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Luke’s Version of Jesus’ Birth

Now that I’ve had several preliminary posts about the accounts of Jesus’ birth, I can get into some of the details from the surviving texts. As I’ve indicated, it is only Matthew and Luke that tell the tales of the infancy narrative, and the annual “Christmas Pageant” that so many of us grew up seeing is in fact a conflation of the two accounts, making one mega-account out of two that are so different up and down the line. And so, the Annunciation to Mary is in Luke, the dream of Joseph in Matthew; the shepherds are in Luke, the wise men in Matthew; the trip to Bethlehem is in Luke, the Flight to Egypt is in Matthew, and so forth and so on. You can compare them yourself, up and down the line, and see the differences.

In this post I want to focus on Luke’s account. Then I will look at Matthew’s. And then I will compare the two in a couple of key points in order to show that the differences between them are not simply different aspects of the same story – the accounts in fact are at odds with one another in rather important ways.

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Matthew’s Version of the Birth of Jesus
The Christmas Story: Some Basic Background



  1. Avatar
    billgraham1961  December 8, 2012

    I agree that the author of Luke was probably in error on the facts. I’ve read that under Caesar Augustus there were Roman census periods in 8 BCE and 14 CE. Apparently, there was also another Roman census in 28 BCE, but that’s way too early. If these are, in fact, reliable historic events, the 14 CE event is out. That would have made Jesus considerably younger. In Luke 3:23, Jesus is said to have been 30 years old in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar. That would also eliminate the Judean census under Quirinius in 6 CE, which has more than ample attestation with the minor insurrection that followed. The only option left then is the Roman census in 8 BCE, but that wasn’t implemented by Quirinius as Luke claims.

    Those who defend the inerrancy of Luke say that Quirinius either finished the work of another census that was started earlier, or perhaps that he carried out the 8 BCE census earlier in his career in a post other than Governor of Syria. They claim that the Greek title “hegmomeuontos tes Surias” can mean something other than Governor of Syria. I guess it can. I know that Greek, like any other language, allows many connotations for every word, but my question on this point is have they simply found it inconvenient to admit that the only possible title in this context would be Governor or possibly Procurator of Syria? Does it even matter? So what if we could interpret the title differently? Wouldn’t the author of Luke still refer to the position Quirinius assumed in 6 CE? And wasn’t his primary charge in that position to assess the people of the newly annexed province of Judea for taxation?

    Finally, the defenders of Luke’s inerrancy bring up a few more arguments that I don’t think hold much water, but I’d like to run them by you. One is that Luke’s census is not a historic impossibility. Neither is a meteor striking the earth 65 million years ago. Another argument is that Luke’s full vindication awaits to be unearthed. My impression is that they may be right on certain passages, but on others what awaits to be unearthed may also throw the entire gospel account into doubt. So, what are your thoughts on these arguments? I’m sure you’ve heard them all and more, but I’d like to know nonetheless.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 8, 2012

      I would agree that it is not impossible that there was a census under Quirinius. But the reality is that he didn’t rule Syria (in any capacity) when Herod was king of Judea, and we have no record of a world-wide census, ever. So a local census doesn’t solve the problem. Sometimes history just has to be allowed to have its say!

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      Jim  December 9, 2012

      Sorry to insert myself into this conversation like an uninvited virus however, based on your comment, you have looked at the dating of the early first century census in detail. Regarding the majority consensus that the 6 CE Quirinius census is amply attested, I’m wondering what your thoughts might be regarding the minority position that Josephus was a bit off on his dates of the insurrection (for example Rhoads, JETS 54, 65-87, (2011) and references cited therein). I’m not trying to imply that Luke was right but I’m interested to hear your assessment of this minority position as I don’t know much history (i.e. honest question). Thanks in advance and I apologize for butting in.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  December 11, 2012

        I don’t really have an opinion about it, as I haven’t looked into the date of the insurrection (which one do you mean, by the way?). But while the Quirinius census may have been what led Luke to get things confused, it certainly could not be the kind of census that he is referring to (where “the whole world” had to be registered, on order of Caesar Augustus).

        • Avatar
          Jim  December 12, 2012

          Sorry Bart, I was asking Bill (based on his thorough comment) what he thought about the 6 CE dating of the execution of Judas wrt some challenges of the dating that (re)appeared recently. Also, I was trying to spare you from one more annoying question and Bill looked innocent enough to bother. In any case, thanks for your input.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  December 12, 2012

            Ah! That makes better sense. Context is everything!

        • Avatar
          billgraham1961  December 14, 2012


          Thank you very much for your reply. The amount of research on this topic alone humbles me, and I think that’s proper. No one should feel like they have all the answers. Whether we’re scholars are well informed laymen, history still has much to teach us. That’s why I love what you do, and it’s also why I continue to study the Bible over 20 years after I left Moody Bible Institute and began to question my previous assumptions. Then again, I’m told it’s good to question one’s assumptions.

      • Avatar
        billgraham1961  December 14, 2012


        My reply would be that I haven’t looked at anything in thorough detail. As I continue to read about Roman history, the nativity and the census dates, I continue to be amazed at how little I know in light of the massive research that has been conducted on these questions. I recently attempted to write my own equivalent of a white paper on the topic only to discover that my comments were mere drivel in comparison to the extensive and exhaustive studies of other people: scholars and laymen. I continue to be amazed at the extent of the information available and how little of it I personally know.

        • Avatar
          Jim  December 20, 2012

          Thanks for your response and on the positive side, you still know more than me.

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    maxhirez  December 8, 2012

    How does the Date for the Feast of the Annunciation stem from this account ( does the the 6th month really correspond to March and why 25 March) and does the Pope’s book really make the argument that this is where the date for Christmas comes from?

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    hwl  December 8, 2012

    Supposing that the historical Jesus did see himself as a/the messiah and he knew very well he wasn’t born in Bethlehem, how might he himself have tried to square the prophetic contradiction?
    Did biblical authors often use the term “the whole world” to denote either the whole known world or the whole empire, instead of literally all the civilisations of the planet? Genesis also used the term to talk of a global famine hence the whole world had to go to Egypt to get grain. Surely even ancient readers knew better that their own little region wasn’t the whole world, and the Roman empire wasn’t the whole world?
    How do you think Matthew and Luke came up with the genealogies of Jesus? Even if these are not historically accurate, one still has to wonder how exactly they came up with the names. A lot of thought seemed to have gone into constructing the genealogy.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 8, 2012

      I’m not sure everyone thought that the messiah had to be born in Bethlehem; so later messianic figures didn’t make a big deal out of it. Jesus probably didn’t either.
      Genealogies: not sure. Someone obviously made them up, whether in good faith or not is impossible to say.

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    RonaldTaska  December 8, 2012

    Another good post on this very interesting and timely Christmas time post.. Thanks.

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    Jim  December 8, 2012

    Judging from the silence, I take it that no one was enthusiastic about my first Bethlehem proposal (Dec 06). Ok then, what about a different Bethlehem, maybe the one a few miles away from Nazareth (Oshri, Archaeology 58 (6)), that possibly some Gospel writers didn’t find as theologically interesting?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 8, 2012

      The problem is that the Gospels locate this particular Bethlehem in Judea.

      • Avatar
        Jim  December 9, 2012

        Yeah, but Luke also mentions a worldwide census and Matthew a trip to Egypt, so how can one be certain that “in Judea” wasn’t conveniently slipped in.

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    jimvj  December 8, 2012

    Just saying, but if anyone needed to be told by a divine source that a virgin was to give birth, it would have to be the husband of said virgin 😉

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    Billypaul49  December 8, 2012

    Great job on the Christmas Series! I hope we get to see some of these places in May.

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    proveit  December 9, 2012

    If I were an extraterrestrial visitor during Christmas or Easter, I would assume that Jesus was born and died so Christians could eat pork. What is up with those lines around Honey Baked Ham? Is the whole thing about pork? Further evidence: Jesus casting demons into pigs and sending them to their death. WTF is up with that?

    Maybe this is part of the assault on Jews via the New Testament.

    I’m serious about this because hogs are treated horribly. I don’t eat them for this reason. Without getting into the whole vegetarian thing…what is it about hogs???

  9. Avatar
    bobnaumann  December 9, 2012

    So if John the Baptist started his ministry in the 15th year of the rein of Tiberius, who became Emperor in 14CE, that would make it 29CE. Assuming Jesus started his ministry after being baptized by John, as implied by Mark, and that he was 30 years at the time, he would have to have been born after 4BCE. Or am I missing something?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 11, 2012

      I think the problem is that you’re trying to reconcile the dates given by different Gospels with the facts of history. E.g., only Luke indicates that Jesus was about 30 at the beginning of his ministry. But he also indicates that he was born during the reign of Herod, who did indeed die in 4 BCE. So, well, there are problems!

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    James  December 10, 2012

    Dr. Ehrman:

    I was recently reading a blog defending the historicity of the nativity. The author argues that when Luke mentions returning to one’s ancestral town, he is only referring to Joseph. That people only had to register in their township, but Joseph decided to register in his ancestral town. How would you respond to this?

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    DMiller5842  December 12, 2012

    Bart, You really gave me a good workout with this post. My Bible says that the taxing was made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. I had to do some work to find out that this was a mistake in translation and Quirinius was the correct translation. Do you place any weight on claims I have seen out there that Quirinius had two terms of office — one of them from 6-4 BCE? Wouldn’t that have been when Herod was king?

    • Avatar
      DMiller5842  December 12, 2012

      But then, there is that issue of the taxation….
      billgraham1961 asked above:”
      Wouldn’t the author of Luke still refer to the position Quirinius assumed in 6 CE? And wasn’t his primary charge in that position to assess the people of the newly annexed province of Judea for taxation?”

      But Luke does also say that this took place in the days of Herod (maybe he meant the son of Herod) and wouldn’t the taxation during the second term of Quirinius have been when Matthew says Jesus was about 11 years old?

      Matthew was speaking of Herod the Great and Luke of his son, Herod Archelaus is that right? Two different Herods? Matthew has Joseph fleeing from the slaughter of innocents ordered by Herod the Great, while Luke has Jesus being born after Herod the Great is dead. Am I getting that right?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 12, 2012

      I think the only ones who claim this are not Roman historians of the period but conservative evangelical New Testament scholars who realize that if they don’t say that they have a historical error on their hands….

  12. Avatar
    LeeK  December 24, 2012

    Testing the comment functions: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John,…………

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    Xeronimo74  December 25, 2012

    Hi Bart, what about the Greek word ‘katalyma’ that usually gets translated as ‘inn’ in the Bible? It seems to actually have rather meant ‘spare room for families and friends’ (I had seen the link to a scholarly thesis on this recently but I can’t find it again right now :/ ). It seems that even Evangelicals can live with that: http://dispatchesfrombrian.com/2012/12/24/christmas-eve-the-misnomer-of-an-overcrowded-inn/ (Brian Stiller, the ‘Ambassador’ of the ‘World Evangelical Alliance’). So any thoughts about this?

    And wouldn’t this also explain who the additional people in Mary and Joseph’s company were when the shepherds visited them (in this fictional story):

    “Luke 2: So they hurried off and located Mary and Joseph, and found the baby lying in a manger. When they saw him, they related what they had been told about this child, and all who heard it were astonished at what the shepherds said. But Mary treasured up all these words, pondering in her heart what they might mean.”

    > ‘all who heard it’ can’t just have been Mary and Joseph, right? Especially since Mary already had been told most of this by the Holy Spirit before (although she does seem to be a bit amnesiac at times …) so why would she still be astonished? And it can’t include ‘the shepherds’ either since they’re the one telling the story. It seems then that this ‘all who heard’ would refer to Joseph’s family (in whose farmhouse they were staying)?

    Not that this is an important issue overall, since I too believe this story to be invented, but it’s kind of interesting because the ‘stable scene’ has become so ‘common knowledge’.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 27, 2012

      I”m not familiar with that as the meaning of KATALYMA; I’d have to look it up in my books, and I’m out of the country. But I thought it just meant “place of business where people spent the night.” As to which “otehrs” the shepherds told the story, I think the idea of the text (whether plausible or not) is that they shepherds out of excitement simply told whomever they met. Mary isn’t said to be astonished is she? Though why she would not understand the words of the angel related by the shepherds is, I agree, a bit perplexing given the rest of the story….

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  December 28, 2012

        Indeed. But Mary actually seems a bit amnesiac throughout the story … how could she forget what the angel had told her before the conception? Or how Jesus, allegedly, was conceived? How could she then not understand what Jesus meant in Luke 2:49 when he said that he needed to be in ‘his father’s house’? Or not say something to the rest of the family about how Jesus was conceived etc when they think he’s mad (Mark 3:21)? Jesus even rebukes his own mother there!
        There are a lot of incoherences in those stories …

  14. Avatar
    Lostcities  December 10, 2017

    Hi Bart, how plausible is the apologetic straw grasp that Luke could be translated as “this was the first census taken BEFORE Quirinius was Governor…”.

    I’m guessing not very plausible! 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  December 11, 2017

      It can’t mean that. It’s a circumstantial participle (in a genitive absolute) in the present tense: the census occurred WHILE Quirinius was governor.

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    Gerhardt  May 26, 2020

    Hi Bart, I realize that Paul’s letters were written long before the the Gospels, but we do know that these early stories were floating around as oral traditions and whatnot. I don’t seem to remember Paul ever mentioning any of the Christmas traditions, though, that were handed down by the author’s of Mathew and Luke. If I am correct – if he was aware of these stories, why do you think he didn’t mention them? And if he was unaware of them, based on what we know about his theology, what do you think he would have made of them?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2020

      Right, he doesn’t mention them. Either, remarkably, does Mark or John! My guess is that they were later traditions that simply weren’t floating aruond when Paul was active.

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