Dec12 2011

The Birth of Jesus- Myth or History?


It looks like American Atheists is at it again.  Just in time for the holidays, the organization has sponsored billboards all over the country to wage war on Christianity.  The orange and black billboard displays four images:   a statue of the Roman god Neptune, Santa Claus, a guy wearing a suit and a devil mask, and a classical portrait of Jesus Christ.  The sign is punctuated by the words, “37 million Americans know MYTHS when they see them-  What do YOU see?”  All of this comes as no surprise since the same organization held a similar campaign last year in which they put up billboards depicting The Nativity with the accompanying message, “You KNOW it’s a myth-  this season, celebrate REASON.”  The obvious common denominator between the two signs is the message that Jesus is nothing more than a myth.

If given the opportunity to speak to those who designed the billboard, here are a few questions that I would like to ask them:  “Just for clarification, when you make the claim that Jesus is just a myth, do you mean that the entire story of Jesus is a myth?  Are you saying that Jesus was not a real person in terms of history, or are you specifically referring to the miracles attributed to him?  That is, are you saying that Jesus was a real, historical figure, but any details referring to his virgin birth and miraculous acts are mere fabrications that were added to the historical account?”   All of these questions are very important, so I want to take a moment to address them separately.

For starters, let’s investigate the claim that the entire story of Jesus is a work of fiction.  Is it true that Jesus was not a real person in terms of history?  The fact of the matter is that you would be hard-pressed these days to find a respectable scholar, even among critics of the Bible, who is willing to make such a bold claim.  Nevertheless, there are a few people in academia who continue to insist that the Jesus of the New Testament never actually existed.  Those who hold such a view will oftentimes state it this way;  “Outside of the New Testament, we’ve never found any other ancient writings that acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as a real, historical figure.”

In response to such a statement, the first thing we need to ask the critic is why is it necessary to find a source outside of the New Testament?  In other words, even if it was the case that the New Testament documents were the only historical records that mention Jesus, why isn’t that sufficient?  Why must we accept the terms set by the critic who demands that the New Testament documents are unacceptable unless they are supported by other, additional writings?  This raises another related question:  Why is it that the New Testament documents are assumed to be “guilty until proven innocent” when nearly every other ancient historical document is approached on the basis that it is trustworthy until proven otherwise?  There is no reason why the New Testament writings should be treated any differently or with any less respect than we give to any other historical documents, especially in light of the fact that the New Testament documents are better attested to than any other ancient documents in terms of manuscript evidence alone.  In addition to this, the New Testament surpasses most other ancient documents in terms of confirmation through archaeological discoveries.

Take, for example, the book of Acts which is a historical record of the early Christian church immediately following the resurrection of Jesus.  If the book of Acts is merely a work of fiction by the author (Luke), then one could easily expose it as such.  It leaves itself open and vulnerable to careful scrutiny by virtue of the fact that it is filled with very specific details in terms of naming exactly who, what, when, where, why, and how the alleged events took place.   In his scholarly work, “The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History”, historian Colin Hemer painstakingly verifies Luke’s accuracy in the book of Acts by identifying in precise detail 84 facts recorded by Luke that have been confirmed by archaeological and historical research.  Luke’s careful attention to detail in recording historical events led British archaeologist Sir William Ramsay to conclude after thirty years of study, “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy…..this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”  (“The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament”, p.222).

So, what does all of this have to do with the question of whether or not Jesus was a real person in history?  The author of the book of Acts is the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke in which he carefully records a detailed account of the birth of Jesus, as well as his life, ministry, miracles, trial, execution and resurrection.  The point is, since Luke has proven himself to be an accurate historian in the book of Acts, we have good reason to think that he was just as careful in meticulously gathering and recording the historical facts surrounding the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospel of Luke.  Furthermore, this affirms the historical accuracy of the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and John) where the events they record correspond to the details given in Luke’s Gospel.  The abundance of historical and archaeological evidence in support of the New Testament should be enough to convince any honest, open-minded person that the Gospels give us an accurate, reliable, historical record of the life and words of Jesus.  The New Testament documents stand on their own merits according to the generally-accepted methods of historical investigation.  But for the sake of the hard-core skeptic who insists on citing ancient sources outside the Bible, there are several non-Biblical sources from the ancient world which affirm the historical certainty of the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Such sources would include the writings of Josephus, Pliny the Younger, Phlegon, Thallus, Seutonius, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, Tacitus, Celsus, and the Jewish Talmud.  (It’s worth noting that the last three in this list are not only non-Biblical sources, they could be considered anti-Biblical sources).

This brings us back to the initial claim by American Atheists that Jesus is just a myth.  As we’ve seen, they certainly cannot mean that he never existed.  They can only mean that they believe that the miracles recorded in the New Testament, such as his virgin birth, are nothing more than fanciful additions to the story of Jesus.  However, this, too, is an assumption that is not based on evidence or good scholarship.  It is a misguided conclusion based on an atheist bias.  That is to say, before they even look at the evidence, they already have their minds made up that God does not exist.  Therefore, miracles (being an act of God) cannot and do not occur.  Their bias demands a naturalistic explanation.

However, such a false conclusion about the “impossibility” of miracles is not only unnecessary, it is irrational, especially in light of the cumulative evidence for God’s existence.  The latest discoveries in cosmology, physics, biology, genetics, etc. all point unmistakably to a Divine Architect.  That being the case, it logically follows that if God has the authority and power to bring the universe and everything in it into being at His command, then it is not beyond His power to send His Son into this world in an extraordinary way, born of a young virgin, in fulfillment of a prophecy given by Isaiah almost 700 years earlier.  “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’-  which means, ‘God with us’.”  (Matthew 1:22,23)



6 Responses to “The Birth of Jesus- Myth or History?”

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  1. Roy Shirwindt says:

    Good try, But the birth story of Jesus according St Mathew Disagrees with the Birth story of Luke. I have no doubt that there was a historical Jesus. Most modern biblical scholars will not agree with you that the Isaiah prophesy you quoted pertains to the birth of Jesus. That said religion is based on faith and you are entitled to believe the way you do without being harassed by atheist. What evidence have they shown proving there is no God,

    • Roy Shirwindt says:

      Definition
      Myth
      1
      a : a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon b : parable, allegory
      2
      a : a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society.

      We shouldn’t underestimate the power of a myth. It tells us more about the people who created it than the mythological figure they created.

      St. Paul states
      “Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous. “ [Rom 5:18-19]

      Paul then describes Jesus a the perfect sacrifice calling him the lamb of God.

      If all men are born in sin, how can Jesus be a perfect sacrifice? The writers of Matthew and Luke solved the problem by their birth stories.

      • alex says:

        It would seem roy you are takeing verses out of context. The bible makes it perfectly clear that jesus was sinless, True it saids all men are sinners, but it excludes jesus. therefore your arugment is false. Take the bible at face value, instead of twisting verses around. I noticed you never proved the bible was a myth, and never disproved Gods existance. Marty proved that on this site.

    • James says:

      Can you help me understand where the birth story according to Matthew disagrees with the birth story of Luke?
      -James

  2. marty says:

    Hi, Roy! Sorry for the delayed response- it's been a very busy week leading up to the holidays! Thank you so much for your feedback. I always appreciate a sincere comment, even in disagreement. I'll try my best to address some of the objections you've raised. Before I can respond to your comment about "conflicting birth stories", I will need some specifics; the exact passages in question as well as the alleged contradictions as you see them. You stated that "Most modern Bible scholars" will not agree with me that the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy pertains to Jesus' birth. I think you've overstated your point by saying "most" scholars. I agree with you that there are some scholars who are not convinced that the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy refers to Jesus. However, there are equally-qualified Bible scholars who ARE convinced that the prophecy is two-fold. First, it served as an immediate sign of God's promise to deliver Israel from the bondage awaiting them under the invading Assyrians. Second, it served as a sign referring to the future birth of the Messiah. Some scholars cite the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 9:6-7 in support of their view. Either way, it's interesting to note that Matthew (living much closer to Isaiah's prophecy in terms of history, culture, time and tradition) definitely made the connection between the prophecy and Jesus' birth. Now we have scholars, 2,000 years later, who are even further removed from the events, trying to tell Matthew how and why he's mistaken.

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