Deconstructing Jesus’ Birth Narrative in the Gospels: What We Do and Don’t Know
Brooke and I recently watched an animated Christmas movie released a few years ago titled ‘The Star’. The story features an anthropomorphic donkey who unknowingly finds himself in the midst of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, all the while yearning for something ‘greater’. It’s a cute movie and probably one that we’ll encourage Wren to watch in the coming years as a kid-friendly way to learn about an important Bible story.
However, it’s important to note that the movie isn’t meant to serve as a literal depiction of the biblical events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Clocking in at 86 minutes of runtime, it entertains more than a few creative liberties to fill the time required to make it a feature-length film. (And it isn’t the only Christmas movie that does this.)
For those familiar with the biblical birth narrative, this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the Bible doesn’t actual provide very many details about any of these events. Aside from the occasional reference in later New Testament books, the majority of Jesus’ birth narrative can be found scattered throughout the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke.
Watching ‘The Star’ ended up reinforcing an idea that comes to mind often during the Christmas season — that society has injected more into Jesus’ birth narrative than is really there. While the studios behind Christmas movies obviously recognize they’re adding fictitious content to lengthen runtimes (especially when they feature talking animals), these movies usually represent a general misunderstanding many people have of the events that actually transpired ~2,000 years ago.
We know this not only because modern biblical scholarship and historical research have uncovered a lot of these misconceptions, but we’ve also been able to observe how a culture’s misunderstanding or ulterior motives have influenced their interpretations of these stories over time (sometimes accidental, and sometimes intentional).
In the spirit of the Christmas season, this felt like an appropriate time to outline some of the misconceptions and controversies about these stories that I find the most compelling.
The reliability of the gospel accounts as written history
Before we can begin to dissect the gospel narratives, it’s important to understand if they can even be used as reliable, historical accounts. Note that this differs from questioning Jesus’ existence— most historians generally agree he was a real person¹. The circumstances surrounding his birth, however, are up for deliberation. And while the debates over the historicity of the gospels are endless, there are three arguments specifically against the birth narratives that I think should be considered.
Argument #1: Where is Mark’s account of the events?
Before jumping into the first argument, it’s important to understand how modern scholars believe the gospels were written. Many subscribe to the concept of Marcan priority, a hypothesis that postulates Mark was the first written gospel and used as a source for much of Matthew and Luke’s accounts. There are similar theories that debate this and claim the gospels share other external influences, but few disagree that Mark was the first written gospel. (I find this blog post to be an interesting read on the topic.)
This brings me to the crux of the first argument against the historicity of Jesus’ birth accounts — if the events were so extraordinary, why weren’t they documented by Mark? And if you subscribe to the Marcan priority hypothesis, an even bigger question arises — if Matthew and Luke were heavily influenced by Mark’s gospel, where did they get their differing versions of the birth narrative from? Mark seems to be completely unaware of a miraculous birth and only recognizes Jesus as God’s son during his baptism.
There are common responses to these questions — they include Mark not documenting these events because they weren’t important to his audience, or as a result of the stigma associated with an illegitimate birth in Jewish culture. While I’m not educated enough to completely dismiss these ideas, I don’t find them particularly convincing (if the Bible is a timeless document inspired by God, the social customs at the time of its writing shouldn’t have had such a large influence on its content).
Argument #2: The first two chapters of Luke might have been a later addition to the gospel.
The first two chapters of Luke have begun to lose credibility in the last century after an analysis of the book’s language concluded it contains a Greek writing style not found elsewhere in the book². This makes sense when you also consider other points such as the major birth themes being absent in the remainder of Luke and Acts (which was written by the same person) and the beginning of the third chapter reading like an introduction to the remainder of the book.
Argument #3: The first two chapters of both Matthew and Luke contain parallels and inspiration from other stories
The third argument against the historicity of the gospels’ birth narratives is their lack of originality. We have origin stories for many mythological heroes and beings that predate the gospels and also include common themes like a virgin birth, endangered life due to jealous kings, fulfillment of prophecy, etc. (Hercules, Oedipus, and Romulus, to name a few).
However, the events surrounding Jesus’ birth aren’t even original within the context of the Bible itself. As a matter of fact, Luke doesn’t even make it out of the first chapter before he begins paralleling the events leading up to Jesus’ birth with those of John the Baptist³ (introduction to the couple, Gabriel’s announcement, praise, birth, circumcision, naming).
Meanwhile, Matthew’s recollection of the events tend to parallel Old Testament figures — namely Moses³. Herod (Pharaoh) learns of a Jew who will threaten his kingdom, is filled with fear, and commands all Bethlehemite (Hebrew) infants to be killed. God appears to Joseph (Moses’ father)in a dream to thwart the evil plans. Herod (Pharaoh) dies. Joseph (Moses) is told to return to Israel (Egypt) with an almost-identical phrase (those who were seeking the child’s (Moses’) life are dead). Joseph (Moses) and his family return to Israel (Egypt).
These parallelisms aren’t necessarily disproof of anything, but they are literary constructs that were commonly used in storytelling during the time the gospels were written and can often provide useful insight into how a particular story’s origins came about.
Contradictions between Matthew and Luke
Looking past the absence of birth narratives in the other gospels, it’s important to recognize that even the two gospels containing these stories aren’t harmonized and at times contradict each other. Because Matthew and Luke each have a unique take on the information and events they’ve decided to portray, the disagreements aren’t completely obvious unless you’re reading the accounts side-by-side.
The most well-known contradiction concerns the timing of Jesus’ birth. In Matthew we learn that Jesus is born in Bethlehem during the reign of King Herod, who is subsequently jealous and partakes in an infant killing spree in an attempt to kill Jesus. Meanwhile, Luke tells us Jesus is born when Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem for a census during the reign of Quirinius, a Syrian governor. This creates a discrepancy because we know from historical records that Quirinius began his reign almost ten years after the death of Herod.
Similarly, there are other minor discrepancies in the text concerning the timeline of events. For instance, Luke 2:39 tells us Jesus is taken to Nazareth to be raised after being presented at the temple in Jerusalem, while Matthew 2:22 tells us he is taken to Nazareth on his return from Egypt (where his family had fled from Herod).
Many of these discrepancies aren’t necessarily contradictions, but rather elements that stick out because we don’t have a ton of detail from Matthew or Luke. The timing of Jesus’ arrival in Nazareth referenced in the paragraph above might not be a contradiction because Luke doesn’t tell us that his family went immediately from Jerusalem to Nazareth. Theoretically, they may have had time to detour to Egypt (which would align Luke’s account with Matthew’s).
The absence of major elements from each other’s stories is what legitimizes the discrepancies between the two accounts. In our example, Luke fails to mention or reference Herod’s order to kill all infants in Bethlehem even once. If Luke wasn’t aware of this event (or was using a different source), he would have no reason to reference Jesus’ return from Egypt on his way to Nazareth. Is Luke’s failure to mention such a significant event proof of fabrication regarding either his own account or Matthew’s, or did he simply find it insignificant relative to the message he was trying to portray?
Was Bethlehem the actual birthplace of Jesus?
Throughout his time on earth, Jesus was often referred to as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ or ‘the Nazarene’. It happens so much that scholars have a high degree of confidence that it was indeed Jesus’ hometown, and likely his birthplace as well. So why do Matthew and Luke jump through so many hoops to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth?
For Matthew, Old Testament parallels and references to the messiah were of paramount importance. As a result, an interpretation of Micah 5:2 had the writer convinced that Jesus required a birthplace of Bethlehem to qualify as the messiah. For Luke, Jesus’ birth had to take place in Bethlehem so the messiah would share a birthplace with King David.
There are debates on both sides of the scholarly coin with convincing arguments as to why Jesus might or might not have actually been born in Bethlehem. What stands out to me are the pretenses as to how Joseph and Mary ended up in Bethlehem in the two written gospel accounts.
In Matthew, we don’t get a lot of context surrounding their presence in Bethlehem. The writer reiterates the aforementioned prophecy from Micah 5 a few verses after Jesus’ birth when he describes Herod’s reaction, but Joseph and Mary already seem to have been there when he describes the actual birth. Matthew may have believed they had already lived there leading up to Jesus’ birth, or he simply didn’t find it important to document their travels to Bethlehem in the written account.
Luke’s account is slightly more puzzling, however. The gospel writer claims Joseph and Mary were required to travel to Bethlehem, the home of their ancestors (in Joseph’s case — David), for a census. This is impractical for several reasons. Aside from the fact that historians have no records of a nationwide census at the time⁴, it seems unusual to declare a census requiring citizens to travel to their ancestral hometowns. Not only would it have been difficult for people at the time to track (how many people can trace their ancestors back hundreds of years, let alone their hometowns?), but censuses are usually recorded to understand the current makeup of a population (often for political, financial, or tax purposes). Why would officials be concerned about recording people who weren’t actually citizens of their municipality? (It’s also worth noting that we have no other written records of such a census being taken, which is unusual for such a large event.)
(Additionally, here’s an interesting excerpt from an Israeli archaeologist who doesn’t believe Bethlehem was even inhabited at the time of Jesus’ birth.)
Why is a virgin birth so important?
The virgin birth purported by the gospel accounts is difficult to prove or disprove. As mentioned earlier in the article, the events surrounding Jesus’ birth parallel mythological tales of older Greek heroes, many of whom were also born to virgins or under other miraculous pretenses. It isn’t a stretch to assume the writers may have used a virgin birth to prove Jesus’ divinity in a culture that was engrossed in these mythological tales, but that isn’t what piques my interest.
I’ve already alluded to Matthew’s desire to parallel Jesus’ life with Old Testament prophecies despite it often feeling forced and unrelated. But in this instance, it feels more obvious as he draws from Isaiah 7:14 in an effort to force a parallelism within the context of Jesus’ birth:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Despite the fact that Jesus’ name was not Immanuel (it only became connected to him after Matthew’s gospel was written), the preceding and following verses make it clear the prophecy doesn’t actually refer to Jesus:
12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah — the king of Assyria!”
Some scholars believe Matthew’s constant effort to force parallels between Old Testament prophecy and Jesus’ life was an attempt to criticize Jews at the time for not recognizing the messiah after having fulfilled such substantial amounts of Old Testament prophecy⁵ (which they would have been familiar with).
Regardless, the idea of a fabricated virgin birth narrative to combat political, societal, and religious opposition has become more apparent each time I’ve revisited these passages. While it’s difficult to prove with absolute certainty, it’s very likely.
The wise men and the star
Aside from not showing up in Luke’s gospel, the wise men also play a peculiar role in the birth narrative. For starters, it’s very likely that they weren’t present on the actual night of Jesus’ birth based on the context provided by Matthew 2:1–2:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?
But were they ever actually there to begin with? To understand this, there are two other important parts of the story that come into question.
The first is the legitimacy of Herod’s order to kill all male children in Bethlehem, which he makes after learning he had been tricked by the wise men (the Bible doesn’t give us much context about how the wise men “tricked” Herod aside from just not returning to tell him of the child’s whereabouts).
Did this actually happen? Those in favor cite non-biblical sources such as Flavius Josephus, who recorded accounts of Herod that paint him as an extremely jealous and evil king⁶. Josephus is a well-known historian who recorded much of the time period’s history that we know today, so those who oppose the historicity of the story also cite him given his failure to reference a Bethlehemite infanticide in any of his writings. As a matter of fact, historians haven’t found a single non-biblical source confirming the existence of such an event.
The second part of the story that comes into question is the star that appears that guides the wise men to Jesus. Two things stick out specifically regarding the star and how it might help us understand the overall historicity of the narrative. The first is its lack of mention in Luke’s gospel, where we learn shepherds are called from their fields and flocks to find the baby Jesus. If there really was a bright, shining star over Jesus’ birthplace for the wise men to find Jesus, it’s hard to understand why Luke wouldn’t have mentioned the shepherds also using it to find their way. I suppose it could have been a star only the wise men were meant to see, but there’s no real biblical evidence for or against this.
Similar to other aspects of the birth narratives, the second part of the star’s narrative that sticks out is its parallelism to other mythological stories. At the time of Jesus’ birth, many Romans treated comets and falling stars as signs and omens⁷. As a result, the occurrence of Caesar’s Comet around the time of Julius Caesar’s death led to speculation about his potential divinity, eventually leading to the deification of his son, Caesar August, as the “son of a god” (who reigned at the time of Jesus’ birth). Consequently, many historians believe the star in the biblical story was planted to serve as evidence of Jesus’ divinity to a society who placed heavy emphasis on astrological signs.
When you consider the lack of evidence for Herod’s infanticide as well as the multiple reasons to doubt the actual appearance of a star on the night of Jesus’ birth, the narrative about the wise men completely crumbles. Without Herod’s jealously or a star to point the way, we don’t have any real reason not to doubt the remainder of the story concerning the wise men.
And if there really were wise men — the Bible never tells us there were three of them. This is a common misconception and likely attributed to the listing of the three gifts offered to baby Jesus by the wise men (gold, frankincense, and myrrh).
Jesus probably wasn’t born in a stable
To end on something a little more light-hearted — if you’ve read the above and are still convinced the stories we find in Matthew and Luke are accurate, you might be surprised to hear that based on the language used in the texts, the authors never actually claimed Jesus was born in a stable.
Most theologians agree that the original word used for “inn” actually referenced a “reception room in a private home.” When Luke tells us there was no room for Joseph and Mary in the inn, he’s likely saying that the guest rooms in the family house they were staying at were full and they were forced to sleep on the lower floor where the animals were often kept (which explains the presence of a manger).
To confirm this, Luke uses a different word for what we would consider an “inn” today in Luke 10:34.
As I mentioned in my first post on biblical scholarship, I think it’s okay for our view of the Bible and the events it portrays to change over time. It was written with the intention of remaining timeless, and so it’s only natural that our understanding of it transforms as we learn and grow. We aren’t at a magical point in time where humanity suddenly understands everything the Bible has to say in its entirety.
However, reconciling what we were raised to believe with what actually happened is an intimidating exercise, especially when it comes to the Christmas stories associated with the warm, fuzzy feelings of the holidays. But we can find comfort in the idea that our faith doesn’t depend on the accuracy of the birth stories in Matthew and Luke. After all, Mark and John (and maybe even the original writer of Luke) wrote entire gospels about the life of Jesus without relying on a miraculous birth story.
The Bible has a lot to say and often it’s important to understand the origins of its passages. Some were an attempt to document literal events, and some were an attempt to convey a greater meaning. In the case of Jesus’ birth, I believe the writers were trying to establish and emphasize Jesus’ divinity through a miraculous birth story to set the tone for the remainder of their gospels. In either case, the events surrounding his birth do not change the ultimate sacrifice he made for mankind, which is the basis of our faith.
I don’t mind if you disagree, and I’m more than happy to continue celebrating the Christmas season with you as I always have — reading the story of Jesus’ birth, watching the same old Christmas movies, and singing songs about the good news we have on Christmas day.
¹Mark Allan Powell, Jesus as a Figure in History (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
²B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (MacMillan & Co. Ltd., 1930)
³Paul Davidson, Matthew’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined (isthatinthebible.wordpress.com, 2015)
⁴Bart Ehrman, Luke’s Version of Jesus’ Birth (ehrmanblog.org, 2012)
⁵Robert Miller, Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy (Cascade Books, 2015)
⁶Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (17.6.5)
⁷Pliny, Natural History (2.23–24)