Jesus Christmas Story: With Christmas Near, Historians And Biblical Scholars Still Debate About Jesus [Opinion]

All the secular shopping, eating, and merrymaking on Christmas Day sometimes overshadows the perennial Jesus Christmas story of the baby in the manger. But professional historians and biblical scholars have for centuries hotly debated whether Jesus was a historical figure at all or just a biblical myth.

Historical Jesus Versus Supernatural Jesus

Christmas is obviously a religious holiday for many people. For others, it’s essentially become a secular holiday with a few religious trappings and overtones. The difference between the two largely relates to whether Jesus is viewed as a religious figure or just a human being.

Christmas shopping in London. The Jesus Christmas story loses out to Santa.
Christmas shopping in London. The Jesus Christmas story loses out to Santa. [Image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

But for many historians and scholars, the mystery of Jesus revolves around whether he existed at all. Supernatural Jesus is entirely outside the purview of scientific and historical analysis. Religion, mysticism, and supernatural events cannot be studied, confirmed, or denied by science since these things are all based on faith.

But the analysis of biblical text – as well as other sources – has often been used to alternatively affirm or reject the existence of Jesus as an actual person. And many researchers have come to the conclusion that there is reason to doubt whether the Jesus of the Bible – as an individual person living in the Roman occupied Israel of his time – actually existed.

Finding Evidence for Historical Figures

The validity of the Jesus Christmas story – from a historical perspective – can be looked at by comparing the evidence for his historical reality with the evidence for the existence of other historical figures. We know Julius Caesar existed because of all the evidence we have, even aside from his own writings – i.e. The Gallic Wars – which can be seen at MIT’s Internet Archives.

There are coins minted when Caesar was alive that have his likeness, as well as monuments and buildings associated with Julius Caesar. Plus, there are numerous accounts of him from contemporary sources in both Rome and elsewhere. The historical evidence for Jesus from his own lifetime or immediately afterward is a bit thinner.

Giant Christ the Redeemer statue overlooks Rio. The Jesus Christmas story inspires some, but leaves many historians doubting. [Image by Mario Tama/Getty Images]

Non-Biblical Sources For Jesus

Christmas and all the other Jesus-related holidays that occur throughout the year, from Easter to All Saints Day, might suggest a solid historical personage confirmed by a range of sources. But that’s not entirely true. At the same time, there are at least two non-biblical sources that offer a suggestion that Jesus might have existed, rather than being entirely mythological.

One of these two sources is Josephus’ The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities. As noted by Biblical Archaeology, Josephus was a Jewish/Roman writer who lived from 37 BCE to 100 BCE, making him a near contemporary with Jesus chronologically.

While many historians believe the references to Jesus in The Jewish War are probably fakes inserted by later Christians, most seem to think that the quotes about Jesus in Jewish Antiquities might just be real. If they are, they do strongly suggest the existence of the Biblical Jesus – at least as a human being. In the following quote – since Jesus was such a common name at the time – Josephus specified which Jesus he was talking about when describing the death of James, Jesus’ brother.

“… so he assembled a council of judges, and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as lawbreakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.”

The reason this passage is thought by some to be genuine is that the death described for James doesn’t match the one in the Bible. If a later Christian had added this, presumably he would have gotten his Biblical details straight.

Another good candidate for a possible Jesus confirmation source is Tacitus. According to Early Christian Writings, Tacitus was a well-known Roman historian. Any college student who has ever taken a world history course will be familiar with Tacitus since he is one of the most respected historians of the Roman period. Tacitus provides a quote that seems very much like confirmation of the existence of the Jesus of the Bible.

“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.”

On the one hand, it seems extremely unlikely that a later Christian would have added text describing Christianity as “evil.” But there are problems with Tacitus since we don’t know his sources and he wrote at least two generations after the death of Jesus. It’s possible he got the information about the crucifixion of Jesus from Christians in Rome, rather than from some unrelated source.

Of course, given that there were so many Jesuses around at the time – again, it was a common name – it would probably be impossible to say that one of them was or wasn’t the individual the Bible is talking about. But the Bible itself says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” So maybe the “historical truth” of the Jesus Christmas story doesn’t really matter – at least for the faithful.

[Featured Image by David Silverman/Getty Images]