All this granted, much remains. The contradictions are of minutiae, not substance; in essentials the synoptic gospels agree remarkably well, and form a consistent portrait of Christ. In the enthusiasm of its discoveries the Higher Criticism has applied to the New Testament tests of authenticity so severe that by them a hundred ancient worthies- e.g., Hammurabi, David, Socrates- would fade into legend. Despite the prejudices and theological preconceptions of the evangelists, they record many incidents that mere inventors would have concealed- the competition of the apostles for high places in the Kingdom, their flight after Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the failure of Christ to work miracles in Galilee, the references of some auditors to his possible insanity, his early uncertainty as to his mission, his confessions of ignorance as to the future, his moments of bitterness, his despairing cry on the cross; no one reading these scenes can doubt the reality of the figure behind them. That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of Higher Criticism the outlines of the life, character, and teaching of Christ, remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.


Both Matthew and Luke assign Jesus’ birth to “the days when Herod was king of Judea”- consequently before 3 B.C. Luke, however, describes Jesus as “about thirty years old” when John baptized him “in the fifteenth year of Tiberius”- i.e., A.D. 28-29; this would place Christ’s birth in the year 2-1 B.C. Luke adds that “in those days there went out a decree of Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed… when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Quirinius is known to have been legate in Syria between A.D. 6 and 12; Josephus notes a census by him in Judea, but ascribes it to A.D. 6-7; we have no further mention of this census. Tertullian records a census of Judea by Saturninus, governor of Syria 8-7 B.C.; if this is the census that Luke had in mind, the birth of Christ would have to be placed before 6 B.C. We have no knowledge of the specific day of his birth. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200) reports diverse opinions on the subject in his day, some chronologists dating the birth April 19, some May 20; he himself assigned it to November 17, 3 B.C. As far back as the second century the Eastern Christians celebrated the Nativity on January 6. In 354 some Western churches, including those of Rome, commemorated the birth of Christ on December 25; this was then erroneously calculated as the winter solstice, on which the days begin to lengthen; it was already the central festival of Mithraism, the natalis invicti solis, or birthday of the unconquered sun. The Eastern churches clung for a time to January 6, and charged their Western brethren with sun worship and idolatry, but by the end of the fourth century December 25 had been adopted also in the East.

Matthew and Luke place the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem; thence, they tell us, the family moved to Nazareth in Galilee. Mark makes no mention of Bethlehem, but merely names Christ “Jesus of Nazareth.” His parents gave him the quite common name Yeshu’a (our Joshua), meaning “the help of Yahveh”; the Greeks made this into Iesous, the Romans into Iesus. He was apparently one of a large family, for his neighbors, marveling at his authoritative teaching, asked, “Where did he get this wisdom, and the power to do these wonders? Is he not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother named Mary, and are not his brothers named James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? And do not his sisters live here among us?” Luke tells the story of the Annunciation with some literary art, and puts into the mouth of Miriam- Mary- that Magnificat which is one of the great poems embedded in the New Testament.