Home > Christian History > Gospels As Historical Documents: Counter-Example (Birth of Jesus)

Gospels As Historical Documents: Counter-Example (Birth of Jesus)

This will be my last example (at least for now) as to why historians think that the NT gospels are primarily comprised of theologically driven myths.

Question: what events transpired around the birth of Jesus?

Only Matthew and Luke give us accounts of the birth of Jesus. Here’s a brief synopsis of Matthew’s birth narrative. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Three wise men from the East arrive in Jerusalem asking where this king of the Jews was born. Herod hears about this and asks his scholars to look into the matter. They tell him that the birth is to take place in Bethlehem. Herod then secretly meets with the wise men to find out the exact time when the star appeared to them. The wise men tell him and he tells them that Jesus is to be found in Bethlehem. So the wise men leave, find Jesus at the house of Joseph, bestow some gifts on Jesus, and then leave. Shortly afterward, an angel tells Joseph to flee to Egypt because Herod plans on killing Jesus. So they leave. Meanwhile, Herod has all the children in and around Bethlehem two years and younger killed because the wise men had informed him that the star appeared to them two years prior. After Herod’s death, Joseph and Mary attempt to return to Judea (apparently they were returning to Bethlehem) but then, out of fear of Herod’s successor, move north to Nazareth, Galilee.

In contrast, here’s a brief synopsis of Luke’s birth narrative. This story starts in Nazareth with Mary being told about the child she will give birth to. Joseph and Mary are then forced to leave because of an empire-wide consensus decreed by Augustus in the days when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone is supposed to return to the place of his or her ancestors. Seeing as Joseph is said to be a descendant of King David, Bethlehem is their destination. They arrive; Mary’s gives birth to Jesus; and they place him in a manger because there is no room for them at the inn. Shortly after, an angel appears to some shepherds who are told about the child. They make a brief visit and then leave. After eight days, Joseph and Mary go up to Jerusalem (not far from Bethlehem) and present Jesus to the temple. They then return to their hometown, Nazareth.

It would appear that these two accounts differ quite significantly. In Matthew, it appears that Bethlehem is the hometown of Joseph and Mary. The narrative begins in Bethlehem without any implications that they had just arrived or that they were only supposed to be there temporarily. In fact, they must have been there for an extensive amount of time because the wise men had presumably been traveling for a couple years. Moreover, the wise men visit Jesus in his house, not at an inn or some backyard barn. Joseph and Mary then make a long journey to Egypt because of Herod’s infant hunt, finally relocating in Nazareth for reasons of safety.

Contrast this with Luke: Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth and only go to Bethlehem because of Augustus’ consensus, quickly make a stop at Jerusalem, and finally return to their hometown of Nazareth. There is nothing about a consensus in Matthew and nothing about Herod’s infanticidal actions in Luke. In Matthew, the journey from Bethlehem to Egypt, waiting for Herod’s death, and the journey to Nazareth would have taken a long time. In Luke, from what historians can devise, the entire journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Nazareth took around thirty days. In Matthew there is nothing about wise men from the East and in Luke there is nothing about shepherds. In fact, there are very few similarities whatsoever.

Furthermore, the accounts themselves are highly implausible. Take Luke’s story of the consensus. How would the men of the empire know who their distant ancestors were? Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem because Joseph is apparently a descendant of David, who was born there one thousand years earlier. But how would he know that David was his ancestor, how would Luke know, and how would the rest of the empire know where to go? If such a consensus were to happen today, would any of us know where to go? And why is there no record of this mass migration (for that matter, why is there no record of Herod’s mass infanticide in Matthew)?

Just as problematic is Luke’s historical knowledge. He tells us that his story is taking place in the days of Herod of Palestine. Because Herod died in 4 B.C., this means the story takes place at or around that time. But Luke also tells us this story takes place during the reign of the Syrian governor Quirinius. But according to Josephus and Tacitus, Quirinius was not governor until ten years after Herod, in A.D. 6. Many Christians consider Luke the first Christian historian. If so, he’s not a very good one.

His historical shortcomings notwithstanding, Luke was a good theologian. And so was Matthew. What can be said about their motivations for creating these mythological accounts of the birth of Jesus? What seems to be happening is that they are both aware the Jesus was known in his own day as being from Nazareth. The problem, however, is that some Jews thought that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). So both Matthew and Luke create an account that satisfies both of these facts. They need to devise a way for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem but grow up in Nazareth. Both authors accomplish this in different ways, Matthew telling us that Jesus’ parents were from Bethlehem but later relocated to Nazareth, Luke telling us that his parents were from Nazareth but were forced to Bethlehem for a short time, only to return to Nazareth.

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