When Was Jesus Born?


A Critical Examination of Jesus' Birth Year

as Presented in the Infancy Narratives.




William S. Abruzzi








The current year is 2016 because the world follows a Western calendar, which calculates its years beginning with the birth of Jesus, who most people believe was born in Bethlehem in Judea 2,016 years ago. Nowhere, however, does the New Testament specify when Jesus was born, and the currently accepted year is unlikely to be correct.  Indeed, only two of the canonical gospels --Matthew and Luke-- even mention Jesus' birth. Furthermore, being driven primarily by theological considerations rather than by a concern with historical accuracy, the two infancy narratives not only contradict one another in almost every detail; they also run counter to logic and are completely unsupported by the historical evidence.



Around 525 CE, Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little), a Scythian monk living in Rome, established the current Christian calendar based on the birth of Jesus. Dionysius was attempting to replace the existing Diocletian calendric system (Mason 2000),1 which denoted years beginning with the reign of Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (Roman emperor from 284 to 305 CE), as Diocletian was known for his persecution of Christians. Dionysius also hoped a new calendar would help repair a major division within the church over the dating of Easter.2

Dionysius calculated Jesus' birth date as December 25, 753 AUC (Ab Urbe Condita, "from the founding of the city" [Rome]). One speculation is that Dionysius based his date on Luke's gospel, which states, "Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work" (Luke 3:23) and that this occurred "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius" (Luke 3:1). Tiberius' reign began around 767 AUC, which became 14 A.D. in Dionysius' calendar. Counting backwards, 754 AUC became 1 A.D., the year Jesus was born (see Mason 2000). Another proposal is that Dionysius based his calculations on a tradition that the Roman emperor Augustus reigned for 43 years, followed by the emperor Tiberius. ‪If Jesus was 30 years old in the 15th year of Tiberius' reign, then he lived 15 years under Augustus, placing Jesus' birth during Augustus' 28th year as emperor. ‪Since Augustus became emperor in 727 AUC, Dionysius placed Jesus' birth in 754 AUC. Both methods of calculation, if used, would have led Dionysius to 754 AUC as the year Jesus was born.

A fundamental contradiction exists, however, between Diocletian's date for the birth of Jesus and that presented by Matthew and Luke. Both Matthew (2:1) and Luke (1:5) place Jesus' birth in "the days of Herod",3 who died in 750 AUC, four years prior to the year designated by Dionysius (see Barnes 1968, discussed below). The birth stories of Matthew and Luke contain yet another contradiction regarding the date of Jesus' birth. If Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, whose actions are central to Matthew's infancy narrative, he would have to have been born by at least 4 BCE, and likely earlier. This date stands in direct contradiction to the date implied by Luke's nativity story in which Jesus was born during the census of Judea, as that census took place in 6/7 CE.4

In order to understand this discrepancy, it is necessary to recognize that both Matthew and Luke present theologically driven infancy narratives rather than historical accounts of Jesus' birth.5 Consequently, any serious evaluation of the two infancy narratives (or, for that matter, of any biblical writings) must examine how the telling of a specific story enhances the larger theological message of the respective author.6 For example, Matthew locates his infancy narrative in a Palestinian Jewish context, whereas Luke situates his narrative in the larger Gentile/Roman world. Matthew's placing of Jesus' birth during the reign of Herod, a Jewish king; his mention of the Jewish scribes and priests; his account of the Slaughter of the Innocents and of the escape to Egypt, as well as his repeated insertion of Old Testament prophecies to account for those events, places Jesus' birth squarely within a Palestinian Jewish context. Luke, on the other hand, situates Jesus' birth during the reign of a Roman emperor and a census conducted by a Roman governor under the instructions of that emperor. Furthermore, instead of magi visiting "he who has been born king of the Jews" (Matt 2: 2), Luke has Jesus visited by shepherds who come to praise "Christ the Lord," with no reference whatever to Jesus' Jewishness. Also, while Herod is mentioned in passing to locate the time of John the Baptist's birth (Luke 1:5),7 he is not mentioned even once in relation to Jesus' birth. Thus, the significant historical figures directing actions surrounding Jesus' birth in Matthew are Jewish and Palestinian, whereas in Luke they are Gentile and Roman. In the former, they are parochial; in the latter they are universal.

Raymond Brown underscores the significance of Luke's placing the birth of Jesus in a Roman context. According to Brown, we see a shift in the Christological moment (i.e., the moment when God reveals who Jesus is) from Jesus' resurrection in Paul (Romans 1:4; see also Acts 13:32-33) to his baptism in both Mark (1:11) and Matthew (3:17), to his birth in Luke. Significantly, according to Brown (1977:414-415),

. . . when Luke moves the christological moment back to the conception and birth of Jesus, he gives the birth too a setting and chronological framework of world and local rulers, as he mentions Augustus Caesar, the emperor, and then Quirinius, the legate of Syria. . . .   [In Luke] . . . the Roman emperor, the most powerful figure in the world, is serving God's plan by issuing an edict for the census of the whole world.8

Of the four canonical gospels, only Matthew and Luke contain stories related to the birth of Jesus. Nowhere else in the entire New Testament is there even a single mention of Jesus' birth, or of the miraculous events that purportedly surrounded his birth. Both Mark and John begin their gospels with Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist and contain no birth stories.9 In addition, not once in their entire gospels do either Mark or John make a single reference to anything related to Jesus' birth. Mark never mentions Joseph, Jesus' father, and John does not once mention Mary, his mother. Even when the validity of Jesus' mission is challenged in John (7:40-43) because he is from Galilee, not Bethlehem --which would have been a perfect opportunity to mention Jesus' miraculous birth in Bethlehem-- John has Jesus and his followers say nothing about it, suggesting that the author may not have been aware of such a belief.


"When they heard these words, some of the people said, 'This is really the prophet.' Others said, 'This is the Christ.' But some said, 'Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?' So there was a division among the people over him." (John 7:40-43)

There is also no reference to Jesus' birth in the two dozen or more sermons in Acts attributed to Peter and Paul or to any of the other first-generation Christian missionaries,10 and only one reference to it in the main Pauline letters.11 Significantly, Jesus' birth is also not mentioned in either Matthew's or Luke's own gospels outside their infancy narratives, even where such references would have been appropriate and supportive of Jesus' mission. This silence about Jesus' birth outside the two evangelists' infancy narratives has led some scholars to suggest that those narratives may have been added to the two gospels later, either by the authors themselves or by others (see Conzelmann 1953; Winter 1954, 1955; Wilson 1959; Oliver 1964; Davis 1971; Brown 1977).12 Indeed, except for their infancy narratives, which introduce completely new information into the Jesus Story, the two gospels follow almost exactly the chronology of Mark, using much the same wording. Furthermore, Jesus' birth story evolved over time; just as Matthew's and Luke's infancy narratives introduced novel material into the "Jesus story" that was not contained in any earlier sources, later Christian writings added additional miraculous elements to the Jesus birth story not presented by either Matthew or Luke (see McGowan 2012). The most significant of these were the 2nd century Protevangelium of James and Infancy Gospel of Thomas. (see Abruzzi The Birth of Jesus).



The Year of Jesus' Birth


According to Mathew's gospel (and implied by Luke's gospel), Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. Herod became King of Judea by overthrowing Antigonus in 37 BCE and ending the Hasmonean Dynasty, which had ruled Judea since the Maccabbean revolt against the Seleucid Empire in 166 BCE. Herod was a vassal of Rome13 and served at its pleasure as long as he maintained peace in the territories under his control, paid tribute to Rome, and supported Rome and its allies in their wars. As mentioned previously, the consensus among scholars is that Herod died in 4 BCE. Barnes (1968) presents the multiple, independent evidence for this date.


1.    Herod's successors (his three sons) all reckoned the beginning of their reigns as 5/4 BCE.


2.    Calculating backwards from the end of each son's reign, likewise, confirms that all three of Herod's sons began their reigns in 5/4 BCE.

a.    Archelaus was deposed from the throne of Judea and banished to Gaul in 6 CE, when he was in the 10th year of his reign.14


b.    Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee lost his tetrarchy during the second year of the reign of the Emperor Gaius (Caligula) in 39 CE, from which time coins have survived that were minted marking Antipas' 43rd year as ruler.


c.    The end of Phillip's reign of 37 years was assigned by Josephus to the 20th year of Tiberius (33/34 CE).

3.    Josephus records that Varus was governor of Syria when Herod died. Varus was governor of Syria from 6-4 BCE.15


4.    Augustus summoned several notable Romans, including his grandson Gaius (Caligula), to participate in a hearing in which the three sons of Herod submitted their rival claims to succeed their father. This was shortly after 5 BCE, when the Senate had voted that Gaius should participate in public business. Gaius was still in Rome during the summer of 2 BCE, after which he went to the Danube frontier.


5.    Herod died shortly after a lunar eclipse. A lunar eclipse occurred in Judea during the night of September 15, 5 BCE and again on March 13, 4 BCE. No eclipse occurred after March 13, 4 BCE until January 10, 1 BCE,16 by which time Gaius had already left Rome, and Herod's three sons had already assumed their positions as rulers of their respective territories.17


6.    Herod was just under 70 when he died. Josephus (Antiquities 14: 158) indicates that he was 25 in 47 BCE.18






  Matthew's "Slaughter of the Innocents"

As previously indicated, Matthew places Jesus' birth squarely during the reign of Herod the Great. Indeed, the central dramatic event driving Matthew's infancy narrative is Jesus' escape from Herod's slaughter of all the male children under two years of age in the town of Bethlehem (Matt 2:16). This story, however, cannot be given even a hint of credibility. Such an unprecedented slaughter of innocent children would have left its mark for years on the local population, as well as on those who documented the events of the day. Yet, despite the unparalleled brutality represented by the heinous murder of so many innocent children, not a single other source, Christian or non-Christian, makes any mention of this event. There is no mention of it in any Roman documents from that time period, or in any Jewish sources, such as the Talmud and the Mishna, both of which contain running commentaries on local events. It is also not mentioned by Josephus, the principle Jewish historian of that time period, who wrote in extensive detail about events in the region, and who would have relished the opportunity to add to the catalogue of wrongdoings by Herod. There is also no mention of a slaughter by Philo, a prominent Jewish philosopher, who also wrote at that time. Josephus' silence on this event, given both his detailed discussion of so many other events that took place at this time and his particular antipathy towards Herod, is especially devastating to the credibility of Matthew's account. Indeed, as Mason (2000) notes,


"Matthew is the only Gospel --indeed the only first-century source-- to mention Herod's murderous decree and the holy family's subsequent flight. Not even the contemporaneous Jewish historian Josephus, who delighted in unmasking Herod's ferocious nature, speaks of the massacre of the innocents."

In a similar vein, Brown (1977: 31) 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)?"


The story of Jesus' narrow escape from death is not unique; it was a common theme in ancient legends (see Enslin 1940: 331-332). Indeed, it is the "stuff" of epic literature. Jesus' narrow escape from Herod's wrath was directly modeled by Matthew on Moses' escape from the Pharaoh's attempt to kill all Hebrew male children.


Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live." Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. (Exodus 1:22-2:3)


The Moses story itself may have been a direct retelling of earlier Mesopotamian stories. For example, the Legend of Sargon is an Akkadian story preserved in cuneiform tablets in which King Sargon of Akkad (2270-2215 BCE) recounts how his mother put him, as a newborn infant, in a reed basket which she then placed in the Euphrates River, and how he was later rescued downstream. (Finkel 2014:133-135)


My mother, a high priestess, conceived me, and bore me in secret.

She placed me in a reed quppu and made its opening watertight with bitumen.

She abandoned me to the river, from which I could not come up.

The river swept me along, and brought me to Aqqi, drawer of water.

Aqqi, drawer of water, lifted me up when he dipped his bucket,

Aqqi, water drawer, brought me up as his adopted son.

    (Quoted in Finkel 2014:134)


 As Finkel (ibid.: 135) notes,


"The baby was to be one of the greatest kings of Mesopotamia, his life saved at the outset against all odds by a bitumen-sealed, basket-like vessel launched on water into the unknown. The description of sealing the opening with bitumen is a direct textual parallel to the traditional Flood Story account."


--compare blue text in the above two quotes.


The Moses story was also influenced by earlier flight stories in the Old Testament, which were also centered on Egypt.


The story of the flight of Jeroboam to Egypt to escape death at the hands of Solomon, and of his stay there until the death of Solomon; the even more striking story of the flight of Hadad, as a little child, from David and Joab, busily engaged in slaying all the males in Moab, and his return to his own country after he had heard in Egypt of the deaths of David and of Joab may well be pondered by the student of the Christian nativity story. (Enslin 1940: 332).


Comparable stories also exist in Jewish tradition. In one such story (Ginzberg 1959: 186-188; relayed in Freed 2001: 94), King Nimrod, the great grandson of Noah, rival of Terah and "a mighty hunter before the Lord" (Genesis 10:8-12), was informed by his astrologers (magi) that a man would be born who would rise up against him. When Nimrod consulted his advisors, they all agreed that he should build a large house to which he should invite all of the pregnant women and their midwives. All of the midwives were instructed to kill the boy babies they birthed and let only the girls survive. In the meantime, guards were stationed around the house to prevent any women from escaping. As a result, some 70,000 male children were killed. Abraham survived the massacre only because the pregnant wife of Terah, his father, was sent out of the city before the massacre began. She wandered in the desert until she eventually found a cave, whereupon she gave birth to Abraham the following day.


One night the star-gazers noticed, a new star rising in the East. Every night it grew brighter. They informed Nimrod.

Nimrod called together his magicians and astrologers. They all agreed that it meant that a new baby was to be born who might challenge Nimrod's power. It was decided that in order to prevent this, all new-born baby-boys would have to die, starting from the king's own palace, down to the humblest slave's hut.

And who was to be put in charge of this important task? Why, Terah, of course, the king's most trusted servant.

Terah sent out his men to round up all expectant mothers. The king's palace was turned into a gigantic maternity ward. A lucky mother gave birth to a girl, and then they were both sent home, laden with gifts. But if the baby happened to be a boy, he was put to death without mercy.

One night, Nimrod's star-gazers watching that new star, saw it grow very bright and suddenly dart across the sky, first in one direction then in another, west, east, north and south, swallowing up all other stars in its path.

SOURCE:  http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/112333/jewish/Nimrod-and-Abraham.htm


The infant Moses and Abraham escape stories (like the biblical Flood Story) long post-date their Babylonian counterparts, and most likely became incorporated into Hebrew tradition in part as a consequence of the "Babylonian Captivity" (587-537 BCE), the 50-year period during which Hebrew leaders were forced to live in Babylon where they assimilated many aspects of Mesopotamian culture. Matthew's "Slaughter of the Innocents" story likely derived, therefore, from a long history of Mesopotamian childhood narrow-escape stories. Given his reputation for jealousy and paranoia, Herod served as the perfect foil in his role as a wicked and jealous king.


Narrow escape stories were not confined to Mesopotamian tradition; indeed, they were quite common throughout the ancient world. Suetonius wrote that prior to Caesar Augustus' birth a portent appeared indicating that a future ruler of Rome had been born. This was perceived as a direct threat by Roman senators, who forbade any boys to be born that year. Augustus, however, narrowly escaped being killed.


". . . a few months before Augustus was born a portent was generally observed at Rome, which gave warning that nature was pregnant with a king for the Roman people; thereupon the senate in consternation decreed that no male child born that year should be reared; but those whose wives were with child saw to it that the decree was not filed with the treasury, since each one appropriated the prediction to his own family." (Seutonius, Lives of the Caesars: 2.94.3)


In a similar vein, Suetonius recounted that during the reign of Nero,


"A blazing star, which is vulgarly supposed to portend destruction to kings and princes, appeared above the horizon several nights successively. He felt great anxiety on account of this phenomenon, and being informed by one Balbillus, an astrologer, that princes were wont to expiate such omens by the sacrifice of illustrious persons, and so avert the danger foreboded to their own persons, by bringing it on the heads of their chief men, he resolved on the destruction of the principal nobility in Rome. (Seutonius, Nero: 36; quoted in Enslin 1940: 330)


France (1979: 98-99) illustrates the ubiquity of such stories.


"Sargon of Akkad was rescued from unspecified danger by being floated down the Euphrates; Gilgamesh escaped his grandfather, whom he was later to supplant, when an eagle caught him as he was thrown from the acropolis after a clandestine birth; Romulus and Remus, exposed to die on the orders of their usurping great­uncle, were suckled by a wolf; Cyrus, whose future power was foretold by magi before his birth, was preserved by a herdsman who substituted his own stillborn child for the baby he was ordered to expose; and a Senate resolution to liquidate all male children born in the year of Augustus' birth (because of a portent of the birth of a king) was kept from the statute book by the self-interest of the expectant fathers in the Senate. Greek mythology provides further variations in the stories of Perseus and of Oedipus, and many other cultures can follow suit. Our own Snow-White, with the wicked step-mother queen, the prediction by the magic mirror, the exposure in the forest, the rescuing dwarves, and the ultimate frustration of the witch's spell, has all the main features. . . . This is the stuff of which fairy-tales are made."


A key element in Matthew's tale of Herod's slaughter is the role played by the three magi, who follow a star to Jerusalem where they ask Herod if he knows the whereabouts of the child they seek.  Herod consults with the priests and scribes in the Temple, who inform him that, according to prophecy, the messiah is to be born in Bethlehem (Matt 2:5-6). Because the wise men approach Herod asking, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?", Herod deceptively sent them to Bethlehem with instructions to report back to him so that he too could come and worship the child, when, in fact, his real intention was to locate Jesus and kill him. The star now reappeared and led the three men to Bethlehem, "till it came to rest over the place where the child was" (Matt 2:9).  Later, being warned in a dream --one of five dream warnings in Matthew's infancy narrative (and only in Mathew's gospel)-- the magi return home without notifying Herod.  This then sets the stage for Herod's slaughter of all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem.  One obvious question, of course, is why a divinely guided star did not just lead the magi directly to Bethlehem in the first place. There would have been no need to make an unnecessary stop in Jerusalem, except to create a slaughter of infants scenario that replicated the one associated with the birth of Moses in Exodus. Also, such a highly visible star would have been seen by the entire populace over a wide region and, indeed, could easily have been followed by Herod himself and his soldiers. He would, therefore, have had no need of the magi letting him know the whereabouts of the child.  Furthermore, since Herod had established what many scholars today refer to as a "police state," with both an extensive military and a large network of spies, he could surely have discovered the exact location of Jesus without any help from visitors from distant Persia.


Several individuals over the years have even gone so far as to try to date the birth of Jesus by linking the Star of Bethlehem followed by the magi to a specific astronomical event (see Brown 1977: 166ff.; Coates 2008; Viljoen 2008: 852-853). The most prominent links have been to a supernova (Clarke et al. 1977), a comet (Origen, Contra Celsium 1.58; Phipps, 1986) and a planetary conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars (Rosenberg 1972; Hughes, 1979; Sinnot 1986; Humphreys 1991). However, any attempt to use astronomical data to date the star the wise men followed in order to determine the date that Jesus was born is fundamentally misguided. In addition to the problems associated with dating the star by linking it to specific astronomical events, all such explanations assume the historicity of the wise men story and, thus, the validity of dating it. According to Matthew (2:1-11), the star led the magi to Jerusalem, where it disappeared and later reappeared to lead them not only to Bethlehem, but to the specific house in which Jesus was born. Stars, be they individual stars or conjunctions of stars --or for that matter supernovas and comets-- don't appear and disappear in a matter of hours or days, or stand still over a specific location, as described by Matthew. Indeed, if extraterrestrial objects had performed such bizarre behavior, that behavior would have been so remarkable and extraordinary that there would certainly have been some recording of it by various ancient sources, including prominent astronomers and historians of the time.  Yet, there is not a single mention of such an event outside of Matthew's (and to a lesser extent, Luke's) infancy narrative. It is not mentioned by any Roman or Jewish sources, including Josephus; neither is it mentioned even once elsewhere in the entire New Testament. No serious astronomer today would accept Matthew's story of the star as describing a credible historical event (see Paffenroth 1993; Viljoen 2008; Adair 2012). The Star story was simply a literary prop used by Matthew to associate Jesus' birth with a significant astronomical event, in the same way that Luke used the census by Caesar Augustus to situate Jesus' birth in his gospel (see below).


Significant astronomical events were commonly seen as omens in the ancient world and were frequently associated with the birth or with major events in the life of great men. In the Aeneid (2.694), for example, Aeneas follows a star that leads him to the location where Rome is to be established (Viljoen 2008: 854). Similarly, the appearance of a comet (likely Haley's Comet) in 44 BC was interpreted at the time as a sign of the deification of the recently murdered Julius Caesar (Grant 1970: 94). A comet was also believed to have appeared at the birth of Mithridates, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor in northern Anatolia [ca.120–63 BCE] (Cicero, De Divinatione., I.23. 47). The birth of Alexander the Great was also widely believed to have been accompanied by supernatural phenomena. According to Plutarch, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus burned down the day that Alexander was born, and "all the Magi who were then at Ephesus, looking upon the temple's disaster as a sign of further disaster, ran about beating their faces and crying aloud that woe and great calamity for Asia had that day been born" (Plutarch, Parallel Lives: 1.6-7). At the same time, Plutarch (ibid. 1.8-9) maintained that Phillip of Macedonia, Alexander's father, received three messages on the same day, which together portended great things for Alexander's future:


"the first that Parmenio had conquered the Illyrians in a great battle, the second that his race-horse had won a victory at the Olympic games, while a third announced the birth of Alexander.  These things delighted him, of course, and the seers raised his hopes still higher by declaring that the son whose birth coincided with three victories would be always victorious."


Cicero likewise recalled the burning of the temple at Ephesus on the day Alexander was born, and was more explicit regarding the divine origin of Alexander's birth.


"Everybody knows that on the same night in which Olympias was delivered of Alexander the temple of Diana at Ephesus was burned, and that the magi began to cry out as day was breaking: 'Asia's deadly curse was born last night." (Cicero, De Divinatione: 1.23.47)


Caesar Augustus' birth was likewise attributed to supernatural causes. His mother, Atia, was believed to have experienced a divine conception with Apollo.


When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo. Atia too, before she gave him birth, dreamed that her vitals were borne up to the stars and spread over the whole extent of land and sea, while Octavius dreamed that the sun rose from Atia's womb. (Seutonius, Lives of the Caesars 1.94.4)


Three different sources also claim that Plato (c. 427-348 BCE), the great classical philosopher, was born of a virgin birth: Speusippus' Plato's Funeral Oration; Clearchus' Encomium on Plato; and Anaxilaides' On Philosophers. According to these sources, Plato's birth resulted from an immaculate union between Apollo and his mother Perictione, a vestal virgin. The similarity of this story with that of Joseph and Mary as told by Matthew is striking. Just as an angel in Matthew's story appeared to Joseph in a dream, Apollo subsequently appeared in a dream to Perictione's betrothed husband (Plato's reputed father), Ariston, who, like Joseph, had no intercourse with his wife until the birth of her child. Significantly, the story of Plato's miraculous birth did not emerge decades later, but was told by Speusippus, Plato's own nephew (Enslin 1940:327).


Brown (1977: 117) suggests that Matthew --ever vigilant to link Jesus' life to Israel--  may have gained inspiration for his magi /star story from the story of Balaam (Numbers 22-24). Balaam was a magician (magi) "from the east" who was summoned by Balak, "overcome with fear of the people of Israel." to predict the outcome of pending conflict between Israel and Moab. Balaam, in his Fourth Oracle pronounced that "a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth" (Numbers 24:17). The highly influential Rabbi Akiva, later applied the "Star out of Jacob" verse to Simon Bar Kosiba, the messianic leader of the final Jewish revolt against Rome (132-135 CE), after which he was called Bar Kokhba, which means "star".


If we are going to accept the validity of Matthew's "star story," then we must also accept the validity of both the "wise men" and "slaughter of innocents" stories to which it is intimately connected, as well as the validity of the many other stories involving the escape of great men from death at birth and the connection expressed between astronomical and human events throughout the ancient world. It is for this reason that all attempts to date the birth of Jesus by determining what may have been "the star" or when such an astronomical event may have occurred are illusory.


If we want to find the origin of Matthew's tale of Herod's mass murder of children, we need to look not to the first-century history of Judea, but to the stories of the Old Testament, which Matthew borrowed and applied to Jesus incessantly, as well as to the legends of such births that circulated throughout the ancient world.19 Matthew's story of an evil King Herod killing the male children of Bethlehem in order to protect his reign in Judea is simply the reapplication of the Old Testament story of an evil Pharaoh slaughtering all the male children of the Israelites in order to protect his rule in Egypt (Exodus 2:1-10).20 The structure of the two stories is remarkably similar (see Brown 1977: 113). Furthermore, the Slaughter of Innocents story and the subsequent flight to and return from Egypt --"Out of Egypt have I called my son." (Matt 2:15)-- was but one of many stories in which Jesus' life parallels that of Moses. Others include Jesus presenting the 8 Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-11), just as Moses brought his 10 commandments down from Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17); Jesus fasting for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert  (Matt 4:1-2) just as Moses  did not eat or drink for 40 days and 40 nights while on the mountain (Exodus 34:28); and Jesus choosing 12 disciples (Matt:1-4) just as Moses chose 12 leaders of the 12 tribes (Numbers 13:2-3). Significantly, Matthew 2:20 even paraphrases Exodus 4:19 almost exactly when God commands Joseph to return from Egypt to Israel.21

"But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, 'Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.'" (Matt 2:19-20)

 And the Lord said to Moses in Mid′ian, "Go back to Egypt; for all the men who were seeking your life are dead." (Exodus 4:19)

The magi, star and slaughter of the innocents stories are simply props in Matthew's theologically driven infancy narrative. They cannot be accepted as historical.





The Census of Quirinius

(Byzantine mosaic, ca. 1315)



  Luke's Census

To add to the confusion presented by the two infancy narratives, Matthew's story of Jesus' birth during the reign of Herod stands in direct contradiction to Luke's claim that Jesus was born during the census called by Caesar Augustus and administrated by Quirinius, Governor of Syria. According to Luke,


"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David,22 which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." (Luke 2:1-7)

Luke's account of the census at the time of Jesus' birth contains several fundamental problems. To begin with, apart from Luke, there is not a single reference anywhere in the historical record to a census encompassing the entire Roman Empire (i.e., "all the world") during the reign of Augustus, or, for that matter, of any other Roman emperor. Indeed, as Gier (1987:145) states, "The Romans kept extremely detailed records of such events. Not only is Luke's census not in these records, it goes against all that we know of Roman economic history."


Censuses were undertaken by Rome primarily for the purpose of collecting taxes. The two most common taxes collected by Rome were a poll tax (tributum capitis) and a tax on agricultural produce (tributum soli) (Schurer 1891:401).23 Given the distinct legal statuses of the various provinces and client kingdoms that made up the empire, a universal census would have been both useless and irrelevant. Rome only conducted a census of those territories that were under its direct rule. Territories, such as Judea, which were under the rule of a client king, paid a fixed annual tribute to Rome and provided soldiers to support Roman military ventures under local military command. Both of these provisions were part of the treaty arrangements that existed between the Roman Empire and its vassal states. Rome would, therefore, have had no reason to census these regions and, indeed, such an action would have been considered a serious treaty violation. There were three censuses of Roman citizens during Augustus' reign: in 28 and 8 BCE and in 13-14 CE (Brown 1977:549), but not one Roman census of the territory of a client state.


Herod maintained a formidable army and police force and undertook extensive building projects, including building the port city of Caesarea and reconstructing of the Great Temple in Jerusalem. These expenses, combined with the costs of administering his kingdom and the payment of tribute to Rome, required the collection of considerable taxes (see Zeitlin 1967: 96-98; Horsley 1995: 137-144; 216-221). In addition to continuing to collect the taxes introduced by the Hasmonean rulers he had overthrown, Herod instituted new taxes, including a poll tax that everyone (male and female) had to pay. There was also a tributary tax and a tax on the land (one-third of the seed and one-half of the harvest). He also collected a tax on houses and real estate, as well as a purchase tax paid by both the buyer and seller in a transaction. Caravans passing through Judea had to pay an import and export tax at its borders. Herod also established an office for collecting revenue at the newly constructed port of Caesarea, and collected rents from colonists he settled on land within his kingdom. It is estimated that Herod's subjects paid close to 40% of their income to him in taxes in one form or another. In order to calculate what revenues to collect, Herod conducted periodic censuses, which were vehemently disliked by the populace. There was, therefore, no need for Rome to conduct a census; Rome simply collected tribute from Herod, who was responsible for his own finances. According to Zeitlin (ibid.: 99),


"The Romans did not interfere in the internal affairs of Judea during his reign. No accounting was asked of him with regard to income and expenditures. He had absolute power over the life and death of his subjects. It would have been inconceivable in such circumstances for Rome to have required a census of Judea, to say nothing of being a direct insult to Herod."

The second issue is the date of the census. The very fact that Quirinius conducted the census demonstrates that it could not have been undertaken while Herod was king of Judea, because Quirinius was not the Governor of Syria when Herod was still alive. Herod died in 4 BCE, but Quirinius did not become Governor of Syria until 6 CE, a full 10 years later. From 10/9 BCE to 7/6 BCE the governor of Syria was Sentius Saturninus, and from 7/6 BCE to 4 BCE it was Quinctilius Varus (Schurer 1891: 405-406).


As long as Herod was in power and fulfilled his treaty obligations, there was no need for Rome to conduct a census. However, following the death of Herod, Rome divided his kingdom among his three sons. Archelaus was given Judea and Samaria; Antipas was given Galilee and Perea; and Phillip was made tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, the most northeastern portion of his father's kingdom. From Rome's perspective, the latter two sons maintained effective administrations. Archelaus, on the other hand, did not. Continuous mismanagement and political instability led Rome to remove Archelaus and administer his territories directly. Rome did this in 6 CE. In the process of establishing direct administration over the two territories formerly ruled by Archelaus. Augustus commanded Quirinius, the Governor of Syria, to undertake a census of Judea and Samaria, which were placed under his command. It makes sense that Rome's census would have been conducted in 6-7 CE, as this marked both the beginning of direct Roman Rule and Quirinius' tenure as legate of Syria. Quirinius would have needed to conduct a census upon assuming office in order to assess the economic resources of the region under his control so as to determine what revenues he could collect as taxes to remit to Rome and to fund his new administration.


Some have tried to argue that the census occurred during Herod's rule.24 However, in addition to the inappropriateness of such a census, as just mentioned, there is no evidence of a census conducted by Rome while Herod was still alive. Josephus makes no mention of a Roman census conducted anywhere in Palestine during Herod's rule and, in fact, clearly refers to the census of 6/7 CE as something new and unprecedented (Antiquities 18.1.1). Josephus discusses the census of 6/7 CE in considerable detail, including the extensive revolt that it precipitated. Judas of Galilee25 led a major uprising in response to the census of 6/7, becoming by some accounts the founder of the nationalist Zealot movement (see Brandon 1967; Brown 1977:552). This revolt is even recorded by Luke in Acts.


"Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered." (Acts 5:37)

Given that both the death of Herod and the census of 6/7 CE provoked violent uprisings, which were described in detail by Josephus, an earlier Roman census, had it occurred, would also have produced a violent response. Yet, not a single mention exists of such an uprising by Josephus or anyone else. Schurer (1891:418-419) notes the significance of this lack of evidence.


"On no other period is Josephus so well informed, on none is he so thorough, as on that of Herod's last years. It is almost inconceivable that he would have ignored a measure such as a Roman census of that time, which would have offended the people to the quick, whilst faithfully describing the census of A.D. 6/7, which occurred in a period of which he reports very much less."

Finally, there is the issue of Joseph taking his family from Galilee to Bethlehem in order to be counted in the census. There are several problems with this claim. First, as already indicated, the census included only Judea and Samaria, the territories formerly ruled by Archelaus. No one from Galilee would have been included in this census, as the census was conducted in order to determine the tax base for the two new Roman provinces only. Living in the territory ruled by Herod Antipas, which is where he would have paid his taxes, Joseph would have had no reason to leave his place of residence and travel to the new Roman province of Judea to be counted in a census that had nothing to do with him. In a Roman census, landed property had to be registered for taxation within the locality in which it was situated. The person to be taxed had to register in the place where he lived, or in the chief town of his taxation district. Luke's report that Joseph traveled to Bethlehem because he was of the house of David implies that the taxation lists were made according to tribes, genealogies and families, which was never Roman policy (Schurer 1891:411; Gier 1987:146-147).


Conducting a census based on genealogical descent would not only have been completely irrelevant for the purposes of collecting taxes, it would have constituted a bureaucratic and security nightmare. It is doubtful, first of all, whether a registration based on tribes and genealogies was even possible, given that many individuals were not necessarily able to establish which ancestral family they belonged to or where their ancestors lived. Furthermore, David, Joseph's purported ancestor,26 lived in Bethlehem nearly a thousand years earlier. This would have had absolutely no importance to the Romans.


Given that tens of thousands of Jews were at this time living throughout the Roman Empire, it would have been absurd for Rome to require that they all return to Palestine, carrying everything they owned, in order to have their property assessed (Gier 1987:147). Tens of thousands of people would have had to travel as much as 3,000 miles from such distant lands as Roman Gaul (France today) and North Africa to reach Palestine in order to be counted in Luke's census. This would have created an unimaginable flood of people into the region searching for food and lodging. This, in turn, would have created a demand for food and lodging far beyond the availability of local resources, producing skyrocketing food prices and a prohibitive increase in the cost of lodging. This situation would likely have led to violent protests by the local population, and even to open rebellion, which could easily have overwhelmed local governments in Palestine.


Such massive migrations would also have imposed serious hardships on individual families and caused significant problems for the communities the migrants left. A journey of 2,000 mile or more in those days would have required people to be away from their homes for nearly 6 months. Most of these people would not have been able to afford such an expense, or to forego their source of livelihood for so long, to say nothing about protecting the homes and belongings that they would have had to leave behind. Also, many of the economic and social functions the migrants performed in their local economies would have been interrupted, inflicting damage on those communities. Furthermore, if, as Luke suggests, pregnant women were also required to participate in the count, then the number of women giving birth in the midst of such an arduous journey would clearly have yielded a sharp increase in maternal and infant mortality over what would have occurred under the normal circumstances of childbirth. This too would have engendered hostility towards Rome.


And, of course, the above discussion applies only to Jews returning to Palestine. If, as Luke states, Rome required "all the world" to participate in the census, then the conditions described above would have applied to millions of people distributed throughout the largest empire in the ancient world. The scale of the social, economic and political turmoil such a census would have generated is unimaginable --and absolutely irrelevant to the purpose of a census. Imagine if, given that nearly all Americans are immigrants or descended from immigrants, the U.S. Government required all of its citizens to travel to their or their various ancestors' point of immigration into the country to be counted in a national census. Then imagine that the journey had to be undertaken without the aid of modern transportation. Such a census would make as much sense as the census described by Luke. Having considered the incredible social, political, economic and personal turmoil that such a census would have imposed throughout the entire Roman Empire, then "imagine that no other ancient author considered it important enough to mention, even in passing!" (Ehrman 1997: 102).

Indescribable chaos would have prevailed if everyone throughout the Roman Empire were required to return to the homes of their ancestors in order to be censused. Which ancestors' residence would they choose; those that lived 100 years ago? 200 years ago? 500 years ago? 1000 years ago? It would be absurd, for example, to require the many thousands of descendants of David, who purportedly lived some ten centuries earlier, to return to David's birthplace.27 If such a census had been conducted, millions of people would have been undertaking a migration of unimaginable scope. Just feeding and housing all of these people, to say nothing about maintaining law and order, would have been a nightmare beyond the capability of any political authority. As Guignebert (1935:101; quoted in Gier 1987:147) noted many years ago,


The moving about of men and families which this reckless decree must have caused throughout the whole of the Empire is almost beyond imagination, and one cannot help wondering what advantage there could be for the Roman state in this return, for a single day, of so many scattered individuals, not to the places of their birth, but to the original homes of their ancestors. For it is to be remembered that those of royal descent were not the only ones affected by this fantastic ordinance, and many a poor man must have been hard put to it to discover the cradle of his race.

For such obvious reasons, no example exists of Rome (or of any other government) having people return to their ancestral homeland for purposes of being counted. No government in the history of the world would, or ever has, conducted such an illogical census as the one described by Luke. Collecting taxes depends on where individuals currently reside, not where their families originated. Requiring individuals to return to their ancestral home defeats the whole purpose of a census, which is to enumerate people living in a specific territory or political entity for the purposes of collecting taxes in that territory. Roman records indicate that property taxes were collected on site by traveling assessors (Gier 1987:145), making taxpayer travel completely unnecessary and counterproductive. There would also have been no reason to require that Joseph leave Nazareth (in Galilee) where he and his family lived (Luke 2:39) and travel to Bethlehem (in Judea) to be counted, since he neither earned money in Bethlehem nor owned property there that could be taxed. Indeed, in Luke's narrative Joseph and his family had no place to stay when they arrived in Bethlehem,28 a clear indication that he owned no property there. This is why Mary was forced to give birth to Jesus in a stable.


"And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." (Luke 2:7)

It is also highly problematic that Luke implies that Mary was obliged to travel with Joseph for the census. This would not have been the case in a Roman census. For although women were liable to a poll tax, there is no evidence that they were required to appear personally. Based on other Roman censuses, whatever information was needed was simply supplied to local authorities by the head of the family (Schurer 1891: 412).


Furthermore, if Christians accept December 25th as Jesus' birth date, then that means that all of these people --including pregnant women-- would have been undertaking this unnecessary travel in the dead of winter! (see photos below).29 Given that the very existence of a census generated violent resistance, forcing families to travel over long distances in the middle of winter would have made the resistance even greater than it already was. Throughout their history, Jews had rebelled for far smaller reasons. Had the Romans tried to implement such an absurd census in the middle of winter, they would have had a serious military rebellion to contend with, rather than simply the scattered resistance they did have to face. It would have required far more than the two Roman Legions (ca. 12,000 soldiers) that Varus brought into Judea to quell the rebellion following the death of Herod.






Bethlehem in December 2015




Jerusalem in January 2013



A census of the type claimed by Luke would also have created a serious security issue for Rome. Given the intense and violent resistance that a Roman census and the collection of Roman taxes generated among the Jewish populace, Rome would never have included the additional requirement that individuals travel for purposes of the census. It would have made no sense to have so many people traveling the roads in a territory in which Rome was experiencing open rebellion.30 In addition to seriously aggravating the hostility and violent resistance to the census, forced travel would have provided excellent cover for the various revolutionary groups opposed to the census and to Roman rule (see Brandon 1967; Horsley 1979; Horsley and Hanson 1995; ) to organize and carry out their resistance. The chaos and hostility that would have accompanied the census would also have been an excellent opportunity for Rome's enemies (e.g., the Parthians) to attack it. Such a census would, therefore, have created a security nightmare for Roman authorities.


Every aspect of the nativity story as described by Luke is, thus, just as illogical and without historical foundation as that presented by Matthew. Both are complete fictions. Luke followed a different chronology from Matthew (2:1), but asserted a comparable historical absurdity. For Luke, the census was a major historical event that could provide the illusion of historical accuracy (verisimilitude), just as Herod's known paranoia provided an advantageous foundation for Matthew's nativity story. Luke knew that early in the first century CE a census took place in Judea under Quirinius, and he used it to account for why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. However, he places the census some ten to twelve years too early. That Luke clearly had in mind the census of Quirinius, and was aware only of that one census, is confirmed by Acts 5:37 quoted above, where he refers to it simply as "the census," implying that there was no other census. Significantly, he expresses no link between the census he refers to in Acts and and the one he associates with the birth of Jesus.



Luke Was Not A Reliable Historian


Luke's writings contain enough internal inconsistencies regarding events surrounding the birth of Jesus that his birth narrative cannot be considered historically credible. As just noted, Luke mentions the census of Quirinius in Acts (5:37), but does not link it at all to the birth of Jesus. In fact, in Acts 5:37, Luke incorrectly places the insurrection of Judas the Galilean (caused by the census of Quirinius in 6-7 A.D.) after the insurrection of Theudas (Acts 5:36). However, Theudas' insurrection occurred in 44-46 CE, some 40 years after the census (Josephus, Antiquities 20.5.1; see also Schurer 1891: 426-427; Zeitlin 1967: 201-202, 208-209, 304; Horsley and Hanson 1965:164-165). By placing the census and the revolt under Judas of Galilee after the messianic revolt of Theudas, Luke not only gets his facts wrong; he clearly implies that "the census," as he referred to it, occurred long after Jesus' death and, therefore, could not possibly have been associated with Jesus' birth. Thus, Luke's elaborate discussion of the census in his infancy narrative flatly contradicts his reference to the same census in Acts (Brown 1977:553).


"For before these days Theu′das arose, giving himself out to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was slain and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered." (Acts 5: 36-37)


Furthermore, the chronological information presented by Luke in Chapter 2 directly contradicts the information given by him in Chapters 1 & 3.


"In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechari′ah, of the division of Abi′jah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years." (Luke 1: 5-7)


"And behold, your [Mary's] kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren." (Luke 1: 36)


"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar . . . the word of God came to John the son of Zechari′ah in the wilderness; and he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. . . .  Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, . . ." (Luke 3: 1-3, 23)


Luke (1:5) states that the annunciation of John the Baptist occurred "in the days of Herod, king of Judea." Luke (1:36) then states that Mary's pregnancy began about six months after Elizabeth's pregnancy had begun, meaning that Jesus would have been born some 15-16 months after the annunciation of John the Baptist's birth. This would place Jesus' birth no later than 3 BCE (Brown 1977: 547). Similarly, Luke (3:23) indicates that Jesus was 30 years old in the 15th year of Tiberius' reign (27-28 CE). This would also place Jesus' birth in the 3-2 BCE time period. However, this was 10 years before Quirinius became governor of Syria and conducted the census described by Luke in Chapter 2, and some 40 years before the same census referred to by Luke in Acts (5:37). Luke clearly cannot be trusted to place events in their correct historical time period.


Inasmuch as Luke shows himself to be both inaccurate and contradictory regarding the events surrounding this census, Brown (1977: 423) suggests, "the use of the census to explain the presence of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem is a Lucan device based on a confused memory (emphasis added)." Haenchen (1966: 260) maintains instead, "The fact that Luke can present the same event so completely differently shows the astonishing liberty this author takes." Several examples support Haenchen's conclusion over that of Brown: that Luke manipulated his facts to conform to his beliefs, rather than that he simply made some honest mistakes. For example, in the closing verses of the Third Gospel (Luke, Chapter 24), Luke clearly implies that Jesus ascended into heaven on the very day of his resurrection, whereas in the opening verses of Acts (1:3) he states explicitly that the ascension occurred 40 days later.


"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. To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God." (Acts 1:1-3)31

Luke's lack of reliability as a historian is also illustrated by the three reports of Paul's conversion that he presents in different chapters in Acts (Chapters 9, 22 & 26) where the same event is described differently in each case. In other words, Luke adjusted his facts to fit the context in which he was placing them and, likely, the audience that he was addressing. In addition, the message of the story becomes more elaborate as it is retold. In Acts (9:5-6), the heavenly voice says, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do," In Acts (22:8) the voice simply says, "I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting," though Jesus identifies himself as "Jesus of Nazareth." However, in Acts (26:15-18), the heavenly voice says considerably more.


"I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles --to whom I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me."

Also, whereas in Acts (9:7) Paul says "The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one," in Acts (22:9), Luke has Paul say the exact opposite, "Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me." Such discrepancies are important for determining the historical value of Acts and, for that matter, of any of Luke's writings, including his description of Jesus' birth. As Haenchen (1966: 260) aptly expresses it,


"The author is not so much a historian in our sense of the word as he is a fascinating narrator. He writes not for a learned public, which would keep track of all his references and critically compare them, but rather for a more or less nonliterary congregation which he wants to captivate and edify. For this purpose he uses a peculiar technique: he joins short, compact, picturesque scenes together like the stones of a mosaic."

Luke's writings were directed not only to local Christian congregations, but, as indicated by the opening verses of both Luke's Gospel and Acts, to Graeco-Romans who may or may not have been part of the Christian community. Luke's writings, therefore, incorporate Hellenistic ideas and concepts far removed from the Jewish Palestinian context in which Jesus and his apostles lived and preached. For example, the climax in the apostle's dispute with the High Council given in Acts 4:19 and 5:29 echo the words of Socrates borrowed from Plato's Apology (29 D): "I shall, then, obey God rather than you." (Haenchen 1966: 262). Also reflecting Luke's Greek orientation is the fact that of all the sermons given by Paul to Gentiles, the only one mentioned in Acts (other than a few sentences spoken in Lystra (Acts 14:15-17), is given in Athens, the center of Greek culture, which was peripheral to Paul's mission (Dibelius 1956:154-155). Athens provides the appropriate setting for a sermon in which Paul applies Greek ideas (ibid.). In commenting on the veracity of Acts' description of Paul's speech in Athens, Dibelius (ibid.: 155) concludes:


"All questions as to whether Paul really made such a speech, and whether he made it in Athens, must be waived if we are to understand Luke. He is not concerned with portraying an event that happened once in history, and which had no particular success; he is concerned with a typical exposition, which is in that sense historical, and perhaps more real in his own day than in the apostle's day. He follows the great tradition of historical writing in antiquity in that he freely fixes the occasion of the speech and fashions its content himself."

Luke also tried to minimize differences among Christians in Acts in order to show a united development of Christianity against hostile outside forces. He conceived missionary development as beginning in Jerusalem among Jews only, then spreading to Samaria (Samaritans were no longer Jews but not yet Gentiles), and finally "to the end of the earth," presumably to Rome. Luke wanted to present this as a continuing smooth process, all part of God's design. However, in doing this, he again contradicts himself. In Acts (9:31) he states that the Churches in Judaea, Galilee, and Samaria were enjoying peace again, whereas in (11:19) he says that "those who were scattered because of the persecution of Stephen were still fugitives, wandering as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch" (Haenchen 1966:263). Similarly, the conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem Church, including his break with Peter (Galatians 2:11-21), is discussed explicitly by Paul, but largely ignored in Acts  (cf. Ch. 15).


Luke labors to present the growth of Christianity as a unified, divinely guided journey rather than as a result of an itinerant mission based on fortuitous human choices. Dibelius (1956: 129-130, 148-149), for example, shows how Luke presented an edited version of Paul's travels to Macedonia and Greece in order to make Paul's travels fit that image. The result is that Luke's descriptions of events frequently do not agree with those presented by Paul himself. In describing Paul's travels to Macedonia and Greece, Luke (Acts 16: 6-10) abbreviates Paul's journey considerably and presents Paul's itinerary, not as a product of decisions made by Paul, but as a journey thrice directed by divine intervention: once by an appearance of the "Holy Spirit"; once by the "Spirit of Jesus" and once by a nocturnal vision of a man from Macedonia. None of these visions, however, are mentioned by Paul. In addition, Luke provides few details about Paul's movement and activities during this trip. "We read no names of stations or of persons. The type of information which, in other parts of the book, Luke has taken from the itinerary, is missing here." (Dibelius 1956:129)32


"And they went through the region of Phry′gia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come opposite My′sia, they attempted to go into Bithyn′ia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by My′sia, they went down to Tro′as. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedo′nia was standing beseeching him and saying, 'Come over to Macedo′nia and help us.' And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedo′nia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them." (Acts 16: 6-10)

Dibelius (1956:148, note 25) claims that "the text of Acts had much more drastic revision than that of any other book of the New Testament." Acts was not accepted into the canon of Christian writings until much later than Luke's gospel, not until around 180 CE. Dibelius argues that this allowed more time for it to undergo modification before it came under canonical control.


"[Acts] . . . was exposed to the typically varied fate of a literary text. Proof for all this is precisely the fact of redaction, which is known to us from the witnesses of the Western text.  Thus the fact must be taken into consideration that during this early period . . . changes . . . were made in the text of Acts, and that no traces of the authentic text at certain points are preserved in any single manuscript." (Dibelius 1956: 89-90)33

There is also the issue of the so-called "We Passages" (see Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16) in which the author of Acts presents first-person plural (i.e., he and Paul together) travel narratives in order to present himself as a travel companion to Paul and as an eyewitness to some of the events that took place. Several scholars have questioned the authenticity of those passages (cf. Brown 1977: 236; Ehrman 2013:265-282). All of the passages demonstrate a rather abrupt beginning and end and are immediately preceded and followed by third-person descriptions of events that contain no involvement of the author, suggesting that they were inserted into a pre-existing text. The use of the first-person narrative was a common technique employed in ancient writings, including numerous early Christian documents (see Ehrman 2013: 270-274), in order to enhance the authority of an author's statements.

It may be confidently stated, then, that Luke was not a reliable historian and that his descriptions of historical events cannot be trusted. Doughty (1997), in an extensive comparison of Paul's letters and Luke's description of the same events in Acts (cf., Acts 9:19-29 vs. Galatians 1:16-17), describes Luke's writing as "Apologetic Historicizing." Given, therefore, the repeated contradictions in Luke's writings, combined with all of the improbabilities associated with Luke's census, there is no reason to give his story of the census and its role in having Jesus born in Bethlehem any credibility.



*     *     *     *     *


In summation, then, it may be explicitly stated that both Matthew's and Luke's nativity stories were theologically derived, rather than historically based. Just as there is not a single reference in either Christian or non-Christian sources to Herod's slaughter of innocent children, other than that by Matthew, so also is there no mention of a Roman census that would have involved Jesus' family, other than that by Luke. In other words, not a single piece of credible historical evidence exists that connects Jesus' birth to either of these purported events. In addition, both "events," as they are described in the two gospels, contain elements that are clearly illogical.  Both "events" merely served as props upon which Matthew and Luke constructed their respective nativity stories. They were used to provide the stories with verisimilitude by investing them with an air of historicity. The census story was introduced by Luke as a literary device to have Jesus born in Bethlehem, while the slaughter of innocents story was created by Matthew as a vehicle to link Jesus' life to that of Moses. Each author chose their respective settings for Jesus' birth in order to create a dramatic context that would enhance their particular theology.  For Matthew, Jesus' escape from Herod's "Slaughter of the Innocents" was a replay of Moses' escape from the Pharaoh's killing of the first born in Exodus (1:16-22) and of the Israelites escape from Yahweh's genocidal slaughter of Egyptian children (see Exodus 11-12) in the Hebrew Bible. Luke, on the other hand, was not as concerned with explicitly linking Jesus to Moses, as was Matthew; he was more concerned with placing Jesus' birth in the context of the Gentile Roman world for which he wrote.  So, Luke situated Jesus' birth during the Roman census of Judea. However, Luke made extensive use of Old Testament birth narratives, in particular those describing the births of Isaac, Samuel and Samson, in creating his birth story.34 The Old Testament, therefore, served as an important source for both Matthew and Luke.


The two infancy narratives depended not only on canonical readings of Old Testament stories, but also upon popular versions of the same stories.  Winter (1958: 263) summarizes the situation quite well.


[W]e should not overlook the fact that the O.T. circulated not only in literary form among the learned, but also in midrashic form for the edification of the unlearned, and that in its oral tradition it was often embellished and enlarged by popular motifs. The stories of the birth of Isaac, of Moses, of Samson, of Samuel, and other O.T. heroes were passed on from mouth to mouth and thus came to be assimilated to each other in current narratives. Traits from one story were combined with traits from another. Circumstantial details were added. From time to time these stories were committed to writing, and all the amplifications that had accumulated around the canonical accounts were included in popular new versions. The recently discovered Genesis Apocryphon from Qumran, the Book of Jubilees, the Liber Antiquitatum by PseudoPhilo, and later Midrashim bear witness to a development of this kind. It is the way in which popular narratives come to grow together. The same phenomenon can be observed in our own time, with regard to New Testament stories. There are children's books retelling the Story of Jesus, features from Mark and John and Luke and Matthew being all woven together into one fabric of many colours. Similarly the stories from the Old Testament about the birth of prominent men were legendarily enlarged so as to produce folklore for the edification of a Jewish public in ancient Israel. These legends provided most of the subject matter for the description of Jesus' birth both in Matthew and Luke. Whilst in Matthew chiefly legends about the birth of Moses served as the prototype, or model, for describing the birth of the New Moses, in Luke it is a popular narration of Samson's birth which was utilized firstly in a description of the birth of John the Baptist and later after being adapted by a Judeo-Christian redactor came into the hands of the Third Evangelist. He finally employed it without any significant changes on his part, in the first two chapters of his gospel.


Thus, neither Matthew's nor Luke's birth story can be accepted as a historically reliable description of Jesus' birth or, by extension, a plausible basis for dating that birth. In the end, no credible evidence exists that can be used to determine which year Jesus was actually born. His birth year, therefore, remains a mystery.




*     *     *     *     *



1.    Many different calendars were used throughout the Roman Empire during the early centuries of the Christian era. The earliest Christians, being converted Jews, would likely have relied on the Jewish lunar calendar. However, Christianity eventually spread to groups outside of Palestine that relied on the Roman calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C.E. (Neville 2000: 6). In that calendar, years were counted from ab urbe condita ("the founding of the City" [Rome]), with 1 AUC signifying the year Rome was founded, 10 AUC the 10th year of Rome's reign, and so on. Citizens of Antioch in Syria established the first year of their calendar as 49 BCE in commemoration of Julius Caesar's dictatorship. In the fifth century many Greek-speaking Christians started to number years from the creation of the world (Anno Mundi), which they believed occurred in either 5493 or 5509 BCE. By the tenth century CE, Anno Mundi dating --with the world's creation fixed at 5509 BC-- became standard in the Byzantine Empire and hence in the Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe (Neville 2000: 6). During the fourth century, however, many Christians began situating themselves within the "Era of the Martyrs," which started in 284 CE, when Diocletian became emperor and began persecuting Christians. Dionysius' calendar did not spread very rapidly. Even Dionysius himself did not use his calendric system all the time. The Catholic Church did not adopt it immediately either, but continued to use both the Anno Domini dates and dates based on the regnal years of the Popes until the 15th century (Neville 2000: 6).

2.    A major controversy erupted in the early Church regarding the proper date for the celebration of Easter. In the Asian provinces of the empire it was celebrated on the 14th of the moon (Nissan), not necessarily on Sunday.  Victor, Bishop of Rome (189-199 CE), called for a synod to settle the matter and excommunicated the bishops of Asia when their synod refused to adopt the date approved by Rome. The controversy arose as part of Rome's attempt to assert its leadership role in the Church, which was not universally accepted. According to Eusebius (Church History 5:24),

"Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate. But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor. Among them was Irenæus, who, sending letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided, maintained that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be observed only on the Lord's day. He fittingly admonishes Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom." (quoted in Whelton 1998: 46)

3.    Luke did not specifically state that Jesus was born during Herod's reign. However, he places the conception of John the Baptist, who, in his gospel, was six months in Elizabeth's womb at the time of Jesus' conception (Luke 1:36), "in the days of Herod, King of Judea." (Luke 1:5).

4.    Matthew's and Luke's infancy narratives contradict one another not only in terms of the year of Jesus' birth, but also on practically every other detail, making them fundamentally irreconcilable. In Matthew, Bethlehem was Joseph and Mary's hometown at the time of Jesus' birth (which is where the magi located and visited them), whereas in Luke they resided in Nazareth and had to travel to Bethlehem to be counted in a census. Moreover, in Luke, Mary was forced to give birth in a stable in Bethlehem, because the family had no place to stay while they were there. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus' divine status and miraculous birth are foretold to Joseph through a dream, whereas in Luke they are told to Mary during an angelic visitation. Jesus is visited by magi in Matthew, by shepherds in Luke. In Matthew, Jesus narrowly escapes death at the hands of the evil King Herod and is taken by his family to Egypt for safety, returning only after an extended stay there (possibly for several years), whereas in Luke, no such danger exists or slaughter of children takes place; the family simply returns quietly to their home in Nazareth within weeks of Jesus' birth. Raymond Brown (1977: 36) also notes this discrepancy (as have most other scholars).


". . . the two narratives are not only different, they are contrary to each other in a number of details. According to Luke 1:26 and 2:39 Mary lives in Nazareth, and so the census of Augustus is invoked to explain how the child was born in Bethlehem, away from home. In Matthew there is no hint of a coming to Bethlehem, for Joseph and Mary are in a house at Bethlehem where seemingly Jesus was born (2:11). The only journey that Matthew has to explain is why the family went to Nazareth when they came from Egypt instead of returning to their native Bethlehem (2:22-23). A second difficulty is that Luke tells us that the family returned peaceably to Nazareth after the birth at Bethlehem (2:22,39); this is irreconcilable with Matthew's implication (2:16) that the child was almost two years old when the family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt and even older when the family came back from Egypt and moved to Nazareth."

5.    Ancient histories were, for the most part, not written using the methods of historical analysis that have become accepted in the modern world. Supernatural beings and forces appear as part of the normal course of events. Similarly, words are placed in the mouth of protagonists that serve to reinforce the theme of the general narrative.

6.    The analysis of the orientation of a written document with regard to specific points or themes is referred to in biblical studies as Redaction Criticism. Most biblical writings --in both the Old and New Testaments-- are theologically driven. This is why there are so many contradictory accounts of the same events as different authors and traditions put their own spin on specific stories (see Friedman 1987; Coote and Coote 1990; Ehrman 1997; Freed 2001; Abruzzi, Genealogy, Politics and History in the Book of Genesis). Consequently, all biblical writings must be examined using Redaction Criticism, and the various other methods of critical textual analysis.

7.    For Luke, John the Baptist belonged to the old order, while Jesus marked the beginning of the new order. Luke divided history into three epochs: (1) the time of the Old Testament, which ended with John the Baptist; (2) the life of Jesus; and (3) the period of the church following Jesus' death (see Conzelmann 1953). Luke revised Mark's chronology in order to separate Jesus from John the Baptist and to place John in the era of the Old Testament. The new order at the time of Luke's writings represented the Christianity of Paul, which was Gentile and of the Roman Empire, not Jewish and rooted in the Old Testament. Thus, "whereas 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. The good news of the kingdom of God is preached only after John's day (Stanton 1989:170)."

"The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached . . . ." (Luke 16:16)


"You know the word which he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), the word which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached." (Spoken by Peter; Luke 10:36-37)

8.    Luke's more universalistic perspective is carried over into the Acts of the Apostles, which the author also wrote. Here events are constantly placed in the context of Roman history, with almost no reference to developments in Palestine.

"The constant relating of events to Roman history in Acts is further evidence of his desire to show that Christian origins lie embedded in specific historical situations. No less so the birth of Jesus. As far as the history of Palestine is concerned, the birth of John is dated by the references to the days of Herod the King. Luke goes beyond this to specify the birth of Jesus in terms of the broadest lines of Roman history." (Oliver 1964: 218-219)


Continuing the backward movement of the Christological Moment, the Fourth Gospel has Jesus' divine status established even before his earthly existence.


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  . . . 


And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.  (John 1: 1-3, 14)

9.    The opening verses of John's gospel (1:1-18) are referred to as the Prologue. These verses contain no description of the life of Jesus, but are generally considered to have derived from a hymn used in early Christian worship, which was later added to John's gospel. Immediately following this Prologue, the Fourth Gospel commences with John's version of Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist, with no mention anywhere of Jesus' birth or childhood.

10.    According to Dibellius (1956: 150), some 24 speeches (or sermons) are presented in Acts. Of the total, 8 belong to Peter and 9 belong to Paul. One each is attributed to Stephen and to James, Jesus' brother. Brown (1977: 27) notes that the sermon given by Peter in Acts (10: 37-41) follows an outline similar to that presented by Mark's gospel with "no mention of the birth, but a sequence beginning with the baptism and ending with the resurrection."

11.    Paul mentions Jesus' birth only once (Romans 1:3), and then only in passing, indicating that Jesus was born in the normal way: "who was descended from David according to the flesh." This is the full extent of Paul's reference to the birth of Jesus. Paul's statement cannot, therefore, be considered in any way a historical source describing the birth of Jesus. Significantly, Paul refers to Jesus being born "of the flesh" with no reference whatsoever to any special circumstances surrounding his birth, including that of a virgin birth. There is, in fact, very little reference by Paul to actual events in the life of Jesus. Paul, who never met Jesus, was more concerned with preaching about the mystical being "Christ" than about the actual person Jesus. (While Paul claims to have been visited by a vision of Christ, not a single independent corroboration of that event exists.)

12.    Forgeries were quite common in the ancient world, including in New Testament writings (see Metzger 1972; Ehrman 2013) where modern concepts of scholarship and attribution did not exist. According to Abbott (1908:22), of the 144,044 Latin inscriptions in vols. II through XIV of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, 10,576 are spurious --one in thirteen. (The most prolific forger was Pirro Ligorio, the successor to Michelangelo in supervising  the work at St. Peter's in Rome, who was responsible for 2,995 of the 3,645 inscriptions in CIL VI, 5. (ibid.: 27). Indeed, Ehrman (2013: 1) begins his book on forgeries in early Christian writings with the following sentence:  "Arguably, the most distinctive feature of early Christian literature is the degree to which it was forged." Later, he (ibid.: 149) is more specific,


"The literary landscape of the first several Christian centuries is littered with falsely attributed and forged writings. Among the twenty-even books that were later deemed Scripture, only eight are orthononymous; one of these, the book of Revelation, was admitted into the canon only because of a quirk of homonymy. The other seven all stem from the pen of one man. The remaining books are either falsely attributed to early authority figures within the church (the gospels, Johannine epistles) or forged. A fair critical consensus holds that six of the Pauline letters and the letters of Peter were written by someone other than the apostles claimed as their authors, and that James and Jude were falsely inscribed in the names of Jesus' brother. A good case can be made that Hebrews is a non-pseudepigraphic forgery, with the hints in the closing meant to indicate that is was written by Paul, even though his name is not attached to it."


13.    The Roman Senate officially named Herod King of Judea in 40 BCE, but Herod had then to defeat Antigonus, the rightful heir to the Hasmonean throne, and conquer Judea (Zeitlen 1967:3).

14.    According to both Cassius Dio (Roman History 55.27.6) and Josephus (Antiquities 17.13.2, 18.1.1-2; The Jewish War 2.7.3), Archelaus was deposed by Caesar in A.U.C. 759, (6 CE), in the tenth year of his reign.

15.    There was a violent protest in Judea following the death of Herod in 4 BCE by those opposed to Rome's giving Judea to Archelaus (see Josephus The Jewish War 2.1.2 6). Two Roman legions (some 10,000 soldiers) were brought in from Syria under the command of Varus, its governor, to put down the insurrection. According to Josephus (Antiquities 17.10.10), Varus crucified some 2,000 guerilla fighters during his pacification of Judea.

16.    Josephus (Antiquities 17.9.3; The Jewish War 2.1.3) states that Herod died shortly after a Passover, making a lunar eclipse in March (the date of the 4 BCE eclipse) much more likely than one in January.

17.    Josephus (Antiquities 17.6.4) recorded the execution of several individuals involved in an unsuccessful revolt against Herod. He also recorded an eclipse of the moon during the night of this execution. This allows for a calculation of the date of the execution as March 13th 4 BCE. Josephus then indicates that Herod died a few days after this execution, which places his death during the second half of March in 4 BCE.

18.    Josephus (Antiquities 17.8.1; The Jewish War 1.33.8) states that Herod reigned for 37 years from the time of his appointment in 40 BCE and for 34 years following his conquest of Jerusalem in 37 B.C. This also places Herod's death in 4 BCE.

19.    Matthew's gospel contains at least 16 Old Testament parallels and 11 "Fulfillment Citations" in which events in Jesus' life are presented as the explicit fulfillment of prophecies made in the Old Testament (see McCasland 1961; Moule 1967-68; Brown 1977: 96-104; Viljoen 2007). No such citations are contained in any other New Testament writings, except John's gospel's use of the phrase "that the scripture might be fulfilled" or other similar wording on six occasions. Matthew's citations generally begin with the statement, "to fulfill" or "then was fulfilled" what had been spoken by the prophet (see Viljoen 2007; 302). Viljoen (ibid.: 303) further states that, in addition to the explicit fulfillment citations, Matthew's gospel contains "some 35 other citations with different introductory clauses, as well as a large number of indirect quotations from or illusions to the Old Testament." More than any of the other evangelists or New Testament authors, Matthew incessantly attempts to present Jesus' life as the manifestation of Old Testament prophecy. This is especially the case in the his infancy narrative, where Matthew quotes Old Testament passages 5 times in order to present events surrounding Jesus' birth as the explicit fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy: Jesus' conception (1:23); his birth in Bethlehem (2:6); his family's flight to Egypt (2:14); Herod's "Slaughter of the Innocents" (2:18); and Joseph's decision to relocate to Nazareth rather than return to Bethlehem on his return from Egypt (2:23). None of these fulfillment citations is contained in any other New Testament source.


Significantly, the parallels and fulfillments presented by Matthew constitute misrepresentations of Old Testament passages, most often by having the quoted words or statements taken out of their historical context and misapplied to Jesus (cf. McCasland 1961; Moule 1967-68).  This can clearly be seen by examining two of Matthew's fulfillment citations:  Matthew 1:20-23 and 2:5-6.


". . .  an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,"  (Matthew 1:20-23)


". . . calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he [Herod] inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:‘ 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’"  (Matthew 2:5-6)


The first citation refers to Isaiah (7:14): "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel." Matthew is quoting Isaiah here to show that Jesus' virgin birth is the fulfillment of a prophecy made by Isaiah some eight centuries earlier. The second citation refers to a prophecy made by Micah (5:2): "But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days." 


However, Isaiah and Micah both lived during the 8th Century BCE when the Assyrian Empire posed a serious threat to the existence of Judah, and a reading of the complete chapters from which the Isaiah and Micah quotes are taken demonstrates very clearly that the two prophets were both referencing the political circumstances faced by the kingdom of Judah at that time and were not in any way attempting to forecast the coming of a messiah some eight centuries later. Immediately following the quote appropriated by Matthew, Isaiah (7:16-17), for example, states quite clearly, "For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria," a clear indication that he is referring specifically to the future of the Kingdom of Judah in relation to its existing conflict with the neighboring kingdom of Israel and with the Assyrian Empire. Furthermore, Isaiah states that the expected leader of Judah will "eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good," which certainly does not apply to Jesus. Indeed, it could more appropriately be applied to John the Baptist (see Luke 1:15; 7:33).


As part of the process of misrepresenting these two prophets, and perhaps integral to that misrepresentation, Matthew also misquotes them. The Hebrew word that Isaiah uses in 7:14 is almah, which translates as "young woman," not virgin.   The word "almah" is used several times in the Old Testament (cf., Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8; Isaiah 7:14; Psalm 68:26; Proverb 30:19; Song 1:3; 6:8), and in each instance, the emphasis is on youth, not virginity. Hebrew contains a completely different word for virgin, bethula, which is used to designate a "virgin," either literally or figuratively, some 42 times in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Genesis 24:16; Exodus 22:16; Leviticus 21:13; Deuteronomy 22:23; and Judges 18:24, as well as three times in Isaiah (23:12, 37:22, 47:1).  However, in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), almah became translated as parthenos ("virgin"). It is the Septuagint translation that Matthew relied on for his quote from Isaiah (see Irwin 1953: 343-349; Bratcher 1958; Brown 1977: 145-146; Freed 2001: 73-75).  Significantly, Matthew used both Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament in writing his gospel, choosing one or the other when it suited his purposes. In this case, he used the Greek translation (virgin) rather than the Hebrew original (young woman) when referencing Isaiah.


Several authors (cf., Brown 1977: 144; Freed 2001: 48) have suggested that the verse taken from Isaiah represents a later insertion into the original text. As a reading of the text below illustrates, not only is the writing style of the specific verse different from the surrounding text, but its positioning breaks up the smooth flow of the text. In each of the other dreams presented in Matthew's gospel, Joseph responds immediately after the angel has finished speaking, followed by an Old Testament citation where it does not interrupt the flow of the text.


But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son: and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:20-25)


Matthew also misrepresented Micah's reference to Bethlehem, actually reversing the meaning of the original text. Rather than "one of the little clans"  (the original Hebrew text) or "least to be counted" (the Septuagint translation), Matthew has the prophet say "by no means least." Freed (2001:76) argues that he did this in order to make Bethlehem more prestigious as a place for Jesus' birth. According to Freed (ibid.: 79), there is, in fact, no evidence from Jewish tradition of a belief that the Messiah would be born in a specific place, or any Jewish source that even mentions Bethlehem as the location of the Messiah's birth before the 4th century CE. This was an innovation introduced by Christian evangelists. Indeed, quite the opposite could be claimed based on 2 Esdras (12:32), a late 1st century CE apocryphal work that refers to "the Messiah (Anointed One) whom the Most High has kept (secret) until the end of days," meaning that the time and place of his coming was not to be known until it happened. This belief even made it into the fourth gospel where several people from Jerusalem refused to accept Jesus as the messiah precisely because they knew where he was from.


"Now some of the people of Jerusalem were saying, 'Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah? Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.'" (John 7: 25-27)


According to Viljoen (2007), Matthew's heavy use of fulfillment citations and references to Old Testament prophecies must be understood in the context of the growing hostility that developed between Jews and the fledgling Jewish Christian community during the first century CE, making it imperative to Matthew that he explicitly present Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish scripture in order to provide an antidote to Jewish denigration of the Christian movement, including Jewish claims of Jesus' illegitimate birth.  Matthew's gospel was written not long after the stoning of Stephen, the execution of James and John (two of Jesus' apostles), and the assassination of Jesus' brother James (the leader of the original Christian Church in Jerusalem) under orders of Ananias, the High Priest. Matthew uses the phrase "their synagogue" five times (4:23; 9:35; 10:17; 12:9; 13:54) and "your synagogue" once (23:34), emphasizing the distance between Jesus (i.e., the Matthaean Jewish Christian community) and the larger Jewish synagogue community (see Viljoen 2007: 307, note 13). Significantly, while Matthew alternately bases his Old Testament quotes and references on both the Greek and Hebrew texts, his fulfillment citations are taken almost exclusively from the latter, suggesting that the citations are directed at the Jewish rather than Christian community, constituting an "apology" in the style of Plato's Apology referred to above. Viljoen (2007: 307) further notes that Matthew's concern with linking events and actions accompanying Jesus' life and mission to Old Testament prophecies coincided with the introduction of the Birkath ha-Minim ("Blessing on the heretics") --more appropriately termed "Curse of the heretics"--  introduced into the Jewish synagogue liturgy around 85 CE, about the time that Matthew's gospel was composed. The "Blessing" was the 12th of the Eighteen Benedictions to be recited three times by all the Jews.


"For the apostates let there be no hope. And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the nozerim  . . . [Christians] . . .  and the minim  . . . [heretics] . . .  be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant."


20.    In order to clearly see the connection between Jesus and Moses in Matthew's gospel, it is necessary to be aware of the expanded version of the Exodus story that existed in Jewish Palestine during the first century CE. In addition to the "official" version contained in the Hebrew Bible, there were a variety of commentaries on the Exodus story contained in the Talmud, the Midrash, Aramaic Targums, and the Passover Haggadah, (the Jewish text that sets forth the order of the Passover Seder), as well as various popular beliefs that had evolved over time (see Bourke 1960; Cave 1962-63; Ruddick 1970; Browne 1975; 1977: 114-119).  That the Biblical narrative had undergone substantial expansion by the first century CE. is evident in Josephus' description of events surrounding the Exodus (Antiquities 2.205- 206).


"While the affairs of the Hebrews were in this condition, there was this occasion offered itself to the Egyptians, which made them more solicitous for the extinction of our nation. One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events truly, told the king, that about this time there would a child be born to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages. Which thing was so feared by the king, that, according to this man’s opinion, he commanded that they should cast every male child, which was born to the Israelites, into the river, and destroy it; that besides this, the Egyptian midwives should watch the labors of the Hebrew women, and observe what is born." (Josephus, Antiquities 2.205-206).


Raymond Brown makes quite clear how the expanded view of Moses' escape from death at the hands of the Pharaoh influenced Matthew's narrative.


"Matthew's account of Jesus' escape from Herod is remarkably like the Jewish story of Moses' escape from the Pharaoh —the Moses who, like Jesus, came back from the Egypt to which Joseph had gone. The biblical narrative of Moses' birth had undergone considerable popular expansion by the first century A.D., as we can see in writers of that period like Philo and Josephus. In the expanded narrative Pharaoh was forewarned through his scribes (see Mt 2:4) that a child was about to be born who would prove a threat to his crown, and so he and his advisers decided to kill all the Hebrew male children. At the same time, through a dream there was divine revelation to Moses' father that his wife, already pregnant, would bear the child who would save Israel, a child who would escape Pharaoh's massacre. Forewarned, the parents acted to preserve the life of Moses when he was born. Later in life, Moses fled into Sinai and returned only when he heard from the Lord: "All those who were seeking your life are dead" (Ex 4:19; cf. Mt 2:20). (Brown 1975:577)


In a similar vein, Matthew's story of the magi who saw the star of the Davidic Messiah at its rising is a replay of the Old Testament story of Balaam, a type of magus (magician) from East, who saw the "star rise out of Jacob" (Numbers 24:17; see Bourke 1960; Cave 1962-63: 385-386; Brown 1975: 577-578; 1977:36, 117; Hegedus 2003.9). Moreover, just as Herod's plan to use the magi to find and kill Jesus backfires when the magi worship Jesus instead and do not let Herod know where Jesus can be found, Balaam, who is called by Moab's King Balak to use his skills to destroy Moses and Israel, prophesies that Israel will flourish instead.


". . . a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth." (Numbers 24:17)


The passage in Isaiah quoted earlier (see note #19)  refers to the emergence of the Davidic monarchy. However, the prophecy in Numbers (24:17) became a common expression for a messiah in the Jewish Midrash, which likely influenced Matthew's writing (see Winter 1954a; 1954b; 1955; Daube 1958; Bourke 1960; Cave 1962-63). The Midrash on the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon includes a miraculous star (Viljoen 2008:857). A messianic interpretation of Numbers 24.17 was also applied to Bar Kosiba, the leader of the last great Jewish revolt against Rome in 132-135 CE. He came to be called Bar Kokhba (meaning "son of a star") by his followers --and has become known throughout history by that name in an allusion to Numbers 24.17 (see Abramsky 1971; Hegedus 2003:3; Coates 2008:29).


Interestingly, Jewish astrological tradition linked the appearance of the Messiah and other great events with the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Yahweh, the God of Israel, was from a very early period identified with El, the high father god of Canaan. According to Rosenberg (1972: 108), El was the god of the planet Saturn, similar to Kronos among the Greeks. In Greek religion, Kronos was dethroned by his son, Zeus, who was associated with the planet Jupiter. This relationship was paralleled in Canaanite religion by the rivalry that existed between El and his son, Baal. Rosenberg (ibid.) suggests that in Jewish astrological tradition, "the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter signified the transfer of power from one planetary daemon to another," that is from the father (Saturn) to his son (Jupiter). This tradition may also have influenced Matthew's linking of a "Star" to the birth of Jesus, which in Christian theology represented the transfer of divine power from the father to the son.

Matthew may also have obtained his inspiration for the magi story from other sources, as stories of magi were common in the ancient world. Both Dio Cassius (Roman History 63.1-7) and Suetonius (Life of Nero 13) describe the visit of King Tiridates of Armenia with magi to Rome to worship Nero in 66 CE. More directly influential may have been Herodotus' (Histories 1.107ff) story of King Astyages of Medes who consulted Magi in order to kill his prophesized successor, a male child named Cyrus (Hegedus 2003: section 8). Similar to comparable legends associated with the birth of Jesus, Moses, Augustus and others in the ancient world, Cyrus (ca.600 - 529 BCE, founder of the Persian Empire) also narrowly escaped death, in this case because the official delegated with the task of killing the infant, gave the baby to a shepherd instead. Significantly, Cyrus is referred to as God's "anointed" one (i.e., messiah) in Isaiah (45:1). God also says of Cyrus, "He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfil all my purpose" (Isaiah 44:28) (see also Aus 1987).

In a similar manner, the story of Joseph, who dreams and goes to Egypt is a reapplication of the story of the patriarch Joseph who does the same thing (Genesis 37:5-28; see Brown 1977:36). Indeed, Viljoen (2008: 846-850) shows that Matthew's dream stories follow a formulaic pattern derived directly from the Old Testament, in particular in Genesis, even to the point of beginning with the word, "behold," which expresses the same meaning as hinneh at the beginning of dream reports in Genesis. At the same time, a belief in dreams as indirect forms of divine revelation was widespread throughout the Greco-Roman world (see Viljoen 2008), one of the principal audiences to which Matthew's gospel was directed.

21.    Flight to or from Egypt, returning only after the person "who sought to kill you was dead," was not an uncommon literary theme in the Old Testament, about which Matthew must have been familiar. Jeroboam fled to Egypt to escape being killed by Solomon following his abortive coup and remained there until told of Solomon's death (1 Kings 11:40). Even more striking is the story of Hadad the Edomite, who as a child fled to Egypt in order to escape David's six-month slaughter of all Edomite males "until he had eliminated every male in Edom," Hadad eventually returned to Edom only after he was informed that David and Joab (David's general) had died (1 Kings 11:1422). Added to this might be Jacob's descent into to Egypt redeemed by the Exodus out of Egypt under Moses (see Deuteronomy 26:5-9).

22.    Luke (2:4) also errs when he refers to "the city of David, which is called Bethlehem." The phrase "city of David" is only used twice in the entire New Testament and only by Luke (see also Luke 2:11), both times to refer to the town of Bethlehem.  However, while the phrase is used some 40 times in the Old Testament, when it is used it never refers to Bethlehem. Rather, it always refers to Jerusalem, or more specifically to the "stronghold of Zion."

23.    Schurer (1891: 403-404) presents Egypt as a model for understanding Roman taxation in the provinces, due to the extensive documentation of taxes collected there. According to Schurer, Rome conducted two kinds of periodic registrations: (1) Every 14 years, each house owner was required to deliver to the authorities a list of those residing in his house during the past year; (2) each year, every property owner had to submit a written record of his moveable possessions such as cattle, ships, slaves, etc. All of the information was collected in order to document the taxable wealth for the place in which the taxpayer resided.

24.    Some who have tried to defend Luke's timing have argued that Quirinius ruled in Syria during an earlier time period as well. However, there is no mention anywhere in the historical record of Quirinius having been legate of Syria at anytime during the previous 20 years of his career (12 BCE to 6 CE). Furthermore, Josephus, who describes the beginning of Quirinius' legateship in 6 CE on several different occasions, never once suggests that he may have served in that capacity previously (Brown 1977:550).

25.    Some have argued that the revolt of Judas the Galilean in response to the census of Quirinius proves that this census took place not only in Judea and Samaria, but also in Galilee. However, Josephus (Antiquities 18.1.1) states quite clearly that the census was limited to the territory of Archelaus and that Judas was named "the Galilean" by the inhabitants of Judea, where he conducted his revolt, because he came from Gaulanitis (Gamala), the region northeast of the Sea of Galilee, not because his revolt took place in Galilee (Schurer 1891:414).

26.    There is no evidence outside of Matthew and Luke that Jesus was descended from King David. While both authors present genealogies linking Joseph to David, their two genealogies are completely contrived. Not only do they flatly and irreconcilably contradict one another, but they are also at complete odds with the genealogies presented in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). They are, in essence, theologically derived genealogies with no historical credibility. (see Abruzzi The Birth of Jesus).

27.    As Mason (2000) points out, David moved from Bethlehem to Jerusalem after conquering that city. Thus, a descendant of David would also be a descendant of many others from Jerusalem, Bethlehem or any number of other places where David's own ancestors and descendants lived

28.    This is in sharp contrast to Matthew, where the Magi visited Jesus and his family at their home in Bethlehem, with no mention whatever of a residence in Nazareth. Jesus' family did not settle in Nazareth in Matthew's gospel until after the return from Egypt, and only after Joseph was warned in a dream that it was not safe to return home to Bethlehem.

29.    Average daily temperature in Bethlehem during December is a high of 12°C (53°F) and a low of 5°C (41°F). Traveling at this time would have constituted a clear physical hardship, especially as there would not have been anywhere near enough lodging needed to accommodate hordes of immigrants arriving in Palestine from throughout the Roman Empire. It is also not when local shepherds would have been "out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8). This would be at odds with the ecology of sheepherding in Palestine. Herding follows an annual round in which animals are more likely to be corralled and protected in the winter and pastured primarily during the warmer months when the climate permits and when the fields are covered with grass. "No sane Judean shepherd would have been out on the hills watching his flocks in December" (Jenkins (2011: 47).

Indeed, Luke's story of the Shepherds in the field is considered by several scholars to be a later insertion into Luke's infancy narrative.  Not only does it interrupt the flow of the narrative (verse 2:7 is followed more naturally by verse 2:21 than by a disconnected story about an angelic visitation to shepherds). As Freed (2001: 138) notes, "As a unit, Lk. 2:8-20 could be removed from Luke's narrative without disrupting the story." Even the style of the writing of that particular story reads differently enough from the surrounding text to suggest it was a distinct pericope inserted later. Significantly, It exhibits the same formulaic pattern followed by Luke's other angelic visitations in the infancy narrative, beginning with the words "Be not afraid" (Luke 2:10) followed by the angelic message,

Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!"

It is significant that the wording of the angelic message mirrors that of an inscription dedicated to Caesar Augustus, who was also called the "Savior of his people." The Priene Inscription, as it is known, is dated to 9 BCE (about 80-90 years before Luke's gospel was written) and was produced to celebrate Augustus' birthday as the beginning of a new era of peace and joy. The text proclaims that September 23rd should be commemorated, not just as the birth of Augustus, but also as marking a new era in which, because of Augustus, peace would reign throughout the world. The inscription's name derives from Priene, a town in Asia Minor (on the southwestern coast of modern Turkey) where it was found on two separate stone tablets, suggesting that the inscription was widely distributed throughout the empire. 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 associated with Augustus that Luke mentions in 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.

Luke's use of shepherds rather than Magi in his infancy narrative reflects Luke's different theological focus from that of Matthew. Whereas Matthew repeatedly links Jesus to Jewish messianic tradition, Luke's gospel is more universal in its orientation. Though certainly not ignoring the Old Testament (see note 33 below), Luke presents Jesus less as a Jewish messiah and more as the Savior of all mankind.  In Luke's gospel, Jesus has more contact with the poor and with social outcasts than in the other gospels. It is only in Luke (8:2), for example, that Mary Magdalene ("from whom seven demons had gone out") is mentioned outside the passion narrative. Similarly, only in Luke (7:36-50) do we have the story of the sinful woman who washes Jesus' feet and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).  Also, it is only in Luke that we have two parables presenting the Samaritans, generally disdained by Jews, in a favorable light --the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), and  the Parable of the Ten Lepers (Luke 17:11-19). The view of Samaritans presented in these two parables stands in sharp contrast with that of Matthew. who has Jesus tell his apostles, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans."  Shepherds lived on the margins of "civilized" society and generally had a poor reputation among those who lived in settled villages and towns. They were for this reason considered social inferiors. In addition, throughout history, a tension existed between agricultural and pastoral societies; nomadic populations, including shepherds, frequently conducted raids on agricultural communities, which because of their fixed location were more vulnerable to attack. By the nature of their subsistence needs, nomadic societies have also been more difficult to administer and control, which is why most modern nation states have made strong efforts to settle them down. It makes sense, given Luke's focus on the poor and the outcaste, that he would have included them rather than magi as participants in Jesus' birth.

30.    Judea was one of the most rebellious provinces in the entire Roman Empire. Beginning with the death of Herod and continuing for some 135 years, Rome had to contend with increasing Jewish resistance to its rule. Not only was there resistance to Rome following Herod's death in 4 BCE and during the census of 6 CE, but violent opposition to Roman rule increased over the coming decades culminating in the Great Jewish Revolt of 68-73 CE and the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-135 CE. These latter two uprisings resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, and the death of some 350,000 Jews (White 2012:52), plus perhaps tens of thousands of Jews sold into slavery. Marvin Harris (1974: 161) comments on the scale of this resistance.


"From the gospels alone, you would never know that Jesus spent most of his life in the central theater of one of history's fiercest guerrilla uprisings.  You could never guess that in 68 AD. the Jews went on to stage a full-scale revolution that required the attention of six Roman legions  . . .  [about 36,000 soldiers] . . .  under the command of two future Roman emperors before it was brought under control."


31.    Haenchen (1966: 260) points out one problem with accepting the opening verses of Acts as historically correct:


"If anyone takes the words of 1:3 seriously as history -that Jesus talked about the kingdom of God with his disciples for forty days- he either makes Jesus a preposterously poor teacher who cannot clarify what he means in ever so long a period, or he makes the disciples appear incredibly foolish."

32.    One factor influencing the direction of Paul's mission, most notably its northwesterly orientation out of Palestine, may have been the conflict between Paul and the original Church in Jerusalem (see Brandon 1951; Abruzzi, Birth of Jesus, note #9). Nowhere in either Paul's writings or in Acts is there any mention of a mission to or development of the Christian community in Alexandria, Egypt. This may very well have been due to the likelihood that this community was theologically connected to the Jerusalem Church and may have been hostile to Paul's version of Christianity.


33.    Two quite distinct versions of the New Testament circulated in the early church, referred to generally by scholars as the Alexandrian (Neutral) and Western texts. Each of these texts is actually represented by numerous and distinct local manuscripts. Overall, however, the two texts differ both in their character and in their length, with the Western text of Acts being some 10% longer than the Alexandrian text (Metzger 1971: xvii, 260). According to Metzger (1971:xvii-xviii), the most prominent characteristics of the Alexandrian text include "brevity and austerity," whereas the characteristic of the Western text shows a "fondness for paraphrase."  "Words, clauses, and even whole sentences are freely changed, omitted or inserted." (ibid.: xviii). He also describes the Alexandrian text as "more colorless and in places more obscure" and the Western text as "more picturesque and circumstantial" (ibid.: 260). T. E. Page (1897) provided numerous examples where "the Western text heightens or exaggerates the emphasis of the passage, where it introduces religious formulae and substitutes for the simpler and natural names of Jesus fuller and more elaborate theological titles, and where it emphasizes words and actions as inspired by the Spirit" (ibid.: 260). Haenchen (1971:50-56) also discusses modifications in the Western text, including: (1) elaborations of the text that attempt to explain the text; (2) additions to the text of a more substantive nature that suggest the work of a later reviser; and (3) textual variants associated specifically with the codex Bezae introduced around 500 CE that can be attributed to the errors of one or more scribes. Significantly, Haenchen (1971: 56) concludes from his analysis that "in none of these three cases does the 'Western' text of Acts provide us with the 'original' text." Similarly, a committee established by the Bible Society to examine the variation in the texts of Acts concluded that neither the Western nor the Alexandrian texts preserves the original text, but that the two variants must be examined point by point to determine which provides greater authenticity, though more often than not the Committee showed greater preference for the shorter Alexandrian text. (Metzger 1971:272).

33.    Although Luke does not portray Jesus as the "new Moses" or repeatedly describe Jesus' actions as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies the way Matthew does, he does quite clearly use Old Testament stories as a basis for his birth narrative. Matthew's use of the Old Testament material is more blatant (and more clumsy) than that of Luke; Luke is far more subtle and sophisticated in his expropriation of Old Testament material.  In particular, the stories surrounding the births of Isaac, Samuel and Samson provide direct 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) . As Freed (2001: 87) notes,

"One of the axioms among those who study the New Testament is that the better one knows the Old Testament the better one can understand the New Testament. This is particularly true for the study of Luke's stories of the annunciation and birth of Jesus. The reason for this is that Luke's use of the Old Testament in these stories is more concealed and subtle than that of Matthew. If we study Luke's stories carefully, we observe that several narratives from the Old Testament seem to be his models."


Freed (2001: 87-89) demonstrates Luke's literary borrowing quite clearly by comparing the birth narrative of Samuel with that of Jesus (and John).




Parallel Between the Birth Stories of Samuel and Jesus / John


1 Samuel 1-2

Luke 1-2


There was a certain man whose name was Elkanah (1.1)

There was a certain priest named Zechariah (1.5)


The name of the one (wife) was Hannah (1.2)


Her name was Elizabeth (1.5)


Elkanah and Hannah had no children, the Lord had closed her womb (1.2,6)


Zechariah and Elizabeth had no children ... because Elizabeth was barren (1.7)


Elkanah used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord (1.3)


Every year Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover (2.41)


Elkanah and his family went up to offer to the Lord the yearly sacrifice (1.21)


And they offered a sacrifice (2.4)


Samuel's parents went up to the sanctuary at Shiloh to sacrifice, then they went back to their house at Ramah (1.3, 19)


Jesus' parents went up to the temple in Jerusalem every year, and then they went down to Nazareth, their own town (2.39, 41-42, 51)


Hannah receives answer to her prayer from the priest Eli in the sanctuary at Shiloh (1.17)


Zechariah receives answer to his prayer from the angel in the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem (1.13)


Hannah. whose name means 'favor', says to Eli, 'Let your servant find favor in your sight' (i.18)


Gabriel addresses Mary as 'favored one' and says, 'You have found favor with God' (l.28, 30)


Hannah calls herself the servant of the Lord (1.11)


Mary calls herself the servant of the Lord (l.38)


'When the days were right', Hannah conceived and bore a son {l.20)


'When the days were fulfilled for her to give birth, she bore her firstborn son' (2.6-7)


Elizabeth conceived ... and she bore a son (1.24, 57)


She named him Samuel (1.20)


Elizabeth said: 'He is to be called John' 1.60)


'He was called Jesus' (2.21)



And the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord (2.21)


The child grew and became strong ... and the favor of God was upon him (2.40)


The boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people (2.26)


Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and humans (2.52)


Eli was very old (2.22)


Zechariah says, ' am an old man' (1.18)


Old age of Simeon is implied (2.26)


The woman [Hannah) went into her katalyma* and ate and drank with her husband (1.18)


There was no place for them in the katalyma*  (2.7)


Hannah conceived because the Lord remembered her (1.19-20)


Elizabeth conceived because the Lord looked favorably on her (1.24-25)


Hannah says of unborn Samuel, 'He will drink no wine nor strong drink' (1.11)


Angel says of the unborn John, 'He must never drink wine or strong drink' (1.15)


Eli blessed Elkanah and his wife because of their son (2.20)


Simeon blessed Joseph and Mary because of their son (2.34


After Hannah weaned Samuel. she brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh, along with the proper offerings. Hannah says, 'I have lent him to the Lord' (1.24-28)


After eight days and Jesus was circumcised, his parents brought him to Jerusalem, along with the proper offerings, to present him to the Lord (2.21-24)


Women served at the entrance to the tent of meeting (2.22)


Anna never left the temple, but worshiped there night and day (2.37)


The boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli in the sanctuary  (2.18; 3.1)


At twelve years of age Jesus was in his Father's house listening to the teachers and asking them questions (2.46-50)



  * Inn



Ruddick (1970) has also shown that many of the events portrayed in Luke's infancy narrative, including Mary's "Magnificat" (attributed to Elizabeth in some manuscripts) and the hymn of Zechariah, derive directly from Old Testament parallels.  According to Ruddick (1970: 347),

"Not only does . . . [a] . . . cursory survey reveal some 30 direct verbal parallels between Luke and the Greek of the Septuagint, but most of these also occur in the same order in both documents. The framework, as well as many details, of the Lucan nativity narrative would appear to have been determined by the sequence of events narrated in Genesis xxvii-xliii."

Freed (2001: 89-90) notes that Josephus provides a story about the high priest John Hyrcanus (164-104 BCE) that is quite similar to that told by Luke about Zechariah.


"Concerning the high priest Hyrcanus a story has been passed on about how the Deity spoke to him when he was alone as high priest in the temple burning incense." (Antiquities 13.10.3)


"Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense." (Luke 1: 8-12)


Winter (1956) argues that the similarities between the birth stories of Samson and Jesus become even more striking when Luke's narrative is compared not to the canonical version of Samuel's birth presented in the Hebrew Bible (Judges 13), but to popular versions of the story that circulated in Palestine during the first century CE, most notably in the Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (a.k.a. "Pseudo-Philo"). He maintains that the document originally referred to the birth of John the Baptist, and was originally written by a follower of John, and only later became attributed (with textual modifications that made the story more compatible with later Christology) to Jesus.


Pseudo-Philo's account of Samson's birth contains almost all the motifs that are found in the Lucan account of the events preceding the births of John and Jesus. We naturally must be concerned mainly with those traits of the story which Pseudo-Philo adds to the canonical description. The prayer in solitude, the unworthiness of the supplicant to obtain a sign, the motif of imposed silence, the fact that the command to abstain from strong drinks is aimed at the unborn child and not the pregnant mother, the submissive acceptance by one parent of the angel's unexpected behest, and finally the verbal similarity throughout between the narration in Luke i and the story in the Liber Antiquitatum of Pseudo-Philo, all this provides a link between Judges and Luke. Even the altercation between Manuc and Eluma left its trace in the Baptist Document that lies at the basis of Luke i: Elisabeth leaves her husband's house, hides from Zacharias (ex Lk i 24), but after the angel had appeared to her (ex Lk i 26-38) she returns to Zacharias (ex Lk i 56), and both parents who have had no chance of reaching an understanding on the child's name surprise their neighbours by their identical choice (Lk i 60-63). 


We cannot expect to find complete uniformity between the account in the Gospel and that in Pseudo-Philo's collection. The story in Luke has been reworked too often by too many writers, each of whom pursued an aim of his own and adapted the tale to his particular aim. Allowance must therefore be made for differences in the order of narrated events as well as in the actual wording. Yet in spite of the different process by which final literary form was achieved, both accounts still have features in common which are not derived from the canonical account of Samson's birth. Moreover, the sequence in which these extra-canonical features are mentioned in Luke and in Pseudo-Philo is largely the same. (Winter 1956:190-191)

Winter (1958) also describes a popular legend about the birth of Rabbi Yishmael in order to show that Luke's borrowing of Old Testament birth narratives was not unique. Rabh' Elisha' Koken gadol and his wife were childless (similar to Elkanah and Hannah, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Abraham and Sarah) when Elisha's wife received an apparition of the angel Gabriel. The angel does not speak, but shortly after its appearance Elisha's wife conceives and bears a son who is named Yishmael. The miracle is, thus, implied rather than stated explicitly. While no high-priest named Elisha is mentioned in any of Josephus' writings, Josephus does mention two high-priests named Ishmael: one who served under Valerius Gratus the Roman Prefect in charge of Judea shortly after it was incorporated into the Roman Empire (15-26 CE); and another who served under Antonius Felix (52-58) and Porcius Festus (60-62), Roman Procurators in the years leading up to the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 CE (Wilson 1958: 259). If either of these men were the Yishmael of legend, then the legend predated the gospel of Luke. It is also significant that Yishmael's father, like John the Baptist's father, was a priest who served in the temple. Quite likely, the story of Yishmael and John arose in a common social environment, that of popular Palestinian Judaism.



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Schurer, E., (1891). 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, 1973. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Ltd.


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White, Matthew. (2012). The Great Big Book of Horrible Things. New York: Norton.


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


Winter, Paul. (1954b). The Cultural Background of the Narrative in Luke I and II, Part 1. The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series 45(2): 159-167.


Winter, Paul. (1955). The Cultural Background of the Narrative in Luke I and II, Part 2. The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series 45(3): 230-244, 287.


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


Winter, Paul. (1958). The Main Literary Problem of the Luccan Infancy Story. Anglican Theological Review 40(4): 257-264.


Zeitlin, S. (1967). The Rise and Fall of the Judaean State, Volume 2: 37 B.C.E. - 66 C.E. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America.






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Of Related Interest:



The Birth of Jesus



The Jesus Movement






Christian Origins of the Holocaust



Irony of Ironies

Jewish Students Flock to a Lutheran College







Genealogy, Politics and History

in the Book of Genesis





President Obama

Needs to Read His Bible!






One Remarkable Life





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