As we begin the Christmas season our intention is to look at some of the passages in the Gospel according to Luke that describe the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. But this raises a serious question: how reliable are the gospel accounts historically? Some liberal scholars will make the assertion that the gospels “do not intend to provide historical information about their subject. Rather, they operate like myths and symbols to support Christian beliefs and practices” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 1743). But, as the Annotated Bible goes on to point out, “Second-century CE authors, on the other hand, both adherents of Christianity like Justin Martyr and opponents like Celsus, presumed that the evangelists intended to provide information” (Ibid., p. 1744). So the question is, are the gospels historically reliable? Did a miraculous virgin birth actually take place?
Luke tells us at the beginning of his gospel that “many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” and that this, in turn, was based on eye-witness testimony (“they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eye witnesses and servants of the word”). Luke then says that “after investigating everything carefully from the very first” he decided to “write an orderly account for you,” and that his purpose in doing so was “so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Lu. 1:1-4; NRSV). In other words, the author of the third gospel clearly states that his intention was to compile a historically accurate narrative of the life of Jesus. And this can only mean on of two things: either the third gospel is a complete fraud, or Luke really is telling us the truth about what the historical Jesus actually said and did. Which is it?
Under close examination the author is obviously an intelligent, educated person who is capable of writing polished Greek. We know from several narratives in the Book of Acts, which forms the sequel to this gospel, in which he switches to the first person plural pronouns (“we” did this and “we” did that – e.g., Acts 16:10 inter alia), that the author was a close associate of the apostle Paul. Early church tradition identified him as Luke, “the beloved physician” mentioned in Col. 4:14).
Furthermore, judging from the close parallels between Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is almost certain that Luke used at least the Gospel of Mark as one of his sources. By comparing the two gospels we can tell that Luke was very careful in his use of sources (as well as the fact that Luke thought that Mark had given us a reliable account of the life of the Christ).
I should also be noted that there are no less than four gospels in the New Testament, not to mention numerous references throughout the epistles to the death and resurrection of Christ. The apostle Paul could say, for instance, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried , and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures . . .” I Cor. 15:3,4). “. . .on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained” (Dt. 19:15b).
It should also be noted that, in narrating the events surrounding the birth of Christ, Luke, in no less than two different places, states that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Lu. 2:19,51), and he tells the story from Mary’s perspective. What this suggests is that Mary herself was the source of Luke’s information on these events, either directly or indirectly.
What it all comes down to, then, is that Christianity is based on historical fact, and that the basic facts surrounding the life and work of Jesus can be established as firmly as that of any figure in ancient history. Luke was writing real history, and has given us an accurate record of what Jesus said and did. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost” (I Tim. 1:15).