Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem Again: Possible Harmonizing Interpretations versus Probable Contextual Interpretations

the-starThere has been quite a bit of conversation about my post on the contradictions between the birth stories of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

In addition to various Facebook discussions, there was an earlier post by James McGrath, taking much the same view as mine, agreement from Neil Godfrey, Fred ClarkRobert Myles, and seemingly from Jim Davila. Then there was a post by Bill Heroman arguing that the two stories “absolutely can be” reconciled, except perhaps for the statement in Luke 2.39 that Joseph, Mary & Jesus went straight back to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth, and a post by Michael Kok arguing that it is “possible to reconcile the stories”, again with Luke 2.39 being the “the major obstacle” for reconciliation of Jesus’ birth stories in Matthew and Luke.

No doubt we could go into detailed arguments about the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. But there is a more fundamental hermeneutical choice involved here that I want to highlight.

I want you to note the language that I quoted above from Bill Heroman and Michael Kok: that harmonization “can be” done, or it is “possible to” find a harmonizing interpretation of the two stories. Also, note that the information in Luke 2.39 is seen as “a problem” (Heroman) and a “major obstacle” (Kok). This would be odd language if the goal was simply to seek the more probable meaning of each text. But can there really be a “problem” unless it is your primary goal to arrive at interpretations which result in a harmonization? Can there really be an “obstacle” unless it’s not actually your goal to seek the best meaning of each text (irrespective of whether that interpretation involves a contradiction or harmonization)?

It seems obvious that the so-called “problem” here is only for the harmonizer of texts, not for the exegete (whether in a historical-critical or more literary-critical role). That is, if your goal is to establish the better and more probable meaning of a text, then whether or not that meaning results in a contradiction with any further text is not a “problem” to be avoided at all costs. If however your goal is to attempt to harmonize two texts, which is the goal of many Evangelicals, including Bill and Michael, then harmonization can still be satisfied by a “possible” interpretation, an interpretation that “can be” defended (even if the possibility is less likely than other interpretations).

There is nothing ‘wrong’ with confessional goals in interpreting biblical texts, if it is clear that it is done in the service of Christians, for Christian Bible-reading. But on the other hand, if your goal is critical exegesis, it is insufficient to simply raise “possible” interpretations, without critically assessing which of these interpretations are also probable or at least plausible interpretations of the text. Yet that’s what I’ve seen here in response to James’ and my posts: the raising of a “possibility” in order to preserve a harmonizing, and so confessionally acceptable, interpretation. That’s fine for church, but not for the academy.

That’s why I wasn’t interested in narrowing interpretation of the two Jesus birth stories down to a single “problem” verse, such as Luke 2.39, and discussing “possible” ways to avoid a clear contradiction. That is a game for inerrantists, infallibalists, etc, including their more sophistic academic counterparts.  No – if you are interested in establishing the meaning of the text (as opposed to harmonizing the most “problematic” bits), you have to respect the whole context of the narratives before you. And so I return to my earlier post, in which I went through each narrative (with an eye on all relevant intertexts), respecting the narrative integrity of each text, and showed how they fundamentally differ, in every part of the narrative, in respect of two central elements: their geographical procession and their identification of Joseph’s initial hometown. The geographical processions are radically different, and have much to reveal about the different ideologies of each Gospel. Luke proceeds from Nazareth to Bethlehem and Jerusalem and back to Nazareth. But Matthew proceeds from Bethlehem to Egypt and involves a resettlement in Nazareth. In Luke, Nazareth is Joseph’s initial hometown; in Matthew, Bethlehem is Joseph’s initial hometown. The narrative progressions are different, and the contradiction exists at this wider level of the entire narrative, and cannot be reduced to a single verse seen as a “problem” to the would-be harmonizer.

If you try to base your interpretation  on a “possible” interpretation of the Bible (however forced or tendentious) by concentrating on ‘solving’ the most “problematic” verses, then you might succeed at the Evangelical game of harmonization, but not at critical scholarship.


15 thoughts on “Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem Again: Possible Harmonizing Interpretations versus Probable Contextual Interpretations

  1. Thanks Deane, I accept your counter-point that disagreements between the Synoptic Gospels should not be treated as “obstacles” to be harmonized away as differences bring out the distinct literary and theological aims of each evangelist. A strict inerrantist might not even be happy about my concession about Luke 2:39. :D I was originally looking at the question from the perspective of the Synoptic Problem: did Matthew and Luke record different infancy traditions because they were completely literary independent of each other or, if one knew the other, did one presuppose the other’s stories yet choose to narrate other traditions set a little earlier or later in time? Anyways, if we leave harmonization goals aside, have you seen Stephen Carlson’s recent article “The Accommodations of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem” ( You may find some interesting challenges to the conventional readings of Luke’s infancy narrative that “Nazareth” was “both” Mary’s and Joseph’s hometown, that Luke implies an improbable ancestral census rather than Joseph just registering in his actual hometown, and that Joseph did not have accommodations in Bethlehem (i.e. they had no room in their place to stay so Jesus was placed in a manger in the main room). Anyways, I enjoy these cross-blog conversations.


    • Thanks, Mike. Yeah – no doubt you’d have Norman Geisler & co declaring you a heretic for what you said about Luke 2.39. Mind you, you did just say it was an “obstacle”, not that it was an obstacle unable to be overcome. Left the gate open, eh?

      I did see Carlson’s article. I thought it was a stretch. And – in light of these inerrancy discussions, it’s a much older harmonizing technique to say that Joseph lived in Bethlehem, while only Mary lived in Nazareth (I’d reference something, but I’d have to find it, although I suspect there is quite a bit). Yet, the problem, in terms of the inerrancy argument, would then be that Matt 1.24-25 envisages that Joseph has already taken Mary into his house as wife a long while before Jesus was born, which is why the text hastens to add that they didn’t have sex before Jesus was born (ie. because they would ordinarily have been expected to, inside the marital house). So it’s hard then to say that Mary traveled to Bethlehem at the time she gave birth, and that only her house immediately prior was in Nazareth. (Though, it would be possible to reconcile this with Luke…)


    • “did one presuppose the other’s stories yet choose to narrate other traditions set a little earlier or later in time?”

      I get the feeling that, aside from these two passages telling very different stories (despite a few broad strokes in common), neither author has a particularly strong grip on chronology. King Herod is the archetypal villain for Matthew’s story, and even Luke seems to think the story is set “In the days of King Herod of Judea” (1:5) despite using the anachronistic census of Quirinius (which I suspect he got from Josephus) to set up the Jesus half of his nativity story.


  2. Deane, you’ve completely misrepresented my position and you’ve given me an affiliation that I have not claimed for decades. You’ve also imputed my goal to be harmonization, which I despise. I’ll assume you’re genuinely confused, rather than willfully obtuse., but I have little to say here that I didn’t already say on my blog. Maybe you should read it again.

    As to your argument about “possible” and “can be”, I used such language in specific rebuttal against your claims to the opposite effect. It seems disingenuous to accuse me of setting the terms when I was responding to you. This is disappointing, all around.

    Substantially, my contention remains that you’re committing a hermeneutical error when you elevate your own inferences to the level of “meaning”, and that you’re conveniently blurring the lines between narratological interpretation, on the one hand, and judicious reconstruction of the historical past, on the other. I say “conveniently” because you seem motivated to shut down possibilities.

    Narrative interpretation *is* possibility. Historical writing is judgment.

    If you want to argue about what did or didn’t actually happen, you need to differentiate better between these two categories. Imho.



    • You know, only Evangelicals call themselves “post-Evangelicals”, Bill.

      Yet, on the more substantive issue, you have repeated your claim that it is ok to settle with possibilities, rather than make a judgment as to which is the better possibility for interpretation. So this rather confirms my take on what you wrote earlier. It is precisely the same method as a harmonizer (whether you accept or reject the description, or maybe think of yourself as a ‘post-harmonizer’?)

      In addition, your description of this as a ‘narrative’ approach as opposed to an ‘historical’ approach is at best idiosyncratic, both from a narratological and historical-critical point of view. The positing of and investigation of possible meanings of a text is necessary for both narrative and historical criticism. And I certainly don’t want to ‘shut it down’ – quite the opposite – considering the possibilities of meaning should be increased! But when that goal serves a de facto method of harmonization, that is the problem. And despite your protestations, it does.


      • My bio also says I’m “post Episcopalian” and that’s equally irrelevant.

        My distinction between narratological reconstruction and historical inquiry is less “idiosyncratic” than you think it is… but thank you for confirming that you prefer to conflate (intermingle?) those categories.

        Here’s the central problem I have with historical criticism of the Gospels – as traditionally employed: when historical critics challenged fundamentalist (little f) readings they did so within the confines of fundamentalist (still little f) thinking. So, for example, Luke’s whole census story gets dismissed because he’s wrong about which Roman Governor took it, or Schweitzer says Jesus was surprised by his faltering prospects because Schweitzer equates narrative sequence with historical chronology, and harmonizes Matthew with Mark. This is not how historians think. This is not what historians do.

        One last time: harmonization is an effort to splice together contents of multiple texts . I have never promoted such business. To a harmonist, the whole is always equal to the sum of its parts, but historians – even historians who accept 99% of the material they analyze – are always trying to take 2+2 and come up with at least 5.

        Apologists are defensive. I prefer being offensive.

        Please don’t say I’m something I’m not.


      • You’re not post-Evangelical anymore?

        I note that your own bio reads, “Religiously, Bill is post episcopalian, post evangelical, post radical-house-church” (“About Bill Heroman”, by Bill Heroman).

        Does this mean you are post-post-Evangelical?

        I would never call you something you’re not, Bill. I hear your denials about being post-Evangelical, your denials about being a harmonizer, and your self-description as following an (idiosyncratically defined) ‘narrative’ approach to biblical texts. Yet I do not see much difference in substance from an evangelical harmonizer of texts. So long as you continue to privilege ‘possible’ interpretations which happen to involve harmonizing biblical texts, I’ll call you a harmonizer. As the meme goes, if you look like a duck, swim like a duck, and quack like a duck, then you’re probably a duck.

        Thanks for your discussion, Bill.


  3. You are right that my posts would probably have been no more welcome by Geisler and co at ETS than Gundry’s view that Matthew was doing creative midrash here. But good counter-argument on the potential implications of Matthew 1:24-25. I too think Luke has some familiarity with Josephus, so I wonder if he has just misdated the census under Quirinius when Herod Archelaus was desposed in 6 CE or did Luke know this famous census yet believe there was also an otherwise unattested “first” (prōtos) census when “Herod the Great was alive before 4 BCE (Acts 5:37 complicates the latter option as it just seems to address the same census as Josephus and highlights the activity of Judas the Galilean)? Anyways, I was just interested in the question of the compatibility or not of the two narratives on a literary level and can accept that the narratives are primarily vehicles for communicating Matthew’s and Luke’s distinctive theological points.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. re confessionally acceptable, you write “That’s fine for church, but not for the academy.” I think it is not fine or good for the church, whatever body that includes. The academy should undermine these biases all the time. If a primal task is to distinguish fine טוב from not so fine רעע, then let’s get on with it and not reinforce the prejudices required to make infallibility stick. It fills the world with unrecyclable tape.


  5. Well you kicked a hornet’s nest, Deane!

    My own view is identical to yours. They are two different stories—narratives—incompatible in theme and structure of plot. If Luke knew Matt’s version (or vice versa) then the best I can say is the one chose to ignore the other. (It would not be proper to suggest one is attempting to correct or supplement the other.)

    To Bill’s remarks—I would just say all we can do with these stories is narrative analysis. In terms of using these stories to create an historian’s representation of past events, I think we have almost nothing of value. The stories show mainly what different tradents in the early movement thought; their sole areas of overlap (Joseph, Mary and her virginal conception, birth in Bethlehem) represent kernels, not of truth, per se, but of kerygma. Jesus was “known” to have been born virginally, at Bethlehem—and this “knowledge” served evangelical purposes.


    • Matthew, I appreciate that you restricted your use of “incompatible” to “theme” and “plot” but I still think that’s the wrong word and concept for this analysis. You then contrast “incompatible” with “areas of overlap” as if compatible meant identical. Obviously, it does not. Finally, when you say “we” (in “all we can do”), I assume you mean scholars, not lay folks. Again, I appreciate the nuance, but these are my points of contention.

      What I have in view is the common experience of religious imagination, in which human beings who believe in their sacred scriptures treat these two different stories as if they were both true, and then try to envision the one (hypothetical) world in which all said things happened. Because my goal is to help such people think better and more clearly – to imagine that (hypothetical) past world in a more disciplined way – I resent the kind of academic ‘one upping’ that tells them they can’t reasonably imagine such things. As fans of novels, film and television, modern people know quite well what they can imagine. The popularity of “Mash-ups” is increasing; not decreasing. So even if you believe these stories are not both entirely true, I am asking scholars to give more studied consideration to the ideas of these people, who engage Luke and Matthew imaginatively AS IF they were true.

      Critically, I see no problem with reconstructing the world of the narratives as long as historical judgment waits in the wings. Likewise, historical judgment UP FRONT only alienates the determined religionist. It does not dissuade them from their beliefs. Since my aim is to help such persons think better, that critical stuff-arming is what frustrates me… all the more now, because if 2016 & 2017 taught us anything, it’s that religious people need more teaching. Not less.

      At any rate, there is room to bring more contextual imagination into critical studies which remain on the narrative level. Historical judgment not only CAN be suspended during hypothetical reconstructions, it often helps us focus and clarify which problems are more significant – as I believe I have demonstrated in my post to which Deane linked, above.


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