Writer Steve Schramm explores whether the Nativity story can be trusted

For more on the historical reliability of the Christmas stories, check out our brand new online course Did it Really Happen? The Birth of Jesus, which includes contributions from Lydia McGrew, Amy Orr-Ewing, NT Wright. 


“In the heart of our king is a glorious home. And it’s always Christmas in the hearts of his own.” (A Song in the Air)

While every year millions of Christians around the world celebrate the birth, death and resurrection of their king, a much smaller percentage investigate the evidence for these events.

And even with the resurgence of Christian apologetics in the last few decades and the increased interest in the events of Easter, many Christians—even those in the halls of the Academy—tend to accept the Nativity on the basis of faith alone.

Of course, without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). But God also desires that we have reasons for our hope (1 Pet 3:15) and that we use our minds to come to logical conclusions and guard against error (2 Cor 10:5).

Is the Nativity just an article of faith?

It is certainly tempting to leave the Nativity up to faith alone. Doesn’t it take something away from the magic of Christmas to question the historical veracity of it? People love Santa, but Saint Nick? Most could take him or leave him.

Jesus is not Santa though and Christians should be motivated to distance themselves from such fairytales as much as possible as it relates to the birth of the saviour.

As it turns out, the Nativity isn’t merely an article of faith. There are sound historical reasons to feel confident that the information reported in Matthew and Luke is accurate. It all starts with shedding one tragic assumption to which Christians easily fall prey.


Read more:

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The faith of the shepherds: A Christmas reflection

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An assumption of guilt: The Gospels as historical sources

Steeped in the modern methods of historical reportage, it’s quite common to find sceptics demanding “external evidence” for the Gospel accounts.

If we don’t have verification outside of the Gospels for what they claim, so the argument goes, then there is reason to doubt what they say on the face of it.

In order for a historical report to be true, we must have many different sources wthat verify what the Bible says, right? In truth, it’s not that clear-cut, and there are two reasons why.

1. The Bible is not one document

Right away, there is a problem with the demand of the sceptic, because what Christians call “the Bible” is not just one book. Rather, it is a collection of historical documents, written by a number of different authors, over a long period of time.

Zooming in further, the Nativity accounts require that the Gospels—specifically Matthew and Luke—are legitimate sources of history. And in fact, they are.

Matthew and Luke alone represent no less than four independent sources of material for the life of Jesus. Dr Peter J Williams explains:

“The five main categories of material we will find are in (1) Matthew only; (2) Luke only; (3) Mark (though possibly also in Matthew and/ or Luke); (4) Matthew and Luke, but not Mark (ie Q); and (5) John only. There are also many cases where Matthew, Mark and Luke (if you prefer, Mark and Q) overlap. So whether we think of the four Gospels as four independent witnesses or as five different sorts of material, the chief result is that we have multiple witnesses to things. 

Even if one wants to argue that Luke copied ideas from Matthew or that John used Mark (though there is little firm evidence of that), we find an overall pattern that makes the compelling argument that the material was not all made up. Again and again we will find that supposing the authors handed on faithfully what they knew yields simple explanations, whereas supposing they made things up produces complex ones.” 

(Peter J Williams Can We Trust the Gospels?)

2. Historical data from antiquity is rare

Secondly—and of utmost importance—to find anything meaningful written about anyone in antiquity is miraculous in itself. As apologist Greg Koukl has pointed out:

“Some wonder why so little was written of such an amazing person if Jesus did, in fact, exist. But they see the situation entirely the wrong way around. What ought to be amazing is how much is recorded about an otherwise obscure man at an obscure time in an obscure place during a period when virtually nothing was written about any individual anywhere.” (Greg Koukl, Why Jesus Part 1)

The amount of data we have for the life of Jesus is quite an incredible fact of history. As these are primary sources about Jesus, it is not wise (or historically accurate) to treat them with an “assumption of guilt” in terms of how truthfully they report.

Here’s the key takeaway: Matthew and Luke are themselves sources for the life of Jesus. And given Luke’s prestige as a historian (discussed below), there is reason to pay attention to what they have written. To ignore these legitimate sources on the basis that they are contained within “the Bible” is to ignore how history works, and how historians work to uncover it.


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The Jewish background context of Jesus’ birth

Common sense goes a long way towards understanding what the Gospel writers were trying to do. Jesus was a first century Jew. That means he was born into a worldview with many assumptions, ideas and expectations. Matthew—a Jew himself—seems to have been supremely concerned with this aspect of Jesus’ life.

Matthew presents Jesus as the Messiah—the New Moses—and wants his reader to understand where Jesus’ birth fits into the “Messianic Mosaic” of prophecy and teaching in the Old Testament.

Luke is primarily a historian, and scholars believe he would have interviewed Mary and received much of his information from her. Luke did not set out to connect Jesus with Messianic expectations, but rather to report the facts as accurately as possible (Lk 1:1-4).

The criterion of embarrassment

One of the historian’s most reliable tools is called “the criterion of embarrassment”. Put simply, if embarrassing details are reported of a figure, it is more likely the story is true rather than false.

This is human nature—we leave out the embarrassing, boring or derogatory details in favour of those which make us appear more acceptable. When a historian sees this, he is drawn to think the material is accurate.

Keep this in mind. As will be shown below, many details of Matthew’s account, in particular, just don’t make sense if the story is being fabricated, given the Jewish audience.

Markers of truth in the accounts

So, why think Matthew and Luke are—at least to the very best of their ability—telling the truth? There are a number of reasons.[1]

Mary: Blessed among women or a liar?

Mary, the mother of Jesus, would have needed to lie about being a virgin at least two different times in order to keep her story intact. When she first became pregnant, and later on during conversations with Jesus’ brothers, friends and followers.

In her culture, it was very shameful for a woman to have had sexual relations with a man prior to their marriage. Can you imagine how difficult the story would be to believe for a 1st Century Jew?

Mary is pregnant, but not only that. She’s a virgin, and the baby is God’s! The nature of the story itself is so fantastic that if she were trying to avoid the embarrassment of having had sex with Joseph prior to marriage, this was not a great strategy.

Jewish sensibilities

Not only would this story have been fantastic, it would have also been offensive. Historian NT Wright has pointed out that an account of Yahweh impregnating a virgin girl would run the risk of making Jesus out to be a “pagan demigod”.

After all, the idea of the gods having children with human females was a very pagan idea. The Jews did not have a category for this thinking as it relates to Yahweh. However, the story would not satisfy a pagan audience, either.

The reason is, pagan accounts of the gods having intercourse with human women were very lush, sexualised and even involved animals. By contrast, the virgin birth has nothing of the sort. There is no appeal to a sexual relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit. It is a very clean, “matter of fact” account.

Wright reflects:

“There is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7:14 this way before Matthew did. Even assuming that Matthew or Luke regularly invented material to fit Jesus into earlier templates, why would they have invented something like this? 

The only conceivable parallels are pagan ones, and these fiercely Jewish stories have certainly not been modelled on them. Luke at least must have known that telling this story ran the risk of making Jesus out to be a pagan demigod. Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk unless they at least believed the stories to be literally true?

A later Christian apologetic?

This account doesn’t really work as a later Christian apologetic either, because the promise from the angel to Mary would have created the sense of Jesus establishing an earthly kingdom, which he did not do.

The expectations are out of line with the creation of this narrative as an apologetic to in some way bolster the history of Jesus’ life.

The pre-70s Jewish context

Dr Lydia McGrew has noted multiple markers in the text of a pre-70s Jewish context and worldview. These include, for example, the daily activities Zechariah performs in the temple (Lk 1:8-10) and Elizabeth’s embarrassment over being barren (Lk 1:25).

As a Gentile historian, it’s not impossible to think Luke could have done his research and invented this narrative. However, it’s quite implausible (access to information was much more difficult than today!) and seems more likely that he knew these details because they were passed along to him by eyewitnesses who lived within that story and its context.

These and many other markers in the text [2] suggest these are accurate accounts based on eyewitness testimony, rather than fabricated stories to prove a point.

Indeed, to accuse the Gospel writers of fabrication that would require such knowledge and precision is to imbue them with precisely the intellectual acumen many sceptics deny.

Would the Gospel writers have fabricated the story?

In a criminal investigation, the establishment of motive is often central to building a case against the defendant. If a defendant had motive to commit the crime of which they are accused, this raises the chances that they are guilty.

Given what we have discussed to this point, it seems difficult to establish Matthew and Luke’s motive in fabricating the virgin birth story.

Luke, though a capable historian, was not in a position to know the precise—and accurate—details present in his telling of the story. Furthermore, he sets out his motive clearly from the start (Lk 1:1-4), and there are no extravagant or apologetical motifs to suggest he needed to fabricate this story.

From Matthew’s standpoint, it is even less likely that he would have fabricated this story. Matthew searched the scriptures for prophetic elements to hook into the story of Jesus, not in a contrived way, but in an effort to make sense of how Jesus is the Messiah that was prophesied. This is difficult enough on its own, let alone peppering the narrative with fanciful stories reminiscent of pagan mythology that would offend Jewish sensibilities.

Confident celebration of the saviour-king

The Nativity account is not without its difficulties. There is open scholarly debate about a few small differences in the accounts between Matthew and Luke and the census described in Luke 2:1-2. There are, in this author’s opinion, satisfactory answers to the questions that have been raised, but we should not pretend they don’t exist.

Nevertheless, this—and every—Christmas season, Christians around the world should boldly and confidently celebrate the virgin-born, dead-and-risen-again saviour-king, Jesus.

He is worthy of our praise, and the best evidence we have confirms that “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is not only wonderful, but true.

For more on the historical reliability of the Christmas stories, check out our brand new online course Did it Really Happen? The Birth of Jesus, which includes contributions from Lydia McGrew, Amy Orr-Ewing, NT Wright.


Steve Schramm is an autodidactic writer, Bible teacher and host of the Bible Nerd Podcast. He’s authored four books, including Truth Be Told: A Believer’s Guide to Sharing Christianity, Overcoming Objections, and Winning More Souls for Christ


[1]        Many of these ideas were brought to my attention by philosopher and New Testament expert, Dr. Lydia McGrew, for whom this author is very grateful.

[2]        See this helpful playlist by Dr. Lydia McGrew examining the issues in-depth: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLe1tMOs8ARn3za22QzE28xKqhTq5KvCB2