The Nativity-Myth or Miracle? – Program 3

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
Can we really believe stories like the virgin birth? Wasn’t Jesus really Mary’s illegitimate son by some soldier? Do the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth jibe with archaeological evidence from the first century?

Can the Nativity Accounts in Matthew and Luke Be Trusted?


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.

Ankerberg: Welcome. I’m John Ankerberg. 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? We found that some scholars claim the early Christian church fabricated the story of the Nativity to create a cover for Jesus being Mary’s illegitimate son. Others scholars say that the Gospel writers like that did not give us an accurate historical account of the events surrounding the Nativity. But is this true? To find out, we traveled to Europe to talk to one of the most respected Jesus scholars in the world. Dr. N. T. Wright taught at Oxford University in England for 22 years, was Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, and is now Bishop of Durham. He has been featured on NBC, ABC, CNN, and Fox; and is the author of more than 60 books.
Wright: What we find in Matthew and Luke are two very strange stories because 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: I’ve got to ask you this question now because it comes up. You have material, information, but you have 20th century people that come to this material with presuppositions. Can history straight-out lead us to the conclusion that Jesus was God, He did the supernatural; miracles took place, etc.? Or does something have to happen before we approach that material? Because a naturalist would say, Hey, if I see the miracles, they didn’t happen because miracles don’t happen. How would you advise people to look at these texts?
Bock: It’s a good question, and I think it’s an important question for our day because I think most people do approach the Bible, and they go, This is pretty unusual stuff. And the fact is, it is. And in fact, that’s the point. The fact that it’s unusual is the point. You know, virgin births don’t happen every day, and the reason God did it this way was to mark Jesus out as unique, as special, so that Joseph finds himself in the dilemma of having this girl that he’s betrothed to pregnant. He knows he’s not responsible. In his mind that leads to only one conclusion: some other guy did this. Now there has to be an explanation for why that doesn’t work. And the interesting thing is in thinking about, that states it positively, thinking about it negatively, you have to come to the view of, does the alternative explanation make sense? Let’s work with the virgin birth. I think it’s a problem to say that the early Church created a cover up for an illegitimate Jesus because someone would have known that birth was illegitimate and if there really was a belief that Jesus’ birth was illegitimate, He never would have gotten out of the starting blocks as the Messiah, as the holy, chosen Messiah of God.
Ankerberg: We understand that one of the biggest problems people have with the Nativity story, is the miraculous aspect of the virgin birth itself. We traveled to Jerusalem to ask scholars how they answered this question. Dr. Claire Pfann is Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem. She has appeared on CNN, Fox, and the BBC as an authority on the historical Jesus.
Claire Pfann: It’s historically probable that Jesus was born of a virgin, and both Matthew and Luke, working independently decades after His birth as they searched for the data that they can put together on His birth, come up with that as one of the 12 points that they share in common, a virgin birth, a divine conception. There have been many slurs and innuendos about Jesus, but in this they both agreed.
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. Because as I say, you can explain Paul’s theology without ever mentioning the virginal conception because Paul never does, so that it’s not the same kind of argument.
What I want to say, though, is that if the resurrection happened in the way that the New Testament says it does, and frankly, if it didn’t, I can’t explain as a historian how early Christianity got off the ground, 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.
Ankerberg: One thing that almost every scholar we talked to agreed on is the religious power of the Nativity story. But the question is, does that power stem from the fact that the story is historically true, or just that it’s a good story?
Bock: Well, I think they do have power. I think part of their power is in the history: the fact that these things did happen. In fact, I’d argue that part of their persuasiveness historically has been the fact that people believe that God did something special in Jesus; He was responsible for the birth; angels did appear. And although you could treat it like an English literature story, like a novel, and say, Well, there’s still truth in it even if it didn’t happen, there’s perhaps some truth in that at one level. But that’s not what the gospels are. That’s other kinds of literature.
Ankerberg: You may have picked up a newspaper and read the opinions of a group of scholars referred to as the Jesus Seminar. Well, many people assume that the opinions of this group represent what most scholars think about Jesus. We decided to ask scholars in Canada, America, Europe and here in Israel how they evaluated the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar, and what they said might surprise you.
Wright: Those conclusions represent one section of American scholarship. It’s not even all American mainstream scholarship. And here in Britain and in Europe most of the scholars who are working on the Gospels and so on frankly wouldn’t give that stuff the time of day.
Claire Pfann: I think that much of the work of the Jesus Seminar is unfortunate. I think they’re trying to create a politically correct Jesus based on their own presuppositions and it’s a Jesus who is divorced from His Jewish context, from Jewish history, from archaeology, and they want to take democracy and cast a vote on what they think He would or would not have said, what would or would not have been appropriate without doing some very basic research into, for example, the picture we see of Jewish thought and expectation reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The farther away they get from the sources, the more tenuous their picture of Jesus becomes.
Ankerberg: Now from time to time you will read articles that quote professors of the Jesus Seminar who claim that the story of Jesus birth was simply fabricated by the early church after Christ passed off the scene. But if some Christians just invented the story that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and it never happened, then there should have been other Christians creating other stories about Jesus being born in cities somewhere else. But historians know that in all the accounts that have come down to us from the early Christians, they say there is only one place where Jesus was born, and that is the city of Bethlehem. And what about the archaeological evidence in Bethlehem. Does it support the Nativity story? To answer these questions we traveled to different sites in the holy land with Dr. Steven J. Pfann, the founder and president of the University of the Holy Land and Center for the Study of Early Christianity. Since 1992 he has significantly contributed to the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls as a member of the international team of editors. Within Israel his expertise was expanded through on site archaeological training under the late professors Yigael Yadin and Yigal Shiloh.
Dr. Stephen Pfann: In ancient villages, as in villages just before the modern time, they were made up of two or three major patriarchal families. And generally, with each one of the homes associated with a patriarch, there would be a guestroom. And this guestroom would be reserved for people coming in, friends of the family, people from outside. And it would be the good pleasure of the patriarch or leader of the family, to be able to be the host to these guests. And in the case of Jesus and his birth, we find that Mary and Joseph end up coming and finding that there is no room in the inn, according to Roman standards, if you had a Roman city, but in a village what you have are guestrooms in patriarchal homes.
Ankerberg: When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, most likely Joseph went straight to his paternal home and stayed in the guestroom. Jewish custom would have demanded that he receive protection and help for himself and especially his wife Mary who was pregnant. Some time passed while they were staying with his family, and then it came time for Mary to be delivered. But Bethlehem, like Joseph’s family guestroom, would have been filled with families and relatives returning for the Census. In Joseph’s father’s house there would have been no private place for Mary to have her baby because the guestroom was filled with relatives. There would be no private place until someone had the bright and compassionate idea to suggest that she could have the baby down below, away from the crowded kataluma, the guestroom, in the warmth of the storeroom and animal cellar. There she could have privacy but still be within the security of the family home.
So Jesus was safely born in the city of David as the angels told the shepherds in Luke 2:11 and laid in a manger or feeding trough for the animals. That a child should be found lying in a manger was unique, and yet it may have reflected, not a situation of abandonment and isolation, but one of compassion and protection and of the order of family life in traditional Jewish society of the first century. It is also interesting to note that the traditional site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is in the middle of the city where the family homes would have stood in antiquity and not in the surrounding countryside.
Claire Pfann: We sometimes read Luke, and we picture Joseph and Mary traveling in the rain on a cold December night. And Mary is in labor, in pain, about to deliver this baby and Joseph frantically walks from door to door knocking on the Motel 6’s of Bethlehem, which there weren’t any, of course, trying to find accommodations.
But actually, if we really read what Luke has to say, he says they went to Bethlehem, which was Joseph’s ancestral home. That means they had extended family there. They were going to a place where they were known and loved, and where they would receive hospitality. It also says in the gospel of Luke, While they were there the time came for her to be delivered. Now, that’s a non-specific amount of time. How long were they there before the baby was born? Two days? Two weeks? Two months? It could have been three or four or five months. We really don’t know. So the picture of them being in a familial setting, surrounded by people who they might know, and that might help with the delivery, is actually supported by both Luke and by Matthew.


Ankerberg: So there are four historical and archaeological facts that mark the place where Jesus was born. First, archaeology has shown that the Church of the Nativity was built on the area of the Bethlehem of Jesus’ day. Second, the Church sits on the top of a hill where typically patriarchal homes were built. Third, there is a cave underneath the Church of the Nativity, which usually would have been used as a storeroom or a place to keep the animals. And fourth, tradition points to a cave in Bethlehem as being the very place where Jesus was born.
Stephen Pfann: The tradition of a site, like a birth site, like Bethlehem is actually strengthened by the fact that the earliest record that we have of the tradition of Jesus’ birthplace goes back to Justin Martyr, who 15-20 years after Bethlehem was totally destroyed by Roman armies, said that the pilgrims came to visit a cave, a cavea. We go there today, it’s at the top of a hill, which is just where a patriarchal home would be built, on top of a hill. And patriarchal homes are kept for many generations, and kept within the family. So the tradition of Jesus’ birthplace there in the middle of the second century, is actually extremely close to the time when those homes were still in existence in Bethlehem. So knowing that Jesus was born there, that His family’s patriarchal home would have persisted there until their destruction around 137 AD, and then just 15 or 20 years later Justin Martyr saying that that’s where people commemorated His birth, actually brings it into the category of probably being the place where Jesus was born.
Dr. Randall Price: Now we find also that when you go back to the history books and look at Paulinus of Nola, he notes that Hadrian who was the Roman emperor from around 117 to 138 AD built a sacred grove to Adonis over the site of Jesus birth to efface Christianity. And this was the very purpose of Roman religion, to supersede previous religion. So indeed they recognized already that something very dramatic in the case of Christianity had occurred at that spot. And then we have at the beginning of the 4th century, Helena the mother of Constantine, coming to identify the spot that tradition says Jesus was born, and she identifies that place today as the Church of Nativity built on the foundations that she laid. Then in 385 AD St. Jerome comes to that spot to be there to translate the Vulgate and yet he says already in the time of his arrival it’s the most venerable spot on earth. So these things together point to the fact that from earliest antiquity, Bethlehem was the one place noted in the Christian world as the birthplace of Jesus.
Ankerberg: Now, if one follows the logic of the critics who say the events surrounding the birth of Jesus were created by the church after Christ lived and the story of Bethlehem was simply fabricated, then if this story was made up, there should also have been other competing stories that were made up about the place where Jesus was born. But that’s not the case.
In terms of Bethlehem again, were there any other spots, geographical spots, that tradition grew up around that Jesus was born there, or is it only this spot?
Stephen Pfann: There’s only one tradition concerning Jesus’ birthplace, and that’s Bethlehem. Just as every science has to have some kind of a gradient in terms of credibility on any subject, as archaeologists we also have to create a gradient which we can use against the evidence that we have. And I’ve been working with an A B C D rating, a four step rating for credibility. A would be that it’s certain, B is probable, C is plausible, and D is rumor or speculation. Now it all depends upon what kind of facts you have on the ground. And only the most certain types of facts is that something is still in existence there with an inscription or something of this sort that actually helps you to understand that this is really certainly the place. Probable means that you have all kinds of corroborative evidence from archaeology, from the literature, methographic studies, that would maintain something being probably the way that it was. Then it goes down the line that way as the evidence becomes weaker and weaker.
Ankerberg: In terms of Bethlehem, what grade would you give it?
Stephen Pfann: I would say that at this point, in terms of all that we know about traditional sites, that it’s probably the place where Jesus was born.
Ankerberg: Okay, you don’t want to give it A or B?
Stephen Pfann: I would say I’d give it at least a B rating. The A rating would be preserved if the site was still intact, but I’d say it’s somewhere between B and A at this point.
Claire Pfann: The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has strong evidence to support it as being the place of the birth of Jesus. Certainly, the church lies on the heart of ancient first century Bethlehem, that small Jewish village of extended patriarchal homes. And if we look at the archaeology of that type of hillside, terraced homes with courtyards, cave basements, and sleeping units attached, we would see, if we could just lift that church off, the kind of archaeological pattern that would characterize Bethlehem in the first century. Tradition has held it as the birthplace of Jesus for all these centuries, a tradition that was probably kept alive by the Jewish Christians in the land from the time of the Resurrection of Jesus as they searched back into His origins.
Ankerberg: Now, in the Christmas Story, there are some things that have been embellished by tradition that need to be corrected to stay true to the facts.
Yamauchi: Well, first of all we have to dispense with certain popular Christmas ideas about the Magi from the crèches and Christmas cards and Christmas carols. First of all, the New Testament text does not call them kings; it does not tell us that there were three, but that’s an inference from the fact that there were three gifts. And the Magi were not necessarily wise men.
Ankerberg: You wrote an article on the Magi and the essence of that article was, they are not fictional characters; Matthew wasn’t putting them in as part of a legend, but they are actually historical. Tell us why you came to that conclusion.
Yamauchi: The word Magi is the Greek plural of the word Magos and originally this was a Persian word. And in the Persian tradition, Herodotus tells us in the fifth century, Greek historian, these were the Medes who served as priests and diviners for the Persians. But by the fourth century in the Hellenistic period the word had come to mean astrologer. There is a very strong tradition of astrology as a science that developed out of Mesopotamia and this was then transmitted to the West to the Greeks, the Romans, and the Jews.
Ankerberg: There are some modern scholars who have claimed that the Magi are fictional characters created by Luke and added to enhance the Christmas story. But Dr. Yamauchi says there are good reasons for believing they were real people. Why? Because as was just pointed out, the Magi were astrologers and astrology was condemned by Moses in the Old Testament Law. Therefore, it would not have enhanced the story of Jesus’ birth but been embarrassing to the early Christians to include the Magi. So why did Luke do so?
Yamauchi: Well, we believe, or I believe, that this occurred. It’s not a Midrash, as some scholars suggest, but something which actually happened and which is a wonderful anticipation of Gentiles being brought into the Kingdom of God. And the irony is, of course, that these Gentiles from the East, by perhaps a misguided sense of astrology, nonetheless thought that something wonderful was happening in Judea, that a King was being born who was to be worshipped with gifts, were willing, under limited knowledge, to take action and to bow down to this newborn baby, when Herod the Great, who had his scholars advise him of the prophecy of Micah that the Messiah was going to be born in Bethlehem, didn’t move a foot or half a yard to do anything about this. Rather, he wanted to kill this infant born in Bethlehem.
Ankerberg: In listening to all of these scholars present their conclusions concerning the accuracy of the Nativity story, we can only conclude that a lot of historical and archaeological evidence undergirds and validates the information given in the Gospels about what happened when Jesus was born. Jesus’ unique birth really did happen, and there is every reason for us to celebrate that fact.


Appendix: Who are the Scholars?

(This information is valid as of the time this program was recorded. Information and affiliation may have changed since that time).
Dr. John F. Ankerberg: President and founder of The Ankerberg Theological Research Institute; host and moderator of the weekly television program The John Ankerberg Show; Doctor of Ministry degree from Luther Rice Seminary.
Dr. Gabriel Barkay: Archaeologist and former professor of archaeology at Tel-Aviv University. He is a lecturer at the Jerusalem University College. He was awarded the Israel Prize for archaeology last year and is regarded as the foremost authority on the necropoli of Jerusalem (e.g. he excavated the Ketef Hinnom tombs where the silver amulet – oldest biblical inscription – was found). He is an expert on tombs and burial practices during the time of Jesus.
Dr. Craig Blomberg: Ph.D. in New Testament, specializing in the parables and the writings of Luke and Acts, at Aberdeen University in Scotland. Previously he was senior research fellow at Tyndale House, Cambridge, England.
Dr. Darrell L. Bock: Research Professor of New Testament Studies and Professor of Spiritual Development and Culture, Center for Christian Leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas. Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland.
Dr. Magen Broshi: Former curator of the Shrine of the Book, Museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jerusalem. He is a recognized archaeologist and scholar on the Second Temple period, having excavated the most recent discovery of caves at Qumran. He has authored numerous articles in journals on the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian connections. Excavated first-century level at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and defends it as most reasonable place for crucifixion of Jesus.
Dr. Craig Evans: Ph.D. in New Testament from Claremont Graduate School and is the Director of the Graduate Program in Biblical Studies at Trinity Western University, where he has taught since 1981. He has lectured at Cambridge, Durham, and Oxford and frequently speaks at scholarly and popular conferences in North America and around the world.
Dr. Hillel Geva: Archaeologist on staff with the Israel Exploration Society and editor of leading Hebrew journal on Biblical Archaeology – Qadmoniot. Has worked with some of the most important archaeological excavations in Jerusalem since 1967 and was editor of scholarly book Ancient Jerusalem as well as author of many articles in leading journals. Works also as a guide for the State of Israel with Christian groups and is well-versed in archaeological backgrounds and connections with Christian sites.
Dr. Gary Habermas: Distinguished Professor of Apologetics and Philosophy and chairman of the department of philosophy and theology at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Mrs. Claire Pfann: Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs, University of the Holy Land, author, and an expert on Jewish birth practices and culture of Bethlehem during the time of Jesus.
Dr. Stephen Pfann: Director of the Jerusalem School for the Study of Early Christianity and of the Nazareth Village. He is well-published in the area of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Dead Sea Scroll concordance, journal of Roland DeVaux, excavator of Qumran settlement) and has been assigned the Daniel fragments from Cave 4 for translation and commentary and also is working on the mysterious Angel Scroll. He is a leading scholar in the area of Jesus and his cultural and social background in the Second Temple period.
Dr. J. Randall Price: President of World of the Bible Ministries, Inc.; Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in Middle Eastern Studies with a concentration in Hebrew and Archaeology with graduate work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has been involved in archaeological excavations in Tel-Yin’am, Jerusalem and is the current director of the Qumran Plateau Excavations Project in Israel.
Dr. Ben Witherington III: Ph.D. from University of Durham, England; currently Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary;
Dr. N. T. (Thomas) Wright: present Canon Theologian of Westminister Abbey 2000; Doctorate in Pauline theology from Oxford; ordained Anglican priest.
Dr. Edwin Yamauchi: History Professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. One of the leading experts in the United States in biblical archaeology and the history of the Christian religion. Ph.D. in Mediterranean studies, focusing primarily on the study of ancient languages. While studying in Israel he participated in the excavation in Jerusalem uncovering parts of the marble pavement of the ancient Herodian Temple which was destroyed during the days of Jesus.

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