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The Infancy Narratives Compared

In two previous posts I’ve detailed what happens in Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth and then in Matthew’s.  I will assume those two previous posts in the comments that I want to make in this one.  The problem people have with reading these two accounts, usually, is the problem they have reading the Gospels (and the Bible as a whole) generally.  Or at least this has been my experience.  It’s the problem of assuming that one account is basically saying the same thing as some other account.

People do that with the Bible all the time.   With the New Testament, people tend to read Matthew as if he’s saying the same thing as Mark; John as if it’s the same thing as Luke; Paul’s letters as if, at heart, they’re the same thing as James; Revelation as if it’s the same thing as John.  And on and on and on.

One of the most important tasks I have as an undergraduate teacher of the New Testament is to get students to see that each of these authors – and indeed, each of the books of the New Testament – has to be read on its own to see what its message is.   The message of Mark may be different from John; Matthew may be different from Paul; Acts may be different from James; and so on and on.  Even when two authors are talking about the same subject – in fact, *especially* when they are – they may be saying very different things about it.

This is why it is so important to introduce students (not to mention their parents!)  to the discrepancies of the Bible.  Many of my students never really get the point of why we talk about discrepancies.   They think the *point* is that we can then come away from the Bible and say, “So, it’s full of contradictions!”   And the subsidiary point then is, they think, “Therefore we cannot trust it.”

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Genealogies of Matthew and Luke
Matthew’s Fulfillment Citations



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 14, 2012


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    toddfrederick  December 14, 2012

    Your current thoughts on the birth narratives speak of “controversies” throughout scripture and you mention in this current entry, “It’s the problem of assuming that one account is basically saying the same thing as some other account.”

    This is obvious in the Christmas story, and how Matthew’s and Luke’s versions seem to blend into a third narrative with considerable extras thrown in (especially evident in Christmas pageants). To me it seems that this is more of a cultural story than one from sacred scripture.

    I have a question regarding such controversies not related to the birth narrative as such, but one which I see as extremely problematic in the overall story of Jesus and Christian theology generally.

    In a previous blog entry you listed a series of questions of other controversies to which you answered “No” to all of them. One of the questions was “Did Paul create Christianity” (my paraphrase). Your answer was “No,” with no comments.

    I recently finished reading James Tabor’s new book on “Paul and Jesus” in which he emphatically states in the very first pages that Paul’s message did create Christianity and that Paul’s message is in direct serious conflict with that of Jesus.

    This again is another instance of where average Christians tend to blend the messages of scripture, here regarding that of Jesus with that of Paul as being the same, which are, as I have recently discovered, very different. I am currently reading your book “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium” which I hope will give some clues to Paul vs. Jesus from your point of view since, I think, we can not consider Jesus’ gospel without comparing it to Paul’s gospel message.


    Do you plan to give a critical review of Dr. Tabor’s book , and will you address this subjects in your blogs sometime in the future.

    I think that it is more important to understanding what the essential message of Christianity is than any other issue I can think of. Thank you for considering this.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 14, 2012

      No, I’m not planning to review Tabor’s book. I agree that Paul and Jesus, ironically, represented different religions. But Paul didn’t start his — he inherited TONS from his predecessors who developed their views before his conversion. If Tabor thinks differently, then yes, we do disagree.

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  December 14, 2012

        Thank you for your reply. I thought Paul was somewhat isolated within his Jewish community.before his conversion. I’d like to know more of the pre-Pauline influences on Paul. I have not heard of that previously.

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    DMiller5842  December 14, 2012

    I sure hope there is more —- I feel like I have been left hanging here. What proper interpretation is there when neither of these 2 contradictory accounts are historical? The interpretation seems to me to be 2 writers inventing stories to fool people.

    Why did you not write this in the Newsweek article?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 14, 2012

      I don’t think they were trying to fool people. I think they had a truth that was much greater, for them, than a historical event. And they may well have inherited most of their stories, so that they didn’t know that what they were saying was literary, but not historical.

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    CalifiorniaPuma  December 14, 2012

    Conservative Christians always seem to have an answer ready for every pickle you put them in. Their creativity in devising explanations for difficult passages finds its apogee when they navigate their way through the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. With a careful reading of the passages (in English, at least), one readily sees that Matthew identifies Jacob as the father of Joseph, while Luke identifies Eli as the father of Joseph—seemingly suggesting that someone goofed up writing the Word of God. As you know, Conservative Christians solve this conundrum by claiming that Luke’s genealogy is different because it’s actually Mary’s genealogy, and Luke’s Eli as father of Joseph would more accurately be read as “Eli FATHER-IN-LAW of Joseph.” They further point out that since God, not Joseph, impregnated Mary, the unique circumstance actually calls for 2 different genealogies—one legal (Matthew) and the other a bloodline (Luke). Is their argument even remotely plausible or is the Baloney Meter pegged hard right? thanks

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 14, 2012

      Well, I wouldn’t call it Baloney Meter, but I’m afraid they’ve had to twist what the texts actually *say* in order to make them mean what they want them to mean. If Luke wanted to say that Eli was Joseph’s father in law, he could easily have said it. He says, instead, that Eli was his father.

    • Avatar
      hwl  December 15, 2012

      erm, Luke never suggested God “impregnated” Mary – this would be considered blasphemous to any monotheist and Trinitarian.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  December 15, 2012

        Well, the Spirit does “overshadow” her, so there’s something, at least, going on. But you’re right, later theologians absolutely did not see it that way.

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  December 17, 2012

        @hwl: whether or not he ‘impregnated’ Mary is semantics. According to the legend, an embryo started growing in her womb that wouldn’t otherwise have been growing there. So the ‘Spirit’ had to either magically fecundate one of Mary’s egg or to implant a sort of divine proto-fetus. Even if the conception wasn’t the result of regular sex, the ‘Spirit’ had to DO something inside of Mary’s body, agreed?

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    Christian  December 14, 2012

    A very thoughtful post, as always. If a student realises that two accounts of the same event factually contradict each other, then, as you say, at least one of them cannot be historical. Furthermore, if there is no way to decide which one is indeed accurate, or most likely to be, both accounts should be subjected to equal suspicion, wouldn’t you agree? I think that the whole issue seems to rest on the “historical quest” for Jesus or God through literature claiming to be historical accounts. This quest is foundational to monotheisms, where God intervenes in history. (I am not even referring to literal readings of the Bible.) Therefore, I can understand the reaction of your faithful students, because if factual statements need to be interpreted to make sense, the whole edifice is shaking, even though there is so much to learn from interpretation. The initial reaction of your students is actually the auspicious sign of a rational reflection…

  6. Avatar
    hwl  December 14, 2012

    Given the completely different genealogies in Matthew and Luke, these must have developed independently. Yet both use genealogies. Was this a common practice in biographies of great leaders in the Greco-Roman world?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 14, 2012

      Not really. Though, of course, the Bible is fond of genealogies, and these authors are telling their stories of Jesus in a kind of “biblical mode.”

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 14, 2012

    The writing of the Gospels may indeed have been inspired by God, but the editor of the Gospels should have been fired.

    As usual, I have read some Internet criticisms accusing you of having an “agenda” to destroy the Bible. As usual, none of the criticism, so far, really addresses the historical issues that you raise. I find this discouraging and not very “kind” of the critics. You really stir them up. But I think the literal interpretation of the Bible leads to attacks on the science of evolution, abuse of gays, and abuse of women and this needs to be changed and you are helping with that change.

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    Jim  December 14, 2012

    Matthew’s genealogy is gematrial (if that’s a proper term) and is therefore presented in a format typically used to justify the status/authority of a ruler. His genealogy goes back to David via Solomon, while Luke’s is through Nathan (Solomon’s brother). It seems that on the surface at least Matthew’s is probably fourteen times (using analytical gematry) more likely to be purely political than Luke’s, making me wonder if Luke’s lineage for Joseph might be closer to reality.

    My question is twofold; (i) are there any obvious reasons for Luke to go through Nathan (going through Solomon seems likely if you’re trying to make a political statement), and/or (ii) did both of these guys just pull a genealogical list out of their posterior?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 15, 2012

      The answer to your first quesiton is on the tip of my brain, but it’s not coming up just now; I’ll keep thinking about it, because there is indeed something there. As to the second, it’s impossible to say, I think, but as I’ll be pointing out about them both, they serve the author’s clear literary purposes and so may have been devised for the occasion, though possibly with traditions about them already in place.

  9. Avatar
    hwl  December 16, 2012

    Traditionally, Western systematic theology has understood the virgin conception to be necessary for Jesus to be born free from Original Sin. Do you think any New Testament authors associated virgin conception with sinlessness?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 17, 2012

      It’s hard to say, but I doubt it. If they did, they never mentioned that part!

  10. Avatar
    Javalos  December 26, 2012

    Have you heard this or know how credible this source is?
    Israeli archeologists say there is strong evidence Jesus was born in another Bethlehem http://t.co/BTFq5MVD

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 27, 2012

      yes, this Bethlehem has long been known, but it can’t be the one referred to in the NT (or the OT), which is explicitly said to be the one in Judea, not Galilee.

  11. Christopher Sanders
    Christopher Sanders  February 18, 2013


    As I mentioned in my post on your blog on the genealogies compared, I’ve been engaged in a discussion with a late student of Dan Wallace, a current preacher, and part-time teacher of Greek, Justin Bass, on contradictions in the Bible, which began at a Reasonable Faith meeting which he presented at, on the subject. We’ve been talking on Facebook and here is a little of what he had to say about your assessment of the two birth narratives.

    “Here is a brief harmonized chronology of the birth narratives: Jesus and Mary went from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census (Luke 2:4-5). Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:6). There was a visitation by the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20) and the Magi soon after (Matt 2:1-12) (Herod might have killed children 2 years under just to make sure he got them all. This does not prove that Jesus was 2 years old. We know from Josephus that Herod was very precise at murdering those who threatened his kingdom and so he made sure to cover his basis according to what the Magi said. Also, that within days they moved from the stable (Shepherds) to a house (Magi) only makes sense). Eight days later Jesus was circumcised, presented to God in Jerusalem, and because of a dream in Bethlehem, they went to Egypt until Herod’s death and then returned to Nazareth (Matt 2:13-23; Luke 2:39). At 12 Jesus came back to Jerusalem with His parents and then returned to Nazareth (Luke 2:40-52). In short, Ehrman is incorrect that it is “impossible” to harmonize these accounts.”

    Now I definitely have a few things to say about this harmonization which only succeeds by super-squeezing M&J’s vacation to Egypt into the single verse of Luke’s account which narrates the end of Mary’s 32 day purification ritual and their return home, but I wanted to see if you would have anything to say about it. I am almost willing to concede that it’s a “possible” harmonization, though I think it bends the natural readings of the text in an extremely unnatural way. It certainly seems to ignore the most natural reading of both texts.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 18, 2013

      One (very big) problem is that Herod killed the 2 year olds “based on the time that he learned from the wise men.” So they must have told them how much time the star had been shining.

      • Christopher Sanders
        Christopher Sanders  February 19, 2013

        I think the argument my friend seems to be making is that Herod was just a monster and so he just set a wide margin of error to the age of children he set his soldiers to kill. Either that or perhaps the wisemen had been seeing the star for many months before Jesus was born. I definitely agree that the most natural reading of the text conflicts with Luke but it does seem to me this harmonization isn’t to much of a stretch.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 19, 2013

          But there’s no time for them to flee to Egypt in Luke — they go home right away to nazareth (their home! unlike Matthew)

          • Christopher Sanders
            Christopher Sanders  February 19, 2013

            Yes, that does seem a serious problem. The only way to harmonize that is to squeeze the flight to Egypt in between Luke’s mention of the end of Mary’s ritual and the return to Nazareth, which happens in a single verse lol. I explained to him that also Matthew certainly seems to indicate that M&J would have preferred to come back to Bethlehem but couldn’t because of Herod’s son.

  12. Avatar
    Zboilen  December 16, 2016

    Hi Bart. Do you think that the author of Matthew was embarrassed by Jesus growing up in Nazareth? I say this because it seems that he might be trying to make a fulfillment of prophecy out of it by saying, “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” Almost as if to say, yes this is embarrassing but it was prophesied so it’s ok! that But this prophecy doesn’t seem to be found in the Old Testament. What are your thoughts on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2016

      Yes, I agree — he *either* had to explain it somehow or he decided to try to make something out of a puzzling fact.

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