In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7 ESV)
The above passage was written by Dr. Luke, author of Luke’s Gospel and The Book of Acts. Taken together and read in sequence the two books form a record of Jesus’ life and ministry through the birth of the early church and what happened in those very early days of Christianity.
Dr. Luke is noted for some of the historical details that he includes. In the above passage Dr. Luke establishes the time frame of Jesus’ birth. He notes that Caesar Augustus issued a decree that all the world should be registered. This meant the Roman world that Caesar Augustus expanded and ruled. That world now included Judea. The reason for the registration was for tax purposes.
Dr. Luke also notes that this was “the first registration” thus implying there was more than one. He dates the first registration to Quirinius who was the governor of the Roman Province of Syria.
Historians debate the actual year this first registration took place and that’s because the Greek construction of the passage can be a bit confusing since the word “governor” does not always mean what governor means to us. It the Greek it can simply mean “ruler” both big and small and so can refer to some official with some power to just take a census or the actual governor of a province.
Whatever the case it seems apparent that Luke was seeking to establish a time-line that was easily proved or disproved by the people who were privy to his gospel record. In other words the original hearers of the gospel would have known the date and known all about Quirinius, the registration, the first of perhaps many and Caesar Augustus who lived until AD 14. Given the evidence most scholars conclude that Jesus was born around BC 5 or 6, rather than AD 1.
Historians as a whole are a suspicious lot. To prove the historicity of ancient events they are forced to consider literary sources and archaeological evidence. They tend to use the archaeology to back up the literary.
A historian seeking to establish whether there was a man named Jesus born in Bethlehem during the reign of Caesar Augustus and crucified during the reign of Tiberius would be dealing almost exclusively with literary sources since Jesus’ tomb with his body in it has never been found which makes perfect sense if you believe Jesus rose from the dead.
Therefore, historians are left with literary sources to confirm the existence of Jesus and date him to the reigns of Caesar Augustus and Caesar Tiberius.
Such evidence does exist and is found in the writings of Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian and favorite of the Flavian emperors, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. It was Vespasian and Titus who prosecuted the Jewish War (AD 66-70) and it was Titus who destroyed Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple in AD 70 thus fulfilling what Jesus said in Matthew 24: 1-2.
That Jesus was an actual person is not debated by rational historians. The non-biblical literary evidence is substantial for a person who never was all that important to a historian who usually wrote about the great men of their times. Nevertheless, Jesus, the man is mentioned by Josephus on more than one occasion, he’s mentioned by Tacitus, Thallus (by the citation of others since his work is lost), Pliny the Younger, Lucian and the Jewish Talmud. That’s not bad given Jesus’ relative obscurity.
So not surprisingly the historicity of Jesus is not seriously debated.
What is debated of course is the divinity of Jesus. Was he God or wasn’t he was the debate in the first century and is the debate today.
Objections to Jesus’ divinity stem from an objection to the super-natural. Historians as a whole do not accept miracles (by definition an extraordinary super-natural event) and often seek to explain these events in other ways to make them fit into that which may be unusual but certainly not super-natural.
I find this a bit odd since most historians would accept the historicity of Jesus as a man born and crucified during the reign of two Caesars. They would realize just as any thinking person would that Luke’s facts above could have been easily proved or disproved by people who were still alive when the gospel was first written. In other words there were still plenty of eye witnesses around during the 1st Century AD that could have said, “heh, this guy never lived and it’s all made up.”
Yet somehow when it comes to miracles the eyewitness issue does not seem to matter.
For example John’s gospel gives an account of Jesus’ first miracle that if you follow the above timeline must have occurred roughly around AD 24.
The event is recorded in John 2:1-12 and the occasion was a wedding in Cana. I’m thinking this is a pretty big party since the wine ran out and Jesus’ mother asked him to do something about it. He does do something about it by turning six (presumably large) jars of water into wine. Given the details of the story the wine is not the cheap stuff either-a rather fascinating detail that John thought well worth remembering.
(As a point aside archaeologists have found the site of Cana thus showing John was not making up that detail either.)
Since this was a large party and the servants at the wedding must have been pretty wowed by the event does it not follow there were plenty of eye witnesses to the event who could easily confirm or deny what happened?
If you are familiar with the gospel accounts then you will know something else about the miracles that Jesus performed. What you will know is that while many actually witnessed these events few actually believed.
In John’s account of the wedding feast John states that his disciples believed after seeing the water turn into wine (John. 2:11). John does not mention that anyone else did and that strikes me as odd since you’d think if many believed you’d want to make a deal out of it. Yet, John simply says Jesus’ disciples believed.
If you took the time to examine Jesus’ miracles as recorded in Scripture you’d see this pattern repeated more or less throughout. Many witness the event, but few actually believe.
And this is what makes it hard to explain to people who do not believe.
Belief is a super-natural event although it does involve the intellect and evidence.
I can look to historical details to proof there was a historical figure named Jesus who was born and died during the reign of two Caesars but I cannot prove he was God through rational means and that’s because believe has to be spiritually discerned.
Here’s another passage that seems to make my point:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13-20 ESV)
The first thing to note is that Philippi is named Caesarea in honor of Caesar Augustus who the Romans defied as a god. The cult of emperor worship is a subject for another time but I think the passage is ironic in implication. There is, at least in my opinion an implied contrast that compares the deified Augustus to a Jewish Rabbi claiming to be the Messiah.
The first thing is not the most important thing about the passage.
Note that Jesus is asking his disciples who the people saw that he is. The disciples seem like they are up on public opinion and reply that the people (at least the ones still following him around and witnessing miracles) think he is one of the prophets.
Here you have eye witnesses to Jesus’ miracles understanding that he is a bit more than a average guy but still not making the connection that he is God. Instead, it’s easier to believe he is the reincarnation of one of the prophets. At least in their minds they were considering the possibility of something super-natural since reincarnated prophets is at the least unusual.
But Jesus cuts to the chase and asks the disciples who the disciples think that he is. These are the same disciples who believed way back when at the wedding feast of Cana so Peter pipes up and says Jesus is the Christ, the son of the Living God.
Jesus’ reply is stunning and explains why the numerous witnesses to his miracles still come to the wrong conclusions about him.
Jesus says quite plainly that his divinity was revealed to them by his Father and that flesh and blood will never “get it” on it’s own.
In other words Jesus is telling the disciples there is a limit to apologetics which means defense of the faith. All the factoids and all the implications from eyewitness data will never get someone to believe that Jesus is God. At the end of the day, that fact has to be revealed by the Father. If it’s not then conclusions about Jesus and the gospel record will result in some other explanation.
Christmas itself is a miraculous event. The Son of God condescends to come to earth (John. 1:1-14) to be born, live and die during the reign of two Caesars that everyone believes existed. Jesus himself provides ample evidence that he was who he said he was but many doubt and reach other conclusions.
If you find yourself among the doubters consider what Jesus has said about ultimate truth being revealed to you super-naturally. Consider:
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:35-40 ESV)
It’s a passage filled with promise and explains why Jesus came, the event we celebrate at Christmas.