The nativity stories lack historical evidence but should be read as theology

  • This article is based on a recent interview with UCB Radio, where Jon the freelance theologian was asked about the historicity of the nativity stories recorded in the gospels.

    Generally the consensus among New Testament scholars is that Mark was the first gospel to be written and Matthew and Luke were then written drawing heavily on Mark as source material. But Mark does not have any stories about Jesus’ birth. Instead it opens with John the Baptist announcing the imminent arrival of the Messiah.

    If Matthew and Luke were written later, where did the ‘infancy narratives’ come from, and, more crucially, why do they differ on key details. There are some common areas – the involvement of angels; Jesus being born in Bethlehem – but also major differences.

    We know the external historical record does not support the ‘historical’ flourishes found in the nativity stories. The Roman Emperor Augustus and the governor Quirinius are both mentioned by Luke as contemporaries, but their respective times in office did not overlap. Also, there is no record in Roman sources of an all-Empire census along the lines of the one described in Luke. Herod the Great had a well-documented life, written by people who hated him and recorded his many abominable acts of terror. But no massacre of babies in Bethlehem is recorded.

    So, if these stories are not historically verifiable, does that mean they aren’t true? Well, at the risk of playing semantic games, it depends what we mean by ‘true’. Just because something isn’t factual doesn’t mean it can’t convey truth – poems, parables and jokes all convey meaning even if they are not literally true.

    Taking some of the key themes of the infancy stories and looking at their theological meanings reveal the messages the gospel writers are trying to get across. For example, a virgin birth and sign in the heavens was associated with the birth of several gods in the region, including the Emperor. This story therefore puts Jesus in the same bracket as Caesar – a bold, possibly treasonous statement. Luke uses the term ‘Son of God’, which was used to describe the Emperor, so Jesus is being described here as the ‘true Son of God’. The birth of Jesus has all the cultural hallmarks of a divine event and, therefore, Jesus is worthy of worship in the same way as other gods or the Emperor.

    Similarly, Matthew’s story of the slaughter of children in Bethlehem parallels how Moses was born under Pharoah’s edict that Hebrew boys should be killed at birth. Like Moses, Jesus is saved from this fate. Matthew is setting up Jesus as the ‘new Moses’, even bringing him back from Egypt to fulfil a prophetic word about the nation of Israel (“out of Egypt I have called my Son”). This is an affront to the religious powers of the day – as the new Moses (or new Israel), Jesus has the authority and legitimacy to interpret, add to and alter the Law of Moses.

    There are also theological reasons for the discrepancies in the genealogies of Jesus – Read more about this in a previous freelance theology article.

    While there is no historical evidence to confirm the facts of Jesus birth, these are still important stories because of their theological points. Claiming that Jesus is bigger than Caesar, is the messianic hope of Israel and the culmination of the Law of Moses, are all, ultimately faith statements. These stories therefore reveal the theology of the earliest followers of Jesus and what they believed about him.

    Archive of all Christmas-related freelance theology posts

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