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Jesus’ Birth in Matthew and Luke: A Study in Contrasts

In two previous posts I’ve detailed what happens in Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth and then in Matthew’s.  I will assume those two previous posts in the comments that I want to make in this one.  The problem people have with reading these two accounts, usually, is the problem they have reading the Gospels (and the Bible as a whole) generally.  Or at least this has been my experience.  It’s the problem of assuming that one account is basically saying the same thing as some other account.

People do that with the Bible all the time.   With the New Testament, people tend to read Matthew as if he’s saying the same thing as Mark; John as if it’s the same thing as Luke; Paul’s letters as if, at heart, they’re the same thing as James; Revelation as if it’s the same thing as John.  And on and on and on.

One of the most important tasks I have as an undergraduate teacher of the New Testament is to get students to see that each of these authors – and indeed, each of the books of the New Testament – has to be read on its own to see what its message is.   The message of Mark may be different from John; Matthew may be different from Paul; Acts may be different from James; and so on and on.  Even when two authors are talking about the same subject – in fact, *especially* when they are – they may be saying very different things about it.

This is why it is so important to introduce students (not to mention their parents!)  to the discrepancies of the Bible.  Many of my students never really get the point of why we talk about discrepancies.   They think the *point* is that we can then come away from the Bible and say, “So, it’s full of contradictions!”   And the subsidiary point then is, they think, “Therefore we cannot trust it.”

In fact, for me, neither one of these is the point.   The point is rather this:

To see the rest of this post, you will need to belong to the blog.  If you don’t belong yet, there’s no time like the present!  You’ll get tons for your money and all the money goes to charity.  So why not???

The point is rather this:  if there are discrepancies in two accounts, it means that they are trying to say, teach, affirm, assert, claim DIFFERENT THINGS.   It is only when you see that two accounts cannot be reconciled that you realize, with full force, that you have to let each one say what it wants to say, rather than assume that they are saying the *same* thing.  Because if they are at odds, they are indeed saying different things.  And if you want to interpret each one properly, you have to see what it – and not some other account – is trying to say.  In other words, discrepancies are a KEY TO INTERPRETATION.   And so they have positive, not only negative value.

I should also say that from a different angle, the discrepancies are important for historical (not just interpretive/literary) reasons.   If two accounts are at odds with one another, they cannot both be historically accurate.  Either one of them is accurate and the other is not, or they both are not.

With that as a set up, let me just affirm what many of you have already long known, and many others have picked up from my previous posts.   Matthew and Luke are at clear odds in their infancy narratives in important ways.   They also have interesting and important points of agreement as well, and these need to be given very serious consideration.   Most significant, in my view, is their agreement that Jesus was *born* in Bethlehem even though he *came* from Nazareth.   But the way they both make it happen is not only different but at odds, showing that we need to interpret each on its own merits, and recognize that either one or both are historically inaccurate.  (The historical point: both of them KNEW that Jesus was from Nazareth; but they both WANTED him to be *born* in Bethlehem.  So they told stories to make it happen.  But the stories are at odds, showing that the desire is being driven by an agenda rather than disinterested reportage.)

Some of the most famous differences are simply differences: Luke tells some stories and Matthew tells others.   Luke has the Annunciation to Mary; Matthew has the dream of Joseph.  Luke has the trip to Bethlehem; Matthew has the flight to Egypt.  Luke has the shepherds; Matthew has the wise men.  You could say – if these were the only differences – that Luke told part of the story, Matthew the other part, so that if you want the full story you need to combine the two – as happens in this season’s Christmas pageants.

But there are not just differences between the two, there are also discrepancies.  Here I’ll name the three biggees:

  • The genealogies.   Both Matthew and Luke give Joseph’s genealogy.  And they are different genealogies.  It’s easy to see.  Simply read Matthew 1 and Luke 3, and ask who Joseph’s father is.  And grand-father. And great-grand-father.  And great-great-grand-father.   They are different, all the way back to David.  And it’s not that one is giving Mary’s genealogy and the other Joseph’s.  They both claim to be Joseph’s, explicitly.
  • The home town.  As I showed in my previous post at length, in Matthew Joseph and Mary come from and are resident in Bethlehem.  They relocate to Nazareth only a couple of years after Jesus’ birth, because of the dicey political situation in Judea (where Bethlehem is).  Luke is even more crystal clear: they are from Nazareth and only happen to be in Bethlehem because of that census under Caesar Augustus in which “all the world” had to be registered.  After they did their duty, both political and religious, they returned home.
  • The aftermath.   Luke is clear that Joseph and Mary returned home immediately after they fulfilled what the law requires of a woman who has given birth.  This is a reference to Leviticus 12.  Thirty-two days after giving birth, the woman has to perform a sacrifice in the Temple for ritual cleansing.  Mary does.  They go home.   But Matthew has them still in Bethlehem until the wise men arrive months, or up to two years, later, and then they don’t move to Nazareth but flee to Egypt.   If Matthew’s right that they went  to Egypt, Luke can scarcely be right that they returned right away to Nazareth.

Conservative Christian readers from Protestant fundamentalists to the Pope have worked hard to reconcile these various  discrepancies, but doing so, in my opinion, is a big mistake.   If you put all your energies into reconciling them, then you are failing to consider the importance of the discrepancies for understanding each account.  And you are making the mistake of assuming that both accounts are historically accurate.  They’re not accurate and they’re not saying the same thing.  It’s the discrepancies that show that, and that open up avenues for proper interpretation.


The Virgin Birth in Matthew and Luke
Jesus’ Birth as “The Fulfillment of the Prophecies”

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    cmdenton47  December 16, 2018

    Wonderful post!

  2. Avatar
    Hormiga  December 16, 2018

    Matthew and Luke appear to have two branches of a Nativity story that got started sometime before ~80 CE and then diverged, presumably as the story was developed by different groups in different places. Is there any way to estimate when it got started and where the divergences developed? For example, Paul doesn’t have any hint of it, and he was in Jerusalem ~50 CE and other places in the next decade — I’d take that to indicate that either the story was developing elsewhere or hadn’t yet got started at all. Similarly, Mark ~70 CE says nothing about it, though by that time both versions almost certainly were in existence somewhere — but not where Mark was. Similarly with John in the 90s.

    This assumes that Paul, Mark and John would have at least mentioned the super-miraculous conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, his linking to the Davidic line and the tribulations inflicted by Herod if they’d been aware of the story in some form. It’s just too theologically compelling to pass up.

    Would you agree with any of that? If so, can we draw any conclusions about the venues in which the stories did or didn’t develop?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 17, 2018

      I agree with the first paragraph; but I don’t think we can assume Mark or John would have told the story had they known it. There must have been hundreds of stories they had heard they didn’t give.

    • webo112
      webo112  December 17, 2018

      Also, Paul does state that Jesus was from Davidic Line…correct? So it seems this was a fairly OLD claim that started with early followers- BUT that does not mean they thought early on that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem as well. (They could have just merely thought that his parents had blood ties to David).

      In fact when one thinks about it, a person’s linage/bloodline does not matter or relies on ‘location of birth’- it’s a matter of who your parents and ancestors were? (as shown by the lineages given in both Gospels) Nor didn’t even matter where one lived their life… or was it in fact judged where you where born etc. back in those days?
      Or did they think anyone born in Bethlehem was of Davidic line?

      I don’t think so – it seems they had Jesus born in Bethlehem to show he was just like king David? As a “bonus”, after the fact that he was of Davidic line (also).

      Perhaps Professor, your take on this would clarify things?

      • Bart
        Bart  December 18, 2018

        Yes, I pretty much agree. But being from the davidic line was not just a bonus: it was a stipulation of being the messiah. That’s pretty much the point of the story.

        • webo112
          webo112  December 18, 2018

          Yes, Davidic linage was required and an early claim…
          But I meant that he was given Davidic linage, and (later) as an the extra bonus he was made to be born in Bethlehem, further equating him like David.
          It seems early on he was given Davidic linage, then perhaps after 50’s CE, writers added Bethlehem birth to meet OT prophecies and equate him more to David himself with the same birth place.

          Just speculating, but maybe the Bethlehem birth stories only originated FAR after his death, and after 1st generation followers died -as they all knew his birthplace was not Bethlehem (but still believed Davidic linage claims- as they could not be proven a lie anyway).

          Does this reasoning make sense? I am not familiar with the exact OT prophecies linked to Jesus (I will look them up)

          • Bart
            Bart  December 19, 2018

            Yes, I think they came into being long (years, maybe decades) after his death.

  3. Avatar
    Matt2239  December 16, 2018

    Cognitive dissonance is caused by the discomfort associated with conflicting beliefs, values, ideas and facts. Its presence motivates a person to change, but it does not force any particular direction. Hence, in a religious context, it can lead to atheism or denial, or it can lead to a reinterpretation of a person’s faith.

  4. Lev
    Lev  December 16, 2018

    Very interesting summary of the discrepancies. It does make me wonder if the same person who wrote the opening chapters of Matthew or Luke was the same person who wrote the rest of the gospel – or if these opening chapters were later added on by someone else.

    I once read a study that claimed the opening chapters of Luke were not from the same hand as the rest of the gospel due to the variance of grammar and vocabulary – is that the consensus within critical scholarship?

  5. Avatar
    doug  December 16, 2018

    Do you ever get complaints from your students’ parents that you are misleading or corrupting the students by teaching that the NT books have discrepancies?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 17, 2018

      Never! Though they may well complain behind my back!

      • Avatar
        Silver  December 17, 2018

        Would you, in fact, expect to receive complaints from parents about what you are teaching to their children who are, after all, adults? Surely they should be mature enough to raise any concerns themselves. Certainly I would not expect that to happen in the UK.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 18, 2018

          No, in fact I wouldn’t expect it. And have never received it!

          • Avatar
            vienna1791  January 17, 2019

            Thank God (ironically) for FERPA! You don’t have to deal with parents!

      • Avatar
        mannix  December 17, 2018

        The parents are probably happy the kids are actually attending the classes!

      • Avatar
        hankgillette  December 19, 2018

        I think that the parents of children who would take issue with that pretty much expect their children to be taught such things when they send them off to a godless university. I know growing up in a Pentecostal church, we were sometimes warned about what too much education could do to our faith.

        It turns out that they were right!

  6. Avatar
    jdub3125  December 16, 2018

    I would agree with those scholars who for at least a century have doubted that either account is historically accurate. The stories sound as if made-up and not factually reliable. Questions: 1. Do you think the stories were added by new authors, perhaps years after the original gospel writings? 2. Do church ministers that you’ve known really believe the accounts, as read from the pulpit during the Christmas season, are literally factual? If so, wonder why and how could they, and if not, why not be intellectually honest and so state. Many congregants show up only at Christmas and don’t know anything else about the faith. Too bad, since the birth stories are a nonessential.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 17, 2018

      1. I think the Lukan account was added later; Matthew’s was probably original; 2. Depends what kind of Christian tradition they are in. Big difference between a conservative Southern Baptist and a liberal Episcopalian!

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 25, 2018

      There are good reasons to think the Nativity Stories are not factual in the main, or at all.

      However, the fact that they sound made up isn’t really a good criterion to follow, since an many fully documented historical events sound made up as well.

      “Oh right, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson each talked about each other, while they were dying within a few hours of each other. And Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day. And Donald Trump is President of the United States, and just told a seven year old Santa Claus isn’t real in a staged press event. Go on, pull the other one.”

      Even if you take out the supernatural elements, there are things in the Nativity story that strain credulity, but that in itself isn’t the problem. The problem is that we have two very different stories, both with elements that don’t occur anywhere else, and each involving a significant historical event (a massacre of small children and a census of the entire Roman Empire that involves huge numbers of people traveling long distances) that can’t be confirmed by any other source material.

      All births are, to some extent, dramatic. I was born in a blizzard, and my mother had to hitch a ride on a snow plow. Her water broke on the subway. Are you calling my mother a liar? 🙂

  7. Avatar
    Thespologian  December 16, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, what is the earliest Old Aramaic text, if any, that mentions Jesus or is Gospel related?

  8. Avatar
    Brandan DeLorenzo  December 16, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    It was only after the surprise events of 1 Cor. 15:5-8 that had Jesus’ followers looking backwards for answers, is that correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 17, 2018

      Yes, probably. Though we may be talking about days or weeks, not years.

  9. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  December 16, 2018

    Very much look forward to each mornings post.
    Was always curious about these things even as a kid.
    Excellent job and excellent back and forth on the comments!

  10. Avatar
    Stephen  December 16, 2018

    How would the hypothesis that Luke originally began with chapter three play into all this? I suppose it’s possible that the hypothetical Lucan editor/redactor heard about Matthew’s version and thought, “I have to get me one of those!”, or that he just had a story he liked better.

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  December 17, 2018

      Yes, I think chs. 1-2 were added later, after a first edition of Luke had been published.

      • Avatar
        gavriel  December 17, 2018

        And the question then is: Did the editor of Luke (Possibly Luke himself years later) know about Matthews opening? They are so much at odds with each other that it looks as if Revised Luke is written in opposition to Matthew?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 18, 2018

          It doesn’t look like there is any knowledge of Matthew (or Matthew of Luke).

  11. Avatar
    mcmemmo  December 16, 2018

    Since you mentioned Popes, in his book on the Infancy Narratives, Benedict XVI writes that the first two chapters in Luke are marked by Semitisms that are not typical of the rest of his Gospel. He says it reads like a Haggadic Midrash. I thought Luke was writing for a non-Jewish audience. Could he have been using a Jewish source as the basis of his narrative?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 17, 2018

      Yes, Benedict is right, sort of. But they are probably not semiticisms strictly speaking, but Septuagintalisms, imitating the style of the Greek Old Testament. He didn’t need a Jewish source, just the familiar accounts of the Jewish Bible.

  12. Avatar
    spock  December 17, 2018

    Thank you for an interesting blog post. I have also heard the response that one of the genealogies is Joseph’s while the other is Mary’s, but I have never really understood how that could be a reasonable interpretation of the texts, since, as you point out, both claim to be the genealogy of Joseph. How do scholars who think that the differences between the genealogies can be reconciled in this way justify that interpretation?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 17, 2018

      I suppose one common way is to say that since the genealogy had to be traced from father and son, even though it was really Mary’s they had to say it was Joseph’s….

  13. Avatar
    hankgillette  December 17, 2018

    “Luke is clear that Joseph and Mary returned home immediately after they fulfilled what the law requires of a woman who has given birth.”

    The Temple in Jerusalem was close to Bethlehem, but were women from all over Judea expected to go to the Temple 32 days after giving birth? I wonder where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus stayed during those 32 days before her purification?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 17, 2018

      I think the idea is that if you were close, you might as well take advantage of it. Most Jewish women at the time, of course, did not

  14. Avatar
    AstaKask  December 17, 2018

    Take-away: The discrepancies are not arbitrary, they tell us something about the writer and his agenda. People who try to reconcile them are writing their own Gospel, using the Bible Gospels as a source and they have their own agenda – often to insist on a literal reading of the Bible. But the Gospels are not primarily biographies (although they do include biographical events), they are primarily religious texts meant to deliver a message, the good news.

    What would you say is the unique key message of each Gospel? For instance, “Matthew’s gospel has as its central theme that Jesus is the new Moses, come to clarify and fulfill the Law.”

    • Bart
      Bart  December 17, 2018

      Yes, that’s one of Matthew’s key points; another is that Jesus fulfilled the predictions of Scripture (an emphasis implicit in Luke but not really stressed). Luke wants to stress that Jesus really was God’s (literal) son and was recognized as such by the people who mattered at the outset.

  15. Avatar
    blclaassen  December 17, 2018

    Were these contradictory gospels both in circulation at the same time among the same people? Did they have the same questions about authenticity?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2018

      In some places, yes. No, no questions about authenticity from antiquity.

  16. Avatar
    Duke12  December 17, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, is there any evidence that the Annunciation Date of March 25 was commemorated in the Pre-Constantinian Church prior to December 25 being chosen as the official Nativity date post-Constantine as a counter to the Saturnalia festival?
    Optional Back story to the question: I can’t remember the source, but I recall reading claims (on the Internet, of course!) that some in the early per-Constantinian Church believed (for mystical reasons) that Jesus was conceived on the same date as his death. The death date was believed to be March 25, therefore that was chosen as the Annunciation date, therefore December 25 as the birthdate, therefore the celebration of December 25 as Jesus Nativity predates it’s official adoption by the Roman Empire (or maybe the Christian celebration on December 25 itself somehow influenced the Saturnalia festival date as a possible counter to the Christian celebration)

    • Avatar
      Duke12  December 17, 2018

      Edit: Sol Invictus instead of Saturnalia. I’m a bit behind in the comment threads 🙂

      • Bart
        Bart  December 18, 2018

        Yup, that’s right. When I wrote that years ago I was so much younger and foolish….

    • Bart
      Bart  December 18, 2018

      Not that I’m aware of. I’ve heard that too, but have never taken the time to find out if it’s true or not.

      • Avatar
        RRomanchek  December 18, 2018

        Even when I want you to know an answer, I find it refreshing when you admit you don’t know.

  17. Avatar
    heccubus  December 17, 2018

    Matthew and Luke make much of the Davidic lineage of Joseph, apparently to conform to a specific OT Messianic prophecy. But the Virgin Birth narrative which points to a different prophecy claims that Joseph is explicitly NOT the (biological) father.
    It seems to me there are two mutually-exclusive claims here – literally ‘Joseph is the father’ and ‘Joseph is not the father’ – or am I missing something?

  18. Avatar
    seahawk41  December 18, 2018

    A question that I’ve mulled over since reading your posts on Matthew and Luke’s birth stories is this: “Why did Mark not have a birth story?” It is easy to imagine why John didn’t: the author was interested in the pre-existant Word of God who came and dwelt among us. What mattered to him was who Jesus “really” was and the fact that the Word became incarnate. It was not important to him as to how that happened. At least that is my speculation. But for Mark, why not? Was he aware of birth stories and just didn’t care to include them? Did birth stories exist but he didn’t know about them? Or did the birth stories originate between the time of Mark and that of Luke and Matthew? I don’t know of any way to tell, unless there is some amazing text discovered, but I’m interested in your take on this question.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2018

      My guess is that Mark had never heard a birth story.

      • Avatar
        hankgillette  December 19, 2018

        I believe that you have touched on this previously, regarding the varying early beliefs about when Jesus became the son of God: could Mark have believed that Jesus was begotten as the son of God at his baptism and therefore his earlier birth was irrelevant?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 21, 2018

          Yup, that’s possible. But possibly he thought that about the baptism because he hadn’t heard about the birth!

      • Avatar
        Eric  December 20, 2018

        Or at least not a miraculous birth story. I think mark’s presentation is that Jesus became God’s son not at birth, but at his baptism?

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 22, 2018

        That seems very late for any member of the larger Christian community (still quite small, if increasingly widespread) to not have heard some version of the Virgin Birth story. Unless Matthew and Luke are the originators of the idea (which I doubt), I find it hard to believe Mark never heard anyone say Jesus was divinely conceived.

        I believe Mark was ambivalent about the Virgin Birth story, as many of the early converts must have been when those stories began to circulate in various forms. Mark may himself not have been Jewish, but he had clearly embraced much of the Jewish dislike of pagan polytheism, and he’s a minimalist by nature. Less is more, for him.

        His Jesus is the most human–and also the most mysterious. So whether Mark gave any credence to the Virgin Birth stories or not–wouldn’t it give the game away if he showed Jesus being divinely conceived? Ruins the suspense.

        Mark edits a lot. There’s a very specific story he wants to tell, which you’ve explained as well as anyone I’ve read. It’s a mystery, and the mystery is “Who is this man?” If he tells stories about Jesus’ birth and childhood, gives him an origin myth, that screws with his narrative.

        You could argue then, that Mark leaves out the Virgin Birth story for the same reason he leaves out the stories about Jesus appearing to his followers after his death (everybody knows already, he’s making a point by leaving it out), but then why the story about Jesus becoming God’s son at his baptism?

        If Jesus was divinely conceived, there’s no purpose for the baptism at all, a major problem for Matthew and Luke (that John avoids by not referencing the baptism at all).

        For Mark, that’s the story that makes sense. Jesus was born an ordinary human being, then became God’s son by adoption. Mark may have heard both stories, then chosen the one he preferred.

        Each of the gospel authors picks and chooses which stories to put in or leave out, and which to accentuate. In many cases, that’s because they didn’t have all the same stories. But we can be sure none of them included included every story they had ever heard or read.

  19. Avatar
    JohnKesler  December 18, 2018

    “This is a reference to Leviticus 12. Thirty-two days after giving birth, the woman has to perform a sacrifice in the Temple for ritual cleansing.”

    You made a similar statement in the blog entry here, https://ehrmanblog.org/the-birth-of-jesus-in-luke, to which I made this comment on December 10, 2018:
    >>>It would actually be 40 days after the birth of a boy (7 + 33). >>>Leviticus 12 says: 2…If a woman conceives and bears a male child, >>>she shall be ceremonially unclean for seven days; as at the time of >>>her menstruation, she shall be unclean…3 On the eighth day the >>>flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4 Her time of blood >>>purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy >>>thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification >>>are completed.” (For girls, the times were doubled to 14 and 66 >>>days.)

    Am I missing something?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 19, 2018

      You may be right; I was thinking the 7 days were part of the 33, but probably not.

  20. Avatar
    Tricia  December 22, 2018

    I have a picture that shows Nazareth (today) 3-5 miles from Sepphoris, an archeological dig that contained 30 mikvahs when Jesus lived in that area. There is today a basilica at Sepphoris dedicated to Mary’s birth. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Apparently. It was Jerusalem that was backward–not the northern part of Galilee. But it was the prophets and the Temple that wrote the Old Testament.

    Trish

    • Bart
      Bart  December 23, 2018

      I don’t think there could have been 30 mikvahs in Jesus’ day, or anywhere near that many (in Nazareth; or do you mean Sepphoris?). If you want to see the archaeological evidence, I summarize it in my book Did Jesus Exist? You might also check out Jonathan Reed and John Dominic Crossan, Excavating Jesus.

      • Avatar
        Tricia  December 23, 2018

        The 30 mikvahs have been discovered in the Sepphoris archealogical dig. That’s picture and described in National Geographic. Today’s picture of Sepphoris and Nazareth I got off Wikipedia. The point, as far as I see it, is that Jesus likely wasn’t some indigent carpenter with a hammer and twine. The time period, the building that was going on, would have made the Galilee region more prosperous, more a a place for trade and commerce, than Jerusalem. Which could be why the Jews in Jerusalem wanted to eliminate Jesus. How dare he be more “pure” (or spiritual) than they!!!!

        • Bart
          Bart  December 24, 2018

          Ah, got it. My view is that the fact that a city near by evidenced wealth doesn’t mean that the situation in Nazareth was wealthy. If you’re intereasted in seeing what the place was like, I’d strongly recommend reading the section about it in Jonathan Reed and John Dominic Crossan, Excavating Jesus.

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