The most distinctive claim about Christianity in relation to other world religions is that Christianity says that God has revealed himself in history. As British theologian, Alan Richardson, has stated: “The Christian faith…is bound up with certain happenings in the past, and if these happenings could be shown never to have occurred, or to have been quite different from the biblical-Christian account of them, then the whole edifice of Christian faith, life and worship would be found to have been built on sand.”
In any interview with “The Australian Presbyterian” magazine, Christian apologist Dr. William Lane Craig emphasized the importance of history to the Christian faith. In part, below is what Dr. Craig said in that interview: “History is crucial to Christianity because it keeps the Christian faith from degenerating into mythology. Unless the Bible is rooted in actual historical events, there is no reason to think that Jesus of Nazareth should be any more determinative for my life today than so-called gods like Thor, Odin or Zeus or any other mythological deity. History is the vital component in Christianity because it grounds faith in fact and keeps it from being mere myth.
Right from the beginning, Christianity’s earliest creeds are affirmations of historical events. For instance, the Apostles’ Creed says of Jesus “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried…on the third day He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.” These historical events are important elements in the early creeds. Tragically, with the rise of liberal theology in the 19th century, the importance of history for Christian faith was depreciated and lost. Liberal scholars no longer believed that Jesus was really central to the heart of the Christian faith. They looked elsewhere for the central core: the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They believed that this was the one doctrine that was fundamental to Christianity. Everything else was secondary, including historical events. Thankfully, liberal theology has come and gone.
In cases where we do have evidence, historians have worked out a number of objective rules (“the criteria of authenticity”) that we can apply to the sources so as to establish whether they are historically credible accounts as opposed to mere fiction.
For instance, let’s consider the criterion of “multiple attestation.” If we have independent accounts of the same event, this rule says it’s more likely to be historical than fictional because it would be most unusual if two authors independently made up the same story about the same event. Isn’t it remarkable that we should have two, independent virgin birth narratives about Jesus? If you apply this rule of multiple attestation to Jesus’ birth narratives, then we have good grounds for believing that he was born in Bethlehem and born of a virgin. Why? Because we have it attested in independent narratives—Matthew and Luke are independent of one another in their sources at least.
Another rule for establishing the historical nature of an event is the principle of dissimilarity. This rule says that if you can show that an event or saying of Jesus’ life is unlike anything in prior Judaism and also unlike anything in the Church that followed him, then it’s highly probable that it belongs to the historical Jesus himself. So, this criterion of dissimilarity can be a very positive help in establishing events as historical. Incidentally, this rule doesn’t mean that if some of Jesus’ statements are similar to those found in Judaism or the early church, then this indicates that they’ve been borrowed from these sources. Critics misapply the rule when they do that.
Another rule is the criterion of embarrassment. This rule says that if you find elements in the narratives that are awkward for the early Christian Church, or perhaps even embarrassing, then these too are most likely to be historical rather than to have been invented by the Church.
A further criterion would be the execution of Jesus. His crucifixion is such a firmly fixed anchor point in history that events in the Gospels can be assessed by their likelihood of leading up to Jesus’ execution/crucifixion.
There are other criteria as well. In fact, there’s a long list of them, but these are just a few. Historians apply them all the time to secular narratives with a view towards establishing their historical credibility. I find these criteria to be very helpful.
Now the gospels are written from a certain point of view: they have a story to tell—the story of Jesus. They are proclamations which have an intense interest in certain events of history. But that doesn’t mean that they cannot tell the truth about the past, or that we cannot assess their credibility.
The “criteria of authenticity” that I’ve already mentioned are aimed precisely at getting past the sort of bias that may influence historians as they write the story of the past. These rules are designed to assist us in establishing what really happened. They help us to see if a historian is telling the truth. In short, if a historian’s understanding of the past is wrong, the reason it’s wrong is because it doesn’t fit the evidence; it’s not wrong because he has a point of view. So, it all goes back to what the evidence indicates.
With respect to the birth narratives of Jesus, we don’t have eye-witness testimony from Jesus’ disciples to this event, but it’s very interesting to ask about the sources of the birth narratives. Colin Hemer, in his book, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History goes through Acts with a fine-toothed comb with a view toward assessing Luke’s credibility as an ancient historian. He pulls out a wealth of historical detail from the book. He assesses the historical information that he finds in terms of facts that would have been the general knowledge of anybody living at the time down to details so specific that only an eyewitness could have known about them. And he establishes convincingly the historical credibility of Luke as an historical author. Further, Hemer argues that this assessment of Luke’s reliability in Acts ought to be extended to Luke’s Gospel as well. He asks the interesting question: “What sources might there have been for the Gospel of Luke?” Well, one way of determining this is to subtract from Luke’s Gospel anything that we find in the other Gospels and see what’s left over. When you do that, it’s interesting that the uniquely Lucan material tends to be associated with women who are mainly mentioned in his Gospel—people like Joanna and, interestingly enough, Mary, the mother of Jesus. Now Luke says that he accompanied Paul on his missionary journey back to Jerusalem where he interviewed eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life and ministry. And I think that it’s not unlikely that Luke may have interviewed Mary as his source for the virgin birth story. It’s interesting to note that Luke’s account is told from Mary’s perspective, whereas Matthew’s narrative is more from Joseph’s perspective. It’s not implausible, therefore, to believe that we may have an indirect source in Mary herself for Luke’s birth narrative of Jesus…Luke’s project is clearly to write history. Further, the book of Acts demonstrates his historical reliability abundantly. And so, in the case of the Gospel, where we do not have the benefit of secular confirmation, we ought to extend to Luke the credibility as a historian which he has earned in the book of Acts.”