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A Source for the Birth Narratives in Matthew and Luke?


What’s your take on the independence or interdependence of Mt 1-2 and Lk 1-2. Do you think Luke’s infancy narratives are based on Matthew’s? Or vice versa? Or on some other unknown earlier common source? Or neither and they’re both independent?  It sounds like you’re advocating independence. But if they are separate and independent, then we have to account for common elements in the two. Some commonalities are easier to explain (e.g., location in Bethlehem [Micah 5.2]; mother’s name Mary [Mk 6.3]), but others less so (e.g., both have the same name Joseph for Mary’s husband even though that name is not in Mark or Q; both have the unexpected and unprecedented miracle story of a virgin birth). Thoughts?



This is a great and very perceptive question.  It is rooted in my thread, just finished, on Bethlehem and Nazareth, in which I argued that both Matthew and Luke have given us stories to explain how Jesus could be the messiah – who (in their opinion) was to be born in Bethlehem – if, instead, he was actually from Nazareth.  My argument was that both accounts are implausible (wisemen following a star; census for the whole world to be registered under Caesar Augustus; etc.) and that they are hopelessly at odds with one another.   So neither one is historical.

But then what is their relation to one another?  The question summarizes the situation well: even though they differ in almost every way, the stories agree at several key points.   Jesus’ mother was a woman named Mary, betrothed to a man named Joseph; she gave birth while still a virgin; and it happened in Bethlehem, even though Jesus was raised in Nazareth.  Don’t these points of agreement indicate that one knew the other or that they are both based on a common source?

In my view, the answer to that question is …

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Is “Jehovah” in the Bible?
Bethlehem and Nazareth in Luke: Where Was Jesus Really Born?



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 9, 2015

    Great question! Great answer! Thanks to both of you.

  2. Avatar
    nichael  March 9, 2015

    I have a vaguely related methodological [is that the right term here?] question about assigning various passages to Q, Mt and L.

    1] In short, are there any passages that are commonly assumed to be from Q, but that appear in only one Gospel?

    That is, a passage in, say, Luke which appears to be otherwise a good match for Q –on the basis of form, terminology, theology, etc– but which happens not to appear in Matthew; or vice versa. (Moreover, I realize that there are verses where the original in Q appears to have been altered or “truncated” when copied into one of these gospels; but here I’m asking only about a “complete” or “substantial” verse or passage that the “other guy” didn’t use.)

    2] Or, in practical terms, are we basically “stuck” with assigning a passage to M[L] if it is found only in Matthew[Luke] even when it appears to meet the other criteria?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2015

      It depends how methodologically strict you want to be. there are scholars who assign a passage found only in Matthew or Luke to Q, but they have to argue that stylistically and thematically it is more like Q than like M or L. I would not say that these views are widely accepted, but they are out there. My view is that the only way to know what is in Q is when Matthew and Luke have unambiguous agreements in material not found in Mark.

  3. Avatar
    Gary  March 9, 2015

    Since most scholars believe that both Matthew and Luke were written in the first century, I find it odd that not one non-Christian pointed out (and documented) to Christians that there never was an empire-wide census at the time of Jesus’ birth and that there was never a massacre of infants in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. How do you account for this? Was Christianity still so insignificant in the first and early second centuries that no one bothered to debate these issues?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2015

      There are very, very few non-Christian references to Christianity at *all* in the early centuries. ZERO in the first century, and jsut a couple in the early second. So, no, these were not debated issues until later in the second century. When pagans do start attacking Xty, they do so by reading the Gospels, and other books, and interacting with them. The first solid evidence of this is the second half of the second century with Celsus.

      • Spencer Black
        Spencer Black  December 18, 2019

        Josephus’ mention of Jesus in Antiquities doesn’t count as a non-Christian mentioning Christianity in the first century?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 19, 2019

          Absolutely. That’s why I say very, very few. There are two, to be precise. Both in Josephus.

          • Spencer Black
            Spencer Black  December 20, 2019

            Oh ok cool, just wanted to make sure I knew what was what.

          • Bart
            Bart  December 21, 2019

            Don’t we all! 🙂

  4. Avatar
    daviskent  March 9, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman is it true that an incorrect translation resulted in the understanding that a Messiah would be born of a “virgin” instead of being born of a “young woman”?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2015

      Yes, I dealt with that at some length a while back on the blog. You can search for “virgin birth” and find the posts.

  5. Avatar
    Scott  March 9, 2015

    When you talk about gospel sources such as M and L for Matthew and Luke’s unique material are there any ways that you or other scholars use to distinguish stories that each author obtained from an independent source from those that he or she “made up” in order to make a point? We see both authors recasting the Q material. Is there reason to think their creativity stopped there?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2015

      It’s very hard to make that distinction — i.e., hard to know if there’s anything the author invented himself. My own view is that the answer is “very little.” They appear to be recording stories they heard, rather than created. But I could be wrong!

  6. Avatar
    hgb55  March 9, 2015

    Bart, several of the Jesus & Nazareth mythicists ( such as Frank Zindler, citing John M. Robertson’s book titled “Christianity and Mythology, 1900) say that Nazareth never existed because the Ebionites only used a Gospel of Mark that began with chapter 3, thus excluding any mention of Nazareth, which only appears in the Greek manuscripts that contain Mark 1:9. The mythicists say this indicates that the Ebionites knew that Nazareth and the the first chapters of Mark were fictional stories or myths and thus excluded them from the authentic scriptures.

    Any comments about such assertions as it pertains to the historicity of ancient Nazareth? Do we have any manuscripts of Mark that don’t contain the first several chapters or that don’t mention Nazareth?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2015

      What the Gospel of Mark says or doesn’t say about Nazareth is irrelevant, in my view, to whether it existed. It’s like saying if the June issues of the NY Times can be shown not to have mentioned Omaha, therefore it probably didn’t exist.

      • Avatar
        Scott  March 10, 2015

        Omaha doesn’t exist? I knew it!!

      • Avatar
        oakspear  March 26, 2015

        I thought I was in Omaha a few weeks ago…I KNEW I imagined it!

  7. Avatar
    MikeyS  March 9, 2015

    Bart, I know its your profession and your life’s work but God, how can you keep your brilliant mind on all this stuff that was mostly made up. Don’t you ever get bored and want to do something else? Like teaching woodwork or something? 🙂

    I was thinking (always a dangerous pastime) that really great people in history were those who gave us the wonders of modern living, like the internal combustion engine, massive civil engineering like dams and power stations, 200 floors buildings where space is at a premium and bridges like at San Francisco. Modern medicine and life extension and treatment for all sorts of things that killed of our ancestors at an early age. Even a man on the moon and ability to travel thousands of miles in a day or two, Massive improvements in food production so no child should go hungry etc. The combine harvestor did more for the hungry people of the world than a thousand religious Preachers ever did, including Jesus and Muhammad.

    YET! What did these characters in religion ever produce to benefit mankind? But division, smoke and mirrors and stuff made up the whole time that caused and still cause, conflict, mass murder and a multitude of meaningless, time consuming rituals based on mostly fairy tales. We thought it was the ancient pagans that believed in all that blood sacrifice stuff that controlled the tribes into submissive subjugation.

    Its really time mankind came of age and rejected all this BS and started to do something really worthwhile like the examples given above. A trillion trillion words have been written and spoken about ‘religion’ and will no doubt continue to be so and IMO all of if it worthy ONLY for the next recycled toilet paper. NOW that would be of use to the world!

    Sorry but this is the Engineer in me writing! I just think its so so much a waste of your talents.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2015

      Ha! OK, I take this in good humor! But I do think it can be a very dangerous line to take — that the humanities don’t matter, only practical fields like agriculture, or computer science, or engineering do. That’s an ENORMOUS problem in our culture right now, that is having a very large effect on our university systems. There is more to life than technological advancement, and more to being human than doing science. Maybe I’ll post on this.

      • Avatar
        Scott  March 10, 2015

        I find it debatable whether computer science should be included among the “practical” sciences 🙂

        [and I work in the field!]

      • Avatar
        MikeyS  March 10, 2015

        Thanks so much for your reply Prof and I will look forward to your thoughts on this when you have time. The problem here in the UK was that students at Universities were taking the humanities, social and media subjects because they were a lot LOT easier to get a degree in, than Mathematics and Engineering and some colleges have had to provide additional incentives to get them in. I know your degrees were in religious studies and theology I think? Maybe some additional ones but that was another ‘easy’ pass in this country as they could write any thesis they wanted for theiir PhD and along with Politics, these latter two subjects combined are reponsible for the dim witted Politicians and Archbishops we have in this country who’s obviously influence far outweighs their worth to society as a whole. I was thinking like you that there has to be a place for the spiritual side for want of a better word and religion can provide that. ATB and really greatful for all your hard work in all aspects of your life, including here.

        No doubt you have your own dimwit ex Presidents and Theologians….;) Pleeeese, not another Bush or Clinton in the White House!

        • Bart
          Bart  March 11, 2015

          I’m afraid you’re misinformed about what it means to do a PhD in the humanities, or religious studies, in the UK!! (For one thing: to do a PhD in New Testament requires a person to know at *least* Greek, Hebrew, French, and German, and most also learn Latin and/or Coptic and Syriac. That’s just for *starters*!!!)

          • Avatar
            MikeyS  March 11, 2015

            Hi Bart, I was going to send you a private email but not sure whether you would get it and so can I just respond briefly to your last comment that I misinformed about PhD’s in the UK. I have looked at the current requirements for PhD in theology at a number of UK universities and here a link to a typical one


            The only requirement is a 30,000 to 60,000 word thesis on a chosen religious topic and my point was although a First degree may require some additional training and research in specialist subjects, a Phd is not in that catagory. Indeed I know of people personally that have done theology degrees and they needed no prior specalist knowledge or qualifications and they then can go on to get a PhD.
            My point being that is different from having to have higher academic college or school qualifications even to get accepted at most universities. So with respect it not that I was misinformed but maybe we are talking cross purposes. ATB, Mike

            Its a long long time since i did my Engineering Science Degree and so wondered how things have changed. I would say things seem to have got easier to get to University than they used to be..;)

          • Bart
            Bart  March 12, 2015

            Well, this would tak a much longer discussion than we can carry on here. It’s true that it is easier to get the PhD in religious studies in the UK than in the US (where there are, in addition to the dissertation also seminars to be taken for two years and a battery of very difficult PhD exams). But it’s still no cake walk. It is not a question of whether it’s hard to write, say, 50,000 words. Most people with a college education could do *that*. The question is whether the 50,000 words are *accepted* as a *dissertation*. It’s not just a bunch of words. It’s an elaborately detailed and substantial book. If you want to see what I mean, just take the UK dissertation I most recently read — and published as a monograph in a series I edit for E. J. Brill Publishers — by Dieter Roth on the Gospel Text of Marcion. I think you’ll see that we’re not talking about a scholarly lark.

      • Goat
        Goat  March 11, 2015

        I totally agree with your response. I’ll take John Steinbeck over Ayn Rand any day! On a local level, the movement in North Carolina to turn our university system into a group of trade schools is deplorable.

      • Aleph82
        Aleph82  March 11, 2015

        I would love to see this post. I am sad to hear that it is have a large effect on our universities, though I am not surprised. As the futurist movement grows in strength and popularity, I’ve begun to notice a fervor in its prophets and adherents that I can only describe as religious. The parallels don’t stop there either. They’ve got their own day of judgement, which they call the “singularity”, and they anticipate it with both fear and excitement. After this event the world will be changed beyond recognition, not unlike the world of another coming Kingdom. I’ve even thought of calling them technolypticists, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate since in their vision of the future usually the first will be even more first (they are backed largely by insanely wealthy technocrats).

        Even worse, when I try to point out that “hey, I’ve seen this kind of thinking before” to the believers, they outright reject any comparison because after all the bible is bunch of fairy tales stitched together with make-believe by bronze age morons. Uhg, I’ve depressed myself with this post. Think I’ll go read Ecclessiastes.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  March 11, 2015

      I’m pretty sure the gospel writers believed what they wrote to be the truth, whatever source they used, which means they weren’t lying. Mistaken maybe. Nobody ever died because of a birth narrative. If someone died for believing Jesus was God’s son who died for their sins, well nobody thinks the gospel writers made that up. And they would have only been killed because someone else was intolerant of their beliefs. The enemy is intolerance, not religion. We all believe things that aren’t true. Doesn’t mean they’re BS. They have their use.

    • Spencer Black
      Spencer Black  December 18, 2019

      MikeyS, I think you have perhaps unintentionally disrespected Dr. Ehrman in a couple serious ways, and I take issue with it. I actually think you should rescind and apologize for your remarks as they are both rude and ignorant. I can speak to how immensely important religion is in the world (whether you care about it or not, most people in the planet believe in god). We need to study, think, and ask questions about religion and philosophy in order to understand the world.

  8. Avatar
    Jason  March 9, 2015

    Why don’t Mark and John give a darn about the birth narrative-is proof of fulfillment of prophecy not important to them?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 10, 2015

      They probably simply had never heard the stories.

      • Avatar
        Scott  March 10, 2015

        Is this an example of the proper use of an argument from silence?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 11, 2015

          I wouldn’t say it’s an argument so much as an informed guess.

  9. Avatar
    Stephen  March 10, 2015

    Fascinating stuff.

    There is of course another motif that both stories share. The announcement of the miraculous birth to outsiders who search out the child to pay obeisance.

    I believe you yourself have speculated that Luke’s birth narrative may not have been in the first “version” of the gospel. Try this scenario…

    Theophilus: Hey Luke, you know that new gospel we’ve been hearing about? Well it’s out and you aren’t going to believe it!

    Luke: Whaddya mean?

    Theophilus: Whole sections of it copy you word for word! You told me about the part you ripped off…uh, I mean borrowed from Mark and Q. He’s got’em both! The guy’s named Matthew and he swears he didn’t see your gospel before he published his.

    Luke: Well anybody can get a copy of Mark in the used codex store but dang where’d he get Q? I thought I had the only copy and it’s so old it’s falling apart.

    Theophilus: But that’s not all. He has some stuff you don’t have. He has this killer birth narrative. You missed that.

    Luke: Yeah I thought about it but it just seemed to detract from the rest of the story. And honestly I couldn’t figure out how to get Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and back.

    Theophilus: Get this! He has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem and they only move to Nazareth after Jesus is born.

    Luke: That’s a crock. Everybody knows Mary and Joseph were originally from Nazareth. If people just start making stuff up where’ll we be?

    Theophilus: Well look Luke, you got your sequel coming out next month. Why not let’s reissue the gospel as well! You were already thinking about adding the part about Jesus sweating blood so work up a birth narrative and we can add that too. Something warm and Christmasy..throw in some angels…people love that kind of thing.

    Luke: Most excellent, Theophilus! It’ll sell like unleavened bread!

  10. Avatar
    toejam  March 10, 2015

    I’ve recently changed my mind over the Synoptic Problem. I now think the ‘Three-Source Hypothesis’ makes the most sense. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-source_hypothesis. To be more specific, I think “Luke” is made up from Mark, Q, Matthew, and the proto-Luke that Marcion seemed to be aware of (minus chapters 1&2 etc.). I know Michael Bird and James Tabor hold to the Three-Source Hypothesis as well. What do you think of the merits of this view? I just think the Synoptic Problem is more messy than the simplicity of the Two-Source and Farrer/Goodacre hypotheses imply.

    • Spencer Black
      Spencer Black  December 18, 2019

      How do you explain the fact that Luke would’ve had to dismiss Matthew’s birth narrative almost altogether, and write an essentially contradictory one?

  11. Avatar
    jbjbjbjbjb  March 10, 2015

    Great post. Never noticed before just how different the two accounts are.

  12. Avatar
    rshaheen  March 10, 2015

    Your thread on the topic of Jeses birth made me think of the issue James Tabor wrote about on the Father of Jesus. His conclusion ” …is that Jesus was born of an unknown father, in unknown circumstances, and that Joseph takes Mary as his wife despite her pregnancy by another. My assumption is that neither Mary nor Jesus considered his conception as an immoral act but somehow destined and sanctioned by God. ” I’m curious as to your view on who is the father of Jesus.

    • Avatar
      Eric  March 11, 2015

      This is more or less the conception story revolving around Sampson

  13. Avatar
    Ronald  March 11, 2015

    It seems to be well attested that Jesus came from Nazareth. However the reference in Matthew is interesting … And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene. As is well known Matthew got all his scriptural references wrong and thus this one has been also suspect. However, is it possible that Matthew did get the fact that Jesus was known as a Nazarene correct? We do know that his brother James was a practicing Nazorite. It is recorded in extra cononical writings how James was Zealos for the law etc. and kept the Nazorite oath, eg vegitarian, abstained from blood, uncut hair etc.

    Is is possible that Jesus was also a Nazorite like his brother?

    If this is true then many of the gospel stories about his lifestyle etc. reflect more on the Pauline doctrines prevalent in the early church which stongly influenced the oral traditions that fed into the gospels. Jesus as the party guy becomes pure fiction as well as the Jesus who reached out to the Gentiles. And especially the doctrine that Jesus kept all the commandments and thus negated the need for anyone to keep the Mosaic Law.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2015

      The words Nazarene and Nazirite look similar in English, but they don’t in Semitic languages (Hebrew and Aramaic). They are not etymologically related. (the “z”s are different letters)

      • Avatar
        Eric  March 11, 2015

        but do they look similar in Greek?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 12, 2015

          Yes, good question. I think they do – but I can’t remember the exact spellings, and right now I am in a rain forest in Puerto Rico away from anything like a book! But Jesus was said to be from Nazareth in the Aramaic speaking community before any of the traditions were being circulated in Greek.

          • Avatar
            FrankJay71  March 13, 2015

            I’m not sure if understand now.
            I thought Matthew was referring to parts of Samson’s birth narrative, and rereading them as prophesy?
            An angle of the Lord tells Samson’s mother that she will birth a child that he will deliver Israel, and be called a Nazorite.
            Is that not what scripture Matthew had in mind? Seems awful similar even though Nazarene and Nazorite mean two totally different things. Would a Greek speaking author confuse or conflate the two terms?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 14, 2015

            I’m away from my books for the week — where in the book of Judges are you referring to when you speak of the angel appearing to Samson’s mother? Usually it is thought that Jesus’ birth is being modeled on the birth of Samuel.

          • Avatar
            FrankJay71  March 15, 2015

            Judges 13:2 -13:5.
            Here’s a copy and paste from the NIV.
            2 A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth. 3 The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son. 4 Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean. 5 You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”

          • Bart
            Bart  March 16, 2015

            Ah, right! Very interesting. Yes, I’ll have to think about that.

  14. Avatar
    J.J.  March 12, 2015

    I must admit, I wonder if there was a shorter, simpler, common core source (maybe unwritten?) behind Mt 1-2 and Lk 1-2. Raymond E Brown lists 11 features shared by the 2 infancy accts, and curiously, all but 1 (being raised in Nazareth) are found in the 8.5 vv that make up Mt 1:18-2:1a. Maybe that holds the gist of the common core that was expanded in different directions into what is now Mt 1-2 and Lk 1-2 (including different genealogies). In other words, if we only had Mt 28 and Lk 24 (and no copy of Mark), we would detect the common episode of the empty tomb (even without a copy of Mark) but we would still notice that Mt 28 and Lk 24 go in different directions about pretty much everything else.

    But the main reason I wonder about a common core source is because I find it odd and intriguing that Mt 1-2 (explicitly) and Lk 1-2 (implicitly) find significance in a very literal reading of the same two rather obscure OT passages, when nobody else seemed to do so (at least not NT writers). Did many people read Isaiah 7 and come away expecting a virgin birth?… well, not if they read it in Hebrew… and even if read in Greek, still probably not since the passage is actually about a birth centuries earlier in Isaiah’s day. And sure, many expected a great ruler from the line of David, but would they take Micah 5:2 so literally that the individual had to actually be born in Bethlehem? The commonality of these peculiar readings of these same two texts intrigues me, especially since no one else seems to have expressed much expectation like this elsewhere. I mean, Mark writes a lengthy narrative without any allusion to either Isa 7:14 LXX or Micah 5:2. And so does John (except 7:41-52 with the vague reference to Bethlehem without indicating why that shouldn’t be a problem). And Paul speaks of Jesus being descended from David, but no hint of Bethlehem or a virgin birth. Hebrews uses all kinds of OT quotes and figures for Jesus, but nothing about Bethlehem or a virgin birth. Same with Rev of John. Same with the kerygma in Acts. It’s only later in the second century that we find these common elements of Bethlehem and virgin birth in writings like Justin’s Dialogue and infancy gospels but that’s due to Mt 1-2 and Lk 1-2. So I always wonder how Mt 1-2 and Lk 1-2 both ended up with these 2 oddly literal understandings of those 2 OT passages. Anyway, maybe that’s just my own quirky take on all of this.

  15. Avatar
    bobnaumann  March 14, 2015

    Why couldn’t Q contain the Mary, Joseph, virgin birth and Bethlehem stories and nothing about the differences between the accounts Matthew and Luke? Matthew searched the scriptures to weave his stories and Luke wove his around what he believed to be God’s plan.

  16. Avatar
    HenriettePeterson  November 29, 2017

    Bart, you wrote “In point of fact, Isaiah 7:14 was not originally talking about the future birth of a messiah to a virgin (until Christians claimed it did). But for Matthew, it was.”
    This actually proves there is no motif in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Isaiah mentions young girl instead of a virgin why would Matthew complicate the matters with claiming something irrational no one would believe? It would have been much easier to simply state she was a young girl. Based on your logic if I were Matthew I’d certainly go for the young girl. It would seem more probable to the readers and still be in unity with Isaiah.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2017

      Matthew was reading Isaiah in Greek, and in the Greek it uses the word PARTHENOS for the “young woman,” a word that came to mean “virgin”

  17. Robert
    Robert  December 12, 2018

    “Except for these four motifs:  mother Mary, espoused to Joseph, still a virgin, giving birth in Bethlehem. How then does one account for these four motifs without saying that one author used the account of the other or that both used Q? … Two of the motifs, in my judgment, are simply historical facts known (or thought to be known) by early Christians. His mother was named Mary and her husband was someone named Joseph.  Not everyone (e.g., Mark) knew these things, but others did.”

    No need to include ‘mother Mary’ as one of these elements needing to be explained since both Matthew and Luke would have know this from Mk 6,3.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      They are simply common traditions about Jesus’ birth known to both authors. People today know as much even if they haven’t actually read Matthew or Luke, e.g.

      • Robert
        Robert  December 14, 2018

        The point is that ‘Mary’ as the name of Jesus’ mother is not an element in need of explaination by additional traditional sources. It was already known to Matthew and Luke from Mk 6,3.

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