The Case for Christmas
How reliable is the New Testament in portraying the story of Christ's birth?
BY: Lee Strobel
In this excerpt from "The Case for Christmas," author Lee Strobel challenges John McRay, a former professor at Wheaton College and the author ofArchaeology and the New Testament
, to provide historical evidence of Christ's birth. Adapted from "The Case for Christmas" with permission of Zondervan.
I pulled out my notes and got ready to challenge McRay with longstanding riddles about Christmas-related issues that I thought archaeology might have trouble explaining.
PUZZLE 1: THE CENSUS
Luke's narrative claims that Mary and Joseph were required by a census to return to Joseph's hometown of Bethlehem. "Let me be blunt: this seems absurd," I said. "How could the government possibly force all its citizens to return to their birthplace? Is there any archaeological evidence whatsoever that this kind of census ever took place?"
McRay calmly pulled out a copy of his book. "Actually, the discovery of ancient census forms has shed quite a bit of light on this practice," he said as he leafed through the pages. Finding the reference he was searching for, he quoted from an official governmental order dated AD 104.
Gaius Vibius Maximus, Prefect of Egypt [says]: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments.
"As you can see," he said as he closed the book, "that practice is confirmed by this document, even though this particular manner of counting people might seem odd to you. And another papyrus, this one from AD 48, indicates that the entire family was involved in the census."
This, however, did not entirely dispose of the issue. Luke said the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was conducted when Quirinius was governing Syria and during the reign of Herod the Great.
"That poses a significant problem," I pointed out, "because Herod died in 4 BC, and Quirinius didn't begin ruling Syria until AD 6, conducting the census soon after that. There's a big gap there; how can you deal with such a major discrepancy in the dates?"
McRay knew I was raising an issue that archaeologists have wrestled with for years. He responded by saying, "An eminent archaeologist named Jerry Vardaman has done a great deal of work in this regard. He has found a coin with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing, or what we call 'micrographic' letters. This places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod."
I was confused. "What does that mean?" I asked.
"It means that there were apparently two Quiriniuses," he replied. "It's not uncommon to have lots of people with the same Roman names, so there's no reason to doubt that there were two people by the name of Quirinius. The census would have taken place under the reign of the earlier Quirinius. Given the cycle of a census every fourteen years, that would work out quite well."
PUZZLE 2: EXISTENCE OF NAZARETH
Many Christians are unaware that skeptics have been asserting for a long time that Nazareth never existed during the time when the New Testament says Jesus spent his childhood there after his birth in Bethlehem.
Atheist Frank Zindler has noted that Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, by the apostle Paul, by the Talmud, or by the first-century historian Josephus. In fact, no ancient historians or geographers mention Nazareth before the beginning of the fourth century.
This absence of evidence paints a suspicious picture. So I put the issue directly to McRay: "Is there any archae- ological confirmation that Nazareth was in existence during the first century?"
This issue wasn't new to McRay. "Dr. James Strange of the University of South Florida is an expert on this area, and he describes Nazareth as being a very small place, about sixty acres, with a maximum population of about four hundred and eighty at the beginning of the first century," McRay replied.
"How does he know that?" I asked.
"Well, Strange notes that when Jerusalem fell in AD 70, priests were no longer needed in the temple because it had been destroyed, so they were sent out to various other locations, even up into Galilee. Archaeologists have found a list in Aramaic describing the twenty-four 'courses,' or families, of priests who were relocated, and one of them was registered as having been moved to Nazareth. That shows that this tiny village must have been there at the time."
In addition, he said there have been archaeological digs that have uncovered first-century tombs in the vicinity of Nazareth, which would establish the village's limits, because by Jewish law, burials had to take place outside the town proper.
McRay picked up a copy of a book by renowned archaeologist Jack Finegan, published by Princeton University Press. He leafed through it, then read Finegan's analysis: "From the tombs...it can be concluded that Nazareth was a strongly Jewish settlement in the Roman period."
McRay looked up at me. "There has been discussion about the location of some sites from the first century, such as exactly where Jesus' tomb is situated, but among archaeologists there has never really been a big doubt about the location of Nazareth. The burden of proof ought to be on those who dispute its existence."