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. ColorStorm,

    What started it all, how do bones grow, and how did everything get here? I don’t know. Maybe it’s like you say and god(s) made it. And that’s fine.

    But you go from “a creation by god(s)” to “God of the Bible” in one giant leap without showing your work. Can you demonstrate how one points to the other?

    You say the bible fits perfectly together, even Matthew and Luke, but you make these statements on a blog post that shows how they DO NOT fit together, and you offer no points or demonstrations about how the author of this blog is wrong or how you’re (or the bible is) right. You just make unsupported statements.

    Perhaps you really feel like, “just because,” is all the reason one should need, and maybe you actually believe that one should simply accept the grand claims from an old compilation of select books and letters, but if you do, I think it’s because you haven’t thought those implications through.

    Like

  2. Just because? Hardly william.

    How many times do I need to tell you and others that NO amount of explanation of so-called ‘contradictions’ will satisfy a stubborn heart. Period.

    One answer leads to a thousand more gripes, and on and on and on.rather than YOU looking for the answers yourself, then to be convinced.

    I cannot digest your food for you, then listen to your complaints that I am responsible for your hunger. One last time. You will have this discussion a hundred years from now, and a million more comments, and nothing ever will be settled………..until you see that FOREVER, His word is settled in Heaven.

    Settled. Good word there. And yes, there are no contradictions in the nativity story, only lousy understanding and poor interpretations. And the fact that you and others TRY to find weakness in the text, proves its inherent worth. It’s only been happening since time began.

    Ever heard this: ‘Hath God said???????????????’ The accusations against the Creator are boring and tiresome, and God remains unmoved, and His word good as gold.

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  3. “How many times do I need to tell you and others that NO amount of explanation of so-called ‘contradictions’ will satisfy a stubborn heart. Period.” – CS

    sounds like a poor excuse not to try. Or a poor excuse that you think disguises the fact that you cant explain.

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  4. “Ever heard this: ‘Hath God said???????????????’ The accusations against the Creator are boring and tiresome, and God remains unmoved, and His word good as gold.” – CS

    yeah, i’ve heard it. Some guy wrote that. How do I know he actually speaks for God?

    anything more to show that Muhammad or Joseph Smith would have?

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  5. “I cannot digest your food for you, then listen to your complaints that I am responsible for your hunger. One last time. You will have this discussion a hundred years from now, and a million more comments, and nothing ever will be settled………..until you see that FOREVER, His word is settled in Heaven. Settled. Good word there. And yes, there are no contradictions in the nativity story, only lousy understanding and poor interpretations. ” – Color Storm

    Hm, well it’s interesting that nate, an atheist, took the time to line out the bible text, side by side, and made his case with scripture, while you make every excuse not to. It’s so easy to do, that you’re not going to do it?

    No doubt because you love too much.

    You say it’s settled and works out fine, except here, the only demonstration we have, is that the text does not fit together. So if it’s settled, maybe that just means it’s all not from God.

    But are you suggesting, from the quoted text of yours, that one must try to see god in the bible and usher out any other possibilities, in order to see it your way?

    I’ll be honest, if that’s what you mean, it seems the opposite of openminded or seeking after truth, it looks a lot like having an end point in mind and stacking everything up around yourself to reach that preconceived conclusion. I imagine people of many various religions do the same.

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  6. Nope, not at all.

    Past performance is indicative of future results. I am well aware of sleight of hand disguised as spiritual and intellectual interest.

    I know what a circus looks like.

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  7. “Past performance is indicative of future results. I am well aware of sleight of hand disguised as spiritual and intellectual interest.” – CS

    I do agree with this. Past performance has shown that we share and discuss facts and ideas, and use those to form opinions, while you make claims and no effort to validate those claims with examples, facts or much at all.

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  8. Yes chief ok. Sure.

    Because I read with an honest heart that Saul, while breathing out threatenings, was on His way to Damascus….

    Because I believe God created great whales………..

    Because I believe God deprived the ostrich of wisdom………

    Because I believe Solomon lived, and said ‘cut the baby in half……….’ using wisdom to discover the true mother……

    Because I believe God made the stars also…………

    If you think this is a circus, then you should ask for a refund for your godless peanuts.

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  9. CS

    How many times do I need to tell you and others that NO amount of explanation of so-called ‘contradictions’ will satisfy a stubborn heart. Period.

    None? That’s odd, because I’ve been persuaded by lots of explanations. For example, I thought “The rabbit, though it chews the cud…” (Leviticus 11:6) was an error until I read a reasonable argument to the contrary (basically, the distinction between regurgitated and expelled re-digestion is a function of the english language, so it’s not reasonable to impose that backwards on the hebrew term).

    You are not making a defense or responding to questions with grace, as commanded in the Bible. Instead, you are just attempting to emotionally manipulate people who are not satisfied with “the bible says it, I believe it.” That’s the behavior of a bully — a person who doesn’t have the answers, but has too much pride to say “I don’t know” and too little empathy to understand why others might not find blind faith appealing.

    If you were wrong, would you even be able to tell? How could you? You have made your conclusion axiomatic. You have no tools left to tell factually right from factually wrong. All you can do is repeat your conclusion, which does nothing more than fill you with a sense of pride and self-righteousness. You have turned the Great Commission inward, going into the world to teach others that you do not “obey all that I have commanded you.”

    Still, while I find your behavior discourteous and discordant with the kind of behavior prescribed in the New Testament, I remind myself that people like yourself are doing a great deal to create new atheists. Many deconversion stories involve Christians reading apologists and realizing just how flimsy, fallacious and unpersuasive their arguments are.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. ColorStorm,

    I hate to speak for Chief, but I don’t think he was saying you were the ring master of a circus because you believe in god, but because you’re fairly condescending and self righteous while dodging direct questions and attempts at having an actual conversation.

    You said all of us were a circus – is that just name calling so you can further ignore the fact that you try your best to avoid the points or the fact that you actually offer none?

    I think that’s why Chief said you may be the ring master of this circus.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. CS, you’ve nailed it in your last statement to me. “I believe” “I believe” “I believe”

    You believe , but not because of the evidence you provide which is none.

    I disagree with most things unkleE believes in, but at least he will provide many sources and arguments for his beliefs. I have defended him before even though he no longer feels compelled to answer any of my questions to him.

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  12. Jon,

    I’d like to ask you about this,

    “None? That’s odd, because I’ve been persuaded by lots of explanations. For example, I thought “The rabbit, though it chews the cud…” (Leviticus 11:6) was an error until I read a reasonable argument to the contrary (basically, the distinction between regurgitated and expelled re-digestion is a function of the english language, so it’s not reasonable to impose that backwards on the hebrew term).”

    I have read that pigs re-digest their expelled feces too, but the OT plainly says that they do not shew the cud,

    Even if Cud is a newer word, is a rabbit eating it’s pooh more similar to a cow chewing it’s hauked up goop, or to a pig that eats its pooh?

    I guess I haven’t looked into this issue too closely, but if my understanding is correct, there still seems to be something off there.

    I hate to go off on too many tangents, but could you expand on your comment some? It may be there is more that i do not know.

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  13. “You said all of us were a circus – is that just name calling so you can further ignore the fact that you try your best to avoid the points or the fact that you actually offer none?

    I think that’s why Chief said you may be the ring master of this circus.”

    You nailed it William ! Thanks !

    Liked by 1 person

  14. And you are missing one critical component chief. I have no issues with Uncle E, and God bless him.

    We all have different fields of operation.God can use clay pots if He chooses……and He has.

    I do not play ‘link pong.’

    As to ‘believing,’ uh hello? Life is evidence of a Creator, what do you want a personal invitation?

    You will utilize ‘faith’ a thousand times today and not give it a second thought.

    You ‘believe’ you will be cared for while you sleep. Gee, what a defect faith is……………

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  15. @CS, “You ‘believe’ you will be cared for while you sleep.”

    That’s where you are wrong CS. I live every day as though it will be my last. I have no evidence of a 2nd chance in an afterlife. I try to make every minute count. Now. This is no dress rehearsal .

    That’s why I find a lot of Christians disingenuous because they believe in 2nd chances and I don’t. I have no magic entity to ask for forgiveness . Therefore I feel I have to try harder to “get it right ” in the present. No death bed confessions here.

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  16. I have read that pigs re-digest their expelled feces too, but the OT plainly says that they do not shew the cud,

    Even if Cud is a newer word, is a rabbit eating it’s pooh more similar to a cow chewing it’s hauked up goop, or to a pig that eats its pooh?

    It’s a good question. My understanding is that, while pigs (like dogs and some other animals) do sometimes eat feces, it’s not really the same thing as what rabbits do. See:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecotrope

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  17. ColorStorm,

    again, if creation points to god(s), great, now show how you have gotten from there to God of the Bible.

    And again, the faith that says a rock will fall when dropped is not the same as believing it will float when dropped. SO if you want to say I’ll use faith many times today, okay, but believing a person will act a certain way, or believing that routine natural laws will continue to hold up is different that thinking an invisible character is watching me all day, or dwelling in my body, or that angels are busy doing this or that, or that some bad angel is trying to get me to do bad stuff…. just different.

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  18. Why you try to make things more difficult is beyond me chief. I am not referring to the after life at all.

    Who cares for you while you sleep is the bane of godlessness; too bad it is beyond you.

    Open your eyes to your own world view, and it crumbles with God.

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  19. Complicated chief? And yet men were making brass instruments long before ‘factories,’ using their God given brains.

    Men apart from God today have advanced to pure stupidity. Read of the unequalled craftsmanship of Solomon’s temple, by men whose hands were gifted by the Creator.

    It is the mind of the godless which sees God as complicated. Sorry, but tis a fact.

    Like

  20. The Egyptians were far more advanced than the Israelites. And many of their great works are still around. Hmmmm. God must have really favored them. We can only read about Solomons Temple but we can visit the Great Pyramids., Temple of Luxor, Temple of Karnak etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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