Friday, July 24, 2009

Answering Objections About Jesus' Birth

“I didn’t know there was a controversy,” my wife said the other morning over coffee. “Most Christians don’t,” I replied. She had been editing this article, and I was dealing with the emotions of being critiqued. Appreciating her insights and yet wanting her to just say, “Good job. I like it.”
We were talking about the controversy over some of the facts of Jesus’ birth. First of all, in Luke’s Gospel it is written that Jesus was born during a census. He reports, “This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”[1] Critics argue that no record, other than the Bible, exists of a world-wide Roman census during Herod’s reign from 7 to 4 B.C. Secondly, Matthew’s Gospel dates Christ’s birth in reference to Herod. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Quirinius began to govern Syria from 6 A.D. That is an apparent ten year gap between what Luke and Matthew have written. On this basis, some say Luke is in error. I’ve looked at some of the criticism leveled on Luke and have some thoughts. Do you have your coffee ready?

A Question to Ask

Once when my friend was preaching a sermon in India, he said, “back during World War II, in the fifties…” Another friend and I looked at each other and tried to conceal our laughter. For the next week we ragged him about that gaffe. Obvious errors have a way of becoming public. If Luke was in error, then I wonder why the early church did not correct him? The census and name of the Governor would have been common knowledge in that day.

The Author

We know a little bit about Luke. He was a physician. We know he intended to write accurately. He opens his Gospel with “It seemed fitting for me … having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order… so that you may know the exact truth…”[2] He writes like someone who recognized the significance of what he was doing.

A portion of his other biblical writing, Acts, was once labeled as error. In Acts 14:6 Luke states that the city of Iconium was located outside of the province of Lycaonia. The Roman historian Cicero had written that it was part of Lycaonia. Both cannot be true. In 1910 Sir William Ramsay (right) found a monument that showed that Iconium was in Phrygia. So Luke got that one right.

The Census

Records show that Augustus considered census-taking as one of his important accomplishments. The issue is whether one occurred during Herod’s reign from 7 to 4 B.C., the time when Jesus was born. Critics say there is no record. Some Christian writers disagree. Let’s say it’s still controversial. I like what historian Edwin Yamauichi had to say. “…there are many things that occur only in a given text without corroborative evidence of other texts or inscriptions." That is true.

The Governor

The 10 year gap between Herod’s death (Matthew’s account) and Quirinius being Governor of Syria (Luke’s account) is also a controversy. Matthew and Luke are literally and figuratively on two different pages here it seems. Let’s consider some evidence.

The historian Josephus (below) writes that before 6 A.D., Quirinius was “… a Roman senator, and one who had gone through other magistracies, and had passed through them till he had been consul…” “Other magistracies” means other posts. It is known that Quirinius was in Syria and neighboring Cilicia from 12 B.C. onward. Writer John Ankerberg says, “… 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.”[3]Quirinius was definitely around and he was in leadership during the time Luke speaks of.
So I’ve taken my wife’s editorial advice. I’ve rewritten this article. My coffee cup is empty, and it’s time to move on with the day. I believe there is a plausible explanation for what Luke has written. But even if we only have partial supporting evidence, would that mean the facts recorded about Jesus are untrue? I mean we know World War II didn’t happen in the fifties, but hey, it did happen!

[1] Luke 2:2 (New American Standard Bible)
[2] Luke 1:3 (NASB)
[3] John Ankerberg, “Was Luke Wrong about the Census Under Quirinius?”,

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jesus Birthplace Predicted 700 Years In Advance

When our first daughter was born we lived in Kolkata. Within two weeks we had to take her on an airplane to Thailand. She was so small; I remember her sleeping for a few nights in a makeshift bed in the lid of our suitcase. I have a picture of her with my shoe beside her, and they’re about the same size. Why did we travel with her so soon? It was because our visa was expiring. Although it was not an optimum time to travel with a newborn and my wife just getting back on her feet, we had no choice.

Jesus travelled even earlier in life than my daughter did. The emperor Augustus had ordered a worldwide census. Joseph was required to enroll at Bethlehem late in Mary’s pregnancy. It was a risky time to travel and much less comfortable than our jet ride to Bangkok. This “forced” journey provides a subtle yet powerful verification that Jesus is the Son of God.

Old Testament Prophecy and Jesus

Christians say that fulfilled Old Testament prophecy substantiates Jesus’ divinity. The mathematical probability of one person fulfilling multiple old prophecies is very slight. It is remarkable that one person’s life events aligned with so many centuries-old prognostications. Consider just this one regarding Jesus birthplace.

The Gospel writer Matthew states, “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a ruler, who will shepherd My people Israel.” [1] King Herod was hunting for the newborn boy who might one day threaten his reign. Where was the Messiah to be born? The experts in the Jewish law summoned to Herod quoted an Old Testament passage to answer his question. The Jews believed that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (left) near Jerusalem. It had been spoken by the prophet Micah more than 700 years earlier. The Jews believed that Micah 5:2 was a Messianic reference. It is interesting that Herod didn’t know about Micah’s forecast. It was well-known by those who were informed about the Scriptures. After seven centuries, it is astounding that Micah’s words still bore authority.

Bethlehem was not Jesus’ hometown. We know he grew up in Nazareth to the far north. Many assumed He was a native-born Nazarene, like his disciple Nathanael who said, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”[2] There is no record of Jesus telling his critics he was born in Bethlehem.

Critics discount Jesus’ fulfilling of prophecies by saying that he maneuvered his life to fulfill the predictions. He and his disciples found Old Testament verses that fit His life and applied them. In other words, the cart came before the horse. Two facts make this theory implausible. First, the Messianic passages were identified long before Jesus lifetime. That is why Herod’s counselors knew Bethlehem was his predicted birthplace. Second Jesus had no control over his birthplace. Mary and Joseph were already engaged when Gabriel, the angel, spoke to her about Jesus so Bethlehem was fixed as Joseph’s ancestral home.

The Providence of God

Barring a human plot, we reflect on God working behind the scenes, many years in advance, to fulfill His word concerning Bethlehem. It was nearly impossible that Jesus would be born there. It took a series of events including the census decree by Augustus (left). Micah had to speak the words regarding Messiah’s birth. Joseph had to be of the lineage of David, for it was linked to Bethlehem. Another clan would have registered at another city. Additionally, the implementation of the census had to be synchronized with Mary’s delivery while they were in the city. What if Jesus had been born en route? All these events of divine/human interaction paint us a picture of God’s providence at work.

Perhaps God providentially guides our lives much more than we give Him credit for?

What are the odds that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem? Miniscule. Of all the places in Israel, His parents went to Bethlehem just before he was born. Later the Jews who believed in the Messiah, such as the Gospel writer Matthew, made the connection. This was not a flashy proof of His identity like raising the dead. Yet it demonstrates the power of a sovereign God working over the centuries.

In the concluding article I’ll look at criticism that has arisen concerning Christ’s birthplace and time.

[1] Matthew 2:6 (New American Standard Bible)
[2] John 1:46 (NASB)

Quotes of Note ... The Invisible World

“Spiritual warfare is learning to recognize the strategies, refusing to cooperate with them, and aggressively cutting off the schemes of the devil in Jesus’ name.” Dean Sherman

“those who protest that God cannot exist because there is too much evil evident in life… Evil exists; therefore, the Creator does not. That is categorically stated… If evil exists, one must assume that good exists in order to know the difference. If good exists, one must assume that a moral law exists by which to measure good and evil. But if a moral law exists, must not one posit an ultimate source of moral law, or at least an objective basis for a moral law? By an objective basis, I mean something that is transcendingly true at all times, regardless of whether I believed it or not.” Ravi Zacharias

“But the Devil is no big threat to God’s purposes; he is not even remotely comparable in power. He has been given a limited time before his final judgment to try to prove his case, just as all other moral beings who have chosen to live in rebellion against heaven.” W.A. Pratney

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I've served as a life-long missionary in Samoa, the Pacific region, India, and now in Pennsylvania. The Christian faith is reasonable and works in real life. It is true to the facts. Hope you enjoy some of the thoughts. I appreciate feedback.

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