The account of Jesus’ birth is one of the most famous and best-loved stories in the Bible. The pathetic little group in a Bethlehem stable would have made an unimpressive scene, but with the hindsight of history we know the instant of Jesus’ birth marked the thunderclap moment when God stepped into a dying world to beat death at its own game. And what an invasion! The Creator of the universe, born as a human infant, dependent on a young mother’s care to survive. On both a cosmic and a personal scale, it is hard to beat the story—and it has the added merit of being true.
Or so we believe. As we head into the season when we particularly celebrate the birth of the Savior of the world, you are likely to hear attacks on the Christmas story, as skeptics argue that parts of it are implausible or contradictory. I hope my articles this week and next week will prepare you with good answers for the most common objections to the historical accounts of Jesus’ birth.
Of the four Gospels, only Matthew and Luke describe the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem. That in itself is an interesting window into the way in which God divinely orchestrated the testimony of four different writers to create a fuller and richer picture than any one author provides. Four parallel birth narratives would have done us little good. In fact, it would have been hard to avoid the suspicion that they were simply copying from one another. Instead, each Gospel’s introduction of Jesus offers a little window into its author’s particular passions and focuses.
One of Mark’s emphases is servanthood, both of Jesus and his followers. Thus, Mark’s Gospel offers Jesus all the backstory that a servant demands: none. In his typically impatient fashion, Mark has an adult Jesus being baptized by John in the wilderness by verse 9.
The Apostle John, on the other hand, wanted to emphasize that Jesus was the divine Son of God. And so his Gospel heralds the Savior with the famous introduction, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We are reminded of eternity and of God’s eternal purposes, then offered the beautiful assurance that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Matthew and Luke had their own interests and emphases, but explaining those offers a good segue to the first difficulty we’ll consider here. (Next week, I will examine why Matthew says the Old Testament foretold that Jesus would be a Nazarene and whether Luke got the chronological details of the journey to Bethlehem wrong.)
Why Are Jesus’ Genealogies So Different?
Both Matthew and Luke incorporate a lengthy genealogy into their birth narratives. The very first line of Matthew promises “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The list of names begins with Abraham and traces a line through King David to Jesus. Luke, on the other hand, waits until chapter 3 to begin his genealogy, and he begins with Jesus and works his way backward all the way to Adam, passing by David and Abraham along the way.
The part that seems odd at first glance is that even though Luke and Matthew are in almost perfect agreement on Jesus’ ancestry between Abraham and David (Matthew jumps from grandfather to grandson at one point, leaving Luke with one extra name), between David and Jesus the two lists radically diverge, to the point of apparent absurdity. Luke lists 41 names between David and Jesus, while Matthew lists 27, and the two lists have almost no names in common. It’s almost as if they are genealogies for two different people…
Very, very much like that, in fact.
An ordinary Jewish genealogy would have traced decent from father to son, but Jesus’ case is complicated by the virgin birth, of which both Gospel authors are quite aware. Luke refers to Jesus as “the son (as was supposed) of Joseph,” while Matthew varies his “father of” formula to refer to “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” The two writers respond differently to the virgin birth in their genealogies.
Matthew appears to have been writing to a predominantly Jewish audience which was very concerned with Jesus’ status as the foretold greater son of King David. One of Matthew’s focuses is on how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament’s Messianic prophecies and covenant promises. Therefore, Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, and progresses to King David before branching off to follow the lineage of Joseph, because Jesus’ legal status would have been through his adoptive father. In the providence of God, Joseph’s ancestry meant that Jesus’ genealogy flowed through the royal line of Israel, beginning with David’s heir, Solomon.
In contrast, Luke was a trained doctor with an eye for detail, and he was writing to a broader audience in the Mediterranean world. Luke’s readers would have been less interested in Jewish Messianic prophecies, but they would have been keenly aware of the realities of sin and death which created the need for a Savior. Therefore, Luke’s genealogy connects all the way back to Adam, the first man and the first sinner, and painstakingly traces Jesus’ lineage, not through his legal father, but through his mother, Mary. Since both Joseph and Mary were descendants of David the genealogies overlap to that point, but then Mary’s follows the line of David’s son Nathan rather than Solomon.
Admittedly, Luke’s gospel never explicitly says “This is Jesus’ lineage through his mother Mary,” but a genealogy through one’s mother would have been bizarre in those days and there was no typical formula to follow. Luke’s reference to Jesus being “the son (as was supposed) of Joseph” signals the unusual situation, and then he moves on to declare Jesus “the huios of Heli” (presumably Mary’s father), using a Greek word which is usually translated “son” but can simply mean “descendant.”
Unless one is determined to put Luke and Matthew at loggerheads, the near-perfect agreement in their genealogies from Abraham to David followed by such a radical difference ought to signal that we are dealing with two different genealogies for two different parents. And the neat correspondence between the respective parents and the Gospel writers’ primary interests only makes the case that much stronger.
To Whom Was Jesus’ Birth Announced?
According to Matthew, an angel appeared to Joseph as he pondered whether to quietly divorce the newly pregnant Mary. The angel explained that the child had been conceived by the Holy Spirit and was the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s Messianic promises. There is no mention of any angelic appearance to Joseph’s wife.
In contrast, Luke only tells us that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce her imminent conception. His Gospel does not record any appearances to Joseph.
If you are wondering why skeptics often list this difference as a contradiction between the Gospel accounts, that’s a great question. Obviously, there is no tension whatsoever between the accounts if we simply assume that an angel appeared to Mary to declare the news that “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son” (as Luke records), and then once Mary was visibly pregnant and Joseph needed reassurance that all was well, an angel appeared to him as well (as Matthew records).
It is also worth noting that it is Luke, who recorded Mary’s genealogy, is also the one who describes her angelic visitation, while Matthew records both the genealogy and the angelic message to Joseph. Like any historian, each writer picked certain events and themes to tell the story in his own way. Only a willful refusal to reconcile the two narratives creates any sort of difficulty.
Where Was Jesus’ Family From?
In Luke’s account, Mary and Joseph are living in Nazareth when Gabriel appears to her. Only in Luke 2, at the behest of a Roman census (more on that next week!), do the couple travel to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born. Luke then describes Jesus’ presentation at the Temple before bringing the little family back to Nazareth in Galilee, where Jesus grew up.
In Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, Bethlehem is the first location named, as Matthew 2 states that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king.” Matthew describes the family’s flight from Herod into Egypt, then their return: “And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to 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, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth.”
Interestingly, Matthew’s wording implies that he may not have known Mary and Joseph were originally from Nazareth. This encourages skeptics who argue that both authors simply tried different ways to shoehorn Bethlehem into their birth narratives to fulfill the Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah would be born there. However, once again, this unnecessarily creates a contradiction where none actually exists. Matthew says Jesus was born in Bethlehem and then grew up in Nazareth. Luke says Jesus’ parents were from Nazareth, he was born in Bethlehem, and then he grew up in Nazareth. The contradiction is where, exactly?
In fact, if we conclude that Matthew did not know where Jesus’ parents were originally from, that actually strengthens the historical value of the Gospel accounts because it shows that each author acted as an independent witness. Matthew did his own research to supplement his personal experience, as did Luke, and both writers learned and recorded those facts which God wanted in their particular accounts. Narratives where the authors collaborated and tried to synchronize their tales would have far fewer of the omissions and differences which we find between Gospels. In fact, the Gospel writers have the perfect balance for credibility: None of the artificial agreement that would undermine their independence, but also none of the contradictions that would disprove their divine inspiration.