Most of us grew up singing a cute little song at Christmas that began like this: "You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen, but do you recall, the most famous reindeer of all..."
That is clearly a secular song, rather than a religious one. But I do believe a religious version of it would not be too hard to come by. It might go something like this: "You know Mary and Joseph the shepherds and wise men, Herod the tyrant and Jesus who loved them, but you don't recall, quite a few others at all...
Now, the chorus would be a bit tricky. Imagine taking the tune of the chorus to Rudolph and trying to fit this list into it: Josephus, Tacticus, Pliny the Younger, Phlegon, Thallus, Seutonius, Lucian, Celsus, Mara Bar-Serapion, and the Jewish Talmud. What, you ask, could that list of odd sounding names have to do with Christ and Christmas? Quite a bit actually.
If the only information we had about Jesus was from the Bible itself, that would be more than enough for any reasonable mind to believe there was such a person as Jesus. The Bible is the most well attested document of ancient history, and was written early. Even many famous critics attest to this fact.
John A.T. Robinson dates all four gospels between A.D. 40 and 65. William F. Albright has all of the New Testament books dated prior to A.D. 80. Jesus was not some mythical figure made up many years later, he was written of by eyewitnesses.
There are some 15,000 ancient manuscripts containing all or part of the New Testament, some dating back as early as A.D. 50, others from the early 100s. In letters written between A.D. 95-100, early church fathers quote from 25 of the 27 books of the New Testament.
Furthermore, we can historically trace an unbroken chain of belief in the historicity of Jesus Christ from the time of the apostles till now through people with names like the Montanists, Donatists, Novations, Catholics, and many more. They had differences, and none were right on everything, but all knew that there was a figure named Jesus, one who came as a babe to Bethlehem, lived, died, and rose again.
But the list I gave above, Josephus, Tacticus, etc., is an important list for one vital reason: all 10 of them were non-Christian sources who wrote about the true, historical Jesus within 100-150 years of his life and death. To put that in perspective, it would be just like historians living between 1960-2010 writing about Abraham Lincoln. They are still close enough in time to be able to ferret out truth from error, and know that such a a person as Lincoln lived, was president, and much more.
Furthermore, many of those 10 names were not just non-Christian, they were actually vehemently opposed to Christ and Christianity. Someone who despised Christ can surely be regarded as being honest when writing of the fact the he did actually exist. In other words, without even meaning to, they became vitally important to the Christmas story. They help us to know that when we pick up Matthew and Luke, and read about what happened in Bethlehem, we are reading actual history.
With that in mind, then, allow me to have Luke himself (quite a historian in his own right) close out this column in his own words. Luke 2:1-14 "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David), To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Merry Christmas!
Bo Wagner is pastor of the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Mooresboro, N.C., a widely traveled evangelist, and author of several books, including a kid’s fiction book about the Battle of Chickamauga, “Broken Brotherhood.” He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.