The Curious Case of the False News Nativity

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Over on his Biblical Musing blog, Don Camp is eager to show us how, despite their disparities and contradictions, the two very different nativity stories in Matthew and Luke ‘mesh perfectly’.

Let’s take a closer look at some of that perfect meshing, shall we?

Herod v. Quirinius

First, the two accounts can’t even agree on when Jesus was born: Matthew’s gospel claims it was when Herod the Great was king (Matthew 2.1) while Luke says it was when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2.2). Yet Herod died in 4BCE and Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until nine years later, in 6CE. So Jesus couldn’t have been born at a time when both men were in their respective positions. This anomaly, as we’ll see, is a serious problem for the two accounts.

Census v. no census

Luke contrives to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem to fulfil the prophecy of Micah 5.2 which said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. He comes up with the idea that these Nazareth residents trekked all the way to Bethlehem – a journey of about 80 miles – because of a Roman census. The Romans did indeed conduct a census in 6CE (which presumably is why Luke wants the story to take place then) but it would not have entailed anyone travelling to their ancestral home. Why would it? Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue? The Romans would not, and did not, impose such a ridiculous demand on an already disgruntled populace.

Matthew, meanwhile, doesn’t mention any census – his Jesus was born about 11 years earlier – and he seems to think the family already lives in Bethlehem (Matthew 2.11 & 16). So, was Bethlehem their home as Matthew implies, or did they have to travel there from Nazareth, as Luke insists? Or had they nothing at all to do with Bethlehem? Matthew and Luke’s contradictory accounts are nothing more than clumsy attempts to show that Micah’s ‘prophecy’ is fulfilled in Jesus.

The Manger v. no manger

If they already lived in Bethlehem as Matthew suggests, there would be no reason for Mary and Joseph to search out an inn in which to stay for a census that had nothing to do with them. No inn, no ‘stable’ (though neither gospel mentions a stable as such) and therefore no manger. Yet there it is in Luke 2.7. It’s totally absent from Matthew’s account where, presumably, Mary simply had the baby at home.

Related v. Do I know you?

Luke has a long fable about the pregnancies of both Mary and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. He says the two women are related, possibly as cousins, making Jesus and John second cousins. The fourth gospel, however, asserts that the adult Jesus and John don’t know each other (John 1.33), while Matthew – and Mark too – don’t consider any of this significant enough to mention.

Don thinks the gaps in each account are just fine because God arranged for them to be covered by the other gospels. Yet only Matthew and Luke think to include anything about Jesus’ birth, and much of that is contradictory. Don’t Mark and John know anything about it? Was it not important to them? Even Paul, writing closest to Jesus’ lifetime doesn’t see fit to refer to it. Mary, whom both Matthew and Luke say was a participant in events, seems to have forgotten all about them when she later considers her adult son to be out of his mind (Mark 3.21).

The wandrin’ star v. clear blue skies

Nobody but Matthew mentions the star. Was Luke unaware of it? How about everyone else? If it was as astronomically significant as the story suggests, shouldn’t there be a record of it somewhere? And do stars, billions of miles from the Earth, really lead the way to a single spot here on the planet’s surface? Nobody but Matthew falls for this one – but then he would; he’s the one making it up.

Shepherds v. Astrologers

Luke has shepherds, Matthew astrologers who ‘visit the house’ where Jesus lived. Which is it – shepherds or astrologers? Both? If so, why does neither gospel writer mention the other’s set of visitors? Could it be that the shepherds and astrologers have their own symbolic significance in the gospel in which they appear and are therefore literary inventions? One suspects it could be.

Massacre v. nothing to see here

Herod the Great, who died, remember, almost a decade before the Roman census, orders the murder of all baby boys up to two years of age. At least he does in Matthew (2.16-18); Luke knows nothing of this so called ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’, presumably because Herod had been dead nine years by the time his story is set and, presumably, because it never happened. There is no record of such an atrocity anywhere in the historical record. Surely the Romans would have had something to say about it, given Herod was greatly exceeding his powers as a puppet ruler. One might almost think Matthew invented the whole thing just to make it look like another ‘prophecy’ was being fulfilled (Jeremiah 13.15 this time).

Egypt v. home for tea

Matthew (2.13-18) has the family flee to Egypt after the visit of the astrologers to avoid Herod’s hissy-fit and then when he dies (two years later?) they return to make their home in Nazareth (Matthew 2.19-23). According to Luke, however, they lived in Nazareth before the birth (Luke 1.26) and simply went back there once they’d had the eight-day old baby circumcised (Luke 2.38); no mention of the Egypt trip nor of Herod (unsurprisingly when he’s long dead according to Luke’s chronology.)

So there you have it. You be the judge of how ‘perfectly’ the two stories ‘mesh together’. And while you’re doing that, be sure to have a wonderful, superstition-free Christmas.

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Christmas Quiz Answers

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1. In what year was Jesus born?   a) 4 BCE (when Herod the Great was king)   b) the year 0     c) 6CE (when Quirinius was governor of Syria)

Matthew’s gospel claims Jesus was born when Herod the Great was king (Matthew 2.1) while Luke says it was when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2.2). But Herod died in 4BCE and Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until ten years later, in 6CE. So JC couldn’t have been born when both men were in their respective positions. Neither was he born in the year 0, because there wasn’t one (the Gregorian calendar goes from 1BCE to 1CE). Most scholars think Jesus was born around 4BCE, just before Herod’s death (as Matthew’s gospel suggests). Award yourself a splash of myrrh if you got this right.

2. When was Jesus born?  a) December 25th?   b) April 1st   c) in the summer

Not December 25th (see my post Jesus Is The Reason For The Season below) which was the date usurped from the pagan festival of Saturnalia; April 1st, maybe, as there’s something about this that takes us all for fools, but if the story is to be believed, it’s most likely he was born in the summer when shepherds would be out on the hillside with their sheep – if the story is to be believed. In short, we don’t actually know. If you said this, reward yourself with three hail Marys.

3. Who was Jesus’ father? a) God himself   b) Joseph, so that Jesus was descended from King David   c) one of Mary’s one night-stands

a) and b) rule each other out: see my post Jesus was born of a virgin… er, no was descended from David, er… below.  There were much later rumours that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier called Pantera, and certainly Jesus’ legitimacy is called into question by early critics of Christianity. This may be reflected in the gospels themselves where Jesus is referred to as his mother’s son, not his father’s as would have been customary (Mark 6.3). Treat yourself to Susan Boyle’s rendering of ‘Silent Night’ if you knew this.

4. How often did the Romans make people return to their ancestral home to be counted?  a) never   b) it was one-off   c) only when the gospel writer needed to get them to Bethlehem

Answer is c). While the Romans did carry out a census in 6CE, i) Jesus was born ten years earlier and ii) there is no record of the Romans forcing people to return to the home of their ancestors.

5. How did Mary get to Bethlehem?  a) on foot   b) on a donkey   c) by being a character in a contrived story

The answer is c). Luke’s nativity story, the only one to have them travel to Bethlehem, doesn’t say how she got there. Leave a carrot out for Santa’s reindeer if you answered correctly.

6. Where was Jesus born?  a) in a stable   b) in a cave   c) at home in Nazareth

Again, Luke’s Bethlehem account doesn’t say. Matthew implies Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem all along (Matthew 2.11 & 16) making the whole ‘no-room-at-the-inn’ scenario superfluous. Sprinkle yourself with frankincense for saying so.

7. According to Matthew’s gospel, how many wise-men visited the new-born babe?  a) none   b) three   c) they weren’t wise-men, they were astrologers

The answer is c) and the number isn’t specified.

8. What did the angels say to the wise-men when they told them of Jesus’ birth?  a) you will find him in a manger   b) nothing   c) follow that star

b) is correct. According to the story the angels spoke to the shepherds, not the wise-men. Deck the halls with boughs of holly if you fell for this one.

9. Where did the magic star shine?  a) over the stable where Jesus lay   b) over his house   c) since when do stars shine over specific objects here on Earth?

Looks like c) again, though Matthew, who is the only gospel writer to mention it, claims in Matthew 2.9-11 that it was b), over his house.

10. When did the wise-men visit the infant Jesus?  a) when he was a toddler   b) while he was still in the manger   c) after the Christmas rush

Matthew says Jesus was a child when the so-called wise-men visited him at home (Matthew 2.9-11 again). Given their encounter with Herod (Matthew 2.16), who thinks Jesus could be anything up to two years old, it’s likely JC was a toddler at this point in the fabricated story. Don ye now your gay apparel if you knew this.

11. When did Herod massacre all the little boys, hoping to kill the baby Jesus?  a) later that same week   b) a few years after the birth   c) there is no record of him having done any such thing

Yup, c) again.

12. How many shepherds visited the baby Jesus?  a) all of them  b) two old men and a young boy   c) none

The number isn’t specified, though Luke suggests all of them went (Luke 2.15-16). In fact it was ‘none’ because none of this actually happened.

13. What gifts did the shepherds bring?  a) a lamb   b) a lamb kebab   c) a pair of hand-knitted socks

It doesn’t say. You can have a new pair of hand-knitted socks yourself if you said so. Or a kebab.

14. Which animals were present at the birth?   a) a horse (c’mon, it was supposed to be in a stable)   b) an ox and ass   c) an ox, an ass, the wise-men’s camels and the shepherds’ sheep

No animals are mentioned.

15. After the birth, where did Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus go?  a) to Egypt   b) home to Nazareth   c) nowhere

According to Matthew (2.13-18) the family went to Egypt following the visit of the wise-men and, after hiding there until Herod died, made their home in Nazareth (Matthew 2.19-23). According to Luke, however, they lived in Nazareth before the birth (Luke 1.26) and simply went back there once they’d had the baby circumcised (Luke 2.38); no mention of the holiday in Egypt nor of Herod, who’d been dead for ten years according to Luke’s chronology. It’s kinda neat the way the Bible tells such a consistent story, don’t you think?

16. Where will you find the Christmas story in the Bible?  a) in Genesis (because the answers are always in Genesis)   b) in all four gospels   c) in only two of the gospels, which have conflicting accounts

The answer is c); only in Matthew and Luke, each having a completely different take on things.

Feel entitled to sacrifice two turtle doves for making it this far.