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Matthew vs. Luke
Whoever wins, coherence loses

Tom Flynn

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 25, Number 1.

Most Americans naively assume that Christmas has to do with the birth of a child in a manger in Bethlehem in or around the year 0—or was it the year 1? Of course, it was neither. Most Christians now believe the Nativity occurred a few years earlier: in 4 b.c.e. or perhaps 7 b.c.e. But was there a Nativity at all? Indeed, need we assume that anything the Gospels say about Jesus is historical?

One reason for skepticism is that in so many aspects—not just those revolving around that manger in Bethlehem—the story of Jesus as told (with sundry contradictions) in the four canonical Christian Gospels is so thumpingly familiar—familiar, that is, in the sense that it echoes so many earlier myths and creeds.1

In his “Shedding Light on the Light of the World” in this section, Robert J. Gillooly explores this theme in detail. As he noted, most savior man-gods were claimed by their followers to have been born of a virgin, venerated by kings in the crib, murdered, and resurrected. Zealous chroniclers claimed virgin births and often resurrections for historical figures as well, including most of the Caesars, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and even the mathematician Pythagoras. If Jesus was the Son of God, then we might expect his résumé to make unique claims not anticipated by hack biographers of the rich and famous. If, on the other hand, Jesus was a man just remarkable enough to trigger the myth-making machinery of his time—or if, as I suspect, he was wholly legendary—then such formulaic and derivative claims are just what we should expect.

Now, let’s turn to the Christian record. What do the Gospel writers say about Jesus? When it comes to his birth, as a group, they say nothing. The Gospels of Mark and John never mention the Nativity. Only Matthew and Luke describe it.

But it’s misleading to say “Matthew and Luke.” One might better say “Matthew vs. Luke,” for the Gospels bearing their names contradict each other on almost every detail. The popular image of shepherds and wise men side by side before the cradle? Matthew says wise men. Luke says shepherds. Neither says both.

The star in the East? Only in Matthew.

“Hark, the herald angels sing” . . . but only in Luke. Matthew never heard of them.

But then, only Matthew heard of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (treated at greater length in Bruce Martin Wildish’s “The Great Messiah Blunder” in this section). That’s right, the indiscriminate killing of every male baby in Judea—with one significant exception—did not merit Luke’s attention. On the other hand, no Roman historian chronicles this atrocity either, not even Flavius Josephus. Josephus reviled Herod and took care to lay at his feet every crime for which even a shred of evidence existed. Had Herod really slaughtered those innocents, it is almost unimaginable that Josephus would have failed to chronicle it.

Matthew says Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem, moving to Nazareth after their flight into Egypt (again, see Wildish). But Luke says Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth all along; Jesus was born in Bethlehem only because Joseph and Mary had traveled there to enroll in the census (See Frank T. Miosi’s “Those Hapless Apostles,” in this section.) Roman records mention no such census; in fact, Roman history records no census ever in which each man was required to return to the city where his ancestral line originated. That’s not how the Romans did things.

Our litany of errors continues. Matthew and Luke both claim to catalogue the male ancestors of Jesus—through Joseph—back to King David. Matthew lists twenty-eight generations between David and Jesus. Luke lists forty-one. Matthew and Luke propose different names for Joseph’s father and grandfather. They propose different names for each ancestor separating Joseph from Zerub’babel, a late Old Testament figure. Incredibly, over the five-hundred-year span preceding the birth of Jesus, Matthew and Luke, whom many Christians consider divinely inspired, cannot agree on the name of a single one of Joseph’s ancestors!2

This disparity is less troublesome if one views Christianity in historical rather than metaphysical terms. Scholars tell us the Gospels of Matthew and Luke developed independently in discrete Christian communities. Neither evangelist could know that the other had guessed differently about story details or had made different choices about which pagan traditions to borrow. But why should either evangelist include a genealogy through Joseph if Jesus were born of a virgin—in which case Joseph would not be his father? Conversely, why should either evangelist borrow various stories (if not the same stories) about the virgin birth, veneration by kings, miracles at age twelve, and the like from sundry Hellenistic mystery cults if the idea was to show Jesus as the Jewish Messiah?

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke preserve, as if in amber, contradictions that embroiled the early Church. The earliest Christians aimed to convert Jews alone; only after the world embarrassingly failed to end as prophesied were Gentiles also targeted for conversion. Hellenistic Gentiles cared nothing whether Jesus was the Hebrew Messiah. If this new religion were to appeal to them, Christianity would need to display some of the elements familiar to them from Hellenistic mystery religions: a hero demigod, born of a virgin, worshiped in the crib, quick to work miracles, fated to die and rise again.3

The logics of Davidic descent and virgin birth are mutually exclusive. Forced into the same narrative, they collide like a southbound freight train and an eastbound propane truck. Yet each had its zealous proponents. Unable to jettison either the Jewish Messiah tradition or the Hellenistic virgin-birth tradition, Christianity just held its breath and plunged forward carrying them both. Amazingly, the new religion got away with it.

Next question: When was Jesus born? No one knows. Estimates that the Nativity occurred a few years b.c.e. arose from scholarly efforts to reconcile Luke’s census and Matthew’s slaughter of the innocents with known history. Modern scholarship tells us that neither event occurred, leaving us without evidence for the year of Jesus’ birth.

Can we do better regarding the birth date? It’s almost certainly not December 25, long venerated in pagan tradition in connection with the winter solstice. Anyway, remember those shepherds with their flocks by night? Judea isn’t that warm in December, nor was it two thousand years ago. Historians tell us the flocks were probably supervised by night only in spring, when the ewes bore their young. Early Christian communities celebrated Christmas on a cornucopia of dates: January 6, February 2, March 24, April 19, May 20, and November 17, among others. But by the fourth century c.e., December 25 had won acceptance across the West as the official birthday of Jesus (though Eastern Christians still observe it on January 6).

Did Jesus exist? Possibly not—and if he did, surely he bore scant resemblance to the legendary figure of the Christian Gospels. Regarding his birth, we can be less equivocal. So steeped in pagan lore are the dueling accounts of Matthew and Luke, so reflective of the politics of the early Church rather than of any possible history, and so wholly contradictory in their details, that when it comes to the Nativity, Christianity’s foremost sources tell us quite literally nothing at all.


1. For a recent survey of parallels between the birth and infancy narratives concerning Jesus and those concerning assorted historic or legendary Israelite, Greek, and Roman figures, see Robert J. Miller, Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Polestar Press, 1993).

2. This contradiction was recognized by early Christian apologists, who lamely suggested that one evangelist or the other was actually presenting the genealogy of Mary, a notion unsupported by the text of either Gospel.

3. Martin A. Larson, The Story of Christian Origins (Washington, D.C.: Joseph J. Binns/New Republic, 1977), pp. 154, 456.

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