How Historically Accurate are the Birth of Jesus Stories From the Bible?
The Bible presents two seemingly conflicting stories about the birth of Jesus, but history doesn’t exactly disprove them. The Bible predates most of our written history, this makes it hard to prove or disprove any specifics in the Bible or other ancient texts passed down generation to generation. The history we do know makes for some interesting discussions.Christianity from Judaism to Constantine: Crash Course World History.
NOTE: The video above is very well done, but only gives background to the overarching subject on the page. I couldn’t find videos on the subject that I felt did justice to the debate (although I “settled” on some below). I would love for someone to take a rational viewpoint and discuss the facts surrounding the birth of Jesus story. I’d be happy to feature the video on the site.
TIP: There is the possibility that the Birth story is not accurate, but that Jesus was real. It is also possible he is an amalgam of different real people, or simply an embodiment of important early Christian values and ideas. There is a lot we don’t know about those days, and a lot we can’t prove.
Summary of the Birth of Jesus Story in Matthew 2 – King James Version (KJV)
According to the Bible, Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king. Herod hears that a “King of the Jews” is born and sends Three Wise Men to check. The Wise Men see a star signifying the birth of Jesus. Upon arrival, The Wise Men realize the baby is Jesus and don’t return to Herod. God warns Joseph that Herod is going to kill all young children in Bethlehem under the age of two, and they should flee to Egypt. Upon Herod’s death Jesus, Joseph, and Mary plan to go to Israel, but Herod’s son Herod Archelaus is now ruling and so they go to Nazareth.
Birth of Jesus Luke 2:1-7 – King James Version (KJV)
Below is the Birth of Jesus story in Luke:
“In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (We believe this was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) Everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in swaddling cloths and placed him in a manger because there was no other room available for them.” – Luke 2:1-7
The Main Arguments With Solutions
Above we presented what the Bible says, below we will point out specific dates and time periods mentioned above, and then compare that to what we know from written history.
At the end of the day, we are just comparing one translation of a historical text to another, so keep that in mind. The goal is to educate people on history and the Bible, not an attempt to convert, deny, or confirm a certain viewpoint.
History tells us Herod died in 4 – 2 BCE, and the Quirinius census happened in 6 CE. There is a ten-year gap in between Matthew’s account of Jesus escaping Herod and Luke’s account of Jesus being born.
- Generally, there was more than one census. Augustus had the power to issue a census and tax anyone under the rule of Rome.
- The 6 CE census we know about was potentially not the first census by Quirinius.
- Quirinius may not have been the official governor of Judea, but may have been in charge of the census because he was a more capable and trusted servant of Rome than Saturninus. This would have placed the census in Luke and the events in Matthew at the same time.
- Luke can be read with “in those days” meaning a general time frame between when Augustus ordered a census and when Quirinius was governor of Rome.
Some say that people wouldn’t have traveled for the census. If Joseph went, he wouldn’t have taken Mary.
- Roman law was very strict. If people were told to return to their hometowns for the census, they probably did so.
- Joseph was a Jew from the House of David in Bethlehem if his family had owned property there it would have been reasonable for him to go account for it and pay taxes on it.
- It’s reasonable for Joseph to bring his pregnant wife as she was part of his family.
Matthew and Luke both have Mary and Joseph going to different places at different times.
- Generally, it’s hard to account for each place traveled to between Matthew and Luke. There are arguments for and against each place.
Jesus wasn’t born on Christmas and there may or may not have been a star shining over the manger.
- We have no evidence of the exact date or even the season of the birth of Jesus. If one accepts the Bible has been translated, is part metaphor, part a retelling of old stories, and then only part historical recount, then symbolism like “the shining star” and being born “literally on Christmas” are easy enough to see as bits of “pious fiction” alongside a more accurate account.
According to Micah 5:2 and Jewish tradition, the Messiah (the Christ) would be born in Bethlehem, a small town near Jerusalem. Thus, it’s argued both Luke and Matthew are fudging details to put Jesus in Bethlehem.
- This is a solid hypothesis, but we have no proof.
NOTE: Do you have facts pertaining to this you would like to share? Feel free to post comments below.
A Skeptic Point of View
- Some may conclude from the above that, everything considered, the Bible is surprisingly historically accurate.
- Others would focus on the conflicting details to call into question the birth of Jesus story, and literal interpretations of the Bible itself.
I think the thing to keep in mind with all of this is, as noted above, the Bible is an ancient text, written by different people at different times, passed down by our ancestors, which predates most of our written history. This alone makes it important and noteworthy, and the parts that are historically provable pretty clearly point to it not being a purely mythic text.
Specific historic accuracies aside, on a metaphysic level, the general themes of loving thy neighbor, forgiveness, healing the sick, and charity are pretty excellent virtues by any standard. It seems fairly clear these themes are simply trying to conveyed, along with the history and historical figures of the time, but again this isn’t everyone’s takeaway.
TIP: The videos below show viewpoints of those who see the conflicts in the Bible through a lens of skepticism. Here i’ll note that the skeptics tend to nitpick and look for inconsistencies and the believers tend to apply faith. It seems at best wrong to try to force either into the other’s sphere, but for those less committed, i’d caution that a healthy respect for both views is generally in order in polite society.A video discussing the other side of things. A video that attempts to disprove Jesus by looking at the history of religion. This sort of line of reasoning isn’t “proof” that someone else’s belief system is wrong. Arguably, it just proves how important it is that we continue to study longstanding religious texts to better understand our past.
Showing a gap in between Herod’s death and the census we know took place in 6 CE doesn’t disprove the events in the story of the birth of Jesus. We have too few records from the time. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
- “Was There Really a Census when Jesus was Born?“
- “Is Luke Wrong About the Time of Jesus’ Birth?“
- “The Birth of Jesus“
- “HISTORY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT“
- “When Was Jesus Born?“
- “The Date of the Nativity in Luke (6th ed., 2011)“
- “Dead Sea Scrolls“
- “Gaius Sentius Saturninus“
- “The Wise Men and the Star“
- “The Star of Bethlehem Myth“
- “The Bible’s story of the birth of Jesus“