From: email@example.com (Robert Lang)
Most of the material is drawn from Robin Lane Fox's _The Unauthorized
Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible_. All quotes, (except the
Biblical ones) are from this book. Another book to check out, for
those interested, is _The Birth of the Messiah_ by Raymond E. Brown
(New York: Doubleday, 1993).
Two of the four gospels discuss the birth of Christ: Matthew and
Luke. Both gospels date Jesus' birth by the reign of King Herod.
Matthew says, "...Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during
the time of king Herod... (Matth. 2:1). Similarly, Luke dates
the annunciation under the reign of Herod (Luke 1:5).
In addition to dating the birth by the reign of Herod, Luke also
dates it by the rule of the governor Quirinius. It's known
independently that Quirinius and Herod were not contemporaries;
Herod died at least 10 years before Quirinius was governor. I'll come
back to this in a minute.
Luke's story starts like this:
In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a
census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius
was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town
to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of
Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town
of David, because he belonged to the house and line
of David. He went there to register with Mary...
(Luke 2:1 - 2:5).
Note that this census is said to have occurred under Quirinius.
Recall that Luke dates the annunciation during the rule of
Herod--i.e., Luke thinks Herod and Quirinius are contemporaries. They
The ramifications of this inconsistency are clear: if Herod was
king, there was no census, since we know independently that the
census under Quirinius was the first in that region. If there was
no census, this takes away Luke's reason for Mary and Joseph
going to Bethlehem. Note that it does not *necessarily* mean that
Jesus (if he existed at all :-) was not born in Bethlehem. It does
suggest strongly, however, that the story of the trip to Bethlehem is
a fairy tail. Here's why:
Early Christian tradition did not remember, or perhaps
ever know, exactly where and when Jesus had been born.
People were much more interested in his death and its
consequences. As the messiah, Jesus was connected to
the line of King David.... In Hebrew scriptures, Bethlehem
was famous as the home of the young David, the future
king; the town was also the subject of a prophecy by
Micah.... After the Crucifixion and the belief in the
Resurrection, people wondered all the more deeply about
Jesus' birthplace. Bethlehem, home of King David, was
a natural choice for the new Messiah (p. 31-32).
The author of Luke was writing 30 or more years after Jesus' death.
He knew that Jesus and Mary were from Nazareth, but had heard
that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The author, quite simply, needed a
way to get Joseph and his pregnant wife from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Hence the story of the census.
I said earlier that if Herod was king there was no census. Let's say
for the sake of argument that this was simply a mistake--that Herod
was not king, but that there was a census under Quirinius (we know
there was one). It was not a "worldwide" census, as Luke says. It was
a local one, in Judea. In addition, "Roman censuses were based on
ownership of property by the living, not the dead" (p. 31). The fact
that Joseph had ancestors in Bethlehem would have been irrelevant;
thus they had no reason to go there. *Even if they had,* Roman law
allowed that "one householder could make the return for everyone in
his care" (p. 31). Surely, Joseph would not have taken his heavily
pregnant wife on such a trip if he didn't have to.
The author of Matthew discusses the annunciation by the angel,
Mary's visit to Elizabeth, then the birth (as an aside,
Elizabeth's pregnancy is curiously similar to Sarah's [Abraham's
wife] in the OT: "look, God allowed this old woman, supposedly
past child-bearing years, to become pregnant").
Matthew's story goes like this: Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled Bethlehem to Egypt when an angel told
them that Herod wanted to kill the infant Jesus. Since we know
Herod was dead by this time, the event could not have happened as
described (how could Herod have wanted Jesus dead if Herod himself
was dead?). What Matthew accomplished by putting Joseph, Mary and
Jesus in Egypt was to fulfill another prophecy: "Out of Egypt I
called my son" (Hoseah 11:1).
Notice that this story "conflicts hopelessly" with Luke's. Like
Matthew, the author of Luke knew that Joseph and Mary lived in
Nazareth but that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. So his story simply
starts out in Bethlehem; although it is not explicitly stated, the
implication is that Joseph and Mary had lived there (in Bethlehem)
all the while, leaving for Egypt only when it became dangerous
(Herod had every child under the age of two killed. This was
called the Massacre of the Innocents). He also knew that the
Messiah was supposed to be from Egypt. The Massacre of the
Innocents gave him a good reason to get Joseph, Mary and Jesus out
of Bethlehem and into Egypt.
They left Egypt and went to Nazareth after Herod died (an angel,
of course, told them this).
So while Luke's story takes them from Nazareth --> Bethlehem -->
Nazareth, Matthew's goes from Bethlehem --> Egypt --> Nazareth.
Furthermore, Luke mentions nothing about the census, Egypt, or the
Massacre of the Innocents.
Luke's story is both internally inconsistent and inconsistent with
Matthew's. Matthew's story conflicts with Luke's. In addition, both
authors added to knowledge (which itself may have been wrong) they
already had about Jesus in order to make their stories internally
consistent (they didn't succeed). Finally, they added information
in order to be consistent with prophecies that were supposed to be
Bob Lang | Advice n., the smallest current coin.
firstname.lastname@example.org | (Ambrose Bierce)