Truth in the Story of Christmas
by John Dickson
It is common at Christmas to hear ‘experts’ questioning the Gospel accounts. Writers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Michel Onfray and Bishop John Shelby Spong make their pronouncements with something approaching glee: there is not a shred of evidence outside the Gospel of Luke for a census at the time of Jesus’ birth; Matthew’s hovering star over Bethlehem is a fiction; and the virgin birth is the neurotic invention of a church trying to distance the Son of God from any association with sex.
Then there are questions about the date of Jesus’ supposed birth. December 25 was a pagan festival until it was hijacked, we are told, by a church desperate for relevance. Evidence that the starting point of the Western calendar, AD 1, cannot have been the year of Jesus’s nativity helps the sceptics’ case, and we are left with the impression that perhaps Jesus never lived at all. Maybe the whole thing is a fable with no more credibility than Santa Claus. And, like that story, thinking adults ought to grow out of it.
But while much of this is factually correct, it is ultimately wrong. Take the absence of corroborating evidence for the Roman census, the visit of foreign Magi or the great star. The sceptics would have us think, if these things really did take place, there would be mention of them in other sources. But scholars of antiquity often note we probably have in our possession less than 1 per cent of the literary works that existed in the first century. Ninety-nine per cent of our evidence is lost.
“As every student of ancient history is aware”, Professor Graham Stanton of Cambridge University writes, “it is an elementary error to suppose that the unmentioned did not exist.” With only 1 per cent of the evidence to hand, it is foolhardy to deny something just because it appears in a single source.
As recently as June 2004, a large public pool mentioned only in John’s Gospel – and so doubted by some – was uncovered during sewerage works in Jerusalem.
It is true there is no corroborating evidence for the finer details of the Christmas story but it is wrong, and wrong-headed, to turn this into evidence that they are untrue. People are free not to trust what the Gospels report, but this is a choice based on a preference, not an argument arising from evidence…
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