It’s interesting; what most of us know about the first Christmas is not based on the New Testament and history, but on popular culture – Christmas carols, TV specials and movies, and even nativity displays.
In my last few articles, we’ve explored what is actually recorded in the New Testament and what we can also know from history. We’ve looked at the location of Jesus’ birth and the situation surrounding it (read here); the wise men and the date of Jesus’ birth (read here); we’ve also explored what we know about Jesus’ family (read here). Further, we began the series by looking at the historic reliability of the New Testament documents themselves, and we saw that they are clearly the most attested to historical documents of the ancient world (read here). The only reason any historians doubt their authenticity is because of their reporting of supernatural events.
So, what else does history – the New Testament and other historic information – tell us about the first Christmas? It seems odd to many today that Caesar Augustus would have a census requiring everyone to travel back to the city of their birth (especially considering the lack of modern vehicles). Yet archeology has shown that these sorts of censuses were not uncommon in those days.
History also tells us that King Herod was a man perfectly capable of having every infant and toddler boy in a city murdered. He had his wife, three of his sons, and over 300 others he perceived as threats to his power killed. He also gathered respected citizens of Jerusalem for a mass execution to be carried out at the moment of his death. He wanted people to actually grieve on the day of his death since he was so loathed. Luckily, this plot didn’t work out; after he passed, no one carried out the orders.
When you get down to it, the four Gospels tell us little about the first Christmas. Only two, Matthew and Luke, write about Jesus’ birth. History outside the New Testament tells us less. The ancient historians of the Roman elite had no interest in a rabbi from the backwaters of their vast empire. Their primary interest was writing of powerful rulers and conquerors.
But it is interesting to note what all four Gospels do report: Jesus’ ministry, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. To the first Christians, these events were the most important information — the crux — of Jesus’ life. And what does history outside the New Testament tell us about the adult Jesus? Ancient historians Tacitus, a Roman pagan, and Josephus, a Jew, confirmed that Pontius Pilate crucified Jesus. Along with Pliny, another Roman, they confirmed that the followers of Jesus didn’t disappear after the crucifixion like followers of other “messiahs” executed by the Romans did. In fact, their number abruptly grew and continued to do so!
Later, history tells us in 165 AD and 251 AD epidemics swept through the Roman Empire, killing a third of the population. Where pagans fled the cities, leaving the sick to die, Christians stayed behind and cared for the infected, many taking “on themselves the sickness of their neighbor” and “in nursing and caring for others, transferred their death to themselves.” In the mid-300’s, Roman Emperor Julian actually complained in letters to pagan high priests that the Christians’ numbers were growing because of their charity and kindness, and Christians “support not only their poor, but ours as well; everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
With only three years of ministry, what must have Jesus been like — what could he have possibly done — to influence people in such a way? This is whose birth we celebrate on December 25th.
Finally, we must remember that the first Christians and Jesus himself were Jewish. Historic documents, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, show us that the ancient Jews were waiting for a warrior savior to drive out the Romans, a Messiah to lead their nation to liberation and glory. The Messiah they received on the first Christmas was something totally unexpected. Who came instead was not a warrior king, but a messenger of peace and hope — a warrior of a different sort, who would bring victory not in a physical war but a spiritual war.
As Dustin Kensrue sings:
“This is war like you ain’t seen.
The winter’s long; it’s cold and mean.
With hangdog hearts we stood condemned,
But the tide turns now at Bethlehem.”
In Bethlehem, God was born as a human infant, the only possible solution for a hopeless situation. Forever separated from an eternally good God by our sin, God became man, lived the perfect life that we could never live, and willingly experienced death, taking the just punishment for our sins, so we may not experience true death but eternal life.
This gift is free, but all gifts need to be accepted to benefit from them. You cannot buy it or earn it; you can only accept it.
As a different song (covered by Kensrue; written by mewithoutyou) states:
“…with no money, come and buy
no clever talk, nor a gift to bring
requires our lowly, lovely king
come now empty handed, you don’t need anything”