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Did Luke’s Gospel Originally Have The Birth Story? Readers Mailbag and a Blast from the Past

QUESTION:  If, in your suspicion, the original Gospel of Luke began at 3:1 and the infancy narrative found in 1:5-2:52 is a later addition, do you think that should be indicated in NT reconstructions and translations in a way similar to how Mark 16:9-20 is often bracketed?

RESPONSE:  This is a great question.  I could answer it just yes or no, but I’m afraid that wouldn’t make much sense to many readers.  The question itself seems simple but is actually a bit complicated, and the answer needs to be even more so!

The basic question is this.  If I think, as I sometimes (often? most of the time?) do, that Luke did not originally have chapters 1 and 2 — the story of Jesus’ birth (the Annunciation; Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem, there “is no room in the inn,” the worship of the shepherds, and so on and on) — but started with what is now 3:1, the account of Jesus’ genealogy, then do I think that the chapters should be put in brackets in Bible translations with an explanation that they weren’t original, or even that they should be relegated to a footnote rather than place in the text of the translation itself?

Again, I could give a short answer, but it would be better to explain the issues.  This will take three posts, which will be a brief hiatus in my discussion of ancient views of the afterlife.

Two of these posts have been dredged up from over five years ago on the blog, from December 2012, where I deal with the issue of Luke 1-2 at some length.  Here is the first of the two, which came itself as the final one of several posts that I had dedicate to a discussion of Luke’s genealogy from Luke 3.


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 you may have had as well. 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?

I think there is an economical solution to the problem, but it may be one that has not occurred to you (I’m guessing).  Scholars have adduced very good reasons for thinking that Luke was originally written without what are now the first two chapters, that the birth narratives of chapters 1 and 2 were added only as part of a second edition of the Gospel.  Here are some of the reasons that have been given, that taken as a group seem to me to be pretty convincing:

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Is There Evidence that Luke Originally Did Not Have the Story of Jesus Birth?
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  1. Avatar
    rivercrowman  August 13, 2017

    If the beginning of Luke is ever bracketed, Christians will go ballistic.

    • Avatar
      godspell  August 14, 2017

      You mean the way some atheists go ballistic when Jesus is described as a historical person who really lived and died?

      Nobody likes being told their beliefs are wrong, but that is, quite often, a scholar’s task.

      And a singularly thankless one it is too.


    • Avatar
      HawksJ  August 14, 2017

      “If the beginning of Luke is ever bracketed, Christians will go ballistic.”

      Why would you expect that? Far, far more important to Christianity than the birth of Christ is the resurrection of Christ, and Christians have had no problem ignoring the ‘bracketing’ of the end of Mark.

      Theology is the practice of explaining what you ALREADY believe, not exploring why you believe it.

      • Avatar
        godspell  August 15, 2017

        It’s a bit silly to pretend Christians all have the same reactions to everything, when that has never at any time been the case, with them or any other grouping of any significant size.

        Some Christians would be upset, but then again, most Christians have barely even bothered to respond to claims that Jesus is a purely mythic being, and indeed many are entirely unaware of it.

        If your only purpose in being a non-believer is to poke fun at believers, it would seem a fairly shallow and reactionary form of belief.

        However, there is no more homogeneity in atheist/agnostic belief than there is in theism.

        By their fruits shall ye know them. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

  2. Avatar
    Silver  August 13, 2017

    Is there any extant manuscript where Luke begins with Chapter 3?

  3. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  August 13, 2017

    I can’t help but be amused with Luke 3:23; Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph,

    “So it was thought” is like saying, “We think Joseph was his father, but who knows?”

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2017

      Yes, given the rest of the narrative that is usually taken to mean that he was *reputed* to be Jesus’ father (so it was thought) but in fact he wasn’t because God himself had made Mary pregnant.

  4. Avatar
    Stylites  August 13, 2017

    Could this have been Marcion’s version of Luke?

  5. Avatar
    Seeker1952  August 13, 2017

    You’ll probably get to this later but I want to try to clarify some things before I forget.

    The basic question is whether the birth narrative was in the autograph, right? It’s not a question of the historical evidence for whether some or all of the things in the birth narrative actually happened, right?

    Are there ancient manuscripts of Luke that don’t have the birth narrative?

    For other bracketed material in the gospels, are there usually/always some manuscripts that lack that material? If not always, what are a couple examples of bracketed material that no ancient manuscripts lack?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2017

      It completely depends on what you mean by “autograph.”

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  August 13, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, for reasons that I won’t get into, because it gets rather esoteric, I think that Luke is the source of chapters 1 and 2 BECAUSE Luke is the one who attached those chapters to an original source that begins in chapter 3. That is to say, “Luke” didn’t start at chapter 3 and a later editor tacked on chapters 1 and 2. No, “Luke” WAS the editor who attached chapters 1 and 2 onto chapter 3, which was itself an earlier source that “Luke” was copying verbatim. At this point, I think “Luke” had at least half a dozen written sources in front of him as he wrote his letter to “Theophilus”. And he combined all these sources into “an orderly account,” filling the gaps and connecting the sources as mortar between them with the stories he had heard . One of those stories he had heard was probably Jesus’ genealogy starting from David. So “Luke” decided to take it one step further and create a genealogy all the way back to Adam. He didn’t get this genealogy from one specific source. He had merely heard such a genealogy suggested and he attempted to reconstruct it using his knowledge of scripture. It didn’t matter whether his genealogy was accurate or not. The point is that “Luke” knew that a possible genealogy was suggested by the believers, and he simply recreated it as he understood it. So, in a sense, it was partly a product of the Christian community and partly a product of “Luke’s” reconstruction.

  7. kadmiral
    kadmiral  August 13, 2017

    Hi Bart,
    If indeed Chapters 1 are 2 and later additions, what does this do, if anything, for the christological evolution you put forth in How Jesus Became God? Would this mean that Luke most certainly portrays that Jesus is/becomes the Son of God at his baptism (Lk 3:22)? And further, could this mean that Matthew shows a later development in pushing back Jesus as the son of God to his birth/conception, meaning Matthew is written later than Luke?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 14, 2017

      What I argue there is that Luke affirms a variety of Christological views. But see today’s post!

  8. Avatar
    Tony  August 13, 2017

    Luke’s Gospel, amongst numerous other sources, is based on the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. An original truncated Luke gospel would indicate a rejection of Matthew’s nativity narrative by Luke. Why would Luke leave his chapter 3 genealogy in place instead of just ignoring the whole thing?

    Nevertheless, someone wanted to create another prophesy fulfillment of a Bethlehem birth. Luke, or a later interpolator, copies Matthew almost verbatim: Mt 1:21 -> Lk. 1:31-32.

    And we have Marcion showing up with a Luke gospel minus the nativity. Could Maricon’s Luke have been the earlier original, and had proto- orthodox scribes added the nativity narrative later?

    Maybe I’ll find out in part deux of the post…

  9. Avatar
    James Cotter  August 14, 2017

    “it differs from Matthew’s in numerous ways, many of them irreconcilable;”

    the child is taken to galilee after the purification rituals.

    39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

    ANY indication that the child was TAKEN to JUDEA 4-5 months later? absolutely not.
    yet apologists NEED the child to be RETURNED to judea BECAUSE of the trip to egypt.

    if they can have jesus RETURNED to judea VERY early on, then i can ALSO say that mary, joseph and jesus visited passover festivals when jesus was STILL an infant.

    this implies that jesus’ life was in danger and luke did not even know if one were to follow matthews version.

  10. Avatar
    godspell  August 14, 2017

    Matthew’s birth story is, in some ways, more problematic–clearly Jesus was a Galilean, from a family that had lived there for generations. Matthew was trying to make him a Judean whose family migrated to Galilee, to fulfill the ‘prophecy.’ Luke just attacked the problem from the opposite direction. Or whoever wrote that part of Luke.

    It’s interesting, given all the direct contradictions between Matthew and Luke, that both birth stories ended up as accepted canon. The capacity of human beings to ignore inconvenient facts continues to amaze me.

    I’m not 100% sure we’re not getting worse, but you know, Monday. 😉

  11. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  August 14, 2017

    Luke’s genealogy seems to have names thrown in at random, with multiple repetitions, between David and Jesus. Does he seem to have a method of some sort? Is the number of generations important?

  12. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  August 15, 2017

    At Mark 10:12, the HCSB claims “important evidence” that women could initiate divorce (presumably under Jewish law, since the note further down deals with Roman law separately) but other notes on ch. 10 and in the Jewish Annotated NT indicate that, among Jews, divorce was solely at the discretion of the male. Do you have any knowledge of what this “important evidence” might be?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 17, 2017

      Off hand I don’t know what the author of the note was thinking of.

  13. JDTabor
    JDTabor  August 15, 2017

    One additional consequence that may or may not have been noted is the place of Mary, mother of Jesus in Luke if one discounts chapters 1-2. The results are quite stark and dramatic.

    Mary would be neither mentioned nor named in the entire gospel, contrast Mark 6:3 with Luke 4:16ff which is not a precise parallel–unless she is intended in 24:10 as “Mary the mother of James” (cf. Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1). That would then leave Acts 1:14 and the passing reference to “Mary the mother of Jesus with his brothers” being present in the pre-Pentecost gathering of the Eleven.

    Quite a shift since so-called “Marian” expositions have relied almost wholly upon Luke 1-2. More often than not in both the Synoptics and John we have Jesus “mother” mentioned but not named.

    Interesting to think about.

  14. Avatar
    Debbie  August 18, 2017

    (Struggling with this tech stuff.) Beyond the Historical Jesus, is there anything written about John the Baptist (the bee charmer) outside of Christian writings? Just wondering. Deb

  15. Avatar
    asgaridrm  August 25, 2017

    you said:
    “(3) The book of Acts summarizes the preceding narrative as involving what Jesus “began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1), saying nothing of his birth”

    BUT i dont think it is a sound argument because as you said in definition of interpolation, luke 1-2 should be added to the Gospel before its publication and so, if the book of acts wants to summarize it, it should include luke 1-2 too! unless you assume luke 1-2 to be a later addition (after the time that Acts is written) to the gospel.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2017

      Yes, that would be the theory: the interpolation happened after Acts was written.

  16. Avatar
    Marko071291  October 1, 2018

    Dear Bart,

    could you point me towards a good scholarly Commentary on Luke?

    Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

    Greetings from Croatia!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2018

      Joseph Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible Conmmentary series.

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