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Why It Didn’t Happen that Way. The Stories of Jesus’ Birth

In the previous post I began to discuss (as a review for many readers of the blog) the historical problems with the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.  The point of the discussion is that the stories cannot be accepted as historically accurate.  This is a huge issue mainly for fundamentalist Christians and conservative evangelicals – and those they have managed to persuade that if a story does not describe what actually happened, then it is worthless and should simply be thrown out.

For others – whether theologians, pastors, parishioners, or simply lay-folk interested in Christianity – the stories are important for other reasons, for example in the ideas they are trying to convey.

In any event, here is the second post dealing with the historical problems that arise when you compare the two accounts to one another.


It may be possible to reconcile these accounts if you work hard enough at it.  I suppose you’d have to say that after Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth, as in Luke, they decided to move into a house in Bethlehem, as in Matthew, and a year or so later the wise men arrived, leading to the flight to Egypt, and a later decision, then, to relocate again to Nazareth.  But if that is the way you choose to read the two accounts, you should realize that what you’ve done is create your own “meta-narrative” — one not found in any of the Gospels.  That is, you have decided to write a Gospel of your own!

Moreover, this approach doesn’t solve other historical problems posed by the texts, problems that appear nearly insurmountable, no matter how many meta-narratives one decides to create.  For purposes of illustration, I’ll…

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Why Have I Stopped Explaining How I Lost My Faith? Readers’ Mailbag June 4, 2017
Another “True” Story that Didn’t Happen? Jesus’ Birth in Luke



  1. Avatar
    ask21771  June 2, 2017

    Can you list all the reasons you think Jesus wasn’t resurrected

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2017

      For me it’s simple. I don’t believe God raised Jesus from the dead because I don’t believe in God.

      • Avatar
        ask21771  June 2, 2017

        Ok but what information would help build a case against the resurrection, or build a rebuttal against someone who made a case for the resurrection

        • Bart
          Bart  June 5, 2017

          I don’t think you can make a historical argument for or against a non-historical event (i.e., one not subject to historical scrutiny, such as a miracle)

      • Avatar
        jdub3125  June 2, 2017

        There are persons who endeavor to follow the lifestyle of the Exemplar and call themselves Christians, yet do not believe there was a literal physical resurrection and do not see the need to believe that nor the virgin birth nor other purported miracles. Admittedly not as simple as the Professor’s reason, however.

      • Avatar
        Jason  June 2, 2017

        It seems odd to me that you’re being asked to explain why you don’t think that something which is not just the unlikeliest possible thing that could have happened in that situation, but moreover for which there is not a shred of evidence for its having happened, did happen.

        I’m always more interested in the taxonomies of fundamentalist belief. For example, if I’d have been conversant with young, evangelical Bart, I would have been likely to ask what led him to believe the Bible was inerrant and absolutely literal (as I assume he wasn’t born with his knowledge of scripture or a capacity to understand the concept of prophetic inspiration.) How might that younger Bart have answered?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 5, 2017

          1. The Bible says it is inspired; 2. There is evidence that it is right (prophecies from the OT fulfilled by the NT, e.g.); 3. God would certainly not have a truth necessary for salvation that he would not reveal to his people accurately adn without error.

      • Avatar
        Hormiga  June 3, 2017

        Not to get into the theological and epistemological weeds, but one could perhaps say that even in the absence of Yahweh or any other god, Jesus was resurrected by some other unknown means. The answer to that, I’d think, is that there is absolutely no evidence that such a means exists or that any other credible evidence of such a resurrection is known.

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 5, 2017

        And you don’t believe God created the universe because you don’t believe in God.

        Except there is a universe, and something created it. Something no religion has ever described to my satisfaction, but neither has science. Nor will it, ever.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 6, 2017

          I don’t think we have any idea what science will come up with. Who would have predicted quantum physics?

    • Avatar
      Steefen  June 4, 2017

      The historical fiction character, the Jewish Jesus-Christ-Savior died with Temple Judaism when the Temple was destroyed due to both the Jewish Civil War and the Jewish Revolt against Rome.

      All of the Jewish hopes and prophecies of a Messiah ascended to the Heaven of Memories of the Past.

      The Jewish Jesus, for the most part, was a character of historical fiction and tradition who can be deconstructed into Julius Caesar, Augustus (Son of the Divine Forgiving Julius Caesar who practically loved his enemies), Vespasian (who supposedly healed a blind man), Titus (son of the Divine Vespasian) and Em-Manu-El (King Izates, son of Queen Helena, was from the Manu line of kings; he fed 5,000 a multiple of times when there was a famine in Judea in the year 47.)

      The biblical Jesus died in the early 30s of the first century. With the biblical Jesus being part King Izates feeding the hungry in 47, Vespasian, healing the blind through the Lord of Resurrection, Serapis, a reinvention of Osiris,
      and Titus who sat next to the Power, his father Vespasian, the Jesus character was resurrected to finish the New Testament story.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  June 5, 2017

        Steefen said
        English: A Lame Person
        Latin: Claudo Vicinus
        Julius Caesar “Heals Clodios”
        Jesus Heals the Lame

        Healing the Lame/Clodios
        In order to maintain the parallels between the life of Julius Caesar and the Gospels, proper names turn into generic names. One Claudius stands out: Publius Clodius Pulcher.

        Julius Caesar’s Biography
        There was a house, Julius Caesar’s house.
        Clodius entered the house but not through the front door.
        He entered with the help of servants.
        He wanted to commit the sin of making his lay with Julius Caesar’s wife.
        Julius Caesar told him to take what you did laying a bed in my house and walk free.
        Julius Caesar forgave the man which also cleared Julius Caesar’s wife, but he divorced her also.
        Accusers were horrified at the forgiveness.

        The Gospel of Mark
        There was a house.
        A man entered the house but not through the front door.
        He entered the house by the help of servants lowering him through the roof.
        The lame man, on his mat, lay on the floor–on his mat of a bed.
        Jesus said your sin is forgiven. Arise, and take your mat and walk.
        Scribes were horrified at the forgiveness.

        Julius Caesar forgives the woman (his wife) caught in adultery (or the appearance of adultery).
        Jesus Christ forgives the woman caught/taken in adultery.

        This is why the Woman caught/taken in adultery can be added later into the New Testament: because the biography of Julius Caesar is the standard.

        Let’s look again at Bart Ehrman’s post:

  2. Avatar
    godspell  June 2, 2017

    Here’s a puzzle–suppose, when the disciples began to tell the rest of the Jewish world they came from that Jesus was the Messiah, they had met with widespread acceptance? Not universal (we’re talking about the Jewish people here), but a good result, lots of takers. Instead of nearly none.

    Would we have all these stories about Jesus being the begotten Son of God, born of a virgin, and certainly somehow born in Bethlehem (which may not even have been possible according to some accounts I’ve read, which say Bethlehem of Judea wasn’t a functioning town at the time Jesus was born)?

    A lot of what we’re seeing here, I would suggest, is the result of these people whose faith had been ramped up to an incredible degree by the trauma of their master’s execution, followed by the growing belief that he had manifested himself to them in the flesh after his death. They had started to believe he was Messiah before his death, now they were sure. He had to be, or what did any of this mean? But their fellow Jews just could not accept it, because an itinerant rabbi born in Nazareth who had been condemned by the Sanhedrin and crucified as a criminal could not be the Messiah.

    So they desperately looked for ways to prove he was. Prophecies he could somehow be made to have fulfilled. As gentiles swelled their ranks, as many of the religious requirements for practicing Jews were waived, they got further and further away from Jesus’ original intent of reforming Judaism to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom (that never came).

    At some point, as you’ve documented elsewhere, they crossed the line from saying he was Messiah to saying he was the adopted Son of God, to saying he was the begotten Son of God to saying he was God. But a lot of it began as simple overcompensation, in reaction to the rejection they experienced from their fellow Jews. From the gulf of mutual incomprehension that came to exist between them. But if they’d had even a reasonable amount of success (as perhaps the followers of John the Baptist did after his death) in persuading people he at least might have been Messiah, it could have gone very differently.

    And what would the world look like now?

    Well, people being people, everywhere and always, probably much the same. :\

  3. Avatar
    jhague  June 2, 2017

    “But if that is the way you choose to read the two accounts, you should realize that what you’ve done is create your own “meta-narrative” — one not found in any of the Gospels. That is, you have decided to write a Gospel of your own!”

    Growing up in a conservative church, we were told that we had to take the Bible as a whole. None of it stood on its own. So a person had to take pieces from different books in order to get the “full story.”

    I notice that most pastors of community style Christian churches continue to pull verses from different books and combine them to make their points.

  4. Avatar
    jhague  June 2, 2017

    “In none of these writings, including an account written by Caesar August himself about his own reign, is there a solitary word of any empire-wide census.”

    Would people hearing this read to them regarding an empire-wide census know that this never actually happened?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2017

      Probably not, at least not most of them, since the vast majority were not educated and didn’t know how imperial matters happened.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 2, 2017

    I look forward to where this is going. Thanks

    For those of you new to this blog, I strongly recommend Dr. Ehrman’s book entitled “Jesus, Interrupted” which discusses many of the contradictions and historical discrepancies found in the Gospels. For me, it was the most of his books.

  6. Avatar
    nbraith1975  June 2, 2017

    Bart – As a conservative Christian for 40+ years, I understand where you are coming from in your journey out of Christianity.

    My journey began with me questioning the concept of “church” regarding it’s corporate structure. I then began to dig deeper into the doctrine of the trinity and realized that it was a man-made doctrine. Recently I have come to see the transformation of the early followers of Jesus’ “Hebrew” based teachings regarding his Messiah credentials into a religion devoid of anything related to the Jewish/Hebrew lineage of Jesus. And not just devoid, but openly hostile toward anything Jewish.

    At this point, after much study of your work, along with other work of competent biblical historians, I am coming to realize that while both the OT and NT have reliable historical value, the “God” and “Messiah” they present may be more a creation of their culture then the actual creator of all things – if in fact a creator does exist.

    My journey is presenting me with some very tough emotional considerations, but I seem to be moving to a place of contentment with a new-found truth.

  7. Avatar
    doug  June 2, 2017

    It strikes me as interesting that, in contorting the Bible to try to reconcile parts of it, some people think they can speak for God better than the Bible. If there were a God, I don’t think we could speak for him better than he could speak for himself.

  8. Avatar
    Silver  June 2, 2017

    In the past you have illustrated for your students the outrage Jews would have felt by the claim that Jesus was the Messiah by comparing that with claims that David Koresh was Lord of the Universe. If, however, Koresh’s followers had altered the narrative of some episode in his life (as John did with the timing of Jesus’ passion in order to claim Jesus was the Lamb of God) in order to bolster the suggestion that he was Lord of the Universe, would that be classed as a theological truth or simply some outrageous nonsense? If the latter, why the difference?

  9. Avatar
    Todd  June 2, 2017

    I’m a bit confused. A few weeks ago you said you were going to write about what you tell your students on the last day of school about why you lost your faith, but it seems you may have gotten off track, unless I missed a post or two.

    I thought the reason had to do with the problem of suffering and why a good God would allow so much suffering in this world. Now you’re talking about the birth stories and what in the gospels is or is not history/and or Truth.

    I study Buddhist philosophy quite deeply and Buddhists are all about suffering. Unfortunately they seem to say “Get used to it. We will always have suffering but there are ways to live with it and still be happy, and living with suffering is what Buddhist practices are all about.”

    Any way, I am sorry I seem to have missed the posts that were about what you say to your class each year about why you lost your faith. I hope you will repeat it sometime soon. Thank you.

  10. Avatar
    OldSolar  June 2, 2017

    How did Luke get away with such a huge historical fabrication presuming that some of his audience was living in Rome and alive during the time of this fake tax?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2017

      We have no way of knowing if some readers objected or not.

  11. Avatar
    gavriel  June 2, 2017

    To me it looks that the birth narratives are internally inconsistent as well. In Luke the pregnancy by the Holy Ghost would have to be accepted by her entire family and kinsfolk, not to say the entire village, or else Joseph wouldn’t have been allowed to travel around with a girl he was as only betrothed to, in an advanced stage of pregnancy.

    Matthew requires Joseph to have access to an examination of Mary’s pregnancy, independently of her closest family, prior to marriage, which would be unheard of in this type of Jewish society. In real life her family would have discovered it first and avoided the scandal.

    In both cases the inconsistencies are swept under the carpet with terse descriptions, Matthew 1:18b, and Luke 2:5

    Or may be you would say these are improbabilities rather than inconsistencies?

  12. Avatar
    john76  June 2, 2017

    As Mark had Jesus say, there was an exoteric and an esoteric meaning to the texts:

    Mark 4:10-12Modern English Version (MEV)
    The Purpose of the Parables
    10 When He was alone, those who were around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. 11 He said to them, “To you is given the secret of the kingdom of God, but to those who are outside, everything is said in parables, 12 so that
    ‘seeing they may see, and not perceive,
        and hearing they may hear and not understand;
    lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them.’

  13. DestinationReign
    DestinationReign  June 2, 2017

    These last few blog posts have been great, and I hope you’ll continue with this theme about scriptural things being “true” without being literal or historical. The historicity of the Gospels MUST be de-emphasized in order to understand what they are truly revealing. This all gets back to each Gospel pertaining to different “timeline” increments of the Church Age, into the Kingdom Age. Remember – Matthew > Mark > Luke > John = beginning of the Church Age > 2,000 years of Christianity > end-time awakening > Kingdom comes.

    On the theme of your most recent posts – only Matthew and Luke speak of the birth (or “arrival”) of Christ because Matthew applies to when He temporarily appeared 2,000 years ago, and Luke applies to the future coming of Christ to reign. That’s why only Luke features Gabriel prophesying before His birth that “there will be no end to His Kingdom.” (And as mentioned previously, Mark makes no mention of His birth because it applies to the 2,000-year “wilderness,” or the “dark ages” of Christianity in which Christ has been absent from the world. Again, Mark instead begins in the wilderness. This is also why Mark thematically portrays the disciples as spiritually oblivious and stiff-necked – that’s Christianity!)

    This also gives a better understanding of why Luke features the CONTRADICTION about the two thieves. (Gospel differences and contradictions have prophetic meaning!) Only Luke has a believing thief who will be with Christ “today,” because Luke applies to the end of the age – the transition into the third millennium/third day/Kingdom Age when Christ and His end-time overcomers will reign. Then, only Luke (24:45) has the bit about Christ opening minds to truly understand the scriptures at the time of His third day resurrection. Luke’s Gospel really is living and active, as we now move into the “third day” after 2,000 years of “entombment” and scriptural ignorance. The resurrection isn’t about something that may or may not have happened 2,000 years ago – it’s about what must happen NOW within man himself as the “wilderness” is ending.

    So much more of this will be covered in “Silencing the Skeptics – Gospel Contradictions Resolved.” We’re currently looking at an August release date for that book. (Do not take offense at the title – the book does much more to expose the failures of Christian apologetics than skeptics such as yourself.) These are exciting times, and both “believers” and “skeptics” are playing an important part in what is transpiring! Christianity’s end-time gloom and doom cataclysms can be averted altogether with a mass-awakening to a true understanding of the scriptures. There is a much happier ending in store if humanity awakens. As it says early in Luke’s living and active Gospel – “and all mankind will see God’s salvation.”

  14. Avatar
    dragonfly  June 3, 2017

    Is there any theological reason Luke had to have Jesus born in such poor conditions?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2017

      Luke, more than the other Gospels, emphasizes the salvation that came to the poor, the lowly, and the oppressed.

  15. Avatar
    Stephen  June 3, 2017

    Is the presumption on the part of scholars that there would probably have been other Nativity stories and these two just happened to be the ones that were preserved in writing? Are there any extra-biblical gospel nativity stories that appear to include traditions independent of Matthew and Luke?


  16. Avatar
    seahawk41  June 3, 2017

    What are your thoughts: Did Luke make up these stories out of whole cloth, or was he confused about some facts? E.g., he knew that there was a Quirinius who was governor of Syria, but got the dates way off. Did he perhaps know about some local census and assume that it applied to the entire Empire? I agree with your point that what is important here is the point(s) Luke was making, not the factual accuracy. But I am interested in how he might have come up with this stuff. I’m a physicist and on many occasions I’ve heard folks give out garbled versions of some theory or experiment in physics or astrophysics …

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2017

      It’s not clear to me if the stories are from Luke himself or if he’s heard them or if he’s heard something like them and put on his own touches.

  17. Avatar
    hasankhan  June 3, 2017

    According to Islam, Marry left the city/town she used to live in, and went to a remote place, in order to conceal her pregnancy because people would accuse her of violating her chastity but when she gave birth to the baby, she returned back to the city.

    Qur’an (19:22-23) So she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a remote place. And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.”
    Qur’an (19:27) Then she brought him to her people, carrying him. They said, “O Mary, you have certainly done a thing unprecedented.

    There is no mention in Qur’an for any voting registration and all the people going etc. She went alone to hide and then returned.

  18. Robert
    Robert  June 3, 2017

    What do you think of the idea that Jesus’ birth might have been ‘illegitimate’, and that this might have been part of the origin of the virgin birth traditions? There are possible hints of this in Mark, Matthew, and John so I wouldn’t consider it pure speculation, but, of course, we can never know with any degree of confidence. Still, it does not seem unplausible to me. What do you think?

  19. Avatar
    twiskus  June 4, 2017

    Do you have any thoughts about *where* in Egypt Matthew would have been claiming that they fled to?

    I am just thinking about the timeline it would take to get to Eqypt and back on foot VS their 33 day stay in the temple. I know you mention the troublesome reconciliation of these two points, but thought I would ask you to do that here possibly.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2017

      The text doesn’t say, unfortunately. But note, they stay there until after Herod dies, so they’d have to go there, wait for him to die, have word about him dying come to them (on foot) from Judea, and then return. 33 days wouldn’t do it.

  20. Avatar
    Steefen  June 4, 2017

    One thing the story does get right is that King Herod did have opposition to his throne, and he did have executed the child who would take it. That child was his adult, first born son, Antipater II.

    So, another reason why it didn’t happen that way, Herod the Great, very ill at the time, was preoccupied with a threat to his throne from his own child, let alone a new born.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  June 5, 2017

      So, let us come back to what the professor taught us a long time ago: there was no flight into Egypt.

      The flight into Egypt is a biblical event described in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2:13-23). Soon after the visit by the Magi, who had learned that King Herod intended to kill the infants of that area, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to tell him to flee to Egypt with Mary and infant son Jesus.

      The flight into Egypt was only to get away from Herod the Great.
      But Herod the Great did kill the child (his own adult child, Antipater II) who wanted his throne, and then Herod the Great died.

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