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The Birth of Jesus in Luke

As I indicated yesterday, I’m doing a series of posts leading up to Christmas, dealing with the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament.   Here’s a discussion of the one most familiar to people, found in the Gospel of Luke.


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.

Luke’s account begins with the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth and Zechariah, followed by the Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary that she will conceive without having sex, through the Holy Spirit.  Mary visits Elizabeth, breaks into song, John the Baptist is born, and Zechariah speaks a prophecy.   All of that is in chapter 1, and a lot could be said about it (and *has* been said about it!).  But for the purposes of these posts, I’m more interested in what happens in ch. 2.

Starting in 2:1 we’re told that…

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The Birth of Jesus in Matthew
What Can We Know about Jesus’ Birth?



  1. Avatar
    anthonygale  December 10, 2018

    Is there good reason to believe Jesus was more likely to be born during the reign of Herod the Great than when Quirinius was governor of Syria? What if these were different traditions, neither necessarily accurate, that Luke didn’t know to be contradictory? If neither Matthew or Luke is historically very reliable, who’s to say Jesus wasn’t born earlier or later than believed?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 11, 2018

      I suppose mainly because it is attested in two sources (Matthew and Luke) instead of just one (Luke)

  2. Avatar
    Matt2239  December 11, 2018

    There is an authenticating fact that Ehrman once observed in a video clip. There was no room at the inn. Why? Because everyone had to go to the town of their ancestor, and David was the most famous ancestor who could be claimed. Hence, everyone was a descendant of King David, and everyone went to Bethlehem to officially register themselves as such.

  3. Avatar
    caesar  December 11, 2018

    Darrell Bock’s solution is that the census was started around 4-6 BC, and it took several years to get everyone registered. Then by the time Quierinius comes in, all that data is there to document, and he was the one who documented it. Does that seem plausible?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 11, 2018

      A census took ten years to implement? Really? And then what was the rush for Joseph to get there when Mary was about to give birth?

      • Avatar
        ftbond  December 12, 2018

        Censuses in the US happen every 10 years, and notifications about them start getting sent out years in advance.

        There is nothing in Lukes account that says the census was happening “right then”. It says a DECREE went out that there WOULD BE a census. There’s no telling, from that phrase, when the census itself would take place.

        If the practice was anything similar to modern practice in the US, then that “decree” could have been sent out years in advance…

        Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to either explain or “explain away” anything about Lukes account. Whether Luke has his facts right or not is irrelevant to me.

        But, when I read the census was for “the whole world” and “everyone” was going to their own cities, it just makes me think Luke writes in grandiose, exaggerated terms. Matthew does the same: ” Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan” — Wow. “ALL JUDEA”. Every single man, woman, and child – those that were unable to walk, those that were blind, those that were sick and dying. They ALL went to see Matthew. (That’s how the literalist might read that. OR – the “former Christian literalist” who remains a literalist, while dropping the “Christian” part).

        • Bart
          Bart  December 14, 2018

          Again: it doesn’t explain why Joseph had to go that weekend. Bad timing!

          • Avatar
            ftbond  December 14, 2018

            oh, was there a “had to” about it? I didn’t notice anything in the narrative that says, at that precise timeframe (ie, “that weekend”, or even “that week” or “that month”) that anybody “had” to do anything at all.

            Unless somehow it were established that a persons “own city” were, in fact, determined by where some ancestor, dating back to some particular time, lived, then a person might well have been entirely free, just as we are here, to determine the place we call our “own city”.

            So, why would Joseph decide, at that point, to go to Bethlehem? He may have decided that Bethlehem was the city he wanted to call his “own city”, and in his case, it was due to his personal desire to live in the place of his ancestors. And, perhaps Mary had family there. She was, after all, just visiting Elizabeth, who was in a town in the “hill country” of Judea, an area a scant ten milles south of Bethlehem. Luke, in the Greek, says she “turned back to her abode” – it carries no implication of a journey having been completed (as it seems to indicate in so many piss-poor English translations – “Mary returned to her home”) And Luke points out that Joseph, not Joseph and Mary, headed to Bethlehem. It could very well be that the plan, all along, was for the two to meet in Bethlehem after Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, and to be married there and settle there.

            In Other Words: Joseph’s reason for going *at that time* may have been because he was going to meet Mary there, after her visit with Elizabeth. And, after all, there had been this “decree” sent out, saying there *would be* a census – some time in the future – so, it may all have just looked like the right time to go..

          • Bart
            Bart  December 16, 2018

            OK, well, maybe he just thought it was a good time to make a week-long trip on foot, when his espoused was on the verge of giving birth!

  4. Avatar
    peterstone  December 11, 2018

    According to Wikipedia (famous last words), Quirinius conducted a census in Judea after Herod died and his son Archelaus removed from power. It also suggests that this Census may have been the basis for the story in Luke, although obviously it was a much more local phenomenon than Luke suggests. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Census_of_Quirinius
    Is this a commonly accepted position?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 11, 2018

      I’d have to look at the sources again, but this would again mean that there is a major contradiction between teh Gospels (since in Matthew Herod is still very much living!)

  5. Avatar
    brenmcg  December 11, 2018

    Matthew seems to think theres a prophecy that the messiah will be called a nazarene – do you think this could mean the jesus being from nazareth story may be made up also to fufill this suposed prophecy just as with bethlehem?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 11, 2018

      It looks like it happened the other way around: Matthew knew that he came from nazareth and so tried to explain it (by citing a prophecy that doesn’t exist, so far as we know!)

  6. Avatar
    godspell  December 11, 2018

    What is striking about the two birth accounts we have is that each mentions a major historical event that we have no record of, and should (it is hardly surprising that historians of that time and immediately after don’t mention Jesus–Josephus is just barely the exception).

    Matthew talks about Herod ordering the massacre of children born around the time he believes Jesus was born, in response to three men he’s never met telling him this child will someday be a king. This motivates Jesus’ family to flee to Egypt, and eventually settle in Nazareth.

    Luke talks about the oddly conducted census that forces Joseph and Mary to leave Nazareth when Mary is close to her time, so Jesus is born in Bethlehem then raised in Nazareth.

    There is no evidence either event happened outside the gospels, and neither makes any sense. Herod would not have survived as long as he did if he made such irrational decisions. The Roman Empire wouldn’t have survived as long as it did if it required entire populations to uproot themselves and find some ancestral spawning ground to register for taxation.

    But more significantly, these events are mutually contradictory. Matthew doesn’t mention any census (they’re already in Bethlehem) and Luke doesn’t mention any mass murder of children followed by a flight to Egypt.

    Each is looking for a way Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem then raised in Nazareth. Need to believe the former, can’t escape the latter.

    Somebody started asserting the Bethlehem birth as fact, but nobody could find any proof. It was vitally important in the years after Jesus’ death to prove he was Messiah, and the Messiah had to be from Judea (later generations of Christians wouldn’t care where he was born, but converted Jews did). Once the birth is in stories that have been accepted as scriptural, it can’t be abandoned later on.

    Since there was a different Bethlehem in Galilee, much closer to Nazareth (about six miles), it is not hard to imagine there might have been some business or legal formality Joseph had to attend to there, and Jesus certainly could have been born there (maybe there was a good midwife or a family member living there–six miles isn’t sixty).

    And it goes from there.

    • Avatar
      ftbond  December 14, 2018

      I’m no great believer in EITHER of the Nativity stories (Matt or Luke).

      But, you talk about two “major historical events”, and say “Matthew talks about Herod ordering the massacre of children …”

      What makes you think this was a “major historical event”?

      Bethlehem had maybe 300 people living in it. Just do the math… You’re gonna come up with maybe 5 or 6 kids, half of them girls, two years old or younger… So, in other words, Herod had about 3 kids killed.

      Read up enough on Herod, and, that doesn’t seem too far out of the “plausible”. At least, not in terms of the number of kids killed.

      I’m not saying it happened, though. I’m just wondering why you think it was such a major event that anyone’s history book would mention it…

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 14, 2018

        Okay, several things:

        I’m a bit surprised you know the exact population of Bethlehem in Judea, a town that some archaeologists have suggested had NO population at the time Jesus was born (see “Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels” by Michael Grant.)

        People had very large families then, due to high child mortality, no birth control, and a need for enough able hands to attend to whatever business the family worked at. I’m not sure how you get that 300 residents means a handful of kids under the age of two.

        Matthew says Herod ordered all children of that general age group killed in Bethlehem AND OUTLYING AREAS. That’s kind of a major omission you made. Now you need to know how many children there were in an undefined geographical area a few miles from the biggest city in Palestine. Not exactly a remote backwater, Bethlehem. More like a suburb of Jerusalem. Six miles. (Strangely, the same distance that exists between Nazareth and Bethlehem of Galilee.)

        So to be clear, you’re saying that while you don’t particularly believe this story, you find it plausible in theory that Herod, on the basis of hearing stories from a few passing travellers, could send soldiers to murder every toddler in an area near Jerusalem, presumably leaving their families alive to tell the tale (since there’s no mention of any adults or older children being killed), and this was well-known enough for Matthew to have heard about it (but none of the other New Testament writers), and the aggrieved parents never petitioned the Roman authorities or the Jewish religious leaders for redress, and thus this slaughter (and it’s a slaughter if half a dozen were killed–Matthew clearly thought it was more) was never added to the rather large litany of crimes later attributed to Herod the Great by posterity? And the Romans Herod owed his power to never thought “Hey, this guy’s nuts!” and replaced him?

        Also, how would the soldiers know the precise age of each child? They’d have to go by general appearance. If they were willing to do this at all, they probably wouldn’t be the careful conscientious type. It’s not like the parents are going to be helping them out with birth certificates (which wouldn’t exist). So yeah, it’d be a whole lot of kids, if they were thorough.

        It. Did. Not. Happen. Period.

  7. dschmidt01
    dschmidt01  December 11, 2018

    Hi Dr. Ehrman. Many times at night I listen to your debates and lectures on youtube as I’m falling asleep or if I wake up and cant get back to sleep. I’m not saying they put me to sleep but rather they are a diversion from thoughts of work and daily life. I really appreciate that diversion. This morning I woke up to your debate with Kyle Butt on suffering. My question is why did you make yourself suffer through that? It’s not the first time zine listened to that debate and to me listening to Kyle is painful. He is obviously not a scholar and mostly asserts if he says something it’s a fact. Do you still enjoy debating? thanx

    • Bart
      Bart  December 12, 2018

      Yeah, every time I have one of these debates, I end up writing a note to myself — while the other guy is speaking! — “And WHY am I doing this???” 🙂

      • Avatar
        hoshor  December 12, 2018

        I think I speak for others when I say that we are glad that you do them! I think they play a very important role in educating a largely uneducated public (especially on those specific topics).

  8. Avatar
    hankgillette  December 11, 2018

    “Since there was a different Bethlehem in Galilee, much closer to Nazareth (about six miles), it is not hard to imagine there might have been some business or legal formality Joseph had to attend to there, and Jesus certainly could have been born there (maybe there was a good midwife or a family member living there–six miles isn’t sixty).”

    But which Bethlehem was David born in? Both Matthew and Luke seem to think that it was David’s Bethlehem, not a town with the same name.

    If Joseph or Mary had family there, why were they staying in a stable? Wouldn’t a good midwife be more likely to let Mary have the baby in her home, rather than a stable?

    I think it is more likely that Luke made up the story (or took it from oral traditions) in an effort to explain how Jesus grew up in Nazareth, while the Messiah was supposed to be born in the City of David.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 12, 2018

      Yes, that’s right. The problem with an alleged Bethelehem of Galilee is both that that was *not* where David was from (which is the point of the story) AND that Luke explicitly says it was the Bethelehem located in Judea.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 14, 2018

      Luke definitely was telling a story that has little or no basis in fact, but that doesn’t mean there being a Bethlehem a few miles from Nazareth has nothing to do with how the confusion got started. It’s way too much of a coincidence to just let it pass.

      I wish people would read more carefully. At no time did I suggest Matthew and Luke thought Jesus was born anywhere in Galilee.

      And I don’t think Luke believed he was making anything up.

      He just really needed to make this point, and you only have to read Richard Carrier to know how far some people will go to do that.


  9. Avatar
    Enjoli Muthu  December 13, 2018

    Isn’t part of the reason Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem due to the significance of Migdal Eder and the sacrificial flocks kept in this shepherd’s town?
    It wasn’t that they ended up in some inn keeper’s vacant stable. They ended up in the same manger where lambs born for sacrificial slaughter were held. Jesus had to be laid in the manger that held swaddled newborn lambs. Swaddled so that they couldn’t injure themselves, and thus disqualify themselves as perfect and without blemish.
    The shepherds were also significant because they would understand the significance.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      The text doesn’t say anything about that. Instead it indicates he had to be born there to fulfill prophecy, as the son of David.

  10. Avatar
    billsturm  December 14, 2018

    What if Luke is the “historical source” you are looking for concerning this census? Why are we not considering that Luke is telling the truth–especially since the opening verses state that he did much research concerning this census?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Any statement made by any ancient source is subject to questioning: one doesn’t necessarily *disbelieve* it, but doesn’t necessarily *believe* it either. Each statement needs to be tested. In this case, if Luke is right, how is it possible that “the entire world” was registering in tehri ancestral homes for a census, and not a single other source (even Christian; but also not Jewish, Roman, Greek, Syrian, etc.) even *mentions* it. Just seems implausible.

  11. Avatar
    jp87  December 15, 2018

    Hey Bart, I’m a new member here and would like to say that I’m very grateful for all your work and debates.

    One question regarding the census in Luke 2:1. NT Wright says (in Who Was Jesus p. 89) it has to do with the greek word ‘protos’ which usually means ‘first’ but could also be seen as a ‘before’ around the time that Luke wrote the gospel, especially when followed by the genitive case (which is the case here). So he suggests that the reading of the verse goes: “This census took place before the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria”. This would solve the weird wording Luke choose with this ‘first’ census, like you’ve said in your post.

    What do you make of this?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      It’s a valiant effort, but I’m afraid it doesn’t work. Protos doesn’t mean “earlier” but “first,” and it modifies “census,” not “was the governor” (it’s an adjective not an adverb.)

      • Avatar
        jp87  December 16, 2018

        Yes, I thought it was far-fetched, but someone has provided this as an argument to make sense of the Quirinius time issue. By the way in John 1:15 “protos” translates into “before”, but I don’t know if that’s a translation thing or not, I’m no greek Jedi.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 17, 2018

          It’s a completely different case; there it is governing a genitive used as a comparative.

  12. Avatar
    heccubus  December 16, 2018

    Even if Joseph were a descendant of David, what difference does it make if he’s not Jesus’ biological father. It seems to me that the Virgin Birth and the invocation of this particular messianic prophecy are mutually exclusive. Am I missing something here?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      Yes, they can’t really be reconciled. He’s either descended from David thorugh his father or he’s not!

  13. Avatar
    wje  December 16, 2018

    Good evening, Bart. I have an idea for your posting pleasure after this thread. When did Christians start thinking about using December 25 as the birth of Jesus? Are there any early written records about the thinking behind this? When did that day become an official proclamation and who did it? Was there any fighting among bishops over this idea or the date? Does every Christian denomination use this date? If not, why?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 17, 2018

      It appears to have happened in the early fourth century under Constantine. In the early centuries Jesus date of birth was not celebrated (much? at all?) In the eastern church the date was January 7; in the West Dec. 25. West won.

  14. Avatar
    Joel Smith  December 17, 2018

    Both NT geneaologies go back to King David & come forward to Joseph. That may be why Joseph had to register in David’s home town.
    One problem is that Joseph is not Jesus’ father so why did the two Gospel writers include these geneaologies? There is no NT explanation to suggest that this also was Mary’s geneaology.
    Were Mary & Joseph originally from Bethlehem & not Nazareth? Luke suggests yes.

  15. Avatar
    spartymanjb  December 18, 2018

    I was reading another post and referenced a census of Quirinius around 6 / 7 AD for roman citizens. Have you heard of that before?

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