The Nativity-Myth or Miracle? – Program 1

By: Dr. Gabriel Barkay, Dr. Craig Blomberg, Dr. Darrell L. Bock, Dr. Magen Broshi, Dr. William Lane Craig, Dr. Craig Evans, Dr. Hillel Geva, Dr. Gary Habermas, Mrs. Claire Pfann, Dr. Stephen Pfann, Dr. Ben Witherington, Dr. N.T. Wright; ©2001
What are the best sources to use when you are trying to find out about Jesus – who he was, what he was like, and what he did? Can the biblical accounts be trusted? Is there any information available outside of the Bible?

Where Should We Look for Jesus?


Today, come with us to the Holy Land to investigate; was Jesus’ birth a myth or a miracle? Some scholars claim Jesus’ followers fabricated the story of the Nativity. As The Nativity movie opens in 3000 theaters across the country, whether the story is history or myth will be widely discussed. In addition, on December 25, millions of people around the world will celebrate Christmas and look toward Bethlehem as the place where Jesus was born. When ABC, NBC, or CBS, airs special programs on the Nativity, in addition to featuring critical scholars, they usually call upon one or two of five highly acclaimed evangelical scholars to represent the Christian position. Today you will meet and hear from all five of them, as well as from scholars in Europe and Israel. Was Jesus birth a miracle or a myth? What does the historical evidence show? Come with us to the holy land as we investigate this question on this special edition of the John Ankerberg show.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Welcome. I’m John Ankerberg, and we’ve traveled to three continents to ask historians and archaeologists: Is the Jesus of history the same as the Jesus of the Christian faith? What can we really know about Him? We found that some scholars claim that reliable sources for the Nativity story are hard to come by, therefore Jesus’ followers fabricated the story of his birth. Not only that, they claim there is a lack of historical evidence for most of Jesus’ life. But is this true? Well, to answer these questions we traveled to the Holy Land and contacted 13 leading scholars. Dr. Darrell Bock is one of those scholars who has been invited by ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and FOX to appear in their specials about Jesus’ life. He is distinguished professor of New Testament research at Dallas Theological Seminary and the author of many books, including the Missing Gospels. I asked him do we have a lack of historical evidence about Jesus’ life as some claim?
Dr. Darrell Bock: No. Not really. There actually is quite a bit of historical evidence, especially considering how obscure at one level a figure Jesus was. He was tucked away in a rural part of the Roman Empire, and as He was tucked away in that rural part in the context of a vast empire, one would think you would know very little about Him. But in fact, He pops up in a whole lot of places.
Ankerberg: A lot of people say that there are no secular non-Christian sources about Jesus that confirm the historical facts that are found in the New Testament. Is that true or false?
Bock: No. That’s false. We have several sources outside the Bible that confirm the existence of Jesus and they say very important things about Jesus.
Ankerberg: Such as?
Bock: We have Tacitus who says that Pontius Pilate was responsible for the execution. That’s a Roman historian talking about a Roman governor. We have Josephus, a Jewish historian, saying Pontius Pilate is responsible for the execution of Jesus, and our people put him up to it. So that’s a Jewish historian talking about the Jewish contribution to the discussion. We have Jewish sources that talk about Jesus as a magician and sorcerer, acknowledging that He did unusual works. That’s something that Josephus also tells us. So not only do we have corroboration, in some cases we have double corroboration.
Ankerberg: Now, if someone wants to discover what Jesus really said and did here in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago, what historical evidence can they turn to? Well, we found all of the scholars, Christian or non-Christian, start with the earliest books written about Jesus, and that is the four gospels. And right here the debate about Jesus begins. What kind of books are the Gospels? Do scholars believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are reliable sources for Jesus’ life? I asked this question of Dr. Craig Evans, who appeared on the NBC special about Jesus’ life, and was asked by National Geographic magazine to be one of their dream team scholars who would investigate the gospel of Judas.
Dr. Craig Evans: Where you begin, you begin with your oldest sources, your oldest and most reliable sources. And, we’ve got them. We have four gospels in the New Testament.
Dr. Claire Pfann: If we want to deal with the historicity of Jesus, then we have to immerse ourselves into the tools that are there for examining that. That includes the Gospels, the literary texts; it includes extra-biblical material as well; writings of other Jewish authors like Josephus. It includes archaeology and a study of biblical languages like Hebrew and Greek.
Ankerberg: But some scholars claim that the writers of the four Gospels were theologically motivated; therefore, it is doubtful that they accurately reported what happened.
Dr. Craig Blomberg: Yet another charge that many critics make is that the gospels are theological, today we might call them ideological, and therefore, inherently biased. They have an axe to grind, they have propaganda to give out, and therefore they can’t be trusted. There are at least two points we need to make in reply to that: One is that in the ancient world nobody had yet invented the notion of objective, dispassionate chronicling of history simply for history’s sake. They wouldn’t bother to retell the story to somebody if they didn’t feel there was something that could be learned from it. So from that perspective, all history was ideological.
Ankerberg: The Four Gospels used to be considered as historical biographies. Now, we look at them as just theology and not a whole lot of history. In fact, some guys would say it’s the creation of the early church. But just because there’s theology in those accounts of Jesus’ life, does that exclude them from being historical?
Bock: No, not at all. You can have history and theology together. Just think of the word perspective instead of theology. What the Gospels give us is the perspective of the disciples and those who believed Jesus in terms of what He did and said. And granted, they have a bias, if you want to use that word. They have a prejudice. They are believers, there’s no doubt about it. But they are trying to convince the reader this is who Jesus was, this is what He did, and, in fact, this is who He is, as well, in the process.
Blomberg: The other point that needs to be made is that simply because somebody believes passionately in a subject they tell about, doesn’t by any means necessarily mean that they’ll distort the facts. Sometimes the reverse is the case. A great modern day example are many Jewish historians of the Nazi holocaust, who have been passionately committed to never seeing such an atrocity reduplicated and for that very reason they have very carefully and accurately chronicled the horrors in a way that the so-called revisionist historians, mostly Gentile, trying to downplay the atrocities, have not done so.
Evans: And so just because the New Testament Gospel writers have a theological interest and that’s what drives them to tell the story of Jesus in the first place, that doesn’t disqualify their writing. It doesn’t make it suddenly unhistorical or of no value.
Ankerberg: What would you say to a person who’s really skeptical and says that Matthew didn’t write Matthew; Mark didn’t write Mark; Luke didn’t write Luke; and John didn’t write John?
Blomberg: The sum total of the evidence that we have from the early Church Fathers is that the four men, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that the New Testament is typically ascribed to, two of them apostles, Matthew and John, two of them companions of apostles, Mark and Luke, are in fact the people who wrote the stories about Jesus.
Ankerberg: Now some critical scholars claim that the men who wrote the four gospels were not eyewitnesses. I asked Dr. Craig Evans how he would respond to the critics.
Evans: Well, two of the Gospel writers were not eyewitnesses. But, that does not mean that they didn’t know eyewitnesses. Two of the other Gospel writers may very well have been, and that’s Matthew and John.
Ankerberg: Another statement that he made was, in fact, the Gospels were probably written 40-100 years after Jesus’ death. Where would you place them?
Evans: Forty to one hundred years, that’s way too far. I would put them more like 35-50 years after Jesus’ death.
Ankerberg: And if they are 35-50 years after Jesus’ death, if He died in 30 AD and they’re on the newsstands at 60 AD up to, say, 85 AD, what does that tell you about the content of those books?
Evans: Well, the books are written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses, written in the lifetime of people who knew what Jesus said and did.
Ankerberg: We heard this over and over again from the scholars: If almost all of the New Testament books were written before 85 A.D., then they came out when eyewitnesses to those events were still alive. Therefore, if the accounts were not accurate, they would have caught flack from all sides.
Blomberg: And it wasn’t just Christians who checked up on what was being said, there were plenty of still hostile eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus for the next generation, particularly in Israel, who, if the first apostles had gone around saying anything substantially different from what others knew Jesus did and taught, would have been very happy to intervene and to correct, and to, perhaps, snuff out this movement.
Ankerberg: We also spoke with Dr. Gabriel Barkay, who was recently awarded the prestigious prize for archaeology in Israel. As an archeologist do you think that the writers of the New Testament anchored their stories in real historical events, real historical things that you’ve discovered in the past?
Dr. Gabriel Barkay: Yes, I do. I think that much of the evidence of the gospels mirrors a reality of 1st century of the Common Era.
Ankerberg: Dr. Magen Broshi is former curator of the Shrine of the Book, Israel’s museum containing the Dead Sea Scrolls. He is a recognized archaeologist and scholar, having excavated the most recent discoveries of caves at Qumran.
Dr. Magen Broshi: I mean, the setting is absolutely accurate. Absolutely accurate. The geography is accurate. The mode of living, I mean they couldn’t have invented it, and they didn’t have any need to invent anything.
Evans: There are historical elements, and once we start talking history, then potentially we can start talking source and evidence. We can actually go to the place. It’s a real place. It isn’t some fairy-tale land somewhere. It isn’t King Arthur and his round table. We can actually go some place and say, “This is where it all happened. In fact, look. We’ve actually dug up the very pavement where He walked.” Things like that can be found. Potentially all kinds of things. We could still find other documents. You don’t find corroborating evidence for fairy-tales and myths and so on. Well, for the historical Jesus you can find plenty of corroborating stuff.
Ankerberg: Dr. Hillel Geva is an archaeologist who has worked on some of the most important archaeological excavations in Jerusalem since 1967 and is editor of the leading Hebrew journal on biblical archaeology.
Dr. Hillel Geva: And of course, Roman coins with the name Pontius Pilate, with even the date. So no doubt they were figures. Roman governors, no doubt, are figures. I mean, nobody questions about that. So, the New Testament is a very authentic, historical book. I mean, no doubt there is history in it: real history and authentic history in the book.
Broshi: So this is, as I say, is a time where there was still quite a number of eyewitnesses, of people that knew about the events first hand, and there is absolutely no fiction there, they are not historical novellas, they are as far as accurate as they could have done.
Ankerberg: So if there is evidence to lead scholars to believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are anchored in real historical facts, what do these authors say about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth? Soon, millions of people around the world will celebrate Christmas and look to Bethlehem as the place where Jesus was born. But some scholars cast doubt on whether Jesus was ever born there. So next, we will travel to the city of Bethlehem to investigate this question.

Ankerberg: We’ve come to Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity. This is the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Some scholars claim that Jesus wasn’t really born here and we wanted to get a second opinion. Others claim Matthew tells us Jesus was born in Bethlehem, while Luke implies He was born in Nazareth. Who is right?
First, let’s look at the material that is questioned. In the gospel of Matthew, we are told, Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king. [Matt. 2:1] Then, in the gospel of Luke we read: And Joseph also went up from Galilee from the city of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was with child. And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth; and she gave birth to her firstborn Son. [Luke 2:4-7] Now, doesn’t it seem that both Matthew and Luke clearly state Jesus was born in Bethlehem?
Bock: I think He was born in Bethlehem. In fact, again, let’s take the alternative. What evidence is there that He was born in Nazareth and my response would be Silence. There is none.
Ankerberg: One who disagrees about where Jesus was born is Marcus Borg, the founder of the Jesus Seminar. He thinks Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, since in the Gospels He is called Jesus of Nazareth.
Claire Pfann: Well, I think that that’s pretty much a silly observation. The fact that Jesus was called Jesus of Nazareth tells us less about where He was born than about where He came from as a young adult when He started His ministry. It tells us that He was known as Jesus of Nazareth because that’s where He lived during His adolescence. It doesn’t tell us where He was born. He was born in Bethlehem.
Ankerberg: To get the whole story of Christmas, we do have to put the two accounts together. Matthew and Luke each present additional facts about what happened. But because they supply additional facts that are different, should we conclude that we have two contradictory reports?
Bock: Well, the key combination is the idea: Different equals Contradictory. And that’s not the only way to look at it. You can have different accounts of the same event and they can have differences in them and not be contradictory at all. I often joke with my kids that if you listen to my wife and I tell a story about the same event, we’re not going to pick the same details. Now, some of it will overlap and some of it will be different. And part of what she tells you is going to be part of the story and part of what I tell you is going to be part of the story, too. And actually, there’s great value in having those different accounts because they each penetrate the story at a different angle and in that difference of penetration you get more insight into the character and into the event. And it’s not contradictory at all.
Ankerberg: Some network television specials about Jesus’ life have begun by claiming that the gospels present a false picture of Jewish life in the first century. They claim this is especially true of the events reported by Matthew and Luke concerning Jesus’ birth. But do scholars agree? While in Jerusalem, I asked this question of Dr. Claire Pfann, faculty member at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem. She is an expert on Jewish birth practices and the culture of Bethlehem during the time of Jesus.
Claire Pfann: I don’t agree. I don’t think that the Gospels present a false picture of Jewish life in the first century in the Holy Land. I think, if anything, Luke in particular endeavors to show us the norms of Jewish life.
Ankerberg: Luke also presents both John the Baptist and Jesus as children who are circumcised on the eighth day in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. Mary and Joseph are pictured as observant, pious Jews who bring Jesus up according to the Law of Moses, and present Him in the temple. Luke also tells us that, as a family, they went up to the great pilgrimage feasts in Jerusalem, such as the time of Passover.
Claire Pfann: And later in Jesus’ life, it’s reiterated time and again, that it was His practice to go to the synagogue on Shabbath, on the Sabbath, and that He was pious and observant of Jewish traditions. I think that we see an enormous amount of material that authentically reflects Jewish life in the first century in the Holy Land in the Gospels.
Ankerberg: We asked archaeologist Dr. Magen Broshi if he thinks information from this part of the world supports what the Gospel writers say.
Broshi: On certain things, they fit very well of what we know about the first century Palestine. They fit very well because they give us a good picture of what was happening here, and archaeology can prove it.
Evans: Now, archaeology doesn’t prove that Jesus was really God’s Son. Source critical work and all that stuff doesn’t prove those things. But what it does is it shows that there is a historical foundation on which confessions of faith, or in the light of which confessions of faith make perfectly good sense.
Ankerberg: Now, there are some scholars that assert that the accounts of Jesus’ virgin birth in the Gospels are similar to Greek and Roman mythologies. They point to the myth told about Caesar Augustus in which his mother was made pregnant by the Greek and Roman sun god, Apollo. Well, what about this?
Dr. Gary Habermas: Let’s take our mystery religion pattern or Hellenistic religion, Hellenistic divine man pattern. These characters are not historical persons. They never lived in history, so what’s the grounds for comparison? And I love the words of Plutarch, who, in his famous story of Isis and Osiris, he says, now listen don’t you guys think that this is a historical account, I’m telling you a story here. And he says that twice. So, I think that’s important that there’s a contrast.
Now, when you get to the New Testament, you’re looking at, again, you’re looking at some early sources, you’re looking at some eyewitness sources and in the case of the resurrection of Christ, you’ve got an empty tomb, so you’ve got remains where people can say, oh well, we’re not talking about a mere idea here are we? So to compare non-Christian miracle claims to Christian miracle claims, I think we’re talking about some serious differences that, philosophically speaking, weigh heavily against some of the non-Christian accounts.
Bock: I mean, I think when I compare the virgin birth and its simplicity, you know: God comes to Mary and says, You’re going to have a child, and basically does it, and there are no snakes that have to appear in the night to impregnate the woman. It’s just done by the verbal command. See, it’s the simplicity of the way the miraculous is displayed in the Bible.
Dr. N. T. Wright: Matthew and Luke both, I’m sure, knew that out there in the wider pagan world there were people who told stories about Alexander the Great being conceived when his mother was a virgin, about Augustus similarly, about various heroes and demigods. And since Matthew and Luke both want to talk about Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism, which didn’t have stories like that, this is really kind of a dangerous thing, dangerous ground for them to be getting into. And so I ask myself as a historian, Why would they do that, particularly when the obvious sneering retort to such a report is, Well, we know Mary was just sleeping around with Roman soldiers or whatever, which is precisely what some of the enemies of Christianity went on to say. So it seems to me that Matthew and Luke would not have included those stories unless they really believed that something very strange like this had happened.
Ankerberg: We also found that some scholars claim that the gospel accounts of the Jesus’ birth cannot be true because they say Joseph would never have asked Mary to accompany him from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a very difficult journey through the desert, especially when she was very, very pregnant, but is that true?
Claire Pfann: Well, there are just so many things wrong with that question, aren’t there? Starting off with the fact that maybe she wasn’t very, very pregnant at the time they made the journey. We pointed out in Luke 2 that it doesn’t say that she was in labor when she was traveling to Bethlehem, it says, while she was in Bethlehem she went into labor: the time came for her to be delivered, number one. Number two, it’s not that dangerous of a journey to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and we see that probably the practice was to travel in groups of people. It would be a three or four day journey. They would camp out under the stars. They would bring food with them. And there were not bandits on every side waiting to attack every traveler. So I think that we find a few basic presuppositions that are just our own modern skepticism and really don’t deal with the reality of the fact that, if Joseph and Mary had come to live together as a married couple at this point, why on earth would he leave her at home when he faced a prolonged absence, waiting for the census to be accomplished?
Ankerberg: The big question for many people is, Can we accept the miracle of the virgin birth? We will talk more about miracles later. But for now, here’s how a historian who taught at Oxford approaches this question.
Wright: Now, of course, I cannot prove the virginal conception of Jesus, and I don’t think you can prove it in the same way as I would prove the resurrection, that you can’t explain the rise of early Christianity without it. Then, that forces me to hold my modern mind open to say, If God was really in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, ought I not to expect some other strange things as well? And when I then have these stories which look so strange and yet, why would they do that? Maybe it really did happen. Because you see, as far as I know, nobody in Judaism was going around and saying, Ah ha! Isaiah 7:14, Messiah must be born of a virgin. I don’t know that anyone was taking that text like that before, so it’s not that Matthew had that text in mind and had to pin it on Jesus. I suspect that Matthew would have been quite happy not to mention that. But it’s rather the case that he’s got this story and he wants to find something in the Old Testament to go with it. And likewise, Luke, it’s not the case that he has stories about angels and shepherds which he’s wanting to pin on Jesus; rather, this is the stuff that he’s got to work with.
Ankerberg: So, from all that we’ve examined today, there are good historical reasons for believing the Gospel accounts accurately portray what happened when Jesus was born. Next, why do archaeologists say that the Church in Bethlehem probably marks the spot where Jesus was born? Why can we trust Luke’s description of the shepherds and Matthew’s report of the Magi? We will answer these questions and more next week.

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  1. […] The Nativity-Myth or Miracle? – Program 1 By: Dr. Gabriel Barkay, Dr. Craig Blomberg, Dr. Darrell L. Bock, Dr. Magen Broshi, Dr. William Lane Craig, Dr. Craig Evans, Dr. Hillel Geva, Dr. Gary Habermas, Mrs. Claire Pfann, Dr. Stephen Pfann, Dr. Ben Witherington, Dr. N.T. Wright […]

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