The Birth Narratives of Jesus in the New Testament – Part 1
Have you ever read the birth narratives about Jesus in the New Testament? They are generally a lot later than people know them to be (in terms of manuscript dating). Generally only Papyrus 4 is said to be earlier than Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus in the 4th century CE, but it is still generally dated from the late 2nd century to the early 4th century CE. That is roughly between 150 to 300 years after Jesus’ time on earth. Regardless of these facts, the narratives themselves are difficult to follow and understand, they are often in direct contradiction to each other and have almost no overlap. There are important textual variants present in both groups of passages, but this is not meant to be an article focused on textual criticism. Our goal is to read these narratives and then to point out any difficulties we see with them.
Matthew 2:1-12 (ESV)
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, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Luke 2:1-22 (ESV)
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.
The narrative in Matthew tells us that it took a special sign from God, a star, in order for the wise men to find Joseph, Mary and Jesus. There is no mention of these wise men in the narrative which Luke gives us. Do note, I’m not saying “Matthew” or “Luke” as in reference to historical persons, but as for simple titles to refer to their various stories as presented in the New Testament. Interestingly in Matthew, these wise men first go to Jerusalem to inquire about the location of the Messiah, yet when they reached Jerusalem all the chief priests and scribes of the people (Matthew 2:3-6) were already aware that the Messiah was to be found in Bethlehem. At the outset this first piece of information presents us with the problem of the wise men being not so wise, if all the chief priests and scribes already knew this information (which is a quote from the Old Testament), then how is it possible that the only people to visit baby Jesus are the very people who don’t know how to find him?
What makes this worse is that all of Jerusalem was troubled alongside Herod regarding the news of the birth of the Messiah. If that is the case, then most people in Jerusalem would have known this information, so it was not only all the chief priests and all the scribes, but also most of the people who knew where to find the Messiah. Yet, Herod tasks the wise men to find the Messiah, yet if he already knew they were in Bethlehem and wanted to kill the Messiah, why not send Roman soldiers? Instead, it seems to appear that the authors of Matthew found it sensible to write that the wise men were to go to Herod and ask him information that was widely and publicly circulated, then they were to go to Bethlehem and find him, then they would travel from Bethlehem back to Jerusalem to inform Herod. Such a circumstance allows for only one conclusion, that the authors of Matthew had to provide a window of time for Joseph, Mary and Jesus to fear for their safety and flee out of Bethlehem.
Yet, if we look at the narrative in Luke 2:7, Mary gives birth to Jesus. In Luke 2:8-20, an angel appears to native shepherds who reside near Bethlehem and gives them the news about the Messiah. These shepherds and the angels, along with their conversation is totally absent from Matthew’s version. Luke 2:17-18 then says:
17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.
The Shepherds then announce the news of the angels and the news directly about Jesus. There is no warning about their safety, no concern about Herod wanting the Messiah to be killed, the shepherds made the news “known” and specifically that “all” who heard the news, wondered about it. Had they been concerned about the Messiah’s safety, why would they make the story “known”? The narratives here have very little overlap, indeed there is no fleeing to Egypt as Matthew recounts, but in the story of Luke, Jesus and his family venture into Jerusalem where Joseph and Mary are to present Jesus in the Temple, as Luke 2:22 says.
There is a simple explanation to all this. If Herod wanted to kill the Messiah, and he knew the Messiah had to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem for presentation before the Lord, then why not have the soldiers present within and throughout Jerusalem, wait at the Temple in secret and then kill every boy who is brought forth?
If one were to read the story of Matthew in isolation, it would be a suspenseful drama, filled with prophecies, fear, intrigue, mystery, violence and a great escape!
If one were to read the story of Luke in isolation, it would be filled with no suspense, no fear, no violence and no great escape, but rather it would appear to be a happy story without any worrying, anxiety or concern.
As Christmas comes closer, we will compare and contrast the various stories, try to make sense of them and even try to solve the contradictions without compromising on the text themselves. If it is possible to find an alternative version which perfectly harmonizes these two narratives, I would love to read it. Unfortunately, I’ve read from Tatian’s to modern authors such as Dr. Licona in an effort to find atleast one version that manages to combine these two narratives without having need to omit or add one element or another. What curious problems do you see in these narratives?
and God knows best.