Is Christmas history?

Reedham Church 

It would be hard to dispute that the story of the nativity constitutes a myth of great power and beauty. Could any portion of it be the description of actual events? Some elements, talking animals or the names of the magi for example, are medieval traditions and not biblical. But plenty remains: Caesar Augustus, the world being taxed, a star in the east, king Herod ordering the murder of babies, and astrologers’ gifts. I won’t keep you waiting for a conclusion; sadly determining, on purely historical grounds, the factual truth of any gospel is not only difficult but intrinsically impossible. Attempting such a determination would almost certainly have seemed senseless to its original author. The acceptance or rejection of biblical accounts will always be a matter of faith more than fact.

Despite my disappointing conclusion I believe that reviewing the historicality of the gospels is still of value. In order to contribute something faintly original to such a review I shall compare an evangelist, St Luke, with the Roman first century historian Tacitus in their capacity as commentators on the Roman world. Searches for historical facts in the New Testament have been undertaken since the mid-nineteenth century and have often been considered highly controversial. Today it is evident that the devil ‘has all the good tunes’ since posts dealing with such matters on social media sites are usually directed from a rationalist, and rather hostile, viewpoint. The difficulties that commentators have with the gospels can be broadly classified under four headings. Firstly, it is assumed that the accounts were written long after the events they purport to record. Secondly, and quite correctly, it is claimed that our knowledge of the gospels depends on the existence of a very few genuinely old manuscripts. A third objection would be that the writers of the gospels do not distinguish fact from myth or pious fiction, and finally sceptics often feel that, at some time after their composition, gospel accounts were selected, altered or re-cast for political reasons. All these reservations have some merit, in particular many gospels once existed of which only four were selected for incorporation in the New Testament canon.

In reading the texts I made several decisions which I must now make clear, and with which you may not agree. Firstly I am trying to judge the gospels by contemporary standards, not by modern. Secondly I see no reason to treat the evangelists with more suspicion than any other writers from the classical world. For this reason it was interesting to compare Luke with the work of Tacitus and in particular his Agricola, one of the main historical sources for early Roman Britain. Both Luke and Tacitus describe the operation of first century Roman provinces, Judaea and Britain respectively, although in neither case was this their principle intention of course. Finally I would not dismiss a text as being of no value simply because it was of no historical value. All of you will know the story of Silas Marner, a man rejected by society and wholly devoted to the acquisition of wealth, whose life is nearly destroyed when that wealth is stolen. The love he gives and receives from a child restores his sanity and redeems his life. The story is a complete fiction, penned by the greatest of Victorian novelists, but to its admirers, of whom I am one, there are important truths told in every chapter. All ancient sources, both sacred and secular, pre-date the invention of printing. All exist in the form of hand-written scribal manuscripts, and all have been transmitted as copies, or copies of copies. Surviving manuscripts will differ from each other, and may be only fragmentary. They will contain errors and omissions or, worse still, later material accreted to the original composition. It is clear that ancient texts have a history, as well as recording a history. It is also evident that the original writer does not control the reader’s subsequent interpretation of a text. Over the centuries texts acquire layers of meaning that may be very remote from the author’s original intentions.

P. Cornelius Tacitus was born a few years after the invasion of Britain in  AD 43 and lived to be about my age, dying during the reign of the emperor Hadrian. He had a successful political career in Rome, being a senator, consul and governor of the important province of Asia. He married the daughter of a great Roman general, Cn. Julius Agricola, but with typical patriarchal reticence never records her name in any of his works. It is likely that he intended to write a complete history of his own times but there are several gaps in the record that has come down to us. Agricola  is the biography of his father in law, a man whom Tacitus quite obviously loved and admired. As a historical account it leaves much to be desired. Tacitus has no sense of geography whatsoever, nor is he really interested in Britons except as bit-part players in Agricola’s big scenes. As an illustration of this Tacitus mentions the rebellion of Boudica but makes her the queen of the wrong Iron Age tribe. Druids don’t rate a mention at all. This is quite typical of a Roman writer; it was events in the city that counted. Tacitus lived through the reign of a particularly tyrannical emperor named Domitian, son of the emperor Vespasian and brother of Titus. Along with other senators he was at least passively complicit in Domitian’s cruelties and executions which left Tacitus with a permanent fear and distaste for arbitrary government. These strong sentiments colour his writing even though he completed his histories in the happier times of the adoptive emperors.

In Agricola  Tacitus describes a Roman campaign in the north of Britain against the Caledonians. This reaches its climax in a battle at an unknown location called Mons Graupius (or perhaps Grampius). In reality Tacitus cannot possibly have known the exact details of the Caledonian general’s pre-battle speech to his troops but he still puts into Calgacus’s mouth this bitter, and often quoted, description of the Romans: solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant, ‘they create a desolation and call it peace’. These words are a total fabrication but a fabrication that was based on the author’s damaging political experience and which can be justly applied to many episodes of Roman history as we shall shortly see. More generally it is a description of human behaviour down the centuries. If you disagree I invite you to look at the current state of Syria or the middle east. Evidently for Tacitus history was not simply the patient assembling and recording of facts but a way of advancing a world view. I don’t know their precise time-line but Tacitus’s great works the Annals and Histories certainly survived only as single manuscripts considered by experts to be ninth or eleventh century copies of fourth century originals. They came into the hands of the Papacy in the late middle ages. Is what we have now what Tacitus originally wrote? Almost certainly not. One of the more controversial passages is his description of the fire in Rome during Nero’s reign. Some scholars believe it was ‘doctored’ to provide a spurious evidence of contemporary Christianity. So, just to recap, a historian wrote in the late first century about events that had occurred several decades earlier and which he must have known were not always adequately researched and were partially fictitious. The work was copied many times subsequently. A single fourth century representative of these reproductions was copied again five or six centuries later and luckily survived. There is no other version against which it can be compared and there is some evidence of later alteration. These facts apply to an author widely, and surely rightly, considered to be the greatest historian of the Roman age.

So now let’s look at St Luke. I’m no expert on biblical criticism but there is general agreement that Luke’s works, his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, were written by AD 100, although not necessarily by the same Luke who was the companion of St Paul. Luke employs St Mark’s gospel among his sources, which may have been written a generation earlier. The epistles of St Paul are earlier still. There are, I understand, 2-3rd century fragments of Luke’s gospel but the oldest complete versions are 4-5th century and three existing complete manuscripts date from this time. Luke gives quite a detailed account of a Roman province. He mentions two emperors, Augustus and Tiberius, and governors of Syria who live in a praetorium. One of them is named Quirinius. There are two client kings who at various times rule with Roman agreement: Herod the Great and Herod Agrippa. We know from him that citizens of Judaea spoke Jewish (really Aramaic) and Greek. We read that censuses are undertaken and that wine, figs, fish, lamb and bread were consumed. The Romans collect taxes and specific coins, silver denarii, are mentioned. In a very famous passage Judas Iscariot is rewarded with thirty of them. The Roman authorities did not generally interfere with Jewish forms of worship but are concerned with civil unrest and rebellion which they certainly suppress: Pontius Pilate ‘mixed blood with his sacrifices’ (Luke 13:1). Incidentally some inhabitants seem to have collaborated: ‘we have no king but Caesar’ (John 19:15). On several occasions the story of St Paul’s life describes the privileges due to a Roman citizen. Once, when his life is threatened, Paul is given an armed escort including 200 infantry and 70 cavalry which constitutes half the strength of an auxiliary cohort. Roman centurions abound in the text, guarding prisoners, supervising crucifixions, acknowledging Jesus innocent of any crime and pleading for the lives of their sick servants. One centurion is actually given a name, Julius, and a unit, the Augustan cohort (Acts 23:1) but identifying this formation has proved difficult. The Augustan legions were stationed in Britain (legio II) and north Africa (legio III). Perhaps the centurion was on detached service. ‘Augustan’ would also be a perfectly reasonable name for an auxiliary cohort, although this would not normally be a centurion’s command. Luke does not say where troops were stationed in Jerusalem but simply mentions ‘barracks’. The Jewish historian Josephus calls this the Antonia fortress. Quadrangular military constructions of this type were familiar all over the Roman world.

Luke wrote in Greek for a Roman audience. I don’t think it is unfair to say that in his gospel Romans feature prominently and behave reasonably. Members of the ruling Jewish community are not portrayed sympathetically and in the middle ages this was to have terrible consequences of which Luke would never have dreamed. Luke had one enormous difficulty to overcome. In AD 66 there had been a local rebellion in Judaea possibly related to Jewish-Greek tensions, or the high level of taxation. In an appalling miss-calculation the Romans responded by killing thousands of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and entering the temple, which was forbidden to non-Jews. In the more general revolt that these actions precipitated a legion was defeated in a major reverse for Roman arms. Generals Vespasian and Titus (later emperors) were given a command consisting of four legions with auxiliaries, perhaps 30-40,000 men. They methodically sacked rebellious strongholds throughout the country and in consequence refugees streamed into the capital. The rebels there were not united and even fought each other in another echo of events in modern Syria. After a long siege Titus and his troops broke into Jerusalem, burned it, and massacred or enslaved all the inhabitants, leaving only the famous fortress of Masada to be reduced in AD 74. These events were an unimaginable catastrophe for the Jewish people made worse, if that were possible, by the profanation of their most sacred sites. You will know that in Luke 21: 20-24 (AV) Jesus speaks as follows:

And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter there into. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.

The Romans are not mentioned by name but they are the gentiles of course. There is no doubt whatever in my view that their attack on Jerusalem is being powerfully described. Understandably a Christian who believes that the gospels were ‘revealed’ by God would take this passage as one in which Jesus makes a prediction, most scholars however would regard it as dating evidence for the composition of the text.

So, after this long digression, what are the elements of Luke’s Christmas story? When a significant man was born it seemed very natural to the ancient mind that portents of greatness should attend his birth. Another Roman historian Suetonius regularly describes such events when men destined to be Roman emperors arrived in the world. It would have seemed very natural to Luke that manifestations of this type would have marked the birth of Jesus. It is once we try to date the individual events he recorded that we run into trouble. Luke mentions that the Roman emperor was Augustus, whom we know died in  AD 14. Quirinius became legate of Syria in AD 6 and a provincial census at the beginning of his governorship seems perfectly reasonable. The difficulty here is king Herod the Great. Herod was a thoroughly nasty piece of work and perfectly capable of ordering something that would be known subsequently as the ‘massacre of the innocents’. Unfortunately he died in 4 BC more than a decade before the census. Can we reach a more certain date by identifying the ‘star of Bethlehem’? This star actually only appears in Matthew’s gospel and occurred too late to be Halley’s Comet (14 BC). No convenient supernova is dated to this period, in our galaxy at least. But truthfully we have no idea what conjunction of stars and planets would have seemed significant to Persian magi so I can’t see that we can take the episode of a star in the east much further.

I think you can see where I am heading now. Luke was a classical author writing in vernacular Greek for a Roman audience. As a source of information about the world he lived in Luke is comparable in value to Tacitus. Although he naturally does not have the historian’s intimate knowledge of Roman politics Luke’s portrait of a province is if anything more detailed. We cannot treat the nativity itself as a simple connected history but the individual elements may well have been current while Luke was writing. There is no reason to regard them as invented and a contemporary audience would have found such an account to be perfectly acceptable, indeed expected, as a preamble to the life of a great man. Neither Tacitus or Luke is likely to have been direct witnesses of the events they described. In both cases the manuscripts we possess have a fourth century origin with Luke being somewhat better represented than Tacitus. Both writers have their own agendas and in expressing them they have each contributed enormously to European thought and ethics. There have been those who regard the gospels as completely fictitious but to me this seems fantasy. Others refuse to give them credit because they were probably not written by eye-witnesses and the only manuscripts are few and late. Take this view if you must but if you do I expect you to consistently reject every other Roman writer on identical grounds. About the ethical views expressed by Jesus in Luke’s gospel, and the elements of the miraculous, you will have to form your own judgement. Christmas is not such a bad time for making that attempt.


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