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Jesus at the Movies: Infancy Narratives

I’m having a terrific time with my undergraduate course this semester, a first-year seminar that I call “Jesus in Scholarship and Film.” Last month I posted my syllabus for the class on the blog. This past week was the first time we’ve done any film in the class, and it was very interesting.

For the class I had the students do a writing assignment, in which they compared the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke in detail (Mark and John, of course, don’t *have* anything about Jesus’ birth). They were to find both similarities and differences, and then they were to decide if any of the differences were irreconcilable. This was to set up what they were going to see in the film clips that I was set to show.

The similarities are pretty interesting if you come up with a full list: Jesus is born in Bethlehem; his mother Mary is a virgin; after his birth he is visited by a group of men (shepherds in Luke; wise men in Matthew) who have been alerted to his birth by a heavenly sign (an angel in Luke; a miraculous star on Matthew); eventually he is taken to Nazareth where is where he is raised.

The differences are even more interesting, as I pointed out in a post from last December. Of course some of the differences are simply … differences, not “contradictions.” As an obvious example, the fact that Luke mentions the shepherds but not the magi (wise men) and that Matthew mentions the magi but not the shepherds is not a contradiction. If both groups visited the infant Jesus, then Luke mentioned one group and Matthew the other: no contradiction.

 

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You Won’t Find *This* in the New Testament!
But Did It Really Happen?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    EricBrown  September 27, 2013

    Which evangelist tells us about the Little Drummer Boy (pah rumpah pum pum)? I can’t remember, did he come with the magi or the shepherds?

  2. Avatar
    donmax  September 27, 2013

    How can you leave out Norman Jewison’s JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR? 🙁

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 29, 2013

      No birth narrative!

      • Avatar
        donmax  September 29, 2013

        Good point!
        But have you considered using JCS to add to the discussion about the value of deleting the birth narrative entirely? Does it make the story better, or worse? and on what basis?

      • Avatar
        donmax  September 29, 2013

        p.s. — As I recollect, Jonathan Reed starts his Life of Jesus seminar with JCS. 🙂

  3. Avatar
    toddfrederick  September 27, 2013

    That sounds like a fantastic course…I would love to be in that class. It should be taught in seminaries !! 😀

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 27, 2013

    Although you have covered this ground before in many different places (books, news magazines, and blogs), it is still a terrific post. How did your students react to the discrepancies in the birth stories? What do those trying to remain Christian do with this information?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 29, 2013

      I don’t think this information has any bearing on whehter a person wants to be a Christian or not — simply on whether they want to be a fundamentalist or not.

      • Avatar
        RonaldTaska  September 29, 2013

        Hmmm? I sort of understand, but I would think that these discrepancies in the Gospels would be a challenge to the faith of even liberal Christians? They certainly have challenged my faith. So, the question becomes how liberal Christians integrate so much legendary material into a sensible faith? I know you have written that you remained a liberal Christian even after you learned about these discrepancies and it was the theodicy problem that shook your faith. For me, the lack of historical accuracy in the Gospels is even a bigger problem than the very difficult theodicy problem because one can always reason that God must have His reasons for allowing so much suffering, but the lack of historical accuracy in the Gospels, as proven by the discrepancies, changes everything.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2013

          It sounds like you’re equating faith in Christ with faith in the Bible. But most Christians historically have not seen it that way.

          • Avatar
            RonaldTaska  October 1, 2013

            I could be doing just that, but maybe at some point you could elaborate on how most Christians have historically not equated “faith in Christ with faith in the Bible.” The difficulty I have so far is that the Gospels seem to be our major source of historical information about Jesus so if they are not historically reliable then it is hard to really know much of anything about Jesus and this makes it near impossible to have any faith in Him. I could probably adjust to a few contradictions here and there, but there are contradictions and discrepancies everywhere from genealogy to birth to trial to death to Resurrection and then even more contradictions between Acts and both the Gospels and the letters of Paul. It just becomes too much. So, if one has a historically unreliable Bible, how does one develop faith in Christ? Are you thinking about the Roman Catholic ideas of ancient tradition and the magisterium providing faith?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  October 2, 2013

            For most of Christian history, it has been the tradition and authority of the church that has guided believers. The idea that it is to be “the Bible” in the way people today seem to imagine goes back only to the Reformation (and not even to all churches who split off after the reformation)

  5. Avatar
    Steefen  September 27, 2013

    Hm, you don’t mention Jeffrey Hunter who left Star Trek to William Shatner. Of course, I’m talking about King of Kings 1961. Was there no birth scenes in the movie? (This film may have the best Sermon on the Mount scene.)

  6. Avatar
    Scott F  September 27, 2013

    I always thought that the order to kill two years old and younger was to make sure that all INFANTS are killed since it hard to mistake a two year old for an infant but a mother might try to pass her six month old off as an under-sized one year old, for instance.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 29, 2013

      The problem is that the text indicates that he based the decision on the “time he learned from the magi.”

      • Avatar
        Scott F  September 30, 2013

        I meant that even if Herod thought that the infant was only a few days old or a few months old, he still might target any child under two just in case his soldiers (who were not hired for their experience with infants, after all) could not distinguish between babies of different ages. There is no mistaking a siz month old for a two year old. Better safe than sorry.

        On the other hand, the shear senseless brutality of killing EVERY young child in Bethlehem might have been a rhetorical point – it sets up the Jeremiah quotation more effectively than “Herod ordered his soldiers to kill the three of four children who fit the description given by the Magi.”

  7. Avatar
    pawel  September 28, 2013

    Robert Powell’s Jesus – never blinking.

  8. cheito
    cheito  September 28, 2013

    Dr Ehrman:

    I’ve been aware of the differences you mentioned above for some time. That’s why I don’t rely on Matthew’s account. I’m convinced that whoever wrote ‘Matthew’ was not an eye-witness. I don’t believe the tradition that Matthew the Apostle wrote this book is correct.

    God would not use astrology to announce the birth of His son. In Isaiah 47:13 He denounces astrology and those who predict the future by the movement and positions of the celestial bodies. The Magi were astrologers. Also Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15 and asserts this prophecy was fulfilled when Herod slew the children in Bethlehem. Why would Rachel be weeping? She was not the mother of Judah. If anyone would be weeping it would be Leah. She was the mother of Judah from which these children descended. Also it’s not historically verifiable that Herod ordered the slaughter of these children. Or is it? Furthermore would Rome allow Herod to do this? And if He did do it why don’t we have any historical record of this massacre? All the other differences and discrepancies between these two accounts of the birth of Jesus convince me that whoever wrote Matthew was definitely not and eye-witness and used unreliable sources or simply made it up for whatever reasons.

    On the hand I do believe in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. As I commented before in another blog you wrote, when Luke wrote his account HE DID NOT rely on oral traditions or narratives from other writers who had not been eye-witnesses. Luke clearly states in Luke 1:2 that his sources were handed down to him by those who were EYE-WITNESSES and SERVANTS of THE WORD from the BEGINNING.

    Luke 1:2-just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,

  9. Avatar
    nichael  September 28, 2013

    Not related to the infancy narratives, but will the class be watching Pasolini’s “Gospel according to St Matthew”?

    Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to track down a copy but I’ve heard (from many friends whose opinions I respect about such things) that it’s suppose to be quite good in that it actually sticks to the Gospel story quite closely (although I’ve also been told that it has a bit of an “Italian art-house vibe” to it).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 29, 2013

      It’s a *fantastic* movie. (with a clear marxist agenda) But unfortunately it didn’t make the cut this year.

  10. cheito
    cheito  September 28, 2013

    Dr Ehrman:

    I need your help. Please tell me if the following translation of 1 peter 4:6 according to the NASB is correct. What does the oldest Greek manuscript available literally record. I will greatly appreciate it.
    .
    1 Peter 4:6-For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God. (NASB)

    I believe that 1 Peter 3:19-20 is speaking about the spirits of the people who perished at the flood and 1 Peter 4:6 is speaking about Christ preaching the Gospel to those very spirits of the persons who died at the flood because of their disobedience. However another scholar whom you debated, Dr Brown, says that Peter is speaking about fallen angels in 1 Peter 3:19-20. I don’t see how he gets fallen Angels from the context of this verse. What do you think?

    Thank you,

    Cheito

    NOTE: Below is Dr Brown’s answer and my reply.

    AskDrBrown 1 Pet 3 is referring to fallen angels; 1 Pet 4 should probably be translated: Now it was for this very purpose that the gospel was preached to those who are now dead, so that though they were judged in the flesh by human standards they may live spiritually by God’s standards (1 Pet 4:6 NET)

    Dr Brown: I still don’t see how you get fallen angels from the context in 1 Peter 3:19-20. 1 Peter 4:6 has to be interpreted according to what Peter already established in 1 peter 3:19-20. Christ preached the Gospel to the spirits of the persons who died at the flood. It’s clear that in 1 Peter 3:19-20 Peter is speaking about the spirits of the human beings who perished at the flood because of their disobedience and were consequently imprisoned by God. He’s not referring to fallen angels here. How do you arrive at fallen angels?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2013

      Yes, that translation is fine (although I prefer inclusive language!). And yes, I think it is referring not to angels but to the people of Noah’s day.

      • cheito
        cheito  October 2, 2013

        Dr Ehrman:

        Thank you for your reply. What do you mean by preferring inclusive language?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 2, 2013

          It means using language that includes all people, male and female, when referring to all people, male and female. So that Christ did not come “to save men” but, for example “to save people” or “to save men and women” (since women aren’t men!)

          • cheito
            cheito  October 2, 2013

            Dr Ehrman:

            Thank you for replying. I agree with you. Three questions: Was the term ‘men’ or ‘man’ generic’ when the context included both male and female in the Greek and Hebrew Mss? How did the the prophets of the OT. and the Apostles of Christ understand the use of the term men or man in the scriptures? I ask this because in the following verse below it’s recorded that God named both man and woman, MAN: Is the word man in Gen 5:2 a different word for man than the one used in other places in scripture?

            Genesis 5:He created them male and female, and He blessed them and NAMED them MAN in the day when they were created.

            Thank you,

            Cheito

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  October 3, 2013

            Yes, the Greek and Hebrew languages were patriarchal, referring to men and women together as men. English no longer does that for most modern users, and so it’s important to convey the ancient ideas in modern linguistic terms.

  11. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  September 29, 2013

    [quote Dr. Ehrman] •The 1977 Zepphirelli TV mini-series movie Jesus of Narareth (whose adult Jesus for my money is the best one of all time; British actor Robert Powell, who has *the* most amazing Jesus eyes….)

    Absolutely! Oh, to be a student in this class!

  12. Avatar
    wisemenwatch  September 29, 2013

    Cheito, regarding your comments on Matthew; I am currently reading a book by Courtney Roberts entitled the Star of the Magi. She addresses why Matthew hooks his readers in with the Magi by reminding us that Matthew is specifically written as a Gospel to the Hebrews, and of the friendly historical connection between the Jews return to Jerusalem and the Persians. The Magi were Persian Zoroastrian priests. The second book of Isaiah (45:1) refers to the Persian Cyrus the Great as a messiah. Cyrus the Great authorized construction of the second temple (according to Ezra), after the first temple was destroyed. Now we are in the period of the second temple’s destruction, and looking toward another messiah to once again make the Jewish people whole, just as before.

    I recommend this book to you as a source of answer your question on why the use of astrology in Matthew. Like everything else in the Bible, its complicated. You have to keep in mind that astrology was not incompatible with Jewish or Christian thought in ancient times because God was still behind it all. Astrology was God’s clock and did not cause things to happen, no more than our clocks today cause us to eat at noon. They only tell us it is time to eat. Same with the interpretation of the positions of the stars and planets. They are only indicators of what time it is, and part of God’s handiwork.

    Anyway, Dr. Ehrman knows from my previous posts and username that this is a particular subject of interest to me – hence I just have to comment on your comment!

    • cheito
      cheito  October 2, 2013

      wisemewatch:

      The history of the second Temple spans more than five centuries until its destruction in 70 AD. It involves not only Cyrus the Great, 538 BCE, but also Darius the Great who authorized the work to resume after the death of Cyrus the Great who died seven years after allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem. For a while the work was suspended and it took them almost 20 years to finish. The Temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius about 516 BCE.

      Centuries later after many wars and different dynasties under which Israel suffered occupation and persecution reconstruction of the temple under Herod began with a massive expansion of the Temple Mount.

      Following the Great Revolt of the Province of Iudaea, the Temple was destroyed by Roman troops under Titus during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The most complete ancient account of this event is The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus.

      Most likely you know all this. I’m just pointing out that Cyrus the Great was not the only one involved in allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to build the Temple as you seem to imply. He was the first one after the Jews were exiled for 70 years. However he seems to remain quiet when the work was suspended. I’m not an expert on the history of exactly what happened. I’ve only done minimal research on the internet. I have read Ezra, Haggai, and Zechariah.

      I do have an opinion as to the Temple that will be built in Jerusalem by the Messiah. My understanding of this topic is based on what I consider scripture. I use only those books which I believe are inspired by God to form my view concerning this matter. Revelation is not one of those books. Also There are certain topographical details, that the O.T. prophets speak of, that must be realized and literally created in the land of Israel by The messiah Himself before this Temple is built. Jerusalem as you we know it now, will not be the same Jerusalem when Messiah is revealed. EXAMPLE: The prophets speak about a river flowing from Jerusalem: you don’t see a river flowing from Jerusalem TODAY do you? They also prophecy about miraculous topographical changes to the land which I mentioned previously when the Messiah is revealed. (Read Zechariah 14:4-10)

      As for the book of Matthew. I don’t accept it as a reliable source of what Jesus said or did.

      As for astrology in ancient times, YOUR COMMENT BELOW is biblically incorrect. In Isaiah 47:13 God is crystal clear what He thinks of it. Isaiah 47:13″You are wearied with your many counsels; Let now the astrologers, Those who prophesy by the stars, Those who predict by the new moons, Stand up and save you from what will come upon you.

      YOUR COMMENT: ‘You have to keep in mind that astrology was not incompatible with Jewish or Christian thought in ancient times because God was still behind it all. Astrology was God’s clock and did not cause things to happen, no more than our clocks today cause us to eat at noon. They only tell us it is time to eat’.

      The book of Matthew as I see it is a mixture of myths and distorted truths. I consider Matthew an apocryphal chronicle.

      Thank you for sharing. Blessings!

      Cheito

      • cheito
        cheito  October 2, 2013

        One final comment on Isaiah 45:1. I’ve been skeptical about this Prophecy for quite some time. To me the name of Cyrus here seems out of place. I personally believe it was an interpolation by some scribe at the time when this King was alive. The truth is that the original ‘words of God’ were altered. Jeremiah the prophet who witnessed the destruction of the first Temple and the exile of Israel to Babylon is a witness to this fact: Jeremiah 23:36“For you will no longer remember the oracle of the LORD, because every man’s own word will become the oracle, and you have perverted the words of the living God…

  13. Avatar
    toejam  October 1, 2013

    I recently watched the Gospel of John Visual Bible movie, featuring Henry Ian Cusick (of “Lost” TV-show fame) as Jesus. They basically go word-for-word, scene-by-scene from the gospel. Cusick plays a great Jesus, even if he is hampered by the somewhat repetitive Johannine dialoge. But the Scottish accent makes up for it LOL!

  14. Avatar
    Elisabeth Strout  October 20, 2013

    What’s your take on the 1979 Jesus film? I remember watching that multiple times as a child, and as I recall, it was based almost entirely on the gospel of Luke.

    Also, while Robert Powell may have acted the part excellently, what are the chances a 1st century Palestinian would have had blue eyes? 🙂

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