the Bible stories about Christ literally true? Probably most are not. To insist they are
is to miss the point about who Jesus was and what he has brought to the world
THE EARLY second
century, the Roman writer Suetonius wrote an account of the life of Augustus in which he
describes the emperors unusual conception. His mother, it seems, made a visit to the
Temple of Apollo where she dreamed that she was visited by a snake as she slept (the snake
being the symbol of Apollo). The next morning she noticed a snake-shaped mark on her body,
and soon after found herself pregnant with the future emperor.
Suetonius believe this story? He was a highly educated man, a lawyer and a top civil
servant at the imperial court. Although he liked to pass on gossip, he was not a credulous
fool and took pains to note that he got the report from an earlier source. What,
then, are we to make of this strange tale?
historians were well aware of the differences between things that actually happened and
those that did not. They knew that some sources were more reliable than others, that
eyewitness testimony was often to be trusted (except when the eyewitness in question had
an axe to grind), and that certain things stretched credulity too far.
yet they also lived in a world where truth could be expressed in other ways,
from the great founding myths of ancient Rome to poetry and drama. They lived in a world
inhabited not only by a variety of gods but also by demons and spirits, where astrology
was highly prized, and where practising magic was a criminal offence. It was also a world
that believed in the healing powers of the god Asclepius, where entrails were consulted
before battle, and where the emperor was worshiped as a God.
the biggest difference between the ancient world and our own times is our
post-Enlightenment sense that only what is historical can be true'. Put differently,
if something didnt actually happen, its value for us is diminished. We are
hard-wired to trust only what can be proved to have taken place - and to be suspicious of
even here there are strange inconsistencies. We can accept that great works of art
poetry, music, paintings - might convey a profound sense of the divine, even of
transcendence. We can also accept that gospel parables hold timeless meanings, whether or
not they actually happened (did a younger son ever ask for his inheritance? And would it
matter if he didnt?) We can hear a dramatic sketch performed in church, perhaps an
imaginary dialogue between Peter and Jesus, and simply accept the point it is trying to
make (how many people would seriously accuse the minister of fabricating
gospel stories in such a context?) And yet we seem willing to accept real
gospel stories only if we think they are historically true.
the difficulty lies in the way that we read the gospels. We assume that they are intending
to tell us historical truths. To some extent, of course, they are. But much more
importantly their purpose is to bring us to faith, to show that Jesus is the Messiah of
Jewish expectation, the Son of God, even the Saviour of the World.
widely accepted by biblical scholars that both Matthew and Luke used Marks gospel as
a source. Both depended on the earlier gospel quite substantially, but both added to it,
particularly with the birth stories at the beginning. And although a good case can be made
for the broadly historical nature of most of the narrative, the same cannot be said for
the birth stories. Both are very different (Matthew has magi, Herod and echoes of Moses;
Luke has shepherds, women and echoes of Jewish prophets). Attempts to reconcile them
always end in failure, and for one very good reason these chapters were never
designed to be read as historical incidents.
other Roman biographers, Matthew and Luke have prefaced their (broadly) historical
accounts of Jesus ministry with birth stories which highlighted the significance of
their central character. Matthew wants to show that Jesus is a second Moses, to underline
that he is a King, to whom visitors come from the ends of the earth. Luke wants to situate
Jesus within the line of Jewish prophets, whose message will be to the poor and needy.
Each one uses the birth stories to provide an overview of the gospel, to use picture
language to show what kind of man Jesus would become. In all probability, neither
evangelist had any information whatsoever about Jesus early years, but that
didnt matter. The Jewish Scriptures provided a vast store of texts, images and ideas
that together could provide a fitting opening for this God-sent Messiah.
that brings us back to Suetonius. He idolized Augustus, regarding him as the greatest of
the line of Caesars. The story of Augustus mother shows that the emperor was
descended from Apollo, and that the gods looked on the new imperial dynasty
with favour. Suetonius goes on to give eighteen other portents at the birth of Augustus
a number which makes the birth stories surrounding Jesus look rather insignificant.
Did this highly educated Roman think that they had all actually happened? Its hard
to say, but my guess is that he would have shaken his head in exasperation and told us
that we were missing the point.
personal view is that the birth stories arent historical, but Id also argue
that our modern obsession with whether they actually happened is misguided. These opening
chapters sweep up the audience into a world of theological mysteries so intense and
unfathomable that only poetry and pictures can begin to express their meanings. How else
can we comprehend the idea that Jesus is the Son of God? How else can we understand him as
a prophet greater than Moses?
stories are profoundly, theologically true. Insisting that they should also be
historically true is at best a distraction. At worst, its simply missing
Helen Bond is Director of the Centre for Christian Origins at Edinburgh University.