I watched Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings one rainy evening. Walking home afterwards, I introduced my American best friend to mizzling: a fabulously British word for rain between mist and drizzle. (Just as the Inuit need many words for snow, we Brits need many words for rain.) But even if it had been raining cats and pit bull terrier dogs, the trip to the cinema (British for movie theater) would have been worth it, because Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings slaps!
Like many superhero films, we see where Shang-Chi came from. Born to a woman from a magical land replete with made-up animals and a man with ten bracelets that give him supernatural strength and never-ending life, Shang-Chi was raised to fight. But his mother died when he was a kid. Aged 15, Shang-Chi fled from his father and started life as Shaun: an ordinary guy, now working as a valet parker. His best friend, Katy, doesn’t know who Shang-Chi is. She just knows Shaun. But one day, when they’re on a bus to work, a group of thugs encircle her best friend. Speaking in Chinese, they demand his cool green necklace. “You have the wrong guy!” Katy objects: “Does he look like he can fight?” But much to her surprise, he can. And when she sees the first thug flying through the air, her jaw drops and she’s left wondering who on earth her best friend is.
Mark’s Gospel, the first to be written down, pulls us into Jesus’ life without a backstory. It gives us John the Baptist as the warm-up act for Jesus but doesn’t tell us anything about a virgin birth or angels or a baby in a manger. We soon see Jesus’s supernatural power in Mark. We watch as all the jaws of his disciples drop in awe at Jesus’s ability to tell even the wind what it should do. But we don’t hear anything about the Christmas story. Is this suspicious? Was the virgin birth, as some have claimed, made up later by eager Christians, wanting to give Jesus a superhero backstory? No.
There is no doubt from Mark’s account that Jesus is the Son of God. In fact, eleven verses in, a voice from heaven says to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son” (Mark 1:11). And even before that, Jesus is given the part of Israel’s covenant God, when John the Baptist is identified as a messenger preparing the way for the Lord himself (Mark 1:2-3). But Mark doesn’t give us any of the stories we associate with Christmas.
Like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, however, Luke and Matthew give their hero’s backstory up front. Luke tells it from Mary’s perspective, while Matthew gives us Joseph’s take. Both claim that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit of God himself. Luke tells us about the manger and the shepherds, Matthew about the wise men. Neither of them claims that snow was falling, that cattle were lowing, or that a little drummer boy was playing (pa-rum-pum-pum-pum). Fragments of mythology like these have grown up round the tale of Jesus’s birth—not least its taking place in the bleak midwinter. But should we be skeptical of what Luke and Matthew tell us? I don’t think so.
Some find it easy to believe in God, but crediting a virgin with giving birth feels like a supernatural bridge too far. But if there is a God who made the universe and every human in it, it’s actually illogical to think he couldn’t make one human being in a supernatural way. It would be like saying to Simone Biles, “I know you’re the greatest gymnast of all time, but I bet you can’t do a somersault.”
Far from being mythological accounts of events that took place long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, Matthew and Luke were written well within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’s life. To be sure, Mary herself would likely not still have been alive to be consulted. But many who knew Mary and her story would have been.
What about the apparent historical inaccuracy of Luke’s account? Both Luke and Matthew claim that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod. But Luke claims that the census which took Joseph and Mary back to Bethlehem was “the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). Based on the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, many historians date the census under Quirinius to AD 6, roughly ten years after the death of King Herod. Does this prove that Luke made up Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, so that it would align with Old Testament prophecy? No. If Luke was making things up, he could have given a much less extravagant reason for the trip to Bethlehem than a census—like Joseph’s favorite uncle Reuben inviting them to stay.
So, what do we make of the discrepancy between Luke’s claim and Josephus’s? Rather than dismissing Luke, we need to recognize that—from a purely historical point of view—the Gospels are extremely impressive documents. As Cambridge scholar Peter Williams argues in his helpful book Can We Trust the Gospels?, the Gospel authors really knew their stuff when it came to precise geography and culture in which Jesus lived and moved, and the manuscript evidence we have for the four Gospels in our New Testaments is outstanding, both in terms of the number of surviving manuscripts and in terms of how old they are. So we shouldn’t assume that, in the small handful of places where their evidence about history conflicts with another ancient source, those other sources are necessarily correct.
Read through the Gospel accounts, and you will absolutely be confronted with a superhero. In Matthew and Luke, you’ll even get a superhero backstory. You’ll read of greater contrasts than a valet parker being the son of the most powerful man on earth—you’ll read of a baby laid in a manger being the eternal Son of God. But while the Christmas story is Marvel-like in the sense that it explains Jesus’s supernatural powers by showing us his supernatural origins, it’s not fictional. It satisfies the hunger that we have for someone with unbelievable power to save the world. But unlike Shang-Chi’s story, it’s not unbelievable.
This year—after a long exile thanks to everyone’s favorite global pandemic—I’ll get to spend Christmas in England again. On Christmas Day, it’s much more likely to mizzle than to snow. But that’s okay. Celebrating Jesus’s birth has nothing to do with snow or Christmas trees or mythical men coming down through chimneys, but everything to do with a real man who came down to earth for us. Let’s not lose sight of him amid the Christmas foliage.