In the past, when I’ve said that the Gospels sometimes contain “false memories” of Jesus people have objected:  these may not be memories at all, but simply stories the Gospel writers made up for their own reasons.  In that case Jesus isn’t being “remembered” in these ways.  Someone’s just making up stuff.

In response to that view, let me make two points.  The second will be the most important, but first things first:  in most cases I don’t think there is any way to know whether a non-historical tradition in the Gospels is something that the Gospel writer inherited from others before him or invented himself.  Take Luke’s story of how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem.

In Luke, and only in Luke we have a specific explanation of how it is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, if – as evidently everyone knew – he actually came from Nazareth.  It is that when Mary was full-term pregnant, she took a trip to Bethlehem with her espoused Joseph in order to register for a census that Caesar Augustus had established so that “the whole world” would be registered.  They had to go to Bethlehem because Joseph was descended from King David, and that’s where David had come from.  While they were there for this short trip, Mary just happened to go into labor and so Jesus was born in Bethlehem (as, of course, the prophet Micah indicates: the ruler of God’s people will come from Bethlehem; Micah 5:2), even though he was from Nazareth.

So the question is – was Luke recalling this event because that’s how he remembered it based on stories he had heard?  Or is he making it up?   My view is that there is no way to know.   For all sorts of reasons that I’ve given on the blog before I think it’s safe to say the story didn’t happen the way Luke described.   In my judgment it *did* happen in very, very broad outline something like that:  Jesus was really born, his mother was someone named Mary, his father was someone named Joseph, and she did go into labor sometime during the reign of Caesar Augustus.  But the entire business of a trip to Bethlehem to register for a census is an invented tradition.  It’s not what happened.

And so, some of my interlocutors would say that if Luke made it up then Jesus wasn’t being remembered this way.  Luke

Unlock 4,000+ Articles Like This!

Get access to Dr. Ehrman's library of 4,000+ articles plus five new articles per week about the New Testament and early Christianity. It costs as little as $2.99/mth and every cent goes to charity!

Learn More!