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Jesus’ Birth: Some Comparisons

Here is another illustration of how the Comparative Method works with Luke, as described in my textbook on the New Testament. A personal anecdote. It was precisely the differences between Matthew and Luke in the birth narratives that led me to formulate the comparative method. Unlike the other methods I discuss in my book, this is one that is not widely discussed in scholarship. In fact, I had never heard of it until, well, I came up with it. But it occurred to me while thinking of the birth narratives (and genealogies) that it didn’t *matter* if Matthew and Luke had the same source for their narrative. If they did have, one could do redaction criticism on them; but they don’t have. Does that mean comparing their two accounts cannot yield results? I decided that in fact interesting results *did* matter. Their similarities and differences were important in and of themselves, and that this could be formulated into a method of study. (It may be that others had come up with a similar approach before: I simply had never heard of it when I was writing my book back in the mid 90s)


Luke’s Birth Narrative in Comparative Perspective

The two lengthy chapters that begin Luke’s account contain stories relating the births of Jesus and his predecessor, John the Baptist. By beginning with a birth narrative, Luke has an obvious point of contact with Matthew. Mark, it will be recalled, begins with Jesus as an adult.

There are some very broad and basic similarities between the birth narratives of Matthew and of Luke. In both, for example, Jesus is born in the city of Bethlehem, to a virgin named Mary, who is betrothed to a man named Joseph. But for most readers what is far more striking is the difference between the details of these accounts. Indeed, none of the specific stories of Luke’s narrative occurs in Matthew, just as none of Matthew’s appears here. You can see this easily enough for yourself: simply make a list of everything that happens in Luke and a separate list of everything that happens in Matthew, and compare your lists. In one of them you will find the shepherds, in the other the magi, one describes the journey to Bethlehem, the other the ght to Egypt; one records an angel’s words to Mary, the other the angelic words to Joseph; and so forth. These are two discrete narratives; the Christmas story recounted every December is a conflation of the two.


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The Gospel of John from a Literary-Historical Perspective
The Comparative Method and Luke



  1. fishician  March 5, 2014

    I think Matthew’s imaginative use of unrelated Old Testament passages to support his story, as well as imaginative details like the magi following a star or Herod not bothering to send at least one soldier with those foreigners shows that the overall message was more important to him than rendering a factual account. But then I think that’s true of all the NT writings (and much preaching today!). Makes it hard on people who believe in Biblical inerrancy, though.

  2. RonaldTaska  March 5, 2014

    I think your introduction of the “comparative” method is a very helpful and creative contribution.

  3. SJB  March 5, 2014

    Prof Ehrman

    My understanding is that the scholarly consensus is that although Matthew and Luke share sources they were written independently of each other. And even thought their accounts differ, both felt the need to include an account of a miraculous birth. And of course the writer of Mark didn’t. So what happened between the writing of Mark and Luke/Matthew? Or to put it another way, why do you think Mark’s conception of who Jesus was not require a birth narrative and Luke/Matthew’s conception did fifteen to twenty years later?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 6, 2014

      My sense is that the idea of a virgin birth simply had not arisen in his community, unlike those of Matthew and Luke.

      • gabilaranjeira  March 6, 2014

        So, the presence of the genealogy and virgin birth on both Matthew and Luke does not put into question the belief that they are unknown accounts (Gospels) to each other?
        Thank you!

        • gabilaranjeira  March 6, 2014

          Sorry, I just read your response to a similar question below.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2014

          No, because they do not have the kinds of word-for-word agreements you would expect if one writing was the source for the other.

      • Wilusa  March 7, 2014

        But haven’t you said elsewhere that it’s at least as much a matter of *time* as of *place*? That the majority of believers first thought Jesus became divine upon his resurrection, then came to think it had been at the beginning of his ministry (Mark), and later still pushed it back to his birth (Matthew and Luke). Though a minority(?) had believed from the start that he was an incarnated being who’d previously been an angel.

  4. drdavid600  March 5, 2014

    It must have been so hard for God to inspire the authors of the Bible. Any conservative today knows that all the elements of the story are true, whichever gospel contains them. So it’s true that Mary and Joseph came from Nazareth to Bethlehem, no matter how strange the story is of uprooting a country to have a census. Likewise the magi following a star and the slaughter of the innocents are true. Could Bill O’Reilly be wrong? Once one implausible story is declared true, what’s a hundred more?

    Yet the process of inspiration is so tenuous that God couldn’t manage to get all the elements written in a single story by one author, much less get prophecy written at an earlier time match up unambiguously with later events. What defective creatures we humans are. It’s a miracle we can write at all. If this is what God has to work with, no wonder some of us find the end result so confusing.

    Then again what if Jesus simply was from Nazareth and all the machinations to have him born in Bethlehem didn’t come from God at all. Then our defect as humans is how we are loose cannons and not that we can’t hold all the elements of truth in our mind at once. Pick one.

  5. jrhislb  March 5, 2014

    So how has Christian theologians reconciled the stories in the past? Surely someone noticed the problem.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 6, 2014

      Yes, Christian apologists spend a good deal of effort in showing that even though the accounts *look* like they are at odds, they are not really….

  6. richard gills  March 6, 2014

    greetings dr ehrman

    “39When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

    41Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom.”

    is the yearly trip to jerusalem from birth onwards?

  7. JoeWallack  March 6, 2014

    Professor Ehrman, as you know, there is evidence that “Luke” placed Nazareth in Judea. Any related comment?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 6, 2014

      I’m not familiar with this evidence. What is it? (Jesus’ ministry in Nazareth in Luke 4 is in Galilee, no?)

  8. fultonmn  March 6, 2014

    I might be remembering wrong, but wasn’t there a thread not that long ago about Luke Chpts 1-2 being by a different author? Seems like that might have to be accounted for when doing a comparative analysis. I recognize that we don’t know who either “Regular Luke” and “Christmas Luke” really are, but they don’t necessarily intend to express the same ideas in their alterations, no? And if I remember right from one of your books, scribes put in a bunch of anti-adoptionist material in Luke, too. So seems like the first step is accounting for the real authors. Sorry if my faulty memory is fouling the thread with bad gouge. If I could find my Nook I’d look it up. You’ll set me straight.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 6, 2014

      Ah — yes, that’s a point I should have made. This kind of literary analysis does not ask where the final form of the text that we have in front of us came from; it simply treats the whole thing as a whole thing, in the form that we have it.

      • fultonmn  March 6, 2014

        Thanks. And,wow! I find that answer surprising!

  9. gavriel  March 6, 2014

    Would you say that the differences between Matthew and Luke on the birth narratives prove that they worked on Mark and other sources independently of each other? Alternatively, if the birth narratives are second edition expansions of both gospels, these expansions would be independent as well? A bit off-topic question: Is there any definite proof of the upper bound for the date of Luke, first edition? For instance Ignatius seems to refer to Luke or a Lukan tradition around AD 110.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 6, 2014

      Yes, they certainly worked independently of one another. I think Luke 1-2 is definitely a later addition to Luke; I’m not as convinced about Matthew 1-2. Justin Martyr in 150 CE definitely used Luke.

      • Bethany
        Bethany  March 6, 2014

        I’m curious about something (slightly off-topic) — my apologies if you’ve talked about this earlier, I’m sure I’ve read something on this topic somewhere, but I can’t now recall where. Do you think that Luke 1 and 2 were written at the same time by the same person?

        I was reading Luke recently and was struck by the fact that Luke 2 in many ways seems like it’s starting over again — for example, introducing Mary and the fact of her pregnancy as though we hadn’t just gotten done reading all about it in chapter 1, or the fact that Mary and Joseph seem constantly amazed by things that happen in a way that seems odd given that Mary was told that Jesus was the son of God in chapter 1. I was wondering what the scholarly thoughts on this were?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2014

          My view is that they are by the same person, though based on earlier sources of some kind. Where do you seem Mary and Joseph amazed in ch. 2 about things they learned about in chapter 1?

          • Bethany
            Bethany  March 9, 2014

            Well, there’s the part where Simeon is praising God and “And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.” Why are they so amazed? Gabriel told Mary all about how Jesus was going to reign forever and would be the Son of God and whatnot. Mary was singing about Jesus just last chapter, why would she be surprised when other people do it, too?

            Or where Jesus is in the temple and tells them, “‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them.” Why didn’t they understand what he said to them? If they know that Jesus is the Son of God — which they should, Gabriel told Mary so — why were they confused?

            At least, that what’s was going through my mind as I was re-reading Luke. 🙂

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  March 9, 2014

            Yup, good questions.

          • Bethany
            Bethany  March 9, 2014

            There’s also the bit, “He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child”? It almost sounds as if Mary hasn’t been introduced before. We already know she’s expecting a child, we just spent most of the last chapter reading abut it. Maybe that comes across differently in the Greek, though.

      • gavriel  March 6, 2014

        Sure, but I would like to see a smashing argument for a pre-100 CE date for Luke. So far I have assumed that since Luke contradicts many basic facts given in Paul’s letters, he must have been unaware of at least some of them, and since these letters flourished as a collection from at latest at the turn of the century, he must have written Acts prior to that, and the Gospel prior to that again. What else could strengthen the conclusion?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2014

          Yes, that would be one argument. Both Luke nad Acts were written before Justin in 150, but how much earlier is very hard to say. Part of the question is whether the Apostolic Fathers knew of Luke in some form….

  10. Wilusa  March 6, 2014

    So…can we assume that if “Matthew” had known about the tradition(?) recounted by “Luke,” he would have said he knew it to be wrong? But Luke might have known about Matthew’s version of the story, since he made a general statement about other authors’ works not being acceptable?

    Just how important to the “Messiah” concept was the idea of birth in Bethlehem? Was it a real stretch for Jesus to convince himself he was the Messiah, given that he (almost certainly) hadn’t been born there? Or did he never claim to be the Messiah at all?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 6, 2014

      I’m not sure we can *say* what Matthew or Luke would have said…. Micah 5:2 indicates that a savior will come from Bethlehem, but it does not designate the person as the messiah. So it could be *used* to argue that Jesus was the one, but if Jesus came from somewhere else, it wouldn’t necessarily be a problem.

  11. Wilusa  March 6, 2014

    A wee bit off-topic…I know I have a habit of suggesting possibilities you think are improbable. This is likely to be another.

    Have you ever considered the possibility that the inner circle of Jesus’s disciples – say, a half-dozen or so men – knew perfectly well that he hadn’t been raised from the dead? Let’s say they realized some dim-witted followers had gotten the notion he’d been resurrected. Maybe someone had put his body somewhere temporarily, and later moved it – and the followers, not knowing the first burial or entombment had been intended as temporary, had jumped to the conclusion he’d risen from the dead.

    The disciples’ faith in the coming Kingdom wouldn’t have been shaken by Jesus’s crucifixion; they would still have believed that active preaching would speed its coming. And they would have hated the thought that they themselves might be made to look like fools because they’d thought Jesus was the Messiah.

    So…might they have decided that if people were this gullible, they’d play the “resurrection” for all it was worth? Deliberately spread the story that more people had seen the “risen” Jesus than actually had claimed “visions” of him…and then say that after his resurrection had been “proven,” he’d “ascended”? You’ve told us they described his resurrection as the “first fruit,” portending the general resurrection they hoped for. And that made it possible to say he was a different kind of Messiah.

    We know early Christians resorted to other types of fraud – all those “forged” writings, and revisionist claims of “prophecies” that took Old Testament passages completely out of context…

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 6, 2014

      This has sometimes been argued. One would have to ask what the *evidence* of it is. There’s not much, that I can see. But it’s an interesting reconstruction!

    • fishician  March 6, 2014

      It seems more likely to me that the body was disposed of like all crucifixion victims, but disciples had visions (or possibly made up stories of visions) of Jesus, leading to the belief he had been raised from the dead. The tomb story came later, to “prove” the resurrection. So the disciples may have truly believed in the resurrection, but had no real evidence for it.

  12. Eric Rodvan  March 7, 2014

    “Luke 1-2 is definitely a later addition to Luke” When do you change your mind on this? In DJE you used Luke 1-2 as evidence for the existence of earlier sources.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2014

      I’m not sure what in DJE you’re referring to. (But even if it’s a later addition, as I suspect, it could have been based on earlier sources…)

  13. Robertus
    Robertus  March 7, 2014

    But surely Baby Jesus Matthew and Christmas Luke could not have been totally independent of each other. Either one was dependent (and did not agree much with) the other (Ferrar Goulder Goodacre) or they were dependent upon a core common tradition (strict 2-source hypothese, Mt & Lk independent). I think it is possible Luke knew Matthew and recognized it as midrash and thought he could do better from his quasi historical perspective. But, to me it is more likely that before Luke would have been able to get his hands on a copy of Matthew, he would have first heard about its existence 2nd-, 3rd-, 4th-hand, etc, especially considering the partly itinerant character of the early currches as described in the Didache. And how might the gospel of Matthew have been described? It’s a lot like Mark except it begins with a genealogy and a virgin birth of Jesus and in Bethlehem and includes angelic appearances and his father’s name was Joseph and it describes a post resurrection account of Jesus at the end. Just post Matthean oral tradition. The most extraordinary, fantastic, beginning elements of Matthew’s gospel would be most likely to be repeated and reported to Luke who claims to know of other written accounts. This scenario is more likely to have occurred prior to Luke actually acquiring a written copy of Matthew. It’s not like he could just download it on his Amazon kindle. Othe than the striking similarities, I don’t think there’s many stylistic elements to suggest that eithe was dependent upon a literary source. I’ve tried this out on you before, as you may recall. Still not convincing???

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2014

      Scholars are widely agree that the two sources are independent of one another (except for those few scholars who hold to Matthean priority). They simply lack the kinds of verbatim agreements one looks for when trying to establish literary dependence.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  March 8, 2014

        Which is precisely why I propose indirect dependence:

        … But, to me it is more likely that before Luke would have been able to get his hands on a physical copy of Matthew, he would have first heard about its existence 2nd-, 3rd-, 4th-hand, etc, especially considering the partly itinerant character of the early churches as described in letters of Paul and the Didache. And how might the gospel of Matthew have been initially and orally described? ‘It’s a lot like Mark except it begins with a genealogy and a virgin birth of Jesus and in Bethlehem and includes angelic appearances and his father’s name was Joseph and it describes a post resurrection account of Jesus at the end. Just post Matthean oral tradition. Indirect dependence. The most extraordinary, fantastic, beginning elements of Matthew’s gospel would be most likely to be repeated and reported to Luke who claims to know of other written accounts. This scenario is more likely to have occurred prior to Luke actually acquiring a written copy of Matthew. …

  14. jrhislb  March 7, 2014

    What do you think the birth narratives tells us about whether Luke had Matthew as a source? Do you think the stories would have been so different from each other if Luke had read Matthew?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 8, 2014

      I think without extensive word-for-word agreements, there’s no way to maintain that one was dependent on the other.

  15. Blackie  October 18, 2014

    To bring up the conjecture about Jesus being illegtimate as Mary was raped by a Roman centurian, Pantera as advanced in Jane Schaberg ‘s book, “The illegitimacy of Jesus. Does this account have any merit or valid substantiation. It is certainly off the familiar debates about the birth of Jesus and nature of his conception. What are the thoughts on this topic?.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2014

      No, it was simply a later rumor, attested first in the late second century, among Jewish opponents of Christianity.

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