The Nativity Contradiction
Wow, double post today!
It’s nearing Christmas, the day when most Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. I thought perhaps this would be a good time to talk about a huge, glaring contradiction in the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke. Apologists have worked very hard to try to reconcile this problem, but it is simply inescapable. It is among the most blatant contradictions in the Bible, and its implications for the story of the birth and first years of Jesus are significant. There is also another contradiction and a few historical oddities to have a look at.
The Matthean Nativity
In the book of Matthew, Jesus is born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great, who ruled from 37 BCE to 4 BCE, the time of this death. Two years later, eastern astrologers show up in Jerusalem and tell Herod about the star they observed in the sky that they somehow knew meant there was a new King of the Jews. Herod asks the chief priests and scribes where this child was born, and they of course knew Bethlehem. Herod then orders all of the children two and under in and around Bethlehem to be killed. But before this happened, an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to leave for Egypt so Jesus would be safe.
An angel then visits Joseph to tell him the coast is clear and to go back home. But then later, breaking news arrives that Archelaus, Herod’s son, is on the throne in Judea, so Joseph moves the family to Nazareth.
Here are the key points to this story:
- Jesus is born during the reign of Herod the Great, which ended in 4 BCE at his death
- Jesus is born in Bethlehem, where apparently the family is living because…
- They move to Nazareth to avoid Archelaus
Quick point: why would Archelaus be gunning for Jesus? Why would he have any reason to think his father’s ploy didn’t work?
The Lukan Nativity
“In the days of King Herod of Judea”, a decree went out that all the world should be registered for taxation (a general census). It was the first registration and was taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria, a period lasting from 6 CE until 12 CE.
Joseph leaves Nazareth with Mary and goes to Bethlehem, because his ancestor David lived there a thousand years ago (uhh… ??). Anyway, they go to Bethlehem and Jesus is born. Eight days later he is circumcised, then later taken to Jerusalem for the purification according to Moses. Simeon and Anna have some great things to say, then they head back home to Nazareth.
- Jesus is born during the Census of Quirinius in 6 CE
- The family is already living in Nazareth at the time of the census
- Jesus is born in Bethlehem because it coincided with the registration
- After a stop in Jerusalem, they head home to Nazareth
The Smaller Contradiction
Right away there is a major problem. Why does Luke not mention Herod slaughtering the children and the flight to Egypt? This seems like a major point to avoid and hardly something that would be missed, especially given its Jewish symbolism.
But more to the point is that Matthew has the family living in Bethlehem, then moving to Nazareth specifically to avoid Archelaus in Judea, while Luke has them already living in Nazareth and going to Bethlehem to register for the census. There isn’t even room in Luke’s story for the flight to Egypt. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, taken to Jerusalem, then they head right back to Nazareth.
The Big One
Here’s where the real problem comes in.
Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus in time periods that have no overlap. In fact, there is an 8 year gap between them. Technically the gap should probably be even larger, as Jesus would have been born at least two years earlier than Herod’s death.
Egads, not a good place to be if you’re trying to prove the historicity of the gospels. What is an apologist to do in such a situation? There are only two options:
- Try to prove that Herod died much later than history shows
- Try to prove that there was another census under Quirinius during the reign of Herod the Great
The first option is a dead end. The latest any apologist can even try to place the death of Herod the Great is 1 BCE, due to the occurrence of an eclipse that is known to have taken place during the same year of his death. However, this is highly unlikely as all other evidence points to 4 BCE, another year during which there was an eclipse. Besides, 1 BCE just isn’t late enough to help.
The hard work then, must be appointed to the second option: trying to prove an earlier census under Quirinius.
An Earlier Census under Quirinius?
There is very good supporting evidence for the census under Quirinius in 6 CE. Josephus is among the primary accounts. It is also known that Judea was annexed by Rome in 6 CE after Archelaus was banished. This is precisely why the census was taken. Now being directly administered by Rome, it was necessary to add it to the taxation instead of a simple tribute.
So here we have a well attested historical event, conducted for a logical reason (the annexation of Judea) during the exact time when Quirinius was governor of Syria, also well attested historically. It would appear Luke knew his history.
Another problem worth mentioning here, is that this census was not the general census implied by Luke (“all the world”). These were taken by Rome, but far less often. There is historical attestation to general censuses in 28 BCE, 8 BCE and 14 CE, but not anywhere in the time frame of either birth narrative.
The apologist must now find evidence for an earlier census under Quirinius. But if the census was under Quirinius while he was governor of Syria, then this means he had to have been governor of Syria twice!
The first piece of evidence often given for this is the Lapis Tiburtinus, a headless funerary stone that dates to 14 CE at the earliest, as it refers to Augustus as “divine”, implying his death. The text of the stone appears:
…KING BROUGHT INTO THE POWER OF…
AUGUSTUS AND THE ROMAN PEOPLE AND SENATE…
FOR THIS HONORED WITH TWO VICTORY CELEBRATIONS…
FOR THE SAME THING THE TRIUMPHAL DECORATION…
OBTAINED THE PROCONSULATE OF THE PROVINCE OF ASIA…
AGAIN OF THE DEIFIED AUGUSTUS SYRIA AND PH[OENICIA]…
The most obvious problem is that it doesn’t mention Quirinius. It could possibly still be about him, but the other problem is that even if it is, it doesn’t mention him being governor of Syria twice.
The next piece of evidence is the Lapis Venetus, the funerary stone of Aemilius Secundus. The relevant portion reads:
QUINTUS AEMILIUS (SON OF QUINTUS)
SECUNDUS OF THE PALATINE TRIBE, IN
THE SERVICE OF THE DIVINE AUGUSTUS, UNDER
PUBLIUS SULPICIUS QUIRINIUS THE LEGATE
OF CAESAR IN SYRIA, WAS DECORATED
WITH [THESE] HONORS: PREFECT
OF A COHORT FROM THE FIRST AUGUST LEGION;
PREFECT OF THE SECOND FLEET; ALSO
CONDUCTED A CENSUS BY ORDER OF QUIRINIUS
IN THE APAMENE COMMUNITY OF
Again, this inscription shows only that Quirinius was once governor of Syria and conducted a census. There is no reason to think that it is referring to any other census than the one already attested to.
Lastly the Antioch Stones, commemorative inscriptions for Gaius Caristanius Sergius. They read as follows:
SON OF GAIUS, SERGIUS FRONTO
OFFICER IN CHARGE OF WORKS, PONTIFEX,
PRIEST, PREFECT OF
PUBLIUS SULPICIUS QUIRINIUS THE DUUMVIR,
PREFECT OF MARCUS SERVILIUS.
BY THIS MAN, THE FIRST OF ALL [WITH A]
PUBLIC DECREE OF THE DECEMVIRATE COUNCIL, THE STATUE
WAS SET UP.
BY GAIUS CARISTANIUS …
JULIUS, OFFICER IN CHARGE OF WORKS, COMMANDING OFFICER
OF THE TWELFTH LIGHTNING LEGION, PREFECT OF THE BOSPORAN COHORT,
PONTIFEX, PREFECT OF PUBLIUS SULPICIUS QUIRINIUS THE DUUMVIR,
PREFECT OF MARCUS SERVILIUS, PREFECT…
These inscriptions mention Quirinius, but not as governor and not in Syria. A “DUUMVIR” is a city office, not a provincial. It is closer to being mayor than governor.
And that’s it. There are some very weak attempts to try to show that Quirinius was CO-governor or that there was another census but not under Quirinius. These don’t pan out and are even weaker than the poor evidence shown above.
There is one and only one census attested to under Quirinius. The 6 CE census conducted of Judea when it was annexed by Rome. This is the one Luke meant. It wouldn’t have even made sense for Rome to take a census of a client state. Client states simply made a yearly tribute for an agreed upon amount. There wasn’t a census taken until it was annexed. Judea was annexed in 6 CE and Galilee was… uh oh.
Ooops, a couple more problems!
In Luke’s narrative, Joseph and Mary are living in Nazareth in Galilee at the time Jesus is born. Galilee remained a client state of Rome under Herod Antipas from 4 BCE until 39 CE. Thus, Galilee wouldn’t have been subject to any census of Judea and Joseph would have had no reason to be a part of it.
And since when did the Romans require you to register for taxation in the city of your ancestor from A THOUSAND YEARS AGO?
Why the difference in the accounts?
A good question to ask then, would by why are there such discrepancies between these two accounts? How can Matthew mention Herod’s slaughter of the innocence and flight to Egypt while leaving out the census and trip to Bethlehem? And how could Luke have missed the Matthean material? Why the 8-10 year gap?
Matthew’s audience has long been thought to have been Jewish Christians. It is more insistent on Torah observance, for example. Matthew is also blatantly writing his gospel to match parts of the Old Testament he considers prophecy. He explicitly states this.
Matthew is trying to make Jesus the newer, better Moses. The slaughter of the innocents by Herod parallels the death of the firstborn of Egypt at the first Passover. Jesus coming out of Egypt not only fulfills the “prophecy” that Matthew specifies, but it also gives him an “out of Egypt” element. There are many such parallels in Matthew.
Luke, on the other hand, is trying to write a gospel that has an air of historical authenticity so he can set the record straight, as he says at the very beginning. He’s trying to write like a historian by sprinkling his story with what he knows of actual history. This is seen in Luke and Acts, both written by the same author. So he adds the detail of the census and Quirinius, the tidbits at the beginning of Chapter 3, the mention of other messianic figures in Acts (Theudas, Simon Magus, the Egyptian, etc). It’s actually not hard to argue that Luke was actually using Josephus as a source for these details, as each and every one of them can be found in his writings.
They both need Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, but to be “from Nazareth”. Matthew just has them living in Bethlehem, then move to Nazareth to avoid Archelaus. Luke has them living in Nazareth, but being born in Bethlehem because they are there for the census registration.
At least one of these two authors has made up their story. It’s more probable that they both did.
I’ve read about these problems and the apologetic arguments that try to fix them in a number of sources, including JW.org, but the most extensive treatment you will ever find for this whole topic is an article by Dr. Richard Carrier. It is a very long read, but details every relevant historical detail and every apologetic argument he could find, even some really bad ones and shows how none of them count as evidence.