Luke 2:1-20: “The Birth of the Savior as Authentic History”
“Now it came about in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria. All were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city. 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 family of David in order to register, along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.
“And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and she wrapped in cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the LORD suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the LORD shone around them, and they were terribly frightened.
“And the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people, for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the LORD. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.’
“And it came about when the angels had gone away from them into heaven that the shepherds began saying to one another, ‘Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the LORD has made known to us.’ And they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen just as had been told them” (Luke 2:1-20, NASB).
It never ceases to amaze me that there are people who will claim that what is in the Bible is nothing more than old myths and legends written down over the years to promote belief in a deity who differs from all of the gods and goddesses of the ancient world and to unify a group of nomads who ended up settling in areas around the Mediterranean Sea.
This group, who would be known as the Hebrews, were led by a succession of clan warriors whose stories meshed into figures like David and other local tribal rulers. The events recorded in the Scriptures are a form of religious fiction in the eyes of many skeptics who even proclaim that Jesus Christ never existed as a historical figure and that what we know as Christianity is based on a series of stories and imagined situations. Here is what’s amusing in reference to this anti-religious mindset and belief. Many skeptical biblical authorities will tell you that approaches such as these in dismissing the historical events recorded in the Scriptures are foolish and ridiculous.
Even a well-known skeptic like Dr. Bart Ehrman, who is an acknowledged professor and expert in both the New Testament and the history of Christianity, recently had to write a book entitled Did Jesus Exist? to refute these unfounded claims by radical atheists. Dr. Ehrman is himself an agnostic, but there is absolutely no doubt in his mind that Jesus was a real person in history, and research in ancient texts and sources outside the Bible verify this fact.
Conservative scholars such as Drs. Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary have dedicated their academic interests to detailed studies of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, but also to the collection, study, and verification of ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts of the New Testament, some of which go back to the second century A.D., 50 -100 years after the original writings were composed and copied to give to house churches, along with the requests of individual Christians who wanted copies of their own for personal study and devotion.
The fact is that the original manuscripts that came from the pens of the apostles are, to our knowledge, long gone due to age and the probability that they were destroyed by a succession of Emperors and other Roman officials who wanted to rid the empire of all vestiges of the faith due to the fact that the Christians would not acknowledge the Caesars as gods themselves. For the church, Jesus Christ was Lord and King, and Him alone. There have been hundreds of thousands of followers of Christ who have ended up in martyr’s graves around the world for the sake of the Gospel, and this still occurs in many parts of the world today.
The very fact that we have the inclusion of noted historical figures in this story of the birth of the Lord Jesus, as well as specific references to verifiable geographic location, authenticated family lines, eyewitness, detailed testimonies from multiple sources who can affirm the events, and first-person accounts that were so dramatic that every detail could be remembered with clarity and certainty, do not in any logical or rational way point to a tale founded on imagination, tradition, and myth, but is instead reliable and real.
Secular history confirms the existence and notoriety of figures such as Julius Caesar, the aspiring leader of the Roman Republic, assassinated in 44 B.C., having been accused by his peers and alleged friends of attempting to turn the Republic into a dictatorship. He had adopted his grand-nephew Octavian, the grandson of his sister, and proclaimed him as his heir. Over time, Octavian had the assassins of his uncle captured and put to death.
He also opposed the growth of power by the nobleman who attempted to seize control of the Republic, Caesar’s former ally Mark Antony. Antony, by 31 B.C., had made an alliance with the last ruler of an independent Egypt, Cleopatra, who was also his lover; and he fathered two sons by her. Octavian viewed this alliance as a threat to his stature as an heir to Caesar. In 31 B.C., the forces of Octavian and Antony met at the Battle of Actium, where Antony was soundly defeated and later committed suicide, with Cleopatra following, not wanting to be a prisoner of Octavian; but with her death, the Romans took control of Egypt and made it part of their growing empire.
Octavian was given the title of “Augustus” (exalted one) by decree of the Senate in 27 B.C., due to his military experience and effective governing of the Republic. He took the name of Caesar for himself and is known as Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor of Rome, who ruled a kingdom that ran from what is now Spain to the borders of the Balkans in Eastern Europe. He was, by all accounts, an excellent ruler and fair individual throughout his time on the Imperial throne. He adopted his nephew Tiberius and named him his successor. It is Augustus who initiated the census mentioned in Luke 2. He died in 14 A.D., and it was Tiberius (14 -37 A.D.) who then assumed rule over the growing empire when Jesus began His ministry in 29 A.D.
The Syrian governor from Rome, Quirinius, ruled over the province twice during the lifetime of the Lord Jesus, the first being the period between 8 – 6 B.C. (the earliest possibility of Jesus’ birth), and again in 6 A.D., when Jesus was a child. There is honest debate over dates and situations covering this period, but the issue concerning the difficulties in setting approximate times was addressed in the investigative work of Sir William Ramsey (1851-1939), a 19th century archaeologist and Biblical scholar who had initially started out a skeptic concerning the historical narrative found in Luke, but painstakingly went over all mentioned places and available written accounts and concluded that Luke was a remarkable historian, a factor that led Ramsey to become a follower of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Simon Greenleaf (1783-1857), a founding member of the Harvard Law school and Professor of Law, the most trustworthy expert at that time on the acquisition and authentication of admissible evidence, wrote The Testimony of the Four Evangelists, his own personal account of the examination of the gospels and their historical and spiritual reliability, and through available sources found through research, came to the conclusion that what had been recorded in Scripture was sufficient evidence that could be admitted in a legal case and rendered as fact.
The former legal editor of the Chicago Tribune, Lee Strobel, an atheist whose wife had come to faith in Christ, took it upon himself to apply the principles of research, testimony, and analysis in an attempt to discredit the gospel accounts, only to come to faith in Christ himself in 1981. He wrote the book The Case for Christ, which is his account of following where the evidence led, like it or not.
The importance of eyewitness testimony gives strong support for the reliability of this gospel, such as Mary’s own personal testimony of that night and the events surrounding it.
By the time Luke started to write this account, Mary was, no doubt, an elderly woman under the care of the apostle John (John 19:26-27). She would have been only too glad to relate her story to Luke as a source of verification and supply all the details of that night, along with the account of her and Joseph looking for Jesus back in Jerusalem and finding Him at the Temple talking with the teachers of the Law, and declaring to His parents the business of God which He was to undertake at the proper time (2:49). She would have also told Luke about the day of Jesus’ dedication and circumcision when He was eight days old, and the declaration and blessing given to the Child by the aged teacher Simeon, a gift from God for his faithfulness (2:21-38).
Other sources also included the testimony of the surviving group of shepherds, who were probably adolescents at the time, and their testimony concerning the angelic proclamation along with what they experienced at the manger and the need to tell this news to everyone in the area. This encounter would have also been affirmed by Mary as she presented her story to the physician-historian. She would also have talked about Joseph’s reaction to the events and the thoughts he had while he was still living. All history writers will tell you that getting the information from an original source or written account is of vital importance as to the accuracy and authenticity of whether a life or event is sound and true beyond a reasonable doubt.
It also worth noting that Paul makes an appeal to historical accuracy and irrefutable evidence concerning the person and mission of Jesus Christ in the concluding words of his first letter to the Corinthians (15:1-8) concerning Christ’s Resurrection, and how our faith is useless if it had not occurred. The entirety of the New Testament is founded upon Jesus’ life, work, death, and resurrection for the sake of our redemption from the hellish curse of sin. If He were just a myth or fanciful hero in a legend, the New Testament itself would never have been written, and there would be no purpose in having the Scriptures at all. People across time and places would have died for nothing, and there would be no hostility towards a fictitious character from the world.
What we have is a historical reality, and more important, the sure demonstration of God’s love for His fallen creation in coming to rescue us when we do not deserve it. It all started here on Earth with that special birth in Bethlehem, and that is just the beginning of the adventure.