Answering Objections to the Christmas Story, Part 2

Last week I started a two-part series looking at the Christmas story with a critical eye, considering the objections which skeptics often raise to the Gospel accounts. The first article looked at the differences between Matthew and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus, their accounts of which of his parents an angel appeared to, and their descriptions of where Jesus’ family lived. In each case, we saw that different details are not the same as contradictory details—and, in fact, that the varying perspectives of Matthew and Luke reinforce their credibility as independent witnesses testifying based on their own knowledge and research.

Having considered these not-really-inconsistencies between the two accounts, this week we’ll be looking at two more alleged mistakes: An apparent misquotation by Matthew, and what looks like a historical error by Luke.

‘He Shall Be Called a Nazarene’?

As we saw in last week’s article, one of Matthew’s primary emphases was on Jesus’ role in fulfilling Old Testament prophecy. Matthew wanted to firmly root God’s incarnation in his Old Testament plans and promises, so he often quotes Old Testament passages and shows how they fit into the life of Jesus Christ. The first such reference comes almost immediately, as Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel'” (Matt 1:22-23).

All told, the first three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel contain six explicit references to Jesus fulfilling Old Testament prophecy. It is the fifth reference which raises questions. Matthew 2:23 states, “And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.”

Except nowhere in the Old Testament does it say the Messiah would be called a Nazarene, nor is there any other obvious reference to explain what Matthew is talking about here.

What could Matthew have been thinking? The rest of his Gospel reveals a meticulous author with deep reverence for the Old Testament, so the idea that he either carelessly or dishonestly misquoted it here seems implausible, even if we’re adopting a skeptical perspective for the sake of the argument. After all, if he was trying to artificially strengthen the case that Jesus was the Messiah, why do it with an Old Testament quote that isn’t in the Old Testament, especially when writing to a Jewish audience that would have been very familiar with what was and wasn’t in their sacred Scriptures?

The key to the answer lies in a striking deviation in verse 2:23 from what scholars call Matthew’s “fulfillment formula.” Here are the other five ways in which Matthew cites Old Testament prophecies in his first three chapters:

  • “…what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (1:23)
  • “…what has been written by the prophet” (2:5)
  • “…what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (2:15)
  • “…what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet” (2:17)
  • “For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said…” (3:3).

Now read Matthew 2:23 again, carefully: “…what was spoken through the prophets.” Notice the difference? After specifically referring to “the prophet,” sometimes even identifying the prophet in question by name (but not always, illustrating how familiar Matthew’s readers must have been with their Scriptures), in verse 2:23 he only cites “the prophets”—a generic, plural reference. He seems to be appealing to the prophets collectively, not to some particular prophet.

This changes our perspective. Rather than searching for a verse which specifically declares “He shall be called a Nazarene,” we ought to be asking whether the Old Testament prophets foretold a general idea about the Messiah which points to his being called a Nazarene. And in fact, they did. There are numerous prophecies that the Messiah would be treated with contempt by his countrymen, and in Jesus’ day, Nazareth was a small, despised town which apparently had become proverbial for being on the wrong side of the tracks. So, for example, when Nathaniel learned where Jesus was from his immediate response was, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). A first-century Jew would have understood how Jesus’ hometown fit perfectly with prophecies of the world’s rejection and disdain of the Messiah.

Another association which Matthew probably had in mind is an auditory one. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isa 11:1) is one of several prophecies which speak of Jesus as a “branch,” a word which is pronounced netzer in Hebrew. As Matthew looked back at Old Testament prophecies, he was inspired by the Spirit to notice the meaningful connection between Jesus, the crucified Nazarene, and the despised netzer who had been foretold. It is not as clearly articulated and precise as the other prophecies which Matthew cites, but it is a way in which Jesus’ life had the flavor which was foretold by “the prophets”—exactly as Matthew said.

Quirinius’ Census

Pegging your story to real history makes it vulnerable to investigation and critique (which may be part of the reason why other religions’ holy writings tend to stay safely in the realm of metaphysics or mythology), so one of the striking things about all the Gospels is how many verifiable historical details they include. Luke in particular mentions an amazing number of people, places, and events in his accounts, reflecting his detail-oriented physician’s mind. And, like the rest of the Bible, modern archaeology has confirmed the accuracy of a number of Luke’s historical references. But some questions still remain, and one of the most challenging is Luke’s introduction to the story of Jesus’ birth. Luke 2 records,

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 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, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

The Jewish historian Josephus does record a census of Judea carried out by the governor of Syria, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, but it took place in AD 6-7, about a dozen years after Jesus would have been born. To skeptics, the explanation is obvious: Luke had heard of the census but did not know the details, so he grasped for it when trying to weave some historical strands into his made-up narrative of Jesus’ birth, not realizing he had the wrong date by more than a decade.

But wait… Luke seems quite aware of the census that took place in 6-7 AD. In verse 2:2 he refers to “the first registration,” implying another, later one, and he also quotes Gamaliel in Acts 5:37 speaking of a revolt which occurred in 6 AD in response to the census of that year. Luke obviously knew about the census Josephus records and knew when it happened.

On the other hand, historical records indicate that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6 AD, so Luke does seem to have a problem with his dates if he says Quirinius oversaw a census a dozen years earlier. We’ll come back to this problem in a moment, but first we need to note a few other objections to Luke’s story. Outside of his account, we have no evidence for an empire-wide census under Caesar Augustus. What we do know is that a typical Roman census would not have required Joseph to travel to Bethlehem, and Romans did not conduct censuses in client kingdoms like Herod’s. So, at first glance, both the dating and the description of Luke’s census seem implausible.

As we consider this problem, we ought to start with two points. First, we are digging through very sparse data when we try to gather information about the ancient world. If archaeologists could not find any evidence (apart from the Bible) of the powerful Hittite civilization until the 19th century, it is safe to say that even important events may have little or no historical attestation. Secondly, we need to remember that, generally speaking, Luke’s historical accounts have been found to be remarkably accurate. Even from a secular perspective, his usual trustworthiness ought to win him the benefit of the doubt as long as what he records is not impossible.

So is it impossible? Let’s take it piece-by-piece. Luke’s use of the present tense in describing Augustus’ decree suggests that he was referring to an ongoing process of counting imperial citizens rather than a massive, one-time event. We do know that Romans conducted frequent censuses. Roman citizens were counted every five years, and historians have uncovered descriptions of regular censuses in the province of Egypt every fourteen years. And while client kingdoms were not usually subject to censuses because they collected their own taxes to send to Rome, tension had developed between Herod and Augustus and it is not implausible to think that Rome might have conducted a census to assert more control over Judea.

But would a Roman census have sent Joseph back to his ancestral town? It certainly would have been unusual; in fact, there is no record of a census operating in that way. But the Romans did tend to allow their subjects latitude to conduct projects like a census according to their local practices. Given the importance of ancestry to the Jews, and the fact that land was passed down through families, it is not implausible that some official decided that sending everyone back to their hometown was a logical way to organize things. (Remember that Judea was a very small place and the Jews were used to traveling to Jerusalem for religious festivals.) We need to remember that Luke never says Joseph went to Bethlehem because his long-removed ancestor David had lived there. Rather, Luke speaks of Joseph being “of the house and lineage of David.” It is quite reasonable to think that David’s descendants retained property in Bethlehem and Joseph was simply returning to the hometown of his immediate family.

But what about the problem of dates? Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 AD and immediately commenced the census which both Josephus and Luke refer to, but what about the “first registration” which Luke describes? It would have been 10-14 years before Quirinius became governor of Syria, seemingly making a hash of any attempt at consistent dating. But wait… The word which is usually rendered “was governor of” in our English translations is hēgemoneuontos, which is less precise than legatus, the Roman word for the governor of a region. A hégemoneuó was simply someone who governed in some way; not necessarily the official governor.

History tells us that Quirinius was a highly regarded military commander operating in nearby Asia Minor from 12-1 BC. We also know that Syria transitioned between two legates in 7-6 BC. Is it possible that during this transition Quirinius had an authoritative role in Syria and was tasked with initiating or overseeing a census which became associated with his name, especially after he directed a second one a dozen years later? Certainly. Do we have evidence to say this is actually what happened? No… but yes. We have the testimony of a painstaking and reliable historian named Luke who tells us that this, or something like it, did indeed happen.

Putting the pieces together, we can safely say that a census like what Luke records would have been unusual, but not impossible. In the sparsely attested realm of ancient history, and coming from an otherwise reliable historian, there is no reason for even a skeptic to throw aside Luke’s account as unbelievable, or even especially unlikely. And, of course, a Christian who has other, independent reasons for believing in the inerrancy of Scripture has every reason to believe that Luke will eventually be vindicated on this question as he has been on so many others.

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