Contradictory Christmases

Contradictory Christmases December 11, 2009

Having linked to some class notes of mine about the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke, I realized that they do not focus on one of the key contradictions between the two, namely the divergent geographical and temporal movements in the two stories. Sure, there is the problem of the date (Quirinius’ census vs. before the death of Herod the Great), but there is more to the issue than that.

Let’s begin with Matthew’s Gospel. The first location specified where we find the family of Jesus is Bethlehem in Judea (Matthew 2:1). They are in a house (2:11). The impression given by the reference to Herod’s order that all male children two years old and under, based on the time the star appeared, is that Jesus is likely to have been more than a year old at this point, or at least not a newborn (2:16).

The family then flees to Egypt, and it is after that when things get really interesting. After Herod’s death they want to return to their home. Where is that home? Clearly Judea, because we are told that it is only because they fear Herod’s son Archelaus that they go away to Galilee and make their home in Nazareth (2:22-23).

And so a reader of Matthew’s Gospel on its own understands that Bethlehem is the home town of Jesus’ family, and they went to Galilee only because of unusual circumstances.

Now let’s turn to Luke’s Gospel. In Luke we first encounter the family of Jesus in Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 1:26; 2:4). They go to Bethlehem for a census (2:1-5), the problematic aspects of which we can bracket out for the present. Jesus is born presumably in a private home and is placed in a manger (2:6-7,16).

How long do they stay there? We actually know the answer to that question. Luke 2:22 says that when the time came for the purification required by the Torah they went to Jerusalem. The relevant law is found in Leviticus 12, and so it was not much more than a month after Jesus was born that they went to Jerusalem. And to round off Luke’s account, we’re told in 2:39 that when they did what the Torah required, they returned to their own home town of Nazareth in Galilee.

And so a reader of Luke’s Gospel on its own understands that Nazareth is the home town of Jesus’ family, and they went to Bethlehem only because of unusual circumstances.

It seems clear to me that these two stories are not written with a view to their being reconciled (and the lack of any obvious way to fit them together is one of the things that continues to persuade me that they were composed independently of one another). While Matthew has Jesus’ family living in Bethlehem when he is no longer a newborn, Luke has Jesus in his second month being taken to Jerusalem and then home to Nazareth. In Luke the family makes a visit to Jerusalem, which being Herod’s capitol we’d expect the family to avoid if we were in Matthew’s version. The overall impression of the movements of the family differ. But if nothing else, both accounts give a clear indication of where the family considers “home” and on this point it seems particularly clear to me that they disagree.

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  • Thanks for a great post, James. I hope to blog a bit more about this in due course, and I have another podcast next week, I hope, on the topic. For now, just one question. You take Luke's geographical differences from Matthew as evidence that Luke did not know Matthew. Luke's resurrection appearances take place in Jerusalem rather than Galilee. Does that geographical disagreement mean that Luke did not know Mark?

  • That's a good point! But I think that Luke's version of Mark may have ended as abruptly as our own earliest manuscripts of Mark do, and so there may have been little to disagree with, as it were. And I suspect that the resurrection appearance traditions circulated with a core in a form like 1 Corinthians 15, which listed those involved but didn't provide a geographical setting. And so it seems quite plausible that Luke may have always heard or assumed that the appearances took place in Jerusalem, then encountered Mark which predicted but did not describe appearances in Galilee, and have chosen to ignore Mark at this point based on both the information he already "knew" and the problematic character of Mark's ending.Of course, I realize this may not persuade you! But I do think it is easier to explain Luke's handling of Mark's "non-ending" than it is to explain his handling of Matthew's beginning.

  • Thanks, James. Very well done. I absolutely agree with your overall conclusion that Matthew and Luke give us a different impression of which place M&J;'s marriage originated. Bracketing out Quirinius gives us the opportunity to focus more on this whole storyline, which scholars should do more often. If Lk.2:2 is wrong, it's a minor point; and if we go with the apologists, it's moot. Either way, thanks for doing this.One detail I think you may have missed: The dedication at Jerusalem (with still-a-newborn Jesus) was almost certainly during HTG's life and not within the reign of Archelaus. If Matthew had included the same story, it would have preceded the visit of the Magi (to-some-months-old-Jesus), so I'm not sure why you see a problem here. In Matthew, the avoidance of Jerusalem doesn't happen until after Herod dies.Back to the main argument: The impression absolutely does differ, although you've essentially acknowledged this is not a factual contradiction. The real problem is Luke 2:39. "Having completed… they returned [to Nazareth]."I'm not sure what's obvious as you say, but I have two suggestions. First, the Herods generally get better publicity in Luke-Acts, and since Luke (if he knew it) couldn't mention the flight to Egypt without mentioning Herod's grotesque villainy, the omission may be as simple as that. Second, we have at least one very parallel in a very obvious "skip" at Acts 9. Luke omits Paul's years in Arabia. The grammar and narrative/rhetorical movements are no smoking gun, but I'm not suggesting it's that kind of a parallel. Rather, I'm merely saying we have evidence from elsewhere in Luke-Acts that the author has no problem sewing a new seam over multiple years of the main character's life.Luke omits Arabia to help Paul. If Luke omits Egypt to avoid insulting Agrippa (II)'s great-grandfather, that could also have somehow helped Paul.Leaving aside the question of whether Luke knew the Egypt tradition, the biggest obstacle is still Lk.2:39. If we assume (for the sake of argument, at least) that neither Lk nor Mt gave us anything false, then the most likely conclusion should be Luke (for whatever reason) simply skipped over Egypt at that point in his narrative.IMHO, suspending judgment on Quirinius (and allowing a bit of supernatural testimony) makes the other issues you raised in the post seem fairly tame. For centuries, skeptics have fixed on attacking Quirinius and apologists have fixed on defending him. I've been longing for some time to see both groups get past that to discuss these other issues.So – once again – thank you very much.Sorry this was such a long comment. 🙂

  • Correction: I should have said, "If Lk.2:2 is wrong, it could as easily be a minor point."In other words, if Luke meant to say 'prwtos' instead of 'prwton', then he goofed, but in that case it wouldn't be a large historical problem.It surprises me that skeptics haven't mentioned this before, actually. Or have it missed it somewhere?

  • Bill, thanks for such a detailed comment! You are of course right that, if Luke's narrative allowed for it, we could have the visit to Jerusalem predate the attempt to kill Jesus. But from Jerusalem the family goes to Nazareth, and so we have no reason to expect them to be living in Nazareth a year or two later.Now, obviously one can always posit a scenario that will allow the two to be "harmonized." They went back to Bethlehem as part of the "great Judean gold rush of '07 BC" or whatever else. But apart from that seeming to be special pleading, it also leaves me wondering what has been accomplished. I've yet to see a conservative Christian group that was content to affirm "We believe the Bible to contain only minor goofs"! 🙂

  • :-)I'm not out to defend inerrancy. I'm out to engage all groups about the most plausible reconstruction of events. Anyway…I don't think Lk.2:39 strictly says that the family went directly and immediately from Jerusalem to Nazareth. I agree that's the impression we get from it, and the impression Luke intended us to get, but the words themselves are less explicit.The transition from Acts 9:25 to 9:26 is a different technique but it accomplishes the same goal.Haven't you known christians who do all in their power to omit details without technically "lying"?I have. 😮

  • They went back to Bethlehem as part of…Oh, I just got that: "back to", as in, after Jerusalem. Right.As I said, there's no reason for Mary to go with Joseph in the first place unless they used the Bethlehem trip as an excuse to relocate for a fresh start.Given the nature of their scandal and the small size of the village at Nazareth, I don't think that's at all 'contrived'. Do you?

  • I'm not persuaded there was a scandal that would have motivated relocation. Luke gives no hint of any desire to relocate – they go for a census to be registered, and don't hang around any longer than necessary. And you make a "fresh start" sound easier to accomplish than it would have been in this time and cultural context – how would they have entered a new locale's community without relying on the network of relatives and acquaintances they already had? And if they utilized such a network, would they have been able to leave behind any gossip or accusations that were circulating?More than once, you've seemed to be willing to acknowledge that "the text suggests" or "Luke meant" and yet seem to consider that of little importance if the words of the text leave open some other interpretation. Am I picking up on this correctly?

  • Sorry, one more.In the post, you said: In Luke the family makes a visit to Jerusalem, which being Herod's capitol we'd expect the family to avoid if we were in Matthew's version.Then I said: In Matthew, the avoidance of Jerusalem doesn't happen until after Herod dies.And you replied: if Luke's narrative allowed for it, we could have the visit to Jerusalem predate the attempt to kill JesusI'm sure this was an honest mistake, but that's a different question entirely, isn't it?Issue #1 – Where would Matthew have put the Jerusalem visit?Question #2 – Where would Luke have put the massacre story?Eh?Btw, what "we could have" isn't honestly my concern. Apologetic positing isn't my bag, baby. Nooooo. 😉

  • Well, if we're trying to fit the two together, then surely it is relevant whether the details from both can fit into each other?

  • Of course, both are relevant. But it's two separate questions.

  • I don't quite get the move from contradiction to independence. Why isn't Luke allowed to contradict his source?

  • I think Stephen nailed the point on the head. We would not conclude, for example, that differences between the GPhillip, the GJudas or 2Seth are independent because of their divergence from their sources. Luke seems to be granted some special exemption from this because he is canonical.Independence is demonstrated by complete ignorance, or impossibility of reception and so on. Not by divergence. That rule holds everywhere except here, and I'm hard-pressed to understand why.

  • Contradiction often presupposes knowledge; complete difference can also presuppose knowledge (as if one is avoiding overlaps in an attempt to supplement an earlier work). What usually are considered likely indications of independence are contradictions that seem to serve no purpose – based on the thinking that an author using a source is unlikely to introduce contradictions "frivolously." You are of course free to disagree with me, but there is neither an unnoticed assumption nor an illogical leap in the argument – simply a failure on my part to restate what I think is a well-known argument when it comes to source criticism.Of course, Matthew or Luke could easily have encountered the other after already having encountered or developed a story that conflicted with the one in the written account, and then given priority to the one that was already familiar. This, I agree, is a problem with discussions of "dependence" and "independence" – there is insufficient room left for both/and scenarios, and too little discussion of the effect of the order in which source material is encountered. But having said that, it would remain true even in such a scenario that the two infancy stories were composed independently of one another, even if the Gospels.

  • I'm not sure it isn't serving his purposes though–surely it must be in some sense, or it wouldn't be there. It doesn't, by any appearance, have much more in the way of historical reality than Matthew's, it just sounds more historically based and less symbolic.In broadest strokes, I think Luke's biggest aim, at least geographically, is to get Jesus in and out of Judea. If he rejects Matthew's infancy, for whatever reason, he still needs to get him in and out, and he still needs a way to do that.Without Matthew's conflict with the Jewish regals, he has to have some way to move him. We can assume with Goodacre that Luke had another source, or we can reject that as unnecessary and suggest Luke just acted creatively, but the census serves Luke's purposes beautifully.It reflects an historical reality (there was a census) it gets his Messiah where he needs to be (Bethlehem) and then back out to where he was identified with (Nazareth).If we picture Luke as struggling with things he is sure are true–Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus was from Nazareth, the Messiah would be from Bethlehem–it's easy to see why he employs the census after rejecting Matthew's narrative.We don't even need to envision Luke being consciously dishonest. He's offering his own conjecture, because it joins the points he needs joined. Surely it must be true!As to why he would reject Matthew, that seems self-evident to me. I know Matthew was being artful, and I'm 2 thousand years removed. Surely Luke was at least suspicious. He rejects Matthew because he knows Matthew is writing far more symbolically than historically.

  • Thanks for attempting to explain your argument to me, James, but maybe I'm just being thick today, because I'm still not getting it.(In fact, it almost looks to me that your comment, "Contradiction often presupposes knowledge," is in contradiction with your original post and therefore must be independent of it! Surely, that can't be right.)Perhaps the blog format isn't conducive to understanding. So, let me ask: Is your argument completely new, or can you supply some citations to the scholarly literature where your argument has been made in much greater detail?I'm especially interested in the use of the infancy narratives to argue for Q (an argument, by the way, Kloppenborg did not avail himself of in his Excavating Q). So anything you may have to help understand your point would be much appreciated.

  • If Luke is "skipping" details in his narratives in order to placate powerful interests, can we trust the material unique to Luke to be free of tampering? Given that possibility, do we assume that the Gospelist left out details for political reasons and yet never inflated or invented stories to cast certain Powers in a more favorable light?

  • For my part, Scott, I'm not prepared to argue whether or how far we can reasonably trust Luke. All I'm saying is that omission isn't the same as fabrication. All historians and chroniclers are selective.

  • Exactly James, Matthew and Luke supply different stories and different reasons to explain how Nazareth came to be Jesus' home town. Probably no one knew for sure how Nazareth came to be Jesus' home town when Bethlehem is where the Messiah ought to come from. Matthew basically says Jesus was born in Bethlehem, moved to Nazareth, forced there in order to … See Morekeep out of Herod's angry reach. While Luke says Bethlehem was where Joseph's family came from, not where Jesus was born, so Jesus could still come from Bethlehem by proxy of his earthly dad's ancestry.

  • Stephen, I haven't been to the office since I posted this, and that's where I'll have to look to see who else has focused on the infancy stories in connection with the question of Gospel interrelationships. My main point is that it is neither difference nor similarity nor contradiction that in and of itself shows dependence or independence. Extensive verbatim reproduction clinches dependence, but apart from that one has less than an open-and-shut case. For me, differences and contradictions that seem to serve no purpose indicate independent tradition. That is not strictly speaking an alternative to literary interdependence – there are cases where I think Matthew knew Mark but chose not to follow Mark because of a version of the same material that he was already familiar with.But what I still cannot persuade myself happened is that Luke read Matthew, once or repeatedly, or perhaps even had it to hand when composing his own Gospel, and then produced his distinctive version. The reason I find this unpersuasive is that I cannot figure out why Luke would change certain things that he must have on this scenario. His focus on the poor could lead him to introduce shepherds, and his focus on Torah-observance is nicely communicated in the trip to Jerusalem. But why eliminate Jesus' family being from Bethlehem? Why make them visitors when it makes his claim to be "Jesus from Bethlehem" that much harder to defend? Perhaps I should start to speak about "frivolous" differences/contradictions. It is material that differs and/or disagrees and does not seem to have been changed to serve an author's purpose that suggests to me knowledge of independent tradition.Any thoughts about this as a principle for identifying independent traditions?

  • I would appreciate that, James, because the specialists I tend to consult (Kloppenborg, Tuckett, Streeter) don't really appeal to the infancy accounts in their case for Q. Rather, what seems much more important to them is the question of order of the Q material.As for the Matthean and Lukan infancy account, I do see great differences, especially in theology and politics, but I don't see such differences as "frivolous." As to the focus on differences in historical details as frivolous contradictions, I think it presumes a modern (at least post-Rankean) sensibility of historicity that I don't think the ancients quite had. The inerrantists may find these differences in detail important, but I have yet to see evidence that Luke and other ancient writers did.But it is also important to put the differences in the infancy accounts into proper perspective in the source critical enterprise. I would concede that if all we had were Matt 1-2 and Luke 1-2, I would not conclude that Luke is dependent on Matt. The evidence, though suggestive, is not sufficient to conclude that. However, it is the evidence in the rest of Matthew and Luke that indicates Luke's use of Matthew (see Goodacre's Case Against Q). The question then remains concerning the infancy accounts is: are the differences between the Matthean and Lukan account such that Luke could not have known Matthew's infancy account? I haven't seen a good case that they are not (and, as I've said above, the specialists mainly ignore this point).As for your question "why eliminate Jesus' family being from Bethlehem?" I don't grant the premise with regard to Joseph. Though it is certain true that Luke makes Mary out to be an inhabitant of Nazareth (1:26-27), it is not the case for Joseph. I have an article coming out next year with a detailed exegesis of Luke on this point, so I won't burden this already too long comment.On the other hand, if Matthew was the one responsible for a Bethlehem birthplace, that it also shows up in Luke is telling. (Of course, if Jesus really was born in Bethlehem, then this agreement in such a historical fact does not mean anything for the relative priority of Matthew or Luke.)

  • I've just had a chance to read through this interesting comment thread. I am naturally in support of much of what Stephen and Rick have said. But a couple of my own follow-up comments. The fact that Luke is willing to relocate something as important as the resurrection appearances from Galilee (Mark 16.7) to Jerusalem (Luke 24, throughout) demonstrates clearly that contradiction, in Luke's case, does not imply lack of knowledge. If you are right, James, that this is because Luke "may have always heard or assumed" that the appearances were in Jerusalem, then why might he not have "always heard or assumed" that Mary was always from Nazareth?There is an artificiality in the Nazareth / Bethlehem sequence in Luke 1-2, but I don't think it's any odder than Matthew's. Bear in mind how Matthew's story ends: the holy family end up in Nazara because of a prophecy from exactly where? (Matt. 2.23). If any of the stories is artificial, I think Matthew's move to Nazara, on the grounds of a spurious prophecy, wins. At least in Luke the story of Jesus of Nazareth begins in Nazareth.

  • Apologies for being so late in responding, but having had a chance to look into it, I think Stephen is right that the point I've been making about the infancy narratives is not one generally made in support of Q – or at least, I too have failed to find it in some of the standard works on the subject. I'll have to see if I can remedy that in the near future! 🙂

  • If you have a future article in mind, I encourage you to go for it!