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The Birth of Jesus

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I am working through Ben C. Smith’s Synoptic Project and Mahlon H. Smith’s Hyper-Synopsis. This section is on the circumstances of Jesus’s birth in Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 2:1-7 (here, here, here). For the similarities, the last post discussed the six-word verbatim agreement kai kaleseis to onoma autou Iēsoun (and you will call his name Jesus) in Matthew 1:21 and Luke 1:31 and the striking fact that an angel (named Gabriel in Luke) appeared to the opposite parent in Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:20-21. There is agreement about Mary’s betrothal [lexical form mnēsteuō] to Joseph (cf. Mark 6:3; John 6:42), Joseph’s descent from David (Matthew 1:20; Luke 2:4; 1:27; 3:23, 31), Mary’s virginal conception via the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18, 20, 23), the wording that Mary “bore a/the son” (eteken [ton] huion Luke adds “of her” [autēs] and adjective “the firstborn” [ton prōtotokon]), and the city of Bethlehem (Luke 1:4; Matthew 2:1). However, the differences outweigh the similarities:

  • Luke 1:26-56 focused on Mary’s perspective (e.g. her humble response to the angel and song of praise), while Matthew 1:18-25 focused on Joseph’s perspective (his “just” decision to divorce Mary quietly so as not to subject her to public disgrace, the vision that re-assured him, and the note that he “did not know” [eginōsken] her until after the birth of the son). Is this a sign that the two accounts are independent or that one writer switched to the opposite parent in reaction to the other?
  • Matthew builds on the etymology of the name Jesus to explain how he will save his people from their sins and cites a proof-text from the Septuagint version of Isaiah 7:14 to support the virginal conception of Jesus. Luke offers no scriptural justification for this, but seems to suggest that “on account of” (dio) the virginal conception Jesus has the status of God’s son (1:36; cf. 3:38).
  • According to Luke 2:1-5, Joseph had to journey to Bethlehem to register for the “first census” (apographē prōtē) covering the inhabited (Roman) world (oikoumenē) when Quirinius was governing Syria.
    • Josephus reports a census under the governor Quirinius that took place after the ethnarch Archelaus, the son of “Herod the Great” who ruled over Judaea, Samaria, and Idumaea, was disposed from office by the Romans and his territory was annexed by Syria in 6 CE (Antiquities 17.342-44, 355; 18.1-4). It was for the purposes of liquidating Archelaus’s assets and for taxation. Luke, however, seems to date the census in the reign of Herod “the Great” who died in 4 BCE (cf. Luke 1:5) as opposed to the reign of his son “Herod” Antipas, the “tetrarch” ruling Galilee and Peraea (cf. Luke 3:1). The historical questions would take us beyond the scope of this post (e.g. a previous census before 6 CE, a translation error, a chronological mistake on either Luke’s or Josephus’s part?).
  • Because Mary and Joseph did not have a “place” (topos) or “room” (marital chamber) in their “accommodations” (katalyma) in Bethlehem for them to care for their newborn, they put baby Jesus in a manger or animal feeding trough that was inside a village house. For this re-reading of the text, in contrast to the traditional Christmas image that Jesus was born in a barn because there was no room at the inn, see Stephen C. Carlson, “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem.”
  • Matthew does not narrate that Mary was from Nazareth (Luke 1:26, 56) or the reasons why the pre-married couple travelled to Bethlehem; Joseph’s accommodations in a “house” (oikia) in Bethlehem will be described in Matthew’s next chapter (2:11).
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