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The Birth of Jesus: Two Gospel Narratives

The Infancy Narratives and History

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Both infancy narratives build upon the memories of historical events and contain useful historical data. However, readers today should not assume that everything in the narratives is certain historical fact. Careful interpretation is needed.  These slides discuss some of the issues involved. For instance, both Matthew and Luke date Jesus’ birth toward the end of the reign of King Herod the Great, who we know from various sources died in 4 B.C.E.  Jesus was probably born a year or two before that year.

Luke, whose writing seems to take care to mention certain historical benchmarks, also situates Jesus’ birth shortly after a census decree from Rome, “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (2:1-2). However, we know that Quirinius was not appointed governor until 6 C.E., ten years after the death of Herod. Luke thus presents a ten-year discrepancy in the benchmarks he offers about the year of Jesus’ birth.

Resolving the Ten-Year Discrepancy

Luke’s ten-year gap may relate to his mention of a Roman census, which he attributes to an order from Caesar Augustus.  While there is no evidence of such an empire-wide census, Quirinius did conduct an unprecedented local census shortly after his provincial appointment. This action sparked violent protests. There was also widespread rioting after Herod’s death ten years earlier.

Decades later, Luke may have confused memories of two separate violent episodes, one of which involved a census. Luke’s inaccurate overlap of the reigns of Herod and Quirinius reflects this conflation, but adds to the contrast of the Lucan Jesus being hailed as the bringer of peace in the troubled times of the so-called Peace of Augustus.  

Matthew’s Tale of Herod and the Magi

Turning to the other infancy narrative, Matthew tells of the mass murder of infant males by Herod. However, we have no evidence of such an event, which by its very nature would have been quite public and left many traces. Even the writer Flavius Josephus, who offers lists of Herod’s misdeeds, makes no mention this atrocity. The episode seems more driven by Matthew’s theological interest in relating Jesus’ story to that of Moses, rather than based on a historical occurrence.

On the other hand, the characters of Matthew’s magi may have been inspired by a historical memory. In 66 C.E., the new Armenian king came to Caesar Nero in Rome to have his kingship confirmed. He and his three companions were called magi and one account notes that they “did not return by the route followed in coming.” Matthew may have reworked this incident in order to assert narratively that Jesus is the real king of Jews and Gentiles alike. And unlike those who came from the East to defer to Nero, the Matthean magi come from the East to confirm the kingship of Jesus.

Many of the historical inaccuracies and plot contradictions between Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives can be explained if their work is understood as two theological narratives shaped by the evangelists’ resurrection faith and constructed upon some pieces of historical information.  

Thus, both have traditions that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth.

  • But Matthew starts with Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem, and must bring them to Nazareth (using the plot device of the fear of Archelaus, Herod’s heir in Jerusalem).
  • While Luke begins with Mary and Joseph in Nazareth and must bring them to Bethlehem (using the plot device of the Roman census).

These distinctions should not distract modern readers from giving priority to the common and distinct theological lessons being conveyed in the infancy narratives. Their religious messages are what inspire Christian faith today, not this or that historical factoid.