The Two Stories of Jesus’ Birth in Bethlehem


At this time of year, it’s common to see pictures of the Christmas story or to hear someone retell the story: Jesus in a manger, wise men visiting with gifts, angels and shepherds, etc. But all of these depictions are based on two quite different accounts of Jesus’ birth: one in the Gospel of Matthew and the other in the Gospel of Luke. The two accounts are not only different, but contradictory.

The popular retelling of the Christmas story usually involves a conflation (or mix-up) and harmonization (blurring of differences and contradictions) of elements from these two different stories.

But let’s examine each of them, to seek to understand the distinct stories they each tell:

Story One: Luke

The Gospel of Luke tells the story of how Joseph and Mary travel from their hometown in Nazareth in Galilee, to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. Luke situates Joseph and Mary’s home in Nazareth. Before the birth of Jesus (Luke 2.3-4), Joseph, Jesus’ legal father, has to travel from his “own town” (2.39) of Nazareth in Galilee, to his “own [ancestral] town” (2.3-4) Bethlehem in Judea. Why do Joseph and Mary have to travel to Bethlehem so close to the time of birth of Jesus? Luke’s answer is that Joseph and Mary had to travel there due to the census of Quirinius, the governor of Syria:

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David” (Luke 2.1-4)

The idea that Joseph would have had to have traveled to Bethlehem, because it was the town of his ancestors, is most probably a complete fiction. It is fabricated on the basis of the belief that the Messiah/Christ must be a descendant of David.

Then, according to Luke, after Joseph and Mary had travelled to Bethlehem, Jesus was born in Bethlehem:

“While they were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son …” (Luke 2.6-7)

Luke then describes the circumcision of Jesus, and the purification of Mary (from the legal so-called ‘impurities’ of childbirth). Circumcision was carried out on the eighth day after birth (Lev 12.3), and the mother was considered ceremonially unclean for the 7 days following childbirth, and 33 days following the circumcision (Lev 12.2, 4). After this 40-day period, the mother had to provide a sheep as a sacrifice to restore her purity. This sacrifice could be changed to two turtledoves or pigeons if she were too poor to afford a sheep (Lev 12.6-8). As Luke 2.24 shows, Mary offered two turtledoves or pigeons:

“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”” (Luke 2.21-24)

Leviticus 12 sets out the relevant “law of Moses”, the requirements of which took a period of 40 days following childbirth. Luke is then quite clear that Joseph and Mary returned to their “own town” of Nazareth “when they had finished” these 40 days of legal requirements:

“When they [Joseph and Mary] had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” (Luke 2.39)

The phrase “when they had finished … they returned to Galilee” translates the Greek kai hos etelesan … epestrepsan eis ten Galilaian, literally: “as they completed [all the requirements of the Law]… they returned to Galilee.” Luke is clearly narrating the return to Nazareth as something that occurred just after Mary had completed the 40 days of legal obligations. What’s more, they are returning eis polin heuton (“into their own town”) of Nazareth. So Luke envisages a round trip, from Joseph & Mary’s hometown of Nazareth, to the purported ancestral town of Joseph (Bethlehem), to the Temple in Jerusalem, and back to Joseph & Mary’s hometown.

Story Two: Matthew

But Matthew has Joseph and Mary take an entirely different route, from an entirely different hometown!

In Luke, Jesus is still little more than a newborn baby when he leaves Bethlehem, leaving for Jerusalem after 40 days, the term of Mary’s purification (Luke 2.21-24, 39). By contrast, in Matthew, the wise men who visit provide information to Herod about Jesus’ age that leads to him killing all boys up to two years old. The clear implication of the narrative is that the wise men had given Herod information about the date of Jesus’ birth that led Herod to assume that Jesus was older than a mere one-month-old baby:

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” (Matt 2.16)

In Matthew, Joseph & Mary escape Bethlehem, with Jesus, and live in Egypt for a period. Moreover, in Matthew’s account, Joseph and Mary remain in Egypt for some time after this, awaiting the death of Herod. Yet, according to Luke, Jesus had travelled to Nazareth with his family only after 40 days:

“and [Joseph, the child and his mother] remained there [in Egypt] until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” … When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” ” (Matt 2.15, 19-21)

Often those who want to harmonize Luke with Matthew posit a trip to Egypt between the visit to Jerusalem and the return to Nazareth. But:

1. Such a harmonization abuses the straightforward statement in Luke that shows Joseph and Mary return home on completing the legal requirements of Leviticus 12. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth “as they finished everything required by the law”;

2. Such a harmonization ignores the presentation of Nazareth as the hometown of Joseph and Mary in Luke, versus Bethlehem in Matthew; and

3. Such a harmonization fails to adequately explain why, on being warned to flee straightaway to Egypt by an angel of Yahweh (once the wise men who had visited them, in Bethlehem, had left the place: 2.1-15), Joseph first travelled to Jerusalem (Luke 2.22) the very place where Herod himself reigned!

In addition, for Matthew, Joseph and Mary’s home was in Bethlehem.

Following the birth of Jesus, Joseph is commanded to go to Egypt, from their house in Bethlehem. If this “house” (Matt 2.11) is Joseph and Mary’s own house, this is complete contradiction to Luke’s account, which places Joseph & Mary’s hometown in Nazareth, Galilee. The term oikia (“house”) in Matthew most naturally refers to a family’s abode. Therefore, Matthew should be interpreted as understanding that Joseph and Mary were living in Bethlehem immediately before the birth of Jesus! As Raymond Brown explains:

“Presumably this was the house which served as the home of Joseph and Mary who were inhabitants of Bethlehem. The view is quite different from that of Luke 2.1-7. There have been many attempts, often quite forced, to harmonize the information.” (Birth of the Messiah, p. 176)

There is further evidence later on in chapter 2 of Matthew that Bethlehem was Joseph and Mary’s hometown. For, when Joseph is told to return to Israel:

1. Joseph’s first thought is to return to Judea (the province in which Bethlehem is located), not Nazareth (Matt 2.22). Naturally, Joseph and Mary wished to return to their hometown, which Matthew 2.22 reveals was in Judea. But Nazareth is in Galilee, not Judea!

2. Only after being warned in a dream not to return to Judea, Joseph goes instead to Galilee (Matthew 2.22).

3. On coming to Nazareth, Joseph is not described as returning to the home that Luke believes he has there. To the contrary, Joseph is described as “making his home” there. The phrase “made his home in a town called Nazareth” (Matt 2.23) reveals that Joseph is settling in a new place, which Matthew now introduces for the first time! Far from returning to his hometown, Joseph has arrived in a town that is altogether new to him.

4. What is more, it is only because of Joseph’s arrival in Nazareth at this time that Matthew sees fit to claim that Jesus will now fulfill the prophecy, “He will be called a Nazorean” (Matt 2.23).

So when we actually come to consider the logic of Matthew’s narrative itself, rather than leap to a forced harmonization with Luke, it is beyond reasonable doubt that Matthew must be interpreted as presenting Bethlehem, not Nazareth, as Joseph and Mary’s original hometown. As Raymond Brown summarises:

“Joseph’s first thought was to return to Judea, i.e., to “Bethlehem of Judea” (2.1), because he and Mary lived in a house there (2.11). Since Joseph and Mary were citizens of Bethlehem, Matthew takes pains to explain why they went to Nazareth. In Luke’s account, where they are citizens of Nazareth, the painstaking explanation is centered on why they went to Bethlehem (2.1-5).”

So, in contrast to Luke, Matthew has Joseph and Mary move from their house in Bethlehem, to Egypt, and then settle for the first time in Nazareth!

So, to summarize:

Luke places Joseph and Mary at home in Nazareth, Galilee, from before the birth of Jesus (Luke 1.26-27; 2.4). After a trip to Bethlehem, Judea (Luke 2.5), during which Mary gives birth to Jesus and has him circumcised (Luke 2.6-7, 21), they return home to Nazareth, Galilee. If he is presented to the temple in Jerusalem after 40 days as was the custom (Matt 2.21-38) – the return would be just following 40 days after Jesus’ birth (Luke 2.39).


Matthew places Joseph and Mary’s original home in Bethlehem, Judea. Matthew does not believe that their original home was in Nazareth, Galilee. This is clear from the fact that they begin in Bethlehem, as shown by the visit to their home in Bethlehem, Judea by the wise men in Matt 2.1-12, and Herod seeking to destroy all Bethlehem infants in Matt 2.16-18; and especially as shown by the angel of the Lord telling them to return home to Israel in Matt 2.19-21 and Joseph’s decision not to return to Judea but to settle in a new town, Nazareth, Galilee.

Therefore, if you hear the Christmas story this year, it will probably involve a forced harmonization of two quite different and contradictory stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.


Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Casey on Jesus (4) – Inconsistencies and Deliberate Changes in the Gospel Post-Resurrection Accounts

Casey - Jesus of NazarethReview of “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching. London and New York: T&T Clark (Continuum), 2010.

Part 4: Inconsistencies and Deliberate Changes in the Gospel post-Resurrection Accounts

Of all the episodes in the four Gospels which are recorded in parallel, none are more radically at odds than the accounts of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

The typical conservative evangelical rejoinder at this point is to argue that each of the four Evangelists recorded different aspects of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, and that they can all be seen to fit together perfectly if we just spend some time considering how they may be harmonized. Sometimes this argument is accompanied by the analogy of independent witnesses at a crime-scene. We would ordinarily expect different witnesses to recall different aspects of the whole, to disagree on the minor details, but to be in fundamental agreement about the story as a whole.

However, such arguments are not so much interested in reconstructing what really happened, that is, the historical details (if any) of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Rather, they are primarily interested in saving the credibility of the story for believers, and a certain type of believer at that. What is more, the harmonizing approach to the Gospels runs into at least two significant problems. First, and Casey also makes the point (p. 464), the resulting harmonization looks nothing like any of the individual accounts. In order to incorporate the details of each of the different stories, the resulting harmonization almost inevitably ends up in tension with the overall picture offered by each individual Gospel. Second, the “independent witness” analogy simply does not apply here, because none of the Synoptic Gospels are independent from the others; unlike the scenario of independent witnesses, neither Matthew nor Luke provide a witness which is “independent” of their common source, Mark. According to the most widely accepted account of the evident literary dependence between the Synoptic Gospels, Mark was the first Gospel to be written, and it was used extensively as a source by Matthew, and almost as extensively by Luke. While John records independent traditions, the problem with the Fourth Gospel is precisely the opposite: the traditions are so developed and expanded and bear so little relationship with the traditions in the three Synoptic Gospels that they cannot begin to corroborate the detail in the other Gospels; in fact, it looks as if John did not even know the other traditions. These points provide caution against the naive, uncritical approach of harmonizing the Gospel accounts.

Casey makes one further and decisive argument against attempting to harmonize the Gospels: when we compare the parallel accounts in the Gospels, it is clear that Matthew and Luke not only produce inconsistent accounts, but they deliberately change what Mark wrote.

Maurice Casey: "the Resurrection narratives in our Gospels are not reports of real facts"
Maurice Casey: "the Resurrection narratives in our Gospels are not reports of real facts"

One example of these deliberate changes concerns Mark’s conception that Jesus was going ahead of the disciples, to meet them in Galilee (Mark 14.28; 16.7). For Mark, the first appearance of Jesus was not in Jerusalem, outside of which Jesus was crucified, but in the region that Jesus commenced his movement: Galilee (p. 461).

Matthew agrees with Mark that the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples was to occur in Galilee (Matthew 28.7; cf. Mark 16.7), and Matthew consequently narrates Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples as occuring in Galilee (28.16-20). Yet in Matthew we find that two facts have been deliberately changed. First, instead of “saying nothing to anyone” (Mark 1.8), Matthew narrates the women as leaving Jesus’ tomb with the express intention of telling the disciples what the angel had commanded them to tell. Secondly, Matthew includes a single post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, in Jerusalem, to the women. In this appearance, Jesus repeats what the angel had said to the women, instructing the women to inform his disciples that the disciples will see him in Galilee. As Casey notes, Matthew inserted this post-resurrection appearance into the narrative received from Mark

only so that Jesus could tell them to tell other people to get to Galilee for the most important appearance. He was not anticipating the later tradition of appearances in Jerusalem. (p. 463)

So, as Casey observes, the two earliest Gospels are unanimous in placing the major post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, to his disciples, in Galilee. But Luke has deliberately rewritten the tradition “to put all the appearances in Jerusalem” (p. 463).

Maurice Casey: Luke has deliberately rewritten the Galilean post-resurrection appearances "to put all the appearances in Jerusalem"
Maurice Casey: Luke has deliberately rewritten the Galilean post-resurrection appearances "to put all the appearances in Jerusalem"

In Luke’s account, Jesus no longer goes ahead of the disciples to Galilee in order to appear to them there. Instead, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem. Casey carefully explains how Luke has deliberately changed the Markan tradition in order to effect this change of locations. Whereas the angel in Mark says to the women at the tomb,

But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you (Mark 16.7),

the angel in Luke, at precisely the same point of his address to the women at the tomb, says,

Remember how he [Jesus] told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again (Luke 24.6-7).

Luke has deliberately changed the significance of “Galilee” in the angel’s speech about Jesus’ earlier prediction of his death! In Mark, the point of Jesus’ mention of “Galilee”, according to the angel, is to let the disciples know where they should meet him after the resurrection. But in Luke, by contrast, the angel only mentions “Galilee” as the location at which Jesus’ made the prediction of his death. While Luke has retained Mark’s mention of Galilee, he has changed it to prepare for his subsequent narrative, in which Jesus innovatively appears to his disciples in Jerusalem, not in Galilee! Therefore, between the writing of Mark and Luke, a whole series of post-resurrection appearances have been created which centre on Jerusalem, rather than at Galilee (as in the earliest tradition). As Casey notes, Matthew may have been aware of a tradition of appearances at Jerusalem when he created an appearance of Jesus there to the women. But Matthew reserved the major post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, that is, to the disciples, to Galilee. As Casey summarises, with Luke, we have the “deliberate replacement of one tradition with another” (p. 463). Not only that, but Luke proceeds to narrate every one of the appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem, followed by Jesus’ ascension to Heaven (Jesus’ “resurrection-after-resurrection-after-death”). As Casey notes, this leaves “no room for any appearance in Galilee” (p. 463). Luke has deliberately changed the narrative of post-resurrection appearances in his major source, Mark, and he does this so as to include a series of traditions in which Jesus appears to the women and to his disciples in Jerusalem rather than Galilee (p. 464). The stories of post-resurrection appearances in Luke are creative inventions which have little to do with the earlier tradition (noted in Mark, recorded in Matthew), in which Jesus’ disciples first imagine they have seen Jesus at some stage after fleeing Jerusalem and returning to their homes in Galilee.

Luke rewrote the early tradition of appearances in Galilee, and replaced it with his own tradition of appearances in Jerusalem… Consequently, we cannot expect much early history in Luke’s tradition of appearances. (p. 481)

Apart from the location, the stories in Matthew and Luke do not contradict each other so much as give an impression of total disassociation, as if neither of them knew the traditions to which the other had access (apart from the story of the empty tomb, which both of them took from Mark. (p. 463)

The question remains: why was Luke determined to deliberately change the Galilee appearances to Jerusalem appearances? One probable reason is that Luke had uncovered many of these stories about Jesus’ appearances in Jerusalem, during his “careful investigations” (Luke 1.3). That is, Luke encountered the testimonies of certain Christian faithful who claimed that they had personally “witnessed” (Luke 1.2) the resurrected Jesus in visions, and Luke then assessed which of these accounts were true and real, and his assessment resulted in”eyewitness” stories we now have recorded in Luke’s Gospel. For if Luke’s reference to “careful investigations” of the reports of “eyewitnesses” means anything, it probably does not refer to his copying of two-thirds of Mark, a Gospel not claimed to be written by an eyewitness, and indeed already forming a secondary stage of the transmission of the tradition. It may possibly refer to some of the oral or written material shared with Matthew and not Mark (i.e.  Q), if these traditions were associated with eyewitnesses, and some of the special Lukan material – but in most cases we would have no way of telling which of these sources might be considered to derive from “eyewitnesses”. However, Luke’s “careful investigations” of traditions attributed to eyewitnesses must at minimum refer to his recording of post-resurrection sightings experienced by Christians. For in these post-resurrection visions we certainly have something that Luke would have considered to be a true and first-hand eyewitness tradition.  

For as shown in the historical works of Josephus, our only other extant example of first-century Jewish-Greek “historiography”, vision reports were widely accepted as a legitimate historical source. As Robert Gnuse explains (in Dreams and Dream Reports in the Writings of Josephus, 1996), Josephus considered that by virtue of the revelations that he received in dreams, he was also a prophet, and treated his revelatory experiences on a par with other historical sources. Josephus believed that “the best historians were the prophets who interpreted events under divine inspiration” (Gnuse, p. 23), and also believed that he was creating an “inspired” historiography based on his own revelatory experiences. This only goes to show us how different Luke’s historiographical criteria would have been from our own modern standards. Richard Bauckham then (in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 2006) only tells half the story when he tries to argue that some of Luke’s traditions go back to traditions of eyewitnesses. Sure some of them probably do go back to eyewitnesses – but at least some of this “eyewitnessing” was “seen” during a visionary experience that had nothing to do with reality!

Casey provides a further reason for Luke’s transference of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances from Galilee to Jerusalem. In Luke 24.46-49, Jesus designates Jerusalem as the centre and sending-point of the Gentile Mission (p. 463), a designation unique to Luke’s Gospel and revealing Luke’s special interest in Jerusalem. Therefore, by assigning all of Jesus’ appearances to Jerusalem, he heightens his idealization of Jerusalem as the hub of the Christian movement. When we turn to John’s post-resurrection appearances, Casey makes the interesting observation that John is written “as if its authors did not know the tradition of Galilean appearances” (p. 464). That is, by the time that John was written, Jerusalem was simply accepted as the location of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, and – in contrast to Luke – John does not narrate the appearances as though he is deliberately excluding the Galilean tradition. Even when Galilean appearances are included in John 21 (possibly a redacted appendix to the book), they barely overlap with the earlier Galilean tradition found in Matthew (p. 464). As Casey summarizes:

It has become clear from scholarly analysis that the Resurrection narratives in our Gospels are not reports of real facts (p. 461).

Casey’s astute analysis demonstrates that the post-resurrection traditions were still developing some time after Jesus’ death, as a result of new visionary experiences and the different interests of later Gospel authors. The Gospels, far from constituting a harmony of different aspects of the appearances of Jesus, should be understood as deliberately contradicting each other.

Next part: (5) Did Jesus consider himself to be “The Son of Man”?
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