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With the mention of Our Lady and her Divine Son, we now turn our attention to the very beginning of the New testament: the Incarnation and the Nativity. That the date of Our Lord’s Incarnation and Nativity – and consequently the chronology of his entire earthly life – is not yet firmly and precisely established by historians, was allowed for by John Paul II in his first encyclical letter, “Redemptor Hominis” (1979). The then Pope, looking forward with the Church to the Year 2000 AD as being the grand anniversary and the Jubilee of the Incarnation and Birth of Our Lord, made a point, however, of leaving it open for scholars to examine scientifically the chronological aspect of Our Lord’s life, so as to make “corrections” if necessary. Thus he wrote:
We are already approaching that date, which, without prejudice to all the corrections imposed by chronological exactitude, will recall and re-awaken in us in a special way our awareness of the key truth of Faith which Saint John expressed at the beginning of his Gospel: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
John Paul’s timing in making this challenge to scholars to find an exact chronology of Our Lord’s life seems to be quite providential. For now, with the authenticity of the Infancy Narratives of the Gospels coming under heavy fire from hostile biblical critics the world over, it has become an urgent imperative for scholars to settle once and for all the matter of the reliability of the Gospels, particularly on this question of the infancy years. Unless precise dates for those early years of Our Lord’s life can be established in a convincing fashion, doubt about the historicity of the scriptural record will continue to flow unchecked from the pens of liberal-minded exegetes.
It seems that the joyful season of Christmas attracts the most bitter attacks on the veracity of the scriptural record, especially the account of Our Lord’ Nativity and the events surrounding it. In the Christmas of 1987, for instance, Catholic and Protestant clergymen alike seized the opportunity to pour scorn on the Gospel narratives, and to insert their own corrections. Thus Fr. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, a then professor of the École Biblique in Jerusalem, on a stroll through Bethlehem, took the opportunity to question the historicity of the census recorded by St. Luke (2:1-2), and also to doubt aloud the reliability of the New Testament account that Christ was born in a stable at Bethlehem. In his opinion (as printed in Hobart’s The Mercury, 23/12/87, p. 16):
Luke has to reconcile two conflicting [sic] facts – Jesus was born in Bethlehem but the family was based in Nazareth.
A week later, in the same newspaper, the Rev. Thomas Maddock several times expressed his belief “that much of the Christmas story is highly suspect”, and he singled out as an example of this “the assertion that the shepherds sitting on the cold, frozen ground – in mid-winter – watching their sheep – in the impenetrable darkness – is really too much to believe …”.
But were these two clergymen being realistic; and just how closely have they read and understood the subtle texts of the Gospels on his subject?
In this article we shall attempt to answer the sorts of objections raised by critics such as these, by exploring the subtleties and deeper meanings of the Gospel accounts. It will be found that what St. Luke and the other Evangelists have recorded concerning the life of Jesus Christ is highly accurate right down to the tiniest detail. The Church has not erred by insisting that we believe in the historical truth and accuracy of the accounts of the four Evangelists. From the data with which they have equipped us, we can proceed to organise an extremely precise chronology for Our Lord’s life, from the Nativity unto his death on Calvary.
“He who conquers and who keeps my works until the end … I will give him the morning star” (Revelation 2:26 & 28).