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.

What are the Odds?

To look at it another way…

The stories of the Old Testament are largely fictional. They’re myth, legend and otherwise fabricated. There was no Eden, no world-wide flood, no slavery in Egypt, no Exodus. There’s no evidence that the characters around which events supposedly took place actually existed: no Noah, Abraham, Moses, Job, Jonah or Daniel. Their stories were created long after the time they purportedly lived; centuries later. The stories written about kings – which, if they existed, were no more than half-remembered tribal chiefs – and the so-called great prophets are constructed from folktales. In short, nothing we read in the Old Testament actually happened.

When we get to the New Testament, we find convoluted exposition of Paul’s ‘revelations’ about Jesus; visions and imagined sightings of a celestial being he had in his own head. It’s the same for the fruitcake writer of Revelation who envisaged an unreal comic book Jesus; invention every bit of it. The Acts of the Apostles offers a fanciful and wholly inaccurate ‘history’ of the early church, including angels, teleportation and fatal miracles. Of the 21 letters in the New Testament, at least 11 are forgeries, known to have been written by anonymous authors who were not who they claimed to be. The other 10, including Paul’s genuine letters and the likes of Hebrews, make up all sorts of mystical stuff about an angelic Godman-cum-high priest.

 And yet, in the midst of these myths and legends, made-up characters and stories, forgeries and fantasies and mystical musings stands the indisputable truth of the gospels. Or so Christians and theologians would have us believe. These particular stories, surrounded as they are by fiction on all sides are historical, factual and true.

What are the odds?

Experts in make-believe

pence

As it is in the secular world, so in the Kingdom of Heaven. Entirely self-appointed experts abound in the religious sphere: priests, pastors, preachers, imams, rabbis. Some have degrees in theology; some have a degree of enlightenment (or so they claim) from personal encounters with the supernatural; some have learnt at the feet of the experts who have gone before them.

But what are religious experts expert in? Unlike our politicians who have at least a degree in a legitimate subject (even if not the one they now profess to know all about) the only thing religious experts are knowledgeable about is a collection of fantasy stories. That’s the Bible, of course, for Christian ‘experts’, with its supernatural beings, monsters, giants, magical incantations, transformations and resurrections.

If these experts were to encounter the same sort of fantastic notions in any other book, they would readily acknowledge that what they were dealing with was myth and legend. Not so their own ‘holy’ text! Oh no. This, of all the books of magic that exist, is, they say, the real deal because in amongst the far-fetched stories is some moralising about being extra-nice to fellow Jews and loving your enemies.

All that Christian experts are expert in is myth. That is their specialist subject. They’re not really interested in the injunctions about serving others; the mythical stuff they refuse to acknowledge as myth is much more to their liking: the eternal God-man, living forever, fantasy heaven, fantasy hell. The expertise of priests, pastors and preachers is in this smorgasbord of twaddle – and even then they frequently get it wrong. Those who offer their ‘spiritual’ experiences as demonstration of its veracity (‘I know it’s true because I commune with the eternal God-man’) add nothing of substance to their claims; all they’ve done is internalise myth, nothing more. Myth it remains. And just how useful is expertise in made-up stories in this day and age?

Like politicians who are skilled in one area but assume expertise in another, Christian experts also think that their knowledge of myth makes them experts about all sorts of other things: psychology, morality, the state of the world, politics, science, history and pre-history – even the future. They know all about these, they like to tell us, because by extrapolating from their book of myths and legends, they have an understanding that surpasses that of the real experts in these areas (we can exclude the future here; no-one in the real world claims to know with any certainty what the future holds. Naturally, Christians like to pretend they do).

You think this isn’t the case?

Because of what they think the Bible says:

Mike Pence, ‘evangelical Catholic’ and vice-President, thinks God will heal America only if ‘his people, who are called by his name, humble themselves and pray’ (quoting 2 Chronicles 7.14). He wants to end state-funded abortion rights into the bargain and disputes climate change;

Franklin Graham, who said prayers at the recent inauguration, insists that God himself engineered Donald Trump’s election;

Pastor Robert Jeffress, who provided a private church service for Trump prior to the inauguration, thinks so too, so that America can have ‘one more chance’.

Jim Bakker, ex-felon, televangelist and guest at the inauguration, claims he was responsible for Trump’s election because he ‘bound’ hell-spawned demons who opposed Trump.

Pastor Rick Wiles, meanwhile, is too busy enjoying being sprayed with the golden showers of God’s Grace that even now are ‘oozing’ from Heaven because of Trump;

Steve Bannon, Trump’s Chief Strategist & Senior Counselor and one of the architects of the immigration ban, is pushing hard for a return to ‘Judeo-Christian traditionalism’ (which hasn’t stopped him from being married and divorced three times);

Betsy DeVos, Trump’s anti-gay Education Secretary, thinks schools should be used to build God’s Kingdom on Earth and wants Creationism taught alongside Evolution;

Ken Ham continues to influence people like Betsy, by teaching that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, Adam and Eve really existed and humans co-existed with dinosaurs;

Jerry Falwell jr, appointed by Trump to reform higher education, sees no contradiction between being a pro-life creationist and an arms advocate;

Religious Rights leaders are urging Trump to reverse the rights granted to LGBT people under President Obama, both in America and worldwide. At the time of writing it looks like he might;

Anne Graham Lotz, Billy Graham’s alabaster daughter, asks what the Bible has to say about the Women’s March in Washington last week and concludes that women who protest are ‘loud, undisciplined and without knowledge’;

Sandy Rios of the religious ‘American Family Association’, agrees, saying feminists are ‘people who live in filth’;

Steven Anderson thinks people in need are ‘lazy bums’, just like the Bible says (2 Thessalonians 3:10) and continues to call for LGBT people to be executed;

A million and one other preachers and pastors think they have your psychology all worked out – you’re nothing but a sinner in need of Jesus’ saving grace.

By any rational standard this is all lunatic stuff. These people know no more than you or I about any of the subjects they spout about. They think they do – and worse still others believe they do – because of what (they think) is in their collection of myths; ‘I know what I’m talking about because it’s in my magic book!’ And who are we to doubt such credentials?

It is all fallacy. Christian experts are experts only in the ephemeral, the unproven, the mythical. Yet they claim to know so much about everything else as a result. They claim they know how you should live your life and what, for you own good, you should be allowed to do and what you should not.

People such as these have now come to power in America.