Did the Christmas Story in the Bible Really Happen?

There are plenty of skeptics these days about virtually every story in the Bible, including the Christmas story. Any quick Google search will reveal that an enormous amount has been written on websites and blogs trying to “prove” these stories wrong, especially important ones such as Noah’s flood, the resurrection of Jesus, the creation in Genesis and yes, even the Christmas story.

It IS quite the amazing story isn’t it? Virgin birth. A star guiding some Magi-dudes. Angels announcing things to shepherds. A baby in a manger. And more. It’s too amazing for some, which makes it easy for people to dismiss it. Others simply accuse it of being fabricated, inaccurate, and contradictory. And after all, it does seem to contradict itself and history, right?

But does it?

The stories are different of course, because they happened at different times. Matthew talked about the Magi from the East (real people who were a politically powerful class from the Eastern nations, -places like Babylon). They arrived in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth, when He was up to 2 years old. By that time, Mary and Joseph and Jesus weren’t in a stable, but in a house. And for the record, while the Magi brought three gifts, the Bible never says there were only three magi (or wise-men if you prefer). Chances are, there were quite a few magi, and according to John MacArthur, they never traveled with less than 1000 calvary! Shocking isn’t it? And you thought all those nativity scenes were based on the Bible!

Only loosely, but those stable scenes with the animals ARE pretty.

Now, Luke talked about the actual birth of Jesus, when Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem to be registered in a census. He’s the one who wrote about the shepherds living in the field nearby, and the angels who appeared to them. Luke seems to cause the most debate because the English language Bible says this:

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.” –Luke 2:1-3 NIV

The way that reads, it raises some questions with history.

The problem is it says: “while Quirinius was governor” and Quirinius wasn’t governor (according to the Jewish historian Josephus at least) until AFTER King Herod died. However, remember the Matthew story with the More-Than-Three-Magi??? Well, Matthew said Jesus was born several years BEFORE King Herod died. On the surface this appears to be a contradiction, and skeptics are quick to point this out while making it sound that anyone who believes the Bible is quite foolish indeed.

But they thought that to begin with, so don’t let someone’s condescension change your mind. Stick with actual facts and figures. It’s interesting that despite the great lengths to which skeptics have gone, and the pages and pages they have written on websites, there are two very simple, common sense answers. (Being from Missouri, those always appeal to me).

Start with the fact that the Bible was written in mostly Hebrew and Greek. Absolutely zero parts of the Bible were written in English. It was translated into English. That matters. You see, if you want to argue over what the Bible actually says, remember that in Luke, it says it in Greek. So regardless of what your King James Version or New International Versions of the Bible say, it matters most what the original Greek said.

Turns out, the Greek leaves us some options that we MUST consider. We have to, or else we are ignoring what it actually says.

First, the Greek word for “governor” does not mean simply “governor.” That’s the way the English translators wrote it, but in the Greek, the word there is a general term, and simply means leader, or person in authority. It could mean all sorts of leaders. Think of an NFL team. You probably know that every NFL team has many coaches. There is such a thing as “head coach” and “assistant coach” but they aren’t the same thing. We know Quirinius was the actual governor after Herod died, but was he a leader of some type before that?

Yes he was, and the same word we translated as “govenor” is the same word that could have applied to him as a military leader.

Did it? Well… you decide. Around the time Jesus was born, it’s likely that Quirinius was leading a war in, and around, the Taurus Mountains which include parts of the Syrian province. He won the war by surrounding the entire region and starving them out. Since he was a leader in the area, it is conceivable that had some sort of leadership role which included Syria. The Syrian province seems to have been missing a legion at that time, which is speculated to have been helping in this war.

There’s not a lot of hard evidence about these events, but of course, that’s one reason why it can’t be ruled out that Quirinius had something to do with the leadership in Syria. He WAS a military leader in that part of the world. Also, the Bible never says Quirinius himself conducted the census in Palestine. It simply says the census took place “while Quirinius” was a leader in Syria.

There is another possible answer however, and this one is even easier. Again, looking at the actual Greek language the words we translated “while Quirinius was governor” can also literally mean “AFTER Quirinius was governor,” or “BEFORE Quirinius was governor.” It depends on the context, and the context here, allows for all three.

Therefore, since it can be translated in those ways, you MUST consider it. That is what it actually says.

If we translated it as: “This was the first census that took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Then it fits with what we know of history perfectly. Prior to Quirinius becoming the actual governor of Syria in 6 A.D., Augustus Caesar recorded that he conducted an empire-wide census in 8 B.C. This is found in the Acts of Augustus.

That, or any other census around that time, would be a very likely candidate for the census mentioned in Luke because, the timing of Jesus birth would have occurred 2-4 years after the decree to take this census, meaning it would reasonably happen during the time when the census was being completed. As we know even in our modern ages, taking a census doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long process.

So now read the part of Luke this way:

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place before Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.” –Luke 2:1-3 NIV

See, that fits like a piece of cake. If Palestine was included in the 8 B.C. census, it WOULD have been the first Roman census for the nation of Israel. It WOULD have been an empire-wide census, and it WOULD have been the only other census that took place in Israel BEFORE Quirinius was governor of Syria. It even makes sense that Luke would say it that way because Quirinius oversaw a census in 6 A.D. and evidently the Jews had some problems with that one, and rioted. Luke actually references that particular census in Acts 5. So saying it this way in Luke 2:1-3, sets the two apart. It’s like Luke was trying to make sure the people reading it knew which one he was talking about. It was the one before Quirinius was governor. A perfectly natural way to write it.

And, you know, as far as we can tell, the people in Luke’s day didn’t question his account. It seems like they knew what he was talking about, even if we argue about it today.

Now obviously, there have been some objections, even if you allow for the language stuff. First, it is said that there’s no way that the Romans would have conducted a census in Israel in 8 B.C. or the few years afterwards, because Israel wasn’t subject to the Roman census as a vassal State. And secondly, it is said that the Romans would never, ever force people to go to their own homes to register, and there is little evidence they did. And thirdly, they believe if there had been a census around 8 B.C., Josephus would have mentioned it and the Jews would have been rioting then too.

All three of these are mostly arguments from a lack of evidence. The same sort of argument that was made to “prove” the Bible wrong about the Hittites because for years we never had any evidence of them either. The problem with this sort of argument is, just because you don’t have the evidence yet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And in the case of the Hittites, we’ve since found so much evidence, that you can play the Hittites in a video game called Age of Empires if you want to.

But lets address each one anyway. First, according to the story in the Bible, it doesn’t appear the census was conducted in a Roman way. It appears the census was taken in a more Jewish way. The Jews cared deeply about what family and what tribe each person was from, and every tribe had certain portions of the land of Israel. Even if you bought the land from one of them, the land reverted back to the original family every seven years. So sending people to their hometown to register would have been a very Jewish thing to do.

This indicates that the Jews may have been conducting the census their own way, and would be consistent with still having some control over their affairs, and not being completely under the thumb of the Roman government at the time. It would also account for a lack of riots, or civil unrest.

Also, the idea of a vassal State conducting a census in conjunction with the Roman census was not unheard of, (one of Herod’s relatives did for his vassal State) and Israel especially was under the rule of Rome more than some want to make it sound. Israel was paying money to Rome as a tributary as early as 48 B.C. and every ruler, including the Herods, had to be approved by Rome. Client-kings like Herod could not say no to a census decree, but they were allowed to execute those decrees themselves, -which would explain the Jewish way this census was conducted. Conducting a census consistent with Jewish customs would have been less trouble for Herod.

Finally, Josephus may have indeed mentioned this registration in his writings. In Antiquities I7:4I-45, Joe mentions that an oath of obedience to Caesar Augustus was required in Judea not long BEFORE the death of Herod. And of course, not long before the death of Herod, Luke mentions there was a certain census. In fact, Armenian records and other finds, have shown this oath was taken by other nations at the same time. The census in Luke, was likely part of that.

If you want a ton of information to consider, try this link.

Fact is, it’s not unreasonable to believe in the story of Christmas. There really isn’t a contradiction there after all, when you actually look closely. And as usual, when you look closely at God’s word, you always find a lot more reason to believe.


3 thoughts on “Did the Christmas Story in the Bible Really Happen?

  1. Arnold Beurs

    The Birth of Jesus is not disputed, the actual time of his birth is in question. Although there is nothing in the bible about celebrating his birthday, the question is what has his birth to do with 25th December

  2. That’s one of the questions Arnold, but not one I was addressing in the article above. And the answer is of course, nothing really. The decision to celebrate Jesus’ birth was arbitrary as far as the date goes, but reportedly did have a purpose in trying to supersede/replace a pagan holiday. But make no mistake, the birth of Jesus IS also disputed, although I agree with you that it has been pretty well established that Jesus did exist.

  3. Pingback: Bad Theology in the Eye of the Beholder | Illuminate

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