The Historicity of Gospel Accounts of the Nativity by Catholics United for the Faith
Issue: What does the Church teach about the historical nature of the Gospel accounts of the Nativity?
Response: The Church unambiguously affirms the historical nature of the four Gospels, including the first two chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel and the first two chapters of St. Luke’s Gospel, which discuss the Incarnation, Nativity, and childhood of Jesus Christ.
Discussion: As Christmas approaches each year, articles about the Nativity appear with greater frequency in newspapers and magazines. These articles, on the one hand, are welcome signs that our secularized culture continues to take an interest in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, such articles tend to quote scholars who deny the historicity of the Gospel (while ignoring scholarship of two millennia that has upheld its historicity). This air of scholarly authority sows doubt in the minds of some believers and makes it more difficult for nonbelievers to come to faith in Our Lord and in the Church.
This FAITH FACT reviews Catholic teaching on the historicity of what English-speaking biblical scholars generally call the "infancy narratives" (Mt. 1:1-2:23 and Lk. 1:1-2:52). It then examines popular objections to the infancy narratives’ historical nature.
Catholic Teaching and the Infancy Narratives
Catholic teaching on Sacred Scripture is summarized succinctly and authoritatively in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 101-41). The teaching of the Catechism is the culmination of a century-long magisterial journey from that has five important reference points:
• Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus (Encyclical on the Study of Holy Scripture; November 18, 1893) • Pope Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus(Encyclical on St. Jerome; September 15, 1920) • Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu (Encyclical on Promoting Biblical Studies; September 30, 1943) • Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation; November 18, 1965) • Catechism of the Catholic Church (first edition, October 11, 1992; second edition, August 15, 1997)
Drawing upon Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, these five documents are the indispensable texts for understanding Catholic teaching on Sacred Scripture.
Popular objections to the infancy narratives’ historical nature spring from the rationalism criticized by Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus.
These rationalists, he observes, deny that there is any such thing as revelation or inspiration, or Holy Scripture at all; they see, instead, only the forgeries and the falsehoods of men; they set down the Scripture narratives as stupid fables and lying stories: the prophecies and the oracles of God are to them either predictions made up after the event or forecasts formed by the light of nature; the miracles and the wonders of God’s power are not what they are said to be, but the startling effects of natural law, or else mere tricks and myths; and the Apostolic Gospels and writings are not the work of the Apostles at all. These detestable errors, whereby they think they destroy the truth of the divine Books, are obtruded on the world as the peremptory pronouncements of a certain newly-invented "free science"; a science, however, which is so far from final that they are perpetually modifying and supplementing it. (PD, no. 10)
To help counter such errors, Pope Leo set forth important principles of biblical interpretation, some of which can help Catholics respond to contemporary criticism of the infancy narratives’ historicity:
• in matters of faith and morals, the true sense of Sacred Scripture cannot contradict the unanimous agreement of the Fathers (PD, no. 14) • "all interpretation is foolish and false which either makes the sacred writers disagree one with another, or is opposed to the doctrine of the Church" (PD, no. 14) • do not "depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires" (PD, no. 15) • "it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred ... all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true" (PD, no. 20)
It follows from Pope Leo’s teaching that the proper interpretation of the infancy narratives cannot contradict dogmatic Catholic teaching on the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God; nor can it contradict dogmatic teaching on the Blessed Virgin Mary’s divine maternity and perpetual virginity. Proper biblical interpretation cannot oppose the Church’s doctrine on the existence of angels; it cannot assert that St. Matthew’s account of the Nativity contradicts St. Luke’s account. An authentically Catholic reading of the infancy narratives cannot depart from the literal and obvious sense of these passages and cannot hold that they contain errors. Thus, assertions that the Magi never traveled to Bethlehem and that the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (in St. Matthew’s Gospel) and the census (in St. Luke’s) never occurred are not simply offensive to the sense of the faithful; they are "absolutely wrong and forbidden" as contrary to Catholic teaching.
In Spiritus Paraclitus, Pope Benedict XV showed that the teaching of Pope Leo is a modern restatement of the teaching of the Fathers and affirmed St. Jerome’s statement that "belief in the biblical narrative is as necessary to salvation as is belief in the doctrines of the faith" (SP, no. 24). Urging all to uphold the principles taught by Pope Leo, Pope Benedict took particular care to defend "the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels" (SP, no. 27). Quoting Sts. Jerome and Augustine, Pope Benedict taught that "none can doubt but that what is written took place" and that "these things are true; they are faithfully and truthfully written of Christ; so that whosoever believes His Gospel may be thereby instructed in the truth and misled by no lie" (SP, no. 27).
In Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII again upheld Pope Leo’s teaching and discussed its roots in the teaching of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council.3 He also exhorted interpreters of Scripture to "endeavor to determine the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writer, the age in which he lived, the sources written or oral to which he had recourse and the forms of expression he employed. Thus can he the better understand who was the inspired author, and what he wishes to express by his writings. There is no one indeed but knows that the supreme rule of interpretation is to discover and define what the writer intended to express" (DAS, nos. 33-34). Pope Pius also urged exegetes to consider "to what extent the manner of expression or the literary mode adopted by the sacred writer may lead to a correct and genuine interpretation" (DAS, no. 38).
It is entirely appropriate, then, for scholars to examine these matters. An honest examination, it seems, can only affirm the historicity of the infancy narratives. The foundation of St. Matthew’s account is a genealogy of historic personages who are clearly not fictional literary characters (Mt. 1:1-18). St. Luke’s literary mode is explicitly historical, for he relies upon "those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word," so that Theophilus, for whom the Gospel is written, "may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed" (Lk. 1:2-4).
After upholding Pope Leo’s teaching on the inspiration of Sacred Scripture (DV, no. 11; see especially footnote 5), the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught in Dei Verbum that
To deny the historical character of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Nativity, then, is to spurn the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church authoritatively summarizes the teaching of these four documents and breaks some new ground by highlighting the relation between the literal sense and the three spiritual senses of Scripture (the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical). TheCatechism also places particular emphasis upon three criteria for interpreting Scripture found in Dei Verbum:
• be especially attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture • read the Scripture within the living Tradition of the whole Church • be attentive to the analogy of faith: the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation (Catechism, nos. 111-14)
Because the Church’s living Tradition is handed on in her worship (Catechism, no. 78), these criteria lead one to be particularly attentive to the liturgical pairing of certain Old Testament texts with selections of the infancy narratives. Thus, the pairing of Isaiah 60:1-6 (which mentions gold and frankincense brought by "a multitude of camels") with Matthew 2:1-12 (which mentions gold, frankincense, and myrrh) at Mass on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord suggests that the presence of camels with the Magi in many Nativity scenes is not without foundation, as some critics charge.
Answering Common Objections
Critics of the Gospels’ historicity frequently claim that St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s accounts of the Nativity are irreconcilable. One newsmagazine article, for example, asserts that "Matthew and Luke diverge in conspicuous ways on details of the event. In Matthew’s Nativity, the angelic Annunciation is made to Joseph while Luke’s is to Mary. Matthew’s offers wise men and a star and puts the baby Jesus in a house; Luke’s prefers shepherds and a manger. Both place the birth in
As discussed above, the assertion that two evangelists can contradict each other is incompatible with Catholic teaching. Common sense can easily reconcile the two accounts. St. Gabriel’s annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Lk. 1:26-38) and the unnamed angel’s appearance to
Other critics assert that because St. Matthew and St. Luke did not discuss exactly the same events, the events each relates could not have been true.Some, for example, claim that the Annunciation to Our Lady, the census, and the massacre of the Holy Innocents were so important that if they were historically true, both evangelists would have included them. This objection, of course, fails to take into account that God inspired one evangelist to write about certain events and another to write about others: that He "so moved and impelled them to write-He was so present to them-that the things which He ordered, and those only, they, first, rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth" (PD, no. 20). This objection also fails to consider that St. Luke may have been aware of what St. Matthew had written and, under divine inspiration, have chosen not to write about exactly the same events.
Similarly, some critics assert that because there is no contemporary secular evidence that corroborates some events discussed in the infancy narratives-for example, the census, the visit of the Magi, the star seen by the Magi, and the massacre of the Holy Innocents-these events are not historical. This standard of proof for the historicity of an event is unrea- sonable. If, two thousand years from now, there is no historical record of the existence of Watergate apart from the existence of the chronicle All the President’s Men,that lack of corroborating evidence would not be proof that Watergate never took place. In addition, these objections ignore the extant nonbiblical evidence from Josephus and Herodotus, among others, that Herod was cruel, that Magi did exist, and that a triple planetary conjunction did appear at that time.
Many critics of the historicity of the infancy narratives also believe (without quite stating this objection so boldly) that the evangelists lied about the facts in order to win over first-century readers. Some critics assert that St. Matthew invented the person of
Perhaps most insidiously, some critics claim that the idea of the virgin birth was unknown to Christians until five decades after the death of Christ; an "invention" so late could not be true. The most important "evidence" for this claim is that the apostolic preaching, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St. Paul, emphasized Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, not His birth.
One might reply to these critics that because the Redemption of the human race was the center of Christ’s earthly life-He was born in order to "save His people from their sins" (Mt. 1:21)-the apostles, in their preaching, would naturally emphasize the Redemption, not Christ’s birth and childhood. In addition, in asserting that the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke could not have been written by St. Matthew and St. Luke but were instead written much later by others, these critics set aside not only the teaching of the Church that the Gospels were written in apostolic times (see PD, no. 10 above) but also ignore the testimony of numerous ancient authors to the contrary. 
"Always be prepared to make a defense"
Catholics should not allow their faith to be shaken by Christmastime articles that question the historicity of the Gospels. A knowledge of Sacred Scripture and Catholic teaching, an acquaintance with the writings of sound Catholic authors on the Nativity, and a healthy skepticism towards the claims made in these articles should prepare us "to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet. 3:15).
First, we should make time to read the Gospels prayerfully or hear the Gospel proclaimed at Mass every day. A knowledge of the Gospels allows one to sense almost immediately the falsehood of some assertions of critics of the infancy narratives’ historicity: for example, the assertion that St. Matthew’s Gospel presents Joseph and Mary as permanent residents of
Second, we should acquaint ourselves with Catholic teaching on Sacred Scripture, which is presented authoritatively in the five texts cited in the first portion of this FAITH FACT. A knowledge of these documents allows one to read Sacred Scripture with the faith of the Church and to realize how perennial and ideological-and unscientific- many of these objections are.
Third, by reading lives of Christ and commentaries on the Gospels from patristic times to our own day, we can not only better know and love Our Lord, but also see that there is no contradiction between the four evangelists. Three resources for further study are the patristic and medieval authors mentioned in Providentissimus Deus, the lives of Christ and commentaries listed in the late Fr. John Hardon’s Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan (available from www.lifeeternal.org), and the resources at the Web site of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (see endnote 1).
Fourth, while approaching the Gospels with the Church’s faith, we should approach the writings of critics of the historicity of the Gospels with a healthy skepticism. When critics insinuate that the evangelists lied about the facts for the sake of a theological agenda, we might ask a common sense question in return: "Why would men at constant risk of martyrdom lie about Christ’s origins in order to convince others of the truth of His teaching?"
1 These five texts, together with other magisterial documents, pastoral statements, and documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, are available online at http://www.salvationhistory.com/library/ Scripture/ChurchAndBible/index.cfm.
2 Pope Leo lays down this principle in the context of the historicity of Scripture: "The principles here laid down will apply [to] cognate sciences, and especially to History" (SP, no. 20).
3 Pope Pius XII upheld Catholic teaching on biblical inerrancy with a particularly memorable comparison: "as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, ‘except sin’ (Heb. 4:15), so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error" (DAS, no. 37).
4 David van Biema et al., "Behind the First Noel," TIME Magazine (December 13, 2004).
5 "Gospel of St. Matthew," Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Co., 1911), available online at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10057a.htm; "Gospel of Saint Luke," Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Co., 1910), available online at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09420a.htm.
Date created: 6/9/2006