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The Birth of Jesus in Matthew

Here I continue my seasonal reflections about the Christmas accounts in the New Testament.

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.”)

All of that is in ch. 1.   Ch. 2 is mainly about the coming of the wise men and what happens in their wake.  The wise men have come from the east, following a star, to find the place where the new King of the Jews has been born so they can worship him.  Why anyone would want to …

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Jesus’ Birth as “The Fulfillment of the Prophecies”
The Birth of Jesus in Luke



  1. mannix  December 12, 2018

    You have previously postulated a “Four Source Hypothesis” for the Matthean and Lukan gospels. Would it be accurate to say that the Nativity stories are from the “M” and “L” sources? Mark is obviously out, and the narratives too dissimilar for “Q”. Are the M and L sources individuals or several differing oral traditions?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Yes, that’s right: they are M and L. But M and L could represent a single written source, multiple written sources (each), multiple oral sources — we don’t know, except to say that each comprises material unique to Matthew and Luke, respectively.

      • galah  December 14, 2018

        Dr. Ehrman, you mention multiple written sources and multiple oral sources. You’ve stated before that it began with the oral traditions. I suppose you see the oral sources evolving over time. Do you believe that the first people who began telling stories about Jesus were his disciples, or, perhaps people who knew him or his disciples? And, do you believe that those stories/anecdotes became more legendary/mythical as the years went by? I’m curious if you believe that people close to him were the first to get the ball rolling.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 16, 2018

          His disciples and other followers. I give a full account in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

  2. jhague  December 12, 2018

    In Matthew, the NRSV states that Mary was engaged to Joseph and after finding out Mary is pregnant, Joseph was going to quietly dismiss her.
    1. Does engaged mean that Joseph has paid Mary’s father money but Joseph and Mary are not together yet?
    2. Does dismiss her mean to break off the engagement and get his money back?
    3. Is your thought that Joseph got Mary pregnant after they were married and they lived in Nazareth the entire time?
    (I ask the third question because I have read that some scholars think that Mary was pregnant before her and Joseph were married due to the reference in John 8:41 where the Jews state “We are not illegitimate children” meaning that Jesus is an illegitimate child.)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      1. We don’t know; 2. We don’t know. The texts say nothing about a financial arrangment. 3. I don’t know what happened!

  3. HenriettePeterson  December 12, 2018

    Completely unrelated question:
    1. Is there any evidence that 1 Corinthians 7 might have been modified by scribes or are virtually all scholars unified in that what we now have was probably written by Paul with no evidence of scribal modification?
    2. How can Paul write in verse 13 that a woman should not divorce a man? Wasn’t it so that in Jewish society only a man could divorce a woman (in most cases)? Since Paul is writing to Gentile believers – did women in the Roman empire have the right to divorce their husbands?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      1. We have no evidence of it being altered by scribes; 2. Paul is writing to Gentiles, not Jews; and yes, it was possible for a woman to divorce a man.

  4. wostraub  December 12, 2018

    Bart, it’s commonly assumed that Joseph’s family was poor (but not desperately poor), so I wonder what happened to the gold and other gifts that the wise men gave Jesus. Maybe Joseph put the money in a trust for his son, which later came in handy for an itinerant preacher with no visible means of support.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Ha! That’s probably it!

    • godspell  December 14, 2018

      Magic beans. Tradied it all for magic beans. Joseph threw the beans out the window, and lo, giant beanstalk!

      Jesus climbed up the beanstalk, but all he found up there was God, and they had a talk.

      He climbs back down, and Joseph’s like “Where’s my golden goose?” And Jesus is like “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt.” Maybe something about lilies and birds too, for good measure.

      Joseph gives Jesus a good caning, then climbs up the beanstalk to find those riches stored up in heaven sonny boy was yakking about. Jesus, still rubbing his sore bum, chops it down, and that’s why we never hear from Joseph again.

      You have to give it points for logical elegance.

  5. AstaKask  December 12, 2018

    If you combine the accounts of Luke and Matthew, don’t you get a problem with John the Baptist surviving the massacre?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Don’t think so. He’s not from Bethlehem.

      • AstaKask  December 14, 2018

        Wouldn’t his parents also be of David’s house, and thus travel to Bethlehem to be counted for the census?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 16, 2018

          No, nothing links his ancestry to David, except to the extent that everyone’s was, in one way or another. Surely not every Jew on earth was heading to Bethlehem!

  6. epicurus
    epicurus  December 12, 2018

    Shouldn’t they have named Jesus Emmanuel rather than Jesus if Isa. 7:14 was supposed to be a fulfilled prophecy?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Emmanuel is the designation, not the name. Just as elsewhere it is said that “he shall be called Wonderful, Counselor…” Doesn’t mean it’s actually his name.

  7. fishician  December 12, 2018

    Herod is typically portrayed as shrewd and ruthless. So, he sends these strangers on their way to find this new king without sending so much as a single soldier with them, who could easily dispatch this rival as soon as he is found. Hard to believe. But Matthew sets this up so he can use the passage from Jeremiah 31:15 as a “prophecy” of the event. However, Matthew should have read a little further: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; For your work will be rewarded,’ declares the Lord, ‘And they will return from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future,’ declares the Lord, ‘And your children will return to their own territory.'” Jeremiah’s passage is actually a hopeful one about the children of Israel returning from captivity, so rejoice! By taking it completely out of context Matthew has changed its intent for his own purposes. But then he does that with the other “prophecies” he quotes in the birth story. Matthew’s Biblical exegesis is very suspect.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Yeah, Matthew certainly would not do well in a modern exegesis class; but in his own context he’s pretty good

  8. Pattylt  December 12, 2018

    I vaguely remember a story (from one of the early church fathers?) that also contained a star announcing either the birth or possibly the resurrection? It included details of of a heavenly choir singing as well. Please tell me you know which story I’m referring to! This story has quite a few interesting differences and now I’m wondering if this is merely evidence of the various circulating, but changed, oral traditions?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Not sure what you’re thinking of!

      • Pattylt  December 14, 2018

        Found it!
        Ignatius writes : Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world… and then describes a star that IS Jesus (not an announcement) and doesn’t seem to be Matthew’s story.
        Do you think he got this from some “other” gospel or just some alternate oral tradition floating around? I thought it was very interesting as it is quite different from Matthew.
        Took me a bit to find this!

        • Bart
          Bart  December 16, 2018

          I”ve debated back and forth on this. My sense is that he is giving a kind of narrative interpretation of the account in Matthew, but I’m not wedded to the view.

        • mannix  December 17, 2018

          Numbers 24:17 relates “A star shall advance from Jacob…” This was thought to be a Messianic prophecy, the “star” being Jesus. On a different note, actual stars do not appear to move at all (they do, of course, but are light years away, making actual movement imperceptible). However planets in our solar system do visibly move over short periods of time. Modern astronomers interested in this gospel have concluded the “star” was actually Jupiter. Interesting, since the celestial body is named after the chief Greek god!

  9. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  December 12, 2018

    Is the “Slaughter of the Innocents” mentioned by Josephus or in any other writing of the period? If not, is that significant or just another atrocity lost to history or just a legend? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      No, it’s not mentioned anywhere but Matthew. My sense is that it’s a legend created to “fulfill scripture” (see today’s post)

  10. mcmemmo  December 12, 2018

    I understand that the discrepancies between the different Infancy Narratives poses a problem for historians who wish to use them as a source of information about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. From what I’ve read, it seems to me that the only useful thing the infancy narratives can offer historians is insight into how early and widely attested were certain theological “facts” about Jesus’ birth across Christian communities. Is it fair to say that the theological “facts” the two narratives share in common – Bethlehem, virgin birth, angelic messengers, holy spirit, etc. – indicate that these beliefs were early and widespread across very different Christian communities?

    Also, the different way Luke and Matthew shaped these “facts” into a narrative seems to say something significant about the nature of the two communities they address in particular. Luke clearly thinks it is a brilliant plan to shape these “theological facts” in to a narrative that not only makes Zechariah (old, male, priest, punished) a lesser foil of Mary (young, female, virgin, encouraged), but also puts into Mary’s mouth the words, “…generations will call ME blessed”, which is not something Zachariah gets to say. Can we safely assume that Luke’s community nodded their heads in agreement at his portrayal of Mary? What about Matthew’s community? Matthew doesn’t bother to give Mary a single line in his Gospel – and nobody seemed to care.

    I hope you’ll address some of those issues in your next posts!

  11. JamesFouassier  December 12, 2018

    Regarding the genealogies, Professor, I know that scholars frequently point out that the connection with David only made sense if Jesus were presumed to be an actual blood descendant. So why would Matthew and Luke bother? Wouldn’t the discrepancy have been so obvious to everyone that it would weaken rather than support the idea of a Divine Conception and a Virgin Birth? (I’m not sure that I buy into the argument that the Jews, like the Romans, considered an adoptive son to be a full fledged family descendant for all purposes, or that a contemporary audience would even have made that connection). Is it possible, then, that the genealogies had been developed before the idea of a Virgin Birth, and that Matthew and Luke picked them up from some earlier source rather than created them from scratch?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      They were in a bind. They had to show Davidic lineage, but also held to the virgin birth. No easy solution to that one!

  12. JohnKesler  December 12, 2018

    I wonder how many people who have read Matthew’s account over the years wonder why the “Star of Bethlehem” didn’t lead the wise men directly to Bethlehem, thus avoiding the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” It should be obvious that Matthew thought that fulfillment of “prophecy” was more important than narrative coherence.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      I’m one of them who has wondered!

    • AstaKask  December 14, 2018

      Some of the Jehova’s Witnesses I’ve spoken to think the star was sent by the Devil. I don’t know if that’s an official teaching, though.

  13. Machtige Henk  December 12, 2018

    Dear Bart, a question unrelated to today’s post.
    I understand the arguments for considering six of the letters not to be written by Paul, but why do you think the other seven *are* written by him? I mean, they could also be written (forged) by an unknown person. Maybe he wanted to forge letters in Paul’s name and are Paul’s real letters lost to history? What are the arguments for the consensus that the seven letters are written by the real Paul himself?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Ah, long story. Short answer: the seven appear to cohere in vocabulary, writing style, theological outlook, general overview, historical context, etc., and so all appear to have the same author. Since it claims to be Paul, and since we have good reason for thinking Paul did write letters — unless there’s some compelling reason to suspect otherwise, they are simply thought to be paul’s.

  14. Brittonp  December 12, 2018

    Was there any concern by early church fathers that the genealogy of Jesus presented in Matthew and Luke were Joseph’s descendants and not Mary? Concerns about the descendants names being different?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Yes, there was some questioning about how both could be right!

  15. dankoh  December 12, 2018

    You ask (rhetorically) why anyone would worship a (Jewish) king. No jew would, but a Hellenist might not know that. And no Jew would worship a messiah, either; he is, after all, nothing more than God’s servant (though a very powerful one). The most detailed description I know is in Pss. Sol. 17-18, but there too I see no suggestion that he is to be worshiped, just obeyed.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      My question is why anyone would worship a Jewish ruler? It’s kind a like wisemen showing up at the door of Netanyahu….

  16. Lev
    Lev  December 12, 2018

    About 18 months ago I asked you about an ancient document “Eusebius on the star” (http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/eusebius_star.htm) a lengthy account of the three Magi visiting the infant Jesus. I asked if you knew if anyone had subjected the manuscript to multispectral imaging, as some of the final lines of text had been purposely erased. You said you didn’t know.

    I did some research and found the manuscript at the British Library and discovered it had never been scanned. I went to London and had a look at the manuscript (it’s beautifully bound in a book – first time I’ve held any ancient text in my shaking hands! It was awesome!!)

    I asked their multispectral imaging department if they could scan it and they did. They sent me the results and asked for a translation. I said I couldn’t read ancient Syriac and they appeared quite surprised and cross “we thought you were part of a university research project?!” I explained I was just an enthusiastic novice, but I contacted Prof Sebastian Brock and his successor Prof David Taylor (leading experts on ancient Syriac) at Oxford University and they both had a go at translating the recovered text.

    David Taylor said he may write a paper on it, but I didn’t hear if he did. The contents concern a conversation between Joseph and Mary where they agree to marital chastity. Presumably, a married owner of the codex decided that was too much and chemically erased it in case anyone got any bright ideas!!

    The most interesting aspect of the text is the final lines where it suggests the tale of the Magi was unknown before 119, and only after was it added to the gospel of Matthew: “and eleven, in the second year of the coming of our Saviour, in the consulship of Caesar and of Capito, in the month of the latter Kanun, these Magi came from the East and worshipped our Lord at Bethlehem of the kings. And in the year four hundred and thirty (A.D. 119), in the reign of Hadrianus Caesar, in the consulship of Severus and of Fulgus, in the episcopate of Xystus, bishop of the city of Rome, this concern arose in (the minds of) men acquainted with the Holy Books; and through the pains of the great men in various places this history was sought for and found, and written in the tongue of those who took this care.”

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Interesting. The scholar to ask about such things (rarely known apocrypha) is Tony Burke at York University.

      • Lev
        Lev  December 15, 2018

        Thanks for the tip, Bart – I’ve emailed Tony Burke. Are you interested in his response? I can let you know what his thoughts are if you like?

  17. JohnKesler  December 12, 2018

    Is “sorcerer” or “magician,” as the word for “wise men” is translated in Acts 13:6,8 a more accurate term for Jesus’ visitors? Or should Acts 13 be translated differently?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Astrologers would be maybe better.

      • JohnKesler  December 14, 2018

        “Astrologers” would be more accurate in Acts 13, too?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 16, 2018

          Not necessarily. The word can mean “magician” or other things; it seems to designate astrologer (another of its meanings) in Luke 2 because they whole point is that they are star-observers.

  18. hankgillette  December 13, 2018


    Do you have any idea what the population of Bethlehem was in 4 BCE? I am wondering how many children would have actually been killed in the “Slaughter of the Innocents” (if it had happened).

    In my imagination as a child, I envisioned hundreds of children killed, but the number might have actually been quite small, maybe small enough not to raise a huge amount of outrage, except locally.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Just a few hundred I should think; but I’m not sure I”ve read any archaeological reports.

      • godspell  December 16, 2018

        I’ve read of archaeological reports suggesting the population was essentially zero, because it wasn’t an extant town at the time.

  19. caesar  December 13, 2018

    When the star stops ‘over the place they were staying’–does that mean it stopped over the very house? Obviously if it’s a literal star in the sky it can’t direct someone to a specific house. Is it possible that the place where they were staying refers to the whole city of Bethlehem? It seems that would defeat the whole purpose of the star, which was to lead them specifically to Jesus. But does the original language lead to any ambiguity of where the star led them?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Yup, that’s what it means. A bit of a problem! As modern film makers have realized, when they have to portray it. (Leading to the most amusing account of the Life of Brian. Whoops. Wrong house.)

  20. caesar  December 13, 2018

    Obviously Isaiah’s prophecy refers to a political situation in the 8th century bc. Could someone legitimately argue that Matthew was using a midrash approach to the text, and that therefore there is more than one interpretation? Or can we just say that Matthew was mistaken and didn’t understand Isaiah 7?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 14, 2018

      Yes, he’s certainly following accepted interpretive practices of his day.

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