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Another “True” Story that Didn’t Happen? Jesus’ Birth in Luke

I have been trying to illustrate the point that critical scholars who remain Christian have long made, that there can be stories in the Bible that are not historically accurate but that are trying to convey larger theological truths.  My first illustration had to do with the death of Jesus; in this post and the next, I will deal with the birth of Jesus.   This is a topic I’ve dealt with several times over the years on the blog; but it’s worth covering it again!   I’ve drawn this discussion, again, from my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

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“True” Stories that Didn’t Happen (at least as narrated): Jesus’ Birth in Luke

We may take an example from the familiar stories at the beginning of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  These are 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 the account in Matthew, which …

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Why It Didn’t Happen that Way. The Stories of Jesus’ Birth
Is Theological “Truth” More Important than Historical Accuracy?

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Comments

  1. KathleenM  June 1, 2017

    Hi there, I have some additional ideas (not even insights really) that I might not have posted last year or earlier:
    1) If Joachim and St. Anne were Essenes (living not at Qumram, but outside the Temple, after the Essenes left Qumram), which in my opinion may be true — Joachim might have truly been a cattle, donkey,goat or sheep trader, or all of the previous. Not wanderers like Abraham and Sarah, but residents with land outside the city to raise animal herds on. Money was to be made around the Temple selling sacrificial animals to the Temple for sale from the courtyards to pilgrims for sacrifices by the Sadducees I think it would have been, or the Temple priests of whatever Hebrew sect.
    2) The land outside Bethlehem in Judea was Mary’s property due to her dowry or inheritance from her side of the Davidian tribe per some of the apocrypha as I remember, or the “early stories.” There was a Roman property tax in addition to the Roman tax on income and the taxes by the Temple. Taxes were high, only the wealthy really had any property left in any families – Joseph and Mary were probably not poor or they would have lost their property, because land was “confiscated” by Rome if no tax payments were made — maybe not annually as we do it, but every 10 years or so maybe. This could explain where the couple were in Judea–to sit on the property, so it wouldn’t be confiscated/pay the taxes/then leave again, leaving the animals there, but under someone’s care, or alternately there is a place called Little Bethlehem outside of Nazareth, but close enough to use the well, or the whole town Nazareth is called Little Bethlehem by some of the Near Easterners — so many of the family of David lived there, almost 200 Davidians as it were, cousins, etc. One carpenter house has been found with the workroom next to the house. More fun than ever?
    3) The period for becoming clean after a birth would be 80 days I think, double the money for a woman, or a delivery. There would be shepherds in the area especially if it was their own land with herders on it. Or if they were in town, they could really have done the birthing below ground or in the stable area, ground floor, to prevent the upper rooms from being made “unclean” by a birthing. This may be why there was “no room in the Inn,” or “no room in the house” more accurately, to keep the upstiairs clean. Some of the priests in Jerusalem had beautiful 2 story homes we’ve seen the walls and the floors inlaid, painted. Not a totally poor society, just a lot of robbers and zealots with no more land to grow anything on. Peter’s place looks as it it may have been a synagog up on the North Shore, as much as a fishing place, also a place to worship.

    I have been thinking too about where did Jesus go or wind up where he learned so much — Alexandria, Peter’s Place, Nazareth, even the Temple after his bar mitzvah there? Maybe he went all such places, but was educated as a Pharisee like Saul/Paul. All such wise people, all probably respected at least up until they maybe ransacked the Temple courtyards – maybe Yeshua wanted the animals sacrificed to be his animals? or wanted the goat he brought to be the goat that was sacrificed, by laying his own hands on the animal which he brought all the way from “home” and spent 2 weeks carrying into the Temple. Maybe Caiphas had his eye on Jesus for years, as someone that wanted more authority? Maybe he and Saul and the others were in youth buddies of many years actually and knew each other’s ideas. Saul recognized Jesus during this Ascension time post Easter, he saw the apparition on the road, and/or heard/recognized the voice, was brought to his own knees and blinded for a week.

  2. mjt  June 1, 2017

    The 2 issues that have been argued about repeatedly are the inconsistent genealogies, and the different times in which Luke and Matthew place Jesus’ birth. Do you think apologists have offered any reasonable solutions to these two problems?

  3. Tony  June 1, 2017

    I picture Matthew looking at this copy of Mark and, having the Septuagint nearby, trying to figure out how to fulfill the Micah Bethlehem birth prophesy in his Gospel. Mark had already decided that Jesus would be from Galilee, (prophesized as per Isa 9), but how did he get to Nazareth? Here is Matthew’s solution, Mt 2:23:

    “There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.””.

    A person from Nazareth would not be called a “Nazorean”. The reverse process took place – there was a town with a similar sounding name in Galilee. And now we have Jesus of Nazareth.

    Bart, do you have any idea what OT prophesy Matthew is referring to?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2017

      It’s widely debated. Many think that he is referring to the prediction of Isaiah that the one to come would be from the “branch” (NZR = Nazar) of Jesse (the father of King David) (Isa. 11:1)

    • talmoore
      talmoore  June 4, 2017

      I have my own hypothesis as to why Jesus is “from Nazareth” in the NT, but I haven’t managed to get any scholars to bite. Maybe one day, after I finish my Jesus novel, I’ll write up a proper academic paper and submit it for peer review (though, technically, I’m not in academia, so I’m not really a “peer”), and we’ll see what comes of it. But, anyway, here it is in a nutshell.

      No one knew where Jesus was born. Why? Because no one thought to ask him until after he had already died. It wouldn’t seem a terribly important question until Jesus was no longer there to answer it. His brothers didn’t know, because he was older than them, and they naturally assumed he was born where they were born and grew up, around lake Kinneret (i.e. the “sea” of Galilee), possibly around Capernaum, which is more than 15 miles from the present city of Nazareth — more like 20 miles by foot around the Galilean mountains.

      I think the truth is closer to what you have said : Jesus was already called a Nazorean, and later Christians assumed he was called this because he came from a town called Nazr-something-or-other. (You are correct in saying “A person from Nazareth would not be called a ‘Nazorean'”. They would, in fact, be called a Nazrethene.). No, he was called a Nazorean because Nazorean was an epithet given to certain individuals who have properly prepared themselves for the eschaton — i.e. they had “girded their loins” in preparation for God’s Day of Judgment. I’ll explain where I got this idea.

      So I was reading through a version of Matthew written in Hebrew, preserved for us in a book called The Touchstone by a Medieval Rabbi named Shem Tov (not to be confused with the Baal Shem Tov), a Jewish critique of the Gospel of Matthew. Now most scholars believe, and I tend to agree, that this Hebrew version of Matthew is *not* the “original” Hebrew version of Matthew, but, rather, is a Hebrew translation of the Greek Matthew. One clue it’s a translation is that in Shem Tov’s version Nazareth isn’t spelled the way it is spelled in Hebrew (נצרת = “Natzeret”), but, instead, is spelled like a transliteration of the Greek (Ναζαρέτ = “nazaret”) into Hebrew (נאזרית = “n’azerit”). This immediately caught my eye, not just because of the odd spelling, but also because “n’azerit” actually has a meaning in Hebrew. It means “little girded girl”. (The first part, “n’azer,” means “girded,” as in “loins girded up” or, metaphorically, “ready to go,” and the suffix “it” is the normal diminutive that means a little female: e.g. in Mark 5:41, in the Aramaic phrase “talitha cumi” the “ith” part is the very same diminutive that implies a young female — in that case a young girl: “talitha” in Aramaic literally means “little [female] lamb”.)

      So I looked at this spelling of Nazareth, and that’s when it hit me that Nazorean wasn’t a descriptor of where Jesus was from. It was a descriptor of who Jesus was. Jesus was one of the “girded,” one of those who were “ready to go,” prepared for God’s Day of Judgment. And so who were these Nazoreans? These Girded Ones? Alas, they were those who were baptized by John in the Jordan. They had returned to God (i.e. repented). They were baptized. They were cleansed of all their sins. And they were ready for Judgment Day, which was coming anon. That’s what it meant to be a Nazorean.

      Only later, after John the Baptist and his movement were relatively out of the way, did early Christians begin to see Jesus’ Nazorean epithet as a descriptor of where he was actually born. They knew of a village called Nazareth in the upper Galilee, so they attached Nazorean to Nazareth, and the rest, as they say, was history.

      • Tony  June 5, 2017

        Agree. According to Acts the followers of the early Christian sect were called Nazoreans.

        Acts 24:5 “We have, in fact, found this man a pestilent fellow, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarene” (Gk Nazōraios).

      • dragonfly  June 5, 2017

        I can think of two arguments against the idea that no-one knew where Jesus was from. The first is that Jesus was a fairly common name, and at some point the need would arise to specify which Jesus was being referred to, and so he would have been called Jesus of Nazareth (or Capernaum). However this is not really an argument, because if your hypothesis is true he would have been called Jesus the Nazorean.
        The second argument is that Jesus travelled around with his followers, and at some point he would have told stories like “One time, back in Nazareth, we had this big barn party. We had to hide some of the wine in water containers so my cousin John wouldn’t find it. I got so plastered I woke up in a manger…”
        Probably not a strong argument either.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  June 6, 2017

          Well, this would assume that most people would know where Nazareth was. Most of the instances I know of where a person was given a sobriquet of place it was because they had a significant connection to that place, not necessarily because that’s where they were born and raised. For instance, John of Giscala (Yochanan m’Gush Halav) got his sobriquet not necessarily because he was born and raised in the Galilean town of Gush Halav — no one knows whether he was even born or raised there — but, rather, because the town of Gush Halav was the headquarters of his rebellion against Rome. Moreover, John of Giscala is a perfect example of a very, highly significant player in 1st century Palestine who, though we have a wealth of information about him, we can’t say for sure where he was born and raised. And yet, for some reason, Jesus, a man of whom we know at most one-tenth as much about as John of Giscala, for him we have a place of birth: the village of Nazareth. Yeah, something smells awfully fishy about this story, and it’s not coming from the Sea of Galilee.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  June 6, 2017

        Interesting talmoore!

  4. godspell  June 1, 2017

    In this case, there’s no reason to think either story is true. While I’d agree they are conveying a theological point in both cases, it would be truer to say they are dealing in different ways with the same theological problem created by the actual facts of Jesus’ life. The Messiah is supposed to be born in Judea. Not Galilee. Matthew tries to fix the problem in one direction, Luke in another.

    Both hedge their bets with the virgin birth story (which must have become fairly well-disseminated by this time, though probably not anywhere near universally accepted by Christians). Since apparently both have gotten confused over translation problems between Hebrew and Greek. Basically stick as many things into the story as possible to convince people Jesus is the promised Jewish Messiah, even as he increasingly becomes the unwitting posthumous founder of an entirely new religion.

    I guess if you really really want to, you can find ways to rationalize the differences between the two narratives, but it’s a lot of work, and William of Ockham would not approve. Though I’d assume he believed the gospel stories were all gospel truth. Being a Franciscan Friar and all.

    • Tony  June 3, 2017

      Actually, both locations – Galilee and Judah – are the result of prophesy fulfillment. Great things will happen in Galilee:

      Isa 9:1 “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”

      Of course, the House of David connection and Micah prophesy had to be fulfilled as well.

      Micah 5:2 “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

  5. John4
    John4  June 1, 2017

    Christian stories, Bart, “that are not historically accurate but that are trying to convey larger theological truths” are not, it seems to me, limited to the Bible. Ours is a *living* myth. These stories *continue* to be created two millennia after the gospels were written:

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=T-SQiP22JQI

    Thanks so very much for your good work, Bart! 🙂

  6. wostraub  June 1, 2017

    As Bart notes, the infancy stories of Jesus in Matthew and Luke contradict one another. Let’s leave it at that.

    As a physicist, I note that on many occasions Bart has a problem with the guiding star, despite no ancient astronomical evidence that it was ever recorded, nor any logic behind a distant heavenly body that moves around like that. Christian apologists can simply assert that it was a God-made point of light, not a star, that guided the wise men and others to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. So let’s leave it at that.

    But the Holy Family simply cannot be in two places at the same time — Egypt (in Matthew) and Bethlehem/Jerusalem (in Luke). Why in God’s name would Joseph and Mary take Jesus to the Temple for the purification rites if the savior-seeking Herod were still living? And why in God’s name would they then go to Egypt following the purification rites, if we are to possibly conform the Matthew/Luke stories?

    My feeling is that Matthew and Luke, whoever they were, were either not aware of one another or didn’t care that their stories did not line up. And it is highly doubtful that either could have imagined their writings would end up in a collection of books being seriously read as holy gospel in the 21st century.

    At any rate, it’s another nice contribution from the incomparable Bart Ehrman, my favorite New Testament scholar!

  7. ask21771  June 1, 2017

    Could all of Jesus post resurrection visions just have been dreams people had in their sleep

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2017

      Sure. But there’s no way to know.

      • ask21771  June 2, 2017

        Does that include Peter, Mary and Paul’s, visions

        • Bart
          Bart  June 5, 2017

          You can’t really know what is happening in someone else’s mind.

  8. Carl  June 2, 2017

    Are there any similar discrepancies that Paul makes based only on the 7 books that he probably wrote? ie- does he contradict himself? not including the parts that were likely added in by the scribes? cheers

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2017

      There seem to be different theological views that he modified over time, but nothing like this kind of discrepancy in factual information.

      • James Cotter  June 2, 2017

        “But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee,”

        but christian apologists tell people that joseph was going back and forth to jerusalem for the yearly pass over festival.
        why would the text say “he was afraid to go there” when he went there any way?

  9. Phil  June 2, 2017

    Bart,

    In Matthew and Luke, the only real parallels between the stories are virgin birth and Bethlehem which makes me wonder whether, when historians look at ancient sources, is there any rule of thumb that the fewer parallels a story has between different sources, the less likely it is to be authentic (at least in the details)?

    It would seem to me that if a story didn’t originally include a lot of details, or the entire thing was made up later, then details may tend to get added (made up) as the story is retold; of course, different storytellers will add different details. Besides the birth narrative, other examples might be the trial before Pilate and the women at the empty tomb. There are large differences in these stories in the different gospels, so could one conclude that the stories themselves are thus less likely to be true than stories that are more consistent across the different gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2017

      Yes, I think the *basics* of the story circulated before the details were added — added differently by different story tellers. Whether the basics were themselves historical is an very different question though.

  10. Gary  June 2, 2017

    Christians do have a plausible harmonization for these stories, of course: Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth. The census occurs and Joseph takes his Holy Ghost-impregnated betrothed to Bethlehem where she gives birth accompanied by shepherds and angels. They return to Nazareth within a few weeks, stopping by Jerusalem for Mary’s purification.

    However, the “ben Joseph” family were so taken with Bethlehem that they soon decide to move to the Judean village. Jesus grows up there as a toddler. The wise men have seen a star that hovers over the family house. When Jesus is approximately two, an angel warns Joseph of the impending massacre by Herod’s soldiers, and the family flees to Egypt. After Herod is dead, the family moves to Nazareth.

    There is ALWAYS a harmonization if you try hard enough.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2017

      YEs indeed. Hence the impossibility of arguing with some people, including, from another realm, conspiracy theorists.

      • James Cotter  June 5, 2017

        but then is luke telling the truth when he says that after the purification, the family headed back to nazareth? to be honest, luke seems to be giving the impression that the family were doing back and forth from nazareth to judea and judea to nazareth. maybe even at times leaving baby jesus with relatives in nazareth and doing the yearly trips.

        the honest question is how come luke WORDS his narrative in such a way that he removes all hints of herod, massacre, danger and flight to egypt?
        how come?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 6, 2017

          Do you mean: Is Luke historically reliable? No, I don’t think so. But he didn’t *remove* anything about the massacre and flight. He simply had never heard that story, so far as we know.

  11. James Cotter  June 2, 2017

    “Let’s begin with the account in Matthew, which you may wish to read for yourself (Matt 1:18-2:23). Here we’re told that, prior to his birth, Jesus’ mother Mary is engaged to Joseph, but that before they consummate the marriage, she is “found to be with child.” Joseph decides to call off the marriage secretly, to avoid a scandal, but is told in a dream that Mary in fact has conceived through the Holy Spirit, in fulfillment of prophecy. Joseph takes Mary as his wife, the child is born, and they call him Jesus.”

    if she was pregnant and would SOON deliver, how would he avoid the scandal? people would ask, how did she give birth so fast?
    maybe the author thought she was only a few month pregnant, i don’t know.

  12. cheito
    cheito  June 3, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    I have been trying to illustrate the point that critical scholars who remain Christian have long made, that there can be stories in the Bible that are not historically accurate but that are trying to convey larger theological truths.

    My comment:

    What do you mean by “larger theological truths”? What is theological truth, and how can mere humans convey such truths, without a divine revelation? Without God Himself revealing such truths, the theological truths you refer to, is mere human speculation. How could there be theological truths without a real intervention by God into human affairs?

    If it’s true that God didn’t revealed himself to Moses, and literally spoke the Ten commandments to the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai, at Mt Sinai, then eat and drink because tomorrow you’ll die. Your theology is just the imagination of man. It’s not the word of the living God.

    Clearly God did not speak to Matthew, nor to Luke, when they recorded their version of the birth of Jesus. They are writing out of their own inspiration, according to their own agenda, and they have seen nothing, nor has God spoken to them, nor commission them to write their accounts.

    Paul, does write the words of God. He says that his words are not his own. Paul’s words were accepted by the Thessalonians as the very words of God. 1 Thessalonians 2:13

    13-For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.

    Paul’s Gospel was the message from God proclaimed by Jesus Himself. Galatians 1:11-12.

    11-For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12-For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

    Paul’s words are “larger theological truths”. Matthew’s and Luke’s words are not historically accurate and their theological notions are their own and not inspired by God.

    Paul’s story is historically true and according to him, it did happen.

    I believe Paul! I don’t believe Matthew and Luke.

    • dragonfly  June 5, 2017

      I think you have a very specific definition of the word “truth”.

  13. Steefen  June 4, 2017

    One thing the story does get right is that King Herod did have opposition to his throne, and he did have executed the child who would take it. That child was his adult, first born son, Antipater II.

  14. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  June 5, 2017

    I didn’t realize until someone pointed it out to me that the miracle stories may have been expansions from certain OT scriptures. What do you think?

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  June 5, 2017

      Here’s one example: Psalm 107:028 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress;29 he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.

      Obviously, Mark wrote that Jesus calmed the storm. That can’t be a coincidence. Up until now, I’ve always thought that the miracle stories (some of them anyway) had a basic kernel of truth that was embellished over time, but no I don’t think so.

      Then, the other day, I was reading 1 Corinthians about Paul’s command concerning marriage and realized it, too, was similar to Jesus’ teaching about divorce. Paul wrote that it was the Lord’s command and not his, so now I’m wondering if a large part of what Paul taught became the words spoken by Jesus in Mark’s gospel.

      Not sure where I’ve been this whole time.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 6, 2017

      Yes indeed! Cf. the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-24 with the story of Jesus in Luke 7:11-17!

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  June 8, 2017

        Finding out the miracles stories were created from the OT is kinda disheartening. Like when I found out the OT characters were most likely myths. 😕

  15. shamansshaman  June 18, 2017

    I am oicur1also@gmail.com on my friends account. I agree with 2 people talking about ww2 and being totally different yet both correct. So you see the star,sheppards down the road,close ,arrive the night of his birth to find them in the manger.The wise men,take several days to travel,find them in an inn.I think this is totally believable.Bart would you send me your response in addition to a post here to my email?Thank you sir.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2017

      It doesn’t say the wise men saw them in the inn, but in a house. And since Herod killed all boys two years and under “based on the time he learned from them” about hte star, that indicates it was well over a year later.

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