. In 1 Chronicles 28:13, the Greek adds this word to describe accommodations that Solomon builds for the priests who will serve in the Temple.

God’s “lodging place” is first mentioned in Exodus 15:13, where it refers to God’s holy “habitation,” meaning either Mount Sinai or possibly the Temple Mount, the place where God “lodges.” Similarly, when God kindly declines David’s offer to build God a house, God states that he has been living just fine in a katalyma and a tent (2 Samuel 7:6 = 1 Chronicles 17:5).

Out of the 3 times that katalyma is used in the Greek translation of Jeremiah, twice it refers to lodging places in the wilderness (14:8; 40:12), and once to a lion’s den (32:38). Ezekiel 23:21 criticizes Oholibah the nymphomaniac for letting the Egyptians handle her breasts “at your lodging place” (another place where the word katalyma is added in the Greek where there is no such word in the Hebrew). And later on during the rule of the evil Greek king Antiochus IV, we are told in 1 Maccabees 3:45 that “Jerusalem was uninhabited like a desert… The sanctuary was trampled down, and aliens were in the citadel; it was a lodging place for the Gentiles.”

When Jesus is born in Bethlehem, Luke deliberately uses katalyma or "guest room" to describe the place where no room was to be found for the holy family. For the holy family to stay in a pandocheion or “inn” was out of the question, as Ken Bailey argues in his article “The Manger and the Inn.”

To give us an idea how bad the public inns were, Clement of Alexandria quotes the 2nd-century Gnostic Valentinus, who says the heart is like an inn, which also “has holes bored in it and dug in it and is often filled with dung, where people stay there and behave with shocking sexual excess, with no consideration for the place, as if it were nothing to them.” (I think I’d rather stay in the barn!)

The Jewish philosopher Philo uses the image of being “soiled and abused like someone entering a pandocheion.” He states that a pandocheion is a place where people “fill themselves and vomit in their passions.” In the 2nd-century AD Egerton Gospel (line 8), a man says to Jesus, “While traveling and eating with lepers in the pandocheion, I myself also became a leper.” (The barn is starting to sound better and better.)

Josephus (Antiquities 3.376) gives a list of the types of women a priest is forbidden to marry, including women who earned their living by innkeeping (verb form of the same word), apparently because so much of the time the job of innkeeper (for women) involved practicing prostitution. Even worse, the rabbis declared that cattle cannot be trusted with Gentiles at an inn, because they practice bestiality (Mishnah, Abodah Zarah 2:1). An inscription at a Roman inn with a price list included wine and bread for 1/16 of a denarius, pulmentarium (food to go with the bread) for 1/8 of a denarius, hay for the mule for 1/8 of a denarius, and a “girl” for half a denarius (half a day’s pay).  That's what we find at a public inn!

Rabbinic Hebrew borrows the Greek term for “public inn.” In the Mishnah, the word is used in a case where a man dies at an inn on the road to the Dead Sea, possibly the very spot Jesus has in mind in his parable in Luke 10.

Yes, our Lord had a manger for a crib, but at least he wasn’t born in an inn or pandocheion. That would have been truly the bottom of the barrel.

Despite doubts leading many to dismiss December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth, further debate now reopens the question whether maybe December 25 was the right date after all. Not that we really needed to know, or God would have told us more precisely. In our family, we used to say that Jesus’ birthday is like our cat’s birthday: we don’t know exactly when it was, so we arbitrarily pick a date and celebrate. Origen (third century AD) dismissed the question of Jesus’ birthday entirely. Origen points out that the only two birthday celebrations recorded in scripture were those of Pharaoh and Herod, both of which ended with someone being put to death.

Two basic arguments have led us to question the traditional date of the Nativity. One is the claim that this date was a strategic choice with no basis in fact, a date which was chosen to replace a popular pagan celebration of the winter solstice, either the Roman Saturnalia (which turns out to be several days earlier than December 25), or the Feast of Sol Invictus or the “Unconquered Sun” (which is the right date, but one may question which feast came first, Christmas or the Roman holiday).

The other argument is that the weather in December in Bethlehem is cold and rainy and totally unsuitable for shepherds to be camped out in the open, keeping watch over their flocks by night. (That’s debatable.) Some have suggested that Jesus’ birth was actually in the spring. There is also the attractive possibility that Jesus was born during the Feast of Tabernacles, citing John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and [literally] pitched his tabernacle among us,” although there is no hard evidence for this claim.

Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 1:21) is one of the earliest to give us a date for Jesus’ birth. He dates it to May 20, 2 BC, although he has heard that it may have been April 19 or 20 of the same year. Numerous other early writers have made similar claims.

While a majority of scholars believe that Jesus must have been born before 4 BC (often 6-7 BC, at the time of a major planetary conjunction believed to be the star of Bethlehem), they tend to do so partly because it is common to date Herod the Great’s death to the year 4 BC.  Jesus had to be born before Herod dies!  Josephus states that Herod died shortly after a lunar eclipse.  However, according to a physicist named John Cramer, there are two other possible lunar eclipses to which Josephus may have been referring, the last of which was on December 29, 1 BC (!). If we revise Herod’s death accordingly, the 2 BC claims become plausible.

The date of December 25 as the birth of Christ first appears on a Christian calendar in 354 AD. On the same date, the Roman celebration of Sol Invictus also appears. The question is, which holiday came first? It is alleged that Sol Invictus came first, established in 274 AD by the emperor Aurelian in honor of The Unconquered Sun, his favorite deity. The church then supposedly hijacks the popularity of this celebration by claiming that Jesus was born on that date. If this were true, then no, it wouldn’t be the first time the Church tried to convert a pagan practice to Christian purposes.

But how can we be so sure it didn’t happen the other way around? It looks like the Church was already celebrating December 25 as the birth date of our Lord, which leads the emperor to try to stomp on it by setting his own holiday on that date. The reason the church was already celebrating Christmas on that date was because of the common belief that Jesus was both conceived and crucified on the date of the spring equinox, which was calculated to March 25, for reasons beyond the scope of this broadcast. Do the math, and we arrive at a date of December 25 for Jesus’ birth, long before the pagan holiday was ever put on the calendar.

We can celebrate the Incarnation anytime! This season is as good as any. If Jesus happens to be “trending” now, so much the better as a chance to grab people’s attention with the Gospel. But if Jesus is being crowded out by shopping and winter holiday noise that has nothing to do with Jesus’ birth, we can always relocate our celebration to another date, such as the Orthodox date, or whenever. It’s the historic event and what it means that are important. Praise God for the arrival of God-in-the-flesh, whenever it happened!

We don’t have You-Tube or cell-phone video to confirm the Christmas story. But what we have is enough to give the story a strong basis in history. We are not compelled to blow it off as legend, nor treat it as guilty of error until proven innocent. Instead, we can celebrate Jesus’ birth as the once for all time arrival of God in human flesh, to live the life we should have lived, and to die the death we should have died, so that we might have life forever that we never could have earned.

May we all take comfort and joy from the amazing plausible truths surrounding the birth of Jesus in this holy season. Merry Christmas to you all!

Imagine if we had lived back when all of this was happening, before God’s word had nailed down the truth about Jesus and his followers. A lot of people got it wrong. A lot of people were unable to identify the Savior when he was staring them in the face. The problem was even worse, the earlier back we go. Where could Abraham go to know it was really God who told him to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering? Where could people go to sort out the truth about whether Jeremiah or his opponents were right about how long the Babylonian exile would last?

That’s why God has given us the writings of the apostles and prophets as the foundation or authoritative source for our faith. We don’t have to start from scratch. God has already given us all the revelation we need when we look for answers on what we should believe. By looking at what God’s written word, the Bible, has said about what God has said and how God has acted in the past, we are in a much better position to know the truth of God than those who lived before God’s written word was published.

But what should we do today when someone brings us a new or different claim about God? Some say we should pray about it. Certainly there are subjects that God’s word has not clearly or directly addressed. But what if God has already told us the answer to our question in his word? Should we pray about a new or different claim about God, when God has already clearly spoken on the subject? We’ll talk about that question next time on Biblical Words and World, followed by a program on Moses, and then an entire series on the 10 Commandments. Join us as we begin this New Year!

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