Following his debate on The Big Conversation, Dr Peter J Williams explains why we can be confident in the story of Jesus’ birth

As Christmas draws near, Christians across the world will be spending time reading and thinking about the narratives of Jesus’ birth. The events in Bethlehem are possibly the best-known of all the Bible stories, and yet how much attention do we pay to the fact that they are spread across two different accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?

It’s easy for these two perspectives to blend in our minds into the one story we know so well. In part this is because there is much that is common to both. Both Matthew and Luke highlight where Jesus was born, that his mother was a virgin called Mary and that she was betrothed to a man called Joseph. Both versions agree that Joseph was descended from King David, that Jesus was named as directed by an angel, that his birth was a fulfilment of prophecy and that it happened during the reign of Herod. Following his birth, Matthew and Luke both report that Mary and Joseph received visitors keen to see Jesus (the Magi in Matthew, shepherds in Luke).

While there is consistency on these central points, there are also many differences between the two narratives. This means that scholars have often been sceptical of the historicity of the accounts. It also means they have tended to view Matthew and Luke as independently composed and written, without knowledge of each other.

In the prevailing scholarly view, Mark was written first, with no birth narrative, and Matthew and Luke were written later, using Mark, but adding their respective birth narratives. For sceptical scholars this creates a difficult position. If Matthew and Luke were written independently, then it’s difficult to explain why their birth narratives are so similar, unless of course they are based on fact. Those who claim that one account borrowed from the other and that the inconsistencies mean they can’t be trusted as accurate historical records are, in effect, insisting that while they used the other as a source of information, they wrote incompatibly with the narrative from which they borrowed.

Despite this being highly unlikely, controversy has persisted around the birth accounts. Debate has tended to focus on two main points of difference between Matthew and Luke, which we will examine in more detail. What does the evidence reveal, and how should Christians approach it?

Objections from omission

One way that people see tension between the narratives of Matthew and Luke is through what is left out. Matthew records the Magi, who are not in Luke, but Luke includes the shepherds, who are absent from Matthew. Matthew also doesn’t mention that Mary and Joseph were in Nazareth before being in Bethlehem. Even more significantly, Luke has no record of the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem or of the flight to Egypt. If these things are true, why does the other narrative omit them?

Omissions can be made to seem bigger problems than they actually are. At the conclusion of his Gospel, John observes: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). As any biographer will affirm, it simply isn’t possible to record every detail of a person’s life. Inevitably, editorial decisions have to be made about what is included and what is left out, and the biographer’s job is to identify what is most important for their particular purpose and audience.

To make the case that not including episodes such as the flight to Egypt, the Magi or the shepherds casts doubt on the Gospels’ historical reliability, the sceptic needs to demonstrate both that it is wholly unreasonable for the writers not to have known about certain aspects of the story and, if they did know, that omitting them was not a legitimate editorial choice.

Every historical document is written with a readership and a purpose. Luke, for example, records both of these in the introduction to his Gospel: “With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4). There is no particular reason to believe that Luke’s omission of the visit of the Magi was because he was an unreliable historian. It is more likely that he didn’t believe these details to be as helpful and/or interesting to Theophilus as the details he chose to include. The argument for scepticism based on omissions rests on modern-day commentators being able to assess with some confidence a) what information would have been available to each Gospel writer and b) what information it would be wholly unreasonable to leave out of an account intended for each particular audience.

Ultimately there is no way fora modern reader to know why Luke does not mention the visit of the Magi, or the flight to Egypt or the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem, which we read about in Matthew 2:13-18. However, there area number of factors that lend weight to the argument that it was a perfectly plausible editorial decision to leave these events out.

First, it’s important to note that the flight to Egypt need not have been for long. The key thing would have been to get outside Herod’s jurisdiction. To do this they might have gone 200 miles to Pelusium or merely to Ostracine, which was 65 miles closer. Luke’s description of Mary and Joseph’s return to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth in 2:39 reads: “When they had finished everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their town of Nazareth” (NTE). While it doesn’t mention the events of Matthew 2:13-18, it doesn’t contradict these verses either.

What if we were to consider a hypothetically rewritten version, as follows? “And when they had finished everything according to the law of the Lord, they went down to Egypt and then returned to Galilee, to their town of Nazareth.” Automatically our attention would be focused on the question of why they went to Egypt. In fact, Luke would have to refocus his narrative in major ways even to make sense of this additional journey. In other words, the objection to Luke’s omission of Egypt is really an insistence that there can be no such thing as précis or authorial selectivity, and that Luke must mention everything significant from Matthew. It’s an approach that is in tension with having multiple accounts in the first place.

Differing genealogies

A second point of tension is found in the differences between Matthew and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus. Matthew’s genealogy runs from Abraham down to Jesus in three groups of 14 generations. Luke’s genealogy goes from Jesus all the way back up to Adam, and indeed God before him.

While the two genealogies are similar between Abraham and David, they diverge dramatically between David and the exile, meeting for Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, before diverging again and only meeting with Jesus’ legal father, Joseph. Consequently, Joseph is presented as having two different fathers: Jacobin Matthew and Heli in Luke. Often people seek to harmonise these two genealogies by saying that one of them is actually the genealogy of Mary, though there’s nothing in the text to support that.

The different genealogies are confusing to modern readers, most of whom have some sense of what they expect a genealogy to be. Our culture loves the idea of tracing our family line. We have television programmes devoted to ancestral research, websites for filling out your family tree, and in just a few clicks you can have a genetic testing kit delivered to your door. To us, genealogies record faithfully and accurately our lineage, step-by-step, through the generations, without missing anyone.

But what if that’s not what a genealogy was in the ancient world? What if genealogies were used in a different way, to present different information? To assess the historicity of the Gospel genealogies, we need to recognise that our modern-day notions may not translate to the ancient world.

The two Gospel genealogies make different points. Matthew traces from Abraham through the royal line to Jesus, and strikingly mentions four women who were either non-Israelite (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth) or at least had foreign connections (Uriah’s wife). Among other things this prepares us for the end of the book, which shows the Gospel going to all nations.

Luke’s genealogy connects Jesus with the first man and helps us to think of the contrasts between Jesus and Adam (and all other humans generally). It’s a perfect prelude to the temptation narrative in Luke 4:1–13in which Jesus refuses food in the barren desert in contrast to Adam, who took the forbidden fruit in a garden full of other fruit.

Repeated names

In terms of the different accounts of Joseph’s father, it’s not difficult either today or back then to imagine that someone might have a legal father other than his biological one, especially if Joseph’s biological father disowned him over the shame of Mary’s irregular pregnancy. But there are a few other interesting things to notice about the genealogies. First, though they give different grandfathers for Jesus, the name of his great-grandfather in both genealogies is almost identical: Matthan in Matthew and Matthat in Luke. The only difference is in the final consonant, and this is of a kind that is readily explicable: these names reflect two Hebrew words –mattan and mattat– both of which mean “gift”.

Secondly, taking our cue from this name, we see that a number of the names in Luke’s genealogy share a single root. The name “Matthat” along with five other names in the genealogy after David come from the Hebrew three-consonant root NTN which means “give”. (Sometimes the Ns are hidden by turning into Ts.) These are Mattathias (3:25), Mattathias (3:26), Matthat (3:29), Mattatha (3:31) and Nathan (3:31). This makes some sense as this is the genealogy through David’s son Nathan. The root for “give” was used to form some of the most popular names of Nathan’s descendants. As is common in families, names are repeated. There are three Josephs, two Levis, two Melkis and the name Er (3:28), which is only ever attested for the tribe of Judah (see Genesis 38:3). These are features we might expect in a true narrative. We may also note that the genealogy doesn’t blunder by having any of the popular Greek names, such as Philip or Herod, for the period before Alexander the Great.

Thirdly, in both Matthew and Mark we’re told the names of Jesus’ brothers: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas (Matthew 13:55) or James, Joses, Judas and Simon (Mark 6:3).These differ only in the order of the final two names and in the adaptation of the Hebrew name “Joseph” to a Greek ending in the form “Joses” in Mark. However, these names also link with the genealogy in Matthew. Boys were often called after their grandfathers (a practice known as papponymy) and sometimes after their father (patronymy). If Jesus’ name was indeed given by the angel as stated in Matthew 1:21, then neither the father’s nor the grandfather’s name was an option. However, we see both these names used in the family. James is usually understood to be the first son born to Joseph and Mary after Jesus’ birth. He was therefore called James, or strictly Jakobos, ie his grandfather’s name “Jacob” with the Greek noun ending -os. Jakobos evolved into English as James through centuries of sound changes. The next son after Jakobos was named after his father, Joseph. Thus we can see in the names of Jesus’ brothers a tiny coincidence which supports Matthew’s genealogy.

Four enriching perspectives

For all the scholarly discussion around the two birth narratives, it remains the case that they agree on the main points and they disagree on nothing. While there are undoubtedly differences of emphasis, the accounts don’t directly contradict each other. In fact, both the obvious and less obvious agreements between these accounts are what we would expect if they are based on good testimony.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the Christmas story is believed by millions of Christians across the world and has been widely believed by the Church for millennia. Having four biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, including two of his birth, is incredibly enriching to our understanding of what happened and what it means. People notice different elements of a scene and recount it in their own way. If nothing were omitted, the Gospels would be poorer for it. However, different accounts are going to be different — if the events recorded were identical there wouldn’t really be much point in having more than one.

Watch The Big Conversation between Peter J Williams and Bart Ehrman on Jesus and the Gospels