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A Key Contradiction in the Birth Narratives

Several readers have asked about my comment that Matthew and Luke appear to contradict each other in their birth narratives, especially when Matthew indicates that Jesus’ family fled to Egypt after his birth but Luke claims they went straight back to Nazareth, a month later.   I’ve posted on this issue several times over the years on the blog, but maybe a refresher would be helpful for those with questions.  Here is how I explain the matter in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, slightly edited.  (See especially my final point.)


Matthew and Luke the only Gospels that narrate the events of Jesus’ birth (in both Mark and John, Jesus makes his first appearance as an adult).  What is striking – and what most readers have never noticed – is that the two accounts are quite different from one another.  Most of the events mentioned in Matthew are absent from Luke, and vice-versa.  In itself, this doesn’t necessarily create historical problems, of course: two persons could write completely accurate accounts of WWII and never mention the same events.  The problem is that some of the differences between Matthew and Luke are very difficult to reconcile with one another.  At least, as we’ll see, this is one of the problems.

Let’s begin with …

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The Historian’s Wish List
Are Matthew and Paul at Odds on the Most Important Issue?



  1. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  July 12, 2018

    Parallel universes?

  2. Avatar
    godspell  July 12, 2018

    I think all we can reasonably infer from the birth narratives is that Jesus was known to have come from Nazareth. Which as you’ve explained in some detail elsewhere, was problematic for people who wanted to say he was the Jewish Messiah.

    Where the Virgin Birth story came from–that’s a knottier question. But it didn’t come from Jesus himself.

    People in the grip of religious fervor will travel to sacred sites, wish to tread in the footsteps of someone they revere. We can assume that at least some of Jesus’ followers went to Nazareth, tried to find people who had known Jesus and his family, heard various stories, none of which meshed very well with who they wanted Jesus to be. (And the same would be true for any of us).

    And with more and more pagans joining up, the devotional gravity shifted. I think Paul probably heard some of these stories, didn’t like them, but with his unerring instinct for what worked, realized that many new Christians did. So he kept mum about them.

  3. The Agnostic Christian
    The Agnostic Christian  July 12, 2018

    Its a small point but do we see anywhere else in the Bible God communicating directly with men through dreams? We see men having dreams, prophetic dreams etc, but not quite like this. Not this direct or frequent.

    I know believers will say that God works in mysterious ways, but it seems more of an idiosyncrasy of the author of Matthew that God seems to communicate almost everything in the form of dreams.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      I’m not sure what you mean. Divinely inspired dreams are fairly common in the Bible.

  4. Avatar
    John Murphy  July 12, 2018


    Is it possible to know* whether such accounts came from the individual who actually wrote them or whether he was simply putting down on paper stories that he had heard in conversations with other Christians or had read in other Christian texts? For example, someone at some point obviously came up with the story of the Massacre of the Innocents; is there any reason to believe it was someone other than Matthew himself (whoever ‘Matthew’ actually was).

    *I know it’s impossible to “know”! To surmise, let’s say.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      I’m almost always inclined to think that non-historical stories have come to the evangelists from earlier story tellers, unless there is compelling reason to suspect otherwise. That’s because we *know* they got lots of their stories from the tradition, but we don’t *know* what they might have made up, and my sense is that they were passing along what they had heard, not fictions they were inventing themselves.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  July 14, 2018

        Isn’t the slaughter of the Innocents inspired by Exodus 1:15-22?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 15, 2018

          May well be. There is a lot of Moses imagery throughout the entire Gospel of Matthew.

          • Avatar
            John Murphy  July 16, 2018


            Just to clarify: You think that one Christian came up with the story of the Massacre of the Innocents, another invented the account of the Magi, and yet another the genealogy of Jesus, etc.? You think that’s more likely than a single writer’s sitting down with an overarching ‘agenda’ in mind, and coming up with stories that he believed would best demonstrate Jesus’ special role, stories that ‘Matthew’ thought were coherent in theological or doctrinal or historical terms? A unit, so to speak.

            Hope my question makes sense!

          • Bart
            Bart  July 17, 2018

            I don’t really know how many of the stories go back to one storyteller or another. Possibly some go back to the same person.

  5. Avatar
    JohnKesler  July 12, 2018

    “Then, in obedience to the law of Moses, as recorded in Leviticus 12, they bring him to the Temple for Mary to perform the required rites of purification.”

    Luke 2:22 in the original NIV reads: “When the time of *their* purification according to the law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” The current NIV changes the wording: “When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” The reason for the change is obvious: according to Leviticus 12, only the mother needed to be “purified,” contra the original NIV reading. As The Interpreter’s Bible, volume 8, page 60, remarks: “*Their purification* became *her purification* in later MSS in order to make the text conform to the regulation in Leviticus 12:6.”

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 12, 2018

    I just read an unusually terrific article about Dr. Ehrman on the Patheos website. It was written by Rick Snedeker and was published on 7/10/18. It is entitled “Why a Top Religious Studies Scholar is Now an Atheist.” It is about an interview of Dr. Ehrman written by Stoynoff in the “American Atheist” magazine. In connection with today’s Ehrman blog, these is a discussion in the Snedeker article about the historical accuracy of the “worldwide census” reportedly occurring before the birth of Jesus and how Dr. Ehrman’s study of this issue was a turning point for him. I strongly recommend the Snedeker article. I am about to search for the Stoynoff article. I think a similar turning point came for me when, as a teenager, I read the two genealogies of Jesus and saw that they were different.

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  July 12, 2018

    What’s the most popular Christian holiday?

    What’s the least reliable, most contradiction-ridden narrative in the gospels?
    The Christmas story

    Humans are fascinating creatures.

  8. Avatar
    fishician  July 12, 2018

    Regarding Luke’s assertion that a census required Joseph, with Mary, to return to his ancestral home, you have pointed out in your lectures and books that it makes no sense. What chaos that would cause! However, I recall reading one of the non-canonical gospels and getting the impression that the writer was implying that Joseph chose to go to Bethlehem during the census, possibly to avoid the embarrassment of having Mary’s surprise pregnancy revealed by the census in their hometown. Luke 2 doesn’t say you had to go to your ancestral home, just to your “own city.” Joseph simply chose Bethlehem. Do any scholars, or apologists, hold to such a view? (Not that it gets around all the other conflicts in the stories!)

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      I don’t recall reading that one!

      • Avatar
        fishician  July 15, 2018

        See the Protogospel of James 17:1. Although in that version Mary gives birth in the wilderness, actually.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 16, 2018

          Ah, I think you may be misreading that. In the narrative Joseph is not debating whether to register Mary in Nazareth or somewhere else (to avoid embarassment), but about how to identify her in relation to himself (wife? Now *that* would be embarassing!) once he gets where he needs to go to register.

  9. Avatar
    jhague  July 12, 2018

    1. Are the birth narratives in Matt and Luke enough evidence to say that Joseph is Jesus’ father?

    2. Does Matt 13:55 and Mark 6:3 provide any evidence that Mary was pregnant before marriage?

    3. Does the evidence point to Jesus being born and growing up in Nazareth?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      1. I don’t think so. Neither one of them says this; 2. They may *suggest* that she was unwed, or that the father wasn’t known; but I wouldn’t say they were probative; 3. Yup!

  10. Avatar
    Ryzzer  July 12, 2018

    This is off the topic of the post. I hope that’s okay.
    I sometimes hear that what Jesus preached about giving to the poor and being good to your fellow humans was something radically new. And that he was in some sense a “peace-loving hippie”. Is this true? Or is the reason he preached those things that he thought the kingdom of god was near and so people had to get ready and repent? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      Yes, it’s all rooted in his apocalyptic message of the impending crisis.

  11. Avatar
    gavriel  July 12, 2018

    Given that Luke’s account is a later addition, made by Luke himself, is it then impossible that he at that time had read Matthew’version?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      I’d say there’s no compelling reason to think so. If he was dependent on Matthew, it can’t explain why at virtually every point he’s *different* from Matthew.

      • Avatar
        gavriel  July 14, 2018

        Yes, but the stories are so different that it looks like Luke conciously wanted to override Matthew’s version, having the Bethlehem messiah deeply seated in the Roman imperial economic system, thus creating a more acceptable gospel for use within the empire. Otherwise it looks strange that he did not use any of the Matthean traditions that must have been circulating at that time (assuming a late add-on).

  12. Avatar
    anthonygale  July 12, 2018

    I know you have to be careful with tv shows, but I saw a program once that said the Greek word in the New Testament story should have been translated to “upper room” rather than “inn.” It also said that in that time it was common for people to live upstairs and keep animals downstairs. Based on that, they suggested a more plausible story in that the family was staying in a house and placed Jesus downstairs because there wasn’t room upstairs. If that were true, it by no means would iron out all the differences between the two birth accounts, but it does make at least one aspect of the nativity more plausible. The notion of a pregnant woman trekking across the county and planning to wing a hotel room when she gets there doesn’t make much sense. Jesus being born in his parent’s house (or some other family member at least) does, plus or minus manger.

    Is what the tv show said about “upper room” and animals living downstairs true? And speaking of TV shows, I seem to remember Stephen Colbert having some good (in some sense at least) counterarguments to your views of Biblical contradictions.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      The word is KATALUMA and it just means something like “lodging place.” It doesn’t mean “upper room.”

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  July 14, 2018

        The idea of placing a newborn in a separate place from the mother seems contrived, especially in a peasant family. Was Luke possibly alluding to the practices of Roman aristocracy in swaddling and isolating the infant from his mother? I doubt cosleeping is a modern innovation. It’s the only sensible practice for most of human history.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 15, 2018

          I don’t think the baby is in a different place. The manger is simply functioning as the cradle.

      • Avatar
        anthonygale  July 14, 2018

        Have you ever felt misrepresented or otherwise regretted appearing on a TV show (e.g. History Channel)? I wonder where they get their ideas sometimes. I’m guessing they at least consult experts in the field, but even if so, who is writing the overall narrative? Is it an expert in the field, a person with some sort of expertise who may be stepping out of their zone or even a lay person? It might be easy to interview a bunch of scholars, come up with one’s own ideas, thrown in a few clips and present the ideas as authoritative when they not. You’ve posted on writing trade books in the past. Perhaps posting on your involvement with these sorts of programs might be interesting.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 15, 2018

          Great question! I don’t know. I never watch those shows (even when I’m in them)

          • Avatar
            anthonygale  July 15, 2018

            Never watched them ever or just generally don’t? I’d be curious to know whether scholars think History Channel programs, and other shows of that nature, are reasonably accurate or not. I’m sure there’s variation from program to program. And I’ve seen some really whack ideas on TV (e.g. attempts to claim the virgin birth was biologically feasible).

            I may be wrong, but I’m guessing that most folks who read you’re trade books have spent a good bit of time watching shows like that. I take them with a grain of salt but must admit I enjoy them. It’s easy to sit and watch. They add music, show art and sometimes do reenactments. If you wonder were general audience folks get some of their ideas, these TV shows may be one of the sources.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 16, 2018

            I haven’t seen one in years! Many years. Scholars generally criticize these things rather vigorously, but often that’s because the programs don’t present only the scholars’ own views!

  13. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  July 12, 2018

    is there any authentic history that can be garnered from the two accounts or are they both completely fictional? Previously when discussing the conflicting accounts of the death of Lazarus you mentioned that some history can be learned despite the discrepancies. Is this a similar situation where some historical information can be learned?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      The only historical information would seem to be that his parents were Joseph and Mary who were Jews from Nazareth, and that he was born sometime during the reign of Herod the Great.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  July 14, 2018

      I would argue that the most important bit of historical information we get from the contradictory birth narratives in Matthew and Luke is that there was a significant hole in the incipient gospel message that needed to be filled. That is to say, the earlier gospel message didn’t include a narrative of Jesus’s birth, so one was created by later evangelists out of the desire or need to have one. And this isn’t mere speculation, because we actually have, in Mark, a preserved example of an earlier gospel message without a birth narrative. So the earlier Mark narrative doesn’t include a birth narrative, and the two later gospel messages include two wildly different birth narratives. Our only reasonable conclusion is that those birth narratives were fabricated by later evangelists in order to fill that gap in the narrative.

      So this brings us to the important question of why a birth narrative wasn’t part of the earlier gospel message. I can see only two options. Either A) the history of Jesus’s birth was known to the earlier evangelists, but they deemed it too uneventful to be included in the gospel message, or B) the earlier evangelists were unaware of when, where and how Jesus was born, and, for whatever reason, they did not deem such information necessary to the gospel message. That is, for them it was significant enough that Jesus received the Holy Spirit at his baptism, imbuing him with divine power, and that’s where the important part of his story began. For them, everything about Jesus’s life before that was relatively unremarkable. Either way, this does not bode well for the significance of the circumstances surrounding the historical birth of Jesus. In all likelihood, Jesus’s actual historical birth was just like any other — of importance only to his parents and immediate family.

      • Avatar
        godspell  July 15, 2018

        I can see other explanations for Mark not having a birth narrative–after all, John doesn’t have one–even if he didn’t have Luke and Matthew, he certainly must have known about the virgin birth story. Why doesn’t he use it?

        Because it doesn’t fit the story he wants to tell. Like Mark, he wants to present Jesus to us at the start of his ministry–unlike Mark, he doesn’t think Jesus was adopted by God at the moment of his baptism. Unlike Luke and Matthew, he doesn’t see Jesus as the begotten son of God.

        He sees Jesus more like Paul, as a pre-existent being who had been in heaven since before the dawn of creation. But where Paul perhaps saw Jesus as a subordinate divine being, like an angel, John sees him as something much greater. Perhaps as a human incarnation of God–or as the Son of Man. The being Jesus imagined would come to transform the world on God’s behalf.

        So the first and last gospels don’t have the virgin birth story, nor do Paul’s epistles, or indeed any surviving document from that period. And what this tells us is that for quite a long time, that story was not universally accepted within the dispersed Christian community. Some advocated for it–others just kept silent about it, because unity was so important then. If they started breaking off into little splinter sects, they’d have no chance of surviving. They had innumerable differences, but they kept it in the family.

        Persecution was, ironically, their greatest ally. Muslims knew no persecution once they’d crushed their pagan brothers on the Arabian peninsula. They had no rivals there, no overlords–they were the overlords. So when divisions occurred, they led to blood feuds that exist to this very day.

        I think what we’re seeing is one faction advocating for some version of the virgin birth story, and the others maintaining a diplomatic silence–perhaps because they can see the story taking hold, and they realize there’s no way to stop it.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  July 16, 2018

          Yeah, sorry, not buying it. A man being born to a woman who has never been inseminated, one would think, is a pretty significant detail that any sensible writer would want to include in his story. One could argue that a man born of parthenogenesis is a far more significant detail than, say, a man exorcising demons, and yet several chapters worth of material are devoted to the latter, while not a peep about the former. If that important detail just so happens to be missing from the story, it’s probably because that detail had yet to be invented.

          Think of it this way. What’s possibly the most important thing that the vast majority of Christians believe about Jesus? That he is literally the incarnation of the all-powerful creator of the universe. I mean, as details about a person’s traits go, you can’t really get more significant than that. So how often is Jesus *explicitly* described as the incarnation of the all-powerful creator of the universe in the gospels? Zero. By comparison, how often is Jesus described eating and drinking? A lot. He’s even described eating food after he’s already died and been resurrected! Why would God need to eat?

          These are the kinds of inconsistencies that believers overlook, because it inconveniences their faith.

          • Avatar
            godspell  July 17, 2018

            Okay. First of all. Could you please not use the word ‘inseminated’ in this context again? Ew.

            Secondly, what makes you so sure there weren’t other stories about his birth we have no record of?

            We know why Mark didn’t tell the story–Bart has explained that–Mark’s gospel is a mystery story, and the mystery is who Jesus is, and what he’s here for, and the answer is “He is the Messiah.” The Jewish Messiah was not supposed to be born of a virgin. But even if Mark believed he was (and I doubt it), to give any miraculous birth narrative at the start would be a spoiler.

            At the time Paul is writing, there might have been early versions of the virgin birth, but most Christians still wouldn’t believe it, and he’s not going to risk dividing his flocks (and reducing his influence over them) by taking a stand on something he doesn’t consider important. (It’s only important if you believe it happened. There would have been endlessly proliferating legends. We can be sure they left out many stories they’d heard about Jesus–and Paul’s story of the resurrection is very different from what came later.)

            John probably would have heard some version of the nativity story, but he doesn’t like it, and he leaves out all kinds of important things the other gospels mention–and adds things of his own. John went his own way.

            You’re talking like these are historical accounts–they’re not. They’re religious stories based on a real person–an admixture of fact and myth, and none of them has quite the same mix.

            When you read what 19th century Mormons wrote about Joseph Smith, then read a modern scholarly biography of him, you think you won’t find a lot of pretty important things in the latter that the former never breathe a word of?

            If Jesus were known by all his followers to have said “My mother was a virgin and I am the begotten Son of God, and this is how I came to be born in Judea” then yes–you’d expect to find that in all surviving accounts.

            But he never said any such thing, nor did he ever believe any such thing. He probably didn’t talk much about his family, his origins. I think Mark has it right, and he felt like his baptism was a rebirth.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  July 19, 2018

            Or, maybe, possibly, there might just be a chance that the virgin birth was invented by later evangelists who wanted and needed to extend the significance of Jesus’ exceptional life all the way to his birth itself? Occam’s Razor tells us the simplest answer is likely the correct one. Which is the simpler answer? His birth via parthenogenesis wasn’t mentioned at first (for whatever reason)? Or his birth via parthenogenesis was purposely invented later (for obvious reasons)?

          • Avatar
            godspell  July 20, 2018

            If you’re reading my posts before responding to them, you know I also believe the virgin birth is an invention, but Occam’s Razor isn’t very useful for explaining human behavior, which is complex and often contradictory. Hell, Occam’s Razor doesn’t even explain why it’s called Occam’s Razor, when the ideas behind it were stated many times, many centuries before William of Ockham was born.


            It’s often impossible to know how or where ideas began. Virgin births (by which we typically mean pregnancies not the result of ordinary human sexual intercourse) are commonplace in world mythology–many separate cultures with no knowledge of each other told such stories. Such stories were more acceptable to people raised in pagan religions than a monotheistic faith like Judaism.

            There may have been some circumstances of Jesus’ birth that were unusual–perhaps Mary got pregnant by Joseph out of wedlock–or by some other man (the old story of the Roman soldier Pantera, which sounds a lot like a slander cooked up to try and discredit the new religion, offend its followers–it came along awfully late in the day to be considered credible). But I question whether this is the real reason.

            Christianity could have become a viable religion without any stories about Jesus being born of a virgin–no such story is told about Muhammad, or Zoroaster. Interestingly, such a story is told about The Buddha–that his mother became pregnant by a supernatural white elephant–we can safely assume this story was told long after the real Buddha was dead. We have no reason to think any early Christian knew this.

            So when we see this kind of thing occuring again and again, as a pattern, we shouldn’t put it down to evangelist propaganda. We should assume that people told this story because they wanted to believe it. They wanted to believe Jesus was more than a man, even though it was part of their faith to believe he was born the way all of us are. Over and over, we see variations–Paul believing he’s some kind of angel incarnated as a man–Mark believing he is the Messiah– John believing he is the Incarnate Word of God.

            But to most new converts, what story will work best? The story so many have told before. He was born of a human woman, through divine agency. And Matthew and Luke gave the people what they wanted.

  14. Avatar
    forthfading  July 13, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    My question is about the census.

    Historically, the census described is highly unlikely and outlandish. The issue I’m struggling with is why would the writer of Luke include such an outlandish claim to an audience that would know if it had actually happened? The audience for Luke’s Gospel would obviously know if such a census took place. The readers of this Gospel would immediately know that this writer is not trustworthy….correct?

    And what about the previous oral tradition? Would people keep sharing a story that they themselves are in a position to know if it happened. The tradition probably started circulating within Jesus’ generation. All this would appear to hurt the Gospel writer’s credibility among an mid-first century audience.

    Help and insights please!


    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      No, I don’t think that’s necessarily correct. Think of all the massively improbable, contradictory, and obviously false things we ourselves hear every day, that so many millions of people think are actually facts.

      • Avatar
        godspell  July 14, 2018

        People today are literate, for the most part. They have access to endless books, magazines, newspapers, TV documentaries. There’s an entire channel devoted to history (okay, not very good history a lot of the time).

        And most Americans know very little history, are often uninformed about what’s happening right now–much of what they think they know is wrong, and in many cases they are being intentionally misinformed.

        I just had to tell a southerner (on the NY Times website) that it was the Confederates who fired on Ft. Sumter. He thought it was the Yankees. At least he didn’t think it was the baseball team.

        There were censuses. People knew that. If there wasn’t one at this particular time, conducted in this rather odd way–how many would know? It was in the neighborhood of a century later that Luke’s gospel was written. You can’t go to the library and look it up.

        There would perhaps have been vague memories of past censuses. Entirely possible a few people did have to travel some distance to be counted, or somebody thought they had.

        Luke’s not a historian. Nor does he have the resources of one at his disposal. He’s trying to find a way for Jesus to not be born in Nazareth, but rather in Bethlehem. If he learns anything that might allow him to tell the story that way, he’s going to use it. And not think of himself as making the story up. Any more than the southerner who says the Civil Wa began when the Union fired on Ft. Sumter. Who probably grew up when that Ken Burns series was on TV every other day.

      • Avatar
        forthfading  July 14, 2018

        True…True…. I see your point and it is a good one.

        Still this seems over the top. I may believe things that I can’t necessary authenticate, but I would remember a census that required my parents to return to England (land of their ancestors) in order to be counted. I just wonder if there is some truth in this event. Maybe just a regular census or a routine counting of people. Something that would make the readers or listeners of this story not conclude that Luke is an idiot.

        If you can, please add this to the possible postings you do. I would love to hear a more scholarly presentation on this topic.

        Thanks a million.

        • Avatar
          godspell  July 15, 2018

          There were Roman censuses. We have information about them. Just not about this one. Yes, you’d remember a story your parents told you about having to make a great voyage to be counted, but it’s a hundred years later. Christianity is mostly poor people, living in a time without modern medicine. People marry young, reproduce young, die young. Most are illiterate. Under those circumstances, would you remember whether or not your great-grandparents had to make such a trip?

          It’s not 100% fabricated, just juryrigged to tell the story Luke wants to tell. That Matthew does not tell. They both want Jesus to be born in Judea, because that’s where the messiah is supposed to be born. Now once Christianity ceases to be a sect of Judaism, that’s not going to matter anymore (to converted pagans, Galilee is just as good), but it matters to them, even if they themselves were not born Jewish.

          I think Matthew tried to fix the problem by saying Jesus was born there, then his parents moved to Nazareth, with a brief stop in Egypt. Luke must have known that wasn’t true–that Jesus’ family was well-established in Galilee before he was born. So he had to come up with a reason why a man would make a difficult dangerous trip with his heavily pregnant wife.

          As to the choice of Bethlehem in Judea by both authors, I’ll repeat–there was a different Bethlehem near Nazareth (according to some sources I’ve read, there is some doubt as to whether the Bethlehem in Judea was even an active town when Jesus was born).

          It’s entirely possible Jesus was born there. He was almost certainly born near there. Close enough.

          Think about all the arguments about the birthplace of a recent U.S. President. There are still so many people who ardently believe he was born in Kenya, and they can point to the words of a confused old woman to convince themselves of that. And yet others tell different stories, just as improbable.

          And I’ve never heard any story more improbable than the one Richard Carrier and his cohorts tell.

          When people really want to believe something, they find a way.

  15. Avatar
    rsteveslater  July 13, 2018

    I would be interested to see the explanation in your book. Since there are many details unknown to us and omitted from the accounts, I can imagine many variations that would reconcile what is recorded. Your final point is a problem only when you assume that Luke 2:39 means immediately after the events described, and that is a reasonable assumption in the natural reading. Technically, however, there is no contradiction if the return to Galilee was several years later and Luke simply omitted the details about the flight to Egypt (obviously many details are necessarily omitted from both texts). On your other discrepancies, it would be logical that after the census registration, a residence or room became available in Bethlehem. As you state, the arrival of the wise men could have been a year or two after Jesus’s birth. It would be unreasonable to think they continued to live in a stable for that length of time. Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem, which was Joseph’s hometown, before they were established as a family. After Egypt, they had to decide on a place of residence. They had resided in Bethlehem during the first years of their marriage, but now they decided to locate back in Nazareth because of the threat from Archelaus.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      I don’t see how they could go to Nazareth after 32 days if they went to Egypt first! He doesn’t say it was years later but that it was when they had performed the required sacrifice for purificatoin.

      • Avatar
        rsteveslater  July 14, 2018

        I concede that the most natural reading is that they went to Nazareth immediately after performing the rites. My point was that, technically, the Greek word rendered “when” can be translated “after” (according to Strong’s), which does not necessitate immediately after to me. Maybe that is a stretch, because I am not a Greek scholar. Upon looking again at Matthew, I see another explanation. I wonder if you are overlooking Mt. 2:12, which clearly states that they departed into their own country before being warned by the angel to go down to Egypt! You would be correct that they did not go to Egypt first, but there also would be no discrepancy.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 15, 2018

          Yes, I understood the point. That’s what I used to think! Until I just read the text without imposing a chronology from another Gospel onto it.

          • Avatar
            rsteveslater  July 15, 2018

            Did you understand the point about Matthew 2:12? No imposition here.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 16, 2018

            I think you’re misreading the verse. The antecedent of “they” is not the family of Jesus but the wisemen. They are the ones who returned to their home by a different way.

  16. Avatar
    nichael  July 13, 2018

    Returning for a moment to the Paul/Matthew issue (concerning the means of salvation), one question is how did these books, with these fundamental discrepancies, both make it into the NT canon?

    I don’t mean how could the various “compilers” of the canon have *overlooked” these problems? Rather how were they *allowed* to do so?

    For example if we consider all the apocryphal gospels that were rejected from the canon for having even a hint of heresy (e.g. Docetism, Arianism, etc) doesn’t it seem reasonable that there must have been Pauline Christian who were hopping up and down denouncing Matthean Christians as the basest of heritics –and vice versa.

    (As one example we could point to Marcion. Of course his doctrine had its own problems, but it seems reasonable to assume there may have been other, more proto-orthodox-ish, “Pauline [or Matthean] Christians”.)

    One only has to look around to see how willing many folks are to smooth over “factual” discrepancies (such as those in the birth narratives). But Christology or Salvation Theology; now _there’s_ a topic to get you panties in a twist about.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      Most readers (the vast majority of readers) have never noticed the discrepancies. Still don’t!

      • Avatar
        doug  July 14, 2018

        And the more people see what they want to see, the more blind they are.

    • Avatar
      godspell  July 18, 2018

      Paul can’t be left out because he’s too influential. But Paul’s letters don’t provide enough material.

      I have no doubt many noticed the differences, but so what? Disagreements are commonplace in religious literature. They are also commonplace in early histories. There are numerous disagreements between the various early accounts of Socrates, notably those of Plato and Xenophon, who were both his pupils.

      Now those were not collected into a single volume immediately afterwards–and neither were these books, for a long long time after they were written. I think it was the third century that Paul’s letters were joined with the gospels?

      By that time, all these works are canon. You can’t leave any of them out.

      I mean, it’s like wondering why the Star Wars DVD set has all the movies, when they contradict each other in so many ways (in spite of attempts to smooth over the rough spots that came from Lucas changing his mind as he went). We know for a fact that Darth Vader was not Luke’s father and Leia was not his sister, when the first movie was made.

      (And don’t pretend there aren’t people out there to whom those are holy writ as much as the gospels ever were. Holy script? Never mind.)

  17. Avatar
    Stephen  July 13, 2018

    What do you make of Luke having Jesus and John the Baptist be relatives?


    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      It’s an attempt to show even more graphically that they were on the same page and the John was the divinely appointed forerunner for Jesus.

  18. Avatar
    Duke12  July 13, 2018

    While I agree that it sounds vastly more plausible that Luke meant that the family returned to Nazareth immediately or only days after the rites were performed, couldn’t one still make a case for inserting all the chronology of Matthew 2 in between Luke 39’s “… everything the law required” and “they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth?” Does the Greek wording of Luke 39 conclusively imply that the return journey was “immediately after”? Maybe Joseph intended to temporarily reside in Bethlehem plying his trade for a few years with the Herod incident forcing a hastier than intended departure?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      Yes, technically speaking, if I say “after I finished watching the tennis match I went to the store” that what I really meant was that I went to the store five years later.

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  July 14, 2018

        when luke says “every year” they went to judea, does that mean they could have gone of to judea from ANY location? or is luke saying that the only location was from GALILEE, nazareth ? luke says that the family returned to galilee after the jewish rituals were complete.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 15, 2018

          If I say that I go to England every year, at the very least it means that I go there from someplace *other* than England.

  19. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  July 13, 2018

    Of course, the narrative you are creating from the two stories is not only not the traditional way of explaining the differences but also allows you the luxury of making it seem as if there is no way of both being true.

    Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem.
    They find no room is the place for visitors so Mary gives birth to Jesus in the manger.
    After her purification in the Temple, they return to Nazareth.

    Independently, the wise men from the East interpret their signs and go to honor the newborn King of the Jews.

    They get to Jerusalem, in innocence and approach Herold, who is alarmed and asks them to let him know when they find him.

    They arrive in Bethlehem, family of Joseph and Mary tell them they have returned to Narazeth and they leave WITHOUT informing Herold because of their own warning from God.

    Upon returning to Nazareth, they find Mary with the child and give him honor.

    In the meantime, Herold becomes suspicious that the wise men are not returning and his court becomes troubled at the idea. Herold demans that all make children UNDER 2 YEARS OF AGE, are put to death.

    Wise Men have already left Nazareth. Joseph is warned to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s enmity.

    No contradictions are necessary unless someone WANTS there to be.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2018

      But the wisemen don’t come to Nazareth but (explicitly) to Bethlehem. I”m not *trying* to find a contradiction — it simply appears to be there. It takes a lot of effort not to see it or to explain it away, in my judgment.

      • Avatar
        AlbertHodges  July 14, 2018

        Upon reading your reply above, I re-read Matthew. Your explanation regarding the WiseMen finding Him in Bethlehem is indeed much better than my poor understanding. However, there is still an issue with the idea that both narratives cannot be correct.

        1) Joseph and Mary return to Bethlehem for the census.
        2) She gives birth to Jesus and remains there until her purification in the Temple.
        3) Sometime between the purification and a return to their home in Nazareth, the Wisemen visit them.
        4) Joseph is warned that Herod seeks to destroy the Child and to go Southwest into Egypt (where there were several thriving Jewish communities) to protect Him.
        5) They go to Egypt until it is safe for them to return to Israel. At first intending to return to his traditional family hometown, he heard that the new ruler was Archaleus and instead went back to Nazareth. Tradition has always put Mary in Nazareth/Sepphoris) and Joseph’ family in and around Jerusalem/Bethlehem. In fact, James the Just (a son of Joseph according to the Gospels of James and Peter) was the leader of a community in and around Jerusalem. Mary’s family was always linked to Nazareth/Sepphoris although they also had ties to Jerusalem.

        Thanks for the correction, it helped me better understand the narratives in question. However, there are still possible ways for these to be compatible, especially sense Matthew ONLY picks up the story regarding the Wisemen’s visit from the words “After the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in Judea”.

        • Avatar
          Iskander Robertson  July 15, 2018

          “3) Sometime between the purification
          and a return to their home in Nazareth, the Wisemen visit them.”

          22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy …..

          “4) Joseph is warned that Herod seeks to destroy the Child and to go Southwest into Egypt (where there were several thriving Jewish communities) to protect Him.”

          39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

          where is the evidence that “EVERYTHING required by the law of the lord” meant “and the TRIP to egypt ” ? how is that part of the “law of the lord” ?

        • Avatar
          Iskander Robertson  July 15, 2018

          “5) They go to Egypt until it is safe for them to return to Israel. At first intending to return to his traditional family hometown, he heard that the new ruler was Archaleus and instead went back to Nazareth.”

          they go to judea everyyear according to luke.

          Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.

          so they have been going to judea BEFORE the child became 12 .

    • Avatar
      godspell  July 14, 2018

      Both stories can’t be true. There can only be no contradictions if you refuse to see them.

      It’s quite possible–indeed likely–that neither story is true. But both can’t be. They can’t have traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem–for a census that makes no sense, which we have no reason to think happened–AND have been living in Bethlehem, then go to Egypt, then settle in Nazareth. (And there was no census at all.)

      Also, we have to believe that only Luke knew Jesus and John the Baptist were first cousins.

      As to the slaughter of the innocents, that would have been remembered. People might be fuzzy about censuses–not about scores of children being murdered by their own soldiers. That memory would have been preserved. We have a lot of information about Herod ‘The Great’.

      Herod was a brutal man, but he wasn’t stupid. We’re supposed to believe he would kill every male child two years old and younger, in and around Bethlehem, because some travelers told him him a king had been born there? And no record of this atrocity exists anywhere but in Matthew? The other gospels don’t even mention it!

      If Herod was given to such fits of irrationality, that threatened to cause civil unrest, the Romans would have had him removed from power.

      A rational being–even a rational being of faith–must accept there are numerous incidents recorded in the gospels that have no basis whatsoever in fact. And a rational being of no faith must acknowledge it is overwhelmingly likely that many other incidents in the gospels do have considerable basis in fact.

      It’s the job of the historian–of any faith–to try and find out which is which.

      • Avatar
        flcombs  July 16, 2018

        And there is always the problem of confirmation bias on all sides. (Generally of course) An atheist is naturally quick to accept a contradiction because they already believe they are there and not accept explanations. A Bible fundamentalist is quick to say “there must be an explanation” since they already think there can’t be any contradictions and accept explanations others wouldn’t or are unlikely. So you always have to take a step back and say would I accept argument X if it were another situation: am I being consistent? So the best you can do is to try to get the best information you can on context, historical context, language, etc. and be consistent in your approach and open to changing your opinion.

        It is often interesting in the Bible belt to hear all these explanations and justifications of the Bible against criticisms. Yet their attacks on the accuracy and believability of other books, such as the Quran, do not allow the same types of explanations to be accepted! If an explanation for a Bible issue is to be accepted no matter how unlikely or against what we would normally accept, then the same logic should apply to other books. Even miracles: we are often told to accept miracles based on them being claimed in the Bible, yet there are many more miracles discussed through history in other religions or denominations that Christians (or denominations) don’t accept. What is the standard other than “it’s in the bible”?

  20. Avatar
    PeterB22  July 13, 2018

    Among the many contradictions between the two birth narratives, the genealogies presented by Matthew and Luke are impossible to resolve. Matthew places Jesus in the 26th generation after David, while Luke places him in the 41st generation. Granted that one genealogy leads to Joseph and the other leads to Mary, 15 generations is a very big gap!

    I strenuously disagree with the idea that the story of the magi is even remotely coherent. They were presumably Zoroastrian priests, living in Persia. Why would they know about a 700-year old prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures (Micah 5:2), and why would they care? What would possibly possess them to make a long arduous journey to worship a putative future king of a small, insignificant kingdom long under foreign domination? Then there is the matter of the star that leads them for hundreds of miles directly to the house where the child is living. Stars (i.e., enormously distant, immense balls of hydrogen and helium gas) just don’t do that sort of thing – the story would have been more coherent if the magi were led by an angel holding a lantern.

    Throw in the prophetic dreams and the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem – for which there is not a shred of historical evidence – and what you have is a totally unbelievable tale that fundamentalist Christians are stuck with forever as revealed truth!

    • Avatar
      godspell  July 14, 2018

      It’s great storytelling. People don’t like giving up great stories. And there is no reason to give them up. Just stop pretending they are history.

      Jesus was almost certainly born in or near Nazareth (there was actually a town called Bethlehem in Galilee, not far from Nazareth, which could have been confused with Bethlehem of Judea).

      He probably lived a fairly unremarkable life as a child. So it got dressed up a bit. People tell stories about Washington and Lincoln’s childhood that are pure hogwash. They still existed. They still matter.

    • Avatar
      prestonp  July 15, 2018

      “PeterB22 Among the many contradictions between the two birth narratives, the genealogies presented by Matthew and Luke are impossible to resolve.”
      Try again.

      Despite that, Bart has seen the light. It took 3 and a half eternities, but He now has a much different, clearer and more accurate understanding of Jesus Christ than he did back in the day: “I finally yielded. These Gospels do indeed think of Jesus as divine. Being made the very Son of God who can heal, cast out demons, raise the dead, pronounce divine forgiveness, receive worship together suggests that even for these Gospels Jesus was a divine being, not merely a human. So yes, now I agree that Jesus is portrayed as a divine being, a God-man, in all the Gospels.”

      PeterB22 “Throw in the prophetic dreams and the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem – for which there is not a shred of historical evidence – and what you have is a totally unbelievable tale that fundamentalist Christians are stuck with forever as revealed truth!”

      You find it totally impossible that Herod slaughtered each male child 2 years old and younger in Bethlehem? That’s odd. Herod would be happy to do that and more for sneezing.

      Study the explanations offered by Christians. Nowhere does it say Jesus returned to Nazareth in Bart’s time frame.

      The historical records found in the N.T. do not describe events that normally occur on planet earth and If we dismiss each reference to the miraculous, we ought to reject the whole shebang. There was no conscious effort on the part of its contributors to diminish or deny or to avoid presenting His miraculous deeds that flowed from Him. Just the opposite. They were integral to Him to His being. The N.T. purposely and clearly presents Jesus Christ as God/man. It is the theme, the essence of of everything they communicate. There’s a reason for that. It is the reason they wrote about Him in the first place. They achieved nothing but adversity, pain and beatings for their relationship with Him, made no money and gained no social status. Jimbo, Christ’s brother, was murdered. Paul likely died in Rome after he endured constant humiliation, opposition, resistance, beatings, a shipwreck, a life of pure misery when He could have walked away. Pete was flogged.

      They did it all to inform the world God came to earth.

      • Avatar
        godspell  July 16, 2018

        Okay, there’s a lot to take exception to here, but let me focus on one truly remarkable statement you make.

        In any account of any historical event that invokes the supernatural, we must assume the supernatural/paranormal event referred to actually took place–or reject the entire account.

        You’ve committed us now to two possible courses of action.

        1)We reject the great bulk of ancient history, and possibly some modern history as well.

        2)We accept the truth of any historical event described in mythology, including the existence of any gods or other supernatural beings invoked therein. For example, Troy was found, by Schliemann. The oldest account of Troy is found in Homer. THEREFORE, the Iliad is literally true. The Greek pantheon was real, and directly interfered in that war. Achilles was invulnerable, except in his heel. Also, going by the sequel, we have to believe there was a gangantuan one-eyed ogre who ate people, but didn’t understand puns. And that men can be changed into pigs by seductive enchantresses. (In other than the metaphorical sense)

        Which do you prefer?

        Do I believe the gospels are more historical in nature than the Iliad? Sure. They’re not epic poems, they were written much closer to the events in question, and much of what they tell us doesn’t require any belief in miracles.

        The fact is, people make up stories relating to other people who really lived. Washington didn’t chop down the cherry tree, or throw a coin across the Potomac. We can dispense with all that without dispensing with him. ‘

        It’s important to you to believe all of it is true. But it is factually and rationally impossible that all of it is true, because the gospels don’t agree with each other on many important points. Leaving that aside, it is impossible to study ancient history if you take the attitude that either you believe everything you’re told or nothing.

        (It’s also a pretty silly way to go through life. How many times do we have to sift fact from fiction in our daily existences?)


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