Agnosticism, Atheism, Bible Study, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion, Truth

Which Nativity Story?

Well, it’s that time of year again. Regular church attendees are going to have to share their pews with people who have finally decided to make it out for their second service of the year. Their belief that Jesus bled and died so they can gain eternal salvation might be unshakable, but it apparently isn’t all that motivating, considering how little these believers seem to do in response. Nevertheless, they can at least be counted on to show up for a retelling of Jesus’s miraculous birth.

But what version will they hear? More than likely, they’ll hear a “Hollywood” version of the tale that incorporates the most exciting elements of the two versions that we read about in Matthew and Luke. A quick Google search turned up this one, which illustrates my point perfectly. But what if someone tried to tell the full version? A version that included every detail that both Matthew and Luke provide?

Honestly, it just can’t be done. I had wanted to attempt it here, but there’s just no practical way to do it. For example, the version I linked to above goes like this:

The Standard Tale

  • Mary’s visited by an angel who tells her about the pregnancy (Luke)
  • She and Joseph live in Nazareth of Galilee, but are forced to travel to Bethlehem in Judea for a census commanded by the Roman authorities (Luke)
  • They’re unable to find normal accommodations and are forced to room in an area intended for livestock. Mary gives birth there and is visited by local shepherds (Luke)
  • Wise men far to the east see a star that somehow signifies the birth of the Jewish Messiah (Matthew)
  • They travel for an unspecified period until they reach Jerusalem, where they inquire about the child (Matthew)
  • These inquiries reach Herod, the ruler of the region, and he asks the wise men to send back word to him once they find the child, so Herod himself can also pay his respects (Matthew)
  • The wise men make their way to Bethlehem, find the family, bestow their gifts, and return home via a different route (Matthew)
  • An angel tells Joseph to hightail it out of Bethlehem, because Herod’s sending a posse to wipe out all the children 2 years old and under in an effort to stamp out Jesus (Matthew)
  • Joseph and his family flee to Egypt and remain there until an angel tells him it’s safe to return, because Herod has died (Matthew)
  • Joseph intends to go back toward Bethlehem, but after finding out that Herod’s son is in charge, he takes the family to Nazareth in Galilee (Matthew)

So what’s wrong with this story? I mean, it’s very cohesive, and it makes for a compelling tale. What’s not to like? Its only real problem is that the very books of the Bible that provide its details, contradict its overall narrative.

Two Very Different Stories

Let’s go back to Luke’s version. After Jesus’s birth and the visit from the shepherds, we don’t read about wise men or Herod’s animosity. Instead, Luke 2:22 says that after the days of Mary’s purification were over, the family went to Jerusalem. The “days of purification” are referring to Leviticus 12:1-4, where the Law of Moses stated that a woman was to be considered “unclean” for 40 days after giving birth to a male child. So when Jesus was about 40 days old, Luke claims that they all traveled to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices as thanks for his birth. While there, two elderly people see Jesus and begin proclaiming praise and prophecies concerning Jesus. And there’s no indication that an effort was made to keep any of this quiet, which is very different in tone to what we read in Matthew. Finally, in Luke 2:39, we read “And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” We’ll come back to this point in a moment.

The synopsis we looked at earlier incorporated most of Matthew’s version of the story. As we just read, his story ends very differently from Luke’s. However, it’s also significant to note that Matthew gives no indication that Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth. Matt 1:18 through the end of the chapter talks about Mary’s pregnancy, even though she and Joseph had never slept together, but it never specifies where they’re living. Chapter 2 begins with the sentence “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?'” Of course, it’s possible that Matthew still knew they were originally from Nazareth and just doesn’t bother to tell us that or divulge how they got to Bethlehem in the first place. But there are three context clues that point against such a possibility. First of all, regardless of how far the wise men had to journey, it likely took them quite a while to make the trip. When Matthew says “the east” he certainly doesn’t mean “east Jersualem,” and travel being what it was back then, any journey would have taken considerable time. The second clue is that Herod supposedly kills all the male children of Bethlehem who are 2 and under. So it’s unlikely that we’re supposed to still be thinking of Jesus as a newborn. Finally, Matthew says that when the family was able to leave Egypt, Joseph wanted to go back to Judea (where Bethlehem is). But after finding out Herod’s son was ruling, he became afraid and “went and lived in a city called Nazareth” (Matt 2:23). This is a very strange way to refer to Nazareth, if it’s where Joseph and Mary were already living.

So Matthew gives no indication that Joseph and Mary were just visiting Bethlehem. He never mentions a manger; instead, he references a house that they were staying in. He never talks about the shepherds from the fields, but has wise men who visit the child. He includes a story about Herod slaughtering a town’s children, though no other historical or biblical source ever mentions this. He claims that the family flees to Egypt until Herod’s death, that they want to return to Bethlehem, but finally settle in “a city called Nazareth.”

Luke, on the other hand, says that Nazareth is their home town, and they’re only visiting Bethlehem. He has no story about wise men, but does talk about shepherds from the fields that visit the newborn Jesus. Instead of Herod attempting to hunt them down and a subsequent flight to Egypt, the family travels straight to Jerusalem, where Herod lives. And there’s no effort to keep Jesus’s identity secret while they’re there, as two elderly prophets begin proclaiming who he is. And after making their sacrifices, the family simply goes back home to Nazareth, far from Herod’s reach (not that Luke indicates Herod’s even interested).

Can These Stories Be Put Together?

The main sticking points between the stories are the flight to Egypt and the trip to Jerusalem. On the one hand, Luke is very clear about his timeline: Jesus was only about 40 days old when they went to Jerusalem and then went home to Nazareth. Matthew doesn’t give specifics on how old Jesus was when the family was forced to flee to Egypt, except that it must have occurred before he was 2 years old.

Could the trip to Egypt have happened before the trip to Jerusalem?

No. First of all, considering all the details Luke provides, why would he have left out such an important event? Secondly, this means Herod would have needed to die within the 40 day purification period, but Matthew tells us that this still wouldn’t have been good enough, because Joseph was determined to avoid all of Judea while Herod’s son was reigning. There’s simply no way he would have felt safe enough to travel directly into Jerusalem. That just makes no sense.

Could the trip to Egypt have happened after the trip to Jerusalem?

No. Luke 2:39 is clear that the family went straight back to Nazareth after their trip to Jerusalem. And considering Luke claimed that Nazareth was already their home, why would they have needed to go back to Bethlehem anyway?

In fact, Luke’s claim that the family was from Nazareth creates a lot of problems for Matthew’s account. Nazareth was far outside of Herod’s reach. So if Herod really had hunted Jesus in Bethlehem, the family could have simply gone back to Nazareth rather than flee to Egypt. But this isn’t a consideration in Matthew’s account, because for him, the family has never been to Nazareth until they simply can’t go back to Bethlehem anymore, even after Herod’s death (Matt 2:23).

Additional Problems

I don’t want to spend too much time here, but for completeness sake, I need to mention a couple of historical issues. Both Matthew and Luke say that Jesus is born during the reign of Herod the Great. Historians usually place his death in 4 BCE, which means Jesus would have been born sometime before that. However, Luke says that Mary and Joseph had traveled to Bethlehem, because Quirinius, the governor of Syria, had commanded a census. However, Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until 6 CE — 10 years after Herod’s death. You can find additional resources about these two issues here.

Finally, Luke’s claim is that this census required Joseph to travel back to his ancestral home of Bethlehem, since he was of King David’s lineage. But David would have lived some 1000 years before Joseph. It’s ludicrous to think that the Romans would have cared about such a thing, or that they would have wanted their empire to be so disrupted by having people move around like that for a census. It would have been an impossible feat and would have made for a highly inaccurate, and therefore useless, census.

What Do We Make of All This?

The easiest way to understand why these accounts have such major differences in detail is to understand why either writer bothered with a story about Jesus’s birth at all. You have to remember that the writers of Matthew and Luke didn’t know one another and didn’t know that they were both working on the same material. They certainly didn’t know that their books would one day show up in the same collection. Both of them were working with two basic facts: Micah 5:2 seemed to prophesy that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem; Jesus came from Nazareth (John 1:45-46).

Since those two facts were at odds with one another, it’s easy to see how both writers would have been compelled to explain how Jesus could be from Nazareth but still be from Bethlehem. Unfortunately for them, close comparison shows that both versions simply can’t be true.

How would people react if they showed up for church this weekend and were presented with the full details from both of these stories? I like to think it would spur many of them into deeper study. That it would possibly make them question some of the things they’ve been taking for granted. But 2016 has been pretty demoralizing when it comes to the number of people who seem concerned about what’s true, and I’m not sure how many of them would see this information as a call to action. I know there are people who can be changed by facts. Perhaps there aren’t as many of them as I once thought, but I know they’re out there. And with the way information spreads these days, I’m sure they’ll eventually find the facts they’re looking for.

846 thoughts on “Which Nativity Story?”

  1. Reblogged this on A Tale Unfolds and commented:
    If, like me, you are celebrating Kiddy in a Cowshed Day , then this post from one of my favorite heathens, Nate Owens, who regularly plays his Beatles records backwards, is the ideal hors d’oeuvres to kick start the festivities.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. HI Nate, I was going to email you and wish you a happy Christmas/holiday/NewYear/life, but now I can do that here!

    Just a brief comment on your post. Yes, there are some serious anomalies in the birth stories. They can be put together, but it requires some faith. But I fear you have overstated the problems.

    At the risk of sounding like I’m seeking visits to my blog, I’ve had a look at the problems in Are the stories of Jesus’ birth historically true?. Based on a journal article by a historian, Luke’s account sounds very realistic and believable, To counter just a coupe of your points …

    Luke doesn’t say Joseph lived in Nazareth, only that he travelled up from there. But Jewish betrothal traditions required Joseph to travel to his future bride’s home (Nazareth) to be betrothed, then to his home (Bethlehem) to be married.

    Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census as well as the marriage because it was his home town (Luke 2:3), and he had property there and that’s how Romans assessed taxation. The ancestral home is just an additional detail.

    There is evidence that Quirinius was special envoy or official in the area about 5 BCE, so that could be what Luke was referring to.

    Sequencing is often doubtful in the gospels. Originally the stories were told (few people could read), and the connections were made rather ad hoc by the narrator. Then they were compiled from various sources, the writers again using connecting words between the stories. So we shouldn’t assume those connections were immediate or precise. So some of your problems with timing here are based (I think) on modern narrative assumptions rather than recognising the realities of oral cultures.

    My conclusion (supported by the paper I referred to) is that Luke was pretty right, as usual. And Matthew, as usual, is exaggerated and unreliable in some details. A problem for someone who believes the Bible is inerrant, but no problem for everyone else who accepts the gospels as normal historical documents.

    Again, best wishes for now and next year!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Secular Wings and commented:
    This is my first attempt at *reblogging* a blog post.

    I remember myself looking critically at the two nativity stories, one in Matthew, the other in Luke. I remember wondering. I also remember leaders or others supposedly more enlightened than me telling me that basically the differences didn’t matter. For me, the two stories weren’t a deal breaker. The brewing deal breakers for me were the treatment of women, hell and the vast diversity found within Christianity.

    Do people care about “two very different stories” as Nate writes? I don’t think so. Even if you push on it a bit, in my experience people will just respond with, Look. All I care about is Christ born, crucified and resurrected. That’s it. Seems simple doesn’t it. One wonders why if it is so simple it is so complicated?

    Liked by 4 people

  4. UnkleE,

    Just to respond to your first point, my ESV states pretty clearly that Nazareth is their hometown.

    Luke 2:39 – “… they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.”

    I don’t think they would refer to it this way unless it was their home town. Additionally, the reason cited for traveling to Bethelehem in the first place is for the census and, importantly, because Joseph is of the house and lineage of David (Luke 2:4). I think it would be reading into the text to say that Bethlehem is where Joseph lives, especially considering Luke 2:39.

    Nate is right on this one.

    Best regards,
    Michael

    Liked by 4 people

  5. You might want to add that Nazareth did not exist at the time these supposed events took place. There is no mention of the place until about a century later. There is no archaeological evidence that it existed any earlier than that, either. “Biblical archeology” has to be one of the greatest disappointments in all of academia. Starting in the late eighteenth century, archaeologists swarmed the Sinai peninsula, looking for all of the sites described in Exodus. They found no evidence, none whatsoever of those sites. The only physical evidence is of events that were historical but had no real standing in theology, that is historical window dressing.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Nate,

    A great read.

    My sweetheart is a non-Christian (a natural atheist) and her knowledge of Christianity is just popular stuff even though she had been dragged to churches by her Mom and she dragged her son to them in his younger days. But her real knowledge of Christianity is very poor.

    So, I wanted her to read your post. To set it up, we both read Luke and Matthews account first (her first time reading), and I gave a little commentary.

    Reading your post reinforced my commentary and was great fun. Fantastic writing.

    As to your last paragraph. As you know it is a theme of my writing which states that most self-proclaimed Christians aren’t “doctrinal Christians”, they don’t “believe” because of some truth. They believe because it helps form identity and culture and security of types and that “belief” is just a lose tying of images — no need for coherence, truth and such. It was never their intent in the first place.

    Likewise, in the USA, people voted for the candidate not really seeking truth but due to identity, major messages they love — they did not look for coherence. Their world, as in the religious realm, is comfortable with partitioned minds and purpose taking precedence over truth. It is how most of us operate — some doing it more than others, but all of us do it at times.

    If Christians are idiots for “believing” this stuff, we are all idiots.

    Great post, thanx. My gal loved it too.
    Merry Christmas.

    I look forward to your reply to Michael (“my bible says”) and Steve (Nazareth being later)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Hey nate-

    Don’t know if this will post, but here’s a thought. You say the writers of the gospels ‘did not know each other,’ and herein lies their contradictions so to speak.

    Uh no. Herein lies your misunderstanding. It proves the very opposite, that in deed, and in fact, the accounts prove knowledge it would be impossible to fabricate.

    You will run out of ink and your arms will fall off, before you can write one line of ‘contradictions’ that cannot be upheld by scripture…..if, you remove your bias.

    You go on to say ‘both versions cannot be true………..’ and it is irrelevant to explain it to you. But don’t you tire of wasting time and resources in that which you find detestable? Are you not embarrassed to traffic in that which is the pride of the atheist?

    Truth be told, you cannot rid the truth of scripture from your conscience, as this effort hjere suggests. Reminds me of the young punk who tried to sink a submarine with a pea shooter.

    It may be a type of therapy for you, but rest assured, there are no defects in scripture. None.

    Like

  8. KC, it isn’t that CS needs insight on his mindset … it’s that his mind is set. Nothing short of him taking his final breath and passing into the nothingness we all will experience will finally convince him (and thousands and thousands of others) that his “mindset” was ensconced in fictitious places and imaginary beings.

    By the way … great post Nate! Lots of depth.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. @ ColorStorm
    I think that it shows that the synoptic gospel writers shared material — that is not evidence of true witnessing at all.

    Ooops, I just read the rest of your comment. No dialogue possible. My bad. Poor prognosis. Only life events can change such a frozen mind. Nan and Ratamacueo are right.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. I was wondering about something just a bit of topic. I knew so many people who went to church only on major holidays. Such as Easter, and of course the Christmas service. Any thoughts on these people? They claim to be Christians, and they claim to be saved by god, they claim they believe and know the bible. ( very doubtful ) I knew so many of these people in my own little home town. I welcome any thoughts or insights on this idea. Hugs

    Liked by 1 person

  11. @ Scottie,

    I don’t think your question is off topic at all (see me comment above). I agree, most Christians don’t even talk about being saved probably. They hope it is good luck to say they believe in Jesus, God, the church, whatever, kind of like crossing their fingers. And besides, they want to fit in and be approved in their society. They want to have the same customs of those they love. So they don’t care that the Bible is consistent any more than they care about the consistency in Harry Potter or other fiction. They are there for the entertainment [security, status, safety, good luck ….] So for those, arguing consistency is pointless. But Nate is addressing doctrinal Christians just like the sort he use to be — hyper-believers. “I got it right” folks.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. My conclusion (supported by the paper I referred to) is that Luke was pretty right, as usual. And Matthew, as usual, is exaggerated and unreliable in some details. A problem for someone who believes the Bible is inerrant, but no problem for everyone else who accepts the gospels as normal historical documents.

    Demonstrating yet again that, the stories written about a make-believe virgin birth by the unknown authors featured in the Synoptics, writing around a half century (at least) of when this highly questionable event almost certainly did not take place still manage to sucker-punch a surprising, but fortunately, ever dwindling number of sadly indoctrinated individuals and including a number of cherry-picking, credulous halfwits, who by now should probably know better.

    Happy Kiddy-in-a-Cowshed day.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Well said sir. I think you are onto something very important with the curity and entertainment part. The reason I say this is that most of the part timers going to church were men, and the wives went much more often. When there was an after church event the men stood in their groups and the women in theirs. Hugs

    Like

  14. A great post as usual Nate. I like the way you logically work through the issues. I should add special thanks to unkleE and CS for providing an insight into how one can still be Christian and be aware of these discrepancies. In essence by refusing to accept that they are discrepancies.

    So just supposing they are not discrepancies as CS ad the Unc propose, and the Bible is true (just presupposing), then we should ask ‘what does this say about God?’ If the Bible is divine and true then it seems that ‘God’ is a sloppy editor, or worse deliberately left difficulties in the text to trip up those who were questioners.

    Now it would be consistent with the character of ‘God’ to leave some snares in the text. I mean to say have a read of the Book of Numbers and see how ‘God’ reacted to a bit grumbling by his folk!

    Looking back I really don’t know how I believed for so long. But in reality perhaps I do know. It was only two years ago that I was involved with my Church’s children’s Christmas service where we thought nothing of having the Wise Man and the Shepherds at the same gig. In the decades that I was a Christian I never once heard anyone raise the issue of the inconsistencies in the accounts, it was a total non event in my experience. I only became aware of the issue after I deconverted.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. @ pete

    What does this say about God you ask, that He is a ‘sloppy editor………………..?’

    Ha, you wish.

    No, what does this say about you that you are a careless reader??? As far as the ‘wise men,’ and the shepherds, that’s right, two different times. It’s your fault that you were spoon fed and believed something contrary to the narrative.

    Keep boasting of your deconnery, and I’ll keep showing you the lights and perfections of scripture.

    Like

  16. Hi everyone! Thanks for all the great comments! I really appreciate all of you taking the time to read such a lengthy post, and I’ve enjoyed reading all the comments. Sorry I haven’t had a chance to respond until now.

    I’m going to make some additional comments directed at specific individuals, but wanted to first thank all of you, since I won’t be able to respond to every single comment directly.

    And I hope that all of you have a fantastic Christmas (or whatever holiday / non-holiday you might be having)! My kids are all finally in bed, and my wife has dozed off, too. I plan to turn in soon myself, unless I hear a clatter on the roof. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Hey unkleE!

    Merry Christmas to you, as well! I did happen to read your recent articles on this topic, and I found the information really interesting. I didn’t know the details about how livestock were sometimes (often?) kept in the ground floor room of the house. However, I did know that something similar was practiced in parts of Europe long ago, so the arrangement makes perfect sense.

    As to some of the specifics you bring up, my thoughts are very much in line with what Michael said in his comment (welcome, Michael, if this is your first time here!). And I also agree with Peter’s observation that even if there’s a way to work out one or both of these narratives, it seems odd that God would rely on such weak/convoluted evidence in his all-important message.

    Nevertheless, I’m fully aware that your view of inspiration isn’t really hampered by issues like that. As I’ve said before, it’s not a position I can embrace, but I at least find it more reasonable and consistent than that of the people who insist upon inerrancy, despite learning about these kinds of issues.

    Anyway, thanks again for the great comment, and I really do hope you have a wonderful holiday season!

    Like

  18. Steve,

    Thanks for adding that bit about Nazareth — I didn’t think to mention it in my article. If I had, I probably would have just mentioned it as a possibility rather than a fact, mostly because I’ve never spent too much time looking into it. Even so, I would probably always be too hesitant to draw too firm a conclusion on Nazareth’s existence at that time. Even though the gospels come several decades after Jesus, and the writers probably weren’t living in Palestine, they were still much closer to the time and place in question than we are. I’m not sure that I could ever feel comfortable taking modern archaeological findings as strong enough evidence to say for certain that Nazareth didn’t exist at the time.

    With some other areas of the Bible, like the Exodus, I don’t feel so apprehensive. It’s easier to tell that the OT writings are farther removed from the time period in question. There are more legendary and mythological elements in those earliest stories of the OT, as well. And the plagues in Egypt, the Exodus, and the conquest of Canaan all should have left very dramatic archaeological findings, and the evidence we’ve uncovered looks very, very different.

    I only mention all that to stress that I’m not trying to dismiss archaeological evidence, altogether. Even though I haven’t personally been swayed by the questions on Nazareth yet, I do think it’s an important possibility that people should consider, so thank you again for bringing it up!

    Like

  19. Sabio,

    You’ve left one of my favorite comments! I’m really glad that this post was good enough that you decided to share it with your girlfriend. Sounds like you guys had a very fun study!

    I think your comments about why people believe and why they vote the way they do are spot on. I sometimes wish it was different, but I think you’re right. In fact, just yesterday, a friend of mine sent me this article:
    http://qz.com/869587/using-science-in-an-argument-just-makes-people-more-partisan/

    I found it rather depressing. 😦

    But I think it’s really important for all of us to remember your point that we are all guilty of acting this way, probably way more than we realize. And your related point that if people who think differently from us are stupid, then we’re all stupid, is equally important!

    Like

  20. Scottie,

    Thanks for your comments! I agree with Sabio that your question about casual Christians isn’t off-topic at all. As Sabio said, I came out of a group of “hyper-believers” (btw, I think this is an excellent term), so that’s often who I target in my posts. Because of that, I sometimes feel a little contempt for people who are so casual about their beliefs. I don’t understand how they can claim to be followers of a religion, but don’t take the time to learn much about it.

    That being said, I know that most of them are really, really good people. Ironically, they’re the ones I often seem to like the most, because they aren’t usually very dogmatic. They tend to be much more accepting of others. These people are the ones who usually leave a religion because the religion isn’t tolerant enough of gay people, or because they condemn too many people to Hell, or don’t support women’s rights, etc. In other words, they often have a moral core that is clearly independent of their religion. I was not such a person. Sadly, I would have compromised things that should have been clear moral principles, simply to follow the teachings in a book.

    So while a part of me still looks down on casual Christians at times, I think they’re far less dangerous than the hyper-believers.

    Liked by 1 person

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