Christmas isn’t adapted from pagan festivals, but that doesn’t mean the traditional stories of Jesus’ birth are a straightforward historical matter. The traditional Nativity story isn’t a replica of any ancient source. It’s a mash-up.
|In this cinematic Nativity scene (The Nativity story, 2006) the traditional elements come from five separate sources — only two of them in the New Testament. The magi and the star are from Matthew 2.9–12, the shepherds from Luke 2.8–20, the cave from Protevangelium of James 18–21, the oxen from the Septuagint version of Habakkuk 3.2, and Mary’s blue robe from 5th century Byzantine art. (Also, Joseph and Mary are both played by Star wars actors ... but I guess that doesn’t count.)|
Previously I’ve written some polemical pieces rejecting the notion that Christmas has pagan origins (1 2 3). But there’s a fine line between polemic and apologetic —
- Polemic: ‘Some party-poopers like to claim that Christmas is pagan, but they’re talking nonsense.’
- Apologetic: ‘The reason the party-poopers are wrong is because the Bible is 100% literally true.’
Polemics can be fun, but I don’t want to act the part of an apologist. So this year, I’ll redress the balance.
First, I’d better repeat the main point of my earlier pieces. Modern Christmas customs aren’t pagan. What they are is ... modern. Secular Christmas customs in the English-speaking world are mostly Lutheran in origin (trees, presents, Santa, Advent wreaths and calendars) and were adopted in England and America in the 19th century. The only ancient bits are the bits that happen in church.
So let’s look at a genuinely ancient bit: the stories of Jesus’ birth.
Yes, stories. We have two primary sources on the Nativity, Matthew 1.18–2.23 and Luke 1.26–2.52, and they’re totally different. They actively contradict each another in certain respects. Two methodological principles:
- We don’t take Christian traditions for granted. We don’t assume that Matthew and Luke are telling a single story which is 100% true, and that our job is to explain away the inconsistencies.
- Conversely, we don’t adopt the New Atheist strategy of dismissing everything biblical out of hand. Good data or bad data, Matthew and Luke are still data.
I’d better add before we carry on that the overall thrust of my argument here is totally uncontroversial among biblical scholars. Here’s Raymond Brown, in his classic study of the Nativity stories (1993: 35–36):
Commentators of times past have harmonized these different details into a consecutive narrative ... But if originally there was one narrative, how did it ever become fragmented into the two different accounts we have now? ... This leads us to the observation that the two narratives are not only different — they are contrary to each other in a number of details. ... Indeed, close analysis of the infancy narratives makes it unlikely that either account is completely historical.
(Brown was a scholar who was also a Christian, for what that’s worth. The book even has an official imprimatur.)
Now, let’s put the stories side by side. Notice how disconnected they are:
|Reign of Herod or Archelaus: Angel visits Mary (the Annunciation).||1.26–38|
|Mary visits Elizabeth; birth of John the Baptist.||1.39–80|
|Reign of Herod: Engagement of Joseph and Mary; Joseph plans to end engagement because of pregnancy.||1.18–19|
|Angel visits Joseph in dream, tells him to go ahead with marriage.||1.20–25|
|(Fulfilment of prophecy: Isaiah 7.14.)||1.22–23|
|Governorship of Quirinius: Quirinius conducts a census.||2.1–2|
|Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem.||2.3–5|
|Birth of Jesus; no room at the inn.||2.6–7|
|The shepherds hear the news and visit family in Bethlehem.||2.8–20|
|Circumcision of Jesus.||2.21|
|Family stops off in Jerusalem to present Jesus at temple; episode of Simeon and Anna.||2.22–38|
|Reign of Herod: Magi visit Herod in Jerusalem.||2.1–7|
|(Fulfilment of prophecy: LXX Micah 5.1, LXX II Kings 5.2.)||2.5–6|
|Magoi go to Bethlehem, offer gifts, then return home without visiting Herod.||2.8–12|
|Angel visits Joseph in dream to warn him of Herod’s rage; family flees to Egypt.||2.13–15|
|(Fulfilment of prophecy: Hosea 11.1.)||2.15|
|Herod’s rage: massacre of the innocents.||2.16–18|
|(Fulfilment of prophecy: LXX Jeremiah 38.15.)||2.17–18|
|Reign of Archelaus: family returns from Egypt after Herod’s death.||2.19–21|
|Family doesn’t return home to Judaea, for fear of Archelaus, but instead goes to Nazareth in Galilee (since Galilee was no longer under Jerusalem’s control).||2.22–23|
|Governorship of Quirinius: Family carries on home to Nazareth.||2.39–40|
The other two canonical gospels, Mark and John, add some information about Jesus’ home life, but nothing about his birth. They corroborate Luke’s story that Jesus’ hometown was Nazareth, in Galilee. (Or maybe Capernaum. But definitely not Bethlehem, as it is in Matthew.) Jesus has a mother, brothers, and sisters in Mark 3.31–32; Mark 6.3 gives him four named brothers, multiple sisters, and a mother named Mary; and depending on the textual variant you choose, either Jesus’ father is a builder, or Jesus himself is. John 7.3–5 refers to Jesus’ brothers, 7.41–42 addresses the inconsistency between Jesus’ home in Galilee and the fact that the Messiah is supposed to come from Bethlehem, and 19.25–26 refers to his mother and maternal aunt. A few other snippets in Paul’s epistles and in Josephus give some further independent testimony about Jesus’ siblings.
(Some apologists reject all of the references to siblings, wanting Mary to have perpetual virginity for some reason. They do this either by interpreting the word ‘sibling’ metaphorically every time it appears, or by making up a story that Joseph had a previous marriage, so that Jesus had some half-siblings. If you don’t start out taking perpetual virginity for granted in advance, the mental acrobatics look pretty silly.)
Anyway, while Jesus’ family life has some interest in its own right, these passages don’t have anything much to do with the Nativity stories. For the Nativity, it’s all about Matthew and Luke. And that isn’t encouraging: no element of either story shows up in the earliest Christian texts, that is, in Paul’s letters or in the earliest gospel, Mark. Right from the word go we’ve got every reason to think of the Nativity stories as two relatively late impositions on earlier traditions and beliefs.
Matthew vs. Luke
To summarise: Joseph’s dreams, the magi, the star, the massacre of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt appear in Matthew, and only in Matthew. John the Baptist’s birth, the census, the shepherds, and the presentation at the temple are in Luke, and only in Luke. These are not stories designed to reflect a single underlying series of events.
There are only four significant points of agreement:
- the names of Jesus’ (mortal) parents are Joseph and Mary;
- Joseph is descended from king David;
- the birth takes place in Bethlehem;
- by the end of the story the family is living in Nazareth.
But they differ wildly on the circumstances of these points.
|Note. Brown 1993: 34–35 adds a few more points of agreement, but some are just incidental (e.g. that Jesus is born after Joseph and Mary begin living together), while others are tendentious: see below on the angels’ announcements.|
- Date. The timeline of who was in control of Judaea and Galilee at any given time is quite straightforward:
- Herod the Great: king until his death, in either 4 BCE or 1 BCE.
- Herod Archelaus: tetrarch of Judaea, but not Galilee, from Herod the Great’s death until being ousted by the Romans in 6 CE.
- Quirinius: Roman governor from 6 CE onwards, when the entire region became part of the province of Syria.
- Ancestry. Both gospels give patrilineal genealogies that make Joseph a descendant of king David (Matthew 1.1–17; Luke 3.23–38). But the genealogies are totally different. If they’re both true, then Joseph had two fathers.
- Hometown. In Luke, the family lives at Nazareth in Galilee, and their trip to Bethlehem in Judaea is a there-and-back affair. In Matthew they live in Bethlehem, and only move to Galilee to evade Archelaus’ clutches.
- What happens after the birth. In Matthew, after the birth, the family flees to Egypt to escape the anger of the king in Jerusalem. In Luke, the family goes straight home to Galilee, popping in to Jerusalem on their way.
- The visit to Jerusalem. When the family presents their baby at the temple in Luke, the idea is clearly that they’re visiting Jerusalem on their way home. In Matthew’s timeline, this means the family is making a leisurely visit to Jerusalem under the nose of Herod the Great, exactly the place that the angel tells Joseph to run away from. The only way to harmonise these would be to have the family go to the temple in Jerusalem, then go back to Bethlehem for no reason, and only then get visited by the magi and flee to Egypt.
- The angel(s). Matthew’s angel visits Joseph twice, in dreams, and visits Mary zero times; Luke’s angels visit Mary and the shepherds once each, in person, and Joseph zero times.
- Prophecies. Matthew links the Nativity to five passages from the Hebrew Bible, and treats them as prophecies that are fulfilled by Jesus’ birth. Luke’s Nativity doesn’t feature any prophecies.
|The routes taken by Jesus’ parents in Matthew (red) and Luke (blue).|
In some of these points the two stories actively contradict each other: the date, and the family’s movements. In other respects there isn’t an explicit contradiction, but equally, there’s no reason to imagine they’re telling a single story without any overlap. Both stories have an angel or angels declare that the Holy Spirit will cause Mary to become pregnant, and that the child’s name will be Jesus. But they say it to different people, in different situations, and they say different things about the child’s future. If you don’t start with the assumption that every incident is true, the obvious conclusion is that Matthew and Luke both wanted to have an angel element, but they baked it into their stories in very different ways.
Internal problems in Luke
The census (1). Quirinius’ census (Luke 2.1–2) was real, but it wasn’t a census ‘of the whole world’. It was confined to Judaea. Judaea became part of the Roman province of Syria in 6 CE, so the new governor, Quirinius, conducted the census to establish taxation information. The census is described by Josephus (Jewish antiquities 18.1) and attested in an inscription from Beirut (CIL iii.6687, line 9). There’s no evidence of any historical census ‘of the whole world’, and such a thing would be totally pointless.
The census (2). Luke’s premise is that the census required Joseph to go to the hometown of one of his ancestors. Again, this is intrinsically implausible, and there’s no evidence of the Romans ever requiring such a crazy thing. Even if they did, which ancestor’s hometown are you meant to visit? Joseph’s supposed descent from David goes back forty generations, according to Luke 3.23–31! Was he to visit the hometown of every one of them?
The presentation at the temple. Yeah, this wasn’t a thing. The sacrifice of two turtle-doves or pigeons was real, associated with ritual purification no less than forty days after childbirth (Leviticus 12.2–8). But the sacrifice of firstborn animals, and redemption of the firstborn human child, was unrelated (Exodus 13.11–14). The combo in Luke must be designed to echo yet another incident in the Hebrew Bible, Hannah dedicating Samuel as a baby (1 Samuel 1.22–28) — except that Samuel was left to stay at the temple permanently. In other words this isn’t a standard procedure, it’s a mash-up of multiple unrelated bits of the Hebrew Bible.
The date. As I mentioned above, Luke 2.1–2 puts Jesus’ birth during Quirinius’ governorship, in 6 or 7 CE. But just one chapter later we get a totally different timeline. Luke 3.1–3 sets the baptism of Jesus in the 15th year of the reign of emperor Tiberius, and 3.23 tells us that he was 30 at the time. Now, Tiberius became emperor in September 14 CE: the 15th year of his reign was 28–29 CE. This means that as far as Luke 3 is concerned, Jesus was born in 3–2 BCE — at least seven years earlier than in Luke 2. This is a decent match for the timeline in Matthew, as it happens. But not for Luke’s own Nativity story. (Some scholars suspect that Luke’s Nativity story is a relatively late addition to the gospel, which would explain the inconsistency: more about this below.)
The historical birth of Jesus
So, is there anything historical in either Nativity story?
One strategy could be to argue that, because they’re independent sources, the elements where they do agree ought to be the bits where they’re most likely to be historical. There are major problems, though.
For one thing, no trace of either Nativity story shows up in Paul or in Mark, as I mentioned earlier. There’s no reason to think any of it represents early traditions or beliefs about Jesus’ birth.
In addition, there are questions over the text of Luke. It has sometimes been suspected that Luke’s Nativity story is an interpolation, written decades after the rest of the gospel. That theory would explain why Luke’s Nativity has almost nothing in common with Matthew’s. It would explain why Luke 3 feels very introduction-ish: it opens with an elaborate introduction pinpointing in time the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the genealogy of Jesus doesn’t appear until chapter 3.
Well, maybe. Actually I’m not convinced. There are some striking thematic links between Mary’s and Simeon’s songs in Luke 1–2 and the rest of the gospel, which suggests that they’re integral. Also, I’ve tried some basic stylometric tests (without being an expert in stylometric analysis, mind), and my tests consistently group the three synoptic gospels together, and John separately. When it comes to the Nativity stories, though, the tests don’t see much difference. In terms of authorial style, the Nativities consistently come out pretty close to the rest of their respective gospels. By contrast, the same tests easily detect a passage which is known to be an interpolation: the episode of the woman caught in adultery in John 7.53–8.11.
|Stylometric tests of the four canonical gospels conducted in RStudio with the package ‘stylo’. The text was prepared by stripping all accents, case, and punctuation; converting iota subscript to iota adscript; transliterating into the Roman alphabet using Beta Code; and dividing the text into chapters. Two passages known to be interpolations were separated from their chapters, John 7.53–8.11 and the long ending of Mark (shown here as Mk_16b). The tests shown here plot the 200 most frequent 3 word sequences (left) and 4 word sequences (right), and maximise the distance between each chapter using principal component analysis. Notice that the chapters of John (in red) are grouped separately from the three synoptic gospels, indicating differences in language, authorial style, or content.|
Now, I’m no expert in stylometry. So I’ll just say that it isn’t self-evident to me that Luke’s Nativity story is an interpolation. That doesn’t mean there’s a shred of truth in it, mind.
Here’s my pick for the elements of the Nativity stories that accurately reflect historical reality:
- The names of Jesus’ parents were Joseph and Mary;
- Jesus grew up in Galilee (there’s actually some doubt about whether his home was in Nazareth, but it’s too much of a distraction: let’s just let that slide for now).
But the Bethlehem setting can’t stand. Both stories feel a pressing need to have the birth take place in Bethlehem, but the transparent falseness of Luke’s version — the census — indicates that Bethlehem’s role is an invention. Not a late invention: it does appear in two independent Nativity stories, after all, and it’s there in John 7.41–42 too:
But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’
The reference to ‘scripture’ is to Micah 5.1, which Matthew quotes.
It looks like early Christians genuinely did wrestle with the fact that Jesus did not come from Bethlehem. Bethlehem was introduced into some of the stories very early on, as a way of addressing that fact. So three of the gospels solve the problem in three different ways. In Matthew Jesus’ family did indeed live in Bethlehem, but moved to Galilee (with Archelaus’ pursuit as a spurious excuse); in Luke they make a field-trip to Bethlehem (with Quirinius’ census as a spurious excuse); and in John Bethlehem isn’t involved at all, so we see people debating over the matter.
Of the three, John’s picture is probably the most true to reality.
The mash-up effect
The mash-ups that you see in Christmas cards, in Advent calendars, and in films like Ben Hur, The Nativity story, and The star, is not a new thing. It didn’t suddenly pick up speed with the advent of biblical literalism in the 19th century. The idea of combining Matthew and Luke into a single story, inconsistencies and all, goes back to the 2nd century, and a non-canonical text called the Protevangelium of James.
|Another mash-up (The star, 2017): Matthew’s star, magi, and rage of Herod; Luke’s census and shepherds; Septuagint Habakkuk’s cluster of animals.|
In James (see Elliott 1993: 46–67 for an accessible translation) the problem of the census taking place nearly a decade after Herod’s death is just ignored. But the author realised perfectly well that the presentation at the temple can’t possibly happen while Herod is raging. Instead, Herod murders the high priest Zacharias, John the Baptist’s father, and Simeon succeeds him, whereupon it is prophesied that Simeon will get to see the Messiah one day (James 23–24). Several elements are added, apparently out of thin air: a lengthy account of Mary’s conception, birth, and youth spent in the temple (James 1–8, 12); the birth takes place in a cave, and time stops at the moment of Jesus’ birth (18–19); there’s a midwife; and a woman named Salome tests Mary’s perpetual virginity by checking whether her hymen is intact after childbirth (19–20).
This may sound weird and quaint, but of such stuff are traditions formed. Jesus’ birth is still sometimes imagined as taking place in a cave, instead of a stable. The Protevangelium of James is where that trope comes from. James omits the prophecies that take up so much of Matthew’s story, and that does make me wonder whether the author had an earlier version of Matthew where the prophecies had not yet been inserted; but a respected biblical scholar has assured me that it’s unlikely that such a version of Matthew ever existed.
Anyway, the point is that the mash-up effect is key to how people approach the story of the Nativity. Story elements pile up around the key moment of Jesus’ birth, in much the same way that secular customs pile up around the Christmas festival. One thing leads to another. We can’t put much trust in the historicity of the Nativity stories, but it’s still very interesting to investigate the traces of how they grew and developed over time.
- Brown, R. E. 1993 . The birth of the Messiah. A commentary on the infancy narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, updated edition. Doubleday.
- Elliott, J. K. 1993. The apocryphal New Testament. A collection of apocryphal Christian literature in an English translation. Clarendon Press. (Protevangelium of James at 46–67)
This is an excellent article! I've been meaning to write an article on this subject myself for years now.ReplyDelete
I do have a few things I'd like to add, though. One is that, although you explain beautifully why the Gospel of Luke's account of Jesus's birth can't possibly be historically true, you neglect to mention that there is a similarly compelling reason why the Gospel of Matthew's account can't be historically true either.
The reason I'm referring to is that the whole story about the cruelty of Herod, the massacre of the innocents, the flight into Egypt, and the return from Egypt is clearly modeled on the story of Moses and the Exodus. The author even makes the connection between Jesus's infancy and the Exodus explicit in the Gospel of Matthew 2:15 by quoting the Book of Hosea 11:1—a passage that was clearly originally written about the Exodus. The author is really trying to drive home the message that Jesus is a latter-day Moses.
You also strangely seem to have completely overlooked another similarity between the two accounts, which is that, in both accounts, Mary is described as having been a virgin at the time when she or Joseph learned that she was going to bear a son.
The Gospel of Matthew 1:18-25 makes a big deal of Mary's supposed virginity, saying that Joseph saw that she was pregnant even though he had never had sex with her, that he assumed that she had had sex with another man, and that he was planning to dismiss her quietly until the angel appeared in his dream and told him that the child was from the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel of Luke 1:26-38 makes less of a big deal over Mary's virginity, but still portrays Mary as acting astonished when the angel tells her that she will bear a child. The gospel portrays her as asking the angel how such a thing could be possible, since she has never had sex with any man.
The similarity of Mary's virginity in both accounts, however, is easily explained; it is evident that some people in the first century CE apparently believed that the Messiah was supposed to have been born of a virgin and both authors clearly wrote their stories to match this perception. Ultimately, this idea may be derived from an interpretation of the Septuagint translation of the Book of Isaiah 7:14, which is quoted in the Gospel of Matthew 1:22-23.
Once again, this is a truly excellent article. These are just a couple of points that I was surprised you didn't mention.
On the whole I think I agree with you about Matthew, but it doesn't strike me nearly as prominently as with Luke. That cherry-picking of that bit of Hosea is thoroughly built into Matthew's whole methodology -- at first glance it seems similar to the formulaic prophecy fulfilments in Matt 1-2. Not that that makes it plausible or anything! But the fact that he does it all the time makes it seem less obnoxious than the random assortment of biblical echoes you find in Luke.Delete
And, oh dear, you are quite right about my forgetting to mention the virginity of Mary of course. I'll claim as an excuse that Brown neglects this point in his list of shared points, too -- so it just skipped my attention!
In a way, though, I'm kind of glad I neglected it: it would have brought along with it other knotty problems. Beliefs about Mary's status are so closely tied to the development of 1st century christology -- and that's a whole other mess of questions.
Yeah, the virginity does indeed refer to Isaiah 7:14, which has the word עלמה (ʿalmā) ‘a young woman’, roughly until the birth of her first child. The Septuagint then translated it to παρθένος and the mess was ready to ensue (though many Christian generations did not consider it a problem, and still don’t).Delete
I don’t think παρθένος actually has to refer to a woman who is yet to have sex, but Matthew and Luke certainly interpret it that way.
Thank you, I enjoyed that. Admirably brief and clear. Doesn't the Res Gestae refer to a census, and also three lustrums. The later seems to be restricted to Rome, but could the former refer to Judea and elsewhere?ReplyDelete
They're all referring to the same procedure, a census of Roman citizens, each concluded by a lustrum: so in that passage, after the first census and lustrum, the words census and lustrum get used interchangeably.Delete
Augustus refers to three censuses of Roman citizens, in 28 BCE, 8 BCE, and 14 CE. At that time 'citizens' meant mostly Italians, plus citizens of Roman colonies established outside Italy, plus people who had citizenship because their parents were citizens. This didn't include the provinces in general, and it definitely didn't include newly incorporated regions like Judaea.
Raymond Brown's *The birth of the Messiah* is perhaps the last word on much of this material. His key concept is 'verisimilitude' which saved him a lot of trouble from his Roman Catholic superiors, even though he taught at the Protestant Union Theological Seminary in NYC. He is does cover the virginity issue too, and in some of his other publications.ReplyDelete
There is a plethora of scholarship, some of it very good and some of it rather derivative. One item which can stand well and will be of interest to Peter Gainsford is the volume edited by Peter Barthel and George van Kooten *The star of Bethlehem and the Magi--Interdisciplinary Perspectives from experts on the Ancient Near Eat and the Greco-Roman world and Modern Astronomy* (Leiden Boston, Brill 20015) which collects the papers given at a conference at Groningen 22-23 October 2014. Some of the best papers are by Aaron Adair, Alexander Jones, John M. Steele, Matthieu Ossendrijver, Roger Beck, Stephan Heilen, Antonio Panaino,Helen R. Jacobus, Darrell Hannah and Kocku von Stuckrad. At 651 pages of text, plus indices it is almost as hefty as Brown's book.
But one question which needs to be raised is that of biography of the holy man in the early Imperial Period, its Greek and Judaic tradition, and the development of this, how this has informed the accounts of Luke and Matthew. This has very direct bearing on the star story in Matthew, and hence on the 'magoi'.
As Peter has written and published so well on the mythological "studies" of Homeric celestial events, I think he will find the book on the Bethlehem Star equally worthy of his philological rigour.
Recently I have read .The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary
in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7*' by Stephen C. Carlson, which is available online here:
I highly recommend this paper.
Thank you! On reflection I've been suspecting that the reason Brown didn't include Mary's virginity in his list of common features -- the one at pp. 34-35 of the 1993 edition -- is because he viewed it as something not confined to those stories, that is, he may have seen it as prior to both gospels.Delete
Would you say this is borne out elsewhere in his writing? (I doubt I know The Birth of the Messiah as well as you do, and I haven't read his other publications.)
It's just a suspicion: I don't know if it's right. I can't think of any references to Mary's virginity elsewhere in either gospel, or in any other 1st century reference to Mary.
I'll try to poke my nose into the items you recommend in the new year! Thank you again.
Hey Peter, what do you think of John Rhoad’s article on the idea that Josephus got the dating of the census wrong, not Luke?Delete
The comments on Isaiah 7:14, which are similar to those I have seen elsewhere, seem backwards. Isaiah 7:14 is not, on its face, a messianic prophecy. It seems clear that first century Christians generally believed in a virgin birth (or at least a virgin conception), so that this element made its way into both nativity narratives. Matthew, as a big part of his overall agenda, wanted to demonstrate that the important elements of his story were consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures. Here as elsewhere, he did what modern theologians decry, citing an isolated passage as a prooftext without consideration of its literary context or historical meaning. It's not the Isaiah passage that created the story of the virgin birth, it's the story of the virgin birth that inspired consideration of the passage.ReplyDelete
Firstly I agree that Quirinius was not governing when Jesus was born, Luke was wrong, writing some 60 years after the events, or perhaps glossing over details given (as some believe) his Roman audience.ReplyDelete
However with that dropped I think it is quite possible to reconcile both accounts.
I agree with the relationship between the two accounts up until the Reign of Herod. In my view this event is one to two years after the birth of Jesus, given the order of Herod was to kill boys under the age of two, meaning that most of the rest of Luke's account precedes it.
Why were Joseph and Mary still in Bethlehem a year after their initial visit? They could have gone to Nazareth and then returned to visit family. Alternatively, following the patterns of similar cultures today like Indonesia (IIRC), Joseph could have set up a temporary shop in Bethlehem and was doing repairs and building for family and friends over that period.
Mathew's style of Biblical interpretation seemed to be to take an event from the life of Jesus, then look for a passage from Tanakh to highlight it. It was less a matter of the passage "predicting" the event, and more "paralleling" it.
Why didn't Luke mention the things Matthew did? He may not have known about it, having received his information from other sources, or, again, he might not have seen it as important for his audience.
And yes, Joseph did have two fathers, his own, and the father of Mary. As for which is which? Luke's greater interest in Mary would lead me in that direction.
Anyway, that's my two cents worth. Regards.
I hate to say this because you’ve clearly done some homework, but you have ignored large amounts of information that would have helped with your interpretations, and I also think that you’re overthinking the evidence with too critical an eye. Relax.ReplyDelete
Just a few things that jumped out.
First, you talk as if the mentions of Quirinius and Herod are mutually exclusive. But Quirinius was a Roman governor, and Herod was one of the Seleucid (or whatever) tetrarchs, right? Didn’t they govern simultaneously, as Pilate and Herod did at the time of Jesus’s death? So, saying that one gospel mentions Herod and another mentions Quirinius, is like saying that the gospels can’t be right because one says the Vice President was Harris and the other says the President was Biden. Well, they’re both right.
Another thing. You dismissed the census because Luke says it was the whole world, whereas another source says it was only Judea. Hey, how about noticing that there was, in fact, a census? That doesn’t disprove Luke; it corroborates him. He may have got a detail wrong but he was right on the big picture event.
Here’s another. John was written much later than the synoptics, and at a time when the Christian community would have already been familiar with the synoptics. That’s one reason his gospel differs so. So it makes total sense that he would mention the Bethlehem debate without trying to resolve it. His readers would have been familiar with the infancy narratives, and when he mentioned the Bethlehem debate, they would have nodded knowingly. There are a lot of stories in the synoptics that he didn’t bother repeating. And he adds a lot of interesting detail. For example, two of the synoptics fail to name the person who didn’t want that expensive perfume wasted on Jesus. But John tells you that it was Judas. He also tells you why: because Judas used to steal. That should give you some insight into how somebody who saw all the miracles of Christ, could nevertheless betray him.
Your questioning of the timeline of their living arrangements seems off. The baby was born in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem. Of course they would have taken the baby to the temple in Jerusalem while they were so nearby; they probably would have done it even from Nazareth, as we saw that travel to Jerusalem was not uncommon, as when Jesus was 12. Also, of course they would have taken the baby right under Herod’s nose. Herod had no reason to believe the baby was a challenge to his authority. It was just another baby. In fact nobody noticed it except for Simeon and Anna, because of the Holy Spirit. I like to think that they’re exactly the kind of crazy old religious kooks who hang around in houses of worship, and nobody notices them because they are the small people of the world. But they’re the ones that God revealed himself to, and the joke is on us. Anyway Herod didn’t get clued in until much later. How do we know it’s later? Because he asked the magi when the star had appeared, and when he found out, he killed all the male babies in Bethlehem aged two or under. So he must have had reason to believe that the baby was not a newborn but had already been around for a little while.
That Herod would do this, by the way, is consistent with the thinking of a tyrant. Not believing in the Messiah himself (or else he would have traveled with the magi to meet him and, presumably, not tried to murder him), nevertheless he understood the power that such events could have with the people he was trying to rule. So the pious legend had to be stamped out.
More to come, I've reached my character limit for this post.
Anyway so, the family went to Bethlehem for the census, lived there for a while probably so as not to have to travel with a newborn and a young mother back across Israel, also maybe Joseph was, as another commenter said, establishing himself there. Then the magi come, then the angel warns the family to flee. So they flee. They come back when the danger is passed, probably a few years but no more than 12 because Jesus was 12 when his parents lost him in the temple. But they go back to their ultimate hometown of Nazareth. And that’s where Jesus grows up.ReplyDelete
So far this is all totally consistent with the gospels and history, except for the details you legitimately note about getting the dates of the Roman rulers wrong. And it’s all totally believable.
Let’s see, what else.
Here’s one. You say the presentation wasn’t a thing. Then you cite the scripture showing that it was, in fact, a thing. You try to disprove it by citing another, unrelated section of scripture that nobody introduced except yourself. It was a thing, deal with it.
Also you make an error that is common among modern people, which is to disbelieve something just because it also happens to fulfill a prophecy. That’s pretty close minded. Now, I have my own problems with Matthew. It’s a little too on the nose with the prophecy fulfillment. But that doesn’t make me disbelieve what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell me. In any event, for more information on the proper attitude, read the last few paragraphs of The Hobbit.
Here’s another thing. You say that Paul and other New Testament writers don’t mention Jesus’ birth. That makes sense too. If you read the gospels and watch how Jesus’ status as both God and Messiah are slowly revealed, it makes sense that his nativity story would not emerge until only later. He’s not a modern celebrity, where we have a televised biopic of everything he’s ever done. As you surely know, the gospels were written after the letters of Paul. Paul himself did not know Jesus personally except when Jesus appeared to him after his ascension. Even the apostles didn’t necessarily know Jesus’ birth story, because he apparently didn’t sit around telling them those details. As you notice, he did not hit them over the head with his Messiahship. He revealed it to them gradually. The gospels are full of miracles followed by his strict instruction that the recipient not tell anyone about it. Publicizing to everyone precisely how his birth happened was inconsistent with his teaching style.
Moreover, traditionally it is understood that Luke, who did very good history in his gospel and in Acts, was the evangelist who interviewed Mary, Jesus’ mother. That’s where all those details came from. That’s why the story of the good thief appears in Luke and not the other synoptics: because Luke talked to Jesus’ mother, who was standing by the cross, near enough to hear the dialogue between the guys crucified with Jesus. The other synoptic gospels say only that they were reviling Jesus, which is a recollection that somebody would have come away with only if they weren’t paying close attention, or standing near enough to get the full story, or heard the details second- or third-hand. Notice that Luke mentions more than once that Mary ponders things in her heart. She kept them close for decades, meditating on the meaning of them. She talked about them only later; it would not have been fitting for her to go shouting those details from the housetops, certainly not during Jesus’ lifetime and ministry. I don’t know about Matthew’s sources for his details; I just haven’t looked deeply into it yet.
More to come, character limit again.
How about the use of the word virgin. The original Hebrew word may have meant maiden or young lady or whatever, but here’s the thing. In context, a young woman conceiving and bearing a son is not a sign at all. Happens all the time. The scripture says that the sign will be a virgin conceiving a son. The choice of the word virgin makes a lot more sense than maiden. You dismiss the Septuagint as having somehow messed that up. Hello? The Septuagint was translated from Hebrew to Greek by 70 Jewish rabbis. Are you saying they all just dropped the ball? In the most important of the prophets?? I think they knew their source material and the tradition in which it was read. If they chose the Greek word for virgin, it is we who should be deferring to them; not retroactively picking the word meaning that fits our modern, too-clever-by-half narrative. Anyway my light reading on the subject indicates that the Jews of Jesus’ time were electrified with the expectation of the Messiah and the restoration of the Davidic kingdom. That explains why the crowds got so excited when they saw Jesus the miracle worker riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, a scene they immediately recognized from scripture not withstanding that it appears only once in a small book of the prophets, Zechariah. They knew the signs and they knew what to look for. It also explains why the Jewish leaders were so worried that Jesus would get them in trouble with the Romans, and why there were uprisings that the Romans eventually had to crush. The Jews of that time were awaiting the Messiah, and they very well understood the scripture and the signs. When they quote the Old Testament in the New, by the way, they quote the Septuagint, and that includes Paul and Jesus.ReplyDelete
I guess that’s enough for now.
Thanks for considering all this! Merry Christmas!
Narrator's voice: Sadly, nobody considered any of this...Delete