This season offers an opportunity to step back for a moment, to reflect on the significance of the great feast of Christmas, without which, I suggest, none of us would be here today.
If Jesus had not come to earth, if he had not founded the Christian faith 2,000 years ago in a distant province of the Roman Empire, there would have been no Christian civilisation which has provided the foundation for stable, peaceful societies over the past two millennia. Instead, the Roman Empire would have collapsed, as did the Greek, Persian and Egyptian civilisations before it, and the barbarian tribes which invaded the Roman Empire would have utterly destroyed it, leaving little or nothing behind.
Some sceptics have claimed that there is no evidence that Jesus ever existed, and although these ideas are utterly discredited among historians, they have influenced the growth of atheism and agnosticism in our society. I have heard this assertion made, as if it were self-evidently true.
When pushed, the critics say that there are no contemporary historical records that Jesus ever existed, and that the earliest available evidence of Christian writings dates from the fourth century or later. They claim that Christianity is a development of pagan mythology.
It is important that we know what the answers are to these assertions. First, the answer from history. Although Jesus was born in a remote province of the Roman Empire and died a terrible death around 33 AD, a number of non-Christian writers of the same era referred to Jesus and/or his followers. To the extent that these references are not favourable to Christianity, they confirm its authenticity.
We have the statement of the Roman historian Tacitus, born in 56 AD, describing the persecution of the Christians in Rome by the Emperor Nero, after the great fire in Rome in 64 AD, just 30 years after Jesus’ death.
Tacitus wrote, “Nero fastened the guilt of starting the fire on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace, and inflicted [on them] the most exquisite tortures. 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 the 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, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”
The Roman historian Seutonius was born in 69 AD. Writing a little later than Tacitus in his History of the Caesars, he made a passing reference to riots which broke out in Rome in the Jewish community in about 49 AD. He said, “As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he (Claudius) expelled them from Rome.” The expulsions were also recorded by Luke in his Acts of the Apostles, which seem to have been written in the early 60s AD, before the deaths of the apostles Peter and Paul.
Refusal to recant
Additionally, we have the Roman governor Pliny the Younger, who wrote to the Emperor Trajan in about 112 AD, asking how he should treat people who had been denounced to him as Christians. Those who admitted to being Christians, and refused to recant by praying to the Emperor as a god, he ordered executed. Those who renounced Christianity, he freed.
And, finally, we have the references to Jesus in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, in his Antiquities, which dates from about 92 AD. The authenticity of his references have been fiercely disputed, but again most historians regard the reference to Jesus’ life and execution as being accurate, even if the text was subsequently corrupted by later additions.
All this is in addition to the gospel accounts, the letters of St Paul, the Acts of the Apostles and other early Christian documents which attest to Jesus’ life and teaching.
Quite apart from the written record, over the past 50 years, a new and important source of information has come to hand: papyrus documents which have been recovered from Egypt. These are fragile, and decompose when exposed to light and moisture, so little of what was written on papyrus survived. Of the papyri which have been discovered over the past century, however, a number contain passages or fragments of New Testament texts, and can be dated back as early as 125-150 AD. The oldest fragment found, incidentally, is a fragment of John’s Gospel, the last to be written.
What all this shows is that the church’s traditional teaching about Jesus has been confirmed by independent historical study, refuting the anti-Christian polemics which have been used to justify much contemporary atheism.
And so we celebrate Christmas, the feast of Christ’s birth, not merely as a holiday not just as an occasion for giving and receiving gifts, nor just the occasion for family gatherings, but fundamentally to give thanks to God for everything he has given us, and particularly his own Son. Happy Christmas.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.