Is the Jesus of history the same as the
Jesus of the Christian faith? What can we really know
Bock: I think itís 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
Jesusí birth was illegitimate, He never would have
gotten out of the starting blocks as the Messiah, as
the holy, chosen Messiah of God.
Dr. N. T.
Wright: 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
These questions were explored by ABC a
few years ago in a two-hour special entitled, "The
Search for Jesus," hosted by Peter Jennings. Well, after
it aired, we became aware that many scholars wanted to
give a second opinion about what was said.
You know about second opinions. If your
doctor diagnoses you with a serious illness, and you
question his diagnosis, you would not hesitate to ask
for a second opinion. Well, many of the conclusions
given about Jesus in the ABC Special didnít seem to ring
true, and so we decided to check with 13 other doctors
and ask them for a second opinion. We even talked to a
few of the same scholars ABC did, just to make sure we
were hearing them correctly.
Do the Gospel accounts give us accurate
historical evidence about Jesus?
The ABC Special raised many questions
about the events and people surrounding Jesusí birth.
Have the Gospel writers presented accurate, historical
information? Did Luke make historical errors in dating
Jesusí birth just before a Roman census was taken? Maybe
one of the biggest problems people have is with the
miraculous aspect of the virgin birth itself. Dr. N. T.
Wright taught at Oxford University in England for 22
years. He is respected as one of the foremost historical
Jesus scholars in the world today. We talked with him
about how he approaches the virgin birth of Jesus as a
Dr. N. T.
Wright: Itís interesting that in both Britain and
America, when people ask about the truth of
Christianity, often they seem to be interested in the
empty tomb and in the virgin birth Ė and as though
those two things were somehow equal and parallel. Itís
very interesting in the New Testament that the
Resurrection is everywhere but the virginal conception
of Jesus is only in those two little bits at the
beginning of Matthew and Luke. And really, for Paul,
for Hebrews, for John, you can say the whole of the
Christian Gospel without mentioning the birth of
Jesus. Thatís not to say itís unimportant. Itís just
to say itís not nearly as important as Jesusí death
and Resurrection. Take them away and you havenít got a
Gospel at all.
that, what we find in Matthew and Luke are two very
strange stories because Matthew and Luke both, Iím
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
didnít 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 a, "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.
When I spoke
with Dr. Darrell Bock I asked him, 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 Ė 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
didnít happen because miracles donít happen." How would
you advise people to look at these texts?
Bock: Itís a good question and I think itís 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, thatís the point. The fact that itís unusual is
the point. You know, virgin births donít 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 heís
betrothed to pregnant. He knows heís 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 doesnít work. And the interesting thing
is in thinking about Ė that states it positively Ė
thinking about it negatively, you have to come to the
view of, does the alternative explanation make sense?
Letís work with the virgin birth. I think itís 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 Jesusí birth was
illegitimate, He never would have gotten out of the
starting blocks as the Messiah, as the holy, chosen
Messiah of God.
Pfann: Itís 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 Ė a virgin birth, a divine conception.
There have been many slurs and innuendos about Jesus,
but in this they both agreed.
Dr. N. T.
Wright: Now, of course, I cannot prove the
virginal conception of Jesus, and I donít think you
can prove it in the same way as I would prove the
Resurrection Ė that you canít explain the rise of
early Christianity without it. Because as I say, you
can explain Paulís theology without ever mentioning
the virginal conception because Paul never does, so
that itís 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 Ė and
frankly, if it didnít, I canít explain as a historian
how early Christianity got off the ground Ė 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? Ė maybe it
really did happen.
In the ABC Special Peter Jennings said,
"One thing that almost everyone we talked to agrees on
is the religious power of these stories;" Ė talking
about the stories in the New Testament and especially
the Christmas story Ė "they donít depend on whether they
can be verified by historical analysis." What do you
think about that?
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, Iíd 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, thereís still truth in it
even if it didnít happen," thereís perhaps some truth
in that at one level. But thatís not what the Gospels
are. Thatís other kinds of literature.
The Jesus Seminar
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.
Dr. N. T.
Wright: Those conclusions represent one section of
American scholarship. Itís 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 wouldnít give that stuff the
time of day.
Pfann: I think that much of the work of the Jesus
Seminar is unfortunate. I think theyíre trying to
create a politically correct Jesus based on their own
presuppositions and itís 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.
What about in scholarly circles in our
own country? When you go to your meetings with the other
scholars, do they lead the way?
Evans: No, they do not. They try to be influential
and theyíve had positions of leadership at the Society
of Biblical Literature. Iím an active member of the
Historical Jesus section of the Society of Biblical
Literature. Three to four hundred show up typically at
their meetings. Thatís about ten times those who
typically show up at a Jesus Seminar meeting. And the
Jesus Seminar guys, when they present their
distinctive views like a non-eschatological Jesus or
the gospel of Peter as a primary source for the other
gospels, those views are simply Ė to put it in slang Ė
blown out of the water. These are minority opinions
and they do not hold sway in the larger cross-section
of Gospel scholars throughout North America.
Now, during the ABC Special, some of the
professors of the Jesus Seminar said Jesus wasnít born
in Bethlehem, He was born in Nazareth; that the story of
Jesusí birth was simply fabricated by the early church
after Christ passed off the scene. But if one follows
the logic of the critics, if some Christians created the
story Jesus was born in Bethlehem, then there should
have been other Christians creating stories that Jesus
was born somewhere else. But that is not the case.
Historians know that all the traditions, all the
stories, all the accounts that have come down to us
about where Jesus was born identify only one city, the
city of Bethlehem, as being the place where it happened.
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
Pfann: Thereís only one tradition concerning
Jesusí birthplace, and thatís Bethlehem.
Claire Pfann is a faculty member at the
Center for the Study of Early Christianity and assistant
dean for academic affairs at the University of the Holy
Land. She is an expert on Jewish birth practices and the
culture of Bethlehem during the time of Jesus. I asked
her to summarize some of the information found in the
Gospels of Matthew and Luke concerning the birth of
Pfann: Now, they donít have a lot of information
to tell about Jesusí childhood or infancy, with just
two chapters they could hardly cover 30 years.
However, they do share at least 12 very important
items in common, including the names of his parents,
Joseph and Mary, the fact that heís descended from the
house of David, the fact that his conception was
divine, that there was an angelic announcement
concerning his conception. The choice of the name
Jesus before his birth is shared by both Matthew and
Luke, as well as the birth at Bethlehem and the
subsequent move of his family to Nazareth. So they
have a skeletal amount of information that they share
in common about the infancy and childhood of Jesus,
and they present it in their infancy narratives.
Do we know when Jesus was born?
have a good idea. Josephus tells us that there
occurred an eclipse in the spring of 4 B.C. when Herod
died and we know that Jesus was born when Herod was
Historians think Jesus was born before
April of 4 B.C. Why? Evidence from Matthew 2:1 and Luke
1:5 tell us Jesus was born while Herod the Great was
still living. Herod died while Jesus was less than two
years old, according to Matthew 2:15. Historians have
calculated Herodís death happened in 4 B.C. Theyíve done
so on the basis of Romans records and the writings of
Josephus where he tells about an eclipse of the moon
that occurred the year Herod died. That eclipse has been
dated as happening about March 12 of 4 B.C. Further,
Josephus tells us that the Passover that year occurred
soon after Herodís son, Archelaus, assumed the kingship.
Historians know the Passover occurred on April 17 of 4
B.C. Therefore, when you put all these facts together,
since Jesus was born shortly before Herodís death, he
must have been born before April 4 B.C. or possibly a
short time before that in 5 B.C.
What about the census under Quirinius?
For those who believe that the Gospels
are accurate historical records of Jesusí life, one of
the most difficult problems in the New Testament is the
census Luke presents in Chapter 2, verses 1 and 2.
Luke writes: "Now it came about in those
days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a
census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the
first census taken while Quirinius was governor of
Syria. And all were proceeding to register for the
census, everyone to his own city. 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
So, Luke tells us Augustus took a census
before Jesus was born and this was the reason Joseph
took Mary to Bethlehem. However, critics say there are
five reasons why Lukeís account is historically
First, there is
no known evidence of an Empire-wide census in the reign
of Augustus. If it occurred, wouldnít it be mentioned by
one or another of the ancient historians who recorded
Second, in a
Roman census, Joseph would not have been required to
travel to Bethlehem and he would not have been required
to take Mary with him.
Third, a Roman
census could not have been carried out in Herodís
kingdom while Herod was still alive.
Josephus records a lot about Herod but does not mention
a Roman census in Palestine.
Quirinius was not appointed governor of Syria and Judea
until A.D. 6, many years after Jesus was born.
In light of these facts, did Luke make
vast historical errors in his chronology of events? All
of this was stated or implied in the Peter Jennings
Special and continues to be brought up by many critical
Yamauchi: Quirinius, we know, was governor leader
in A.D. 6 when there was a census and there was a
revolt led by a man called Judas of Galilee. And there
are several proposed solutions to this well known
problem. One solution, of course, is that Luke was
clearly in error here; that he didnít have correct
information. Yet Luke is the most careful of all the
Gospel writers to try to correlate events in Judea
with Roman events. He knows that Jesus was born in the
reign of Augustus; that Jesus began His ministry in
the reign of Tiberius and so forth.
Letís answer some of these objections.
When Luke states that a decree from Caesar Augustus went
out that all the world should be taxed, was he talking
about just one empire-wide census? No, according to
Roman historian A. N. Sherwin White. The censuses were
taken in different provinces over a period of time. But
Caesar Augustus was the first one in history to order a
census or tax assessment of the whole provincial empire.
Luke uses the present tense to indicate that Augustus
ordered censuses to be taken regularly throughout the
empire rather than only one time.
Second, papyri collected in Egypt, have
shown that the Romans undertook periodic censuses
throughout their empire. In Roman Egypt, for example,
from A.D. 33 until 257 A.D., 258 different censuses were
taken at 14-year intervals. This evidence has been known
for a number of years, and substantiates Lukeís
reference to Augustusí census, but it seems to work
against the Lucan account in terms of the year when
Jesus was born. Why? Because the 14-year intervals do
not intersect with the year of Jesusí birth in 4 B.C.
But concerning that problem, the newly
published Dictionary of New Testament Background
states: "Evidence indicates that Egyptian censuses were
taken at 7-year intervals during the reign of Augustus
and can be established with indirect and direct evidence
for the years of 11-10 B.C., 4-3 B.C., A.D. 4 and 5, and
A.D. 11 and 12." This information is based on
documentation presented in The Demography of Roman
Egypt by Bagnell and Friar, a book published by
Cambridge University Press in 1994.
Third, there are other reasons to believe
a census was taken by Caesar Augustus in 4 or 5 B.C.
Augustus knew of Herodís paranoia. Herod frequently
changed his will and then would kill the family member
he had put in charge if he were to die. Each time he
changed his will and the one who would succeed him, he
had to get permission from the Roman emperor to do so.
So, Emperor Augustus knew what was
happening in Palestine. It is reasonable to assume that
Augustus, anticipating the problems that would come
about when Herod died, would want to take a census of
Herodís territory and might well have extended the
Egyptian census of 4-3 B.C. or performed something like
it in Judea.
The mentioning of the census in Luke 2:1
is the only historical reference of this census from
antiquity, yet it rests on a plausible reconstruction of
Yamauchi: So again, this is a case where we do
have something recorded in the New Testament which is
not directly correlated by extra-biblical evidence.
This doesnít mean that it did not happen however.
Because there are many things that occur only in a
given text without corroborative evidence of other
texts or inscriptions.
But what about Lukeís reference, "this
was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor
of Syria?" When Luke says this was the "first" census
that took place under Quirinius, the Greek word prote,
usually translated "first," according to some Greek
scholars can also be translated "prior." If that is
Lukeís meaning, then, he would be referring to a census
taken prior to the one taken when Quirinius was governor
in 6 A.D. Is it possible that a prior census was taken,
or even taken by Quirinius himself?
Well, historians know that Quirinius had
a government assignment in Syria between 12 B.C. to 2
B.C. He was responsible for reducing the number of
rebellious mountaineers in the highlands of Pisidia. As
such, he was a highly placed military figure in the Near
East and highly trusted by Emperor Caesar Augustus.
Augustus, knowing of the turmoil in Herod the Greatís
territory, may well have put his trusted friend
Quirinius in charge of a census enrollment in the region
of Syria just before the end of Herodís life.
The time period from 7 to 6 B.C. also
coincides with the transition period between the rule of
the two legates of Syria: Saturninus from 9 to 6 B.C.
and Varus from 7 to 4 B.C. The transition of power
between these two men took place between 7 to 6 B.C.,
and Augustus again may have appointed his friend
Quirinius to step in and conduct a census taxation when
he could not trust anyone else.
Again, Lukeís statement has a plausible
foundation in history.
Traveling to Bethlehem
Next, what about the criticism that in a
Roman census Joseph would not have been required to
travel to Bethlehem and he would not have been required
to bring Mary with him? Well, now historians have found
that in A.D. 104, Vivius Maximus issued an edict that
states, "It is essential for all people to return to
their homes for the census." This indicates it was
plausible for Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem as
Luke indicates. In fact, it is just one of the many
reasons scholars have found why Mary would have needed
to go with Joseph on his trip to Bethlehem. Claire Pfann
Pfann: So I think that we find a few basic
presuppositions that are just our own modern
skepticism and really donít 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
Would Herod have allowed a census?
Next, what can be said to those who say a
Roman census could not have been carried out in Herodís
kingdom while Herod was alive?
This is simply not true. Records have now
been found that show the emperor did take censuses in
vassal kingdoms like Herodís. In fact, when Herod died,
his domain was divided among his three sons, and
Augustus ordered that taxes be reduced in the territory
of one of his sons. It proves the Roman emperor was not
afraid to intervene in one of his vassal kingdoms.
Further, it is now known that in 8-7
B.C., Herod came into disfavor with Augustus and was
thereafter treated as a subject rather than a friend. It
resulted in Herodís autonomy being taken away from him.
Third, historians have also discovered
that the people of Herodís domain took an oath of
allegiance not just to Herod, but to both Augustus and
Herod, which proves there was a greater involvement of
Augustus in Herodís realm.
Finally, Lukeís account points to a
census taken before Herod the Greatís death and the
division of his kingdom. Why? It would have been highly
implausible to think that after Herodís kingdom had been
divided between his three sons in 4 B.C. that people in
Nazareth under Herod Antipas would have traveled to
Bethlehem, the territory belonging to Archelaus for
purposes of taxation. It makes more sense that such
traveling would have been done when all the territories
were under Herodís rule himself and Augustus called for
an overall census.
So, since it has been proved that
Augustus had taken censuses in other vassal kingdoms,
and since Herod had come into the emperorís disfavor,
and since Herod was having troubles in his own realm
with his sons, it is more than probable that Augustus
would have wanted to conduct his own census, assessing
Herodís kingdom, while Herod was still alive. And this
is exactly what Luke recorded.
Pfann: Well, I think I would say the things Iím
certain about concerning the birth of Jesus are
certainly the things that both Matthew and Luke share
in common and tell us. He was born of the family of
David. He was born to a woman named Mary who was a
virgin, betrothed or engaged to a man named Joseph,
and yet who had not yet come to live with him. His
birth was announced through an angelic visitation. His
conception was unique and divine in human history. His
birth took place in Bethlehem. It was accompanied by
unique signs. And the family later moved to Nazareth
and made their home there.
question. Were the Gospels written so long afterwards
that the Gospel writers could get away with bringing in
something that was completely fictitious like a virgin
birth and nobody else knew about it?
Pfann: If anything, they wanted to protect against
forgeries and falsehoods. Clearly, something was so
extraordinary and unique about Jesus that, from the
beginning, His disciples were willing to risk
persecution, martyrdom and death in order to spread His
message. There was something extraordinary about Him,
and that extraordinary aspect extended all the way back
to His conception.