In his video 12 Contradictions in the Bible, Holy Kool-Aid includes the standard list of complaints against the Christmas narratives. Leave it to the skeptics to try and stuff a lump of coal in the stockings of Christians every year. Let’s see what Thomas has for us:
Two of the four canonical gospels even tell the story of Jesus’ birth. And these two accounts are irreconcilably different. In both stories, Jesus is born in Bethlehem. But in Matthew, after Jesus’ birth, King Herod hears about baby Jesus described as the future king of the Jews. He feels threatened and has every baby under the age of two slaughtered while Jesus’ parents Mary and Joseph escape with their child to Egypt until after Herod’s death.
Compare this to Luke’s gospel, where not only is there no mention of Herod’s massacre. But Jesus’ parents peacefully stick around Bethlehem until it’s time for the baby’s ritual purification which was 33 days after his birth according to the Jewish law in Leviticus 12. They do that in Jerusalem where Herod was ruling, and while there a righteous old man and a prophetess approach baby Jesus in broad daylight in a crowded temple and start shouting to everyone who will listen that this is the coming messiah to Jews. At the time the Messiah was believed to be a warrior-king of prophecy who would overthrow the Romans and yet Herod does nothing.
It’s only in Thomas’ imagination that Mary and Joseph are publicly approached in this loud and boisterous manner. Even though what was said to them took place in public, it could still have been done somewhat privately. We see this all the time in everyday life. We don’t know anything about Simeon and Anna’s volume or who was even paying attention aside from Mary and Joseph. The idea that if it really happened, the news s
The idea that if this really happened, the news surely would’ve reached Herod is a bit of a stretch. We don’t know about Simeon or Anna’s volume when they approached the Holy Family. We know that Anna spent her days praying in the Temple. Luke tells us that she “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” But he doesn’t specifically say she got up and announced it to everyone standing there in the Temple or give the exact timing of the announcement. Maybe this happened afterward. Luke says nothing of how many people were at the Temple or what their response was. We know that a woman’s testimony wasn’t well regarded in 1st-century Judea, so any onlookers may have thought that this was just the ramblings of a crazy old woman. And those who regarded her as a prophetess were probably not going to run to Herod with the news.
In Matthew, the Magi comes directly to Herod and asks where the King of the Jews is because of signs they saw in the sky. So what about the family hanging around in Bethlehem? I thought Matthew said they went to Egypt? Here’s Thomas again:
Here’s Thomas again:
And Jesus’s family immediately and uneventfully head back to their home in Nazareth about a month after his birth. Joseph lives in Nazareth. The only reason that they go to Bethlehem is for some weird census. So when they move back to Nazareth they’re just naturally going home.
But in Matthew, Joseph and Mary are residents of Bethlehem. There’s no need for a census to get them there, and hence, no mention of it. There’s no mention of a manger either because why would you give birth in a barn when you have a local home? After Jesus is born, Magi from the east sets out on a journey from a foreign country to meet him. And he’s still with his family in Bethlehem when they arrive living in a local house. And this was likely significantly after Jesus’ birth since the author of Matthew uses the Greek word παιδίο to describe Jesus as a young boy when the wise men arrived rather than the Greek word βρέφος, or infant which would have been used if he had just been born.
OK, so what’s going on here? From Matthew’s account, one might weakly presume that Bethlehem was their hometown and they had lived there since the start. But Matthew doesn’t say anything like that. Matthew 1 describes Joseph’s dream, the discovery that Mary is pregnant, and that he’s taking her as a wife. But he doesn’t explicitly tell us the location of any of these events. He certainly doesn’t say it’s happening in Bethlehem.
Mathew starts chapter 2 rather abruptly by saying that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem during Herod’s reign, Magi from the east came. He does state Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but he doesn’t mention how long they’ve been there, and that they were there during her entire pregnancy. Matthew doesn’t even mention a house until the wise men arrive. And he doesn’t call it the house that Jesus was born in, but rather the place where the child was. Holy Kool-Aid at least correctly points out that this visit occurred within a couple of years after Jesus’ birth. That’s more than enough time to get a house and follow the Mosaic childbirth laws. The house discrepancy is an entirely manufactured contradiction.
The only thing that amounts to an apparent discrepancy between the two stories is Luke’s writing in a way that can be plausibly interpreted to mean that Joseph and Mary went immediately back to Nazareth after Mary’s purification rites were completed (Luke 2.39). Even if Luke was unaware of the flight to Egypt and the events surrounding it, like the slaughter of the innocents, Luke’s account does not specifically say that they immediately returned to Nazareth, so it is not apparent that there is an error in Luke’s account at all.
It’s possible that sometime in the 2-year gap, the Holy Family settled in Bethlehem. There are a few reasons why one would find this reasonable. For starters, in Luke 2:4 we learn that Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown although he may have been living in Nazareth for a while. Mary was from Nazareth. And it’s doubtful they arrived there just as Mary was about to give birth. They would have been there for some time. Luke 2:41 also reveals that the Holy Family visited Jerusalem annually. Instead of 65 miles, being 6 miles from Jerusalem would have made the trip far easier. Due to the unexplainable nature of Mary’s pregnancy, they may have believed it prudent to avoid the scandal of living at home. Perhaps they have relocated to a place where they can remain more anonymous.
All one has to imagine is that sometime during those several weeks spent in Bethlehem, Joseph found work, got a house, and said to Mary: “Hey, let’s move back here from Nazareth.” They’d go back to Nazareth and get their stuff and come back. But even if I’m wrong about this conjecture and it isn’t the most natural reading, one single possible difference indicating (plausibly) simple lack of info on the part of one of the gospel writers is a far cry from being “irreconcilably different” as Holy Kool-Aid says. Let’s see what else Thomas has.
Why avoid Archelaus?
And after fleeing to Egypt, rather than returning to Nazareth, because according to Luke that was their home they only relocated there because Herod’s cruel son Archelaus was now ruling over Bethlehem which was their home but they couldn’t go back to. On an ironic side note, though Herod’s other son Herod Antipas was ruling in Nazareth, where they fled to. And according to the Gospels, he would later play a role in the execution of both John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, and Jesus himself.
This is actually evidence of Matthew’s truthfulness rather than the other way around. 3,000 Jews were massacred by Archelaus at Passover, earning him a bloody reputation. Here’s what went down: some Jews were outraged to see Roman shields posted over the gate of the Temple. Because the shields had eagle’s wings on them, they saw this as a clear sign of disrespect and idolatry. Therefore, some devout men cut them down and consequently were immediately put to death.
This didn’t sit well with the Jews, as you might imagine. Every year, thousands of people attended Passover and the story spread rapidly. The Jews stoned a few Roman soldiers. Archelaus got wind of it and decided to pull the “there’s a new sheriff in town” routine and ordered the slaughter as a show of his authority. (Antiquities of the Jews, 17.9.3)
Passover was canceled. Those who had come from outside Jerusalem had to return home. As one of his first acts as a tetrarch, this made him wildly unpopular with pretty much everyone. This overreaction brought Archelaus into danger of not being confirmed as Tetrarch of Judea at all, but he traveled to Rome and persuaded Caesar Augustus to give him the job anyway.
Lydia McGrew notes the historical value of this mention of Archelaus:
“Matthew mentions Joseph’s fears about Archelaus very much in passing. He does not say why Joseph thought it better to take his family to live under the rule of Antipas than that of Archelaus. He makes no mention of anything specific that was worrisome about Archelaus. Moreover, the mention of Archelaus is “extra,” from a theological and narrative point of view, since Matthew also says that Joseph was warned at that time in a dream. The dream could have accomplished the goal of taking Mary and Joseph back to Nazareth, if Matthew invented this part of the story. Why mention Archelaus at all? The simplest explanation is that it is true that Joseph was afraid of Archelaus (probably because he heard of his recent bloodshed) and that Matthew in some manner learned about this aspect of Joseph’s thoughts.”(The Mirror or the Mask, p 359)
Antipas was a bad dude, but he didn’t have this same bloody reputation compared to Archelaus at this time. Jesus later purposely provoked Antipas during his ministry, calling him a fox. It’s almost like Jesus came to earth to be crucified after he fulfilled his ministry, not to die while he was a child. And John the Baptist was killed by him for opposing him marrying his brother’s wife. That Thomas unironically calls this ironic is rather silly.
Furthermore, Tim McGrew notes an interesting agreement between Matthew 2:22 and Luke 2:41-43:
“There is one other point of interest about the reference to Archelaus. He was deposed by the Romans and banished to Gaul in the year AD 6, about ten years after he took the throne and in the twelfth year after Jesus’ birth. Curiously enough, Luke’s narrative, which never mentions Archelaus, tells us that Jesus’ parents went up to Jerusalem for the feast every year, but the first time it mentions his going with them is when he is twelve years old. The chronological coincidence is not a guarantee, but it is at least plausible that they took him with them only when Archelaus was no longer in power and the shadow of their harrowing journey to Egypt had passed.”
But Holy Kool-Aid has more parting shot:
Ugh. Not the census again!
Oh and uh… Herod died in 4 BCE, so if Jesus was born during his reign at least a year or two before that as Matthew claims…heck even if he was born just a week before Herod died, then this still directly contradicts Luke’s claim that he was born during the census of governor Quirinius because Quirinius didn’t become governor until 6 CE, 10 years after Herod’s death.
So Holy Kool-Aid insists that Luke must be saying that this census took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria and that it has to be the 6 AD census. Luke royally botched it up! Checkmate, Christians!
But Thomas’s claim has huge problems. Luke clearly says that John the Baptist was conceived during the time of Herod the Great (Luke 1:5), and Jesus is only 6 months older than John. And according to Acts 5:37, Luke also knew about the census under Quirinius in AD 6. There’s also the fact that Luke has all kinds of definite time indicators at the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry and consequently Jesus’ ministry (Luke 3:1, 3:23). On these indicators, Jesus would be way too young if Luke thought he was born in 6 A.D. So there’s not a chance that Holy Kool-Aid can be right here.
Furthermore, historians, not just desperate Christian apologists, have tried to solve this problem in many ways. Some argue that Josephus got it wrong and Luke got it right. For one thing, Luke is a historical source in himself, with a track record at least as reliable as Josephus’. To say that we have no other source for a census in Judea at this time is a weak argument from silence. Just because Luke is a Christian writer doesn’t mean he’s guilty before being proven innocent. And he’s not talking about a miracle here. You can’t get much more mundane than a census. And historians have noted that Josephus does have his own issues with chronology.
Other scholars have suggested that the translation of the passage is incorrect. Some argue that the word translated as “first” in Luke 2:2 should actually be translated as “before” in this context. It follows that if Luke was saying Jesus was born before the famous census taken under Quirinius then there would be no conflict between Luke and Josephus. This is the view of NT Wright, who is no slouch when it comes to reading Greek.
According to another theory, the census of Judea may have begun during Herod’s reign when Jesus was born but had not been completed until Quirinius’ reign in 6 AD. The reading would be “This enrollment was first completed (i.e., used) when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Due to this, the census became associated with Quirinius’ name, which is why Luke refers to it the way he does. The political complexities in Judah during this time and Jewish resistance to Roman taxation provide us with plenty of reasons why the census might have stalled or interrupted so as to stretch over many years. According to classical historian Paul Maier, it took forty years to conduct a census in Gaul at this time. So it could well be that a count was made or begun in Judea before the death of Herod. Quirinius may have only made use of it to collect tax in 6 AD when he came to clean up Archelaus’ mess.
These are just a few options, there are more as well that are beyond the scope of this video. It’s somewhat complicated stuff. (For more, see this post by Lydia McGrew)
And as Lydia McGrew has pointed out in her debate with Jonathan Pearce on Unbelievable?, the idea that Luke made up the census (or moved Jesus’ birth to much later) to get Jesus to Bethlehem is ridiculous. That’s like trying to crack a nut with a cement truck. If Luke wanted to force Jesus to be born in Bethlehem contrary to fact, all he’d have to do is to have Mary and Joseph start out in Bethlehem and later travel to Nazareth. He didn’t have to invent the idea that Mary was from Nazareth. Instead, they had to travel from there to Bethlehem and then back to Nazareth when she was pregnant.
A Roman census for such a purpose would be an absolutely implausible plot device. Luke deliberately connecting it falsely with Quirinius and placing it at a time that is in blatant conflict with all of Luke’s other time indicators is overwhelmingly unlikely. It doesn’t add up. If Luke was inventing a census out of nowhere, he didn’t need to mention Quirinius at all. So the Christian apologist isn’t doing mental gymnastics by putting several theories on the table. We do this kind of thing when historical events aren’t super clear all the time.
Holy Kool-Aid is wrong to say that the Gospels are irreconcilably different. Even two ultra-liberal scholars, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have acknowledged “It is not impossible to harmonize them.”, referring to the birth narratives. (The First Christmas, p 23) Don’t let Holy Kool-aid wreck your Christmas.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.