The archaeological and historical evidence behind the birth of Christ

Aleteia

The biblical telling of the Nativity contains numerous historical references and descriptions of specific places and customs that match what we know of the time period.

Every year at Christmastime the faithful must contend with the skeptics. Perhaps because Christmas has become largely secularized in the West (or maybe due to its association with the fictional Santa Claus), many people look at the Nativity as a similarly fictional story. After all, without belief it is hard to accept shepherds’ visions of angels, kings traveling far and wide to visit a baby, and a virgin birth.

While many might like to write off the Gospel accounts of the Nativity, they likely may not realize that the two earliest records of Christ’s birth were written by reliable sources. Matthew spent years following Christ and benefited from first-hand stories, and Luke was a historian who carefully investigated the claims of the apostles by speaking to people who were present for the events.

The biblical telling of the Nativity contains numerous historical connections and descriptions of specific places and customs that match what we know of the time period. Pastor Bryan Windle, of Island Bible Chapel, believes it is possible to determine the credibility of the Christmas story by examining these connections, alongside the archaeological evidence from the regions where the Nativity took place.

The existence of Nazareth

A common argument against the Nativity story is that Nazareth did not exist in the first century, as the Bible describes it. This was the topic of René Salm’s book The Myth of Nazareth, The Invented Town of Jesus. To be fair to Salm, there was very little archaeological evidence of first-century Nazareth when the book was written.

Recent archaeological digging, however, has vindicated the biblical record, as we now have a wealth of evidence that indicates a Jewish presence at the site in the 1st century. Archaeological excavations have uncovered storage pits and cisterns from the time of Jesus, as well as two first-century “courtyard houses,” one with doors and windows still intact. Windle notes that Dr. Ken Dark, lead archaeologist of the project, has presented evidence of early Christian veneration of the site, suggesting that it may have been the childhood home of Jesus.

The census in Bethlehem

In Luke 2:1-4, Caesar Augustus issues a decree for a nationwide census, the first of its kind, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Two of these points have been argued: That there was no census taken at the time of Christ’s birth (shortly before the death of King Herod), and that Quirinius was not governor of Syria at that time.

The problem is mostly due to a copying error made by the Roman-Jewish chronicler Josephus, which was propagated in later manuscripts, suggesting Herod died in 4 BC. In a recent examination of the manuscripts of Josephus from the British Library and the Library of Congress, all 29 manuscripts dating before 1544 put Herod’s death in 1 BC.

Dr. Andrew Steinmann, the Distinguished Professor of Theology and Hebrew at Concordia University Chicago, has traced the death of Herod to the total lunar eclipse of January 10, 1 BC and the birth of Jesus to around 3 BC – 2 BC. Further Roman records indeed show that Quirinius was the governor of Judea during a census taken in 3 BC.

Jesus’s birth in a stable

The Church of the Nativity is a popular pilgrimage spot during the Christmas season. Built over a cave in 326 AD, many believe it marks the site where Christ was actually born in a stable. Nowhere in the Gospel, however, is it said that he was born in a stable or a barn.

Luke only says that he was placed in a manger and that there was no room in the inn. When people hear manger, they immediately think of a barn, but many houses of the time were equipped with mangers inside of the house. Permanent stone mangers have been found by archaeologists inside of 1st-century dwellings for the purpose of feeding animals that were meant for sacrifice.

Further, archaeologist Gary Byers has pointed out that the word Luke uses for “inn” is the Greek word kataluma. This word is only used in one other place in the New Testament; the story of the Last Supper in the kataluma(upper room/guest room). Had Luke wanted to convey that they were at an inn, he would have used the word pandocheion, as he does in the story of the Good Samaritan who takes the injured man to a “travelers’ inn.”

It was common for homes of Jesus’ time to have guest rooms or an upper spare room, and as there was a census going on at the time, it seems reasonable that many family members had traveled to the area, which explains why there was no room for the Holy Family. It is likely that Mary and Joseph were in the stable area of the house, as the other rooms were already occupied.

The visit of the shepherds

A little further north of Bethlehem there was a place known as Migdal Eder, “the tower of the flock.” While the exact location is lost, we know this was a place where certain shepherds tended special flocks that were meant for sacrifice at the Temple. In Micah 4:8, there is a mention of the site as the “watchtower of the flock,” curiously just a few lines before he prophecies the messiah’s birth in Bethlehem.

Of course, there is nothing that states that this is where the shepherds who visited Baby Jesus were from. It is likely that there were shepherds tending the paschal lambs on the night of Christ’s birth. It then would seem fitting that the angels would visit the shepherds to tell of the coming of the final Paschal Lamb.

Christ’s dedication at the Temple

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” (Lk 2:22)

The telling of the dedication of Christ teaches us two things about the Holy Family. First, that the Holy Family was devout, and careful followers of the law. Second, that they were poor, as Leviticus 12:6 tells us the actual sacrifice for purification was a year-old lamb. Birds were only used when a family could not afford the lamb.

The visit of the Magi

It is largely unknown who the Magi, or “three wise men,” were. Matthew described them with the word magoi, the plural of magos, or magus. Thayer’s Greek Dictionary defines a magus as “the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldaeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augurs, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.” The Magi who visited Jesus must have studied Jewish Scriptures, as they recognized signs of several prophecies:

A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. (Nm 24:17)

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. (Mi 5:2)

Contrary to popular depiction, the Magi would not have been there to worship the infant Jesus on the night of the Nativity. Matthew uses the Greek word paidion, which means child or toddler, to describe Jesus, not the word baby. That Herod was killing toddlers of the age two and younger, a decision he came to from the information given to him when the Magi came in search of the newborn King, suggests Jesus was likely a toddler when the Magi arrived.

We also are not sure that there were three of them. The Magi are popularly depicted as three because they bore three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The biblical description of the Nativity is surrounded by historical corroboration. While none of these connections definitively prove the events of the the first Christmas, they demonstrate that the Bible is historically reliable. The rest is dependent on faith; after all, Christ himself said:

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:17-18)

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