Where did Luke get his Bethlehem story from?

Previously on RejectingJesus:

Matthew creates his nativity story, specifically Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, from Micah 5.2, which prophesies that a ‘ruler over Israel’ will be born there. This prophecy is imposed on Jesus who was not a ruler of Israel – though he may have aspired to be – and certainly was not the Messiah envisaged by the creators of such prophecies. I suggest that subsequently, Luke embroidered Matthew’s fairly basic story and contrived to get Jesus born in Bethlehem by inventing a Roman census that required his parents to travel there.

A Christian commenter (let’s call him Don) then challenged this scenario by claiming, without offering any evidence, that Luke did not have access to Matthew’s gospel, so must have known that Jesus was born in Bethlehem from an independent source. (Christians are fond of attributing suspect gospel material to oral traditions and the hypothetical Q. Don is no exception.)

In fact, a number of scholars, including Michael Goulder, Mark Goodacre, Richard Carrier and others, think that Luke did know Matthew’s gospel. This is the so-called Farrer hypothesis, named after Austin Farrer who first proposed the idea in 1955. As well as his plagiarising 55% of Mark, these scholars show that Luke also used material from Matthew, including the Bethlehem story. The structure of Luke’s version and some of his phrasing is identical to Matthew’s. It is unlikely this would be the case if Luke wasn’t lifting directly from Matthew’s account.

Luke goes further and replaces some of the details in Matthew’s story that don’t suit his purpose (e.g. the magi) with his own (the shepherds), which is why the two accounts diverge. Nonetheless, both versions of the story stem from the ‘prophecy’ in Micah 2.5. Luke doesn’t cite it explicitly but then he is non-specific elsewhere in his gospel about events that supposedly fulfil prophecy. Unlike Matthew, Luke was writing for a gentile audience who would not be as familiar with Jewish scripture; he didn’t need to be as explicit about the source for his stories that were based on these scriptures. Nonetheless, the two nativity accounts, Matthew’s and Luke’s, likely had the same basis (the Micah prophecy) with Luke adapting the narrative that Matthew had already created from it. Moreover, the differences in detail between Matthew and Luke’s accounts demonstrate clearly that both authors were inventing their respective stories. As Neil Godfrey puts it,

Luke, attempting to adapt Matthew’s Bethlehem as the place of birth of Jesus to his more universalist theme, feels obliged to concoct a silly story of everyone being required by imperial edict to return to their places of birth for a special tax registration. Not to mention the necessary anachronism of his Quirinius timing, too. It is not hard to see that Luke is struggling to incorporate Matthew’s Bethlehem setting into his own tendentious narrative.

It’s possible, of course, that all of the scholars who think Luke knew Mathew’s gospel are wrong, but even so, this doesn’t rescue Luke’s nativity from its fictional moorings.

First, it could be argued that both Matthew and Luke knew about Jesus’ birth from their respective sources. Our Christian commenter would say, and does say, that the details of Jesus’s birth were well known in the early, pre-gospel cult (he disputes that Jesus was in any way famous beyond this select few) and that these details were preserved in a reliable oral tradition or in Q. If the former was the case, however, the two nativity accounts would not differ to the extent they do, unless the oral traditions weren’t as reliable as our commenter likes to say they were. On the other hand, Q, if it existed at all, was comprised primarily of sayings and certainly did not include any Bethlehem narrative.

Second, Don will no doubt say that all of this is mere atheist grumbling and is therefore entirely fallacious. He believes that God inspired his anonymous agents to use prophecy, foreshadowing and typology to point the way to Jesus and his birth in Bethlehem. Don believes that both Matthew and Luke had independent knowledge of Jesus’ birth there, which means it must’ve been his birthplace. Of course it indicates nothing of the sort. If Matthew and Luke settled on Bethlehem independently, it would demonstrate only that they had independent knowledge of Micah 2.5.

Third, if the circumstances of Jesus birth in Bethlehem were so remarkable – miraculous, even – then why does Mark not mention them? According to Don (though no serious scholar shares his view) Mark’s gospel is comprised of the recollections of Peter, Jesus’ closest, dim-witted pal in the synoptic gospels. Did Jesus never mention his birth to Peter? Did Peter then fail to pass the details on to Mark? Did Jesus’ mother Mary, who treasured memories of the miraculous birth, never allude to them when she and Peter reminisced together over a glass of water wine? (Yes, Don, I know this is in John’s gospel, but they are meant to be the same characters.) Why does the Bethlehem birth only emerge in Matthew, who built much of his gospel around ‘prophecies’ from scripture, and in Luke, who, in all likelihood, copied from him?

We can be fairly certain that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem. Someone somewhere, other than these two, would have mentioned it outside of symbolic stories that owe far more to myth and legend than they do to fact.

Why the Nativity reflects the fantasist mentality of those who created it.

Blog348Angels

The Nativity story tells us nothing about Jesus’ origins but plenty about the mindset of those who created it, decades after he lived.

They believed in angels. There are several visitations in the two versions of the story in Matthew and Luke: ‘Gabriel’ appears to Zechariah and strikes him dumb. Gabriel, again, manifests in front of Mary to tell her she hasn’t really been knocked up by a Roman soldier but that she’s going to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit. He then makes a lot of false promises too about how the boy will turn out. Later, a whole host of angels appear to some shepherds to tell them they’ll find a baby in a manger, news, that for some reason, they find amazing.

The creators of the gospels also believed that spirits were everywhere and that one of them was holy. Never mind that, according to John 14.16 & 16.7, the Holy Spirit doesn’t make its appearance until after Jesus’ ascension. In the nativity story, the Holy Spirit ‘speaks’ to Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna (how?) to tell them that Mary’s baby will be special.

The creators of the nativity myth also believed in dreams and visions. Joseph has a dream telling him to take his family to Egypt and the misnamed ‘wise men’ have a dream (just the one or did all of them have the same dream?) telling them not to go back to Herod. What a pity they didn’t ‘dream’ they shouldn’t call on him in the first place.

Angels, spirits and dreams are the context from which the gospel stories emerge: the gospel writers, and those who created their sources, believed implicitly that angels (and devils and demons) were real and that God communicated with them through dreams and visions. More than this, these same people accepted that the dead could return to life. According to the gospels, long-dead people could manifest themselves, and would appear and speak to the living (e.g: Matthew 17.1-3).

Incredibly, 1 in 3 people in the UK, a largely secular society, believes in angels. People with such a mentality were the ones who, 2000 years ago, claimed to have seen Jesus resurrected. Yet Christians insist they were stable, rational, reliable witnesses (never mind that the accounts of such appearances were written third, fourth, fifth hand, decades later.) Any such witnesses were neither stable nor reliable. They were the product of a pre-scientific culture that thought angels and devils populated the very air (Ephesians 6.12); that ancient celebrities could reappear in new bodies (Matthew 11.14; 14.1-2; 16.14); that without doubt that gods spoke to humans in dreams and that angels could and did appear bodily in front of favoured believers. People of such a culture, like Jesus himself, his early followers and the gospel writers, were fully primed, as a result, to have ‘supernatural’ encounters – or at least to interpret other experiences as such. They literally knew no better.

The stories that they wrote, with their supernatural beings and premonitionary dreams and visions – the Nativity, Jesus’ miracles and the Resurrection – are just that: stories, and the truth is not in them.

A happy Christmas to both my readers.

Man imagines he sees Jesus

Congregation

Just last Friday, a pastor saw the Risen Lord.

I wonder: how different is Pastor Stovell Weems’ sighting from those of the disciples and Paul? Would you say it was just as real? Less real? Completely inauthentic? How do we decide?

For me, his encounter is every bit as real as those experienced by the disciples. I defy anyone to demonstrate otherwise.

Of course, accounts of visions, hallucinations and dreams, however old or however new, are not evidence that the resurrection really happened. Paul happily admits that his experiences were in his head (Galatians 1.16). It is entirely reasonable to conclude that Pastor Weems’ encounter with an apparition-like Risen Lord is exactly the same as Paul’s, and identical to that experienced by Mary, Peter and John in the gospels. Like theirs it’s vague – “I could sense his personality”, “I didn’t see his face” – and dream-like.

There is a difference though: the nutty pastor recounts his hallucination first-hand. The disciples’ encounters were reported third, fourth, fifth… hand, decades down the line.

 

In which the witnesses try to get their story straight

Tomb2

Mary: Well, the other Mary and me (Matthew 28.1) were first to go down to the cave where somebody said they’d put the body overnight.

Salome: I was there too, don’t forget (Mark 16.1).

Mary: Were you? I don’t remember that.

Salome: Bloody was, I’m telling you. So were a bunch of others (Luke 24.10).

Mary: Anyway, we get there and the entrance stone has been rolled away (Mark 16.4).

Peter: Wait a minute… I thought you said that happened after you got there. I thought you said there was an earthquake nobody else could feel and an angel came and rolled away the stone in front of your very eyes (Matt 28.2).

Mary: Did I? Oh yes, that’s right. That’s what happened. And the guards fainted out of sheer fright (Matt 28.4)

Thomas: They did? You didn’t mention any guards the first time you told this story (Mark 16.4).

Mary: Didn’t I? I must’ve forgotten. Oh well. And there was this strange young man sitting inside the tomb (Mark 16.5).

Salome: There were two young men and they were standing outside (Luke 24.4).

Mary: Really? I saw only one and he was definitely inside.

Peter: It wasn’t a young man, it was an angel (Mark 28.5).

Mary: Angel? Oh yes, I suppose you’re right. It must have been an angel. And he said the Master wasn’t there, that he’d risen or something (Matt 28.7).

John: That’s funny, I don’t remember anyone being there at this point. I certainly don’t remember anybody speaking to us (John 20.4-5).

Mary: That’s strange, because the young man in the tomb definitely spoke to me.

Salome: And the two men outside the tomb spoke to me.

Peter: And the angel… don’t forget the angel.

Thomas: So what happened then?

Mary: We were so frightened, we just ran away.

Thomas: You ran away? And then what?

Mary: Nothing. We said nothing to anybody (Mark 16.8).

Thomas: You said nothing to anybody. Then how did Peter find out? ‘Cos the next thing he was running hell for leather to the garden to see this empty cave for himself.

Peter: Oh, she must’ve told me. Yes, that was it, she said something to me and some of the others (Luke 24.10).

Mary: Erm, yes, that’s right. I told Peter and he went to see the empty tomb.

Peter. Ran all the way on my own, I did (Luke 24.12).

John: No, you didn’t. I went with you. In fact I overtook you and got there first (John 20.3-6).

Peter: Did you? I don’t remember that. Are you sure you haven’t just added yourself in here?

John: So anyway, we ran to the tomb…

Peter: And we see that the body has gone. I’m telling you, we couldn’t work out what had happened (John 20.9).

John: Though the most logical explanation seemed to be that he’d risen from the dead. I mean nothing else made sense (John 20.8).

Mary: It’s a shame you didn’t see the young man/men/angel. They’d have spelt it out for you like they did for us.

John: Don’t worry, we’ll bring them into the story later and we’ll have two angels for good measure. (John 20.12).

Mary: So while I was waiting there alone…

Thomas: Wait, you were there alone? I thought you said you ran away with the other women (Mark 16.8)?

Mary: Erm, yes, that’s right, I did. I must’ve gone back later just to hang about (John 20.11) and suddenly I see this, like, apparition. At first, I thought it was the gardener…

Thomas: You mean you didn’t know who it was?

Mary: No, I didn’t, which I agree was a bit odd, but then I realised it must be him, the Master, I mean. Who else could it have been?

Thomas: Well, if it was anyone at all, I’d have thought it more likely it was the gardener than a body back from the dead.

Mary: I suppose, but it just felt like the Master to me. I so wanted to see him again.

Thomas: Did he have holes in his hands and a wound in his side (John 20.27)? Surely that would’ve told you it was him.

Mary: Erm, I can’t recall now. But anyway, it was him.

Thomas: How’d you know?

Mary: ‘Cos he spoke to me. He said, ‘Keep your hands off me, woman, because I’ve not yet, erm… ascended’ (John 20.17, 20).

Thomas: What did that mean? If he was back like you said then how come you couldn’t touch him?

Mary: Well, I don’t know, you’d have to ask him.

Thomas: And how we gonna do that, him being dead and all?

Mary: He’s not dead, I tell you, and you’re all just jealous ‘cos I did better than all of you. I saw him in person and he talked to me!

Peter: All of you, just stop a minute and listen. Can you hear it?

Thomas: No.

Peter: Can you feel it?

Mary: Yes, I can. I can sense his presence (Luke 24.36-37).

John: He’s here with us. He’s back. Hallelujah!

Mary: It’s as if he’s standing right in front of us, talking to us.

John: Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. He’s here with us. I can feel him. He’s back from the dead, I’m sure of it (John 20.19).

Peter: Let’s tell people we’ve seen him. They’re bound to believe us. I mean, we don’t live in a superstitious first-century backwater for nothing.

Thomas: Jesus Christ! Next you’ll be trying to convince everyone that this cockamamy story is true.

The Eye-witness Fallacy

MaryM2

The falsehood that the gospels are in some way eye-witness reports just won’t go away. There is no evidence they are or even that they are based on reports by eye-witnesses. Scholars speak of ‘sources’ for all elements of the gospels (Mark, Q, M & L); these were almost certainly pre-existing written and oral traditions from before the gospels’ creation.

This really is problematic for those propagating the idea that the gospels are eye-witness accounts. If they were even so much as based on eye-witness reports, then why would they need to rely so heavily on other traditions? If, as is claimed here, the scattered gospel communities who wrote them were in some sort of immediate contact with the fanned-out eye-witnesses, then they would have no need to use sources and traditions from elsewhere. Yet they do; Matthew and Luke borrow extensively from a shared source (Q) and also from Mark, particularly for their resurrection stories.

This is akin to someone today interviewing witnesses to John F. Kennedy’s assassination, – a similar interval to that between Jesus and the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John – and then, before publication, replacing what the eye-witnesses say they saw with the more far-fetched elements of Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. If there were eye-witnesses to hand, there wouldn’t be any need to do this. It doesn’t make the slightest sense that the gospel writers would do so. Yet they do.

As far as the stories of the resurrection are concerned, it is much more likely they are based, not on any eye-witness accounts, but on the scant mentions of the mystical, risen Christ of the kind we find in Paul’s letters, filtered, primarily, through Mark. As such, they are a fleshing out (almost literally) of hearsay reports of a limited number of visions that, by the time the gospels came to be written, had embedded themselves in the traditions of the early church.