The story of Jesus' birth is only recounted in Matt 1:18-2:23, and Luke 1:26-2:39. Matt begins with a genealogy tracing Jesus's ancestry back to Abraham (Matt 1:1-16) whereas Luke, after relating the story of Jesus' baptism, provides a genealogy back to Adam (Luke 3:23-38). A brief tale is included about Jesus' childhood in Luke 2:41-52, but other than this, all four Gospels are silent about Jesus' life before his ministry in adulthood.
In Luke's account of Jesus' birth there is evidence of different stories being woven together. When the angel tells Mary that she will conceive (Luke 1:26-33,35-37), this is in the future tense, but Mary replies that she 'knew' no man (Luke 1:34). If she meant that she knew no man at that time, she is ignoring the fact that the prediction is for the future. If however she meant that no future relationship with a man was likely that could result in a conception, this conflicts with Luke 1:27 which states that she was engaged to be married to Joseph.
In fact, virgin births, or divine births, were widely acknowledged at the time; Neith of Sais in Egypt, whose offspring was the sun; Horus conceived by Isia through the 'power' given to her by Thoth, the mind of the God of the universe; Nana, a virgin who gave birth to Attis; Hera who conceived and produced Typhon; Io who was made pregnant by the divine hand, to cite just a few examples. The story simply offers further evidence for the mythological basis for Jesus' birth, and indeed, his overall existence.
As stated, only Matt and Luke mention the virgin birth. One would presume that if something as miraculous as a virgin birth had occurred, Mark and John would have also mentioned it. And yet they do not. Furthermore, the apostle Paul does not mention the virgin birth: when he does mention Jesus' birth, he says that Jesus 'was born of the seed of David' (Rom 1:3) and was 'born of a woman' (Gal 4:4): thus he appeared to have no knowledge of the miraculous birth.
If the occurrences as recorded by Matt and Luke did actually take place, it is somewhat difficult to understand why, as reported in Mark 3:20-21, that Jesus' family tried to seize him as they considered he had become insane, and in Mark 6:4-6 Jesus is reported as saying that he received no honour among his own relatives and household. Furthermore the bewilderment of Mary and Joseph concerning their son, expressed in Luke 2:50 is incomprehensible if the virgin birth tale had any basis in fact. The silence of Paul and other writers (e.g., the author of 1 John who struggles to assert Jesus' physical existence but never uses the birth story) concerning Jesus' birth indicates that the birth story, later mythologized into the virgin birth tale, arose at a late date and only in certain areas.
The main feature of each genealogy is to show that Jesus is the Davidic messiah, a fact not only mentioned in the Gospels (e.g., Matt 12:23, 15:22, Mark 10:47,48, 11:10, Luke 18:38,39, John 7:42), but elsewhere, e.g., Rom 1:3, 2 Tim 2:8, Rev 5:5. But the genealogies fail to achieve their goal as it was Joseph who was descended from David, but if Jesus was virgin born, he would therefore not be physically related to Joseph. Mary is not mentioned in Luke's list, and is only mentioned in Matt's when it is said that she was Joseph's wife (1:16).
In fact Mary was of Aaron's line as Luke 1:5 says Elizabeth was 'a daughter of Aaron', and Mary was, according to Luke 1:36, related (a 'kinswoman') to Elizabeth. Several versions (e.g., Phillips, Knox, AV) translate their relationship as cousins. If Mary was descended from Aaron, she was not of the Davidic descent as, according to 1 Chron, Aaron was ended from Levi while David was descended from Judah.
Attempts to account for the differences between the genealogies of Matt and Luke are unsuccessful: for example it is suggested that Matt's list relates to Joseph while Luke's relates to Mary. But as stated, Mary is not even mentioned in Luke's list. It is also suggested that as Joseph was Jesus' 'legal parent' this provided Jesus with Davidic descent, but this fails to explain the Biblical references to Jesus being 'descended from David according to the flesh' (Rom 1:3. See John 7:42 and Rev 22:16 also).
The actual content of each genealogy creates yet further problems. Apart from the different names which appear, Luke has 23 from David to Zerubbabel inclusive, whereas Matt has only 17. From Zerubbabel to Joseph inclusive, Luke has 20 names, but Matt has only 11.
Matt's complete list can be seen to be artificial as it is constructed to present three sets of fourteen generations ('All the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon (Jeconiah) fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon (Jeconiah) to the Christ fourteen generations' Matt 1:17). The artificial nature is also betrayed as each set begins with an important event in Israel's history, and Matt's author has had to place Jeconiah at both the end of the second list and the beginning of the third to produce a list of fourteen names. Apart from the juggling with names and numbers, Matt omits names from the 1 Chron 3 list (Joash, Amaziah, and Azoriah) and notwithstanding the difference in the number of generations between Matthew and Luke, the latter has 77, suggesting that this has also been deliberately constructed, i.e., in view of how Judaism viewed the number 7, i.e., its sacred significance, its usage is unlikely to be coincidental. The tables are as follows:
The parent(s) of Jesus
In addition to the genealogies, problems abound in the story of Jesus' birth. Luke 2:5 says that Joseph and Mary were only engaged as they travelled to Bethlehem, but Matt has Joseph being called her husband and Mary referred to as his wife, before the birth in 1:19 and 1:20. Moreover, the virgin birth of Jesus appears to be unknown in certain parts of Luke, e.g., both Joseph and Mary are referred to as Jesus' 'parents' in 2:27,41,43, and 'his father and his mother' in 2:33. In Luke 2:48 when Mary speaks to Jesus, she refers to Joseph as his 'father'. As so often occurred, when the text disagreed with later church teaching, Luke 2:43 has been amended by a copyist resulting in some MSS having not 'parents' but 'Joseph and his mother' when referring to Jesus.
It should not pass unnoticed that one ancient MSS has in Matt 1:16 'Jacob begat Joseph; Joseph to whom was espoused Mary the virgin, begat Jesus, who is called the Christ', making Joseph the natural father of Jesus.
The events described in Matt and Luke from the announcement of Mary's conception are as follows:-
|An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, telling him about Mary being pregnant (Matt 1:18-24)||Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that she will conceive. Mary visits Elizabeth and then returns home. Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem because of the census (Luke 1:26-2:5)|
|Jesus is born (Matthew 1:25)||Jesus is born (Luke 2:6-7)|
|Wise men come to Jerusalem and then travel to Bethlehem to see Jesus (Matt 2:1-12)||An angel of the Lord appears to shepherds who then visit Jesus (Luke 2:8-20)|
|An angel of the Lord tells Joseph to flee into Egypt to escape Herod who then orders the slaughter of all male infants in Bethlehem (Matt 2:13-18)||Jesus is circumcised after eight days and the family go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice (2:21- 24). Simeon's praise in the Temple with the infant Jesus (2:25- 35). Anna's praise in the Temple area (Luke 2:36-38).|
|An angel informs Joseph that Herod is dead: the family leave Egypt and go up to Nazareth to avoid Herod's son Archelaus in Judea (Matt 2:19-23).||The family return to Nazareth. (Luke 2:39)|
Notes on the above:
(1)The announcement of Jesus' birth is to Joseph in Matt (Matt 1:20-24), but to Mary in Luke (Luke 1:26- 38).
(2)In Matt, Joseph and Mary's home was in Bethlehem, but Luke describes how Joseph and Mary are compelled to travel eighty miles from Nazareth down to Bethlehem because of the census: the outcome of this is Jesus being born there. In Matt, Jesus only ends up in Nazareth due to his family wishing to avoid Archelaus (King Herod's successor) in Judea.
(3)Other than references to one by Christians after the sixth century, there is no evidence for a census of the whole Roman empire as mentioned by Luke ('that all the world should be enrolled'). Josephus mentions a census under Quirinius but this related to Judea only.
(4)When visiting the infant Jesus, the wise men go to a house in Matt (2:11), but, according to Luke, Jesus was in a stable when the shepherds visited (Luke 2:7,12,16): therefore a question arises concerning when the wise men actually visited. Furthermore, apart from Matt saying the wise men visited Jesus in 'a house', he also relates how Herod had all male infants of two years of age, or less, killed (Matt 2:16): it would therefore seem that Matt's story of the visit by the wise men does not refer to the new-born Jesus, but when he was slightly older, i.e., up to two years. Nonetheless, this does not resolve any of the difficulties, as Matt says that after the visit of the wise men, the family flee to Egypt and remain there until Herod has died and even after returning, they avoid Jerusalem and Judea, and yet Luke reports the family making an annual visit to Jerusalem.
(5)Luke has the family going to the Jerusalem Temple for the purification (2:22) - the law required an offering forty days after the birth: they then return to Nazareth but visit Jerusalem each year for the passover (Luke 2:39-41). But Matt has the family fleeing to Egypt after the birth where they remain until Herod is dead. And even after his death, the family avoid Judea and travel up to Nazareth: there is no suggestion that they 'returned' there (Matt 2:19-22).
(6)Although Matt and Luke state that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the background is wholly different. Matt cites (or rather, misquotes) Micah 5:2 to argue that Jesus' birth there fulfilled a prophecy. In contrast, Luke says that Mary and Joseph travelled from their home in Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea because of a census (Luke 2:4). Matt says that it was only after the birth that Mary and Joseph resided in Nazareth, and the reason for this was their fear of returning to Judea (Matt 2:21-23).
In addition to these problems, there are irreconcilable chronological differences. Matt's account has Jesus born when Herod ruled: his reign was 37 BCE to 4 BCE. Archelaus, Herod's son, whom the family wished to avoid, ruled from 4 BCE to 6 CE. However Luke says the birth occurred at the time of a census under Quirinius, the governor, but Quirinius did not become governor until after Herod had died. During the latter part of Herod's reign (to 4 BCE), the governors were Titius (10 BCE), Sentius Saturninus (9 - 6 BCE) and Varus (6 - 4 BCE). It is known that Varus was still governor after Herod had died as he dealt with a revolt in Palestine after Herod's death.
Quirinius was governor in 6 CE and while he may have been governor as early as 3 - 2 BCE, this was still subsequent to Herod's death (in 4 BCE). The Christian apologist Tertullian attempted to 'resolve' the problem by saying the census mentioned in Luke was one under Sentius Saturninus; but this cannot be correct as Luke 2:2 clearly states that Jesus was born during the census held under Quirinius. It would seem that the only reason for Luke placing Jesus' birth at the time of the census is to have the family at Bethlehem rather than their home in Nazareth when Jesus is born.
In the upshot, Matt has Jesus' birth before 4 BCE (before Herod's death) while Luke has it at the time of a census (6 CE), a difference of at least ten years. In fact, Luke's portrayal of a Roman census forcing everyone to go to the place from where their family was descended is ludicrous (In Joseph's case, to Bethlehem where David, his ancestor had been born) as such an order would have caused a bureaucratic nightmare. The purpose of the Roman census was for taxation: the Romans were interested in where the people lived and worked, not where they were born or their ancestors were born (which they could have found out by simply asking rather than causing thousands of people to travel).
In the matter of the 6 CE census (conflicting with Jesus' birth during Herod's rule in Matt), Christians have suggested that there was a census before the one under Quirinius but this is fanciful. For example, Acts, written by the same author as Luke, mentions the 6 CE census in 5:37, referring to it as 'the census', thereby indicating this was the only census known to the author. Luke's author would hardly refer to the 6 CE census as 'the census' if he knew of an earlier one carried out in the time of Herod's rule. Acts also links the census with the revolt by Judas the Galilean; Josephus also mentions this individual, and this is in connection with the 6 CE revolt to which Acts 5:37 is obviously referring. Indeed, as Prof. George Wells states:A Roman census in Palestine in Herod's time was out of the question. Although then under Roman influence, it was not made part of the Roman Empire until 6 CE, ten years after Herod's death, when Augustus deposed Herod's son Archelaus and incorporated his territory into the province of Syria...If the Romans had, contrary to their known policy, carried out a valuation census on Herod's territory, this would have been extremely unpopular...in which case we should expect it to be recorded by Josephus...but he makes no mention of it. (Who Was Jesus?, La Salle: IL: Open Court, 1989, p.61)There are yet further problems with Luke's census; even the 6 CE census would not have affected Galilee where Joseph and Mary are said to have resided. On Herod's death, the southern part of the kingdom was given to Archelaus, but Galilee in the north was placed in the hands of Antipas, another of Herod's sons (who ruled until 39 CE). Therefore the 6 CE census would have only affected the inhabitants of the southern provinces and not the northern area; thus, Joseph and Mary would have had no need to travel to Bethlehem or anywhere else for that matter.
It has been claimed that the Ramsay inscription supports the view that Quirinius governed Syria before Herod died (in which case Luke's census under Quirinius could have occurred in Herod's time, thus agreeing with Matt); however, in contrast to such claims by Christians (sometimes involving misquoting the inscription), all that the inscription proves is that Quirinius was elected chief magistrate (dummvir) of the Pisidian Antioch colony and nominated Gaius Caristanius Fronto as his prefect. If anything is to be made from this, it still necessitates amending the wording of Luke 2:2 to say something very different from the text as it stands.
See also 'The date of the nativity in Luke'.
A further chronological problem is the mention of a star in Matt 2:1,2,7,9,10.Behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying 'Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him...Firstly, a star which travelled south and then stopped moving over a particular house would have been truly remarkable indeed - and yet no record of such an event was made. In view of this, Christians have attempted to trace some astronomical occurrence that could have been the miraculous star. However these attempts have been unsuccessful, e.g., it could not have been Halley's comet as this only appears every seventy-seven years and the appearance which was closest to the time of Jesus' supposed birth was 11-12 BCE. There was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BCE, and Mars passed by in 6 BCE, but these would not have resulted in the phenomenon described in Matt 2.
And lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was.
The evangelical-fundamentalist Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1963) also concedes the problem. It mentions the planetary conjunction but says: 'This conjunction would not have been visible to the wise men for it was too near the sun. Another difficulty is that 6 BC is two years too early for the birth of Christ'. It then refers to the possibility that the star was a nova but admits 'the problem in this case is to explain how such a bright star could serve as a guide to the wise men'. It then mentions Venus, but acknowledges 'these wise men knew the movements of the planets, and therefore the bright appearance of Venus would hardly have served as a guide'.
Consequently, the matter is feebly summarized as: 'We have here another of the many Bible miracles which modern science is unable to explain' (p.81). But it is not the task of 'modern science' to account for events in the Bible and it is pitiful that the writer should seek to shift responsibility for the problem on to another party. It is the responsibility of those who assert the accuracy of the Bible, and it is they who need to explain how such an occurrence went unrecorded by the astronomers of that time.
In Matt, prophecies play a major part. For the virgin birth itself, Matt cites Isaiah 7:14 claiming that it referred to Jesus' birth and the virgin Mary. But the verse actually refers to King Ahaz and the Syro-Ephraimite war many centuries earlier (ca. 734 BCE) when Ahaz of Judah was concerned about the northern kingdom and Damascus (capital of Syria), who were plotting against Judah. Isaiah speaks and offers him a sign: a male child would be born and before the child is old enough to know to 'refuse evil and choose the good', Assyria would lay waste both Samaria and Damascus.
If Ahaz was concerned with an imminent attack from Samaria and Syria, a sign related to hundreds of years in the future would obviously be of no interest to him. There is the further point that if the Immanuel child was the sinless Jesus, i.e., God incarnate, the comment about not knowing enough to choose good over evil is somewhat inappropriate. There is the further point that Isaiah says the child will be called Immanuel, but nowhere in the New Testament does anyone ever call Jesus 'Immanuel'.
The Hebrew word used for the girl who was to conceive is 'almah', meaning 'young woman' and not 'virgin': the Torah does in fact have an explicit word for virgin (betulah or bethulah), when it is always used where the context requires virginity (See Gen 24:16, Lev 21:14, Deut 22:15-19). It even appears in Isaiah in 62:5. Its nonuse in the Isa 7:14 'Immanuel' passage clearly indicates that Isaiah spoke only of a young woman, and not specifically of a virgin. Moreover, apart from fundamentalists, modern commentaries agree with Talmudic scholars that Isaiah's 'sign' is unrelated to a coming a messiah. For example:It is clear, however, that...Isaiah 7:14 did not speak of the miraculous birth of Jesus centuries later...The sign of Immanuel offered by the prophet to Ahaz had to do with the imminent birth of a child, of a mother known to Ahaz and Isaiah, and signified God's presence with his people....(Harper's Bible Dictionary (gen. ed. Paul J. Achtemeier), 1985, p.419)Additionally, Isaiah's word for 'sign' appears in the Hebrew Bible to indicate an imminent sign or omen, not one in the distant future. And indeed, it is obvious that Isaiah's words are fulfilled a shorrt time later when in Isa 8:3-4, a certain prophetess gives birth to a son.
Even the Greek rendering of the word, 'virgin', only meant 'young girl' and did not automatically denote an actual virgin state. Nonetheless if a literal 'virgin' was meant, Isaiah would only be saying that a female who is a virgin at the time that he is speaking, will produce a son. When this occurs, the current political uncertainty facing Ahaz will no longer be present. In sum, the Isa 7:14 text is not a messianic prophecy and therefore cannot be applied to Jesus.
Another occasion of Matt claiming Jesus fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy is when Jer 31:5 is cited in respect of Herod's 'slaughter of the innocents'. Matt says that Herod, in an attempt to kill the infant Messiah, had all the male children two years old and under put to death in Bethlehem and its environs, and that this was in fulfillment of Jeremiah's 'prophecy'.
This is a pure invention on the author's part. Herod was guilty of many monstrous crimes, including the murder of several members of his own family. However, ancient historians such as Josephus, who delighted in listing Herod's crimes, do not mention what would have been Herod's greatest crime. The context of Jer 31:15 makes it clear that the weeping is for the people about to be taken into exile in Babylon, and has nothing to do with Herod's slaughtering of children many hundreds of years later.
Another supposed prophecy fulfilment in this section of Matt is Hosea 11:1 when Matt reports that Mary, Joseph and Jesus flee to Egypt to escape Herod, and then says (2:15) that the return of Jesus from Egypt (after Herod's death) was in fulfillment of Hosea's prophecy. However, Matt quotes only the second half of Hosea 11:1. The first half of the verse makes it very clear that the verse refers to God calling the Israelites out of Egypt in the exodus, and has nothing to do with a temporary stay in Egypt by the infant Jesus.
In the light of the conflicting information, which is often irreconcilable, it is difficult to conclude anything other than the accounts of Jesus' birth in both Matthew and Luke are fictitious. This then leads to the question of why a fictitious account should be necessary if the person (Jesus) actually lived? In the upshot, the story, or rather stories, reveal that:
1. The gospel writers contradict each other.
2. The gospel writers rewrote history when it suited their purposes.
3. The gospels were edited to accommodate the evolving dogma of the church.
4. The gospel writers misused the Old Testament to provide prophecies for Jesus to fulfill.