‘What Child is This?’ is a favourite Christmas hymn. It is based on the poem The Manger Throne by William C. Dix and sung to the tune of Greensleeves.[1] The combination of religious lyrics and a 16th Century folk tune result in a powerful song evoking a sense of expectancy and awe over the scene of a baby born in a stable in the Middle East almost two millennia ago.

The wonder, the questioning that must have dwelt in the hearts of those who were part of and involved in the birth story of Jesus is expressed well in the words of this song. This was an extraordinary event at the end of a line of extraordinary events that involved angelic visitations, a miraculous conception, prophecy, and a moving star from the east that guided three gift bearing visitors from far off lands.

What Child is This?

What Child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King!
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Why lies he in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear; for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The cross he borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

So, bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own him.
The King of kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone him.

Raise, raise the song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby;
Joy, joy, for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

These words are sung with meaning by Christians during the Advent season – a season of expectant waiting. It is during this time we look forward to celebrating the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We also look forward to His promised second coming – the time when He will return to put all things in order including ridding the world of evil and suffering once and for all.

However, why believe any of this?  Unlike the Resurrection of Jesus, an event with an overwhelming number of historical evidences,[2] the nativity is a miracle story that at first looks to have none. Or does it?

By looking closely at the material, we do have and using Abductive Reasoning[3] to get a better perspective of this story, we can deduce if it is merely a myth or if it could possibly be true.

First, let’s look at the possibilities found in the stories. These are that either the nativity story is true, including the miracles and belief that Jesus is the Son of God. Or the nativity story is a myth found in a book of myths and that Jesus had a fully human father and grew into a man who was crazy enough to believe he was the Son of God.

Second, we can compare the possibilities against the information we have: The nativity narratives found in two independent sources, Matthew 1 and Luke 2; the likelihood that both Mary and Joseph lied about Mary being a virgin pregnant with a child conceived by a miracle through the Holy Spirit; and the influence Jesus has had on the world.

As a religious book, the New Testament is revered by Christians as much as it is disdained by sceptics. Sceptics have tried to convince us that it is a book of myths. But, is this true?

The New Testament is comprised of letters and accounts created to communicate and preserve eyewitness testimonies of the events surrounding the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the experiences of and encouragement and guidance for the early Church. We see this as Luke reveals his purpose in writing at the beginning of his Gospel account:

1Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. 3It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honourable Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1: 1-4 HSCB)

What is fascinating about the New Testament is that, apart from maybe the apocalyptic language found in Revelation, none of the manuscripts are written using the conventions found in typical mythology.  The literary forms used contain parables, creeds and poetry, however, these are grounded in the reality of time, place and people familiar to their audience. In addition, the accounts were written within decades of the events described, for example, where authors encourage readers to verify what is written with the living eyewitnesses to the resurrection appearances of Jesus.[4]

Another proof of the reliability of the New Testament is the huge number of available manuscripts – over 5800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts, compared to, for example 600 for Homer’s Iliad[5] – that allow historians and scholars to examine and compare texts across the centuries. The result has been that most New Testament textual critics, including atheist and textural critic Bart Erhman, agree the accuracy of the New Testament we read today is around 99% of the original autographs.[6]

Next, we can observe Mary’s story. It is notable that Mary did not waiver in her convictions that this was a baby conceived through the Holy Spirit. She did not understand it, but it appears she knew it to be true and we see this in that she kept to her story. Mary did not claim (justifiably if it had been true) that some unknown man forced himself on her or even that she and Joseph had acted consensually outside of marriage. Surely, either of these two ideas would have been more plausible than the story that she was made pregnant by the Holy Spirit – a story less likely to be believed and which would result in a very precarious social position for her at that time. Despite the shame that went along with being pregnant with another man’s child, or simply being pregnant with no husband – Mary took the risk and kept to her story, insisting she was still a virgin and this child was conceived through the Holy Spirit.

And then we can look at Joseph who is described as a good man. He had the turmoil of finding out his betrothed was now pregnant by someone else.  But, something happened to him, that convinced him that this baby was special. He had an experience that meant his obedience to God overrode any feelings or fear he had. In Joseph’s culture men expected their betrothed to be virgins at the time of marriage. For Mary to turn up pregnant was a shameful thing for Joseph and going through with the marriage would adversely affect his standing in the community. It was a terrible predicament and yet again, the Scriptures say he was a good man who had already decided to send Mary away quietly and not publicly humiliate her to keep his own good name. BUT he then had an encounter with an Angel that was so convincing that he went ahead with the marriage knowing the negative effect this decision would have on his reputation for the rest of his life.

And now we turn our focus on who the baby grew into – Jesus, and who he claimed to be. In several places in the New Testament Jesus states that he is equal with God the Father (John 10: 25-33) or working with the Father (John 5: 17 & 18). Or simply when he stated that he was, I AM (John 8: 57 – 59). These claims so enraged the religious leaders at the time that they accused him of blasphemy and demanded he be put to death. These were Jewish men well-schooled in the nuances of the words Jesus spoke and the related prophecies contained in their Scriptures.[7] They understood Jesus was claiming to be God and had him crucified for it.  And that should have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. Jesus rose again and his followers were so affected by their experiences with him, their lives were radically changed to the point that they were willing to give their lives to spread his message of hope. Most importantly, unlike followers of mythological gods, Christianity continues to this day.

As we can see, the probability that this story is true is high. This child grew up to have such an impact on humanity that we can never call him normal. His influence for good has surpassed any other. As the popular quote from CS Lewis[8] suggests, we can call him a liar, or a lunatic, but his life does not bear that out, and yet we can’t call him a prophet or merely a great teacher – he did far more than any of those two things.  So we are left with one choice – we must call him Lord, God incarnate. A God so loving and broken-hearted over his creation and the awful mess we make of things when left to our own devices, that instead of stepping  god-like into history, He was born as one of us.

This, this is Christ the King!
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary!

[1] For more information on the hymn What Child is this? please see this Wikipedia page.

[2] For information on the evidences of the Resurrection I recommend the book  The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Garry Habermas and Michael Licona.

[3] Wallace, J Warner, Cold Case Christianity, 2013. Abductive Reasoning involves taking the most reasonable possibilities you have and comparing those to the information you have and logically working your way to the most likely explanation.

[4] Example of verses where eyewitnesses are mentioned: 2 Peter 1:16; Acts 1:21-22; Mark 5:16; Luke 1:2

[5] Page 56 of Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life Changing Truth for a Sceptical World by Sean & Josh McDowell, has a table listing the number of surviving manuscripts of major classical works the majority of scholars believe are authentic to the original autographs of the works.

[6] Please see Dr William Lane Craig’s critique of Bart Ehrman’s approach in this video.

[7] McDowells, Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Life Changing Truth for a Sceptical World. Pages 175-179 list examples of Jesus claiming equality with God, and where he received worship as God – also see Matt 14:33, John 9:38, Matthew 28:9.

[8] “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. . . . Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.” (C S Lewis – Mere Christianity, 55-56)