Jonathan Pearce Points Out the Many Questions Raised By The Stories of Jesus' Infancy in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke

Stories of Jesus' Infancy in the Gospels

Jonathan Pearce has composed a book titled, The Nativity: A Critical Examination in which he asks questions like these (to which I have added a few comments myself below--ETB):

In order for the Christian who believes that both accounts are factually true to uphold that faithful decree, the following steps must take place. The believer must:

  • Special plead that the virgin birth story found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke is true while every other virgin birth stories concocted for hundreds of years before or after that one are mere shades of the true Christian story.

  • Deny that “virgin” in Isaiah is a mistranslation (Translators of Isaiah have disagreed for ages over whether the word refers literally to a “virgin” or a “young woman” whom I grant is presumably young enough to be a virgin, though some uncertainty remains given that we are dealing with nothing but a single word with no other qualifiers given in the Isa. story. The point that I take away when I read the original prophecy in Isaiah is that it was speaking about a perfectly normal act of “conception” of a young woman of virginal age, perhaps during her first time having sex. There is no overshadowing of divine light, no announcement that the child is conceived directly by God with no manʼs assistance. And the sign to Ahaz involves not the manner of the childʼs conception but the state in which nearby kingdoms will be when the child grows to a certain age. So the author of the Gospels is lifting only a tiny fraction out of the story in Isa, and stretching it into a story about a “virgin birth.” That is stretching things a bit Iʼd say.--ETB)

  • Give a plausible explanation of from whence the male genome of Jesus came from and how this allowed him to be “fully man.”

  • Be able to render the two genealogies fully coherent without the explanation being contrived or ad hoc.

  • Believe that the genealogies are bona fide and not just tools to try to prove Jesusʼ Davidic and Messianic prophecy-fulfilling heritage.

  • Be able to explain the inconsistency of the two accounts in contradicting each other as to where Jesus lived before the birth (without the explanation being contrived or ad hoc).

  • Somehow be able to contrive an explanation whereby Herod and Quirinius could be alive concurrently, despite all the evidence contrary to this point.

  • Believe that a client kingdom under Herod could and would order a census under Roman dictate. This would be the only time in history this would have happened.

  • Find it plausible that people would return, and find precedent for other occurrences of people returning, to their ancestral homes for a census (at an arbitrary number of generations before).

  • Give a probable explanation as to how a Galilean man was needed at a census in another judicial area, Judea.

  • Give a plausible reason as to why Mary was required at the census (by the censors or by Joseph).

  • Give a plausible explanation as to why Mary would make that 80 mile journey on donkey or on foot whilst heavily pregnant, and why Joseph would be happy to let her do that.

  • Believe that Joseph could afford to take anywhere from a month to two years off work.

  • Believe that the prophecies referred to Nazareth and not something else.

  • Believe that the magi were not simply a theological tool derived from the Book of Daniel.

  • Believe that Herod (and his scribes and priests) was not acting entirely out of character and implausibly in not knowing the prophecies predicting Jesus, and not accompanying the magi three hours down the road.

  • Believe that the magi werenʼt also merely a mechanism to supply Herod with an opportunity to get involved in the story and thus fulfill even more prophecies.

  • Believe that the magi were also not a reinterpretation of the Balaam narrative from the Old Testament, despite there being clear evidence to the contrary.

  • Believe that a star could lead some magi from the East to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem where it rested over an individual house (and only a couple of magi followed it, not Herod, or his men, or any of the inhabitants of Jerusalem took to following this amazing moving star that lay so low in the sky it could rest over a particular house? Would have made things rather easy for Herodʼs men to follow such a star and kill the baby Jesus early on, or at least try to do so.--ETB)

  • Believe that the shepherds were not merely midrashic and theological tools used by Luke.

  • Believe that there is (and provide it) a reasonable explanation as to why each Gospel provides different first witnesses (shepherds and magi) without any mention of the other witnesses.

  • Believe that, despite an absence of evidence and the realization that it is clearly a remodeling of an Old Testament narrative, Mosesʼ birth tale, the Massacre of the Innocents actually happened.

  • Believe that Herod would care enough about his rule long after his death to chase after a baby and murder many other innocent babies, a notion that runs contrary to evidence.

  • Believe that God would allow other innocent babies to die as a result of the birth of Jesus.

  • Believe that the Flight to and from Egypt was not just a remodeling of an Old Testament narrative in order to give Jesus theological gravitas, a second Moses.

  • Give a plausible explanation as to why the two accounts contradict each other so obviously as to where Jesus and family went after his birth.

  • Explain the disappearance of the shepherds and magi, who had seen the most incredible sights of their lives, and why they are never heard from again despite being the perfect spokespeople for this newfound religion.

  • Provide a plausible explanation as to why Jesusʼ own family do not think he is the Messiah in Mark, given the events of the nativity accounts in later Gospels like Matthew and Luke.

Firstly, there is a serious lack of mention of Bethlehem in any other writing in the New Testament. Although absence of evidence is often claimed (by Christians) as not being evidence of absence, it is hard to deny the force of the lack of mention of Bethlehem. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are the only places in which it is mentioned. Neither Mark, John, and importantly, nor Paul corroborate the claims of the other two. It gets slightly more problematic for those who are pro- Bethlehem in that it seems that Jesus was born in Nazareth. Paul is often understood to be writing, in his letters, to people very interested in the Jewishness of Jesus. If he knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and of the Davidic line, you would have thought this would have been a superb mechanism in which Paul could have argued this. Sadly, this evidence is lacking.

The Gospel of Mark seems to indicate that Jesus was born in Nazareth. Mark makes no mention, other than Jesus being from Nazareth, of any other place that Jesus could be associated with in the whole of his Gospel. Mark 1:9 declares, “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Throughout the Gospel, when visiting elsewhere, such as Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28), he is referred to as Jesus of Nazareth. More damaging, perhaps, is the idea in Mark 6 where he returns to Nazareth and this is referred to as his “hometown” (6:1). This is compounded as later in that same episode Mark has Jesus himself saying (6:4), “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household.” There seems to be little dispute in Markʼs writing that Jesus hailed from Nazareth. In common vernacular and biblical terms, it is no coincidence that Jesus is known famously as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ and not ‘Jesus of Bethlehem’! It seems to me that it is more probable that Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth before the Gospels were written so that this title could not realistically be dropped. But since the writers needed Jesus to be born in Bethlehem it was a case of either getting him (i.e. Joseph and Mary) from there to Bethlehem and back again or living in Bethlehem at the birth and then moving to Nazareth.

Luckily, the Gospels have both options. Nothing like covering all the bases! And this leads us onto another issue: Luke and Matthew differ on where Joseph and Mary lived before the birth of Jesus. As Luke 2:3-5 says:

  • And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.

Clearly, Luke has Jesus living in Nazareth and having to go to Bethlehem as a result of it being “his own city” (more on this later) and having to attend a census (more on this later, too!). Matthew, on the other hand, has this to say (Matthew 1-2):

  • Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows:… Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…

So, although there is no explicit explanation of where they lived, it is implied by the manner in which the account is given. However, the admission that they had not lived in Nazareth before comes in Matthew 3:21-23 after the family have lived in Egypt for what was probably a couple of years:

  • So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

This spells out a clear contradiction between Matthew and Luke — they could not agree on where Joseph and Mary lived before the birth. Both writers had to harmonize two points: that Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem, and that he had to live in Nazareth. And they both do this in completely different ways. Luke uses a census and a need to go to the town of oneʼs ancestors, whilst Matthew uses an escape to Egypt and the notion that Bethlehem was too dangerous to live in, and the need to fulfill the ‘Nazarene’ prophecy. This is one of those contradictions that, to me, is fairly terminal for the narratives as a whole. Such a fundamental difference, and such dichotomous mechanisms for getting Jesus from A to B, shows at least one, and probably both, accounts to be indefensibly spurious. As Foster, (2007, p. 60) says:

  • The discrepancies [between Luke and Matthew] are real and dramatic. That means that it cannot be argued with a straight face that Matthew and Luke collaborated or had a common source.

This implies that many apologists donʼt argue their harmonizations with a straight face. With the mounting evidence, I can see why. Apologists do, however, use various methods to get themselves out of this corner.

To begin with, apologists will tackle the absence of evidence claim (from the writings of John, Mark and Paul) as not proving anything, per se. Furthermore, it is claimed that Paul would be trying to play down the Jewishness of Jesus in dealing with the many Gentiles in the growing religion. The absence from the other two Gospels is often put down to the notion that writers simply did not have the same source(s) as Matthew and Luke, or themselves did not want to play to Jesusʼ Jewishness. 1 Foster (2007) p. 60

Another tack is that just because Bethlehem offers itself as a very important theological device in validating Jesusʼ authentic Davidic and Messianic qualities does not mean that it is not true that he was born there. Maybe that theological detail isnʼt true, or maybe it is, but that does not, by default, make the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem false. Well, no, but on balance of evidence, the probability is very low. Taking into account the many inconsistencies between the Gospels, and the places in which there is at least one of the accounts telling a falsity, it does push the evidence towards the improbable end of the spectrum.

Foster analogizes a liberal approach to Matthewʼs use of prophecy fulfillment by using Matthew 21. In this account, since the prophet Zechariah in the Old Testament had prophesied that the king enter Jerusalem on a donkey and a colt, Matthew sees that this must be fulfilled by Jesus, and as a result (Matthew 21:6-7):

  • The disciples went and did just as Jesus had instructed them, and brought the donkey and the colt, and laid their coats on them; and He sat on the coats.

However, Mark and Luke see this as nonsense and have him only riding on a donkey. Foster argues that it is obvious that Matthew is factually wrong here, since Jesus wouldnʼt have been riding two animals at once, but does it mean he didnʼt enter Jerusalem at all? Foster says a resounding no (p. 61-62).

The problem with his analogy is this. Firstly, he shows corroborating evidence that Matthewʼs factual claims (at least of prophecy fulfillment) are simply wrong. They didnʼt happen as was claimed. Matthew is playing fast and loose with facts here; as mentioned before, where else is he doing this where it is not so obvious? Secondly, and more importantly, it is a false analogy. The point is not to say whether Jesus was born at all (as in, entered Jerusalem in Matthew 21), but to say he was not born in the way claimed (as in, he did not enter Jerusalem in the way claimed).

Thus Foster fails in defending the birth narratives in the way intended. What Matthewʼs inconsistent writing does seem to evidence is that Jesus was not born in the way claimed by Matthew (and Luke). It seems Jesus was not born a virgin, did not have a genealogy routed through David, was not born in Bethlehem and so on. What we could have left is this: Jesus was born. But many proponents of the narratives of Jesusʼ birth (narratives) appear to be oblivious to this.

Other attempts to harmonize the problematic accounts include claiming that Matthew didnʼt explicitly say that Bethlehem was always their home, and that they could have lived elsewhere before. This is possible to grant, but the fact that they then decided to move to Nazareth after Egypt clearly shows that they hadnʼt lived in Nazareth before. So the contradiction with Luke remains unanswered.

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