The Evolution of the Jesus in the Infancy Narratives


William S. Abruzzi







And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)



Every year at Christmastime, millions of Christians throughout the world hear these words from Luke's gospel. They also hear stories of three Wise Men traveling from the East to pay homage to the newborn "King of the Jews;" of shepherds "tending their flocks in the field;" of a star shining over the place of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem; of visits by angels; of warnings given in dreams; of the massacre of innocent children by the evil King Herod in his attempt to kill the infant Jesus; and of Joseph, Jesus' earthly father, taking his family to Egypt in order to escape Herod's wrath. While these tales provide a beautiful prelude to opening gifts under the Christmas tree, none of them is true. They are all fables. Indeed, the modern version of the Christmas tale is a synthesis of several independent stories merged into two distinct and contradictory infancy narratives presented in the opening chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Most Christians are completely unaware of the inherent contradictions presented by the two infancy narratives. In fact, Bart Ehrman maintains that most Christians believe in what he calls a "Fifth Gospel," a synthesis of the four canonical gospels that merges the distinct stories presented in each gospel into a single narrative of the life and teaching of Jesus. Most Christians, according to Ehrman, do not know the four gospels as such; rather, they are aware only of the broad outline of Jesus' life and mission and are oblivious to the fundamental differences and contradictions that exist among the gospels and of the distinct portrait of Jesus each gospel presents. Christian beliefs regarding the birth of Jesus suffer from the same limitations as Christian understanding of the gospels generally.


In the essay that follows, I examine various stories surrounding the birth of Jesus in the light of current biblical scholarship. Two broad categories of research methods inform modern biblical research: Biblical Exegesis (the critical examination of biblical texts), and the Critical Historical Method (an examination of biblical stories in the light of historical and social science research). Modern biblical scholarship follows the same methods applied to the analysis of any historical text.



The Gospels

To understand the birth stories of Jesus, we need to understand the gospels in which they are included; and to understand the gospels, we need to examine the authors who wrote them, as well as the audiences to whom they were directed. Without going into a detailed discussion of the theologies and other characteristics that are known about the purported authors (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John), one thing is clear: they were not eyewitnesses to the events they describe. Current biblical scholarship dates the gospel attributed to Mark (generally accepted as the earliest of the canonical gospels) to around 70 CE (Common Era, formerly A.D.). The gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke are generally dated between 80-90 CE, while the gospel attributed to John is thought to have been written between 90-100 CE. Clearly, given these dates, it is highly improbable that any of the gospel writers were themselves eyewitnesses to specific events in Jesus' life.  They most certainly were not present at Jesus' birth or, for that matter, at the Sanhedrin meetings where plans were made to arrest Jesus, at Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin or his trial by Roman authorities, none of which would have been public affairs. They were also not present to take notes when Jesus was telling the various parables contained in the first three gospels or making the long speeches presented in the fourth gospel.1 The gospels were based on stories handed down for some 2-3 generations and contain all the problems of accuracy and validity associated with such stories. (For a good example of how quickly stories can become distorted and mythologized, even in a literate and educated society, see Abruzzi The Myth of Chief Seattle.) In a court of law, most of what is contained in the gospels would be classified as "hearsay."


Evidence also exists which clearly suggests that the authors of the four gospels were not native to Palestine. Mark's description of the land descending into the Sea of Galilee and his story of Jesus walking 70 rather than 40 miles from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee following a route through Sidon the region of the Decapolis (Mark 7:31) demonstrate an ignorance of Palestinian geography. Similarly, Mark (10:11-13) displays ignorance of Jewish customs when he has Jesus telling a parable involving a woman who divorces her husband, a behavior that would have been impossible among the Jews of Palestine at that time. Luke (1:59-61) also demonstrates an ignorance of Jewish customs when he claims that the baby John the Baptist was to be named Zechariah after his father until Elizabeth, his mother, obeying the instructions of the angel, objected, saying, "No, he is to be called John." This deviation from tradition, according to Luke, generated critical comments among their neighbors. However, Jews did not traditionally name a son after the father. In fact, according to Asimov (1969: 922), there is not a single case in the Old Testament of a son being named for a living father, and "is still not done by pious Jews today." Similarly, Luke (2:22) claims that Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple following his birth because "the time came for their purification." However. the law in Leviticus (12:1-5) requires only the mother to be purified after giving birth, not the father.


Purification of Women after Childbirth

The Lord said to Moses, "Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.


Several researchers (cf. Dibelius 1956; Goulder 1957; Oliver 1964; Minear 1966; Haenchen 1966; Brown 1977; Fitzmyer 1981; Goulder 1989; Freed 2001) have provided ample evidence that illustrates Luke's unreliability as a historian.  In a statement that would be seconded by many scholars, Haenchen (1966:260) concludes that the evangelist "is not so much a historian in our sense of the word as he is a fascinating narrator." (see Abruzzi When Was Jesus Born?)


Finally, the gospels lack the elements usually found in eyewitness accounts. They rarely include the kind of details and information one would expect from first-hand descriptions of events. None of the gospel writers, for example, includes themselves in any of the events that took place, as would be expected had they actually witnessed the events they describe.  Furthermore, Luke (1:1-3) begins his gospel with the following words,


Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theoph'ilus.2

Luke's introduction indicates rather clearly that he was not an eyewitness and, in fact, based his account on others who were the original "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word."

Along the same lines, if Matthew and Luke were eyewitnesses to the events they describe, Matthew would not have depended on Mark for nearly two-thirds of his stories; nor would Luke have depended on Mark for nearly half of his stories. Indeed, with the exception of about 40 verses, the whole of Mark's gospel is reproduced nearly word-for-word in Matthew. If Matthew had actually witnessed the events he described, he clearly would have had his own stories to tell, and he would have told them in his own words.


Who are the authors of the four canonical gospels? While Christians have universally accepted that individuals named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John composed the four gospels, and while these four individuals have all been canonized as Christian saints, the reality is that no one knows who wrote the four canonical gospels, or if they were even written by specific individuals. Authorship of these gospels was not attributed to the four currently named individuals until 175 CE by Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon (Ehrman 1997:79). There was, in fact, intense disagreement regarding which gospels should be considered canonical throughout the first four centuries of the Christian era. While there were dozens of Christian gospels in existence (see Hedrick 2002), including such well-known Gnostic gospels as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Mary (see Pagels 1979) and the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Nazaraeans and the Gospel of the Ebionites, generally attributed to early Jewish Christians in Palestine (see Munck 1960), Irenaeus was insistent that there were only four legitimate gospels, the current four canonical gospels, which he named. Irenaeus' reasoning for the existence of only four canonical gospels would hardly survive scrutiny today.


The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are. Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, it fittingly has four pillars, everywhere breathing out incorruption and revivifying men. From this it is clear that the Word, the artificer of all things, being manifested to men gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit. As David said, when asking for his coming, 'O sitter upon the cherubim, show yourself '. For the cherubim have four faces, and their faces are images of the activity of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it says, was like a lion, signifying his active and princely and royal character; the second was like an ox, showing his sacrificial and priestly order; the third had the face of a man, indicating very clearly his coming in human guise; and the fourth was like a flying eagle, making plain the giving of the Spirit who broods over the Church. Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these. (Against Heresies 3.11.8) (quoted in Stanton 1989:134)



The Synoptic Gospels

As already indicated, the general consensus among biblical scholars is that Mark is the earliest of the gospels. In addition, Mark, Matthew and Luke are classified together as the Synoptic Gospels (synoptic = "to see with one eye") owing to the similarity of their stories about Jesus, which is to be expected given that the stories in Matthew and Luke largely derived from those in Mark. Indeed, fully 80% of Mark's gospel is reproduced by Matthew, while about 65% is reproduced by Luke (Ehrman 1997). In addition, Matthew and Luke agree in sequence "only to the degree that they both agree with Mark" (Fitzmyer 1970: 136). Luke rarely changed the order of Mark's stories, while Matthew changed it only 7 times (Stanton 1989: 35). Only once (Luke 22:59) does Luke include a chronological reference that is not already present in Mark (Stanton 1989:84). In addition, "Matthew and Luke never agree with one another against Mark in regard to the order of episodes" (Fitzmyer 1970: 136). Matthew and Luke, however, routinely modified and added to (i.e., redacted) Mark's account in order to adapt Mark's stories to fit their own theologies. In Matthew, many of Mark's stories were modified to accommodate an Old Testament prophecy that Matthew wanted to attribute to Jesus. Luke, on the other hand, frequently altered Mark's account in order to make Jesus more sympathetic and amenable to Gentiles (non-Jews).


While some might want to argue that Mark borrowed from Matthew and Luke, or that Mark, Matthew and Luke all borrowed from each other or from another earlier source, Fitzmyer (1970: 134-147) details the reasons why scholars nearly universally accept the priority of Mark among the Synoptic Gospels. The priority of Mark clearly emerges when examining individual texts contained in the three gospels. One obvious question, for example, is why would Mark (the shortest of the gospels) have abbreviated and conflated the more elaborate versions of the same stories contained in Matthew and Luke. Indeed, the normal direction of the subsequent retelling of stories is an increase --not a decrease-- in the elaboration of story details (see Funk, Hoover et. al. 1993: Chapter 1). Why also would Mark have omitted such important and popular stories as the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew and the Good Samaritan in Luke? Similarly, why would Mark have eliminated all traces of both Matthew's and Luke's infancy narratives? Given Mathew's and Luke's more elaborate resurrection narratives, Mark's almost non-existent resurrection narrative makes no sense, if Mark borrowed from them rather than they from him. Throughout the gospel, the Christology presented by Mark is substantially less developed than that presented in the other gospels, and reflects an earlier and theologically less developed conceptualization of Jesus and his mission. Thus, "given Mark, it is easy to see why Matthew and Luke were written; but given Matthew and Luke, it is hard to see why Mark was needed in the early Church." (Fitzmyer 1970: 135).


It is also difficult to explain why, having Matthew's gospel in hand, Luke should only follow Matthew's order when it agrees with Mark. If Luke borrowed equally from Matthew and Mark, or if Matthew borrowed equally from Luke and Mark, or  if all the three evangelists borrowed equally from an earlier source, there should be numerous agreements in order between Matthew and Luke against Mark; but "there are next to none." (Fitzmyer 1970: 138). Bart Ehrman (1997: Chapters 5-10) presents a detailed analysis of the four canonical gospels, which similarly demonstrates the primacy of Mark among the Synoptic Gospels and which illustrates the manner in which Matthew and Luke both redacted Mark's material to accommodate their own theologies. Given such extensive interdependency among the various gospels, they cannot be considered multiple and independent affirmations of Christian beliefs about Jesus. The fact that a particular story exists in more than one gospel may simply indicate that one or more later writers borrowed the story from an earlier gospel.  What is more significant is the way in which the different gospel authors modified those stories to support their own theologies..


Meanwhile, Luke and Matthew share some 230 verses that are not contained in Mark (Stanton 1989:86). Textual analysis of these verses over the past century has led scholars to conclude that Matthew and Luke borrowed the stories contained in these verses from a common source other than Mark, just as they borrowed the bulk of their stories from Mark. This other source, which is yet to be discovered, is referred to as "Q" [short for Quelle, which means "Source" in German]. There are several reasons for this consensus. Stanton (1989: 86-87) points out some of them:



A very close verbal agreement exists between Matthew and Luke extending over several verses. (e.g., Matt 3:7-10 = Luke 3:7-9; Matt 11:4-11, 16-19 = Luke 7:22-28, 31-350).



Striking agreements exist in the order in which the non-Marcan traditions are found in both Matthew and Luke.



Both Matthew and Luke contain several "doublet" passages in which the two authors use the Marcan form of the story at one point in their gospel and the Q version of the same story elsewhere (e.g., "He who has, to him will more be given" Mk 4:25 = Matt 13:12 = Luke 8:18. A similar saying is found at Matt 25:29 and Luke 19:26).


Such similarities are highly unlikely to have occurred by chance.



The Synoptic Gospels vs. the "Signs" Gospel of John


As Aviezer Tucker (2016: 137) so eloquently notes, "The problem with the Synoptic Gospels as evidence for a historical Jesus  . . . is that the evidence that coheres does not seem to be independent, whereas the evidence that is independent does not seem to cohere." With the addition of the Gospel of John, a distinctly independent source, gospel coherence completely disappears. To begin with, in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus is more human; in John he is more divine. Indeed, in John, the very first verse of the gospel proclaims, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1) In other words, Jesus is one with God (which he is not in any of the Synoptics) and has always existed. He simply becomes human through an undefined process: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." (John 1:14) There is, therefore, no birth story in John because, as God, Jesus clearly pre-existed Joseph and Mary. This stands in sharp contrast to the Synoptics where Jesus is born [in Matthew and Luke] through a very human process, experiences very human travails, and becomes God's messenger at different times during his life (at his birth, his baptism, or his resurrection). In fact, it is not clear when (or even if) Jesus becomes divine in Mark. The most that can be said is that he becomes a messenger of God at his baptism.


In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." (Mark 1:9-11)

Matthew reproduces Mark's description of Jesus' baptism almost exactly, but changes God's words ("this" replaces "thou") in order to have God address the entire crowd present at the baptism rather than Jesus alone, as in Mark.


And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." (Matt 3: 16-17)

Whereas in the Synoptics Jesus suffers and frequently displays his humanity, in John Jesus is more fully divine and in control of all events, including his own trial, where he tells Pilate, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above" (John 19:10). In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus even questions his mission and requests that he not have to suffer crucifixion (Mark 13:36; Matthew 26:39; Luke 22:42). No such doubt exists in Jesus' mind in John, and, consequently, no agony in the Garden of Gethsemane takes place in John. In the Synoptics, Jesus recruits his apostles; in John, they come to him. None of the spectacular miracles in John, such as the raising of Lazarus from the dead, are mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels. Conversely, Jesus performs no exorcisms and tells no parables in John's gospel, whereas exorcisms and parables permeate and even define Jesus' teaching in the Synoptic Gospels. In John, Jesus talks not in parables, but in long monologues. In fact, not a single statement made by Jesus in John is contained in any of the three Synoptic gospels. The repetition of long monologues and the complete lack of overlap with the words and deeds of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are two of the reasons why not a single quote in the entire Gospel of John was considered authentic by the 76 scholars of the Jesus Seminar (1993). Furthermore, Jesus' miracles are repeatedly performed in John as "signs" of his divinity, which they never are in any of the Synoptics. In fact, in Mark (8:11-13) and Matthew (12:38-39; 16:1-4) Jesus explicitly rejects all requests that he provide a sign of his divinity.


The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, "Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation." And he left them, and getting into the boat again he departed to the other side. (Mark 8:11-13)


And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, "When it is evening, you say, 'It will be fair weather; for the sky is red.' And in the morning, 'It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah." So he left them and departed. (Matt 16:1-4)

Jesus is also much more explicit and forthcoming about who he is in John's gospel. There are, for example, 46 "I am" statements in John where Jesus proclaims who he is openly for all to hear, compared to only 2, 5 & 2 respectively in Mark, Matthew & Luke. In fact, in Mark Jesus repeatedly tells those that he has cured or who have witnessed his miracles not to tell anyone. (Mark 1:44; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:30). Examples of "I am"  statements made by Jesus in John, but not presented in any of the other gospels, include:


Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (6:35)

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." (8:12)

He said to them, "You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. (8:23)

Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am." (8:58)

The Father and I are one." (10:30) [the verb form is different here because the subject is plural]

Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. (11:25)

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (14:6)

Finally, whereas Jesus is largely misunderstood in the Synoptics, especially in Mark, he is immediately recognized for who he is in John. This contrast is especially stark when comparing Mark (the earliest of the canonical gospel) to John (the latest). In Mark, at one point Jesus' family thinks he is crazy and tries to stop him from preaching: "and when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself." (Mark 3:21) In addition, his own apostles did not understand who he is, even though they were specially chosen by him (Mark 3:13-19) and received instruction from him (Mark 4:10-20). When Jesus calmed a violent storm, they asked, "Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?" (Mark 4:41) When they saw Jesus walking on the water, they still did not understand (Mark 6:49-52). Indeed, Jesus expressed frustration at their lack of understanding: "Do you not yet understand?" (Mark 8:21). By contrast, in John people recognize who Jesus is from the start. As indicated previously, he did not recruit his apostles in John; they came to him. Furthermore, following Jesus' first miracle in the fourth gospel, that of turning water into wine, the evangelist states, "This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him" (John 2:11), a direct contradiction to the statements in Mark. Also, in John (4:9-10, 22-23), Jesus shares a cup of water with a Samaritan woman and tells her that she will be with him in heaven.  Later, when the woman tells other Samaritans about Jesus, they invite Jesus to stay in their village, which (in direct contradiction to Mark and Matthew) he does for two days.  They also immediately believe in Jesus as the messiah, so charismatic is his presence (John 4:39-40), again in direct contrast to Mark and Matthew where Jesus' message is rejected by his contemporaries, Jew and Samaritan alike.  Indeed, in Matthew (10:5-6), Jesus explicitly instructs his apostles to stay away from the Samaritans.


These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.


While many Christians want to explain away the contradictions as simply the result of individual authors presenting different interpretations of the events they witnessed, the gospels differ sharply on concrete empirical details, such as the year Jesus was born, who his ancestors were, the date on which the Last Supper took place, words spoken at Jesus' trial, the number and names of those who visited his tomb on Easter morning, and where and to whom Jesus made his post-resurrection appearances. Mark, for example, begins his gospel with Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist and says nothing about a virgin birth in Bethlehem or about any of the other marvels and miracles surrounding Jesus' birth that were later added to the "Jesus Story" by Matthew and Luke. Paul, the earliest Christian writer, also mentions none of these events. Similarly, while Mark makes no mention of Jesus' ancestry, Matthew (1:1-17) introduces a genealogy that traces Jesus' ancestry through Joseph all the way back to King David and to Abraham, the founding patriarch of the Israelites. Luke (3:23-38) provides an equally inventive genealogy [which includes no names contained in Matthew's genealogy] that traces Jesus' ancestry clear back to Adam. Luke even adds Zechariah and Elizabeth to Jesus' family tree as his maternal uncle and aunt and John the Baptist as his first cousin (Luke 1:36-45). Similarly, each gospel names distinct individuals who went to Jesus' tomb on Easter morning:  "Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome," (Mark 16:1); "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary." (Matt 28:1); "Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women." (Luke 24:8-10); and first "Mary Magdalene" and then "Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved" (John 20:1-2). In addition, while Mark (16:9-18), Luke (24:1-53) and John (20:11-29) all have Jesus' post-resurrection appearances take place in and around Jerusalem, Matthew (29:16-17) describes only one appearance, which takes place in Galilee.



The Evolution of the Jesus Story

Contradictions within and between the gospels result from their being composed, either in whole or in part, at different times and places where various local traditions, together with the different theologies of each evangelist, resulted in the emergence of distinct stories and beliefs about Jesus. As traditions about Jesus were passed down, new stories were added and existing stories became modified and more elaborated. As a result, the Jesus Story became increasingly mythologized in conformity with the evolving theology of the Christian community.3


With regard to the birthplace of Jesus, for example, Mark repeats the phrase "Jesus of Nazareth" throughout his gospel (cf. 1:9; 1:24; 6:1; 10:47; 16:6), giving no indication that Jesus was born or lived anywhere but Nazareth. Mark contains none of what Asimov (1969: 903) refers to as Matthew's "Old Testament pedantry," i.e., his tendentious application of Old Testament prophecy to significant events in Jesus' life, including his birth. Nor do we see in Mark any of the angelic visitations presented in Luke. Since there is no birth story in Mark, there are no star, magi or shepherds in the fields, no slaughter of innocent children, and no flight to Egypt by Jesus' family. Nor are there any post-resurrection appearances by Jesus to his apostles. Mark's gospel ends with the two Marys (Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome), fleeing the tomb and telling no one what they saw (Mark 16:8).4 Indeed, if one were to read only Mark, he or she would have no indication that Jesus lived or was born anywhere but Nazareth, or that he was anything but a noteworthy Galilean preacher whose ministry was cut short by Roman authorities who executed him in the prime of his life, as they did many other messianic pretenders (see Horsley and Hanson 1985). Furthermore, Jesus is presented twice in the gospel of John (7:41-42, 52) with a challenge to his being the Messiah based on the belief that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, not Galilee. This would have been a perfect opportunity for Jesus to mention his birth in Bethlehem, had it been true. However, Jesus says nothing to rebut his critics. Nor is Jesus' birth in Bethlehem mentioned anywhere else in the entire New Testament.  Indeed, Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, as well as all the other features of the two infancy narratives, are not mentioned even once outside those narratives in the very gospels in which they appear. This has led some scholars to argue that the infancy narratives were later additions to Matthew's and Luke's gospels, just as Chapter 1: 1-18 (the Prologue) and the entirety of Chapter 21 are widely accepted as later additions to the gospel of John.5


As already indicated, as part of the evolution of the Jesus Story, Matthew and Luke created elaborate narratives surrounding the birth of Jesus that not only introduce material not contained in Mark, but that flatly contradict one another. Other Christian documents were also created that added material to the infancy narrative that was not contained in either Matthew and Luke. The Protevangelium of James, a second-century Christian document (originally attributed to James, Jesus' brother) adds the birth of Mary (Jesus' mother) to Joachim and Anna to the Jesus Story and introduces additional material not contained in the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke. According to the Protevangelium (3:1-7), Anna bemoans her barrenness. As later happened to her daughter Mary, however, she was visited by an angel who informs her that she will give birth to a progeny who "shall be spoken of in all the world." (4:1). Subsequently, when Mary was three years old, she was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem to be raised as a virgin and nourished there by angels before being betrothed to Joseph. When she was received in the Temple, the High Priest "received her, and blessed her, and said, 'Mary, the Lord hath magnified thy name to all generations.'" (7:4). When she reached age 14, Joseph was chosen to be her bridegroom. Joseph was chosen among the many available men because a dove emerged from his staff among all those presented to the High Priest by men throughout Judea.  As a result of this "sign", the High Priest says to Joseph, "Thou art the person chosen to take the Virgin of the Lord to keep her for him." (8:12).6 Joseph, however, initially refuses on the grounds that he is an old man and already has children. (7:13). During the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census (borrowed from Luke), Mary and Joseph are accompanied by Joseph's sons. However, Mary and Joseph only made it to the half-way point, when "Mary said to him: 'Joseph, take me down from the ass, for the child within me presses me, to come forth.'" Joseph helped her down from the ass and asked, "Where shall I take you and hide your shame? For this place is a desert." (17:8) Joseph then locates a nearby cave where he takes Mary, and it is in this cave, in a desolate area three miles north of Bethlehem [not in Bethlehem itself, where Jesus was born in the gospels of Matthew and Luke], that Mary gives birth to Jesus.7


The Protevangelium's version of the nativity story inspired the building of the church of the "Kathisma of the Theotokos" ("Seat of the God-Bearer") in the 5th century some three miles north of Bethlehem to mark the place where Mary paused to give birth to Jesus (Shoemaker 2001, 2003; see photos below). At the center of the ruins of the Kathisma Church is a rock believed to be the seat upon which Mary rested before giving birth, though there is nothing in the Protevangelium that would suggest the existence of a seat or of Mary sitting (Shoemaker 2003:23).



Kathisma Church Ruins




Kathisma Church Diagram




"Mary's Seat"



The midwife attending Jesus' birth is made aware of Jesus' identity and of his miraculous birth, to which she replies, "This day my soul is magnified, for mine eyes have seen surprising things, and salvation is brought forth to Israel." (14:10).The midwife tells another midwife named Salome about the virgin birth, but the latter disbelieves her, causing Salome's hand to wither. Salome's hand is only rejuvenated after she touches the Christ child [in much the same way that in Luke's gospel Zechariah's blindness was cured when he finally believed in Elizabeth's divine pregnancy with John the Baptist].


The Protevangelium's version of the nativity story was to have a significant affect on later Muslim beliefs regarding the nativity story. As Shoemaker (2003: 17) notes, "this early Christian tradition of Christ's birth in 'a desert' is almost certainly the source of the Qur'anic tradition of Jesus' birth in a 'remote place.'"


The Qur'anic Nativity Tradition

"And so she [Mary] conceived him, and she withdrew to a remote place with him. Then labor pains drove her to the trunk of a date palm. She said, "Would that I had died before this and was completely forgotten!" Then one cried out to her from beneath her, "Do not be sad: your Lord has placed a brook beneath you. And shake the trunk of the date palm towards you: it will drop ripe dates on you. So eat and drink and be glad. And if you should meet any person, say, 'Behold, I have vowed a fast to the Merciful one, so I will not speak to any person today.' And she brought him to her people, carrying him." (quoted in Shoemaker 2003: 17)


The Protevangelium adds additional details to Matthew's story of Herod's slaughter of Hebrew children (16:1-17). Just as Mary and Joseph fled with their child to Egypt, Elizabeth fled with her child (John) to the mountains. Unable to scale the mountains, Elizabeth calls out to God, who caused the mountains to split so that she could enter. God then sent an angel to protect her and her child (see 16:3-8). In the meantime, Herod sent his servants to Zechariah to discover the whereabouts of John, and then had Zechariah killed when he refused to tell them where John was, with Zechariah proclaiming, "I am a martyr for God, and if he shed my blood, the Lord will receive my soul" (16:14).


In yet another elaboration of the Jesus Story, the second-century Infancy Gospel of Thomas contains accounts of 17 miracles performed by Jesus between the ages of 5 and 12, and ends with a more elaborate version of the tale told by Luke (2:40-52) of the young Jesus in the Temple. In this gospel, Jesus is a mostly mischievous child who causes harm, and even death, to individuals who displease him. Jesus caused one child's body to wither because that child destroyed fish pools that Jesus had created and caused another boy to die who bumped into Jesus while running past him. In both cases Jesus reversed his actions when Joseph was confronted by the aggrieved children's fathers. Thus, in both his destructive and curative actions, the child Jesus displays his miraculous powers.


This Infancy Gospel of Thomas also adds three prescient stories to the expanding infancy narrative: 


1.  The gospel relates a story concerning Jesus' circumcision following his birth in which Jesus' foreskin is preserved by his mother in an alabaster jar that later turned out to be the very jar used by the "Sinful Woman" to wash the feet of Jesus (2:4; see Luke 7:36-50)


2.  In another story, Jesus' family passes through a country infested with robbers during their return from Egypt and encounter two thieves: Titus and Dumachus. Titus pleads with Dumachus to let the family proceed unharmed, but the latter refuses. In response to his kindness, Mary said to Titus, "The Lord will receive thee to his right hand, and grant thee pardon of thy sins" (8:5). The infant Jesus then proclaims that "When thirty years are expired, O mother, the Jews will crucify me at Jerusalem; and these two thieves shall be with me at the same time upon the cross.  . . .  and from that time Titus shall go before me into paradise" (8:6-7), thus adding a prediction made during Jesus' infancy to an event described in the gospel of Luke (23:39-43).


3.  In yet another prophetic story (14:1-10), a young boy possessed by the devil was biting other children. He was brought to Mary by his mother in hopes that she could help.  However, while he was there, he tried to bite Jesus, but struck Jesus on his right side instead when prevented from biting him. The boy was Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray Jesus, and the spot upon which he struck Jesus was the very spot in which Jesus was pierced with a spear while on the cross (John 19:34).


The Syriac Infancy Gospel, dating perhaps to the 5th or 6th century, combines features taken from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, the Protevangelium of James, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and adds new elements not contained in any of these earlier narratives. The Syriac Infancy Gospel gives special attention to the magical and curative powers associated with Jesus' swaddling clothes and with the various waters used to bathe Jesus. The magi, for example, were given one of Jesus' swaddling clothes by Mary in return for the gifts they brought to the Christ child. Upon returning to Persia, these clothes were placed in a ritual fire, but survived unscathed. (3:6-8).  A boy is later cured of possession by multiple devils when some of Jesus' clothes are draped over his head: "the devils began to come out of his mouth, and fly away in the shape of crows and serpents." (4:16). On another occasion, Mary made a coat out of Jesus' clothes for a woman's son who was ill; the son was immediately cured of his illness when he wore the coat (10:1-3). Yet another child is saved from death just by being placed on a bed in which Jesus had previously lain (11:6). In a similar manner, a young girl is cured of leprosy when she is bathed in water previously used to wash Jesus (6:18).  Her mother tells a prince's wife, whose son also suffers from leprosy, and he too is cured when his mother pours Jesus' bath water over him (6:33-34). Several other examples of miraculous cures resulting from contact with water in which Jesus was washed are also presented (cf. 9:1-5; 12:1-6, 20). 


The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, (originally titled, The Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior), written c. 600-625 CE (Klauck 2003:78), adds yet more new material to the nativity story.  The Gospel of Ps-Matthew is largely a re-working of the Protevangelium of James, but with several significant changes.  According to Kleuck (2003: 79), these changes include:

1. The removal of any ambiguity regarding the conception of Mary. The Angel emphatically tells Joachim (her father) that his wife has "conceived a daughter of your seed." (3:2)

2. In 13:3, after carrying out her investigation, the skeptical midwife explicitly affirms the physical virginity of Mary: "She conceived as a virgin, she remains a virgin." (This was in concordance with DS 503 adopted by the Lateran Synod in 649 CE).

"If anyone does not in accord with the Holy Fathers acknowledge the holy and ever virgin and immaculate Mary was really and truly the Mother of God, inasmuch as she, in the fullness of time, and without seed, conceived by the Holy Spirit, God in the Word Himself, who before all time was born of God the Father, and without loss of integrity brought Him forth, and after His birth preserved her virginity inviolate, let him be condemned."

3. Ps-Matthew elaborates on the ox-manger presented in the Protevangelium in a way that was to affect nearly every artistic representation of the birth of Jesus in later centuries. It places the ox and ass directly alongside Jesus' crib, citing two prophetic quotations (14:2).

a. "On the third day after the birth of the Lord, Mary left the cave and went into a stable. She laid the boy in a crib, and ox and ass venerated him. This fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah: 'The ox knows its master, and the ass knows the crib of the Lord.'" (Isaiah 1:3)

b. The animals received him into their midst and venerated him without ceasing. This fulfilled the words of Habakkuk: "In the midst, between two animals, you shall be known." (Hebrews 3:2, according to the Septuagint).

4. The timing of Mary's pausing is moved from the nativity of Jesus to the holy family's flight to Egypt. According to Ps-Matthew, Mary became hungry during the holy family's flight to Egypt, just as the family arrived at a desolate area in the midst of the desert north of Bethlehem. In response to his mother's hunger, the infant Jesus caused a tall date palm to bend and offer her its fruit. In some versions of the story, Mary also drinks from a spring that the infant Jesus miraculously provides from the roots of the palm.  Jesus then rewards the date palm for its obedience by transferring it to Paradise (Ch. 20). Significantly, reference to this flowing water is contained in the Piacenza Pilgrim, an early medieval pilgrimage guide composed between 560-570 CE.

"On the way to Bethlehem, at the third milestone from Jerusalem, lies the body of Rachel, on the edge of the area called Ramah. There I saw standing water which came from a rock, of which you can take as much as you like up to seven pints. Everyone has his fill, and the water does not become less or more. It is indescribably sweet to drink, and people say that Saint Mary became thirsty on the flight into Egypt, and that when she stopped here this water immediately flowed. Nowadays there is also a church building there." (quoted in Shoemaker 2003: 22)

5.  The gospel also adds several items to the story of the family's return from Egypt that are not contained in any previous document.

a.  In Chapter 18, the infant Jesus tames many dragons that emerge from a cave and frighten the children who are traveling with the holy family.

b. In Chapter 19, Jesus is served by lions and panthers who show the travelers their path and refrain from molesting the oxen, asses, beasts of burden, sheep and rams which Jesus' prosperous family have taken with them. This purportedly fulfilled the prophetic promise of an eschatological peace among the animals.

"The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah 11:6-9)

c. When the journey becomes too arduous, Jesus shortens the way, so that a 30-day journey takes only one day (Ch. 22).

d. As Jesus enters one city in Egypt, all the idols (idola) crash to the ground and are broken in pieces (Ch. 23), accompanied by a quotation from Isaiah (19:1).


"See, the Lord rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt tremble before him, as the hearts of the Egyptians melt with fear." (Isaiah 19:1)


This action does not move the ruler of the city to anger; rather, he and the entire population "come to faith." (Ch. 24)


As previously indicated, most scholars believe that the inspiration for the building of the Kathisma Church was the story of the travel of the holy family from Nazareth to Bethlehem, as presented in the Protevangelium of James in which Mary gives birth in a cave before reaching Bethlehem.  Indeed, the earliest reference to to the Kathisma Church and to its liturgical function is found in the 5th century Jerusalem Armenian Lectionary.  The readings associated with the feast celebrated at the church, which included Isaiah 7:10-16 and Galatians 3:29-4:7, plus several homilies given by Jerusalem priests [in both Greek and Georgian], clearly demonstrates the church's original liturgical connection to the birth of Jesus through Mary (Shoemaker 2001: 52-54). However, the interpretation of the church as a sacred site changed over time. With the construction of the basilica at Bethlehem by Constantine (325 CE; rebuilt by Justinian ca. 550 CE) and the official celebration of the nativity at this latter site, the interpretation of the Kathisma Church changed from celebrating Jesus' birth to commemorating  the holy family's flight to Egypt, as represented in the Gospel of Ps-Matthew. The story of the palm tree, contained in Ps-Matthew but not in the Protevangelium, is reflected in the presence of the mosaic of a large date palm (accompanied by two smaller palms, all of which are laden with fruit) on the floor of the church (Shoemaker 2003: 33; see illustration below).  Significantly, the palm mosaic is the only pictorial mosaic discovered in the church. All of the other mosaics are geometric in design. Equally significant, the current mosaics in the church were installed during the 8th century when it was converted into a mosque (Shoemaker 2003: 34).  Furthermore, inasmuch as the Kathisma Church is located three miles to the north of Bethlehem, it would be illogical for Jesus' family to have stopped at this location when they were fleeing south to Egypt. Eventually,  the Kathisma Church evolved into a Marian site commemorating the Dormition and Assumption of Mary, completely removed from events surrounding the nativity of Jesus (see Ray 2000: 94ff.; Shoemaker 2003: 24-31; Klauck 2003:79). 




Palm Mosaic



Mary's encounter with the date palm and spring in the desert is described near the beginning of this Dormition narrative. As the narrative opens, Christ, who is identified as a "Great Angel," appears to his mother to announce her impending death. When Mary expresses some uncertainty regarding the angel's identity, the Christ-Angel reassures her by reminding his mother of their journey through the desert into Egypt, when he miraculously fed her from the date palm. Jesus continues by reminding Mary of Joseph's anger and confusion at the circumstances of her pregnancy, saying of Joseph that


"He (Joseph) was crying  . . .  and Joseph was angry with you, saying, 'Give your breast to your child.' At once you gave it to him, as you went forth to the Mount of Olives, fleeing from Herod. And when you came to some trees you said to Joseph, 'My lord, we are hungry, and what do we have to eat in this desert place?' Then he rebuked you, saying, 'What can I do for you? Is it not enough for you that I became a stranger to my family on your account; why didn't you guard your virginity, so that you would [not] be found in this; and not only you, but I and my children too; now I live here with you, and I do not even know what will happen to my seven children.  . . .  I have been afflicted from all sides because of you, because I have left my country. And I am afflicted because I did not know the child that you have; I only know that he is not from me. But I have thought in my heart, perhaps I had intercourse with you while drunk, and that I am even worse because I had determined to protect [you]. And behold, now it has been made known that I was not negligent, because there were [only] five months when I received you in [my] custody. And behold, this child is more than five months; for you embraced him with your hand." (quoted in Shoemaker 2003: 20)


Clear parallels exist between the legend of Mary feeding from the date palm and stream in the Gospel of Ps-Matthew and the Qur'anic Nativity account. However, in the Christian version of this story the event takes place during the holy family's flight to Egypt and is not connected with the nativity of Jesus.  According to Shoemaker (2001: 29-36), however, the story of the palm tree was widely dispersed throughout the Byzantine Near East and is contained in several Syriac fragments copied as early as the late 5th century. He attributes the dispersal of this story to the Qur'an to the significance of the Kathisma Church in early Palestinian Christianity. According to Shoemaker (2003: 16), only two sources in Christianity contain reference to the holy family's pausing in the desert north of Bethlehem: the Protevangelium of James and the Gospel of Ps-Matthew. However, the Gospel of Ps-Matthew was likely composed too late to have an impact on the nativity story in the Qur'an. Furthermore, it was first composed in Latin in the Christian West and was completely unknown in the Christian East (ibid.: 19). The other principal source, according to Shoemaker, is the Kathisma Church where early celebrations of Jesus' nativity took place. The significance of the Kathisma Church in the development of the Qur'anic version of Jesus' birth is supported  by current research that places the origin of Islam in the Levant rather than in the Hijaz, as is generally believed (see Nevo and Nevo 1994; Berg 1997; Sivers 2003; Shoemaker 2003: notes 3 & 4).


"the Qur'an's dependence on  . . .  local Jerusalemite traditions adds additional weight to revisionist arguments against the origin of Islam in the Hijaz. As many scholars have demonstrated,  . . .   the traditional Islamic narrative of Hijazi origins is both late and problematic from a historical point of view. Moreover, various peculiarities of formative Islam that have somehow escaped the censorship of the later tradition's 'Hijazi nostalgia' point to the beginnings of Islam somewhere in the Levant, and more specifically in the southern deserts of Palestine and Roman Arabia. In addition, the archaeological record of southern Palestine fits more with the traditions of early Islam than does the Hijaz." (Shoemaker 2003: 13),


The parallels between the legend of Mary feeding from the date palm and stream in the Gospel of Ps-Matthew and the Qur'anic nativity account are clear. However, the Christian version of this story takes place after Jesus' birth and is not at all connected with the events of the nativity. The story of Mary and the Palm is not associated with the events of the nativity in any Christian tradition. The question then becomes why, if in fact the Qur'an borrowed this earlier Christian legend, it altered the legend's original setting, transforming it into a nativity tradition. Ray (2000) shows that this resulted from the celebration of "Mary the Theotokos" (the feast of August 15th) in the early Jerusalem liturgical cycle. According to Ray (2000: 116-129), the earliest celebrations of the nativity prior to the 4th century initially took place in the middle of May, were later moved to January, and then finally moved to December. In its celebration of the feast of August the 15th, the Jerusalem church appears to have adopted a Roman nativity feast alongside its own native nativity feast.  In the beginning, both the location of the Kathisma Church and the feast of August 15th were connected primarily with the nativity.  It was later on, during the 5th century, that they came to be celebrated specifically as Marian feasts (Shoemaker 2003: 27).


Comparisons of the structure of the Kathisma Church and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of the holiest of Muslim sites, adds considerable weight to the role that the Kathisma Church played in the transmission of the nativity story to the Qur'an.


"Rina Avner, the Kathisma church's primary excavator, has demonstrated persuasively that this fifth-century church served as the primary architectural model for Abd al-Malik's construction of the Dome of the Rock at the close of the seventh century. At the most superficial level, there is the not insignificant coincidence that this church, about an hour's walk from the Temple Mount, is architecturally almost identical with the Dome of the Rock, right down to the enormous, sacred rock at its center. Approximately the same size as the Dome of the Rock, the Kathisma consists of two concentric octagons, centered on a large rock which is itself enclosed by a third octagon. (Shoemaker 2003: 36-37)


Shoemaker (2003: 38) adds, "not only does the Kathisma appear to have served as the Dome of the Rock's architectural model, but the unusual mosaics found in both shrines attest to the strong links between them. In view of the Kathisma's significance for early Islam, we should not be surprised at all to find that its traditions have influenced the Qur'an."


To summarize this complicated process:  the elaboration upon Luke's infancy narrative that is presented in the Protevangelium of James, in which Mary gives birth to Jesus before reaching Bethlehem, inspired the construction of a church on the spot where this birth was believed to have occurred. In time, however, as the official celebration of Jesus' birth became focused on Bethlehem, the interpretation of the Kathisma Church's meaning changed from the place where the holy family stopped on its way to Bethlehem to the place where it paused during its flight to Egypt [despite the illogic of this latter interpretation]. While this change in meaning was incorporated into the later Gospel of Ps-Matthew, the original interpretation of the site was retained in the Qur'an.


Thus, with each additional document, new stories were added to the infancy narrative, enhancing the divine nature of Jesus' birth. The Protevangelium of James, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Syriac Infancy Gospel and the Gospel of Ps-Matthew all added stories not contained in either Matthew's or Luke's infancy narrative in the same way that Matthew and Luke added material (including their infancy narratives) not present in Mark's gospel or in the non-canonical narratives that preceded them. With each new account  --both canonical and non-canonical--  Jesus became more clearly divine from the outset, and the events surrounding his birth [as well as his life and death] became more miraculous and more explicitly part of God's plan. In this way, the Jesus Story remained a work in progress for several centuries following Jesus' death.





Jesus' Circumcision

(Chartres Cathedral)

Chartres Cathedral is one of over a dozen European churches that claimed at one time or another to have possessed Jesus' foreskin.


Holy Prepuce




The Evolution of Jesus in the Gospels

One way to view the evolution of Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament is to compare how any individual story is presented throughout the four canonical gospels. Many stories, such as those of the Good Samaritan, the Sermon on the Mount, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead, cannot be compared, because they are presented in only one gospel. However, other stories, such as the stories of Jesus' birth, baptism, trial, execution and resurrection, can be compared, because they are described in multiple gospels. Most stories differ significantly in the various gospels, far more than would be expected if the different gospel portrayals represented the normal variation associated with multiple eyewitness accounts. Furthermore, differences that occur in one story correlate with differences in other stories within the same gospel, and together result in multiple versions of Jesus' life and ministry. Mark's gospel, for example, can best be understood as an "apology," i.e., an attempt to counter the misunderstanding of Jesus' life and mission in much the same way that Plato's Apology had done for Socrates. In Mark, Jesus dies on the cross in despair, misunderstood and abandoned even by his own apostles, exclaiming, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34) [the opening lines of the 22nd Psalm]. This cry is repeated verbatim in Matthew (27:46). Mark's description of Jesus' last words stands in sharp contrast to those uttered in Luke (23:46), "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit," and in John (19:30), "It is finished," both of which lack the despair associated with Jesus' cry in Mark. They suggest, instead, the conclusion of a successful mission. Indeed, Jesus' last words in John are consistent with that evangelist's portrayal of Jesus throughout the gospel, not as a human being suffering the travails of an earthly existence, but as God himself carrying out a pre-ordained plan.


Whereas Mark presents Jesus as mostly a local Galilean preacher chosen by God to spread his word, the stories in Matthew's gospel repeatedly link Jesus to the Old Testament, especially to the life of Moses and to the redemption of Israel. Indeed, Matthew's gospel contains 11 "fulfillment citations" [explicit statements linking individual episodes in Jesus' life to prophecies foretold in the Old Testament] that are not contained in any of the other gospels. Many, in fact, are rather clumsily added to texts borrowed from either Mark or from Q (see McCasland 1961; Moule 1967; Winter 1954a). Luke's gospel does not include any Old Testament citations in those passages that Matthew and Luke both borrowed from Mark or from Q. Whereas in Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses who represents the salvation of Israel, in Luke Jesus becomes a more universal savior of all mankind, with less focus on Israel and the Old Testament.8 As a result, Luke places the significant events in Jesus' life --most notably his birth-- more in the context of the larger Greco-Roman world than does Matthew. Unlike Matthew, where the stories surrounding Jesus' birth are centered on Herod, the King of Judea, Luke places Jesus' birth during the census commanded and administered by Caesar Augustus9 and Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, the Roman emperor and governor of Syria respectively. In addition, stories displaying a more parochial focus are replaced in the later gospels by those with more universal appeal, as Christianity sought to attract primarily Gentile (non-Jewish) converts. For example, the story of Jesus' refusal to cure the daughter of the Syrophoenecian woman because she was not Jewish (see Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28) is absent in the gospels of Luke and John.



Jesus and John the Baptist

Jesus' relation to John the Baptist is another case in point. John increasingly becomes a Christian evangelist as we proceed through the gospels. In Mark, John's role is simply that of a forerunner to Jesus. In Matthew, the teaching of Jesus and John are summed up in identical words: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matt 3:2 [spoken by John]; Matt 4:17 [spoken by Jesus upon learning of the arrest of John]). However, while Matthew links John with Jesus as a herald of the new era of the kingdom, Luke places John firmly in the "old" era of the law and the prophets, in contrast to Jesus who represents the new and final era (see Oliver 1964:216-217; Freed 2001:124-127). In Luke, the good news of the kingdom of God is preached only after John's day (see Luke 16:16; Acts 10:36-37). Also, while Matthew makes no reference to John in his infancy narrative, Luke devotes a great deal of space to John's birth, making him Jesus' first cousin. In addition, while clear parallels exist in Luke's stories describing the annunciations and births of Jesus and John (see Freed 2001: 114-115), he juxtaposes those stories in a way that repeatedly subordinates John to Jesus, the one for whom he is preparing the way. In Luke's infancy narrative, John  even recognizes Jesus' superiority while still in the womb (Luke 1:44). Similarly, while John's birth is miraculous in that both of his parents were very old and his mother, Elizabeth, was barren (Luke 1:5, 18), Mary's conception was even more miraculous in that it happened without any sexual relations at all.  According to Luke (1:35), the angel Gabriel said to Mary, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God." Jesus' superiority over John is repeated yet again in Luke's canticles. In the Magnificat, Mary sings "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior .  . . . For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed" (Luke 1:47-48), whereas in the Benedictus, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist says of his son, "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways," (Luke 1:76).




By the fourth gospel, John has become essentially a Christian evangelist.


There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. (John 1: 6-8)

John even puts words in John the Baptist's mouth in which the latter explicitly subordinates himself to Jesus, words not spoken by the Baptist in any of the other gospels.


John answered and said, "A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness that I said, 'I am not the Christ,' but, 'I have been sent before Him.' He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure. The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." (1:27-36)

The fourth gospel also has John proclaim Jesus as "the Lamb of God" (John 1: 29, 36) who takes away the sins of the world, again a phrase not used in any of the other gospels. John the Baptist's witness to Jesus as the "Lamb of God" in the fourth gospel even results in two of John's own disciples leaving him to follow Jesus. Andrew brings his brother Simon Peter to Jesus with the words "We have found the Christ" (1:40-42). Significantly, they follow Jesus, not as a result of Jesus' call to them (as in Mark 1:16-20; Matt 4:18-22; Luke 6:12-16), but in response to John's witness.


Inasmuch as all descriptions of the Baptist in the gospels were written by Christian evangelists, not by followers of John, it is unclear what the actual relation between Jesus and John was. The initial pre-eminence of John in first-century Palestine is demonstrated by the fact that it was he who baptized Jesus, not the other way around.  Significantly, while Josephus, the principal Jewish historian of the first century CE in Palestine, provides an extensive and laudatory description of John the Baptist in his Antiquities of the Jews (18.5.2), his description of Jesus (18.3.3) is considered by most scholars to be a forgery inserted later, either all or in part, by Christian scribes. (see Abruzzi, The Jesus Movement: #7). Some scholars believe that Jesus was originally a follower of John. If Jesus was born the "Son of God" through an Immaculate Conception (Luke 1:35) and was, therefore, by definition, free of sin, he would have had no need to be baptized by John, since all three synoptic gospels are quite explicit that John baptized people specifically as repentance for the forgiveness of their sins (Mark 1:4; Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:3).  If, however, Jesus were originally a follower of John, then his being baptized by John would have made sense.


And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. (Mark 1:4-6)


People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. (Matt 3:5-6)


He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3)


No evidence exits that John ever became a follower of Jesus. Quite the contrary; there is ample evidence that John's mission survived his death and that as late as the second century some groups claimed John, not Jesus, as the Messiah (see Brandon 1951: 24-26;Hughes 1972: 213-214; Stanton 1989:167). Indeed, both Paul and the author of Acts discuss Apollos, a prominent Jewish Christian from Alexandria and 12 disciples whom Paul met in Ephesus who knew only of John's baptism, not that of Jesus (see note #9 below). All four of the gospels also distinguished clearly between the disciples of Jesus and those of John (see Freed 2001:133), and both Mark (6:29) and Matthew (14:12) state explicitly that following his execution John's disciples "came and took his body and buried it." In addition, Hughes (1972) draws a sharp distinction between the teaching of Jesus and that of John, noting that Jesus could not have been the object of John's preaching.  Hughes argues that it was Yahweh himself, not Jesus, who was the "Coming One" prophesized by John. John, like Jesus, preached the imminent end of days, i.e., the coming of God's Kingdom. John preached in typically Old Testament style, frequently using Old Testament metaphors, including a claim that the Coming One would bring a "baptism of fire."  John thus taught that everyone must repent and prepare for the coming of God's kingdom. Jesus would clearly not have fit John's view of the Coming One. John preached an ascetic lifestyle and the abandonment of the pleasures of the day as a way to prepare for the coming of God's kingdom. Jesus, who lived in cities, attended banquets and parties, and who associated with all manner of sinners, clearly did not fit John's notion of how one should purport themselves in preparing for the coming of God's kingdom, let alone represent the very essence of that kingdom.


A rivalry may have existed between the disciples of Jesus and those of John. The increasing Christianizing and subordination of John to Jesus throughout the Christian gospels may well have been the evangelists' way of dealing with that competition, i.e., by increasingly promoting the notion that not only John's apostles, but John himself, recognized Jesus as the Messiah.  The Fourth Gospel  (John 3:30) even has the Baptist go so far as to say, "He must increase, but I must decrease." And since no documents produced by followers of John the Baptist survive to provide an alternate view, the Christian view of John has prevailed. However, even if such documents did at one time exist, they would likely have been destroyed, as this was the fate that befell many documents the later church considered heretical (see Bauer 1934; Ehrman 1993). Thus, the only story of John that comes down to posterity is the Christian story, because, as Elaine Pagels (1979:179) notes, "It is the winners who write history --their way."



Contradictions Among the Gospels


Obvious contradictions would be expected to result from the fact that the four gospels, representing four distinct theologies, present different versions of John and of his relation to Jesus, The first and most obvious is the fact that, despite John's explicit statement regarding his subordination to Jesus, whom he claimed in the fourth gospel was the true messiah, John never became a follower of Jesus, but rather, as just indicated, maintained his separate mission until he was executed by Herod Antipas (c. 29 CE). In addition, whereas the author of the gospel of John (1:27-36, see above) presents John the Baptist as absolutely understanding who Jesus was and explicitly acknowledging his own subordinate role to Jesus, in both Matthew (11:2-6) and Luke (7:19-23) [in passages likely borrowed from Q], while in prison  the Baptist sends emissaries to Jesus to ask him, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" Similarly, as already mentioned, whereas Jesus recruits his apostles in the three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 1:16-20; Matt 4:18-22; Luke 6:12-16), they seek him in the fourth gospel (John 1:40-42). Likewise, in Mark's (1:9-11) version of Jesus' baptism by John, the Baptist gives no indication that he knew who Jesus was. Even in the fourth gospel (John 1:32-34), John explicitly claims not to know who Jesus was, being simply instructed by the Holy Spirit to baptize him. Yet, as already mentioned, John is introduced near the beginning of Luke's Gospel (1:36-42) as Jesus' first cousin. This level of contradiction is multiplied many times over when comparing all the stories contained in more than one gospel.


Also, when reading and interpreting New Testament texts, it is necessary to recognize that those biblical documents that have survived and that are used by millions of Christians today are but a small fragment of the totality of early Christian writings that have been produced. Numerous writings, referred to collectively as Christian Apocrypha and Pseudoepigrapha exist that did not become incorporated into the New Testament. These non-canonical writings include more than two dozen gospels, as well as numerous epistles, acts of various apostles, apocalypses and homilies written in the early years of the church (see Davies 1983; Barnstone 1984; Robinson 1984; Hone, Jones & Wake 1979; Cartlidge 1997; Hedrick 2002; Ehrman 2003a, 2006b; 2013). These various documents were used among a variety of Christian communities before there was an official New Testament. Some of these writings have survived and some have been rediscovered (such as the remarkable discoveries of the Nag Hammadi Scrolls in 1945 and the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947). However, many of these documents were destroyed by the Roman Church as it consolidated its power within the empire, or have been otherwise lost, and are known to us only through references to them by numerous early Christian writers, such as Tertullian, Irenaeus and Origen.  These diverse writings contain a host of stories about Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Mary's parents, Mary Magdalene, the activities of most of the apostles, and many other topics. The New Testament writings, most notably the gospels, were also preceded not only by oral traditions, but also by other earlier as yet undiscovered documents, such as Q and possibly pre-Marcan, pre-Matthean and, pre-Lucan writings, as well as an earlier "signs" document preceding the Gospel of John (see Winter 1954a, 1954b, 1955, 1956; Koester 1968, 1980; Davis 1971; Cartlidge 1997; Bovon 1988; Burkett 2004).






SOURCE:  Funk, Hoover, (1993).





When evaluating stories about the birth and childhood of Jesus (or any other stories about the life of Jesus), it is important to understand that oral traditions --and even written documents-- change over time (see Ehrman 1993, 2003a, 2003b, 2005; 2013). Inasmuch as traditions about Jesus were adapted and used in the life of early Christian communities, both before and after the canonical gospels were written, existing stories evolved and new stories emerged in response to the needs and changing theology of those communities. This process has continued down to the present, illustrated, for example, by the widespread belief in a militant Jesus during the Crusades of the Middle Ages and a Pacifist Jesus concerned with the rights of all humans in modern industrial societies (see Pelikan 1965; Robinson 1982; Prothero 2005). Luke Timothy Johnson (2004), for example, notes that most books based on the New Testament and sold in the U.S. today focus on the Gospel of Luke, which, more than any of the other gospels, presents a pacifist, universalist Jesus concerned with justice and with the poor.


In other words, both oral and written traditions tell us more about Christianity and about evolving Christian communities at the time they existed than they do about Jesus himself. Consequently, rather than viewing Christian apocrypha and pseudepigrapha as somehow less correct than the surviving canonical texts, it is more useful from a historical perspective to view all early Christian writings along a spatio-temporal continuum informing us about: (1) the evolution and diversity of early Christianity as a belief system; (2) competing Christian theologies and communities; (3) the theological and political factors involved in the canonization of some texts and the rejection of others; and (4) the politics of heresy declaration. Indeed, both the letters of Paul, especially Galatians, and the Acts of the Apostles (as well as many other early Christian writings) demonstrate that intense conflict emerged among Christians very shortly after Jesus' death and that this conflict revolved around the very question of who Jesus was and what message he taught.


The diversity of early Christian writings stems from the fact that Christians very quickly divided into a number of separate communities professing distinct and often competing theologies and Christologies (see Bauer 1934; Pagels 1979; Beskow 1983; Ehrman 2003b; Jenkins 2008; MacCulloch 2009). Many of the beliefs common among these various Christian communities exceeded the range of beliefs that prevail among modern Christians, contradicting the notion that there was a much greater sense of communion among early Christians than there is today. Intense conflict existed among these competing Christianities, which increased during the first four centuries (see Bauer 1934; Betz 1965; Pagels 1979; Jenkins 2008; Ehrman 1993, 2003). The consolidation of beliefs was largely the result of the eventual dominance of what has become known as the "Orthodox" faction within the early Church, centered in Rome, supported by Roman Emperors and ultimately becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. With the consolidation of Orthodox dominance, most of the competing forms of Christianity were declared heretical, with their books burned and their adherents persecuted (see Bauer 1934; Pagels 1979; Ehrman 2003b; Jenkins 2008, 2010; MacCulloch 2009).


A few of the more notable variations in early Christianity, included:


Adoptionism: the belief that Jesus was not born divine but was chosen by God as a result of his sinless devotion to the will of God, for example, at his baptism.

Ebionites: a sect that regarded Jesus as a mortal human messianic prophet but not as divine. They insisted on the necessity of following Jewish religious laws and rituals. They also revered Jesus' brother James as the head of the Jerusalem Church (rather than Peter) and rejected Paul of Tarsus as an "apostate of the Law." The Ebionites also rejected the pre-existence, divinity, virgin birth, atoning death and physical resurrection of Jesus.

Nazarenes: The Nazarenes were an early Jewish Christian sect similar to the Ebionites in that they maintained their adherence to the Torah, but, unlike the Ebionites, they accepted the virgin birth and the divinity of Jesus. The Nazarenes were followers of John the Baptist and then James the Just, the brother of Jesus.

Gnosticism: Gnosticism was one of the most widespread forms of early Christian belief. It included a variety of religious teachings in which humans were viewed as divine souls trapped in a material world by an imperfect (sometimes evil) spirit known as the demiurge, generally identified as Yahweh, the god of the Old Testament. The demiurge exists alongside another more remote and unknowable supreme being who is both good and the ultimate creator of the world. According to Gnostics, the only way to escape the inferior material world is to gain spiritual knowledge (gnosis), which is only available to a learned elite. Gnostic Christians viewed Jesus as the embodiment of the Supreme Being who became incarnate in order to bring gnosis to the Earth. Gnostics rejected Orthodox views of the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Jesus. These were symbolic representations of Jesus, and were not to be taken literally.

Docetism: Docetists believed that Christ was not a real human being and did not have a real human body.  He only seemed to be human. In other words, there was only Christ, not Jesus.

Marcionism: Marcion proposed the first canon of Christian texts. His proposed canon consisted of the Gospel of Luke and several of Paul's epistles. However, Marcion deleted any references in these documents that showed any approval of the Old Testament or the God of the Jews.


The early Church was also racked by a continuing controversy between Monophysites and Miaphysites (or Dyophysites.) Monophysites claimed that following the union of the divine and the human in his Incarnation, Jesus Christ had only a single "nature" which was either divine or a synthesis of the divine and the human. Miaphysites, on the other hand, claimed that Jesus Christ retained two distinct natures after his Incarnation: one divine and one human. This conflict raged over several centuries resulting in the death of tens of thousands of Christians on both sides of the controversy. According to Jenkins (2010: xii),


The intra-Christian violence of the fifth- and sixth-century debates was on a far larger and more systematic scale than anything produced by the Inquisition.

The Monophysite-Miaphysite controversy produced several Ecumenical Councils during the fifth and sixth centuries through which the competing factions promoted their respective theologies (see Grant 1975; Jenkins 2010). It was not until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE that the Church formulated the statement that eventually became the official theology of the Roman Empire --that Christ had two natures joined into one person.


The Chalcedon Council did not end the controversy, however. Monophysites were still numerous and influential in the Church and dominated much of the Christian world and the Roman Empire long after Chalcedon. They were ultimately defeated only after decades of bloody struggle, such as occurred in the following two incidents:


Jerusalem was occupied by an army of [Monophysite] monks; in the name of the one incarnate Nature, they pillaged, they burnt, they murdered; the sepulchre of Christ was defiled with blood . . .  On the third day before the festival of Easter, the [Alexandrian] patriarch was besieged in the cathedral, and murdered in the baptistery. The remains of his mangled corpse were delivered to the flames, and his ashes to the wind; and the deed was inspired by the vision of a pretended angel. This deadly superstition was inflamed, on either side, by the principle and the practice of retaliation: in the pursuit of a metaphysical quarrel, many thousands were slain.  (Gibbon 1854, 5:235; quoted in Jenkins 2010: xii).


Chalcedonians behaved at least as badly in their campaigns to enforce their particular orthodoxy. In the eastern city of Amida, a Chalcedonian bishop dragooned dissidents, to the point of burning them alive. His most diabolical scheme involving taking lepers, "hands festering and dripping with blood and pus," and billeting them on the Monophysite faithful until they saw reason. (Jenkins 2010: xii),

Indeed, centuries after Chalcedon, Monophysites continued to prevail in the eastern regions of the Empire, such as Syria, Palestine, and Egypt (see Jones 1963:17; Jenkins 2008; MacCulloch 2009). As heirs of the very oldest churches, the ones with the most direct and authentic ties to the apostolic age, they eventually found their interpretation of Christ ruled as heretical (Jenkins 2010:xi), as did many other varieties of Christianity, including those such as the Ebionites and Nazarenes, both of whom revered James (Jesus' brother) and claimed a direct connection to Jesus and his apostles.10 The Monophysite/Miaphysite controversy never completely ended and eventually underlay the "Great Schism" in 1054 that divided Christianity into competing Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.


To complicate matters, a variety of 1st Century biblical manuscripts have survived, including a standardized Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT), an official Greek Septuagint (LXX) text, other variant Hebrew texts, Aramaic targums (ancient Aramaic interpretations of the Hebrew Bible), and several Greek translations of the Bible, some of which conformed more closely to the MT than does the LXX (see Brown 1977: 103). Finally, numerous changes were made to the various canonical texts over time (see Koester 1980; Bovon 1988; Ehrman 1993, 2005; Globe 1980; Holmes 2001). In 1707 John Mill, an English clergyman and theologian concluded 30 years of research by publishing his Novum Testamentum, which he offered as an authoritative version of the New Testament based on the examination of some 100 New Testament Greek manuscripts. In the process, however, Mill discovered 30,000 textual variations among those 100 manuscripts, much to the consternation of his contemporaries (see Ehrman 2006: 2). Given that the number of known [complete and partial] New Testament manuscripts today is closer to 25,000 --over 5,000 Greek manuscripts, some 10,000 Latin manuscripts, plus more than 9,000 manuscripts in various other ancient languages, including Syriac, Coptic, Slavic, Ethiopic and Armenian-- the number of textual variations among extant New Testament manuscripts far exceeds the 30,000 discovered by Mill. Furthermore, as demonstrated by Ehrman (1993), there is a consistent pattern in the changes that occurred in early New Testament texts; the texts changed in the direction of more clearly supporting Orthodox (Roman) interpretations of Jesus over those of the other competing Christian faiths that prevailed during the first several centuries (see also Bovon 1988: 25-27). One example demonstrates how significant many of those textual changes can be. Surviving manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark contain multiple, distinct endings, with the earliest manuscripts ending at verse 16:8 in which the two Marys flee the tomb and tell no one what they had seen (Holmes 2001).


But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.


"Don’t be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’"


Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (Mark 16: 4-8)


These earliest manuscripts, therefore, contain none of the post-resurrection appearances and instruction by Jesus that are presented in verses 16: 9-20, even though they are considered authentic by most Christians.



The Infancy Narratives

In conclusion, to understand the origin and evolution of stories relating to the birth of Jesus, it is necessary to apply Biblical Critical Methods to the various texts. That is, the biblical texts must be analyzed both within their social, religious and literary context, as well as in terms of the historical circumstances surrounding the events they describe.


When applying critical methods to an analysis of the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus, the first and most obvious fact is that only two of the canonical gospels --Matthew and Luke-- contain any stories related to the birth of Jesus. Mark begins his gospel with Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist and has nothing to say about Jesus' birth. Mark also tells the reader nothing about the infancy and youth of Jesus, not even the name of Jesus' father (Joseph). He also includes no genealogy linking Jesus to King David. In fact, Mark (12: 35-37) has Jesus deny the claim that the messiah would be descended from David, clearly defending the fact that he himself was not descended from David.


And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, "How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, inspired by the Holy Spirit, declared,

‘The Lord said to my Lord,

Sit at my right hand,

till I put thy enemies under thy feet.’

David himself calls him Lord; so how is he his son?" And the great throng heard him gladly.


Following an introductory hymn [Prologue], the Fourth Gospel also begins the story of Jesus with his baptism by John the Baptist and says nothing about Jesus' birth, not even the name of his mother (Mary). There is similarly no reference at all to Jesus' birth or to his family in the Acts of the Apostles, except one reference to his mother's involvement in the Christian community following Jesus' death (Acts 1:14). Nor is there any reference to Jesus' mother or father in the main Pauline letters [the ones believed to have been written by Paul, as opposed to the Pseudo Pauline epistles believed to have been written by later authors posing as Paul (cf. Ehrman 2013: 155-222). Indeed, Acts (10:37-41) presents an outline of Jesus' life that is similar to Mark's, with no mention of Jesus' birth, but rather a sequence beginning with Jesus' baptism and ending with his resurrection (Brown 1977:27).


All of the stories associated with the birth of Jesus --the visitation by Magi or by shepherds, the Christmas star, the virgin birth, the "Slaughter of the Innocents," the flight to Egypt, and the census forcing Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem, are stories presented only in Matthew and Luke.  However, none of these stories is contained in both gospels.  In fact, the two evangelists' versions of the birth story contradict each other in nearly every detail. The stories of the magi, of Herod's killing innocent children and of the flight to Egypt occur only in Matthew, while only Luke's account includes the story of Elizabeth, Zechariah and the birth of John the Baptist, the visitation of an angel to Mary and of Mary to Elizabeth, the census which brings Joseph and his family to Bethlehem, the adoration of Jesus by shepherds, the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the loss and finding of Jesus in the Temple at age 12.  Furthermore, besides the illogic of those stories and their historical improbability, Brown (1977: 36) notes that


Matthew's account of Jesus' birth contains a number of extraordinary or miraculous public events that, were they factual, should have left some traces in Jewish records or elsewhere in the New Testament (the king and all Jerusalem upset over the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem; a star which moved from Jerusalem south to Bethlehem and came to rest over a house; the massacre of all the male children in Bethlehem).


Matthew's (2:3) statement that when the wise men approached Herod asking, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him," Herod "was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him" presents a fundamental contradiction that cannot be ignored. Aside from the fact that Herod was hated by his subjects, who would have loved to see him replaced and, therefore, would not likely have been "troubled" at the thought of a usurper, not a single piece of evidence can be found anywhere in any of the gospels that anyone remembered the extraordinary events that Matthew (and, for that matter, Luke) claims accompanied Jesus' birth. Indeed, three of the gospels indicate quite clearly that when Jesus preached in Nazareth, his own hometown, the people living there demonstrated a complete ignorance of his miraculous origin.


He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:1-3)


He came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?" And they took offense at him. (Matt 13:54-57)


When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read; and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph’s son?" (Luke 4:16-22)


As Brown (1977: 31-32) appropriately asks,


If Herod and all Jerusalem knew of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem (Matt 2:3), and indeed Herod slaughtered the children of the whole town in the course of looking for Jesus (2:16), why is it that later in the ministry no one seems to know of Jesus' marvelous origins (13:54-55), and Herod's son recalls nothing about him (14:1-2)? If it was made clear through an angelic message to the parents of Jesus who Jesus was (the Davidic Messiah, the Son of God), why is it difficult for his disciples to discover this later on, even though Mary herself was alive at the time of the ministry? Indeed, why does Mary herself seem to be an outsider to the family of true disciples (Matt 12:46-50)?


In the synoptic gospels, even Jesus' family, including his own mother (who would have been intimately familiar with his miraculous birth), did not understand who he was or believe in him. Both Mark and Luke describe an incident in which Jesus' family came to restrain him, believing he was "out of his mind."  John (7:1-9) also indicates that Jesus' own brothers did not believe in him. This would have been strange behavior for the very family that witnessed his miraculous birth and that lived with that experience as part of their family tradition.11 Jesus' response to his family's ignorance in both Mark and Luke presents a conundrum for contemporary Christians promoting family values as "Christian" values.


Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind."   . . .  Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." (Mark 3:19-21, 31-35)


Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, "Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you." But he said to them, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it." (Luke 8:19-21)


So his brothers said to him, "Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world."  (For not even his brothers believed in him.) (John 7:3-5)


Luke's story of Jesus' parents reaction when, thinking that Jesus was lost, they found him in the temple also contradicts the infancy narratives. Certainly, no one would have known exactly who Jesus better was than Mary, his own mother, especially given that, according to Luke himself (1:26-34), the angel Gabriel had once visited her to inform her that she was to miraculously conceive the "Son of the Most High." Yet, Mary's reaction betrays any knowledge of that event, or of Jesus' divine origin.


After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously." And he said to them, "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?" And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:46-51)12


Significantly, Mary refers to Joseph during that incident as Jesus' "father," even though she should clearly know that he was not. While both Luke (see also Luke 4:22) and John (1:45; 6:42) refer to Joseph as Jesus' father, Mark and Matthew do not. Mark does not mention Joseph at all in his gospel. Matthew (1:16) refers to him not as Jesus' father, but as "the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born." Adoption was common in Hebrew society. However, according to Freed (2001:151), several Greek words were used to denote someone being accepted into another person's home, such as in John (19:26) where following Jesus' crucifixion, "the disciple took [elaben] her [Mary] into his own home." This act did not imply adoption. A variant of elaben was used by Matthew (1:24) when stating that Joseph "took [parelaben] his wife," [i.e., Mary] into his home.  Matthew does not state, however, that Joseph ever "took" Jesus.  The common Greek word for adoption, implying that a baby was officially accepted as your own child, was anaireo.  This term was never used with reference to Joseph and the baby Jesus. All of this has significant implications. If Joseph was not Jesus' real father, and if Joseph did not adopt Jesus, then the elaborately fabricated genealogies presented by Matthew (1:1-17) and Luke (3:23- 38), developed to trace Jesus' ancestry back to King David and beyond, are completely irrelevant. If Joseph was not Jesus' father, real or otherwise, then Joseph's ancestors were not Jesus' ancestors.


Matthew's and Luke's infancy narratives also contradict one another regarding Jesus' family's hometown. In Matthew, Mary gives birth in their home in Bethlehem, which is where the magi visit (Matt 2:11), whereas in Luke Jesus is born in a stable because they are outsiders who cannot find lodging while they are in Bethlehem for the census (Luke 2:7). Furthermore, after about a month in Luke's version of the story (2:22-23), Joseph, Mary and Jesus return directly to their home in Nazareth, where Jesus is raised (Luke 2:39-40). According to Matthew (2:13-15), however, Joseph, Mary and Jesus flee to Egypt following Jesus' birth, where they remain for an extended period of time, and only go to Galilee after Joseph learns in a dream that he can return home because Herod has died (Matt 2:20-21). However, Matthew has Joseph initially intend to return to Bethlehem, and is only later instructed in another dream to go to Galilee instead (Matt 2:22). For Matthew, this change of plans is presented as yet another fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.


But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean." (Matt 2:22-23)


However, as with most of Matthew's Old Testament citations, this one also constitutes a misrepresentation of an Old Testament text. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is there any mention of the town of Nazareth. Consequently, no prophecy could exist that would refer to Nazareth. The closest reference one can find to "Nazorean" in the Hebrew Bible is from Judges (16:17), where Samson says to Delilah, "A razor has never come upon my head; for I have been a nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, then my strength would leave me; I would become weak, and be like anyone else." Similarly, prior to Samson's birth an angel appeared to his mother and, in a story that served as one of the models for Luke's stories surrounding the births of Jesus and John the Baptist, said to her,


"Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean, for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines."13


Matthew and Luke even contradict one another regarding the very year Jesus was born. Matthew claims that Jesus was born during the rule of Herod the Great.  We know from a variety of documents that Herod died in 4 BCE (cf., Barnes 1968).  Luke, on the other hand, claims that Jesus was born during the Roman census of Judea.  That census occurred in 6 CE, ten years after Herod's death (see Schurer, Vermes and Millar 1973:401- 427; Lee 1966; Brown 1977: Appendix VII; see Abruzzi, When was Jesus Born?).


Matthew and Luke's genealogies tracing Jesus' ancestry  are also in near-complete disagreement (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38). The two genealogies contain a different number of generations and share precious few names in common. Luke, for example, lists 55 generations back to Abraham, compared with Matthew's 42, and the two genealogies only agree on names when they get to Joseph, Jesus' father. They don't even agree on the name of Jesus' grandfather. Matthew (1:16) claims that Jacob was Joseph's father, whereas Luke (3:23) states that it was Eli. Added to the problem is the fact, already mentioned, that Joseph's ancestry is irrelevant, since Joseph is not the father of Jesus, especially not according to Matthew.14 To add to the problem, the number of names in Matthew's and Luke's genealogies differs according to which manuscript is used. For Luke, the number varies from 72-78 individuals (see Fitzmyer 1981: 490-497).


To add to their problems, both Matthew and Luke freely manipulate Old Testament genealogies to suit their particular needs (see Abel 1974; Waetjen 1976; Brown 1977: 74-93; Freed 2001: 19-30). Matthew manipulated the Old Testament genealogy in order to claim that three equal periods of 14 generations led to the birth of Jesus: from Abraham to David; from David to the Babylonian Exile; and from the Babylonian Exile to Jesus. However, this necessitates considerable manipulation of the data on Matthew's part, as the genealogies presented in the Hebrew Bible do not fit into such neat categories. In addition, even by Matthew's own reckoning his arrangement does not produce three periods of 14 generations. Matthew, in fact, presents three time periods containing 14, 13 and  13 generations respectively, in part because David's name is listed among both the first and second group of ancestors, and in part because Matthew counts names, not generations (see Brown 1977: 81-82).  Freed (2001:28) even argues that, since Joseph is not Jesus' father (Matt 1:16), there are only 12 generations in the last group of ancestors. Luke also tries to squeeze history into a theological vise. Goulder (1989: 283-291) shows that Luke's genealogy contains 11 groups of 7 names, including names not contained in the Hebrew Bible, and contends that Luke invented names for "symbolic reasons." In the end, Goulder concludes that Luke's genealogy "looks like a carefully constructed work of art, a genealogical poem." Any attempt, therefore, to rely on either Matthew's or Luke's genealogies as credible sources of Jesus' ancestry must be viewed as naive.



To summarize our understanding of the infancy narratives: as regards the canonical narratives, Matthew and Luke present completely different stories of the birth of Jesus. The fact is that Matthew and Luke tend to agree with one another primarily where they follow Mark's earlier account or where they both use material taken from "Q". They generally flatly contradict one another, however, where they present material that was not obtained from these two sources. Consequently, Matthew and Luke completely contradict one another regarding events surrounding the birth of Jesus, because none of this material is included in either Mark or in Q, or, for that matter, in any other New Testament source. Furthermore, several later documents introduced material into the infancy narrative that is not present in either Matthew or Luke in the same way that Matthew and Luke embellished the material that was handed down to them. In the end, therefore, the "infancy narrative" became yet another evolving component of the expanding "Jesus Story." In commenting on the two canonical accounts of Jesus' birth, Raymond Brown (1977:36) maintained that a "close analysis of the infancy narratives makes it unlikely that either account is completely historical." It would be more accurate to say that a critical analysis of the history and development of the infancy narratives makes it quite clear that none of them --including both the canonical and the non-canonical accounts-- contains any credible historicity (see also Abruzzi When Was Jesus Born?). They duplicate the type of embellishments added to the biographies of other ancient gods (see Carrier 2014).




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1.    Luke, for example, could not possibly have witnessed the specific events he claims occurred when the angel Gabriel visited Mary and told her that she was going to give birth to the son of God (see Luke 1:26-38). Similarly, Luke's infancy narrative contains four canticles (liturgical songs) that are not contained in any of the other gospels: The Magnificat by Mary (Luke 1:46-55); the Benedictus by Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79); the Gloria in Excelsis by the heavenly host (Luke 2:14); and the Nunc Diminittus by Simeon (Luke 2:29-31). While presented by Luke as spontaneous declarations by the individuals involved, all four are, in fact, carefully composed liturgical songs inserted into a pre-existing text. Like the angelic visitation story, which is also considered a later insertion into Luke's gospel (see Abruzzi, When Was Jesus Born?, note 29), they do not fit well within the existing narrative, which generally reads more smoothly if they are removed. Moreover, as Raymond Brown (1977:346) remarks, "It is obviously unlikely that such finished poetry could have been composed on the spot by ordinary people."


2.    Significantly, a similar dedication to Theophilus at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, is one of several factors, including an identical writing style and the use of the same vocabulary (see Freed 2001: 112-113), which indicates that the author of the third gospel was also the author of that document, meaning that the Acts of the Apostles cannot be treated as a separate and independent source from the third gospel.


In the first book, O Theoph'ilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. (Acts 1:1-2)


3.   Dibelius (1934: 18-24) argues that the earliest Hellenistic (in contrast to the Palestinian) Christian tradition contained only the Passion narrative, which was likely put into the following liturgical form, as presented in 1 Corinthians (15:3-5).


Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.

He was buried

He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.

He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.


While the last line of this version of the resurrection stands in sharp contrast to that presented in all four of the gospels, in which Jesus did not first appear to Peter and then to the Twelve, Debelius notes that the overall structure of the Passion narrative remained relatively stable throughout the four gospels, despite differences in specific details. This stands in sharp contrast to the considerable variation that occurred in the telling of stories related to the life and teaching of Jesus throughout the four gospels, stories not contained in the writings of Paul, the earliest extant Christian documents. For Dibelius, this suggests that the earliest Christian tradition focused mostly on the death and resurrection of Jesus, with stories about his life and teaching being gradually added to the Christian corpus over time. From this perspective, the infancy narratives may also be later stories added to the evolving Jesus Story, which themselves evolved over time.


4.   Verses 16:9-20 in Mark are generally considered forgeries added later to Mark's gospel by zealous scribes (see Holmes, 2001; Tabor 2013). Significantly, not only are there multiple endings found in extant copies of Mark's gospel, but the added verses beyond Mark 16:8 are consistently absent from the earliest manuscripts (ibid.).


5.    The opening verses of John's gospel are believed by many scholars to derive from a hymn used in early Christian worship (see Gordley 2009). That Chapter 21 is a later addition to the fourth gospel is attested to by the fact that the closing lines of Chapter 20 were clearly written as a conclusion to the gospel.


Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. (John 20: 30-31)


6.    The Protevangelium of James contributed more to the contemporary image of Mary than perhaps any other early Christian document (see Cartlidge 1997; Cartlidge and Hock 2001). Numerous Christian works of art portray images of Mary and the Holy Family based on stories contained within that document that are not found in any of the canonical gospels, such as the two examples presented below. It also first introduced the notion that Joseph was a widower and much older than Mary.






Mosaic from the Kariye Djami

(Church of the Holy Saviour)


(c. 1315-1321).


Jesus' half-brother is shown leading Mary and Joseph toward Bethlehem. According to the Protevangelium of James (Ch. 17), when taking his family to Bethlehem to register for the census Joseph "saddled the ass, and sat her [Mary] upon it, and his son led it and Joseph followed." Luke (2:4-5) makes no mention of Joseph's son.    The sleeping figure on the left is Joseph, who is being reassured by an angel in a dream not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife for the child in her womb is from the holy Spirit (taken from Matthew 1:20). (Source: Cartlidge 1997)







Nativity by Robert Campin (c. 1420)

Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, France

In the background of the above painting are two midwives called by Joseph to help with the birth of Jesus. One of the midwives, Salome, had her hand consumed by fire when she doubted Mary’s virginity. Her hand was restored only after she repented and held the Christ Child proclaiming, "I will worship him, for he is born a great king to Israel." (see Protevangelium of James, Chs. 19-20). No midwives are mentioned by either Matthew or Luke.



While Mary has assumed a position of great prominence in Christian theology and worship, she is, in fact, a rather minor character in the New Testament, where she remains mostly silent and unnamed. Paul (Galatians 4:4) refers to her only once and only in a passing reference to Jesus being "born of a woman." There is not a single other reference to Mary in any of the Pauline epistles.


She is mentioned only twice in Mark, once unnamed as one of Jesus' family members who came to Capernaum to collect him when they are informed that he was "beside himself" (see Mark 3:21).


And his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside, asking for you."  (Mark 3:31-32; the source for Matt 12:46 and Luke 8:19-20)


Significantly, Jesus rejects his family and claims his followers as his family in their stead.


And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother."   (Mark 3:33-35; source for Matthew 12:48-49 and Luke 8:21)


The only other time Mark mentions Mary, this time by name, is when the congregation reacts negatively to Jesus' teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth.


"Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?"  (Mark 6:2-3; the source for Matt 13:55)


Matthew mentions Mary by name just 6 times (Matt 1:16, 18, 20; 2:11; 13:55; 27:56), and refers to her simply as Joseph's wife or Jesus' mother 7 times (Matt 2:13, 14, 20, 21; 12:46, 48; 13:55).. There are two references to Mary Magdalene and another Mary at Jesus' tomb, but the identity of that Mary is not specified. Nowhere does Matthew have Mary say or do anything that would serve as a basis for the elaborate beliefs that have surrounded her or for the spiritual qualities that have been attributed to her. As Cartlidge and Hock (2001) note,


"Joseph, not Mary, plays the leading parental role in this birth account. He receives the angelic visitors; he directs all the family’s moves. Ever silent, Mary is clearly his subordinate."


Luke mentions Mary by name 12 times (Luke 1: 27, 30, 34, 38, 39, 41, 46, 56; 2:5, 16, 19, 34; 24:10) and refers to her unnamed 7 times (1:15, 43; 2:33, 34, 48, 51; 8:20).  However, all but one named reference occur within the birth narrative. The only time Mary is mentioned by name outside the birth narrative is as one of the women who visited Jesus' tomb (Luke 24:10).  It is only in the third gospel that Mary speaks and, again, this occurs only within the birth narrative.  Mary questions the angel when it informs her [not Joseph as in the Matthew's birth narrative] that she is to give birth (Luke 1:34) and subsequently responds with joy and acceptance of her responsibility (Luke 1:38) when she is told of the divine origin of her child.  She later recites a song of praise (Magnificat) in response to the recognition of her exalted status by Elizabeth and the child in her womb [John the Baptist] (Luke 1:46-55). Nowhere in Luke does Mary play any role in Jesus' ministry. Indeed, as in Mark and Matthew, Mary is named among the family members who have come to remove Jesus and whom Jesus rejects (Luke 8:19-21).


While the gospel of John mentions Mary several times, it never once mentions her by name. She is simply referred to as the "mother of Jesus"  --at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2:1-5); accompanying Jesus to Capernaum (John 2:12); as Jesus' mother by the disbelieving crowd (6:42), and as being present at Jesus' crucifixion (John 19:25-27). Other than her instructions to the servant at the wedding, she neither says nor does anything that would distinguish her from those around her.


The only other mention of Mary in the entire New Testament occurs once in the Acts of the Apostles (1:14) where it states that as the apostles gathered together in Jerusalem following the resurrection of Jesus, "All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers."


Thus, as late as the beginning of the second century, Mary was still viewed as an insignificant figure in Christian theology. Throughout the canonical New Testament writings, Mary is a peripheral figure who displays no commitment to either Jesus' teaching or to his mission. There is, in essence, nothing in the New Testament upon which to base the glorification and exaltation of Mary that has become a central part of Christian belief and devotion surrounding her and that has served as the basis for the development of an extensive Marian cult over the centuries. In many ways, the elaboration of the character of Mary has followed a trajectory similar to that of Mary Magdalene. All manner of beliefs, stories and speculation about the character of the Magdalene (including being a prostitute) and her relation to Jesus have circulated widely over the centuries, even though she is mentioned only once in the entire New Testament outside the passion narrative.


Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him,  and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Mag′dalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,  and Jo-an′na, the wife of Chu′za, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. (Luke 8:1-3)


Mary's rise to prominence did not take place until much later and occurred in conjunction with a conflict surrounding the definition of Jesus that was played out violently in successive ecumenical councils during the 5th and 6th centuries (see Frend 1972; Grant 1975; Gregory 1979; Jenkins 2011). At the heart of the conflict was Mary's position as the mother of Jesus, i.e. whether she was the mother of a man (anthropotokos) or the mother of God (theotokos).  This conflict was inextricably but complexly linked to the larger theological conflict over whether Jesus was one with God (Monophysitism) or whether he represented a separate essence distinct from (and in some versions subordinate to) the father (Miaphysitism). Numerous theologians and church leaders lined up on both sides of the controversy, as did different emperors. Those who opposed the use of the term theotokos, such as Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople (428-431), believed that the Father and Son were separate essences and that God, as a divine figure, preceded the existence of the world and, therefore, could not have been born by Mary. She could only have given birth to the human Jesus. Furthermore, the elevation of Mary to the status of Theotokos was seen by many as a form of polytheism wherein devotion to Mary transformed her into a goddess similar to the pagan worship of the "Great Mother." Those who opposed Nestorius and his supporters viewed the rejection of the term theotokos as a rejection of the very divinity of Jesus. The interrelated theotokos/anthropotokos and monophysit/miaphysite conflicts dominated several ecumenical councils and were eventually decided at the Council of Chalcedon (451), a council whose decisions were considered so divisive that they ultimately led to a schism within Christianity that continues to this day. The issues were resolved not so much by the Church authorities acting independently as by decisions imposed upon them by the Emperor Marcian (who called for the Chalcedon Council) and his wife Pulcheria. It was usually the emperors who called for ecumenical councils to be held in an attempt to resolve issues among feuding church leaders, and it was they who generally presided over  those councils and directed them to arrive at politically acceptable conclusions. Pulcheria was the sister of the emperor Theodosius II, who Marcian succeeded. Pulcheria modeled her life after Mary and even took a vow of perpetual virginity, which she required Marcian to honor before agreeing to marry him and making him emperor. Pulcheria celebrated Mary as Theotokos and, according to Limberis (see sidebar in Cartlidge and Hock 2001), "adopted the same title . . .(calling) . . . herself the Mother of God." Pulcheria was, therefore, a vigorous opponent of Nestorius and was instrumental in having him deposed as bishop of Constantinople. She continued to be actively involved in ecclesiastical politics and strongly influenced decisions made by church leaders, including the declaration of Mary as Theotokos. She even had three churches built in Constantinople dedicated to Mary and filled those churches with relics believed to belong to the virgin, including what was claimed to be Mary's shroud and cincture and a portrait of Mary said to have been painted by St. Luke (Limberis in Cartlidge and Hock 2001). In the end, according to Limberis,


Pulcheria’s claim that she herself was the Theotokos was, however, the greatest factor in encouraging the veneration of Mary within the church. For the people, an empress could only claim the identity of a creature greater than herself, and that could only be a divine being, not a humble maid of first-century Palestine. If Pulcheria claimed she was Mary, then Mary must be divine and worthy of great devotion. (ibid.)


7.    Several early Christian authorities taught that Jesus' birth took place in a cave, including Justin Martyr (100-165 CE), Origen (184-154 CE) and Jerome (347-420 CE). Indeed, Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Typho: 78; Ep. 107), went so far as to charge that the Mithraic belief that the god Mithra was born in a cave was a blasphemous imitation of Christian belief concerning the birth of Jesus, even though Mithraism predated Christianity by nearly two millennia.  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia,


About 150 we find St. Justin Martyr referring (Dialogue with Typho 78) to the Savior's birth as having taken place in a cave near the village of Bethlehem; such cave stables are not rare in Palestine. (Cf. Massie in Hast., Dict. of the Bible, III, 234; Expository Times, May, 1903, 384; Bonaccorsi, "Il Natale", Rome, 1903, 16-20.) The tradition of the birth in a cave was widely accepted, as we see from Origen's words about a century later: "In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, and the rumor is in those places and among foreigners of the Faith that indeed Jesus was born in this cave". (Aginst Celsus I.51). It is reproduced also in the apocryphal gospels (Pseudo-Matt., xiii, ap. Bonaccorsi, op. cit., 159-163; Protevang. of  James xvii sqq., Bonaccorsi, 155-159; Gospel of the Infancy, II-IV, Bonaccorsi, 163-164).  (Catholic Encyclopedia)


8.    Luke clearly uses the Old Testament in his birth narrative, but in a much subtler way than Matthew.  The stories surrounding the births of Isaac, Samuel and Samson provide the source material for Luke's stories of the annunciation and birth of both Jesus and John the Baptist (see Winter 1956; Goulder and Sanderson 1957; Freed 2001; Riddick 1970; Brown 1977: 268ff). Luke's description of Zechariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist's parents, is taken at times almost verbatim from Old Testament descriptions of Abraham and Sarah where Sarah conceives miraculously to give birth to Isaac (see Freed 2001: 109). Similarly, Luke used the birth story of Samuel to construct his narrative of the birth of Jesus (see Freed 2001:87-89; Abruzzi, When Was Jesus Born?, note 34].


9.   Significantly, the very wording of the angelic message presented by Luke mirrors that of an inscription dedicated earlier to Caesar Augustus, who was referred to as "Savior of his people." The Priene Inscription, named for the ancient town of the same name located on the southwest coast of modern Turkey dates to 9 BCE, and proclaims that September 23rd, Augustus' birthday, should be commemorated as the beginning of a new era in which peace would reign throughout the world. Line 40 of the inscription, referring to the birthday of Augustus, reads "the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of tidings of joy on his account." (see Deissmann 1927:366). Commenting on the Priene Inscription, Freed (2001:142) draws attention to three phenomena formerly associated with Augustus, which Luke specifically mentions in his description of the angelic visitation to shepherds: (1) the expression of joy at the birth of Jesus; (2) reference to Jesus as "Savior"; and (3) the coming of peace as a result of Jesus' birth.




Priene Inscription



10.    Christianity is Jewish in origin and was originally centered in the Temple in Jerusalem under the leadership of James, the brother of Jesus, a fact acknowledged more than once by both Paul (Galatians 1: 19; 2: 9; 2: 12) and the author of Acts (12: 17; 15: 13; 21: 18). Paul even singles James out for special consideration, referring to him as "the Lord's brother" (Galatians 1: 19). Similarly, when Paul designates "James and Cephas and John" as the "pillars" of the Church (Galatians 2: 9), he lists James first, even before Peter. The supremacy of the Jerusalem Church was also promulgated in the creedal passage in I Corinthians (15: 3-7), which declared the unique status of Cephas and James as Resurrection witnesses. And when criticizing Peter for not eating with Gentiles --the so-called Antioch Incident-- Paul made it very clear that Peter's removal from the scene was in response to a directive from James.


For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. (Galatians 2: 12)


Acts also acknowledges James' leadership role in the Jerusalem Church. When leaving to go to "another place" after escaping capture by Herod, Peter directs Mary, the mother of John Mark, to "Tell this to James and to the brethren." (Acts 12: 17). Similarly, in its description of the "The Council at Jerusalem," James is clearly presented as the leader of the assembly, who makes the final determination regarding Paul's mission to the Gentiles (Acts 15: 13-21). In addition, when describing one of Paul's visits to Jerusalem, Acts (21:18) states, "On the following day Paul went in with us to James; and all the elders were present." Paul, thus, went to Jerusalem specifically to see James; the other elders of the Church were merely present at their meeting.


Acts (2: 41, 47; 4: 4; 6: 1, 7; 9: 31; 21: 20) clearly indicates that a sizeable number of Jewish Christians existed in Palestine. It also discloses the continuing Jewish orthodoxy of those Christians and their expectation that Paul demonstrate his commitment to Mosaic Law.


1.    The Temple continued to be their place of worship (Acts 2: 46; 3: 1; 5: 12, 42; 21: 23, 24, 26; Luke 24: 53).

2.    They remained true to Jewish laws of ritual purity (Acts 10: 14; 11: 2, 3; 15: 1; 21: 21-24).

3.    Their numbers included many priests and Pharisees (Acts 6: 7; 15: 5).

4.    They are referred to as "zealous for the law". (Acts 21: 20).

5.     Ritual acts of supererogatory character were practiced by them (Acts 21: 23, 24).

6.    Church leaders demanded that Paul demonstrate his Jewish orthodoxy in order to be accepted into their community, and that he repudiate claims that he had betrayed the essential customs of Judaism in his teaching (see Acts 21: 20-24).


The earliest preaching by Jesus and his immediate followers was to Jews only. According to Matthew (10: 5-6), Jesus commanded his 12 apostles to "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." In the two earliest gospels, Jesus even initially refuses to heal a Syrophoenician (Canaanite) woman's daughter because the woman was not Jewish (see Mark 7: 24-30; Matthew 15: 21-28).


. . .  a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. "First let the children eat all they want," he told her, "for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs." (Mark 7: 25-27)


A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly." Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." The woman came and knelt before him. "Lord, help me!" she said. He replied, "It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs." (Matthew 15:22-26)


The word "dog" was a derogatory term used frequently in the Hebrew Bible to refer to contemptible or inferior individuals (cf. Job 30: 1; Deuteronomy 23: 18; 1 Samuel 17: 43; 2 Samuel 3: 8, 9:8, 16:9; 2 Kings 8: 13; Psalm 22: 16; 59: 6, 14; Isaiah 56: 10).


"In the biblical world dogs are not pets as they are today. It is a dirty animal, a scavenger that marauds cities around garbage dumpsters; dogs are a symbol of impurity. If Jews considered gentiles as dogs it was because they did not live according to the Torah and its laws of purity" (Acosta 2009: 323).


Reviewing Old and New Testament texts, Nanos (2009) challenges the claim that the term dog was used by Jews as an epithet for Gentiles and argues instead that this characterization of Jews was introduced later by Christians. Nevertheless, in the earliest gospels Jesus directs several derogatory comments towards Gentiles.


"Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise." (Mark 10: 33-34; see also Matthew 20: 18-19; Luke 18: 32-33)


And Jesus called them to him and said to them, "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. (Mark 10: 42-44; see also Matthew 20: 25-27)


"And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words." (Matthew 6: 7).


Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. (Matthew 6: 31-33)


Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles (Matthew 10: 17-18)


If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18: 17)


Over time, however, Christian missionary activity became extended to non-Jews (mostly by non-Jewish missionaries). Beginning with the conversion of Samaritans, each new extension of Christian teaching to non-Jews prompted the leadership in Jerusalem to determine the validity of what was being taught, as well as what was expected of converts. This included Paul's mission to Gentiles.


1.    A special apostolic commission was sent by the leaders of the Jerusalem Church to respond to the situation caused by the evangelization of Samaritans (Acts 8: 14 ff.) [As just indicated, according to Matthew (10:5), Jesus had specifically commanded his apostles to "enter no town of the Samaritans."]

2.    Receiving criticism for extending the gospel to Gentiles at Caesarea, Peter was forced to explain himself to Church leaders in Jerusalem. (Acts 11: 1-18)

3.    A commission was also sent by Church leaders in Jerusalem to evaluate the evangelization of the Gentiles in Antioch. (Acts 11: 19-25)

4.    According to Acts (15: 1-29), a formal council was held in Jerusalem to determine the conditions required for Gentiles to be admitted into the Church. It was at this council, specifically called to pass judgment on the mission of Paul, that the issue of circumcision and Jewish dietary regulations were discussed and resolved as criteria for membership in the Church.

5.    Paul visits Jerusalem more than once in order to have his mission to the Gentiles validated by the Church leadership. (Galatians 1: 18-19; Acts 15: 1-29; 21: 17-20)


While Acts emphasized Christian unity and played down internecine conflicts within the early Christian movement, Paul shows that there was, in fact, considerable dissention within the early Church. Indeed, a prominent feature of Paul's writings consists of him berating different Christian communities for accepting missionaries who preached "another Jesus" or a "different Spirit" (cf. 2 Corinthians 11: 4). Paul expressed undisguised hostility towards those who taught a version of Jesus that differed from what he taught (2 Corinthians 11: 12-14). Indeed, Paul was quite intolerant of alternate versions of Jesus and railed against those missionaries and their teaching, proclaiming his version of Jesus as the only true gospel. He even went so far as to claim that those preaching a different gospel from his should be cursed.


For if some one comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough. I think that I am not in the least inferior to these superlative apostles. Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not in knowledge; in every way we have made this plain to you in all things. (2 Corinthians 11: 4-6)


I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1: 6-9)


Much of Paul's anger was directed against James and the Jerusalem Church, who he referred to as the "circumcision party" (Galatians 2: 12; Timothy 1: 10; see also Acts 11:2) and the "superlative apostles" (2 Corinthians 11:5). He also used the term "Jews" to refer to the followers of the Jerusalem Church, who today would be classified as "Jewish Christians" based on the Christology they taught.


But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. (Galatians 2: 11-13)


. . . (a bishop) . . . must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it. For there are many insubordinate men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially the circumcision party. (Titus 1: 8-10)


Now the apostles and the brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" (Acts 11:1-3)


Paul was frequently at odds with James, Peter and the other leaders of the Church in Jerusalem and was, according to Acts (15: 1-19), summoned by them to account for his actions. Leadership in the Church lay with Jesus' immediate followers. James, Cephas, John and the other members of the Jerusalem Church, are presented by Paul as supreme authorities in matters affecting Christian faith and practice. As a result, despite his open conflict with the leadership in Jerusalem, Paul was eager to obtain whatever degree of recognition they accorded him and his work, including enthusiastically undertaking a collection among his followers for the poor within the Jerusalem Church (2 Corinthians 9: 1-15).


Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up by revelation; and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain. (Galatians 2: 2)


and when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised (Galatians 2: 9)


However, while Paul accepted the spiritual authority of the Jerusalem Church and sought its approval, he also complained bitterly about the Church and its leaders, and frequently proclaimed the independence and superiority of his mission. Even though he referred to the members of the Jerusalem community as "them which were apostles before me." (Galatians 1: 17), he repeatedly claimed that his mission superseded theirs because he received it directly from God.


For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. . . . when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. (Galatians 1: 11-17)


Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who would examine me. (1 Corinthians 9:1-4)


Paul was extremely defensive of his preaching and of the legitimacy of his mission (cf. 1 Corinthian 9: 1-2; 10: 1-18; 11: 1-6). He never knew Jesus while Jesus was alive and was not one of Jesus' original apostles, as were the leaders of the Jerusalem Church. Paul was, therefore, considered an outsider with questionable legitimacy by Church leaders. He preached primarily to Gentile audiences living in a Hellenistic world removed from the Jewish Palestine where Jesus and his followers preached. Not only did he have little or no contact with Jesus' apostles or with the leaders of the Jerusalem Church, he was also by his own words unknown among the churches in Judea (Galatians 1: 22). He was, in fact, perceived as misrepresenting Jesus and his mission by the very apostles who knew Jesus and who were personally chosen by Jesus to spread his word. Paul's retort was that it was the other missionaries who taught a false gospel about Jesus and that his was the true gospel, because it came straight from Jesus and not through other men. His assertion of authority to preach about Jesus, however, was based solely on his claim (for which there are no eyewitness accounts) that Jesus appeared to him (see Galatians 1: 11-16; 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8). Paul does not describe what actually happened during that appearance; a description of the incident is contained only in Acts (9:3-6; 22:6-11; 26:12-18). However, Acts cannot be considered a reliable source of what happened, as it presents three contradictory accounts of the event.


No original documents survive that can be traced to the Jerusalem Church or its leaders. Thus, scholars have no first-hand documents describing what actually occurred at the Jerusalem Council, or during any of the other interactions between Paul and the leaders of the Church, except what is contained in Paul's letters, which of course reflect Paul's view of those events. Acts' descriptions of these events cannot be taken at face value, as Acts puts a "spin" on stories that downplays early Church opposition to Paul in order to champion Pauline Christianity. Acts' descriptions of the deliberations at the "Jerusalem Council" (Acts 15: 1-21) and of the "Letter to the Gentiles" (Acts 15: 22-29) that purportedly came out of that Council are unreliable. They were written decades after the fact by a writer who: (1) was a follower of Paul; (2) consistently promoted a Pauline (Hellenistic) version of Christianity; and (3) repeatedly played down conflicts within the early Church. There is also reason to believe that such a council never took place. Nowhere in any of Paul's writings is the existence of a council or a letter resulting from that council ever mentioned, even though the outcome presented in Acts would clearly have enhanced the legitimacy of Paul's mission. Such a positive outcome is also contradicted by the incident at Antioch (Galatians 2: 11-14), by Paul's estrangement from James and Peter and by Barnabas' abandonment of Paul's mission in favor of the Jerusalem Church (2: 13)


It is highly unlikely that the leaders of the Jerusalem Church would have countenanced much of what Paul taught about Jesus.  Whereas Jesus' immediate followers focused on the life and teaching of Jesus, Paul completely ignored the living Jesus. To Paul, Jesus' life and teaching were irrelevant.  All that mattered to Paul was Jesus' death and resurrection, which he viewed not in its historical context, but rather as a cosmic event. Jesus' immediate followers, who became the leaders of the original Church, would not have viewed Jesus as divine, as that would have contradicted the fundamental monotheism of Judaism, which  they continued to practice. As Brandon (1951: 81-82) notes,


Monotheists by instinct and upbringing and resident at the very centre of their nation's monotheistic faith, it was logically impossible for them ever consciously to regard their master in any way which annihilated the absolute gulf between the human and divine. Consequently, although they believed that God had raised up Jesus from the dead to be the Messiah and although they found it congenial to think of him at his hoped-for Parousia in terms of the mysterious and supernatural figure of Daniel's Son of Man, to them, he remained essentially distinct from the deity. (see Brandon 1951: Chapter 5 and Longenecker 1970 for discussions of the Christology of early Jewish Christians.)


Had the leaders of the Church promulgated the divinity of Jesus, they certainly would not have been allowed to continue worship in the Temple; nor would they have had Pharisees and those "zealous of the law" counted among their adherents. They would instead have been stoned for blasphemy. Their rejection of the divinity of Jesus would also explain why, when the persecution of Christians occurred following the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7: 54-60), no violence was directed at the leaders of the Jerusalem Church (Acts 8: 1).


For Paul, ignoring Jesus' life and emphasizing exclusively his death and resurrection also removed the central fact that undermined Paul's credibility compared to the leaders of the Church.  They knew Jesus, and he did not. They could, thus, refute any outrageous claim he made about the living Jesus. By focusing primarily on Christ, rather than on Jesus (Paul uses the term "Christ" far more frequently than "Jesus," which is just the opposite of that found in the Gospels), however, Paul could develop an elaborate (Hellenistic) soterioogical interpretation of Jesus that could not be contradicted as easily by those who knew Jesus best. Such a message would also find favor in a Hellenistic world where stories of divine beings serving as saviors of humanity were quite common. Judaism, on the other hand, had no history of such a  belief.


The vindication of Paul and his teaching by the leaders of the Jerusalem Church, thus, likely never occurred. It is also highly unlikely that the language contained in the Letter to the Gentiles (Acts 15: 22-29) derives from the leaders of the Jerusalem Church, as it reflects a later Hellenistic (Pauline) Christology. Acts was first composed some 40 years after the authentic Pauline Epistles and underwent considerable revision until it was accepted into the canon in 180 CE (see Dibelius 1956:148, note 25; for a larger discussion of the alteration of early Christian texts over time, see Ehrman 1993, 2005, 2013). The much later composition of Acts, combined with situations in which it frequently disagrees with Paul's own account of events, makes it a less credible source. Its direct conflict with Paul's own testimony, among other considerations, also makes it unlikely that Luke (the purported author of Acts) was a traveling companion of Paul (see Brown 1977: 236; Ehrman 2013: 265-282). Since no documents from the Jerusalem Church have survived to contradict what Paul and the author of Acts have written, their words became canonized as the historical truth. Significantly, the Nazarenes and Ebionites, who traced their origin to James and the Jerusalem Church, rejected Paul's writings as heretical and viewed Paul as an apostate. They ironically were later to be declared as heretics by the Orthodox (Roman) Church, which eventually won the struggle to dominate Christian belief.


Both Paul (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3: 4-6, 22; 16:12; Titus 3:13) and the author of Acts (18: 24; 19:1) refer to a man named Apollos, who Acts (18: 24) describes as a Jewish Christian from Alexandria. According to Acts,


He was an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. (Acts 18:24-25)


While Acts (18:24) states that Paul first encountered Apollos at Ephesus, most of Paul's comments regarding Apollos appear in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he complains of individuals in that congregation being allied to Apollos (and others to Cephas) rather than to him. Apollos is presented as the leader of a faction in Corinth that was in theological conflict with Paul. Indeed, Paul's comments suggest that the followers of Apollos may have been numerous enough to constitute a major party in opposition to him.


For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or II belong to Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1: 11-13)


It is significant that a man such as Apollos could be described as "well versed in the scriptures" and "fervent in spirit" who "spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus" and yet know only the baptism of John. The prevalence of Apollos' version of Christianity is indicated by the situation presented in Acts (19: 1-7) in which Paul encounters 12 disciples at Ephesus who also had never heard of the Holy Spirit and who had been baptized "into Johns baptism," not into the baptism of Jesus. They were similarly unaware of Luke's (3: 15-16) portrayal of John's baptism of repentance as but a forerunner to the baptism in the Holy Spirit presented by Jesus.


As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, 16 John answered them all, "I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." (Luke 3:16)


Apollos evidently taught a different gospel about Jesus than that taught by Paul. He also apparently had a substantial following in Corinth and Ephesus (and perhaps elsewhere), and may even have represented a distinct regional Church. Brandon (1951: 24-26) suggests that the difference between Paul and Apollos may reflect broader differences between Alexandrian and Pauline (Hellenistic) forms of Christianity. It is also likely that, given its strong Jewish character, Alexandrian Christianity more closely resembled the Christianity of the Jerusalem Church than did the Christianity of Paul.


The main thrust of Christian history as presented in Acts is that the faith spread northwards and westwards out of Palestine. Acts focuses almost exclusively on its spread first northward into Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and then westward into Greece and Rome. Nowhere in Acts is there any mention of Christianity's spread southward into Egypt or eastward into Eurasia.


There exists an extraordinary silence both in Paul's writings and in the Acts with regard to the origin or the existence of Christianity in the regions to the south of Palestine, and especially in the great city of Alexandria. (Brandon 1951: 17)


While Pauline Christianity came to dominate Christian belief in the Hellenized world to the northwest of Palestine, significantly different forms of Christian belief spread to the south and east of Palestine (as well as to the north), whose history and theology were ignored by Acts and mainstream Pauline Christianity (see Ehrman 2003b; Jenkins 2008; MacCulloch 2009). Pauline Christianity thus represents only a fraction of the Christianity that spread out from Jerusalem; however, it became the version of Christianity adopted by the (Orthodox) Church in Rome, and subsequently became the official religion of the Roman and Byzantine Empires and of Medieval Europe. Roman Christianity was a later form of Christianity, centered in the capitol of the Roman Empire, which became the predominant form of Christianity when it aligned itself with the empire. In his Orthodoxy & Heresy in Earliest Christianity, Walter Bauer (1934) surveyed the various regions to which Christianity had spread and showed that alternate forms of Christianity prevailed in each of those regions before they became subordinated into the Roman Church. Following the Roman (Orthodox) Church's political ascendancy within the empire, alternative Christian faiths were declared heretical. Many of their sacred books were destroyed, and local clergy were replaced by those aligned with the Roman Church. Bart Ehrman summarizes what happened.


The standard view, held for many many centuries, goes back to the Church History of the fourth-century church father Eusebius, who argued that orthodoxy represented the original views of Jesus and his disciples, and heresies were corruptions of that truth by willful, mean-spirited, wicked, and demon inspired teachers who wanted to lead others astray.


In 1934 Walter Bauer challenged that view in his book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.  Bauer argued that in many regions of the church, the earliest known form of Christianity was one that later came to be declared a heresy. Heresies were not, therefore, necessarily later corruptions of an original truth. In many instances they were the oldest known kind of Christianity, in one place or another. The form of Christianity that became dominant by the end of the third century or so was the only known particularly in Rome. Once this Roman form of Christianity had more or less swept aside its opponents, it then rewrote the history of the engagement, so that later Christians all came to think that it had always been the majority view among Christians, going back to the days of Jesus himself. (The Bart Ehrman Blog: Evaluating the Views of Walter Bauer; see Ehrman, 2003b: 170-179 for a more extensive discussion of Bauer's thesis).


In the end, then, we learn little from Paul or from Acts about the original Church in Jerusalem, except for its conflict with Paul, and know only the Pauline version of that conflict.  We learn even less from subsequent Christian documents, In essence, the Jerusalem Church disappears from Christian history. Thus, of the very Church established by Jesus' own apostles and most intimate followers and that. therefore, most accurately promoted his teaching, "nothing is heard, either in reference to the present or in reminiscence of the past; it is as though a curtain of complete oblivion had descended to obliterate the former order" (Brandon 1951:183). We also learn nothing from Paul or from Acts regarding the spread of Christianity outside the Gentile Hellenistic world. We particularly learn nothing about the spread of Christianity to Egypt or about the large Christian community in Alexandria: (1) which likely derived from missionary activity directed by the Jerusalem Church itself; (2) whose beliefs about Jesus differed sharply from those of Paul; and (3) where many Jewish Christian refugees likely settled following Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. (see Brandon 1951: 177-178),


What has survived as modern Christianity in the West, to the extent that it is dependent upon the teachings of Paul, not only does not represent the teachings of those most closely associated with Jesus; it does not even represent the majority of early Christian beliefs. Rather, it represents a minority view that was criticized by Jesus' closest followers. Alexandrian Christianity may have been connected to the original Church in Jerusalem in a way that Paul never was, and may, therefore, have taught a version of Jesus' teachings that was more compatible with that taught by his original disciples. Like the Nazarenes and the Ebionites, who were later to be declared heretical by the Imperial Roman Church, the Alexandrian (Coptic) Church was for centuries at odds with the dogma perpetuated by the Roman Church. It is significant that the conflict between Hellenistic and Alexandrian Christianity persisted into the Byzantine period and beyond (cf. Baynes 1926; Hardy 1946; Downey 1958; Frend 1972; Grant 1975; Gregory 1979; Haas 1991; Jenkins 2008, 2011; MacCulloch 2009), with the modern Coptic Church having its origins in Egypt during the first century. Similarly, the Monophysite-Miaphysite controversy and the calling of repeated Ecumenical Councils issuing opposing theological proclamations during the 4th and 5th centuries (see Grant 1975; Gregory 1979; Jenkins 2011) was largely centered on the competition between Alexandria and Constantinople for control of the Church and its theology. This competition eventually produced a major schism within Christianity following the Council in Chalcedon in 451 (Baynes 1926; Hardy 1946), which persists to this day.


11.    This disbelief also contradicts the fourth gospel's discussion of the marriage feast at Cana (see John 2:1-12) in which early in his career Jesus turns water into wine, prompted by an explicit request by his mother and witnessed by both his mother and his brothers.


12.    It is worth noting that the story of a precocious Jesus in the Temple at age 12 was not a unique story in the ancient world. Several writers made similar claims about other notable individuals. Josephus (Antiquities 2.9.6) claimed that Moses displayed great understanding at a very young age.


Now Moses's understanding became superior to his age, nay, far beyond that standard; and when he was taught, he discovered greater quickness of apprehension than was usual at his age, and his actions at that time promised greater, when he should come to the age of a man. God did also give him that tallness, when he was but three years old, as was wonderful. And as for his beauty, there was nobody so unpolite as, when they saw Moses, they were not greatly surprised at the beauty of his countenance; nay, it happened frequently, that those that met him as he was carried along the road, were obliged to turn again upon seeing the child; that they left what they were about, and stood still a great while to look on him; for the beauty of the child was so remarkable and natural to him on many accounts, that it detained the spectators, and made them stay longer to look upon him.


Freed (2001:148) notes that the words used by Josephus to express Moses' superior understanding [synesis] and increased stature [helikia] were the exact same words used by Luke (2:47, 52) with reference to Jesus.


Philo (The Life of Moses 1.5) also describes the child Moses as possessing an intellectual capacity far advanced for his age.  According to Philo, Moses was so advanced intellectually that


he had all kinds of masters, one after another, some coming of their own accord from the neighbouring countries and the different districts of Egypt, and some being even procured from Greece by the temptation of large presents. But in a short time he surpassed all their knowledge, anticipating all their lessons by the excellent natural endowments of his own genius


What Josephus says about Samuel (Antiquities 5.10.4) is even more interesting, as it presents Samuel as an exceptional youth at age 12, the same age chosen by Luke to illustrate Jesus' precociousness.


Now when Samuel was twelve years old, he began to prophesy: and once when he was asleep, God called to him by his name; and he, supposing he had been called by the high priest, came to him: but when the high priest said he did not call him, God did so thrice. Eli was then so far illuminated, that he said to him, "Indeed, Samuel, I was silent now as well as before: it is God that calls thee; do thou therefore signify it to him, and say, I am here ready." So when he heard God speak again, he desired him to speak, and to deliver what oracles he pleased to him, for he would not fail to perform any ministration whatsoever he should make use of him in.


Freed (ibid.) calls attention to the fact that, while Samuel is presented in the Old Testament as an exceptional youth, nothing is mentioned about him being 12 years old; this was a detail added by Josephus. As mentioned previously, the story of Samuel's birth was clearly used by Luke as a model for his birth stories (see Abruzzi, When Was Jesus Born?, note # 34). In having Jesus display exceptional intelligence specifically at age 12, Luke could very well have been influenced by Josephus' story of Samuel, which may itself have been based on popular beliefs that prevailed at the time.


Josephus even proclaims his own intellectual precociousness as a youth, claiming that by the time he was 14 he was already consulted on legal problems by Jerusalem's chief priests, a claim not supported by any other source.


I made mighty proficiency in the improvements of my learning, and appeared to have both a great memory and understanding. Moreover, when I was a child, and about fourteen years of age, I was commended by all for the love I had to learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to me together, in order to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law. (Life, 2)


Similar claims were made for notable individuals outside of Palestine and the Old Testament as well. Seutonius, in his Life of Augustus, wrote that "In his twelfth year he delivered a funeral oration to the assembled people in honour of his grandmother Julia," and that "He received offices and honours before the usual age."


Plutarch made similar claims about Alexander the Great. According to Plutarch, (The Life of Alexander 1.5), while still a boy, Alexander


once entertained the envoys from the Persian king who came during Philip's [Alexander's father] absence, and associated with them freely. He won upon them by his friendliness, and by asking no childish or trivial questions, but by enquiring about the length of the roads and the character of the journey into the interior, about the king himself, what sort of a warrior he was, and what the prowess and might of the Persians.  The envoys were therefore astonished and regarded the much-talked‑of ability of Philip as nothing compared with his son's eager disposition to do great things


Freed (2001:149) points out several similarities between Plutarch's story of Alexander and Luke's story of Jesus: (1) both the young Alexander and Jesus posed questions to the authorities with whom they conversed; (2) the parents of the two youths were absent at the time that the conversations took place; and (3) in both accounts those who observed the boys were amazed at what they saw.


13.    In Matthew's attempt to explain how Jesus' family came to live in Nazareth, when according to his birth narrative they originally lived in Bethlehem, he appropriated a term whose meaning had nothing to do with the town of Nazareth, but rather meant that someone was "holy" or "consecrated" to God (see Numbers 6:1-21), in order to present the situation as a fulfillment of prophecy. As Freed (2001: 81-82) points out, "Matthew would not have needed a very vivid imagination to derive 'Nazareth' from either the Hebrew or Greek text of Judges 16:17, as it did not occur in the Old Testament." Furthermore, none of the characteristics associated with being a Nazarite can be attributed to Jesus. He did not lead an ascetic lifestyle; rather, he socialized, banqueted and drank wine. The term Nazarite would more appropriately be applied to John the Baptist (see Luke 1:15, 7:33-34) or to Jesus' brother, James (see Brown 1977:210).


14.   Matthew claims that Jesus was born a virgin, and is the "Son of God." As Freed (2001: 21) clearly notes, "Obviously, if Jesus had no human father, he also would not have had a grandfather."





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Schurer, E., Vermes, G., & Millar, F. (1973). The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.-A.D. 135), [Revised and edited by Geza Vermes and Fergus Millar]. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Ltd.] (original 1891).

Shoemaker, Stephen J. (2001). The (Re?)Discovery of the Kathisma Church and the Cult of the Virgin in Late Antique Palestine. Maria: A Journal of Marian Studies 2: 21-72.

Shoemaker, Stephen J. (2003). Christmas in the Qur'an: The Qur'anic Account of Jesus' Nativity and Palestinian Local Tradition. Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 28: 11-39

Sivers, Peter von. (2003). The Islamic Origins Debate Goes Public. History Compass 1: 1-16.

Stanton, G. N. (1989). The Gospels and Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tabor, James (2013). The “Strange” Ending of the Gospel of Mark and Why It Makes All the Difference. Bible History Daily (April 24).

Tucker, Aviezer (2016). The Reverend Bayes vs Jesus Christ. History and Theory. 55(1): 129–140.

Waetjen, H. C. (1976). The Genealogy As the Key to the Gospel of Matthew. Journal of Biblical Literature 95(2): 205-230.

Winter, P. (1954a). Jewish Folklore in the Matthaean Birth Story. Hibbert Journal, 53: 34-42.

Winter, P. (1954b). The Cultural Background of the Narrative in Luke I and II. The Jewish Quarterly Review 45(2): 159-167.

Winter, P. (1955). The Cultural Background of the Narrative in Luke I and II (Continued). The Jewish Quarterly Review 45(3), 230-242, 287.

WInter, P. (1956). The Proto-Source of Luke I. Novum Testamentum 1: 184-195.




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Of Related Interest:





When Was Jesus Born?





The Jesus Movement




Genealogy, Politics and History

in the Book of Genesis





Christian Origins of the Holocaust




Irony of Ironies

Jewish Students Flock to a Lutheran College






One Remarkable Life



President Obama

Needs to Read His Bible!





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