Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Belated Examination of the Christmas Accounts

Blogging has been on hold for a month, partly for lack of inspiration and partly for busy-ness. Worse, the subject of this post is over a week past (or over fifty weeks in the future). Better late than never, I guess.

Have you ever noticed how different are the stories of Jesus' birth as told in the books of Matthew and Luke? Last year I examined one important difference, that Joseph, Mary and Jesus travel to Egypt in Matthew but to Jerusalem in Luke, but this is not the only difference. In fact, the points of commonality are far fewer than the differences, some of which are contradictory.

What are the common elements in each account? King Herod, Joseph, a virgin Mary, Jesus, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and part of Jesus' genealogy. That is all.

Elements that are unique to each story but not actually contradictory include the census (Luke 2:1-3), an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream (Matthew 1:20), an angel appearing to Mary (Luke 1:26-38), the magi (Matthew 2:1-12), the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20), stable (Luke 2:7,12,16), a house (Matthew 2:11), slaughter of male children (Matthew 2:13-18)), Zacharias and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-25,57-80), and Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38). There are some interesting things that could be said about these events, and I will mention two of them again in a moment.

First, though, let us examine some of the contradictions.

Where did Joseph and Mary live before Jesus was born? Luke makes it pretty clear that their home was Nazareth because he tells us that they had to travel to Bethlehem for the census. In Matthew, on the other hand, there is no mention of Nazareth until the family is returning from Egypt. In Matthew 2:21-23 it is fairly clear that when they went to Nazareth, they were not returning to their prior home but that they chose a new home where they would be safer from the reign of Archelaus in Israel.

I have already mentioned that in Luke, the family travels from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Nazareth, while in Matthew they travel from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth. When did they leave Bethlehem? In Luke it is clear that leave as soon as the days of Mary's purification were complete (about forty days, apparently). The timing in Matthew is far less certain. We do know that Herod asks the magi when the star appeared and that he subsequently orders all male children under the age of two killed "according to the time which he had determined from the magi." Also, as mentioned above, Matthew says the magi visit Jesus and Mary in "the house", without further qualification. Without Luke's account to tell anyone differently, anyone reading that phrase would understand it to be Joseph and Mary's house where they normally lived. So, reading Matthew by itself seems to suggest that Jesus and his family remained in Bethlehem for as long as two years, since in this account Bethlehem was their home and they had no reason to leave until the threat from Herod materialized. But while this is the plainest reading, one could attempt to reconcile the timing in several ways. First, one might say that the star appeared two years before Jesus was born in order to give the magi time to travel. Second, one might say Herod may simply "playing it safe" by killing children up to two years old. In either case, while I believe a reading of Matthew alone argues for a longer delay than Luke alone, I also suspect very few Christians will be persuaded on this point.

A third contradiction can be found in the genealogies that Matthew and Luke give for Jesus. Matthew lists the genealogy from Abraham forward to Jesus, while Luke lists the genealogy from Jesus backwards all the way to Adam (and God before him). These differences are clearly not important. What is more significant is that the genealogies are different between David and Joseph. Matthew lists 26 men between David and Jesus, while Luke lists 40. Of those, only two names are shared, Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, near the middle of each list. (Interestingly, a footnote in my study Bible says that these names do not refer to same people!)

How can the lists be reconciled? I am aware of two strategies used by apologists, though perhaps there are others; this not an issue that I have examined carefully. One suggestion is that one of the genealogies records Joseph's ancestry (since Joseph was his legal but not natural father) and the other Mary (who was his only natural parent). This appears to violate the plain reading of both Luke and Matthew, both of which explicitly list Joseph as the penultimate person in the genealogy.

The other approach has been to claim that both genealogies are Joseph's, but that Matthew skipped some generations. I am not sure how those who hold this view resolve the fact that each list of names is so different. It is not enough to suggest that in each list two different names are used to refer to the same person since, particularly near David's end of each list, the names listed are known to refer to different people. Allowing Matthew to skip generations creates other problems, because Matthew is careful to point out that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian captivity, and fourteen from the captivity to Jesus. What meaning can this symmetry have if it is attained simply by skipping over generations whenever it is convenient?

(It is also not feasible to assume that Luke also skipped generations so that between the two we get a complete list. Not only would such a careful mismatch strain credibility by itself, it would require 66 generations between David and Jesus, so that, on average, each son would need to be born when his father was fifteen years old. Let me be clear that I am not aware of anyone who actually claims this is the resolution to the contradiction. Just sayin'.)

So there are as many as four contradictions between the two stories, some more certain than others. Now, let's return to the story elements that are neither shared nor contradictory. Of these, we have no separate basis for knowing anything about the angelic encounters, or the place where Jesus was born, or the shepherds. Conceivably, the various characters mentioned only by Luke (Zacharias, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna) or even the magi in Matthew could have been mentioned in some kind of contemporaneous records, though I am not aware of any. (Josephus does mention John the Baptist, but I do not know if that includes his parents.) In any case, history's silence in those cases would not be surprising so it is hardly a basis for comment.

In the case of Herod ordering the slaughter of all of the male children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem, that would have been an event worthy of comment. As Richard Carrier notes, due to the life expectancy at the time, this would have represented approximately 10% of the population in the area. Nobody who wrote about Herod mentions this, even though it would be highly noteworthy, so the lack of mention makes the actual historicity of the slaughter questionable.

The other historically significant event mentioned was the census. Here the problems are more substantial. Luke claims the census took place while Herod was alive and while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Herod died in 4 B.C. Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 A.D. (If Luke is referring to Herod Archelaus instead of Herod the Great then this is another contradiction between Luke and Matthew, since Matthew is clearly referring to Herod the Great.) Caesar Augustus did order a census of Judea, which was conducted by Quirinius, but this was not a census of the entire Roman empire or the entire inhabited earth. (An interpretation of Luke 2:1 consistent with this fact is not particularly unreasonable.) Some skeptics have questioned the need for Joseph to return to his ancestral home for the census, but apparently this was not so uncommon. More troublesome is why he would bring Mary along for the journey when she was expecting to give birth at any time. Why not leave her in the care of friends and family in Nazareth?

The answer to that question is, I think, the answer to many of the questions raised by the contradictions and other features of both accounts. Both Matthew and Luke needed to provide an explanation for Jesus being born in Bethlehem (as required by prophecy) while being raised in Nazareth. Matthew chose to represent Bethlehem as their original home and then manufactured a reason to leave and eventually settle somewhere else. Luke chose to represent Nazareth as their original home, so he needed to manufacture a reason for Mary to travel to Bethlehem to give birth, at which point they could return home to Nazareth.

Matthew's solution to the problem allowed him incorporate two (supposed) fulfillments of prophecy, one regarding the murdered children and one regarding God calling his son out of Egypt, though in neither case do the "prophecies" appear to be prophecies at all. He also is able to incorporate the "dangerous child" motif into the story, a theme that is very common in literature and mythology. But this solution required the introduction of a significant ahistorical event in addition to Matthew's tendency to manufacture prophetic fulfillments where no prophecy was intended.

Luke's solution, on the other hand, is far more plausible. There are some questions about the timing of the events he describes, and the inclusion of Mary on an unnecessary journey while in the final days of her pregnancy is rather suspicious, but so long as one is willing to accept that Jesus was born in 6 A.D. the difficulties are far smaller with Luke than with Matthew.

The Christmas story as told in Matthew contradicts the story as told in Luke in almost as many points as they agree. On the whole, Luke's version is more plausible. I consider it most probable that both accounts are almost entirely fabricated, but the account in Luke is sufficiently consistent internally and externally that I would not expect to convince anyone of that on the basis of the story itself, but only as part of a much larger evaluation of the trustworthiness of Luke.

Richard Carrier has written a far more detailed examination of the dating issues The Date of the Nativity in Luke, which also touches briefly on the other points of contradiction between Matthew and Luke. Mostly, though, he examines various suggestions that have been put forward for reconciling the dates implied by Matthew and Luke.

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