As we approach Christmas, the story of the first Christmas confronts us. Jesus’ birth is recorded by the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke. And they make remarkable claims: the long-promised Messiah has come, born of a virgin, proclaimed by angels, attended by shepherds and wise men, bringing light into darkness and guiding our feet into the way of peace; Immanuel, who is God with us. Can such an incredible story be credible?
I will present three lines of argument to believe the accounts are accurate, and that the first Christmas really happened as recorded.
1. Internal Agreements
The accounts in Matthew and Luke are independent. They record different events, suggesting different sources. Matthew records Joseph’s dream, the wise men, Herod and the flight to Egypt. Luke records the birth of John the Baptist, visits to Mary and Zechariah from angels, the shepherds and the presentation of Jesus at the temple. The different perspectives are also clear, with Matthew coming more from Joseph’s perspective, and Luke coming from Mary’s.
If Matthew and Luke then agree on numerous details, this is powerful evidence that both accounts are based on something true. This is because the independence of Matthew and Luke shows they cannot be copied from one another. Significant agreement reflects either an increasingly improbable coincidence or stories about the same event. Here are numerous examples of internal agreements, collected from James Orr, Jason Engwer, and my own reading:
Theological agreements: Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:35); revelations and visions accompanied the birth (e.g. Matthew 2:12; Luke 2:26); these often involved angels (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:26); he was called Jesus by divine direction, rather than parental choice (Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31); he was prophesied to be a Saviour (Matthew 1:21; Luke 2:11); he was prophesied to be the ruler of God’s kingdom (Matthew 2:2; Luke 1:32).
Family history: the mother was Mary (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:27); Mary was engaged (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:27); her fiancee called Joseph (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:27); Mary was a virgin (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:34); Joseph was of the house and lineage of David (Matthew 1:20; Luke 2:4); Mary became pregnant during their engagement (hence the surprise); despite this, Joseph remained faithful to Mary and agreed to be act as Jesus’ father to care for him (Matthew 1:24; Luke 2:5).
Historical and geographic situating: Jesus was born during the reign of Herod (Matt 2:1; Luke 1:5); Herod was a king (Matt 2:1; Luke 1:5); Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4); after the birth, Joseph and Mary moved to Nazareth with Jesus (Matthew 2:23; Luke 2:39).
These details are varied, numerous, specific, and, as Orr notes, “give very nearly the gist of the whole story.” (James Orr, “The Virgin Birth of Christ”, p.36)
2. External Confirmations
Luke and Matthew are confirmed by lots of external historical evidence. I shall illustrate some examples, focussing on Matthew’s record of Herod. I shall compare this record to the Jewish historian Josephus. Herod is not a major figure in the Gospels, occupying less than half a chapter. This means that when Matthew gives an accurate picture of Herod, he even pays attention to matters non-essential to his narrative. How much more might he pay attention to the essential parts?
To begin with, Matthew and Luke assert there was a real Herod. Herod takes up two books of Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, and historian Paul Maier suggests he’s attested by “more primary evidence from original sources than anyone else in the [ancient] world.”
Herod is called a king, despite a range of possible political titles and the rapidly changing political landscape of 1st Century Palestine. This is attested by Josephus (e.g. Antiquities 15.3.1) and coins.
When hearing the wise men talk about a future king of the Jews, Herod calls together “all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law” (Matthew 2:4) to find out where the Christ would be born. He then “found out… the exact time the star had appeared” (2:7) from the Magi. It shows Herod’s wish “to pry into futurity”, anxiety about his reign, and desire to understand his future in detail. John James Blunt notes the case of Manahem the Essene, who prophesies Herod’s reign when Herod was a child. Herod brings him forth, and “asked him how long he should reign”. He also inquires more deeply whether he would “reign ten years or not” when Manahem remains silent (Ant. 15.10.4). This anxiety about prophecy concerning his reign and repeated questioning about the details is a remarkably close confirmation.
Matthew tells us of Herod’s patiently cunning response, to ask the Magi to search for the child “so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:8). Such patient cunning is clear in Josephus. When betrayed by his mother-in-law Alexandra, he plots to kill her son Aristobulus, but “thought he might in probability be better concealed in doing it, if he did it not presently, nor immediately after what had lately happened.” (Ant. 15.3.2) So he waits, before having Aristobulus drowned.
Herod’s murderous streak comes out in Matthew, giving “orders to kill all the [under-two-year-old] boys in Bethlehem” (Matthew 2:16). In Josephus, he is called a man of “great barbarity to all men equally and a slave to his passions” (Ant. 17.8.1) and murders his wife, mother-in-law and sons, among many others. In one case, Pharisees “foretold how God had decreed that Herod’s government should cease”. Herod responds by killing the Pharisees and “all those of his own family who had consented to what the Pharisees foretold.” (Ant. 17.2.4) Is it at all surprising that Herod might slay some babies in Bethlehem under similar circumstances?
This range of information, joining up to form a coherent portrait of a murderous king, strongly supports the reliability of Matthew.
3. Undesigned Coincidences
An undesigned coincidence shows how two reports join up in an unplanned way, but their joining show they are speaking about the same event or person. I shall provide 2 examples from the nativity narratives. I’ll explain two examples from James Orr and Lydia McGrew, though others exist.
Firstly, Luke focusses primarily on the birth of Jesus from Mary’s perspective, repeatedly coming back to the pondering in her heart of the virgin birth. For Joseph, the details are fleeting, but we do know that he “went [to Bethlehem] to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child” (Luke 2:5), and Joseph is recorded later as well.
Stories can be so over-familiar that we can miss important details. We read that Joseph stays with Mary in Luke, despite being unmarried and Mary being pregnant. That is not explained in Luke. Joseph’s faithfulness is puzzling for two reasons: 1. The testimony of women in ancient Gentile and Jewish contexts was not valued as highly, as is often pointed out with the resurrection. Joseph may not have known Mary well anyway, and so was not likely to take her testimony seriously if she tried to explain her pregnancy. 2. This was shameful, as it would look like adultery. Craig Keener argues that divorce in the case of adultery was required by Jewish and Roman law, and prosecutable by the Romans, charged with lenocinium. The shame alone could provoke divorce anyway. So why does Joseph stay?
Matthew explains this. Joseph originally considered a private divorce to reduce Mary’s disgrace, rather than a more public alternative. But he then hears from an angel in a dream, saying that “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife” (Matthew 1:20). This means that the already compassionate Joseph faithfully stays with Mary. This fits nicely with Luke, and yet they are clearly independent, given their very different perspectives and events.
Secondly, when in the temple in Luke 2, Mary and Joseph meet a prophet called Simeon. The prophet praises God for the coming of the Messiah, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32). And then Simeon speaks “to Mary, his mother” directly, and, in the midst of much other prophecy, tells her that “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34). This is an early hint of tragedy, and stands in contrast to a narrative full of celebration, as Darrell Bock notes. It plausibly refers to the crucifixion.
But for a sword that shall pierce your soul when Simeon is speaking directly to Mary, it is interesting that Mary is not recorded at the crucifixion in Luke. Nor indeed is she recorded in Matthew or Mark, for all theories of literary dependence. But she is recorded in John: “near the cross of Jesus stood his mother” (John 19:25). John emphasises the emotional toll in Mary, by recording Jesus’ tender instruction for John to take care of her- “woman, here is your son” (John 19:26).
It is unreasonable to speculate that John would include Mary at the cross to fit with this prophecy, as John does not refer to Luke. Luke is also not referring to John. If he knew or wanted to refer to Mary being at the cross, why not just record Mary at the cross? The accounts join up nicely.
We see two nice examples across different Gospels- Luke and John mutually confirming each other; and Matthew explaining Luke.
It is remarkable how much evidence exists for the Christmas accounts. And these provide a mere taster of the evidence, leaving aside many more undesigned coincidences, historical confirmations and agreements. It also leaves the early church testimony, the possibility of Mary and Joseph as sources, embarrassing material, the primitiveness of the hymns, and the unnecessary details indicative of a truthful historian. The wealth of detail is powerful evidence this is a reliable account. Perhaps we might take these stories seriously, looking at the solid hope they provide this Christmas.
Recommended ways to go deeper:
James Orr- The Virgin Birth of Christ. Just excellent.
Charles Gore- Dissertations on the Subject of the Incarnation. Particularly good on the primitiveness of the hymns, and the early church evidence.