jesus birth narratives

Prob­lems in Rec­on­cil­ing the Birth Nar­ra­tives of Jesus

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 and 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 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 deliv­ered 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 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.Ray­mond E. Brown, The Birth of the Mes­si­ah, p. 189

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 ana­lyzed 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 ?ibid., p. 35

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. Some­time 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.Lee Mar­tin Mc Don­ald & Stan­ley E. Porter, Ear­ly Chris­tian­i­ty and Its Sacred Lit­er­a­ture (Hen­drick­son Pub­lish­ers Inc., 2000), p. 122

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 real­ized 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.Mil­lar Bur­rows, Jesus in the First Three Gospels [Online Document]

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.William Hamil­ton, Part One : Matthew and Luke in The Mod­ern Read­er’s Guide to the Gospels [Online Doc­u­ment]


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 har­mo­nize 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).Mil­lar Bur­rows, op. cit.

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).Ray­mond E. Brown, An Intro­duc­tion to the New Tes­ta­ment, p. 114

And only God knows best ! Problems in Reconciling the Birth Narratives of Jesus 1Endmark

Cite this arti­cle as : Usman Sheikh & Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi, Prob­lems in Rec­on­cil­ing the Birth Nar­ra­tives of Jesus,” in Bis­mi­ka Allahu­ma, Octo­ber 15, 2005, last accessed April 17, 2024, https://​bis​mikaal​lahu​ma​.org/​b​i​b​l​e​/​j​e​s​u​s​-​b​i​r​t​h​-​n​a​r​r​a​t​i​v​es/




One response to “Prob­lems in Rec­on­cil­ing the Birth Nar­ra­tives of Jesus”

  1. huss gunda Avatar
    huss gunda


    you might be inter­est­ed in read­ing this lat­est response to Jasons Gas­trich har­mon­i­sa­tions of the birth narratives


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *