Published December 22, 2004 in St. Andrew’s Church, Richmond, Advent Bulletin
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke 2:1-14
Thus starts one of my favorite passages from the New Testament. I love the second chapter of Luke for all the reasons that I love a good History Channel documentary; it’s about facts and history. For all the legend and lore of Christianity and the reality of parting of seas and Noah’s ark, the central part of Christianity for me is the story of the New Testament, and those truths therein. For if it didn’t happen, it all becomes like some story of the Norse gods — a great tale with a useful message, but not something that you can bet your soul on. Perhaps there was some fellow who cleaned the Aegean stables? Myth makes good advice for living, but world-changing events like the birth of Christ are much more than that.
I am not a Biblical scholar, but what I can, as layman, understand is that this story, told over and over again, is recorded and witnessed. I think it important to think of Luke as a historian, and in that context, this all becomes real. It gives it so much more power than just some vague stories in the deserts of Palestine. Frankly, we sometimes turn all these disciples into mythological cartoon figures. But looking at Luke, and this famous passage, it is clear that there were witnesses and he is talking to me, with no atheist in the middle to tell me what I should think about it.
Right around Christmastime, there are always documentaries on television and magazines analyzing the facts regarding Christ and the New Testament. And what is always so satisfying is that it all makes some sort of logical sense. This season, there is fellow Episcopalian Jon Meacham, who wrote in Newsweek about the facts of Christ’s birth. But however these reports end, there are always unanswered questions about documents, versions, translations and archaeology. Of course, it is impossible to disprove a negative, and perhaps that is what we always require of skeptics — that they disprove our beliefs.
What I love about Luke and the New Testament is that there are many versions of a story by folks who lived in that time or close to that time, and they all say different nuanced versions of the same thing. Look in discussions of the Bible and there are all sorts of debates over when Quinirus lived, who he was, and whether the dates corresponded with Roman calendars. Were there two Quinirus rulers? I think those sorts of discussions all interesting and amusing, but what is often overlooked is that the New Testament is not seen as history, but everything else written in that time is. Certainly, facts are wrong in major history texts, but that does not make us doubt the birth of George Washington? Somehow, we must, as Christians, keep proving that this happened, over and over, in order to accept it.
History is always full of nuances and half-truths. Do we hold the rest of history to the same standards we hold the Bible? I think not — with the rest of history, there are many different accounts and many different witnesses. We know from our own lives how people lie and distort for their own ends, but we still accept a lot, as we should. But with the Bible, we seem to hold it to a far higher standard of truth.
And perhaps that’s all well and good. For no matter how many times the story is told, and as unlikely as it seems, it all seems to make so much sense, especially thinking about the different versions of it all. I borrow a thought from the noted Egyptologist John Romer — you can play all you want with the facts, archeological record and manuscripts, and he does. But the evidence of the church and the lives of the disciples and saints that followed is a sort of evidence in itself. And that makes it real.