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Arguments that Luke Did Not Originally Have the Virgin Birth

In discussing the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism in Luke – where he evidently spoke the words of Psalm 2:7 “You are my Son, today I have begotten you – I have mentioned the possibility that originally Luke’s Gospel did not begin with the account of Jesus’ birth, as found now in chapters 1 and 2.  I have broached that topic on the blog before, a couple of years ago (if you want to see that discussion, just search for “Did Luke Originally Have”).  But my sense is that most people on the blog either weren’t on it back then or possibly don’t remember what I said (as, well, I myself didn’t remember till I looked it up!).  So let me summarize some of the issues.

The first thing is to re-emphasize that it would not be strange for Luke to lack an account of Jesus’ birth to a virgin mother in Bethlehem.  That account is also lacking in Luke’s source, the Gospel of Mark, as well as in the Gospel of John.   Moreover, it is worth pointing out that nowhere else in Luke’s Gospel does he refer back to the miraculous birth of Jesus; never later does he say anything about his mother being a virgin or allude to the spectacular events surrounding his birth.

Nor is there …

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Is Luke’s Christology Consistent?
Did Luke’s Gospel Originally Have the Virgin Birth?



  1. Avatar
    nacord  October 22, 2015

    Could it be that the entire gospel of Luke is a compilation of many different authors–almost a collection of copy and paste chunks that the final editor put together for his dear Theophilus? We obviously recognize Mark, Q, and L as sources; but perhaps “Luke” didn’t author much of anything himself–he merely compiled/edited.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2015

      That was an older view, but now it is thought that the stylistic and thematic unity of the book indicates it ultimately had a single author.

  2. Avatar
    dhjones1  October 22, 2015

    If Marcion’s churches lasted for centuries, where were theses churches and do we have any ruins today? is it unusual we don’t have any of their manuscrpts? Is it possible some surviving manuscripts are held in secret?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2015

      There were no church “buildings” that we know of until the mid-third century; Christians, including Marcionites, met in private homes. Marcionite communities were in numerous places, especially Asia Minor.

  3. Avatar
    RAhmed  October 22, 2015

    It seems like the main argument to say that Chs 1&2 were added in later is that Ch1 seems to imply that Jesus was the son since his birth while ch3 implies that he became son at the baptism. You refer to the following verse:

    “The Spirit of God will come upon you and the Power of the Most High will overshadow you, SO, the one born of you will be called holy, the Son of God” Luke 1:35).”

    Two things that come to mind though. I don’t think that verse necessarily implies that Jesus was a half-human/half-god. To think that, we have to assume that the Spirit of God IS God. However, this understanding was a later development in Christian theology. If I recall, the Spirit of God being added into the godhead happened much later. The old testament has numerous verses which speak of the Spirit of God coming into people, being a life giving force, etc., but it was never understood by Jews in the 1st century to be God himself. I think Luke 1:35 can be understood in a complete Jewish understanding of the Spirit and God and still make sense. There was a divine intervention by God who used his Spirit (not Himself) to have Mary become pregnant. The child WILL(sometime in the future) be called the Son of God. Then in chapter 3 Luke explains when and why he was called the Son of God. Namely, at his baptism and because God was “well pleased” with him.

    I think reading it like that also explains why in chapter 2 Mary says “Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” Where the father is not referring to God. It also explains why Luke’s genealogy implies that Joseph was Jesus’ biological father. To be me it looks Luke imagined that the Spirit played some major part in the birth of Jesus by being with Mary during her conception, but the Spirit didn’t necessarily impregnate her as Jesus was born through the union of Joseph&Mary.

  4. Avatar
    Paul  October 22, 2015

    Your post has sparked a number of questions for me:
    (1) Does Matthew reference its birth story later in the text to show that its birth account is original to the Matthean text?
    (2) If the birth account in Luke was added later, why would if differ so radically from the account in Matthew which presumably would be available to a later editor of Luke?
    (3) Even if Marcion did not have the first two chapters of Luke he had the subsequent chapters which include a genealogy. How can the genealogy be reconciled with a docetic view of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2015

      1) Nope; 2) The person who added it probably didn’t know Matthew; 3) because Jesus is said “supposedly” to be the son of Joseph. But I’m not sure that Marcion had the genealogy either (I don’t know either way)

      • Avatar
        jhague  October 26, 2015

        Did the original Matthew not have the virgin birth story, etc? Did it start with Jesus as an adult similar to Mark with the actual beginning at Mark 3:1?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 28, 2015

          It’s debated. I think there’s a chance it began with ch. 3, but I don’t find the evidence as persuasive as with Luke.

  5. Avatar
    toejam  October 22, 2015

    I’m sure you’re aware of this, but it’s worth noting also: In Marcion’s gospel (as far as scholars have been able to reconstruct it), Jesus comes down from heaven and first arrives in Capernaum. This is where he performs his first miracle. Later in the gospel, when Jesus goes to Nazareth, the people ask him to perform miracles of the sort they have heard him perform in Capernaum. Makes sense. In Luke though, Jesus’ public ministry begins in Nazareth, yet the people’s request for him to perform miracles of the sort they have heard he performed in Capernaum is still preserved (Luke 4:23) – this is *before* Jesus has even been to Caperneum! Seems to me to be another sign that Luke (as we know it today) and Marcion are dependent on a proto-Luke gospel. What do you think of this argument?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2015

      Yes, good point. This is always pointed to as a real problem with Luke’s narrative!

      • Avatar
        Adam Beaven  October 30, 2015

        Doctor Ehrman

        1. if we were there we would know joseph took mary as his wife and was hanging out with mary and his son. we would all assume that mary and jopseph were biological parents, do you agree? the bit about angel telling joseph in a dream would be unknown to us because we didn’t see the dream, do you agree?

        had we have known that joseph was about to put her away secretly we would assume that mary had pre marital affair, do you agree?

        do you think christians messed up on telling the story because matthews version seems to cover something like mary having pre marital relations?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 30, 2015

          Well, we would certainly assume that *Joseph* thought so (and it would be a highly reasonable conclusion!)

  6. Avatar
    Xyloplax  October 22, 2015

    Each Gospel seems to be, in a way, it’s own harmony of available Gospel material (presumably contributed by multiple Apostles and missionaries), each edited by independent authors in independent Christian communities And we know for a fact Luke was such a harmony since he helpfully tells us in plain words in the intro verse. I suppose I need to read about Q, M, L and such for more of that. Does Mark also show signs of being a compilation of other material?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2015

      It is certainly a compilation of earlier oral traditions, and possibly some written ones as well….

  7. Avatar
    James  October 22, 2015

    Do you envisage the composer of Luke 1-2 as having known the rest of Luke? I mean, on one hand it seems to be a totally self-contained section, culminating in a non-passion narrative in Jerusalem; on the other hand the Benedictus seems to have something to do with Luke 7.16.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 22, 2015

    Can you explain *why* you think it’s more likely to have been an editorial change than an alteration by a scribe? The length of it, maybe?

    You say the same author never mentions these things in Acts.That seems like strong evidence that they weren’t part of his beliefs, even at that (somewhat later) date.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2015

      I just like referring to it that way because there is no *textual* (i.e. manuscript) evidence for the shorter text. (Matthew too never refers back to the virgin birth stories he narrates.

  9. Avatar
    dragonfly  October 22, 2015

    What about the first four verses? We assume they are original, given the start of Acts?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2015

      Yes indeed! so it would have gone from 1:4 to 3:1 direct.

  10. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  October 22, 2015

    I don’t know. Was he accused of changing other texts as well? If he added, changed, rearranged, or omitted other texts, I think it’s very possible he cut out the first two chapters of Luke to suit his own purpose. Although, if the style of writing is different in the first two chapters from the rest of Luke, it’s a strong argument that it was added. The first time I read Isaiah all the way through, I realized there was more than one author because the tone was entirely different starting around midway.

  11. talmoore
    talmoore  October 23, 2015

    I must admit, when it comes to the issue of determining the original text from altered text, this business gives me a headache. However, what I tend to do instead is try to put myself into the mindset of a third party perspective, and I try to imagine first century christian missionaries (such as Paul) going about trying to persuade Jew and gentile alike of the truth of the messiah’s arrival and death.

    I would imagine that the first thing an educated Jew would ask is if Jesus was of the line of David, because the Prophets are pretty insistant that the Messiah was supposed to be of the line of David. Now, at that point, a christian missionary would probably be stumped, because Jesus was, truth be told, a complete nobody, and he died before anyone could really get a sense of who he was.

    (I should state that, for my part, I think Jesus’ ministry lasted only a matter of months, from the time John the Baptist was executed, only a matter of months after the solar eclipse of November 24th, 29 CE, that they would have interpreted as the “sackcloth” sun that the Prophets mention, up until Jesus’ execution the day after the Passover Seder on Friday, April 30th, 30 CE, or the 15 of Nisan, which would be, at most three months long. A few months is not nearly enough time for Jesus’ followers to know, thoroughly, who he was.)

    So when christian missionaries were faced with the question of Jesus’ origins, they couldn’t say they didn’t know, because the worst thing a salesman can do is admit they don’t have an answer. So the missionaries searched scripture and found an answer. Or, more specifically, two answers. The one we find in Matthew and the one we find in Luke. I, for my part, am confident that the birth narrative we find in Luke is original to Luke. I think that, in fact, the birth narrative is probably one of the most original parts of Luke, having originated later than the rest of the Gospel, which is mostly constructed from Greek translations of Aramaic and Hebrew original oral traditions. That is to say, the birth narrative in Luke appears so distinct because it’s the only part of Luke that doesn’t originate from a translation from an Aramaic or Hebrew original.

    The birth narratives came later (probably in the late 50s to early 60s), while the rest of the Gospel narrative, from the baptistm on, originated much early, from the inception of the Christian movement ca. early 30s.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 25, 2015

      But think about something (and many have). If the original version of Luke placed such emphasis on Jesus being descended from David through Joseph–why did Luke then go to greater pains than any other gospel writer to say Jesus was not Joseph’s son except by adoption? “As was supposed.” Okay, then why bring it up at all? It’s a lot of effort to prove absolutely nothing. Unless Jesus’ birth, while miraculous, while attended to by the Holy Spirit, did not mean Joseph had no role in the conception.

      Logically, the less Jewish Christianity became, the less Jesus’ lineage would matter, and the more the Divine Conception, with its seemingly pagan overtones, would appeal to new converts. In the gospels, we see this transition unfolding across the decades.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 11, 2015

        The genealogy through Joseph was probably only there to justify Jesus being born in Bethlehem. I don’t think the author of Luke really thought through the implication of his version of the birth narrative. We give an unrealistic level of quality assurance and error detection to faulty men who were more concerned with persuading the skeptics than they were with absolute logical consistancy.

  12. Avatar
    spazevedo1  October 23, 2015

    Would not it be logical that, as the book of Acts begins with a preface, the first volume (gospel) begins with a preface too (Luke 1: 1-4)?

    Then do you think that the “so it was thought” (about Jesus being the son of Joseph) in Luke 3:23 was added later?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2015

      Yes indeed! So the original Gospel would have gone from 1:4 to 3:1 direct.

  13. Avatar
    nsnyder  October 23, 2015

    What about the prologue? That’s in Luke 1 and certainly mentioned in Acts.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2015

      Yes indeed! so it would have gone from 1:4 to 3:1 direct.

  14. Avatar
    Joseph  October 23, 2015

    Does Matthew ever refer back to his (Matthew’s) birth narrative elsewhere in his gospel?

  15. Avatar
    Omar6741  October 23, 2015

    Is it true that the first two chapters of Luke show signs of having been translated from Aramaic? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2015

      Not really. They are closer to the style of the *Greek* OT.

  16. Robert
    Robert  October 23, 2015

    The placement of the genealogy still seems odd, perhaps Luke is trying to speak of how Jesus was God’s son, in some special sense, as well as human, tracing his origin back to Adam, who Luke also says was [the son] of God. Thoughts? Or do you think the genealogy might also have been added at some point before the infancy narrative? Or something else?

    I know that you think ‘enomizeto’ is ‘original’ but I would think it would have been added by whomever presumably added the infancy narrative.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 23, 2015

      My sense is that the genealogy is original (it ties into Luke’s other themes).

      • Robert
        Robert  October 24, 2015

        So what do you think was the originally intended sense of ‘enomizeto’ in Lk 3,23? You’ve previously said that you do not consider this to be a later addition.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 25, 2015

          I think Luke too knew of the stories of Jesus’ unusual birth. I just don’t think that he recounted those stories in the original edition of his Gospel.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 23, 2015

    I have now reread just about all of your terrific book “How Jesus Became God.” Clearly, the divinity of Jesus is the central concept of Christianity. A second related central concept is the “atonement.” Indeed, several thoughtful people have told me that the atonement is more central to Christianity than the divinity of Jesus. I don’t know if there is enough material for a whole book, but “The Atonement: How Jesus Became the Savior” might be an interesting follow-up book.

  18. Avatar
    RGM-ills  October 27, 2015

    Regarding your comment: “For myself, I look on the addition of the chapters as an editorial change (by the author or someone else) rather than a textual alteration (by a scribe).”

    I am not a writer like yourself and I have never even spoken with an “editor”, but I have edited my on comments before. If I have an intro and later decide on a different intro, I do not leave it with two introductions. I reword my original introduction so that it is NOT an introduction. I rearrange things such as your genealogy delivery into my new introduction. Now I realize it wouldn’t be as easy as our “cut and paste”, but if we are going to discuss in terms of “first publication”, then I would think any authorized editing would have not left us with two introductions.

  19. Avatar
    ron.davison  November 6, 2015

    Whether one accepts the virgin birth or accepts Marcion’s belief that Jesus began life as an adult …
    Doesn’t the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph make little sense? What purpose does it serve to include Joseph’s genealogy if it risks contradicting the claim – or at least in some sense the relevance – of a virgin birth? It seems that Matthew would begin with one or the other but not both.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2015

      I suppose one has to assume that Jesus was adopted into the line.

  20. Avatar
    SidneyFinehirsh  November 11, 2015

    Your recent posts on the nativity story in Luke, prompts me to wonder if a similar argument could be made for Matthew. Specifically is there any textual and theological reason to think that this birth scene could also be a later addition to this Gospel?

    Thinking that Matthew is the most Jewish of Gospels, suggests that an adoptionist theology would be more in line with the context of the genealogy going back to the first Jewish patriarch Abraham, the return from exile in Egypt, the sermon on the mount (as in Sinai), the five discourses (as in Pentateuch), and of course the forceful defense of the Law (5.17).

    Also Pausanius states in his rather confusing account of the Ebionites, this Jewish-Christian sect used Matthew as their single gospel, but believed that Jesus was the biological son of Joseph and Mary. If I can use Wikipedia as a source (Sorry, but Pausanius is as far as I’ve gotten on heresiology) I get that both Eusebius and Origen both thought that this sect generally denied the pre-existence of Christ while Irenaeus specifically states that the Ebionite version of Matthew lacked the first two chapters.
    So could there be some scribal mischief at play here in Matthew as you suggest was in Luke?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 11, 2015

      Some think Matt 1-2 were added later; I’m open to the idea but not really convinced.

      • Avatar
        SidneyFinehirsh  November 16, 2015

        Your agnosticism on this question has piqued my curiosity. Could you direct me to scholars/reference on this topic? Thanks.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 16, 2015

          You might look at some standard critical commentaries, such as Fitzmyer on Luke, or Brown on the Birth of the Messiah.

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