The Reliability of the Christmas Story

The Christmas Eve service at our church was awesome! The music, the performances, the lights, and the sermon were all excellent. Everyone who was involved in each of the four services we had did his or her upmost for the Lord. As with most Christmas sermons, the Gospel of Luke was quoted. As the pastor was opening his sermon, he talked about how we all have grown up hearing stories. These stories often being with “Once upon a time…” In contrast, he noted, this story (the Christmas story) actually happened. It got me thinking about how we can actually know this is the case.

There is some really strong evidence that the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were written early in history and by eyewitnesses or those who knew and had eyewitnesses as their sources. The Gospel of Luke in particular, is filled with many interesting details that show Luke was writing an actual historical narrative. For example, in Chapter 3 of Luke’s Gospel, we find a very interesting passage:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness (Luke 3:1-2, ESV).

So what is so interesting about this passage? It is filled with historical details. In just two verses, Luke makes reference a Roman ruler, Tiberius Caesar; a Roman provincial governor, Pontius Pilate; three Jewish rulers, Herod, Philip, and Lysanias; and two Jewish high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. There is also a very precise date the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign, which historians place about 29 A.D. Further, there are extra-Biblical sources that confirm the existence of these seven historical figures.

In Luke 7, we read the account of Jesus healing a Roman Centurion’s servant. The interesting thing about this account is that Luke writes, “When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant” (Luke 7:3, ESV).

What is fascinating is that the Jewish elders actually honored this Centurion’s request. “And when they came to Jesus, they [elders of the Jews] pleaded with him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue’” (Luke 7:4-5, ESV).

Consider the context here. The Roman Empire was occupying Israel and oppressing the Jews. The Jewish people were anxiously awaiting the promised Messiah, who would throw off Israel’s oppressors and restore the Davidic Kingdom. Yet these Jewish elders in the city of Capernaum held this Roman Centurion in such high regard they were willing to plead with Jesus to perform a healing miracle for the Centurion’s servant because of this man’s support and honor of Israel. This is hardly a fanciful tale written centuries after the events in question. This reads like the historical narrative it really is.

As you consider the message and meaning of Christmas this year, please recognize that Christians have significant reasons to trust in the historical accuracy of the New Testament. If we can trust Luke’s historical details on matters such as ancient Roman and Jewish rulers and inter-personal details between Jews and Romans; then we can certain trust him in regards to even more details such as the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.