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Matthew’s Version of the Birth of Jesus

Yesterday’s blog was about the account of Jesus’ birth in Luke; today I talk about Matthew. Even a casual reading shows that these are two very different accounts. Matthew has nothing about the birth of John the Baptist, the Annunciation, the census, the trip to Bethlehem, the shepherds, the presentation in the Temple. Matthew’s version, as a result, is much shorter. Most of his stories are found only in his account. And some of the differences from Luke appear to involve downright discrepancies, as I will try to show in another post.

For now: Matthew’s version. Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus. Luke also has a genealogy, but it is given after Jesus is baptized in ch. 3, instead of where you would expect it, at his birth in ch. 1. I’ll explain my view of that in a later post. After the genealogy of Matthew in which Jesus is traced to David, the greatest king of Israel, and to Abraham, the father of Israel, we move right to the birth story.

Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit; Joseph wants to divorce her quietly; he learns from an angel in a dream that she has conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that it has all been in order to fulfill the prophecy of Isa. 7:14, which Matthew quotes as saying “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” They don’t actually call him Emmanuel, of course (a Hebrew term that means “God is with us”) but Jesus (which means “salvation.”)

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Matthew’s Fulfillment Citations
Luke’s Version of Jesus’ Birth



  1. Avatar
    gslusher  December 9, 2012

    “…the wise men do not appear to come the night Jesus was born, as commonly imagined.”

    I also grew up in the Episcopal Church. I was taught that the Magi came on the twelfth day, which is now celebrated as Epiphany, as Jesus was “revealed” to the Gentiles. On the other hand, the typical Christmas pageant, including those my schools held (I graduated from high school in Virginia in 1965) and nativity scenes seem to all have the shepherds, magi, and sundry animals all together, crowding around what they think is a manger. (They are usually too small and wouldn’t hold enough food for even one animal.)

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 9, 2012

    These posts on Christmas are among your best posts. Keep going. I guess the answer to why the non-historical material and why the differences between Matthew and Luke has to do with changes that occurred during the oral transmission over decades. Still, it is hard to believe that the Gospel authors did not recognize the obvious problems in each of the two gospels even without comparing them. This is pretty obvious stuff. Certainly not rocket science.

  3. Avatar
    gregmonette  December 10, 2012

    Bart: are you becoming a bit of a softy around this Christmastime? I read your recent Newsweek magazine piece on the birth of Jesus. You say: “But for those with a broader vision, a more generous appreciation of 
literature, and a fuller sense of theological meaning, the story of the Christ-child and his appearance in the world can be founded not on what really did happen, but on what really does happen, in the lives of those who believe that 
stories such as these can convey a 
greater truth.” This sounds like a new Bart Ehrman, less interested in ruffling feathers and more interested in pointing out Bible difficulties with pastoral sensitivity. What happened? 🙂
    Greg Monette

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 11, 2012

      Yeah, Christmas just brings the softie out in me.

      But hey, I’m not saying that *I’m* one of those with a broader vision! 🙂

    • Avatar
      DMiller5842  December 12, 2012

      I agree, Greg. I was expecting the ending to be more like what was posted here about the good news being not such good news for everyone. I think maybe Bart went easy on the main stream.
      I think ‘we” have the broader vision and truthful vision too.

  4. Robertus
    Robertus  December 10, 2012

    Since you do not believe Luke and Matthew wrote their gospels independently of each other, do you attribute the commonalities of the two accounts to be be part of an earlier tradition? But I’ve heard that Matthew’s account is thoroughly Matthean in its language, and Luke’s account thoroughly Lukan, making it difficult to separate traditional and redactional elements of each account. I sometimes think that Luke may have been indirectly dependent upon Matthew’s account. In other words he may have heard of another writing/story about Jesus’ genealogy and virgin birth, without having the actual text before him. He would have only heard of the most striking aspects of Matthew’s account, eg, the virgin birth, the name of Jesus’ father, a genealogy tracing back to David, appearances of angels, etc. What do you think of this idea of indirect dependence?

    • Robertus
      Robertus  December 10, 2012

      Oops, please delete/disregard “not” in the first sentence!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 11, 2012

      Yes, I think that both Matthew and Luke had heard some of the traditions found in their accounts — which are therefore older than both — such as that Jesus’ mother was a virgin, that he was born in Bethlehem, and that he was raised in Nazareth. But they probably did not inherit the full stories that they give in their infancy narratives (unlike other parts of their Gospels); these, I think, they wrote.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  December 12, 2012

        What I’m suggesting is that the entire story may have originated with Matthew and that Luke had indirectly heard of some of the more salient details, eg, a genealogy with King David, a virgin birth, the father’s name, etc.

  5. Christopher Sanders
    Christopher Sanders  December 10, 2012

    Haha! I did see a Christmas pageant last night! My friend asked me to go.

    Any chance you might ever compile a book just on the contradictions between the gospel accounts? I would love a “Bart Ehrman Harmony of the Gospels with Extensive Commentary”.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 11, 2012

      Interesting idea!

      • Christopher Sanders
        Christopher Sanders  February 18, 2013

        I think it would be really great, because there are so many harmonizations out there that if you’re in the business of conversing regularly with Christian apologists, as I am, it can really become very tiresome to have to continually be looking up different sources and fact checking, only to end up, quite often, with an appeal to the original Greek, or the culture of the author, or ancient Greek syntax, or something or other, which I am not really informed on.

  6. Avatar
    DMiller5842  December 11, 2012

    According to the story, Herod inquired of the wise men as to when the star appeared. He then ordered the troops to kill all the boys 2 and under “according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men”. So Mary and Joseph stayed there in Bethlehem a long time.

  7. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  December 13, 2012

    Bart, speaking of having gods as parents: any comment about Cesar Augustus being called ‘son of the divine one’ as well? Mere coincidence? Might it not have been that in order for ‘the Christ’ to be able to compete with the Roman gods and demi-gods he also needed o have a divine father? Alexander the Great also claimed to have Zeus as his father?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 13, 2012

      I think this is really important. By having Julius Caesar deified, it made Octavian the son of a God. And this is happening right at the beginning of Christianity. Not an accident!

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  December 14, 2012

        I’ve also remembered something else: someone wrote that it actually was a kind of a face-off between these two Sons of Gods. Augustus was for example, credited with having brought peace (the Pax Romana but through force while Jesus would bring peace (The Kingdom of Heaven/God) as well but through more gentle means (although the Book of Revelation kind of negates that). Augustus was called, before Jesus, Liberator, Savior of the World, etc.
        What’s your take on that?

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  December 14, 2012

        Follow up: I just found a masters thesis from Durham University devoted to this subject, freely downloadable here: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/3585/

        I’ve got to read that one!

    • Avatar
      DMiller5842  December 14, 2012

      The Roman Senate declared Julius Caesar to be a god. So his son was — the son of god.
      This links shows these titles on some Roman coins.


  8. Christopher Sanders
    Christopher Sanders  February 22, 2013

    This is random place to ask this, but my friend recently drew my attention to a statement from one of your books where you state that the Jews didn’t have a ritual of hand washing before they ate meals, to which he contended with this quotation, “And as is the custom of all the Jews, they washed their hands in the sea and prayed to God, …” —Letter of Aristeas (~200 BC), sec. 305″ Although this quotation is certainly referring to a completely different event, is there really any reason to doubt that the Jews had a hand washing tradition?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 22, 2013

      Yes, it’s referring to something else, and is not stating a purity ritual before meals. There’s really no doubt that hte later rabbinic prescriptions of hand-washing were not universally (or probably even much) followed in the first part of the first century….

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