Podcast: Distinguishing Christmas Tradition from Truth (Andreas Köstenberger)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Fact or Fiction?

In this episode, Andreas Köstenberger, author of The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation, explores how to distinguish fact from fiction when it comes to the Christmas story. He shares his thoughts on the real date of Jesus's birth, talks about what was really going on with the wise men and the star, and digs into some of the key Old Testament prophecies and allusions related to the coming of Israel's Messiah, and how Jesus fulfilled every one of them.

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The First Days of Jesus

The First Days of Jesus

Andreas J. Köstenberger, Alexander E. Stewart

This book takes readers step by step through the miraculous events surrounding Christ's birth. With an accompanying Advent devotional plan, this will help you celebrate Christmas with a joy rooted in Scripture rather than culture.

If you like what you hear, consider leaving us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, etc. Positive ratings help us spread the word about the show!


Full Transcript

01:23 - Welcome

Matt Tully
Andreas, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast.

Andreas Kostenberger
You’re welcome. Thanks so much for having me.

01:30 - When was Jesus born?

Matt Tully
Christmas is just a couple days away and I think many Christians often wonder whether or not Jesus was really born on December 25. What would you say to that?

Andreas Kostenberger
The honest truth is that we are not able to determine with 100% certainty the exact date on which Jesus was born. It’s probably sometime in the fall or winter. There was another festival celebrated on December 25—the Roman Saturnalia—and so some people believe that Christmas then became the Christian replacement, if you will, or the more appropriate answer to that pagan festival.

Matt Tully
Is there any chance there would have been snow on the ground when Jesus was born or would that not have been possible?

Andreas Kostenberger
That’s a great question, Matt. Perhaps there was snow on the distant mountains on the horizon. Otherwise, as far as we know, considering the climate in and around Bethlehem at the time, there likely was not snow on the ground.

02:46 - Tradition versus Scripture

Matt Tully
So that opens up to a broader issue. When it comes to Christmas, sometimes it can be hard for us to distinguish tradition—for instance, traditional ideas about Jesus’s birth—from what the Bible actually tells us about his birth. Are there any other examples of things that we’ve picked up from tradition that aren’t necessarily the way it really was from Scripture?

Andreas Kostenberger
Yes. What sometimes has happened, as you alluded to, tradition and what the Bible explicitly says were the events surrounding the birth of Christ are not always perfectly aligned. For instance, the way in which other stories—such as Santa Claus, or Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, or Jack Frost, and so forth—have become part of the hodgepodge of stories attached to the Christmas season. I think that would be the first thing we’d need to be careful to disentangle so we can focus on the birth of the Christ child, the Incarnate Word.

03:52 - Assumptions versus Truth

Matt Tully
Are there any other details related to Jesus’s birth that a lot of Christians would assume are facts based on Christmas carols or the way we tend to tell the story that aren’t necessarily supported in Scripture?

Andreas Kostenberger
Certainly. For instance, animals are not explicitly mentioned. Also the idea of wise men being right there at the manger is something that’s not really supported by a close reading of the text, because in Scripture it appears that when the wise men actually arrive, Jesus is no longer called an infant, he’s called a child. And at that time Mary and Joseph and Jesus live in a house, no longer in a room in the back of a stable, if you will. So those are just some of the misconceptions. Of course, we don’t know how many wise men came. They were probably not the three kings from the Orient, but astrologers and wise men probably in Persia or Babylon. So there are any number of corrections, perhaps, or cautions when we read the birth narratives in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.

05:18 - The Wise Men

Matt Tully
What do we know about the wise men? I think, for myself at least, that part of the story has always been a little bit odd. How did these men find out about Jesus’s birth? What were they thinking they were coming to see? What do we know about their motives in coming and who they were?

Andreas Kostenberger
Well, we perhaps don’t know as much as we would like to know. Of course, the story of the wise men is recounted in Matthew 2, not even in any of the other Gospels. And I think what’s really interesting is that this story is part of Matthew’s story of Jesus coming, of his birth, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection. And this is the first hint in the Gospel that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. But his coming had relevance for all people, including non-Jewish people like those wise men. And so there’s really a neat inclusion between the wise men on the front end of Matthew’s story and then the Great Commission at the end. The famous Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus commissions his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” And so Matthew, very early in the story, tells us that there are several men—certainly of stature in their own culture—who make that long journey to Bethlehem because their research indicated that a king was born. And one thing in my study of the close reading of an account that I was intrigued by is that there seemed to be certain echoes of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon in Old Testament times in the glory days of Solomon’s kingdom. And so there seemed to be a bit of an echo here of someone making that long pilgrimage to the Holy Land from far away because of something momentous having occurred in Israel.

07:40 - Retro-fitting Jesus into Prophecy

Matt Tully
How would you respond to the more liberal non-Christian scholars who would say, These aren’t prophecies that are being fulfilled. These are early followers of Jesus trying to go back and add details to this story that might not be historically accurate, but make all these connections to the Old Testament as a way of retroactively fitting him into this Messiah mold?

Andreas Kostenberger
First of all, the Old Testament that we have clearly and verifiably predates the Christian era. For instance, in the famous Dead Sea Scrolls and the manuscripts found at Qumran near the Dead Sea, we actually have copies of the book of Isaiah. In particular, we have the famous Isaiah Scroll that is displayed in Jerusalem in a museum there. This scroll dates from about 150 years before Christ. In other words, we know that the book of Isaiah authentically predicts, in chapter 53 for instance, the suffering servant, and it gives quite a bit of detail about the tomb that Jesus would be buried in and the way that he would suffer for the sins of the people.

I think the other thing would be that Matthew in particular has this long series of fulfillment quotations, and the other gospels do the same. And so the sheer number of demonstrable components of fulfillment in every detail of Jesus’s life is striking. It’s almost as if Matthew writes his gospel to counteract what you described as a more liberal charge that Christians just retroactively made all the details fit. It’s almost like Matthew wrote his gospel to counter that by showing that this is not just a handful of predictions that were fulfilled, but many dozen fulfillments all converged especially at the birth and then later at the crucifixion.

10:02 - Herod and the Death of Innocents

Matt Tully
You mentioned Herod and the murder of the innocents, as it’s often referred to, as this really horrific story of him ordering the execution of all male children under the age of two. Do we have any other extrabiblical historical evidence of that massacre? It seems like something that would be reported elsewhere, simply because of the scale of how horrific it must have been. What do we know about that?

Andreas Kostenberger
Well, I don’t think we have any extrabiblical information about this. And I think there are a couple things that would be important here. One important factor is that Herod had a long history of violence and brutality. So for him this would have been very much in character. He was ruthless in killing off any potential rivals to his throne. As a matter of fact, there was a saying in his day that it was better to be a pig than to be his son. And there’s a wordplay there in the original language because the words for pig and son sound similar, but the difference being that as his pig you might have a chance of being allowed to live at least for a little while. But he was so brutal that he would even kill his own sons. And he did kill several of his sons when he became suspicious that they would have designs on his throne. So clearly this would have been just the kind of thing that you would have expected him to do to eradicate any potential threat to his throne because he didn’t understand the spiritual nature of Jesus’s kingdom the way Jesus later told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” He thought of the King of the Jews as an earthly king that would seek to replace him. Herod was an Edomite, which was a mixed race, and so he already had a bit of a chip on his shoulder because he was a bit of a hybrid, if you will, that neither the Romans nor the Jews fully respected and recognized.

The other thing that I might add is that Bethlehem was a small village in that day, so there would have been a limited number of male children two years or under that would have been slaughtered. Of course, not to take anything away from the atrocity of the killing, but scholars have speculated there might have been a dozen or perhaps two dozen babies that would have been slaughtered. So even there the scale of the killing would have been such that given that it was Herod who perpetrated it—who is known for his for his atrocities—it might not have made the headlines of the national news in that day.

13:03 - Jesus’s Time in Egypt

Matt Tully
What do we know about the time that Jesus and his family spent in Egypt? Not just from an events timeline perspective, but there seems to be a lot of theological and spiritual significance to Jesus being in Egypt for a time. Can you elaborate on that?

Andreas Kostenberger
Yeah, it’s fascinating. It’s significant because, of course, Israel was in bondage in Egypt in Old Testament times. And the famous exodus—God leading his people through Moses, Moses going to Pharaoh saying, Let my people go!—and then eventually the Passover was celebrated the night before the exodus. So it’s hard to overstate the importance of the exodus as part of Israel’s own national history. Hosea, writing about this, made the statement, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Of course son in Hosea’s day was initially the nation of Israel that was collectively referred to as God’s son. But Matthew sees in that same statement also a prophecy that in addition to referring back to Israel also refers forward to the coming Messiah who was God’s Son par excellence, the Son of God. Matthew then sees in the fact that Jesus’s parents took him briefly down to Egypt to escape from Herod a fulfillment of Moses’s prophecy.

14:45 - Misconceptions about Prophecies

Matt Tully
It’s so fascinating to see all of those connections and I think that’s one of the angles of prophecy that is often misunderstood and can be a little bit confusing. What would you say in your experience are some of the misconceptions that Christians often have about the nature of prophecies related to Jesus that we might find in the Old Testament?

Andreas Kostenberger
One misconception would be that there’s only one way that prophecy could be fulfilled by way of direct prediction and then fulfillment. And that is one of the major ways prophecy is fulfilled. For example, when Micah predicts that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the City of David, Jesus was demonstrably born in Bethlehem. So there you could say, Micah predicted it and it was fulfilled in that Jesus really was born in Bethlehem. In other words, if Jesus had been born anywhere else then that prophecy would have been falsified and not been fulfilled. So that’s very important. But in addition to that, there are many other ways Old Testament prophecy worked. Another one would be that of typology. And I just alluded to that in Hosea. So there would be certain patterns, or broader ideas, that prophets talked about such as that God redeemed his people from bondage. Then in a maybe escalated or even a more spiritual sense God, in Jesus, came to redeem his people—all of us—from our bondage not to Egypt but to sin when he died for us on the cross. And so in my teaching I love to explain the idea of typology and how it works. There is a type in the Old Testament—an original pattern or matrix of events—that is standing fulfilled in an escalated or even deeper sense in and through Jesus.

17:00 - The Star

Matt Tully
So what was going on with the star? I think that’s a detail in this story that has often puzzled or fascinated Christians as we think about whether there were miraculous things going on there? Or is that some kind of natural astronomical phenomenon?

Andreas Kostenberger
We have less than absolute certainty. There’s a certain mystery here. Of course, the Messiah is called a star in the Old Testament. And so certainly there’s a metaphorical dimension. But in addition to that there clearly seems to have been some astronomical phenomenon going on in Jesus’s day that resonates with the fact that wise men—or in the original language Magos, from which we get the term "magician" (but I think it was not so much a matter of magic in the ancient world as more the idea of people who explored the deeper mysteries of the universe, including the constellation of the stars)—went to see Jesus. This is part of their identity and so God apparently used some astronomical phenomenon to guide them to the Holy Land.

18:22 - The Virgin Birth

Matt Tully
Another question that I think Christians might often have relates to the fact that Jesus was born of a virgin. And I think we all have a sense of the importance of the doctrine. It’s a pretty central doctrine of the Christian faith, one that has been central since the very beginning. And yet sometimes there’s a little bit of confusion or a lack of certainty on why it’s so important that Jesus was born of a virgin. Not even simply that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but it is important that he was born of a virgin first and foremost. What would you say to that?

Andreas Kostenberger
Yes, I think this is absolutely essential for the Christian faith to understand that in order for Jesus to die for our sins on the cross he had to be not only fully God and fully man, but that he had to be born sinless without going, on his father’s side, through the damaged line. Because ever since the fall—as David says, In sin my mother conceived me—and so the idea that Jesus’s human nature was not tainted by sin is vital.

Paul talks about this in the book of Romans as well, namely the importance that Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh, but he himself was not a sinner in his human nature. And this enabled him to die not for his own sin—as he would have had to if he was a sinner himself—but he was able to give his sinless life for our sins. It’s a great opportunity at Christmas to articulate the nature of our salvation and how it is that the incarnation is absolutely essential for our salvation.

20:25 - Hypostatic Union

Matt Tully
A term that’s often used related to the incarnation and Jesus’s birth that might sound a little intimidating—maybe some Christians might not be super familiar with—is the hypostatic union. Can you break that down for listeners? How would you explain what it means and why it’s an important doctrine to hold?

Andreas Kostenberger
There are some very important theological doctrines that were formulated in the centuries following the birth of Christ. Of course, that’s not a term you would find in Matthew’s or Luke’s birth narratives themselves, but it is a very reasonable way of putting all the data together about who Jesus was. The idea is that, as John tells us in his Gospel, Jesus was the the pre-existent Word who eternally existed with God from all eternity, even prior to creation. And it is that Word that became flesh in Jesus. We see here the idea that Jesus was one person with two natures—a divine and human nature—and so he is both fully God and fully man. Think of the Gospel of John, for example: on the one hand there are very strong repeated claims being made that Jesus was God, such as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And then repeatedly the Jewish authorities pick up stones to stone Jesus. They understand that he claimed to be God. And yet at the same time you see Jesus’s humanity on full display in the Gospel of John. Jesus is tired. He sits down at the well. He’s thirsty. And so we see that Jesus combined both deity and humanity in himself. He is the only unique person for whom that could ever be said. Even God the Father did not come to earth and take on flesh, nor did the Holy Spirit. Even within the Trinity, Jesus’s nature and mission is unique in that regard.

22:57 - Jesus’s Human Nature

Matt Tully
Sometimes when we think about Jesus’s human nature, we can think of it as if he was play acting. He was doing those things perhaps for our benefit, but not really because he needed to, because God doesn’t need to sleep and God doesn’t need to eat and drink water. And even when it comes to his death it can be hard for us to imagine how that happened and not have been just sort of an act that Jesus was doing. So explain why it is important that it wasn’t just an act.

Andreas Kostenberger
Here we’re getting into fairly deep waters theologically. It might be hard for our finite minds to understand how Jesus could genuinely thirst or hunger and yet be God who of course is spirit and never tires and so forth. But Scripture indicates that it was possible for Jesus to be genuinely tempted, for example, and yet not succumb to temptation; or Hebrews 2 talks about this. Or you have other other places in Scripture that affirm that Jesus was tempted and yet never sinned, or that Jesus humbled himself or emptied himself, as Paul writes in Philippians 2. I take that to mean that he chose not to exercise his divine rights and prerogatives while on earth. So Jesus had a divine supernatural insight and knowledge but he could choose not to exercise that knowledge. For example, he said that no one knows the time when he comes. Only the Father knows; not even the Son. Well, on a divine level of course he knew, but he could choose not to exercise those divine rights and prerogatives. I think that’s what Paul means in Philippians 2 when he talks about Jesus emptying himself.

25:23 - Favorite Christmas Carol

Matt Tully
What’s one of your favorite Christmas carols? And what’s one of your least favorite Christmas carols?

Andreas Kostenberger
For me, it’s an easy choice as far as the least favorite carol is concerned. That would have to be “The Little Drummer Boy.” I just can’t for the life of me see how that could possibly have any relationship to the birth story. Of course, I grew up in Austria, so to me I was introduced to some of those Christmas carols when I first came to this country in my twenties. I remember hearing that one and I was always just cringing when I heard the lyrics to that one.

Choosing my favorite is a bit of a tougher choice because I love so many of them. I think people in the United States sometimes don’t even realize how blessed they are that there are so many carols that are so deeply saturated with sound theology. So, whether it’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” or “Joy to the World,” or “Away in a Manger,” there’s so many wonderful carols. My favorite, partly because of the beautiful accompanying music, would be “O Holy Night.” It almost seems to have elements of opera, or somehow it’s more than a carol. It’s a beautiful hymn, if you will. So that would have to be my favorite.

27:11 - Closing

Matt Tully
Well, Andreas, thank you so much for spending some time talking with us today and for helping us better understand Jesus’s birth and what actually happened all those years ago. Thanks for taking the time.

Andreas Kostenberger
You’re very welcome.


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