The missionaries had pathetically accused us of “suffering under [SIC!] a serious form of ‘attention deficit'”, among other low-down allegations, and then proceeds to claim that we have not “bothered” to respond to their arguments. The following material will further supplement our case for the irreconcilable error regarding the birth narrative of Jesus(P). It remains to be seen as to how much “abuse” are the missionaries willing to take before they concede that we are not suffering from “attention deficit” and are truly “satisfied” with our charges.
Problems & Flaws In Harmonization
We would like to know how the author of Matthew shaped the stories concerning the birth of Jesus(P). Matthew used certain key events in the Jewish Bible to relate the story of his Jesus(P). According to Matthew, the family of his Jesus flees to Egypt in order to escape the wrath of Herod “in order to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my Son'” (2:15). The quotation comes from the book of Hosea 11:1 and refers to the Exodus of the children of Israel from their bondage in Egypt. The author of Matthew makes his Jesus to go to Egypt to show that he “fills” this event with meaning. Similarly, Matthew has his Jesus born in Bethlehem because this is what was “predicted” by the prophet Micah (2:6).
A male child is born to Jewish parents, a tyrant ruler (Herod) learns of this and sets out to destroy him. The child is supernaturally protected from harm and is taken to Egypt. He then leaves Egypt to pass through the waters (of baptism) and goes into wilderness to be tested for a long time. Later he goes up on a mountain and delivers God’s law to those who have been following him.
Thus we note that Matthew shaped the stories pertaining to Jesus(P) to “show” that Jesus’(P) life was a fulfillment of the stories of Moses(P) (see Exodus 1-20). Matthew’s target market was the Jewish readers. Herod is made into a Pharoah like ruler, Jesus’s baptism is like Moses(P) crossing the Red Sea, the forty days of temptation are like the forty years the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, and the sermon on the mount is similar to the law of Moses delievered on Mount Sinai. Jesus(P) is therefore portrayed by Matthew as the “new” Moses, come to set his people free from their bondage and give them new law and teachings. In order to present this picture of Jesus(P), Matthew had to colour the traditions accordingly. Therefore not everything within his gospel is historical.
Another point to bear in mind is that if Herod and all within Jerusalem knew of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:3), so much so that Herod would send his army to kill the children in a town hunting for Jesus (2:16), then why is it that later in his ministry no one seems to know of his marvelous origin (13:54-55), and Herod’s son recalls nothing about him (14:1-2)? The body of the gospels shows that the people among whom Jesus had been raised knew nothing about an extraordinary infancy. Furthermore, why is there no mention of these amazing events in the other gospels? These also indications of the fictitious nature of the story.
The statement that all Jerusalem was startled over the birth of the King of the Jews and that there was widespread awareness of the King’s birth at Bethlehem (Herod, chief priests, scribes, and, to their regret, the people of Bethlehem) conflicts with the Gospel accounts of the public ministry where the people in Nazareth do not know this and are amazed that Jesus has special pretensions (Mark 6:1-6 and par.) and where people in Jerusalem do not know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (John 7:40-42). According to the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 6:14-16 and par.), Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, despite the measures his father is supposed to have taken against Jesus, is perplexed by Jesus and seems to have no previous knowledge of him. A possible explanation may be found for one or the other of these difficulties, but the overall thrust is clearly against historicity.1
It is problems like these which are overlooked by the missionaries which is why there are serious implications to be considered if we were to accept their “harmonization” of the birth narratives.
But What About The Basic Similarities?
Earlier, we have stated that the missionaries have complained about our having overlooked basic similarities in the two narratives. It should be noted that we do not deny a broad similarity between the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. However, the differences between the two accounts are striking, and as Brown comments elsewhere, both cannot be factual. Hence one is fictional. To begin with, none of the specific stories of Luke occur in Matthew and vice versa. In one narrative we find the shepherds whereas in the other we find the Magi, one has the journey to Bethlehem whereas the other to Egypt. One records an angel’s words to Mary whereas the other narrative records the angel’s word to Joseph.
Most Christian scholars, who have studied and analysed the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke have concluded that a vast amount of imagination would be required to reconcile these narratives.
Commentators of times past have harmonized these different details into a consecutive narrative, so that the ordinary Christian is often not even aware of a difficulty when Lucan shepherds and Matthean magi fraternize in the Christmas crib scene. But if originally there was one narrative, how did it ever become fragmented into the two different accounts we have now? As I hinted above, the suggestion that Matthew is giving Joseph’s remembrance of the events, while Luke is giving Mary’s , is just a pious deduction from the fact that Joseph dominates Matthew’s account, and Mary dominates Luke’s. In point of fact, how could Joseph ever have told the story in Matthew and not have reported the annunciation to Mary? And how could Mary have been responsible for the story in Luke and never have mentioned the coming of the magi and the flight into Egypt?2
Relating the same event, Matthew presents no indication that would suggest that Joseph and Mary went from Galilee to register for a census. Matthew simply suggests that the family originally came from Bethlehem. In the story of the wise men, which is only found in Matthew, the men arrive to worship Jesus, making a long journey in by following a star that appeared in the heavens. These men find Jesus(P) in Bethlehem, in a house – not a stable or a cave (Matthew 2:11). So it seems that the house is where Joseph and Mary normally live according to Matthew.
Next we read that Herod sends forth his troops to slaughter every boy in Bethlehem who is 2 years and under (2:16). According to Matthew’s account, Joseph and Mary are still in Bethlehem at this time because this is simply where they live.
To continue with the story, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape Herod. Some time after their escape, Joseph learns in a dream that it is safe to return home. Hence he intends to return to the place where he and Mary came from – Bethlehem. However, he learns that the ruler of Judea is now Archelaus, a man much worse than his father Herod. So he realizes he cannot return home and therefore decides to move his family in the town of Nazareth in Galilee (2:22-23). Hence, the impression given is that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem, but had to relocate to Nazareth and this is where he, Jesus, was raised.
“Reconciliation”: Its Difficulties and the Realities
It is possible that these narratives be “reconciled”, albeit with the thorough use of some highly imaginative arguments, stretching all limits of reason and imagination and requiring quite a lot of hard work and effort. However, the fact remains that the two narratives are quite different from one another.
It is indicated that Jesus(P) was born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth, but this happens in a very different manner in their two narratives. The whole of Matthew 2:2-22 has no parallel in Luke, just as most of Luke 1 (outside 1:26-35) and most of Luke 2 have no parallel in Matthew. Only Luke makes mention of the following stories: the census bringing Joseph to Bethlehem, the acclamation of Jesus by the shepherds etc. Matthew, on the other hand, focuses upon a different series of happenings of which Luke makes no mention: the star, the magi, Herod’s plot against Jesus, the massacre of the children at Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt. Christian scholars Lee Martin Mc Donald and S. E. Porter suggest that
…it is probable that the construction of each of these accounts was based on a different theological agenda.3
Meaning they do not represent historical realities. Evangelical Christians, for understandable reasons, see no difficulties in the two narratives, however serious Christian scholars of the Bible have long realised the difficulties and have accepted them as such.
Matthew’s way of using prophecy is not what a modern scholar could call historically accurate, but it is in accord with a type of interpretation customary in New Testament times, and for that matter still practiced now. According to this way of thinking, it is assumed that the text refers to events and persons in the present or the immediate past or future.
Sometimes, indeed, one can hardly avoid a suspicion that prophecy, understood in this way, led to imagining events that never occurred. Did Joseph and Mary really take their child to Egypt for a while, or did some early Christian infer that they must have done so because God says in the book of Hosea (11:1), “Out of Egypt I called my son”? Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem, or was it assumed that he must have been because the prophet Micah (5:2) had predicted that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem? More probably, the known fact of Jesus? birth at Bethlehem was felt by his followers to confirm their conviction that he was the Messiah.
How should we understand and judge these familiar narratives? The whole Christmas story, mingled as it is now with Santa Claus and other more or less pagan additions, seems much like a fairy tale for children. Even so, to raise questions about the truth of the record is painful. A good deal of the story, however, is undoubtedly legendary.4
Baptist Minister William Hamilton, also the Associate Professor of Theology at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, writes that:
Luke, like Matthew, mentions Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but otherwise the two accounts differ somewhat In Matthew, Jesus is apparently born in Joseph?s house (verse 11); in Luke he is born in a stable. Here, we read nothing about the visit of the shepherds or about the census that brought Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Here, we read of the flight to Egypt; in Luke, the family returned to Nazareth (2:39).
This conflicting evidence has led some to question the historical basis of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and to point out that it would be natural for primitive Jewish Christians to use the enigmatic saying of Micah 5:2 as a prediction. Throughout his life, Jesus is always referred to as a Nazarene.5
To escape the burden of admitting to an error in the birth narratives of Jesus(P) as related by Luke and Matthew, the Christian missionaries and apologists have always attempted to harmonise these two drastically different accounts. This is because:
Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. Matthew, however, says nothing of coming to Bethlehem from anywhere else, and he seems to imply that Joseph would have gone back to Bethlehem from Egypt if he had not been warned in a dream not to return to Judea (2:22-23).6
As we have demonstrated above, there are simply too many flaws and implications to be considered if we were to accept the general “harmonization” offered by the missionaries. Christian scholars who have studied and analysed the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke have concluded that a vast amount of imagination would be required to reconcile these narratives.
Hence our final conclusion in the matter remains starkly similar to that of Brown’s opinion, namely that:
…Luke’s infancy narrative is not only massively different from Matt’s, but also in details is virtually irreconcilable with it, e.g., about Joseph and Mary’s home (in Bethlehem in Matt 2:11 [house]; in Narareth in Luke 2:4-7, with no home in Bethlehem) and about their travels after the birth of Jesus (to Egypt in Matt 2:14; to Jerusalem and Nazareth in Luke 2:2239).7
And only God knows best!
- Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, p. 189 [⤺]
- ibid., p. 35 [⤺]
- Lee Martin Mc Donald & Stanley E. Porter, Early Christianity and Its Sacred Literature (Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2000), p. 122 [⤺]
- Millar Burrows, Jesus in the First Three Gospels [Online Document] [⤺]
- William Hamilton, Part One: Matthew and Luke in The Modern Reader’s Guide to the Gospels [Online Document] [⤺]
- Millar Burrows, op. cit. [⤺]
- Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 114 [⤺]