How can we really know the factual truth? A good place to start is to put belief to one side, and openly and honestly deal with the evidence. We have four documents that describe Jesus, so lets handle them as literature and not religious texts.
First observation is that only two of these four documents actually describe the Christmas story, Matthew and Luke. The other two, Mark and John say nothing at all.
Second observation is that if you put the story in Matthew and Luke side by side, you soon make the astonishing discovery that they are two completely different stories that conflict. Our modern cultural understanding is an attempt to blend both of these, and by doing so, you could argue its actually a third version. OK, so lets take a closer look at each.
While both accounts do agree on some basics such as the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and also that he grew up in Nazareth, they differ on every other detail.
In Matthew we discover that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem in their own house.
- There was no census, no stable, no inn, no shepherds
The author also sticks to his theme of Jesus reliving parts of Jewish history, and so he has them fleeing off to Egypt after the birth, then later returning and settling in Nazareth, a town they had never lived in before.
Luke has quite a different story. Here we find that Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth and needed to travel to Bethlehem for a census. That is of course quite clearly nonsense and is totally contrived to get it to all fit. The Roman Tax system was based on property and ownership of land, there was never any census based upon your ancestry, Roman taxation simply did not operate like that.
- This time we find no astrologers visiting, and no flight to Egypt
Instead, we discover that Joseph and Mary travel on to Jerusalem right after the birth. Luke sticks to his theme of the prophet for everybody, and so when he is presented in the temple, he is declared to be a light for the gentiles. Once done, they head back home to Nazareth
So why are these two accounts so different? Quite clearly both authors needed to contend with the fact that it was common knowledge that Jesus came from Galilee, yet if he was to be the messiah, then he needed to have been born in Bethlehem, the town of Kind David, so they each contrived elaborate, but quite different stories that fitted in with their view of who they believed him to be.
You now have a choice, you can choose to believe that either the story in Mathew is accurate, or the story in Luke is accurate, but you do not have the option of believing both, because they do indeed conflict.
There is of course a far more reasonable choice. The authors made it all up to fit their conceptions of who they believed Jesus to be. Remember that the earlier story, Mark, written about AD 60, makes no mention of any of this detail.
- Matthew, written about 10-15 years after Mark, is very much about a Jewish Messiah, so he needs to be born in Bethlehem, and also appears to relive Jewish history in a symbolic manner … after his birth his family flee to Egypt and so he is exiled in a foreign land just as the Jews were exiled in Babylon. The first main event after the nativity is that he passes through water (his baptism), just as the Israel passed through the red sea. Then he is off in the wilderness by himself for 40 days, just as Israel supposedly wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.
- Luke, also written about 10-15 years after Mark at the same time, is instead about a rejected prophet … so instead his parent live in Nazareth, and the author makes up the census to get them to Bethlehem, then has them stop off in Jerusalem on the way home, because thats where all prophets are supposed to go. In Matthew its very much a message of “Now” being the end-times (Mat 16.v38), yet in Luke, this gets toned down (21.v7-32), because time is needed for the message of this prophet to spread out across the world. This is quite a new twist that is not in either Mark or Matthew, and is a distinctly different character with goals not seen in any of the other gospels.
John is very different, written long after all the others in about AD 110, its the first time we are introduced to the belief that Jesus is God.
Look out across the landscape of all this actual evidence, it becomes clear that who believers thought Jesus was evolved as time passed and so adjusted the stories to fit their views. What should now be obvious to you is that our modern Christmas story is a blending of two very different accounts. Once you harmonise, you end up missing what the individual Gospels are actually saying within their original isolated context.
When asked if you believe in Jesus and his message, the most accurate and factually correct response would be … “Which Jesus and which message?”, because there are lots to choose from.
“The differences are significant and should not be downplayed as if Mark and Luke were portraying Jesus in precisely the same way. When modern readers act as if they were…they take neither account seriously, but rather create their own account.” – Bart Eherman : New Testament scholar