Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Birth Narratives

In the synoptic gospels we find two birth narratives, that of Matthew and that of Luke, Mark has no birth narrative, nor does John.

It seems like one of the main questions that the birth narratives were trying to answer was the discrepancy between Jesus' home town of Nazareth where he grew up and began his ministry and traditions of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem.  The two birth narratives answer this apparent discrepancy in different ways.

In Matthew, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem where Jesus is then born.  Matthew makes clear that this birth in Bethlehem is to fulfill a prophecy from Micah 5:2.  Then, the Magi come and ask Herod where is the King of Israel.  The Magi visit the baby Jesus in a "house, " presumably their home in Bethlehem and then return without warning Herod.  Joseph is then warned by an angel in a dream to flee Bethlehem and Herod to Egypt.  Herod orders all of the children below the age of 2 killed (sound familiar?).  Then, after Herod dies, Joseph has two dreams, one telling him to return to Israel, and a second warning him not to go back to Judea (Bethlehem) but to go to Galilee, specifically the town of Nazareth. 

So, in summary, Matthew reconciles the discrepancy as follows: Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem where they give birth to Jesus, they then flee to Egypt, and upon returning to Israel, they settle in Nazareth.

Luke also tries to reconcile this discrepancy, but in a vastly different way.  In Luke, Joseph and Mary live in Nazareth.  The Angel Gabriel comes to Mary and announces the birth of Jesus, the Son of the Most High, Messiah.  When it actually comes time for the birth of Jesus, Luke tells the story of a Census ordered by Caesar Augustus and carried out by Quirinius the governor of Syria.  To register for this census, Joseph, from the tribe of Judah and of the House of David had to return to the town of David, Bethlehem.  It is while Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem registering for the census that Jesus is born. 

So, in summary, Luke reconciles the discrepancy as follows: Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth, but are summoned to Bethlehem to register for the census, Jesus is born, and then they return home to Nazareth.

Same question, different answer depending on which evangelist you ask.  What say you?


  1. I'm going to challenge a few things here. First, your original premise. What is the discrepancy? Jesus being "from" Nazareth and being born in Bethlehem? Isn't it natural for a person to call their hometown the place that they grew up, not the place where they were born? For example, my mother was born in Paris, TX. She has never lived there; my grandmther was living in Norman (I think), OK while my grandfather was serving in WWII. He insisted that his child be born a Texan, so they drove to Paris for awhile so that my mom could be born. After awhile, they moved back to Oklahoma and then ultimately to Dallas, where she grew up. She's from Dallas, not from Paris or Oklahoma. I don't think it's such a longshot to say the same thing for Jesus.

    Secondly, I think you're stretching the words of Matthew quite a bit to suggest that Matthew says they lived in Bethlehem. It begins the narrative with the Magi visiting them in Bethlehem, as you point out, in "a house." It doesn't say they live there. Given the fact that medicine back then is not what it is now, I would suspect that it would take some time before they would feel comfortable traveling with an infant.

    Ultimately, when I step back and look at the texts, I don't see actual conflict. For conflict to exist, certain inferences must be made based on a lack of information in one text or the other to have a conflict in the stories. I simply don't see it.

  2. It is clear from the gospels that there was criticism of a Messiah figure appearing in Nazareth. Both Matthew's and Luke's gospels appear to be trying to answer that question, namely to place Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, the city of David. So yes, there is no problem with Jesus being born in one town (Bethlehem) and then being "from" another town (Nazareth). What I find in interesting is the different ways in which the Gospel writers go about answering the question, and I do think their answers conflict with each other.

    Two reasons that I think it is clear in Matthew's gospel that Mary and Joseph did live in Bethlehem and then moved to Nazareth. First, the star appeared 2 years before the Magi showed up. So, Mary and Joseph, if they just came to give birth to Jesus, they appear to have stayed for at least two years. The second is that when the three return to Israel, Joseph is specifically warned in a dream not to go back to Judea. That statement would not be needed if they were not originally planning to return to their home in Judea (Bethlehem).

  3. You can harmonize the story like Pope (and many others) tries, but then you end up with a birth narrative that is not faithful to either Luke's or Matthew's.

  4. I find it interesting that the author of John's Gospel addressed the Galilee issue in 7:41 and yet felt no need to solve the conundrum. He ends it with, "Then they all went home..."

  5. It strikes me as quite odd that, if Luke feels required by Micah 5.2 to put Jesus as coming somehow from Bethlehem, he nonetheless misses the chance to reference that as a fulfillment of Micah 5.2! Ostensibly, Luke's less Jewish audience (than Matthew's) would need that OT reference even more to make sense of Luke's efforts to place Jesus in Bethlehem.

    Luke does make a remark about Bethlehem being the City of David, with the implication that this was an indication of Jesus' Davidic heritage, yet this is perhaps the earliest identification of the City of David as Bethlehem, the normal identification being Jerusalem proper. It certainly looks as though not only is Luke not trying to get Jesus to Bethlehem to fulfill Micah 5.2, in the absence of that factor he has to come up with a reason why Jesus was associated with Bethlehem at all.

    I am inclined to think there was a tradition of his being born in Bethlehem that was by Luke's time independent of the Micah prophecy, but whether that tradition originally arose because of Micah 5.2 expectations or because it was actually true (that's still a possibility), I really have no idea.

  6. Steve,
    I definitely think that this Bethlehem tradition predates Luke, and for that matter, Matthew as well, and it is also not clear that this was an attempt to fulfill Micah 5:2. It is certainly possible that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but the different handling of this tradition by the evangelists is interesting. You make some great points about no clear view of Bethlehem as the city of David. So, where did this idea of the Messiah coming to Bethlehem come from? Perhaps Micah 5:2, or perhaps Micah 5:2 is used to bolster the Messianic claim of Jesus based upon his historical birth in Bethlehem.