Christmas: The Nativity Story as Presented in Matthew and Luke

Since one of my most read posts this year was my analysis of the passion narrative around Easter time, I thought I’d do another one of these for Christmas. I’m not going to present much historical analysis that the events depicted are fiction (it is well-known that there was no census, no slaughter of innocent children, Narazeth probably wasn’t even a town at the time of Jesus, etc).

This will again be a textual analysis. It will look at what the stories are and why they were invented based on internal evidence.

First, I’d like to get this out of the way. As I pointed out in the last analysis, most people who grow up in a Christian house don’t realize there are differences between the passion narratives or why they exist.

This is somewhat forgivable because they are roughly the same story told in different ways. For the nativity, there are two different birth narratives in the Gospels, and it seems to me a much more devious and intentionally malicious act that churches try to keep this from people.

The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are not at all the same story told in different ways.

They are radically different and cannot be reconciled. One or both must be fiction (as we will see, we have good reason to believe both are fiction). A game gets played in churches on Christmas eve where a quote from Matthew gets said here, a quote from Luke here, and deceptively one consistent story is carefully crafted.

All the usual caveats apply. The Gospels were written by anonymous authors, but for ease of reference I’ll use the phrase “Matthew says” etc to mean “the author of the book of Matthew.”

opened bible on wooden surfaca
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Before beginning, let’s first talk about why Mark doesn’t have a birth narrative. In the early days of Christianity there were all sorts of competing sects with different views trying to make their beliefs the orthodox view. One of these competing views was called “adoptionism.” This means that they believed that Jesus was born human by normal human means and only later (during his baptism by John the Baptist) became “adopted by” God as his son.

If you read Mark’s account of the baptism, it is pretty clear this is what is happening. So Mark probably omitted a birth narrative because he held this opinion and thought there was nothing special about it.

Matthew and Luke are the only two Gospels with a birth narrative.

So let’s start by just stating what their accounts are. In Matthew, Joseph wants to divorce Mary because she is pregnant, but is convinced not to in a dream. They already live in Bethlehem, so without travelling Mary has the child, and “wise men” come to investigate for Herod. The wise men decide not to return to Herod, and then because he is suspicious he orders all male children to be killed. Luckily, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt in time. Once Herod dies they want to go back, but because Herod’s son is ruler they instead go to Nazareth.

In Luke, an angel appears to Mary to inform her of her pregnancy. Then emperor Augustus orders an empire wide census and people need to return to their ancestral home to register. Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth in this story. Thus Joseph needs to go to Bethlehem, his father’s father’s father’s … (13 times) father David’s birthplace. Here Mary gives birth in a stable because there is no room in the inn. Nearby shepherds come and worship him (note: no wise men in this story). Jesus is taken to the Temple for the standard Jewish rites and is recognized as the Messiah there. Once finished, they return to Nazareth.

Essentially no part of the stories match up:

The place they are living at the start is different. Joseph gets informed by a dream vs Mary gets informed by an angel. Staying in place vs travelling before the birth. Born at their home (surprising?) vs born in a manager. Wise men travelling vs nearby shepherds. Fleeing to Egypt vs immediately returning to Nazareth. Herod ordering the murder of children vs Augustus ordering a census. Travelling to Nazareth for the first time vs returning to Nazareth.

In fact, in most cases these just can’t be harmonized at all. If one happened, then the other must be fiction. If these details aren’t enough to convince you, consider that Matthew’s mention of Herod places Jesus’ birth before 4 BC and Luke’s mention of Quirinius places Jesus’ birth after 6 AD. It is a true impossibility that both these scenarios happened.

Let’s look at how the stories are told to figure out why they might be making them up. Just like in the Easter post, the text itself provides clues to what the theological points they are trying to make are. Matthew is the easy one, because he is quite explicit about what he is doing. He bangs the reader over the head with it over and over throughout the story by saying, “To fulfill what the prophet had said…”

Aha. Now we have a hypothesis for why these strange stories were made up.

Matthew needs Jesus to fulfill a bunch of prophecies from the Jewish scriptures to make his theological point that Jesus was the Messiah.

Thus our hypothesis is that Matthew looked at what the prophecies were and then made up a story to fit them. Wait, I hear you protesting. You say there is no way for us to tell the difference between Matthew writing what he thought was true and just happened to fulfill prophecy versus Matthew making up a story after the fact to fit it.

Here’s the interesting thing. We actually can tell, because Matthew was using the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. It turns out that there were some mistranslations and misinterpretations coming from this version that are not in the actual scriptures. Thus either Jesus was fulfilling mistranslated prophecy (and hence not the real prophecy) or Matthew was making up a story based on the mistranslation. I’ll let you decide.

Here are two examples of that.

In the original Hebrew version of Isaiah, the word “alma” is used to indicate that a “young woman” would give birth (“and they shall call him Immanuel.”). Strangely, even though Hebrew has a different word for “virgin,” (as opposed to “young woman”) the Septuagint mistranslates it to “parthenos” meaning virgin. Thus Matthew needs Mary to give birth to Jesus as a virgin in order to fulfill a mistranslated prophecy.

Let’s take this same part of the story in Luke. Luke makes no mention of a prophecy that Jesus would be born of a virgin. Instead, he makes it pretty clear through the words of the angel Gabriel, “He will be called the Son of God” what theological point he is trying to make. Jesus is born of a virgin not to fulfill prophecy, but to be clear that Jesus is the literal son of God and no human created him in the natural way. Thus we start to see that even ignoring historical evidence there is internal textual evidence that Matthew and Luke were advancing certain theological concerns in constructing their narratives.

The key strangeness of Matthew’s story is that Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem, so why make up this thing about Herod which forces them to flee and eventually end up in Nazareth? Well, like the rest of the story, Matthew is trying to pull all of his details from prophecy. He has to reconcile two seemingly contradictory prophecies. The first is Micah 5:2 which seemingly predicts the birthplace of the Messiah to be Bethlehem, but also there is an unspecified reference to a prophecy that says “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

It is interesting that again, both of these interpretations are wholly unfounded and the effort to reconcile them seems for naught. The Micah prophecy is really just a description of where the Davidic dynasty originated. The Christian interpretation as a prophecy didn’t appear until much later. The prophecy about being a Nazarene appears nowhere in prophecy. There are several theories on where it came from. One of which is again just a mistranslation error of Judges 13:5, “The boy shall be a Nazarite to God.” But the word nazarite has nothing to do with Nazareth. It merely means one consecrated by taking vows and is in reference to Samson.

One can go on and on showing how Matthew not only pulled his details from prophecies, but how we know that he did so based on mistranslations or interpretations from the Septuagint. In fact, if you want to see a more thorough analysis along these lines check out chapter III of Randel Helms’ Gospel Fictions. Some scholars even propose the hypothesis that Matthew’s account is an example of Jewish Midrash (note he chooses to have Jesus flee to Egypt which is essentially retracing the steps of Moses’ flight out of Egypt).

Well, we could go on like this forever because entire bookcases have been filled with writings on this one topic, but hopefully this was interesting and new to some people. I didn’t give many references, because essentially every single New Testament scholar and ancient historian will tell you the above (and most of them are Christian!). If this sounds like some fringe atheist analysis, I challenge you to find a single respected (and doesn’t have a major source of income coming from evangelical apologetics) New Testament scholar that doesn’t hold this view.

In fact, these exact things are taught in most seminaries, so your pastor/minister is fully aware of these types of analyses. I would imagine most mainline protestant pastors would tell you behind closed doors that they also believe the birth narratives to be fiction for the above reasons. Any introductory text on the subject would go through all of this. For example, Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman probably covers this (though I’m not committing to that since I don’t have it with me).

3 thoughts on “Christmas: The Nativity Story as Presented in Matthew and Luke”

  1. Thanks for a timely and interesting post. I went to Baylor, a Baptist school, and most degree programs required two semesters of religion classes-either Old and New Testament classes, or a Bible overview and a church history class. I took Old and New Testament, and many of my classmates were scandalized about the fact that the professors (mainly Baptist preachers with both PhDs and MDivs) were not literalists. Like you said, they taught us about how Matthew probably wrote the birth narrative in order to convince people that Jesus was the Jewish messiah, fulfilling prophecies left and right, and about other interesting literary and historical analysis of the scriptures. They were very interesting courses!

  2. Just wanted to let you know I really liked this explanation. Especially the parts where you compare the Septuagint with the Tanakh. (Is there some sort of canonical reference for these matters, by the way?)

  3. (I mean, when I google “nativity story matthew alma virgin septuagint”, I get this blogpost as the first hit. :-))

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