How does ‘main-stream’ critical scholarship deal with the biblical narratives of the birth of Jesus?
What follows is based on this article by Helen K. Bond, senior lecturer in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen. I also draw on her book The Historical Jesus: A Guide For the Perplexed (HJ). A similar line is taken by Rodolfo Galvan Estrada III in this article.
First, Bond notes that only Matthew and Luke record Jesus’ birth, and their stories are quite different. Only Matthew has a star, wise men, King Herod, and the slaughter of infants around Bethlehem. And only Luke has a census, a stable, angels, and shepherds [except that Luke does not have a stable, although he does have a manger!]
Both accounts, according to Bond, are highly theological. Matthew is keen to show that Jesus is a royal figure whose birth is signalled in the heavens, a figure whose message would spread throughout the nations, and a new Moses signalling a new Exodus (the Herod’s actions recalling Pharaoh’s). Luke wants to show that Jesus came from among the poor, and he also likes to link the events he records with what was happening on the world stage.
Where was Jesus born?
Despite their differences, both Matthew and Luke say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. They did so in order to be able to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, who was expected to come from David’s line (Mic 5:2). Matthew thinks that the family already lived in Bethlehem, and then has to work quite hard to explain why they moved to Nazareth. According to Luke, their home was in Nazareth, and he has to get them to Bethlehem by means of the census, Lk 2:1-5.
No other NT writing mentions Bethlehem as the place of Jesus’ birth. Indeed, Bond wonders why John is silent about it, when there was a perfect opportunity to correct the remark of Nathanael [Bond carelessly calls him ‘Nicodemus’] about Jesus coming from Nazareth (Jn 1:46).
Bond’s conclusion is that although the Bethlehem stories may have some basis in historical fact, it is more likely that they were fabricated in order to connect Jesus with the Davidic Messiah.
‘In Luke, the Holy Family live in Nazareth and the evangelist has to find a way to bring them down to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth (which he does through the census), while in Matthew the Holy Family already live in Bethlehem and this evangelist’s task is to show how they relocated after Jesus’ birth to Galilee (which he does through the story of Herod’s massacre of the boys under two and Archelaus’s brutality). It is impossible to harmonize the two accounts and almost certain that neither one rests on the kind of factual information that we would like today.’ (HJ)
‘In all likelihood…the reference to Bethlehem…symbolic. Bethlehem was the city of David and a tradition in Micah 3:2 foretold that God’s anointed one would be born there. Speculating on Jesus’ birth several decades later, and with the full belief that Jesus truly was the Messiah, the kingly ruler who would inaugurate God’s glorious reign, the tradition known to both Matthew and Luke had no qualms about placing his birth in Bethlehem. Jesus was now seen to be a true Son of David, none other than God’s anointed one from birth. If Jesus’ family were genuinely descendants of David (as Rom 1:3 suggests), the move would have been all the more obvious.’ (HJ)
When was Jesus born?
There was indeed a census. However, this took place some time after Jesus’ birth (in 6 C.E.), and involved only the region of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea (not the entire Roman empire, including Galilee, as Lk 2:1 asserts). A further ‘inaccuracy’ on the part of Luke is that people would have to register in their own home towns, not in those of their ancestors. A further problem with Luke’s account is that it ‘contradicts’ Matthew, for the latter has Jesus born a decade earlier, just before the death of Herod.
So, for Bond, there is some confusion about even the approximate date of Jesus’ birth. The earliest Christians simply didn’t know, and so Matthew and Luke used various well-known events from around that time (a recent celestial phenomenon, the death of Herod, and, in Luke’s case, the census of Quirinius), and constructed stories that would bring out the theological points they wished to emphasise.
To someone like me, who has a high index of confidence in the historical trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts, the more critical approach outlines above represents an interesting challenge. It goes without saying that all historical writing is interpretative. We ought, no doubt, to judge historical writing by the norms and standards that were accepted at the time, and not by modern standards.
All historical writing is not only interpretative; it is also selective. So the fact that something that is mentioned by one author but not by another does not necessarily imply contradiction.
Similarly, if Matthew wishes to bring out Jesus’ royal status, and Luke wishes to emphasise the relative poverty of his birth, then it does not follow that the stories of the magi and shepherds were fabricated.
Critical scholars such as Bond seem to ignore those factors that indicate that we should take a rather higher view of the historical value of the Gospel records. These factors include Luke’s stated intention to provide a thoroughly-research and accurate account, and the many signs of eye-witness testimony that we find throughout all four Gospels.
A good deal of the apparent conflict between Matthew’s and Luke’s account begins to dissipate when we notice that they are not parallel accounts of the same event. With regard to the visits from the shepherds and the magi, Luke describes the shepherds as visiting Jesus just a few hours after his birth (he was still lying in a manger – Lk 2:12!). Matthew, on the other hand, describes what happened some time later (‘after Jesus was born’, Mt 2:1). Given that cruel king Herod ordered the slaughter of all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were under two (or, possibly, two and under), Jesus could have been at least a year old at the time of the visit by the magi. Among other things, this gives plenty of time for the 40-day-old baby to be taken from Bethlehem to Jerusalem (Lk 2:22-24) and return to Bethlehem before the visit of the magi and subsequent flight to Egypt.
With regard to the famous crux of Luke 2:2 (‘This was the first registration, taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria’) then I simply note the explanation given by scholars such as F.F. Bruce, N.T. Wright, David Garland, Craig Blomberg, and others, that the phrase in question may well be translated, ‘This enrollment (census) was before that made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.’