Responding to Common Skeptical Commentary about the Infancy Narratives

Responding to Common Skeptical Commentary about the Infancy Narratives December 29, 2018

Every Christmas there is a ritual kabuki that Catholics who take the New Testament seriously have to go through. First, is the response to the standard claim that Christmas is “really” just a warmed-over pagan feast. The short answer to that is to ask if the skeptic is “really” a worshipper of Saturn if he calls today “Saturday”. The longer answer is here.

A newer addition to the canon of rebuttals that is now necessary, thanks to the rise of the antichrist Christianist Cult of Trump and its gospel of racism, is the need to rebut the lie that the Holy Family were not refugees. That is here.

Then there is the old chestnut about the problem of the infancy narratives and, in particular, Luke’s account of the census and the circumstances leading up to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Since it is Christmas and I am lazy, I am reposting something I wrote to a reader a while back for your Christmas reading pleasure!


He writes:

Hi, Mark, what do you make of the idea that Mt and Lk have contradicting accounts of Jesus’s birth? We were told today that Lk invented the census to get Jesus to Bethlehem (there is no historical record of a census at that time) and Mt has Mary and Jesus living in Bethlehem – no inn but a house, no shepherds. So they both just embellish the story to satisfy their own theologies. I get that these texts are not history in the modern sense, but it seems really close to saying that the whole virgin birth thing was just made up… and that’s not far from denying the Incarnation, and so on it goes till there’s only theology and no history. Some pointers esp with research value would be appreciated. Thanks for all you do, and blessings to your family in this holy season.

The problem with an invented census is discussed here:

Comedian Steve Martin used to do a routine in which he smiled broadly with that distinct smile of his and said, “Remember a couple of years back when the earth (wry pause)… exploded? Remember how they built that giant space ark and loaded all of humanity into it, but the government decided not to tell the stupid people what was going on so that they wouldn’t panic…..” The light of understanding would then break across his face as he surveyed the faces of the audience and he would quickly backtrack saying, “Oooooooh! Uh….. Never mind!”

I can’t help but think of that as I read Crossan’s take on Luke. We are being asked to believe that the gospels are works of cunning fiction by people laboring under some huge need to bring others under the spell of their delusion of a Risen Christ. Part of their messianic delusion requires them to link the Nazarene carpenter with King David by portraying him as born in “the city of David”, Bethlehem. And so they do what to get Jesus there in time for his birth and debut as the Son of David?

Well, a lot of options are open to the creative gospel writer whose only goal is to write a tall tale. You could just say that Mary’s grandmother took sick and she went to visit her. You could claim that Joseph bought a plot of land and didn’t want to leave Mary behind while he went to inspect it. You could cook up an angelic visitation commanding the Holy Family to go to Bethlehem and wait for their son to be born. Any of these stories have the tremendous advantage of being extremely hard to refute decades after the event. And since you’ve already stuffed your gospel full of miracles, what’s one more angel?

But no, according to Crossan, Luke tells the equivalent of Martin’s space ark story: “Remember, a few decades back when the entire world was enrolled for taxation?” He invites, not just somebody to refute it, but everybody in his entire audience. That’s an awfully strange thing to do if the enrollment never happened and an awfully odd way to establish the bona fides of your main character.

As to the evidence for the historicity of Luke’s account:

Luke’s Account
What about Luke? The issues here revolve around Luke 2:1-2: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Three major problems emerge: identifying the year of Herod’s death, determining the nature of Augustus’ “enrollment,” and the chronology of Quirinius.

Herod’s death. This is important because we know Jesus was born during Herod’s reign―therefore, obviously, before his death. Most scholars today date his death to 4 B.C. His death was linked to a lunar eclipse—and since one occurred during March of 4 B.C. this year has been recognized as a perfect candidate. However, a growing number of scholars are recognizing problems with that view. Many are now looking at an eclipse that occurred in 1 B.C. (See John Pratt, “Yet Another Eclipse for Herod,” in Planetarian 19/4 (1990): 8-14). In fact, this would fit in well with the witness from the earliest Christians, who believed that Jesus was born between 3 and 2 B.C.

Caesar’s enrollment. Many people have dismissed this element as unhistorical since such enrollments have been seen as occurring for tax purposes and Herod, as king, would have collected his own taxes. Yet, many have argued that there may be another rationale behind the enrollment. Josephus recounts that Judea was required to take an oath of loyalty to Caesar during the end of Herod’s reign (Antiquities XVII. 41–45). Archeological evidence confirms it was taken in other places around 3 B.C. In fact, Orosius (5th cent) says Augustus required all to be enrolled with an oath. This oath apparently was established not long before 2 B.C., when Augustus came to be called “first of all men.”

Quirinius’ census. Quirinius’ role is the most difficult detail. Some scholars assert that Luke has made a mistake. We know that Quirinius became governor later and took a census in 6 A.D. Has Luke made a mistake. Why would Luke associate him with an earlier enrollment.

Luke’s language here may be significant. In describing Quirinius, Luke uses the same term he uses for Pontius Pilate, a regional procurator, in 3:1, hegemon. Pilate was not a governor, but a regional authority. Perhaps Luke is indicating that Quirinius had some role as administrator prior to his appointment as governor. Justin Martyr testimony concurs with this as he records that Quirinius was procurator in Judea at this time (First Apology, 34).

In fact, Luke tells us that this was the “first” enrollment—implying he knows about a later one. He apparently mentions it in Acts 5:37.

For more information on the timing of the birth of Christ and the census, I strongly urge you to check out the Ignatius Study Bible, which has a fascinating discussion.

Matthew is doing different work than Luke, but what’s notable is that both agree on the essentials: Jesus was born of a virgin in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod. That’s not what I call “contradicting”. Matthew says nothing about where Mary and Joseph were living. He simply notes where Jesus was born and then, after the sojourn in Egypt, that he went to Nazareth, which agrees with all the gospels about where Jesus was raised. Again, not very contradictory.

As with the resurrection narratives, what is striking to me is how much agreement there is. I always think of the assassination of JFK. It’s like somebody a thousand years from now saying, “Four shots? Three shots? Some people thought they came from the grassy knoll and some from the school book depository? Why I doubt JFK even existed!  Why, some traditions record him saying, ‘Ich bin eine Berliner!’ How could a supposedly Harvard-educated figure have said, ‘I am a jelly donut’?  Obviously ‘JFK’ is a fictional Eucharistic figure offering his his life for the nation to give it new life.  Anthropologists have this all figured out out.”

What’s really remarkable, of course, is how much the witnesses agree on, not the piddly details which owe to vagaries of human memory and the particular points the narrator wants to emphasize. Luke is doing theologized history in the Greco-Roman manner and relying heavily on eyewitness accounts.

Matthew is writing in order to focus on Jesus as the fulfillment of OT motifs centering on the parallels between Joseph the Dreamer in Genesis and Joseph the Dreamer who is Jesus’ father, Jesus recapulating the Exodus (since he is the new Moses), and Jesus fulfilling the mission of Israel in calling the Gentiles (in the persons of the Magi) to holiness.

How can they be reconciled? I think there is not a reason in the world both tales cannot have a basis in history. All it requires is Luke and Matthew selecting different childhood events to tell since neither are writing complete biographies.

I heard an estimate once that the gospels, in total, record about a hundred days out of the entire life of Jesus and that about 1/4 of the ink in each is spent on a 72 hour period in the life of their hero. That’s an *awful* lot of Jesus’ life about which we are told nothing whatsoever. That leaves a heckuva lot of space, even in his childhood, where you could hide a battleship and nobody would be the wiser.

When I was a boy, my family moved to Michigan for a year and a half. There is a tornado, a race riot, a car accident with multiple fatalities, and my brother staying behind in college in that span of time. But if I told you I was born and raised in Washington state as a summary of my childhood, I would not be lying. It is only the immense weight of history and the craving to eke out every detail from a very sparse record–a record that only exists in order to say, “This child’s destiny is already discernible in portentous foreshadow!”–that make Luke and Matthew appear to “contradict”. If somebody a thousand years from now had only one story about my experience in Sunday school at Paine Field in Washington and one tale about my survival of a tornado in Michigan followed immediately by my emergence as an adult writer to go on, it would be easy to declare that these childhood stories “contradict” and that I could not have lived in both places. Clearly the tornado story is a midrash symbolic of my later religious conversion and owed to the imagery of Job, etc. Clearly, the story about my experience in Sunday school is a later accretion intended to show my initial skepticism, etc.

Be cautious of exegetical mountains founded on molehills of data. Be even more skeptical of skeptical exegesis when there is, in fact, remarkable agreement on the main points of a gospel story.


There are other Infancy narrative-related issues–Perpetual Virginity, Matthew as Midrash, Magi (which I will post on later). But, it’s Christmas. And did I mention I’m lazy?

Merry Christmas! Christ is born. In Bethlehem. Really.

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