Many people consider the story depicted in a nativity set to be about as historical as the story of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Nothing about Jesus’ birth is recorded in the earliest gospel, Mark. Jesus’ birth is recorded only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and both accounts contain significant differences. Furthermore, they contain miraculous stories that seem to be just the sort of legends that might accumulate over time. Finally, Luke's dating of the census (2:1-2) is historically problematic.
However, there are a few reasons to be skeptical of the skepticism.
- Galatians, one of the earliest surviving Christian documents, was written around 50 CE and reveals that James, the brother of Jesus, was an important leader in the church. He remained in Jerusalem, which was then the center of the Christian movement, with other Christian leaders like Peter. Josephus, a Jewish historian, also tells us that James stayed in Jerusalem until he was killed around 62 CE. (Since Josephus was a young man residing in Jerusalem at this time, he may have even witnessed the event first-hand.) In short, the fact that James the brother of Jesus was an influential leader in the church for the first 3 decades after Easter is undisputed by scholars.
- The letters of Paul, written in the 50’s CE, reveal that the early Christian churches were not isolated from each other. As Richard Bauckham (Cambridge) observes, “The early Christian movement, though geographically widely spread, was a network of close communication, in which individual communities were in frequent touch with others and in which many individual leaders traveled frequently and widely.”
- As Richard Burridge (King’s College) notes, the very existence of the gospels bears witness to the fact that “the early church was interested in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.”
- While Matthew and Luke do have significantly different details about Christ’s birth, the basic storyline is the same: Mary betrothed to Joseph, a virgin birth in Bethlehem, a move to Nazareth. The significant differences between the two accounts are good evidence that the accounts are independent (i.e. Matthew didn’t know about Luke’s account, and Luke didn’t know about Matthew’s account). Furthermore, the gospel of John provides further evidence that this basic storyline was widely known. Recall the comment, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth” (1:45), and the even sharper jab, “We were not born of fornication” (8:41). While John preserves these disparaging remarks, he never seeks to explain that Jesus was not really born in Nazareth or that Jesus was not actually conceived in fornication. This indicates that John assumes his readers already know the basic story of Jesus’ birth.
To sum up, the brother of Jesus was an influential leader in the center of a highly networked community for 30 years. The community was interested in the person of Jesus, and circulated many stories about him. By the end of the first century, the basic story of Jesus’ birth was widely known and accepted in the Christian community: in the town of Bethlehem Jesus was born to Mary before she had married Joseph.
I find it difficult to believe that this basic storyline could be a fabrication. Surely the early Christians would have asked James about his family history. (It is simply fantastic to imagine that they would not have done so.) Furthermore, surely this basic history would have been circulated in the Christian community.
I have not, of course, proved that Matthew and Luke contain no legendary accretions to the basic story of Jesus' birth or that Matthew and Luke contain a perfect record without any errors. However, if we have good reason to believe the basic story is true (as I have argued), and if Matthew and Luke prove to be generally reliable in their preservation of Jesus tradition (as Craig Keener has argued powerfully in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels), we should not lightly dismiss the accounts.