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Yeshua in Context » Answering Objections, Birth of Messiah, Divinity of Yeshua, General, Gospels as History, Virginal Conception » Birth Issues

Birth Issues

This is a transcript for today’s “Yeshua in Context Podcast.” Note that I never recorded and posted last week’s podcast on “Yeshua’s Burial.” Life had other plans. I should and will record the “Yeshua’s Burial” podcast at some point. Meanwhile, later today, listen for “Birth Issues” on iTunes in the “Yeshua in Context Podcast” or at

Only two out of four gospels have birth narratives about Yeshua. And the two birth narratives we have are so very different. They agree on major points, twelve of them, which I will list, but they are so different in other ways. It has often been said, and I think this is valid, that the gospel tradition developed backwards: the Passion and Resurrection narratives were first. Then the miracles, deeds, and sayings traditions developed. Last were the birth narratives. Childhood stories about Yeshua were not included until later gospels in the second century, gospels which the Yeshua-communities did not accept as apostolic in authority.

Meanwhile, we have the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. They have agreements such as Yeshua’s Davidic origins, his virginal conception, and his birth at Bethlehem. They have major differences which are often smoothed over with little thought about the difficulties in harmonizing them. Luke doesn’t mention a trip to Egypt. Matthew doesn’t mention that Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth.

The Yeshua-story has birth issues. How reliable are these narratives? Should we who accept them as inspired tradition expect the world to subscribe to them as history? What is at stake in the birth story of the Messiah?

From the outset, I have to say that in a less-than-fifteen-minute talk on the birth of Messiah, I can only summarize large issues. Let me say as well that accepting tradition and theology from the Bible does not depend on historical verifiability. We do not have to limit our faith to things that have strong historical evidence. If we believe that God inspired a set of traditions coming from ancient Israel — the Hebrew Bible — and from the early Yeshua-movement — the New Testament — then our faith is not in historical reconstruction. I highly recommend Luke Timothy Johnson’s chapter in The Historical Jesus: Five Views for those who want more information about this approach.

So, let me begin by stirring the waters and showing some of the problems. These are problems precisely for people who do take the tradition seriously and who read with attention to details.

Consider Mark 3:21 and 31-35. Mary and the brothers of Yeshua come to Capernaum to remove Yeshua from a crowd scene. They heard people saying Yeshua is “beside himself.” They have doubts or concerns about what Yeshua is doing.

But wait! Is this the same Mary to whom the angel spoke in Luke 1:26-38? She was told that this child would be born without a human father, that he would be conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that he will reign as king. How could Mary have doubts about such a son? How could Yeshua’s brothers not understand? How could this all not have become known earlier? Why, when Yeshua comes back to Nazareth in Luke 4:16-30 do his townspeople not know he is a miraculously conceived man destined to be king?

I’m not saying there are not possible ways of understanding both lines of tradition. I’m just saying: we have a tension here between Mary’s knowing the origins of Yeshua and yet doubting him. Mary is not among the disciples before the resurrection, but only after.

And that is another way of showing the tension. It is the resurrection of Yeshua that quite obviously changed the view of the disciples and others about him. How could his greatness have gone relatively unknown until then in light of angels appearing and a virginal conception?

And let’s look at the birth issues surrounding Yeshua another way. The stories in Matthew and Luke are very different. Some believe they can be harmonized. Others do not.

Here is Matthew’s story in outline form: an angel appeared to Joseph in an unspecified location to explain the virginal conception, Yeshua was born in Bethlehem, magi came looking for him and this caused Herod to slaughter babes in Bethlehem, the Yeshua-family fled to Egypt, and after Herod died they came back but settled in Nazareth to hide from Herod.

Here is Luke’s story in outline, leaving out the John the Baptist material: an angel appeared to Mary in Nazareth to explain the virginal conception, the Yeshua-family came to Bethlehem for a census registration and Yeshua was born there, the family came to Jerusalem for a time to fulfill the Torah, and then they returned to Nazareth after the census and obligations in Jerusalem.

Can these stories be harmonized into one account? Some think they can and would place the order roughly this way: Luke 1, Matthew 1, Luke 2, and untold story of a return to Bethlehem, and then Matthew 2 (Raymond Brown mentions this common harmonization in The Birth of Messiah in a footnote on pg. 35). Here is the possible order of events if the stories go together:
…an angel appeared to Mary in Nazareth to explain the virginal conception
…an angel appeared to Joseph in an unspecified location to explain the virginal conception
…the Yeshua-family came to Bethlehem for a census registration
…Yeshua was born there
…the family came to Jerusalem for a time to fulfill the Torah
…the family returned to Bethlehem after Jerusalem for a time, though no gospel mentions it
…magi came looking for him in Bethlehem and this caused Herod to slaughter babes
…the Yeshua-family fled to Egypt
…after Herod died they came back but settled in Nazareth to hide from Herod

This harmonized account is possible. So why have any doubts about it?

First, what are the sources of Matthew’s and Luke’s information? It is not possible that Joseph could be a source. Every indication is that Joseph is dead before the resurrection. If Mary is the source, how could the two accounts be so different?

Second, how can we harmonize two accounts that are so different? Luke knows nothing of a flight to Egypt. Matthew knows nothing of Nazareth as the original home of Joseph and Mary. And why would Matthew omit the Jerusalem scenes, since it is Matthew’s purpose to show Yeshua as a fulfiller of Torah?

Having considered the difficulty in harmonizing, now let us consider what the two accounts have in common. Both Raymond Brown in The Birth of the Messiah and Joseph Fitzmeyer in The Gospel According to Luke I-IX list the common points. I will use Fitzmeyer’s basic points:
(1) Yeshua’s birth is related to the reign of Herod.
(2) Mary is a virgin betrothed to Joseph and they do not live together.
(3) Joseph is of the house of David.
(4) An angel announces Yeshua’s birth.
(5) Yeshua is recognized as a son of David.
(6) He is conceived by the Holy Spirit.
(7) Joseph is not involved in the conception.
(8) The name “Yeshua” is given by God through angels.
(9) Yeshua is proclaimed beforehand a Savior.
(10) Yeshua is born after Mary and Joseph come to live together.
(11) He is born at Bethlehem.
(12) Yeshua settles in Nazareth.

I am not saying that these points must all be taken as verifiable history simply because they are common to both gospels. But consider: the two stories in Matthew and Luke are completely independent. How did they develop? And why do they have similarities as well as differences?

The only reasonable conclusion, with coincidence being unreasonable on so many specific points of convergence, is that Matthew and Luke independently wrote birth narratives based on earlier sources. These could be oral or written. They cannot have exactly the same sources or, if they do, they took a lot of freedom in filling in the gaps.

The possibilities of how these earlier sources could have become known is too complex to consider here. It is possible and even likely that Mary gave testimony in the early Yeshua-movement. But the tension remains: if Mary made her story known, how did the divergences develop?

And the most important issue is the tradition that Yeshua was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Often called the “Virgin Birth,” this story should more properly be called the “Virginal Conception.” How did this tradition develop?

Here is one theory, one I will reject, but which even we believers in the gospels should be aware of:
…Those who came to believe through the resurrection of Yeshua that he was the Son of God realized a problem.
…Yeshua could not have suddenly “become” Son of God at his resurrection.
…So he had to be Son of God before the resurrection, even if his identity was not widely recognized.
…But it does not seem that someone with a human father could be Son of God in the full sense like Yeshua is.
…Therefore, he must not have had a human father.

From here, some people think, early believers turned to pagan myths about divine conceptions.

Some others think that Isaiah 7:14 was interpreted in Hellenistic Judaism as being about a virginal conception. But there is no evidence for this and linguistic evidence is actually to the contrary.

As Raymond Brown says, though, there is no reason to believe that early Yeshua-followers would know about or make use of pagan myths to solve a puzzle about Yeshua’s identity.

But where did the story come from. It is easy to think it may have come from Mary. But why didn’t Mark use it? And why did John skip the birth altogether and solve the origins of Yeshua question another way, with the idea that he is the forever-pre-existent Word of God?

Some people think the pre-existence idea about Yeshua’s identity is not compatible with the virginal conception idea. I don’t agree.

We who believe in the gospels as inspired tradition do not have to assume the evangelists got all their stories “right” in terms of history. As we see in many cases, it is possible for inspired scriptures to have discrepancies.

But the virginal conception is a teaching about which we will have to say that: (a) it cannot be verified historically, (b) it comes from an earlier tradition than the gospels, (c) it has possible sources in eyewitness testimony, (d) it is hard to explain tensions in the divergent accounts, (e) it is hard to explain tensions in the seeming lack of faith by Mary prior to the resurrection, and (f) yet there is no good explanation for it by which it might have been invented fictitiously.

The birth story of Messiah is a good example of why our faith is not based on rationalism or mere historical investigation. History does matter, but it is not the final court of belief. This is not only true in religion, but in all matters of what people believe about life.

Those of us who believe Yeshua is the pre-existent Word of God have no trouble believing that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. We can simply wonder about the struggles of the evangelists to find out how it all came about and the apparently confusing sources and traditions through which they sought to go back, long after the fact, and find out how Yeshua entered the world.

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Filed under: Answering Objections, Birth of Messiah, Divinity of Yeshua, General, Gospels as History, Virginal Conception

4 Responses to "Birth Issues"

  1. >> “How could Mary have doubts about such a son?”

    How could the Israelites have doubted God at the mountain and so quickly turned to idolatry, having seen miracle after life-delivering miracle in Egypt? And how could they have griped about food after seeing the glory and dining with the Almighty?

    I think we read too deeply, sometimes, almost as if looking for problems to tackle.

    Sometimes, when my wife asks me, “How do I look?” and I reply, “Good”, she’ll dig deeper, “Good good? Ok good? Or just good? You didn’t sound enthusiastic – is that bad?”

    And I want to say, “Love, don’t read so deeply into this!”

    If the evangelists could see us picking tidbits and finding some of these tensions, real or imagined, in their texts, they might just say the same.

  2. Herbert Roy George says:

    1) I agree that the birth narratives do not stand up to historical critical analysis. At the same time they are pregnant with meaning – kinda the Adam and Eve story. Perhaps they need to be taken for the theological meaning that they fulfill.
    2) Another point about the birth issue is the actual genealogy itself – Luke’s genealogy is completely different from Matthew’s.
    3) The boldness of Yeshua’s vision and thoughts can be traced directly to the boldness of his mother Mary, especially in the magnificat. Joseph is a let-down though here.
    4) There is also a text where the father issue seems to be alluded to when Yeshua is told by the orthodox that their father is abraham whereas his legacy is unknown.
    5) Divine birth is not a uncommon proof of divinity in many , many other scriptures of many other religions. It was a way of saying that this person is divine. I think it shud be left at that. Instead focus shud stay on what is the kind of divinity do we see in Yeshua vis-a-vis other options of divinity we have in this world. – see point 7
    6) From a theological and psychological perspective I think it only adds up and is very advantageous if Yeshua had a unknown father and a very dubious birth. Did it lead Yeshua to search so much for his identity ? Did it lead him to call for a Abba father ? What childhood experience led him to identify so much with the sufferings of the poor, the outcasts, the prostitutes and even the tax collectors ?
    7) IMHO, it is only very very appropriate that God choses the plight of a poor boy with a dubious questionable birth and sides the divine with the feelings of such outcasts. God is pro-poor and pro-outcast because upon them is the anomaly of injustice hoisted more than anyone else. All that shame must have made Yeshua search high and low. Theologically, the gospel writers show that it is through this poor , possible bastard boy from the least of the jewish towns that God chooses to redeem the world thereby completely humiliating the rich and the correct for whom the presence of injustice is very advantageous.

  3. Shawn Anderson says:

    I stumbled upon your site looking for Jewish Calvinists.

    I found this lesson interesting, but I don’t see the historical-critical tension in the same way. Each Gospel has to first be taken within its own context and message.

    Matthew does not want to bring up Nazareth because it is his punch line. Yeshua is despised just like the prophets said he would be. He mentions Egypt because he wants to draw out the parallel with God’s son, Israel (per Exodus). And Matthew makes a huge connection with Isaiah 7 and the divine conception of Yeshua.

    Luke on the other hand sees Jerusalem as the pinnacle and and climax of the Yeshua message so he includes their visit to the temple. This visit takes place while they are staying in Bethlehem – they travel to the Temple then return to their quarters in Bethlehem – its only 7-9 miles.

    The genealogies are different because one belongs to Mary, the other to Joseph. However, in their society you still tag the husband in the wife’s genealogy – notice that they change after David – one to Solomon, the other to Nathan.

    You are right that we do not rely upon rationalism, but the Scripture does not contradict either, therefore what appears to be a discrepancy to us, usually turns out to be something we don’t know, rather than us knowing too much.

    Thanks for the thoughts. I look forward to reading more of your blog to see the Jewish roots of our Christian faith.

  4. Jeff says:

    Great way to look at the discrepancies in the gospels. It is indeed unfortunate that so many will pick at what they consider weaknesses instead of trying to learn from the strengths. Take the human frailties we see in the disciples and many of the forefathers for example. If those had not been revealed to us, then we would have not been able to have seen the transformation that resulted from their interaction with God.

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