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Is There Evidence that Luke Originally Did Not Have the Story of Jesus Birth?

This is the second of three posts on the question of whether Bible translations should place the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel in brackets, or assign them to a footnote.  For background: read the post from yesterday!  Again this is a Blast from the Past, a post I made back in December 2012. .


In my previous post, ostensibly on the genealogy of Luke, I pointed out that there are good reasons for thinking that the Gospel originally was published – in a kind of “first edition” – without what are now the first two chapters, so that the very beginning was what is now 3:1 (this is many centuries, of course, before anyone started using chapters and verses.) If that’s the case, Luke was originally a Gospel like Mark’s that did not have a birth and infancy narratives. These were added later, in a second edition (either by the same author or by someone else).

If that’s the case then the Gospel began with John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus, followed by the genealogy which makes better sense here, at the beginning, than it does in the third chapter once the first two are added.

But is there any hard evidence that a first edition began without the first two chapters? One of the reasons it is so hard to say is because we simply don’t have much hard evidence. Our two earliest manuscripts of Luke, P75 and P45, are fragmentary, lacking portions of Luke, including the first two chapters. We can’t say whether they originally had them or not. Our first manuscript with portions of the opening chapters is the third-century P4. But our earliest patristic witness is over a century earlier. As it turns out, the witness is the heresiarch Marcion, and as is well known he didn’t have the first two chapters!

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Interpolations and Textual Corruptions: The Blurry Lines
Did Luke’s Gospel Originally Have The Birth Story? Readers Mailbag and a Blast from the Past



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 14, 2017

    Very interesting! Keep going!

  2. Avatar
    bself  August 14, 2017

    Assuming adoptionism is correct, does that in any way affect how you view the concept of the Trinity?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2017

      If Luke’s Gospel originally had an adoptionistic view, it would simply mean that his view was different from that of others — for example, the author of John, and Paul. It would show more of the rich diversity of the early Christian movement in its theology. As to the history of how the doctrine of the Trinity emerged, see my book How Jesus Became God.

  3. Avatar
    gavriel  August 14, 2017

    Do you think that the one who added chapters 1&2 (assuming it was done by Luke or another) knew Matthew’s birth story and conscientiously tried to “correct” it?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2017

      No, I don’t think he did. There’s almost no overlap!

  4. Avatar
    Tony  August 14, 2017

    Another interesting point is the dating of Luke-Acts. Richard Pervo and others date Luke-Acts as early 2nd century and not the traditional 80-85 CE. Here is the Amazon summary of Pervo’s book:

    “In Dating Acts, Richard Pervo subjects the scholarly consensus that Acts was written about 80-85 C.E. to a rigorous scholarly examination. Analyzing the author’s sources, methods, theology, familiarity with ecclesiastical developments and vocabulary, Pervo discovers that the author of Acts is familiar with the later writings of Josephus (c. 100 C.E.) and that the theological perspectives of Acts have much in common with elements found in the Pastoral Epistles and Polycarp (c. 125-130). He also situates the book of Acts in terms of its place in the development of early Christianity and its social and ideological context, and shows how a second-century date helps to interpret it.”

    Luke’s agenda in Acts was to harmonize the Jewish and Gentile factions and perhaps fight early Marcionism. Luke mangled Paul’s letters, particularly Galatians, in order to create his pseudohistorical Acts.

  5. cheito
    cheito  August 14, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Your comment:

    Peppard points out that in the Roman world, adopted sons frequently had a higher status than natural sons; if an emperor had sons, but adopted someone else to be his heir, it was the adopted son who would become the next emperor, not the natural sons. The adopted son was seen as more powerful and influential, as indeed he was.

    My Question:

    Jesus was Jewish. Did the Jews of Jesus’ time also observe, practiced, and believed the custom of the Romans regarding adopted sons?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2017

      There was not simply one “Jewish” practice and a different “Roman” one. Aristocratic Jews in the Roman empire followed many of the cultural customs of aristocratic Romans, naturally. (Many people tend to think of all Jews as the same in antiquity, and that’s quite wrong — any more than it’s possible to say what “the Jews” think and do today!)

  6. Avatar
    Seeker1952  August 14, 2017

    With regard to the possible excising of Luke’s birth narrative, all I have to say is “Lex oriendi, lex credendi” –the law of prayer is the law of belief. (I’ve always wanted to use that at a cocktail party but it’s never seemed appropriate–plus I don’t get invited to many cocktail parties, I wonder why.) Luke’s birth narrative is too much a part of the culture– not to speak of Christian tradition–to excise.

  7. Avatar
    dragonfly  August 14, 2017

    If Luke was the author of the birth narrative, wouldn’t that mean he was definitely not an adoptionist?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2017

      Yes, it would mean that he included adoptionistic traditions in his work (since he did!), but that he himself appears to have had a different view (if he had a consistent view)

  8. Avatar
    anthonygale  August 14, 2017

    Is there evidence that books in the ancient world often came out in various editions? And that this likely happened for other books of the Bible? I imagine that would add another level of complexity to textual analysis. For example, might the reason for there being evidence both for and against Luke knowing Matthew be that Luke wrote a second edition after reading Matthew? Even if that specific example is unlikely, it’s not hard to imagine something like that happening.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 15, 2017

      Yes, authors sometimes explicitly talk about multiple editions of their work, done both by them and by others who passed them along.

  9. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  August 15, 2017

    Enlightened understandings come into focus on issues such as this by having a grasp of what each Gospel pertains to, incrementally and prophetically, regarding the Church Age dispensation.

    The Gospel of Luke pertains to the present juncture as the Church Age is concluding; this of course is the time leading up to Christ’s return to reign. That’s why in Luke (1:32-33), Gabriel forecasts that there would be no end to His Kingdom. Of course, literally and historically, this prophecy “failed.” That is, if we isolate the Gospels to historical documents of literality. But when we bring Luke ALIVE, we understand the pre-birth prophecy of Christ reigning pertaining to His triumphant future coming, because that is the prophetic domain of Luke’s Gospel.

    Matthew, the only other Gospel to include Jesus’ birth, does NOT feature a pre-birth prophecy of Him reigning; instead, in Matthew, we read that He would “save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). That’s because Matthew’s Gospel pertains to the time period of 2,000 years ago, when Christ came as the Passover sacrifice at the beginning of the Church Age. That was His mission then; hence, Matthew’s pre-birth forecast deals with that issue.

    Mark, then, does not feature Jesus’ birth at all, because Mark pertains to the age of Christianity in which Christ has been absent from the world (John 9:4-5). The Christian Church Age has been a “wilderness” time of men stumbling in the dark, with no true light to see. (Again refer to John 9:4-5). Christianity’s 30,000+ denominations substantiates this. In fact, Mark not only does not have Jesus’ birth, but it begins in the wilderness (1:4). Thus, notice:

    Matthew > Mark > Luke
    Beginning of the Church Age > Church Age > End of the Church Age
    Jesus arrives to save people from sin > Christ absent from the world > Christ returns to reign in His Kingdom
    Passover sacrifice > Wilderness > Promised Land

  10. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  August 15, 2017

    What is the evidence for and against the claim that the same author wrote chs. 1&2 and chs. 3ff. of Luke? Are the style and vocabulary consistent or inconsistent?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 17, 2017

      Yes, the style of chs. 1-2 is different, more like the style one finds in the Greek version of the Old Testament.

  11. Avatar
    Tempo1936  August 16, 2017

    What is the earliest Dated existing manuscript of luke? Where is it located?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2017

      It is in both P45 and P75 from the early third century.

  12. Avatar
    AnotherBart  December 19, 2017

    Very interesting! Prior to reading this, I had speculated that Luke chapter three to its end had been written in Philippi during Luke’s stay there c. 51-56 (?)

    (Acts 16:18 –end of Luke’s first ‘we’ passages in Philippi to
    Acts 20:6 “But *we* sailed from *Philippi*.)

    And that the first two chapters were written in the Jerusalem area c. 57-59 while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea.
    (Acts 24:27 “When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison.”)
    another big ‘we’ section that positions Luke in the area where Mary might have been at approx age 74.)

    This could have resulted in two “luke'”s in circulation.

  13. Lev
    Lev  March 28, 2018

    Hi Bart,

    I was re-watching your Shaffer Lecture ‘Christ Come in the Flesh’ on Youtube where you propose that Luke’s gospel was published in two editions, with the second edition being compiled by Luke himself with the added opening chapters.

    However, in Justin Martyr’s First Apology (ch 33) he cites the Angelic announcement to Mary which appears to have a closer relationship to the Gospel of James, than to Luke. Here’s how Justin cites the words of the angel:

    1. Behold, you shall conceive of the Holy Ghost,
    2. and shall bear a Son,
    3. and He shall be called the Son of the Highest,
    4. and you shall call His name Jesus;
    5. for He shall save His people from their sins

    Here’s the Gospel of James:

    1. for the power of the Lord shall overshadow thee:
    2. wherefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee
    3. shall be called the Son of the Most High.
    4. And thou shalt call His name Jesus,
    5. for He shall save His people from their sins.

    And here’s the words found in Luke:

    1. You will conceive
    2. and give birth to a son,
    4. and you are to call him Jesus.
    3. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.

    As seen above, Justin has followed the same order as the account in James, whereas Luke records the angelic announcement in a different order (4 before 3) and without the 5th claim. If the gospel of Luke with the opening two chapters was available to Justin, why did he not cite from that, and instead cite from the gospel of James?

    Justin knew the gospel of Luke and spoke of it approvingly, describing it as a memoir of an apostle and cites from it (in Dialogue 103.8, he cites Luke 22:44), so perhaps Justin only knew Luke’s 1st edition that started at chapter 3? But is it likely that the Roman church in Justin’s time were still unaware of Luke’s 2nd edition, or is it more likely that the 2nd edition had yet to be written?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 28, 2018

      I’m not saying there was a linear development: at one time the Gospel started in what is now ch. 3 and then all copies started with what was then ch. 1. I’m saying that two forms of the text were in circulation and only one of them had what are now the two first chapters, and that it was the shorter that was the older of the two versions. The proto-gospel of James certainly knew teh form of Luke with the first two chapters. Does that answer your question?

      • Lev
        Lev  March 28, 2018

        Yes, I follow (and agree) that the 1st edition of Luke starts at ch3 and that was still circulating when the 2nd (larger) edition was produced. I guess what I’m searching for when that 2nd edition was produced and used by early Chrisitans.

        You argue for a date within the author’s lifetime. Assuming we run with the majority date of the 1st edition in the 80s/90s, does that mean the second edition (with chs 1&2 added) was produced maybe 10-20 years later? That would bring us to c100.

        However, if Justin wrote c155 and didn’t know of the 2nd edition, then perhaps the 2nd edition wasn’t written by his time? Perhaps the 2nd edition was produced sometime after c155 and before the first reliable quotation in Ireaneus c180?

        Under this proposal, the 2nd edition knew the gospel of James rather than the other way round.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2018

          Right! My poijnt is that Justin would know whatever edition was avaialbe in his church — whether the first or second edition. He doesn’t quote the Gospels enough for us to have a firm idea what his texts actually looked like.

          • Lev
            Lev  March 29, 2018

            Yes, I agree Justin was working with whatever edition he had, but I suppose that’s the point I’m trying to make.

            If Justin, who I believe was a senior member of the Roman Church at the time (c155), only had access to the 1st edition of Luke (and that seems to be the case as he cites the Gospel of James rather than the 2nd edition of Luke’s narrative), then perhaps this means the 2nd edition wasn’t published until the mid-2nd century?

            If the 2nd edition had already been in circulation for decades (which would be likely if, as you argue, the original author added those chapters), then wouldn’t the Roman Church have acquired a copy by the time Justin wrote? As Clement shows in the 1st Century, the Roman church was already exerting authority over other churches so it would seem less likely to me that they would not have copies of important texts within a few years of their publication. If anything, the author of Luke would have probably ensured a copy of his 2nd edition found it’s way to the Roman church to ensure it became authoritative – if he had written it.

            I’m not sure he did. I once read a paper examining the opening chapters on a textual basis and it detected two hands for the opening chapters that differed from the hand that wrote the subsequent 22 chapters. I understand his conclusions were that the author of the opening chapters used an existing written tradition of John the Baptist and wove that into their opening narrative. I can dig it out if you’re interested.

            The point is that perhaps it wasn’t the same authour who added the opening 2 chapters because if Luke was published c85, then it’s unliklely that the original author was still alive to add those chapters after Justin wrote 70 years later in c155. If that is correct, then the infancy narrative in Luke is a mid 2nd-century insertion by another hand.

  14. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  April 16, 2018

    Does Acts provide any clues to the question “was Luke himself an adoptionist”?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2018

      Numerous clues, but many of them at odds with one another! How could Jesus have been “made” both “Lord and Christ” at his baptism (see Acts 2:36) if he was *born* Lord and Christ (see Luke 2:11)?

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