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Nativity Stories, History and Parable

Our modern view of news is shaped by television. If something really happened, we expect, or even demand, that a film crew will have recorded the incident so that we can sit in the comfort of our own homes and decide ‘what really happened.’ Of course, when it comes to ancient history, that option is not open to us but the mind set persists. We unconsciously presume that if Dr Who and his Tardis could pop back two thousand years to Bethlehem with a film crew, we could see ‘the truth’ for ourselves.
Of course, that is not an option so when we are assessing the evidence of ancient events, we look for internal consistency, external corroboration and significant outcome. Regarding consistency, we need to be sure we are looking at what the sources really say, not a later interpretation. ‘We three Kings of Orient are’, even named in some versions, is a much later misunderstanding of the unspecified number of magi in Matthew 2. Otherwise the sources show internal consistency; they make sense in their context.
It is far more difficult, in fact impossible, to corroborate either Matthew or Luke, even with each other. They tell very different versions of the story with little significant overlap. Regarding extra-biblical sources, the cruelty of Herod is consistent with the general picture. Caesar is supposed to have said, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son; at least he doesn’t eat pigs!” There is at least one clear sign that Luke is not indifferent to historicity. He is careful to specify that the census which necessitated the journey to Bethlehem was held when Quirinius was Governor of Syria. Though we may have problems in identifying the historical Quirinius and the actual extent of the census, Luke clearly intends that his readers will recognise the specific event to which he refers. Even if the first circulation of the Gospels is dated in the closing years of the first century, there would have been those among the first readers who could affirm or deny the events to which the Gospel writers refer.


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