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Aug 02

Gospel Truth: A Christmas Story(ies)

This is my third post in a series on the New Testament Gospels. The purpose of this series is to introduce in a very general way the findings of New Testament scholars using the historical-critical method.

Thus far, I have covered whether the gospels were written by eyewitnesses and discussed a few general contradictions that impact theology. Stay tuned for a discussion of John, which is often called The Maverick Gospel, and the Resurrection. This time I will cover the birth narratives of Jesus.

The first thing to note about the Gospels and the birth of Jesus is that only two of them tell a birth story. This suggests that the virgin birth narratives either were not known to the Gospel writers or the writers doubted their veracity. Some apologists will argue that perhaps the writers just didn’t feel it was necessary to include the stories. This does not seem likely, though, and creates an interesting conflict with another issue in apologetics (the argument from silence when dating Acts).

But even among the accounts in Matthew and Luke, there are some differences. I’ll just name a few.

Where was Jesus born and where did his family originate?

According to Matthew 2, Mary and Joseph seem to already live in Bethlehem. There is no journey there. Afterward, Herod orders the death of all children two and under around Bethlehem, so Mary, Joseph, and Jesus must flee and eventually settle in Nazareth. According to Luke 2:4-5, they had to travel there from Nazareth in order to take part in a census. Afterward, they return home. So, what do we make of this? Well, people seemed to think that Jesus was from Nazareth in Galilee, but they also thought he was born in Bethlehem. How do we make these fit? Each author had a different (I would say opposing) solution. It might be the case that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, yet grew up in Galilee, but we have good reason to believe the authors made up parts of their narrative to make that happen. There is no record of the census mentioned in Luke, which was how Luke got the characters to Bethlehem. There is a similar lack of evidence for the killing of young children in and around Bethlehem, which was how Matthew got them to move to Nazareth. The so-called “Massacre of the Innocents” is also eerily similar to the story of Moses.

Who was present at Jesus birth?

In Matthew 2:9-11, wise men come bearing gifts for the Messiah after following a star, but in Luke 2:8-17, shepherds come after being told by an angel. Typical nativity scenes simply mash the two accounts together, as if they are one. What they actually portray is not found in the Gospels. This is evidence again of the author creating a narrative for the events.

Was Jesus born in a stable?

According to Matthew 2:11, Jesus was in a house after his birth. According to Luke 2:7, Jesus was in a manger. There is some question around the translation of “inn” by some scholars, but these stories do seem to disagree. They especially seem that way in the larger context, considering one of them has Joseph and Mary living in Bethlehem already versus traveling.

 

Conclusion

That is a very brief introduction to a few of the issues debated by scholars surrounding the birth narratives of Jesus. Other issues include the overall perspective of the stories, some of the surrounding details before/after the birth, and especially the genealogies, which I covered in my last Gospel post.

Given just these few problems outlined briefly, I think we have good reason to believe that certain elements were invented to get the characters where they needed to be. But beyond that, we do have some agreement to some central elements too. They both, after all, say that Jesus was born of a virgin. Is this small amount of agreement enough to have us believe in a virgin birth? The central claim of the stories is so improbable that I think we can hardly consider this evidence strong enough for that conclusion.

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  1. Matt DeStefano

    I find it interestingly that not only do only two of them mention the birth story, but Mark (the one written first and used by Matthew and Luke) doesn’t mention ANYTHING about the life of Jesus before his baptism.

  2. Mike

    I agree, Matt. I would say it’s one piece of evidence among many that says the virgin birth narrative and other early stories – Jesus in the temple and the whole John the Baptist in the womb story – are indeed fictional.

    I do think there are some tidbits of truth within the gospels, but I can’t see a reason to consider this story one of them.

  3. Mike

    As an interesting side note, I had this discussion with Stephen Bedard once, an apologist and pastor who wrote an article for that Why Christianity is True series. He claimed that perhaps Mark and John just didn’t know the story. Or that perhaps it just wasn’t relevant to their telling of the story.

    The second claim just seems absurd. These are magical stories and they wouldn’t want to include the second most magical thing that happened to the character of Jesus?

    The first claim seems to bring up all sorts of problems, including a serious difficulty for anyone who wants to say the writers had access to eyewitnesses and true traditions.

    I always also try to hammer home the idea of possibility vs. probability, but it seems to go unnoticed.

  4. Matt DeStefano

    Oops, my last post should be “interesting” not “interestingly”.

    Bedard’s answers seem absolutely absurd. It might be interesting to press this case more seriously to Christian apologists and see them attempt to account for it. If Mark DIDN’T know about Jesus’ birth but Luke and Matthew did… the oral tradition suddenly becomes a whole lot murkier. And as you said, if Mark/John chose not to include the origins of the savior, then ‘Why the hell not?’ seems like an appropriate response.

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