Right Opinion

The Miraculous Beginnings of Christmas

Erick Erickson · Dec. 13, 2019

The United States is currently embroiled in another political controversy. Next week, there will be another one. Each one will distract us. We should work hard to not be distracted from Christmas. We should not be distracted from a key miracle that started the Christian faith.

Both Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary was, at the time, a virgin. It is a matter of theological orthodoxy to believe this, and given the parameters of Christianity, it is not a far leap to suggest if one cannot believe in a virgin birth, one will probably also lack the faith to believe in a physical resurrection of Jesus.

Early church fathers widely agreed that Jesus was both born of a virgin and physically rose from the dead. Church orthodoxy has been settled on these points for roughly 2,000 years, and no amount of holiday screeds about Mary being raped or the Bible being mistranslated can refute this. In fact, the collection of manuscripts of Scripture that we have today makes it very clear there is no mistranslation in the accounts of the birth of Jesus.

F. F. Bruce, one of the most respected scholars on the subject of biblical accuracy, notes that there are only around nine or 10 manuscripts of Julius Caesar’s “Gallic Wars,” which was composed between 58 and 50 BC. The oldest manuscript we have originates from 900 years later. Bruce writes that, “The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) is known to us from eight (manuscripts), the earliest belonging to c. AD 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 488-428 BC). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest (manuscripts) of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals.”

Of Scripture, we have so much more. In fact, we can reproduce almost all of the New Testament from the writings of the early church fathers. Within 100 years of Christ’s death, we have almost all of the gospels and a good bit of Paul quoted. As Dr. Michael Brown has noted, there are over 20,000 handwritten manuscripts — written in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic and other ancient languages — currently known, and archeologists keep finding new copies. In fact, the Bible is perhaps the best-preserved ancient book, having more manuscripts originating from within 200 years of the primary sources than any other work in the Greco-Roman world. There are 5,700 New Testament Greek manuscripts known to exist, some written no more than 100 years after Christ’s resurrection.

We do not, to our knowledge, have the original autographs, i.e., the actual letters Paul wrote. But there is plenty of mainstream scholarship and wide acceptance that the originals were authored within 50 years of Christ’s death. Many of the eyewitnesses would have still been alive. Paul even notes that there were eyewitnesses still living who could confirm the accounts of Christ’s life.

While we do not have the original autographs, we have the copies early Christians wrote, duplicating those letters. The most amazing part of having so many copies that span hundreds of years is that they are remarkably free of errors. We know the accuracy of the Old Testament, going back more thousands of years, is beyond question. From the New Testament, there are errors in some of the manuscripts, but we have so many manuscripts we can find the consensus of what is correct, and, more importantly, none of the errors affect anything substantive.

As Bart Ehrman, a nonbelieving Biblical scholar has noted, “Essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.” And one of those essential beliefs is this: “Unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

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