Thus far in this series, we’ve looked at what Paul, the earliest Christian writer, knew – or at least cared enough to mention – about the origins of Jesus, and we’ve looked at what Mark, the earliest gospel, says about Jesus’ origins and family background. In short, neither seems to know about a virgin birth, and Mark actually portrays Jesus’ family as if they thought he was crazy, which seems strange.
So now we move to the next two gospels written, Matthew and Luke. Both have birth stories, and we’ve gotten so used to merging them together, it’s probably useful to pull them apart again and look at their individual characteristics.
First, here’s what they have in common (relying on John Shelby Spong’s Born of a Woman):
- A couple named Mary and Joseph are engaged, and they have not slept together.
- Joseph is in the line of King David.
- An angel comes to announce a miraculous, nonsexual pregnancy performed through the Holy Spirit, and that the resulting child would be a savior to be named Jesus.
- When the child is born, Mary and Joseph are married (or at least living together), and Herod the Great is king in Palestine.
- Spong doesn’t mention this, and Matthew leaves it more assumed than stated, but I would argue both stories feature a birth in Bethlehem.
- Jesus grows up in Nazareth.
Every other detail – the shepherds, the Magi, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the census and the inn, the slaughter of Palestinian toddlers, even the specific parent to whom the announcing angel appears – is found in just one of the two accounts. Even the genealogies are different, as Spong points out:
Luke begins with Adam; Matthew begins with Abraham. Matthew traces the lineage through the royal line of the house of David; Luke goes from David to Nathan, not Solomon, and ignores the royal line. Luke has for Jesus’ grandfather a man named Eli; Matthew asserts that Jesus’ grandfather was Jacob.
So what does Matthew’s story contain, aside from the common elements listed above?
- Joseph learns Mary is pregnant and decides to quietly call of their engagement (1:19).
- An angel appears to him, explaining the miraculous nature of the conception (1:20-21).
- Joseph marries Mary (1:24).
- They don’t have sex until after Jesus’ birth (1:25).
- After Jesus’ birth, the Magi come seeking “the newborn king of the Jews” and cause quite the ruckus (2:1-12).
- Joseph is warned in a dream about Herod’s coming attempt to kill Jesus, and the family flees to Egypt (2:13-15).
- Herod orders the death of all male children in Bethlehem and its surrounding area 2 years old and younger (2:16-18).
- After Herod’s death, Mary and Joseph return to Palestine and settle in Nazareth (2:19-23).
Luke, meanwhile, contains a longer but almost completely different story:
- Zechariah the priest is visited by the angel Gabriel and told he and Elizabeth will have a son, to be named John. He doubts this because they are very old, and he is struck speechless until the boy’s birth (1:5-25).
- Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her of her impending pregnancy (1:26-38).
- Mary visits Elizabeth, sings the Magnificat and stays three months (1:46-56).
- Elizabeth gives birth to John, and Zechariah sings the Benedictus (1:57-80).
- Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem to fulfill the census requirements of Caesar Agustus (2:1-5).
- While there, Mary gives birth to Jesus and lays him in a manger because there wasn’t room in the inn (2:6-7).
- Angels appear, announcing the birth to nearby shepherds (2:8-20).
- Eight days later, Jesus is circumcised (2:21).
- Forty days after his birth (according to law, though not stated in Luke), Jesus is dedicated at the temple, where Simeon sings the Nunc Dimittis and the prophetess Anna recognizes him as the redeemer of Jerusalem (2:22-38).
- Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth (2:39).
So what do we have? Two stories that mostly sit alongside each other without much overlap, but there is some overlap, and we should address that. I see three problems, in ascending order of importance:
First, as we’ve mentioned, the genealogies disagree about who Joseph’s father was.
Second, if we are to align these stories into a single narrative, the angel Gabriel must appear to Mary, but her response is either: 1. not to tell Joseph anything about it until he notices for himself that she’s pregnant months later; 2. to wait until she is pregnant, tell him that, but not mention the angel’s proclamation; or 3. to wait until she is pregnant, tell him the whole story, but he doesn’t believe her.
No. 3 is obviously the best fit, though it doesn’t explain why Mary would wait until after she’s pregnant to tell him about the angel’s appearance. (Joseph clearly doesn’t know anything about the situation until Mary is already pregnant in Matt. 1:19.). So that’s a problem, although a small one.
Third and biggest of the problems, the story of the magi and Herod’s massacre of male toddlers and babies simply cannot fit with Luke’s account of the circumcision and dedication.
Traditionally, when these stories are merged, all of the Lukan story occurs before most of the Matthean story – that is, the shepherds arrive and then, some time later, so do the Magi. Noting the use of “house” in Matt. 1:11 and Herod’s order to start the killing at age 2 and younger, many readers assume this all occurred long after the events of Luke, that Jesus is a toddler, and Mary and Joseph have found a house in Bethlehem.
But there’s a problem with that: Luke 2:39.
When Mary and Joseph had completed everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to their hometown, Nazareth in Galilee.
Luke describes Mary and Joseph staying in Bethlehem only as long as they needed to for the census, traveling to Jerusalem for the 40th-day dedication of their son, then returning to Nazareth. Matthew, though he doesn’t say so explicitly, clearly has the family in Bethlehem for the Magi’s arrival.
There’s no way I see to marry these divergent stories. The Magi cannot have arrived earlier than the temple dedication because Mary and Joseph could not flee to Egypt to await Herod’s death and at the same time dedicate their child in Jerusalem, where Herod actually lives. And if the Magi arrive later, Mary and Joseph are already in Nazareth, contrary to Matt. 2:5 and 2:8. We would have to create a story, completely unmentioned in the text, in which the Magi actually follow the star to Nazareth, which is possible but far from likely, given the investment Matthew has in making Bethlehem the center of the story. Also, Nazareth is quite a distance from Bethlehem; if Herod is only killing Bethlehem-area babies, Jesus would have been safe in Nazareth from immediate harm, mitigating the need for flight.
As Spong puts it, “The minimum conclusion is that both versions cannot be historically accurate. The maximum conclusion is that neither version is historic.”
I’m leery of leaping to the maximum conclusion when the minimum conclusion will do. In this case, I’d go a step beyond and say neither version is historically accurate.
Both Matthew and Luke make frequent use of Old Testament prophecy (in Matthew’s case) and Old Testament allusion (in Luke’s) to tell their gospel stories. Matthew is more overt, sprinkling his narrative with the phrase, “so it could be fulfilled what was spoken in the prophets.” Luke is more subtle, writing stories that mirror well-known Old Testament narratives (Elizabeth and Zechariah = Abraham and Sarah; Magnificat = song of Hannah, etc.). It would not be surprising to this amateur scholar for Matthew and Luke not to let facts get in the way of a good narrative; that was certainly not uncommon in ancient Jewish writing. If the two versions don’t sync up – and it’s clear to me they don’t – that could be because neither of them is interested in being historically accurate.
But disinterest in historical accuracy does not mean the base event itself is fiction. It simply means that if we want to treat the birth of Jesus honestly, we’ll stop merging the two stories into an ill-fitting single narrative and recognize that the biblical writers did not always conform to our modern ways of thinking.
Of course, this brings the weight of evidence in answering the titular question of these posts to perhaps an unsettling place thus far for those of us who are pretty invested in the virgin birth:
- Paul never writes about it.
- Mark never mentions it, and seems to indicate his family didn’t know about or understand the significance of it.
- Matthew and Luke give contradictory, incompatible stories of the events surrounding it, though they both agree on the agency of the conception, as well as the place of the birth, itself.
Next we’ll see if the rest of Matthew and Luke, as well as the Gospel of John, can provide any further light on this subject.