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Reconstructing the nativity story

Mark is silent about the birth of Jesus, and John, writing what Clement called a “more spiritual gospel” many years later has nothing to say about it, either. What we know of the nativity story comes from either Matthew or Luke, though I wonder how many people realize what a difference there is between Matthew’s and Luke’s account of the event.

Suffice it to say that both the traditional Christmas story we tell our kids each year and all those lovely nativity  displays still on stock at your local Christian bookstore are in need of a major overhaul if they ever hope to be truly biblical! 

First we have the foretelling of the births of John and Jesus given to us in Luke 1:5-56. It is also in this passage that Mary visits Elizabeth during their mutual pregnancy. All this probably occurs sometime in the general neighborhood of 7 B.C.

Next Luke tells us about the birth of the Baptizer in verses 57-80. This is about six months before the birth of Jesus, probably in early 6 B.C. Here is where the harmonization kicks in. Luke 2:1-20 and Matthew 1:18-25 both record the journey to Bethlehem (Matthew actually begins the story there) and some of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Matthew’s account is very general, while Luke mentions the reason for going to Bethlehem in the first place and the shepherds who saw the angels and came to see the Lord. Again, for now I am placing this event in 6 B.C.

Then Luke gives us some more detail which Matthew leaves out, namely that of Jesus’ circumcision at eight days old and the family’s trip to Jerusalem for his ritual purification at forty days (2:21-38).

This brings us to Matthew 2:1-12 and the visit of the wise men. Luke says nothing about this. In all actuality the event probably occurred many months if not a whole two years after Jesus’ birth. We know that Mary gave birth in the stable of an inn because there was no room for them in the actual dwelling (Luke 2:7). But when the wise men show up they find the family in a “house” (Matt. 2:11). Obviously it took some time to travel what was probably a great distance, and who knows how long it was after their initial sighting of the heavenly sign that they actually departed for Jerusalem with gifts in tow. Matthew 2:7 gives us somewhat of a clue on this, since Herod asked the men specifically at what point in time they first saw the star. Later, when Herod figured out they weren’t coming back like he’d asked them to, he ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem two years old and under, “according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Matt. 2:16). Now, perhaps he rounded up for good measure just to make sure the boy Jesus didn’t slip through the cracks, but we basically know that at whatever point in time these men arrived from the east, according to their own testimony they had first seen the sign of the Messiah’s birth about two years prior.

Does this mean the wise men didn’t show up in Bethlehem until two whole years after Jesus was born? Maybe, maybe not. Either way our Christmas nativity displays are a bit off; the shepherds might have been there when the babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, but the wise men were not (nowhere do the gospels say that there were three wise men, either-in fact, a number is never given-but that is beside the point). Whatever amount of time elapsed between Jesus’ birth and their visit, we have to assume that Mary and Joseph decided to stick around town for a while, and that they found a house to live in, perhaps that of a family member. If we do go to the extreme of saying that the time of the wise men’s visit was up to two years after Jesus’ birth then we must realize that Herod himself died in the year 4 B.C., so all this needs to have taken place in sufficient time to allow for his order and its carrying out in the slaughter of the children. Again, nobody knows exactly, but these are things that need to be taken into account when attempting to reconstruct the story with any degree of historical accuracy.

Finally, Matthew tells us about the flight of Joseph with his family into Egypt. Luke very (in)conveniently glosses over this monumental detail. Matthew 2:19-23 says that they were there for a time-precisely how long of a time we do not know-then returned to Israel upon hearing of Herod’s death. But when Joseph got wind that Herod’s son Archelaus was reigning over Judea in his father’s place he got scared and resorted to Nazareth in Galilee. Again, Luke mentions none of this, but simply goes straight from the family’s initial trip to Jerusalem for Jesus’ purification to their coming again into Galilee (Luke 2:39). Apparently all the events of Matthew 2:1-22 are included in this one little verse. This is somewhat frustrating from Luke but not hard to believe, since he does the same thing at other points in his writing as well. 

So there you have it, my own reconstruction of the nativity story. What did I leave out? Where have I gone wrong? I would appreciate any feedback you might have. Otherwise it’s all going on the timeline! 🙂

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About Joshua

Writer, husband, father, friend.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “Reconstructing the nativity story

  1. Is the birth story really even history? Or as many have suggested was it added to the later gospels of Matthew and Luke because of its ancient mythological quality to emphasis the story of Jesus. Most give Mark’s gospel as the first gospel written, so in the author’s mind this could have been the only Jesus story ever recorded and yet this incredible birth story is totally left out? The reality is that Jesus was born but the story of the birth, through the critical eye has many questions. I say reconstruct whatever way you want it to look like the author’s of Matthew and Luke probably did. 🙂

    Posted by Seeker | January 3, 2012, 11:21 am
  2. Hello, Seeker. Thanks for the comment. Do we know each other?

    I’m aware of the criticisms of the birth story and many other elements of the gospels. Maybe, maybe not is all I can say. After all, I wasn’t there. 🙂 I’m working with the story we do have to reconstruct a timeline of history. Jesus *was* born, and obviously that is the main point at the end of the day. Your speculation about the possibility of Mark’s account being the only gospel supports this, for it shows that Christ Himself is the main event-who he was, what he said, what he did, and what happened to him. When the reductionist has stripped away everything he sees to be of mythical origins, the person of Christ remains to be dealt with.

    John’s gospel is later than any of the other canonicals. Why wasn’t the myth of the birth story added to it as well? I’m not trying to argue, just responding critically to your comment in the same way you have the article.

    In any case what we need to get to are the essentials. Wouldn’t you agree?

    Posted by Josh | January 3, 2012, 3:03 pm
  3. Putting the Magi 2 years later explains the “2 years old” bit, but doesn’t explain how they still “followed the star”. It would be fine for M&J to take a quicker Egyptian vacation, but the star is the issue. I can stretch the meaning of “star” before I can stretch “the”. In case that doesn’t make sense, I’ll explain:

    What I like most about the 7 BC ‘triple conjunction’, investigatively, is that it lets the Magi come in for the 3rd conjunction, when they can talk about “the” same astrological thing. Then, after leaving Herod, their “star” must have become something more supernatural, more mobile.

    Posted by Bill | January 3, 2012, 5:51 pm
  4. What’s your source on the “triple conjunction” theory, Bill?

    Posted by Josh | January 4, 2012, 3:35 am
    • It’s well attested. Google triple conjunction saturn jupiter 7 BC, along with “Kepler”, if you want some history of the basic suggestion. The dates are somewhere in late May, early Oct & early Dec.

      Posted by Bill | January 4, 2012, 4:34 am
  5. Cool, thanks.

    Posted by Josh | January 5, 2012, 4:32 am

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