This is a post I wrote last year containing a comparison of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke and my ideas on how we should read such stories. I have edited it slightly and present it here, if you feel like reading something that is probably too long. I hope you are enjoying the holiday season!
Matthew and Luke each contain short but elaborate birth narratives concerning Jesus’ birth. They also contain genealogies of Jesus which are quite different from each other. Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham, accentuating his connection to King David and mentioning the deportation to Babylon. Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry back through David and Abraham to Adam and to God, perhaps meaning to be more universal by implying the inclusion of Gentiles. I have read some attempts to reconcile the different genealogies, but they do not seem too credible. One Christian apologist suggested that Luke may have traced the lineage of Jesus through Mary’s line, despite the lineage stating “son of, son of, son of, etc.” Another suggests that each just skipped certain generations. Quite possible, but does this make the lineages seem more literally correct? They are theologically driven, not historically driven. Matthew even makes the genealogy divisible by 7 to display a perfect numerology in Jesus’ line.
In the book of Matthew, Joseph and Mary appear to live in Bethlehem. They give birth to Jesus and live in a house, where they are visited by Wise Men. When King Herod hears of the birth of a Messiah and seeks to have him killed, they escape to Egypt. Herod then orders all the children age two and under living around Bethlehem to be killed. When Herod dies, Joseph receives a dream telling him this (this is his third dream by the way. Matthew focuses on Joseph more than Mary, and all his dreams are reminiscent of the famous Joseph of the Old Testament who could interpret dreams). The family returns to Israel, but moves to Nazareth after Joseph receives a fourth dream warning them against returning to the land of their previous residence.
In Luke, Mary and Joseph live in a town called Nazareth in Galilee. When Emperor Augustus orders a census of “all the world”, they must go to Bethlehem because Joseph is descended from King David. While they are there, Mary gives birth and lays Jesus in a manger, because there is no room at the inn. Then the angels appear to the shepherds announcing the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. The shepherds visit the child quickly (he is still in the manger - in fact this is the sign the angels said to look for). It is a joyful scene.
Eight days later, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem to be circumcised. They meet Simeon and Anna who both recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Then the family returns to “their own town of Nazareth.”
Luke’s version has a few historical problems. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ birth takes place during the reign of Herod the Great. The worldwide census takes places while Quirinius is the governor of Syria. However, Herod the Great died in 4 BC and Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 AD. Many have tried to explain this error. Some have proposed that the Bible has not been translated correctly. This approach has not gained traction. Others have suggested that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice or that there were two different Quiriniuses. This does not work with history since scholars know who the previous governors of Syria were.
One archeologist named John McRay, who is also a conservative Christian apologist, has even proposed the “two Quiriniuses” theory based on so-called “micrographic” letters on ancient Roman coins. Another Christian archeologist named Jerry Vardaman makes this claim. Vardaman states that the use of micrographic letters was widespread for centuries, yet no other archaeologist seem to be aware of them. He has never produced any evidence, not even any photos of coins, to any colleagues for peer review. There are only some sketches he made. It seems unlikely that Romans kept track of their history using letters so small on their coinage that only a magnifying glass could reveal them. Vardaman suggests they used a diamond stylus of some sort to write the super tiny letters, but of course, Roman coins are a bit rudimentary to begin with. Even Craig Blomberg, another prominent Christian apologist, in reviewing McRay’s book on Paul, questions aloud why McRay puts any stock in this “micrographic letter” theory since no one has ever even seen these coins. McRay and Vardaman suggest new chronologies for the life of Jesus and other ancient events that are far off from the ones agreed upon by evangelical and secular scholars. And to boot, Vardaman never mentions a Quirinius coin in any publication. It seems that he just mentioned it to McRay, and now McRay uses it as evidence. The McRay/Vardaman claim comes from the book “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel, a favorite of conservative apologists.
Anyway, we could go on and on. The faith of many people is contingent on a literal interpretation of the Gospels. Therefore, some will go to great lengths to maintain the plausibility of that interpretation. The previous paragraph is just one example of this. By the way, these are often nice, good people. Just people that I disagree with on this issue. (Ha! I’m so non-confrontational.)
Another problem with Luke’s account of the census is that there never was a worldwide census while Octavius Augustus was emperor. There was, however, a census of Judea, Samarian and Idumea, the territories ruled by Herod the Great’s son Archelaus, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. The most likely scenario, by far, is that the author of Luke made a simple mistake. As scholar and author E.P. Sanders states in his book “The Historical Figure of Jesus” :
“This is a relatively slight historical error for an ancient author who worked without archives, or even a standard calendar, and who wrote about a period some eighty or so years earlier.”
Also, Luke states that Joseph and Mary must return to Bethlehem to be counted because Joseph is descended from David. It’s very unlikely that people would have to return to the homes of their ancestors for a census. That would be like someone from America returning to the home of one of the Pilgrims because they are descended from Him. And David lived almost 1,000 years before Joseph the father of Jesus. This is most likely a scenario invented to put Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, since the Messiah should have been from the Davidic line and born in Bethlehem according to the Jewish thought of the day.
These stories are beautiful. They describe how these writers thought of Jesus. Did they invent these narratives? Perhaps. Were they part of traditions that evolved in different regions over the course of Jesus’ life? Maybe. Are they literally true? Well, anything is possible, and I try to remain open to anything. But history is about finding probability, not maintaining plausibility. And I think it is highly probable that if you were in Bethlehem (or Nazareth) at the time of Jesus’ birth, you would not have seen what is described in Matthew and Luke. However, if you met Jesus as an adult, perhaps you would have thought back to that first Christmas and considered it much more amazing than it seemed back then. What made the followers of this Jewish peasant construct mythic stories about him to rival the ones written about the births of emperors? This is the true question.
Finally, I will state the case that what is symbolic can be more powerful than what is literal at times. If something is literal, it happened. Very cool, perhaps amazing. If something is symbolic, then it means that the reality behind it is so incredible, so real, so foundational, that we can’t really get a good idea of the meaning through regular language. Thus myth, stories, music, art, poetry and dreams become essential ways to communicate in this awareness we are all experiencing called life. There are literalists on both sides of the issues. Some think it happened, others say it didn’t happen, and that’s it. But perhaps what did happen for the authors of Matthew and Luke was so real and present in their lives, that they could only express it through figurative language. We know ancient historians worked that way. They were not dispassionate scholars. They had an interest in what the reader thought - they were trying to convince their audience of a theological, spiritual truth. They are not just laying out facts here.
Look at the writer of Luke. The gospel is only part one of his work. The other part is the book of Acts. He wrote in a way that consciously avoided repetition. E.P. Sanders describes Luke as an “artist” because he never writes the same thing twice. The ascension stories of Jesus are different at the end of Luke and at the beginning of Acts (but not necessarily contradictory). He relates the story of Paul’s conversion three times in Acts and it’s a little different each time - in Acts 9 Paul falls to the ground, but his companions stay standing. They hear a voice, but see no one. In Acts 22, the companions see a light, but hear no voice. In Acts 26, the companions fall down when Paul does. In each version of the vision, Jesus’ speech to Paul is different and the last one in Acts 26 the message is much greater in detail and purpose.
Now the author of Luke wasn’t too worried about precise, literal facts. Why should he be? He was not a court reporter. I do think that he investigated traditions about Jesus and the disciples, but surely no Christian had a detailed version of exactly what Peter said after the arrival of the Holy Spirit or what Paul said on trial, etc, etc. This is historical fiction. The writer takes these traditions and makes it into a story. Some think that the author completely invents many details and stories in Luke/Acts. For instance, the Greek scholar and writer Gary Wills thinks that Luke definitely invented the idea that Paul was a Roman citizen since Paul was beaten so many times and it was illegal to beat a Roman citizen. It is certainly possible. I tend to think that the author of Luke did a lot of work gathering up traditions from different Christian communities and worked them all together. I think this because Luke claims to have investigated things thoroughly at the beginning of his Gospel. But once again, surely there was no transcription of what Mary said in response to Gabriel (the Magnificat) or Simeon’s speech when he met the infant Jesus (the Nunc Dimittis). These are either poetry by the author, or maybe early Christian hymns/speeches/traditions that he works into the story. This is the communication of spiritual truth more than historical fact.
I have had different attitudes about the Christmas story through my life. As a child I wanted presents mostly, but I still felt a sense of holiness at the Christmas Eve service when we read the stories. As a teenager I felt this sense deepen as my understanding of the Christian faith deepened. I felt amazed that God would love humanity enough to come down in human form and experience what we go through. In college, many of my literalist beliefs did not hold up under scrutiny, and I became a little snotty about religion. I have never considered myself an atheist, but I was always very eager to explain that I didn’t think what I used to think. I was not a fundamentalist! I seldom bowed my head in public prayer, even though I prayed constantly by myself. As I matured a little, I finally became more OK with reclaiming religious expressions and church again. I could talk about God or Jesus again, without a preamble concerning Biblical history and different interpretations. I realized that talking about God in a real, experiential way is talking about faith. And talking with faith. And perhaps most readers of this blog know that I define faith as a positive attitude of openness, more than belief without evidence. Belief is holding on. Faith is letting go.
I am still happy to discuss theories of the historical Jesus, Paul’s theology, the process of canonization of the New Testament, etc. In fact, I’m more “happy” to, with less to prove or disprove. I still believe in an honest exchange of views of course, and I’m grateful that readers of these entries feel the same. But I feel that all of us are essentially the same, despite our different levels of literal belief in the New Testament. When we’re alone. When we’re seeking hope. When we’re grateful. When we’re worried. When we’re joyful. When we’re together.
And Merry Christmas!