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.
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.
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, 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.