Most of us are familiar with the birth narratives of Jesus Christ. Every Christmas we are presented with the details - the baby in the manger, the wise men bearing gifts and the shepherds adoring the newborn King. Few people, however, have ever taken the time to scrutinize the New Testament on the subject of Jesus birth. We simply take it for granted that the story is recorded in all its detail somewhere in the inspired pages of the Holy Scriptures.
When we actually have a closer look at the story as recorded in the Bible, a number of surprising facts emerge. Firstly, we find that the birth of Jesus Christ is recorded in only two places in the New Testament - the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Epistles are almost completely silent about the events surrounding the birth of the Son of God. Secondly, when we compare the narratives of Matthew and Luke, it quickly becomes obvious that we are dealing with two different stories.
Two Different Stories
The following table summarizes the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, and attempts to assign them to historical events as recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus. The comments in square brackets () indicate the amount of time elapsed since the previous event, if known.
|Prior to 3 BCE||
|4 BCE||Herod dies, bequeaths kingdom to Archelaus (Ant. 17, 8:1)|
|6 CE||Archelaus banished to Vienna in the tenth year of his reign. Syria becomes a roman province. Cyrenius appointed to governorship of Syria. Caesar instructs him to conduct a census of Judaea (Ant. 17, 13:2-5; Ant 18, 1:1)||
Leaving aside the problem of dating for a moment, it is immediately evident that we are dealing with two distinctly different narratives here. The only incident that Matthew and Luke have in common is Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. Aside from that, all the characters and events involved in the two narratives are different.
Where was Jesus Born?
The gospellers were faced with a problem. Tradition held that Jesus was of the town of Nazareth in Galilee (John 1:45, John 7:41), while an Old Testament prophecy seemed to indicate that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judah (Micah 5:2). Matthew and Luke chose to resolve this conflict in different ways.
(In fact, it may not have been necessary to get the family to Bethlehem, because the Old Testament prophecy that Matthew quoted might not actually refer to the town of Bethlehem. Matthew's misquote of Micah 5:2 in 2:6 is revealing. The word 'Ephratah' was dropped from the verse, because this word indicates that the prophecy referred to a dynasty, not specifically a town. 'Ephratah' was, in fact, the name of an important family in Bethlehem (Ruth 1:2, I Samuel 17:12). Thus, the prophet Micah said simply that a ruler would come from the dynasty of Ephratah, not necessarily that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.)
Matthew begins his story in Bethlehem, with no explanation of how Mary and Joseph got there. If we read Matthew's account in isolation it would almost appear that Joseph and Mary were residents of Bethlehem. Note that the wise men visit Jesus in a house (Matthew 2:11), which implies a permanent dwelling. After the wise men visit, Joseph is forced to flee to Egypt with the infant Jesus to escape Herod's murderous intent (Matthew 2:14). After Herod's death, Joseph returns to Judaea. Upon finding that Herod's son, Archelaus, is king in his father's place, Joseph decides instead to relocate to Galilee, and settles in the town of Nazareth (Matthew 2:22-23).
Luke chooses a different course for his narrative. Beginning with Joseph and Mary in Nazareth, Luke uses the pretext of a census to get the family to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born (Luke 2:1-6). Emphasising the temporary nature of their stay, Jesus is born in a manger, because Mary and Joseph could not find place at an inn (Luke 2:7). Following the birth of Jesus, the family travel to Jerusalem to dedicate the infant at the temple (Luke 2:22). From Jerusalem, they return to their home in Nazareth (Luke 2:39). It should be obvious that Luke's account cannot be reconciled with Matthew. Luke has no gaps in his narrative which would allow for a flight to Egypt, and an extended stay in that country, as Matthew claimed.
Who visited Jesus, Joseph and Mary?
In addition to this fairly serious discrepancy, both narratives include details that the other omits. In Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph several times. In Luke, Joseph's angel is not mentioned, but heavenly visitors appear to Zechariah and Mary. Matthew has Jesus visited by the wise men from the East. These astrologers are nowhere mentioned by Luke; instead, he has shepherds visiting the newborn Christ.
When was Jesus born?
The discrepant nature of the two narratives becomes even more pronounced when we attempt to locate the year of Jesus' birth. It turns out that when we match up the two narratives with secular history, Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus at least ten years apart. Matthew has Jesus born when Herod was still king (Matthew 2:1). Matthew then goes on to record the death of Herod, and the beginning of the reign of his son, Archelaus (Matt 2:19, 2:22). This matches well with the sequence of events as recorded by secular historians.
The Jewish historian Josephus records that Herod died shortly after an eclipse. Most historians date this event to about 4 BCE (although other dates in the range 1 to 6 BCE have been suggested). Josephus goes on to say that Archelaus became ruler in his father's place, just as Matthew recorded. This, then allows us to place the birth of Christ, according to Matthew, sometime shortly before 4 BCE.
Luke, however, places the birth of Jesus during the census conducted by Cyrenius (Luke 2:1-2). According to Josephus, Cyrenius became governor of Syria after Archelaus was banished to Vienna, which occurred in the tenth year of his reign. This then places the birth of Christ, according to Luke, at around 6 CE, at least ten years after the date given by Matthew.
A number of attempts have been made to resolve this discrepancy. The most obvious point of attack is the dating of the census. Christian apologists will often counter that the census recorded by Luke is not the same as that recorded by Josephus. However, Luke claimed that this census was first made when Cyrenius (a Roman) became governor of Syria (Luke 2:2). According to Josephus, this could have been no earlier than 6 CE, because Syria was not a Roman province until that time. Other ancient historians, such as Dio (c. 200 CE) have confirmed that Syria passed into Roman rule in about 6 CE. Furthermore, Josephus records no census of Judaea prior to this time, which would fit Luke's assertion that this was the first census.
The second, less popular, point of attack is to claim that Josephus was mistaken, or even that he deliberately altered his chronology to cause a discrepancy between the two gospels. This basically amounts to speculation, and is difficult to sustain. As mentioned already, Josephus' chronology is confirmed by other writers, and is both internally and externally consistent.
The Slaughter of the Infants
Matthew has another problem with Josephus. Matthew records that Herod, angered by the wise men, orders the murder of all children in Bethlehem two years and younger (Matthew 2:16). Those of us who are shocked at the mere thought of such an atrocity might take comfort in the fact that it probably never happened. Not only does Luke fail to record the event; secular history is also completely silent on this score. Josephus, again, was no admirer of Herod. He devoted many chapters of his history to Herod, and diligently recorded each of his crimes. (Such as, for example, the murder of a number of Herod's family members). However, the massacre at Bethlehem is not listed. It seems incredible that such an awful incident would go completely unnoticed. In addition, the relationship between Herod and his subjects was tense at the best of times. Such a flagrant abuse of power would almost certainly have sparked a revolt.
Who were Jesus' Ancestors?
Another notorious discrepancy between the two birth narratives involves the two divergent genealogies of Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke state that they are listing the lineage of Joseph, the father of Jesus, but they cannot even agree on who Joseph's father was (compare Luke 3:23 with Matt 1:16). There have been a number of attempts to explain away these problems, most of which rely on speculative reasoning.
The discrepant accounts of Jesus' birth leads strongly to the conclusion that we have two discordant myths presented in the New Testament. Matthew and Luke chose two (or more) separate and contradictory oral traditions to present as the narrative of Jesus' birth. The fact that we cannot reconcile the two means that we cannot be sure when, or even where, Jesus was born, nor can we be sure of the events surrounding his birth.
Contents Copyright 1997 Curt van den Heuvel
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