Revisiting the nativity story

By Leonard Hitchcock

Christmas is approaching, and it would seem appropriate to refresh our memories regarding the narrative surrounding Christ’s birth.  I have attempted to provide such a review, below, by means of a short quiz that covers the important elements of the nativity story.  The source used in formulating the quiz questions was the New Testament, specifically the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are the only accounts of Jesus’s birth provided by that document.  The questions are multiple-choice: choose (a) or (b).

1)     When was Christ born?  (a) A few years before the death of King Herod in 4 BCE (Matt. 2).   (b) The birth took place during the term of Quirinius as governor of Syria, who replaced the immediate successor to King Herod, Archelaus, in 6 AD and held that position until 12 AD (Luke 2).

2)     Where did the birth take place?  (a) In the house of Joseph and Mary in the town of Bethlehem (Matt. 2.11).  (b) In a shelter for farm animals near an inn in Bethlehem (Luke 2.7).

3)     Who visited Christ’s birthplace shortly after his birth?  (a) Wise men who had inquired of King Herod in Jerusalem regarding the birth of a new “King of the Jews” and were led by a moving star to Bethlehem (Matt. 2. 1-11).  (b) Shepherds who were informed by an angel of the birth and the location of the holy family (Luke 2.8-16).

4)     What happened soon after the birth of Jesus?  (a) King Herod planned to slaughter all children under the age of two in Bethlehem and Mary and Joseph, warned of this plan, left Bethlehem and fled to Egypt (Matt. 2.13-15).  (b) Mary and Joseph remained in Bethlehem until Christ’s circumcision, then traveled to Jerusalem in accordance with Leviticus 12, which specifies that 33 days after a child’s birth a sacrifice must be offered at the temple (Luke 2.21-24).

5)     Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem? (a) It was the home of his parents, Joseph and Mary (Matt. 2).  (b) Joseph and Mary were required to travel to Bethlehem, from their home in Nazareth, to enroll in the census decreed by Caesar Augustus, since Bethlehem was the home of Joseph’s ancestors, including King David (Luke 2.1-5).

6)     Why was Jesus raised in Nazareth? (a) Joseph and Mary feared Herod’s successor, so when they returned from Egypt they chose not to return to their home in Bethlehem but instead to settle in Nazareth (Matt. 2.22-23).  (b) After the visit to Jerusalem with the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph returned to their own city, which was Nazareth (Luke 2.39).

7)      Who were Joseph’s paternal ancestors, going backward in time? (a) [Joseph], Jacob, Matthan, Eleazar, Eliud, and Achim….. ending with Abraham (Matt. 1.14-16).  (b) [Joseph], Heli, Matthat, Levi, Melchi, and Jannai…….  ending with Adam (Luke 3.23-24).

Commentary:

It must be kept in mind that these two gospels were originally anonymous — Matthew and Luke are simply traditional attributions – and both gospels were written more than 30 years after the death of Christ.  There is no intrinsic reason to trust either one of them to be more historically accurate than the other.  It is noteworthy, however, that while they agree that Mary was a virgin and that Jesus was descended from King David and was the messiah, they disagree about most other details of the nativity story.

Scholars tend to favor Matthew’s dating of Christ’s birth, though there is no evidence outside of the New Testament that either Herod’s massacre of the children, or Quirinius’s census actually took place.  The authors agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but that may or may not suggest that it is a fact, for both believed that Jesus had fulfilled all the relevant prophesies in the Old Testament, one of which, in Mic. 5.2, is that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Unfortunately for the gospel authors, Jesus was widely known to be from Nazareth. Matthew deals with this by claiming that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’s birth and only later, after the sojourn in Egypt, moved to Nazareth. Luke contrives a different solution, telling us that Joseph’s original home was, indeed, Nazareth, but that the Roman census forced him to move his family temporarily to Bethlehem, where the birth took place, after which they returned to Nazareth.

As to events immediately following Christ’s birth, it is perhaps conceivable that both Wise Men and shepherds visited the scene of Christ’s birth, but the Wise Men episode is inextricably tied to the King Herod story and Luke’s chronology is incompatible with Herod’s involvement.  In all other respects, Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the months following the birth are totally contradictory and there is no external evidence to substantiate either story.

With regard to the genealogies, scholars note that Matthew seems intent upon stressing the Jewishness of Christ, hence his list of ancestors highlights King David and terminates in Abraham. Luke, in contrast, wishes to emphasize Christ’s role as savior of both gentiles and Jews, so he chooses to trace Joseph’s ancestry back to Adam.  But the two genealogies are clearly not the same, and one cannot help wondering why Joseph’s ancestry is relevant at all.  If the gospels’ stories are correct, Joseph was not Christ’s biological father. It is Mary’s genealogy that matters, yet hers is ignored.

Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is a professor emeritus at Idaho State University.