Luke 2:1-3, The Virgin Birth, part III of V

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

//We’re still on the topic of why most Liberal Christians do not believe literally in the virgin birth, and in the last two days, we’ve discussed the internal viewpoint and the honorific viewpoint. Let’s now look at the historical evidence.

A close look at the two birth stories in Matthew and Luke show them to be quite different, not only in the genealogy they trace back to David, but in the manner in which Joseph and Mary find themselves in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth and what they do after the birth. In Matthew, they already live in Bethlehem but soon flee to Egypt to avoid Herod; in Luke, they travel to Bethlehem for a census, as ordered by Syrian governor Quirinius, and 40 days after the birth they go to Jerusalem, not Egypt.

So which of the two do we choose as “historical?” The problem with Luke’s story is that it could only be true if Jesus were born on or after 6 CE, for that is when Quirinius arrived from Syria, so such a census (of which we have no historical attestation) could not have been ordered before that. On the other hand, Matthew’s story implies that Jesus was born at least ten years earlier, since Matthew refers to Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. One of the two stories is clearly fabricated; more scholars lean toward Matthew’s version, and date the birth of Christ around 4 BCE, for who would believe Mary would make a needless 90-mile journey in the final days of her pregnancy, as Luke describes? According to the genealogies given, only the Davidic Joseph had to be registered in Bethlehem, not the Levitical Mary.

Thus, historical analysis forces us to choose between Luke and Matthew, and Matthew seems preferred. But is Matthew’s story meant to be understood as history at all? More on this tomorrow.