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Did Luke Originally Tell the Birth Story?

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been asked by readers if I think the birth stories of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 were original to those Gospels (they are the only two sets of stories of Jesus’ birth we have; all subsequent retellings — even in modern times — go back to one or both of them).   My view is that there is little reason to doubt that Matthew began originally as it does now, with the stories of chs. 1-2 (though I’m open to persuasion otherwise).  But I do have questions about Luke 1-2.  I suspect they were added later, after the Gospel was first published.  I’ve talked about the issue before, including in a couple of posts from six, count them, six years ago.  I still think pretty much the same thing.  Here is the first of the two posts.  It begins with some reflections on Luke’s version of Jesus’ genealogy:


In my previous posts I have already said a number of things about the genealogy in Luke – possibly most of the important things:

  • It differs from Matthew’s in numerous ways, many of them irreconcilable;
  • Even though it too is a genealogy of Joseph, rather than Jesus, it traces Joseph’s line through a (completely) different set of ancestors back to Nathan, son of David, rather than to Solomon Son of David;
  • It is not, however a genealogy of Mary, but is explicitly said to be Joseph’s;
  • It is not clear why a genealogy of Joseph is given, since the whole point of a genealogy is bloodlines, and Jesus is not in the bloodline;
  • Unlike Matthew it begins with Joseph and works backward from there (that is not a discrepancy, of course, just a different way of doing it);
  • And unlike Matthew it does not stop with Abraham but goes all the way back to Adam – as in Adam and Eve. And it goes in fact a step further, indicating that Adam was “the son of God.” This means that Jesus is in a straight line of descent from God! (Well, Joseph is, anyway) (and then again, by this logic, we all are).

There are numerous other points that can be made about Luke’s genealogy, but I want to focus on just one issue, which I raise initially as a question that may have occurred to you. Why is the genealogy in chapter 3 instead of ch 1? You would think a genealogy would be given at the beginning of a person’s life, since that’s where it seems most relevant. But this one is given, oddly, after Jesus baptism as an adult. Huh?

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The Gospel of Luke without a Birth Story
The Virgin Birth in Matthew and Luke



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  December 23, 2018

    Is there any doubt that Luke and Acts were written by the same author?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2018

      The questoin has been raised, but there is no doubt in my mind. Look at the opening few verses of each. The writing style, theology, interests, and many other similiarities tie them closely together.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  December 23, 2018

    This is all quite fascinating, and credible, but it feels weird to talk about ‘editions’ of a gospel. I assume Luke didn’t get any royalties, and there were no overseas rights to worry about? If anybody finds a screenplay adaptation for First Century Fox, let me know. 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2018

      Yes, it’s often hard to think of a non-capitalist world!

  3. Avatar
    crucker  December 23, 2018

    Would Luke 1:1-4 have been original? Or do you think this was added later too?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2018

      I take it to be original.

    • Avatar
      Michele  July 16, 2019

      Dr Ehrman,
      “the majority of scholars (I would imagine) are reluctant to say that Luke 1-2 were originally lacking from the Gospel”. It is still so?

      Thank you,

      Michele Fornelli

  4. Avatar
    gwayersdds  December 23, 2018

    A little off topic but I wanted to wish you and your family a Merry Christmas (although in your case maybe Happy Holidays is more appropriate). May the New Year be a blessing to you. Thanks for your blog. I’ve been plagiarizing your posts on the nativity stories for my Sunday school class. Many thanks.

  5. Avatar
    doug  December 23, 2018

    Happy Holidays to you, Bart, and to all the readers of your blog.

  6. Avatar
    anthonygale  December 23, 2018

    If the second edition theory is correct, is there reason to believe one way or another whether Luke added the two chapters or someone else did?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2018

      The style is very different from the rest of the Gospel (and Acts); and the themes are not found elsewhere. So my guess is that it was someone else.

  7. Avatar
    caesar  December 23, 2018

    I did a little research on reconciling the genealogies. There are different solutions made by conservative scholars. The one I saw the most was that Heli was really Mary’s father, not Joseph’s. This seems as unlikely to me as it does to you…but can you think of ANY justification for this? For example, are there any examples (in the bible or elsewhere) of genealogies being traced through someone’s father-in-law, as opposed to their father?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2018

      The only reason this would occur to someone is that the genealogy contradicts the one other wwe have. But no, there is no precedent for that kind of move.

      • Avatar
        Pattylt  December 24, 2018

        Hopefully, a few quick questions on Jewish law at that time…
        For royal succession was it required to be by blood or would adoption be considered legal?
        For priestly heredity, same question?
        I’m still trying to figure out why Joseph’s heredity mattered in the slightest! Any enlightenment you can throw my way is greatly appreciated.
        Happy Holidays to you and yours!

        • Bart
          Bart  December 25, 2018

          Priesthood: definitely, had to be bloodline. Royalty: not necessarily. Descent from David? Either you had it or not!

          • Avatar
            dankoh  December 26, 2018

            The Hasmoneans had problems running the high priesthood because while they were descended from Aaron, they were not from the family of Zadok, to whom Ezekiel had promised the high priesthood in perpetuity. They also had trouble being accepted as kings because they were definitely not from the house of David. While the kings of Israel were of several dynasties, Judah was always ruled by the house of David, and I can’t think of any other kings of the Jews who did not claim Davidic descent. There was definitely a sentiment that only someone from the House of David could rule over the Jews, and many also expected the messiah – or at least one of the messiahs – to be a son of David. So I think that explains the genealogy of Joseph back to David.

            (Of course, that only works if Jesus was Joseph’s son, not God’s.)

  8. Avatar
    fishician  December 23, 2018

    It would explain how John the Baptist recognized Jesus while still in the womb (!) in chapter 1, but in chapter 7 has to send his disciples to find out if Jesus really is the Expected One.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 24, 2018

      In modern scriptwriting terms, Luke ‘spackles’ a lot. 😉

  9. Avatar
    brenmcg  December 24, 2018

    Do you think the introduction to theophilus is original?

    It would seem strange to add this if you just want to add a nativity story before original beginning at chapter 3. Maybe it was originally the introduction to chapter 3 and moved back when the nativity added. Though that would weaken the argument that “In the fiftheenth year … ” sounds like the beginning. Also if you’re going to move the introduction back why not move the genealogy back at the same time.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 25, 2018

      Yes, myu sense is that the preface is original to the book that it originally went before what is now 3:1. In part that’s because the book of Acts begins on a similar note, which shows that it was probalby the author’s intention to begin both that way.

  10. Avatar
    D-men  January 1, 2019

    Maybe a little late but I have heard this argument as well that Heli was the son in Law The reason was(with a lot of theological reasons as well) that the Talmud mentioned Mary as the daughter of Eli is. This would also clarify in verse 23 the notion, ‘as was supposed of Joseph'(ESV) or ‘Everyone thought he was the son of Joseph'(CEVD). Could you give a comment of on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2019

      I don’t think you can use the Talmud, from centuries later, to determine what Mathew, centuries earlier, might have meant.

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