The figures of Santa Claus and Jesus loom over the Christmas festivities, but many in our society perceive both similarly as mythical and fictional figures. Yet our faith in Jesus is based on accurate historical records, whose veracity has stood the test of hundreds of years of historical criticism.
The Christmas time is the only time in the year when the majority of people in our society encounter the figure of Jesus in some shape or form and give at least a passing thought to him. It is a great season for witness, so is vital to be clear about the reasons for our faith.
The Christmas story about the birth of Jesus is full of positive emotions, such as love, hope, redemption, joy and even romance, so most people can relate to it at some level. And the traditional Christmas celebrations in our society are also full of positive sentiments, but, mostly, the fiction overtakes the truth. If you switch on the TV, it will be broadcasting an endless stream of fictional stories which highlight the Christmas spirit, using dramatic craft to convey the message of charity, forgiveness, redemption, friendship and unselfish love. These Christmas stories are lovely, but they do not generally contain much Bible fact or gospel truth.
And Christmas time is when even we who read the Bible regularly tend to give in to legend a little. For example, many Christmas cards show the wise men in the stable with the shepherds, when, in fact, their visit was much later, but we are pleased that at least we can see the figures of baby Jesus abound. But even we tolerate these inaccuracies, we must be careful to separate myth and legend from facts at least in our lives.
So, how can we be sure that the central Christmas message of Jesus’ birth and life on earth is true?
First, we can be sure that the New Testament we have today is an accurate account of the original story. Whether you believe its message or not, it is the way the story has been told from the beginning.
While the passage of time has long since disintegrated the papyrus that the original words were written on, we have early copies made during the first centuries after Jesus’ birth. Over five thousand individual copies are currently in existence – and they are all in agreement. So, we can say with confidence that the books and letters in the New Testament we have today correspond to the original ones. In fact, the number of early copies of the New Testament books and letters surpasses exponentially the number available for any other historical document – and the veracity of those other historical documents is rarely questioned.
Second, the records included in the New Testament are very early accounts. The consensus in the New Testament research is that the Gospels were based on eyewitnesses and completed before 70AD. When Matthew and Luke, two independent witnesses, both wrote about the virgin birth, they did not borrow from one another but went looking for their own sources. When they presented their records, the eyewitnesses to the events would have still been alive, and any addition or falsehood would have been challenged.
Thirdly, the New Testament books are reliable. They include many historical details that could only have been recorded by people who saw those events. For example, the historian Colin Hemer lists 84 facts from Acts chapters 13 to 28 that only an eyewitness would have been able to recount, such as local slang words, weather patterns and nicknames of local politicians.
More than that, virtually everyone involved in bringing the New Testament to us willingly lost their lives because of the message. Would so many want to die for something they knew to be a lie?
So we can be confident that the Christmas story, with all the angels and miracles, is true. But how many people have come to Christ because they investigated the historical, archaeological and theological facts and were convinced? Some people have done so, but most of us come to Christ when we meet him in person – when the Father gives us a revelation of his Son. To leave it there, however, would be lazy and unwise. If it is true for us then it is true for everybody, and they also need to hear the good news.
The Bible tells us that we should be absolutely prepared to give a reason for our faith when asked. That is part of us being a credible witness.
But there is a huge difference between just believing that something is true and building your life on the foundation of that belief. We cannot argue people into the Kingdom of God with our intellect. We can show the reasonability of faith, but they still have to make their choice.
At the centre of the Christmas story is one of the most contested miracles of all time – the virgin birth. And it is not just some irrelevant, redundant doctrine. Jesus, in his humanity, went through everything that we do, but without sin. The one exception is his conception, which was not natural but supernatural. Neither Joseph nor Mary had anything to do with it. It was a work of the Holy Spirit. After all, how could man conceive God?
Some people write the virgin birth off as a story to cover misbehaviour on Mary’s part, saying that maybe she slept with a Roman soldier. That’s what many Jews in times of the apostles did. But why do people argue that the virgin birth is impossible? The God who created the universe is the God who acts in it, and for him this is a small thing. Besides, the medical science has now developed to the point where a woman no more needs physical contact with a man to conceive. Because of the scientific progress it is easier for many to believe in virgin birth than ever before!
Truth or fact is not the issue. Atheists refuse to believe God. Nietzsche said: “If one were to prove this God of the Christians to us, we should be even less able to believe in him”. The real problem is moral and spiritual: many do not want to bow the knee to God’s cosmic authority.
The evidence is clear. It is a question of making a choice. But whether we looked at the rational evidence for Christ and made a decision to follow him, or we received it by a revelation, this Christmas we can look and see all the reasons for believing and be confident that we have made the right and reasonable choice. But either way, our salvation is the result of a miracle. God has stepped in, touched and transformed our lives. We have encountered grace through Jesus and we know not only that his message is true but that he also is the truth.