Ehrman on the Nativity

Ehrman on the Nativity October 29, 2013

This is the sort of stuff I talk about in my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination, available from the sidebar over there on your right!

From Bart Ehrman’s blog: – Christianity In Antiquity (behind a members only wall):

Jesus at the Movies: Infancy Narratives 

I’m having a terrific time with my undergraduate course this semester, a first-year seminar that I call “Jesus in Scholarship and Film.” Last month I posted my syllabus for the class on the blog. This past week was the first time we’ve done any film in the class, and it was very interesting.

For the class I had the students do a writing assignment, in which they compared the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke in detail (Mark and John, of course, don’t *have* anything about Jesus’ birth). They were to find both similarities and differences, and then they were to decide if any of the differences were irreconcilable. This was to set up what they were going to see in the film clips that I was set to show.

The similarities are pretty interesting if you come up with a full list: Jesus is born in Bethlehem; his mother Mary is a virgin; after his birth he is visited by a group of men (shepherds in Luke; wise men in Matthew) who have been alerted to his birth by a heavenly sign (an angel in Luke; a miraculous star on Matthew); eventually he is taken to Nazareth where is where he is raised.

The differences are even more interesting, as I pointed out in a post from last December. Of course some of the differences are simply … differences, not “contradictions.” As an obvious example, the fact that Luke mentions the shepherds but not the magi (wise men) and that Matthew mentions the magi but not the shepherds is not a contradiction. If both groups visited the infant Jesus, then Luke mentioned one group and Matthew the other: no contradiction.

But there are other differences that are difficult, if not impossible to reconcile. If all you had was Matthew’s Gospel, it would be clear what Joseph and Mary’s original hometown was. Bethlehem! (Not – decidedly not – Nazareth). There’s no word about them *traveling* to come to Bethlehem (because of a world-wide census, as in Luke). In Matthew, Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Some two years later the magi come to worship him (in his “house” Matthew says) (you know it’s about two years later because King Herod asks the magi about when the star appeared that they’ve been following, and after they tell him he has his soldiers kill every boy two years and under in Bethlehem; so it’s safe to say the magi have been on the road for at least a year or more; none of that is in Luke). Joseph and his family escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath. And then, when Herod dies, they are able to come back. BUT (this is the key point) they can’t return to Bethlehem in Judea, because now Archelaus is the king, and he’s worse than his father Herod! And so the couple is forced to *relocate* to Nazareth.

None of that fits in with what Luke says, where Joseph and Mary are not from Bethlehem but from Nazareth; they have to go to Bethlehem to register for this (alleged!) census being taken of “all the world” (!), Mary just happens to go into labor while there, and so Jesus is born there.

Moreover, Luke is clear that after 32 days, when Mary performs her sacrifice for ritual cleansing (cf. Lev. 12), they return home to Nazareth. But if that’s true, how can Matthew be right that they fled to Egypt? The whole thing doesn’t work.

So. I have my students do a detailed comparison. Some of them catch these discrepancies. Others – like most readers – skim over them and don’t notice them. But they notice them once we talk it all over among ourselves.

And then the fun begins. After our discussion I show film clips of Jesus’ birth. This is enlightening because movie directors have to make decisions. Do they follow Matthew’s account? Do they follow Luke’s? Do they combine the two? If they combine the two, how do they get around the discrepancies? Do they manage as well to throw in a bit from John (“In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”)? And what non-biblical legends and stories do they fill the story out with – or what do they simply make up for dramatic effect?

If students hadn’t done the hard work of comparing and contrasting Matthew and Luke for themselves, they would catch precisely NONE of what the director has actually done in order to construct his narrative.

So I show the scenes of Jesus’ birth in:

The 1925 silent Ben Hur (fantastic movie!! ) (The movie, Ben Hur, like the Ben Wallace novel it is based on, is not directly about Jesus; but the birth of Jesus is the first scene in the movie, and his crucifixion is near the end)
The 1959 Ben Hur (starring Charlton Heston; but not in the birth narrative!)
The 1965 Greatest Story Ever Told (some students think this title is false advertising)
The 1977 Zepphirelli TV mini-series movie Jesus of Nazareth (whose adult Jesus for my money is the best one of all time; British actor Robert Powell, who has *the* most amazing Jesus eyes….)
And, of course, to cap it off, the opening scenes from the Life of Brian (whose music, cinematography, themes are taken from – and meant to be an allusion to — Ben Hur! Watch them back to back some time!)
And so this is my students’ first introduction to our Jesus films for the term (none of the students had seen any of the serious movies; and only about a third had seen Life of Brian. Now they want to see the whole thing…).

Next week we’ll watch about an hour of Greatest Story Ever Told (possibly starting with the baptism scene); the following week we’ll do a similar exercise of comparing Gospels and then watching film clips for the crucifixion scenes.


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