Discrepancies in the Bible: Was Jesus REALLY born in Bethlehem?

This is the second in a series of posts on the “discrepancies” in the Bible, as alleged by agnostic, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman in his book Jesus Interrupted.  I will present Mr. Ehrman’s allegation and views, in which he uses the Historical-Critical Method of biblical interpretation, and will then present at least one orthodox Christian view on the same topic.

These discrepancies have been known by Bible scholars, liberal and orthodox/conservative, for hundreds if not thousands of years.  So remember, these “discrepancies” may come as a shock to you as a layperson, but none of these alleged discrepancies are recent discoveries.  Let’s examine them for the purpose of strengthening our faith and enabling us to better engage non-believers on the divinity of Jesus Christ and the inerrancy of his Word.

Dear Reader:  if you have an online article, you-tube video, or podcast that contains an orthodox/traditional Christian statement or rebuttal regarding the “contradiction” in question in this post, please post it in the comment section below.

Discrepancy #2:  Was Jesus REALLY born in Bethlehem?

Former evangelical Christian, turned agnostic, Bart Ehrman, in his book, Jesus, Interrupted, alleges that the two stories of Jesus’ birth in the Bible, recorded only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, contain so many contradictions and variations that it is virtually impossible for any educated, rational person to believe that these accounts represent a true historical event, but rather, contradictory fables, thereby confirming that the Bible is NOT inerrant.

Ehrman concludes this section of his book by making this shocking allegation:  Jesus was NOT born in Bethlehem…but in Nazareth! 

Ehrman asserts that Matthew and Luke both knew that the Jewish messiah MUST be born in the city of David, Bethlehem…so…they each made up a wild tale to place Jesus in Bethlehem for his birth (to make him qualified to be the messiah)…but then get him back to Nazareth before he’s too old, to avoid witnesses in Nazareth seeing through the “Bethlehem birth place” stories for what they really were:  pure fabrication!

During this particular post, we are going to address the first issue:  the narrative discrepancies regarding Christ’s birth as told by Matthew and Luke.  We will deal with issues such as the historicity of the Roman census, who actually was the governor at the time of Christ’s birth, the historicity of the Massacre of the Innocents, the Bethlehem star, discrepancies in the two genealogy tables, and other “contradictions/discrepancies” in upcoming posts.

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth:

1.  Mary and Joseph are espoused to be married.
2.  Mary becomes pregnant.
3.  Joseph has a dream and is told the child is of the Holy Spirit.
4.  Joseph and Mary are married.
5.  Jesus is born.
6.  Wise men come from the east, following a star that has led them to Jerusalem.
7.  The wise men inquire of Herod where the new king will be born.
8.  Herod investigates and his scribes tell him:  Bethlehem.
9.  Herod informs the wise men:  the prophecy says, Bethlehem.
10.  The wise men go to Bethlehem, led once again, by the star.
11.  The star stops over the house of Jesus and his family.
12.  The wise men offer Jesus gifts.
13.  Warned in a dream, the wise men do not return to inform Herod.
14.  Herod sends his troops to Bethlehem to kill every male child, two years and younger.
15.  Joseph is warned in a dream of the coming massacre.
16.  Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt.
17.  In Egypt, Joseph has a dream that Herod has died.
18.  As they make plans to return to Judea, they discover that Herod’s son, Archelaus, is now king of Judea.
19.  So instead of returning to Bethlehem, in Judea, they bypass Judea and settle in the northern district of Galilee, in the small village of Nazareth.
20  Jesus is raised in Nazareth.

Distinctive feature of Matthew’s story:  He repeatedly reminds the reader that various events occur:  “to fulfill what the prophet had said.”  Luke never makes this statement, even once.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth:

1. Luke starts his Gospel with a detailed narrative regarding Zechariah in the temple and angels announcing to Elizabeth that she will bare a son, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin.  Mary and Elizabeth are related.  (No other NT writer mentions this fact.)
2.  Luke states that Mary is a virgin espoused to Joseph.
3.  Later, an angel appears to Mary that she too will have a son, conceived of the Holy Spirit, and he will be the Son of God.
4.  Mary visits the six-month-pregnant Elizabeth.
5.  Elizabeth’s child, in her womb, leaps for joy as he is visited by “the mother of (the) Lord”.
6.  Mary bursts into song.
7.  John the Baptist is born.
8.  Zechariah bursts into prophecy.

9.  Roman Emperor Augustus decrees an empire-wide census registration.
10.  This decree occurs when Quirinius is governor of Syria.
11.  Everyone in the Roman Empire is to return to his ancestral home to register.
12.  Joseph, a descendant of King David, returns to his ancestral home…Bethlehem, taking along Mary, his espoused, who is with child, to register for the census.
13.  While in Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to Jesus, wraps him in bands of cloth, and lays him in a manger, because “there is no room in the inn”.
14.  Shepherds, near Bethlehem, are visited by an angelic host.
15.  The angels proclaim the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem.
16.  The shepherds go to Bethlehem to worship the child.

17.  Eight days later Jesus is circumcised.
18.  Jesus is presented to God in the Temple.  His parents offer sacrifices, as mandated for the occasion by the Law of Moses.
19.  Simeon recognizes Jesus as the messiah.
20.  Anna recognizes Jesus as the messiah.
21.  When Joseph and Mary have finished “everything required by the Law of the Lord” concerning the birth of their firstborn, they return to Nazareth.
22.  Jesus is raised in Nazareth.

The “Law of the Lord” referred to repeatedly throughout this account is Leviticus 12, which specifies that the offerings in the Temple are to be made 33 days after the birth of the child.

Alleged Discrepancies:

1.  What is Joseph’s and Mary’s hometown? Only Luke says, “Nazareth”.  Matthew says nothing about this.
2.  Matthew begins his story in Bethlehem.  Mary and Joseph apparently live there.
3.  The wise men come to Jesus’ house, not a stable.
4.  Why would Herod order all male children under TWO years old to be killed, if the baby had just been born?  Obviously, Joseph and Mary must have been living in Bethlehem for a year or more.

Most blatant discrepancy:  So how could Luke be right in saying that Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth and that they returned to Nazareth approximately one month after Jesus’ birth????   How can Matthew be right that the family fled Bethlehem to Egypt, when Luke says that they returned directly to Nazareth???

What does Ehrman conclude about these discrepancies?

Both Matthew and Luke had two points that they needed to emphasize:  Jesus was born of a virgin, and, he was born in Bethlehem.  And why were these two points very important to emphasize? 

Ehrman’s answer:  “Matthew hits the nail on the head:  there is a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Micah that a savior would come from Bethlehem, the home of King David, royal ancestor of the Messiah.  To get Jesus born in Bethlehem but raised in Nazareth, Matthew and Luke independently came up with solutions that no doubt struck each of them as plausible.  But the historian can detect the problems with each narrative, and the careful reader can see that when the stories are placed side by side (read horizontally) they are at odds with each other at several key points.”


orthodox/Traditional Christian Rebuttal:

Copied from:  Christian Apologetics Alliance

Christmas Notes, Part 1: Was Jesus Born in Bethlehem?

There is perhaps no story so well beloved as the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. But every year we are told on television or in news magazines that we cannot believe the nativity story, that Matthew and Luke contradict each other, and that “scientific” criticism has dissolved the story of the virgin birth into a pious myth. Why do they say this? Could a story of a virgin birth have been invented by an imaginative adaptation of prophecy? Are Paul and John really unaware of the virgin birth? What is the truth, and why does it matter anyway?

We could do worse than to start with the only explicit location given in the Gospels as the birthplace of Jesus: Bethlehem, a small hamlet almost due south of Jerusalem, high in the mountains to the west of the Dead Sea. Matthew states it very matter-of-factly:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, … (Matt. 2:1)

Luke is equally explicit:

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son … (Luke 2:4-7a)

One would think that when two sources as obviously independent as these birth narratives agree on a point like this, their combined evidence would carry considerable weight. But in some circles, explicit statements from primary sources are viewed with a curiously jaundiced eye. Thus, Michael Grant, in his book Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977), pits Matthew and Luke on the one hand against John on the other:

There is also a notorious difficulty about determining Jesus’ birthplace. For whereas Matthew and Luke name it as Bethlehem, which the Christian world has accepted, the Gospel of John takes a different view. The Messiah, it concedes, was expected to come from Bethlehem in the Roman province of Judaea, because that place, according to the First Book of Samuel, had been the home of David’s father Jesse, and the prophet Micah had declared that it would provide ‘a governor for Israel.’ Nevertheless, John continues, Jesus was not born there at all, but came from Galilee. (Grant, p. 72)

Really? John “continues” …? Turning to the endnotes on p. 216, we find in note 30 a set of references, but only one from John: “Jn. 7.41f.” Let’s take a look, starting a verse back to get the context:

When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there was a division among the people over him. (John 7:40-43)

It is a hard thing to have to say of a man who has passed to his reward and can no longer speak for himself, but Grant has egregiously misread this text. John is not saying here that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem. He is reporting a disagreement, in the terms in which it was actually set; some people said that Jesus was the Messiah, while others objected that he did not come from the place where the Messiah ought to have come from. If the former group had knowledge of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, John does not record their answer; given only what we have here, we should probably at least provisionally conclude that they were stumped. But what follows from that?

It hardly follows that John himself did not know better. Indeed, as it is pretty plain that John has an intimate knowledge of the Synoptic Gospels, it is nearly a certainty that he knew what Matthew (at least) had said about Jesus’ birth. It would have been easy enough for him to deny it, if he knew for a fact that it was false. But this he does not do. He merely reports the disagreement, and a little later, a testy exchange between Nicodemus and the chief priests and Pharisees:

Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” (John 7:50-52)

Again, it may be the case that Nicodemus did not have an answer to this objection. But the very fact that John does not bother to resolve it suggests that both he and his readers already knew the truth. And by no legitimate process of reading can John’s depicture of this set of exchanges be twisted into an assertion that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.

“Ahh,” some critic might say, “but John does more than that. Continue the quotation from Grant a bit further and you will see!” I am glad to oblige. Picking up precisely where we left off:

The same Gospel also indicates that his place of origin in that country [Galilee] was Nazareth. Mark seems to imply agreement, and according to Luke Nazareth had been Joseph’s home before he and Mary came to Bethlehem. (Grant, p. 72)

Here endnote 31 refers us to John 1:46, Mark 1:9, and Luke 2:4. Again, let’s look at the passage in John starting just one verse earlier:

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1:45-46)

Note what this passage says – Philip refers to Jesus as being “of Nazareth” – and what it does not say – that Jesus was born in Nazareth. The distinction makes a difference. Luke himself, who meticulously and explicitly records Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, reports the use of the same phrase in telling of an event in Jesus’ life:

“Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” (Luke 4:34)

And in the book of Acts, certainly also written by the same author, we find the disciples constantly referring to “Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 2:22, 6:14, 10:38, 22:8, 26:9).

Nor is this just a slip of the mind on Luke’s part. Matthew, who also explicitly places Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, records the use of the phrase in the memorable scene where Peter is ashamed to acknowledge his connection with Jesus:

And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” (Matthew 26:71)

In the face of this usage in both Matthew and Luke, the only reasonable conclusion is that Jesus was known for the town where he grew up. There is nothing unusual or strained about this sort of reference; many of us were born in one town or state and grew up in another, and it is wholly natural to refer to someone as coming from the place where he was raised from a very young age to adulthood. It would appear that the story of Jesus’ real birthplace was not widely known among his broader circle of followers during the three years of his ministry. But that is, in the nature of the case, precisely what we would expect. Why would Jesus or his disciples have broken off from their urgent message of repentance, the Kingdom of God, and coming judgment to the throngs who witnessed his works and hung on his words in order to deliver a discourse about the location of his birth?

If the textual arguments fall flat, what is left? Only the suggestion that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was an invention prompted by the prophecy in Micah 5:2:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.

In his book Jesus, Interrupted (New York: HarperOne, 2009) Bart Ehrman insinuates the idea in a specious enough manner:

And why did he have to be born in Bethlehem? Matthew hits the nail on the head: there is a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Micah that a savior would come from Bethlehem. What were these Gospel writers to do with the fact that it was widely known that Jesus came from Nazareth? They had to come up with a narrative that explained how he came from Nazareth, in Galilee, a little one-horse town that no one had ever heard of, but was born in Bethlehem, the home of King David, royal ancestor of the Messiah. (Ehrman, p. 35)

Ehrman here claims that the narratives in Matthew and Luke are fabrications, made up to accommodate the prophecy. Such an assertion requires significant argument to make it plausible, and though Ehrman has tried his best in the preceding three or four pages to raise problems for the narratives, I do not think he succeeds. But more significantly, the explanation cannot work unless the prophecy really would have given rise to this sort of story. And inconveniently enough, the prophecy in Micah does not merely state that the promised one will be from Bethlehem: it also portrays him as a ruler in Israel.

Here James Orr, in his book The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), puts the problem very cogently:

The passage might suggest a birth in Bethlehem, but it would certainly not suggest the kind of birth we have described in Matthew and Luke. The prophecy in Micah speaks of a prince, a ruler, going forth from David’s city. How different the picture in the two Evangelists of the lowly Babe, cradled in a manger, because there was no room for Him—not to speak of a palace—even in the common inn! The prophecy was fulfilled, in God’s good providence, as Matthew notes; but it was not fulfilled in the way that human imagination, working on the prophet’s words, would have devised. Is the story one that human imagination, granting it a free rein, would naturally have devised at all for the advent of the Messiah? Here again it is to be noted that Luke, who gives the most detailed account of the birth at Bethlehem, has no suggestion of a connection with prophecy. (Orr, p. 131)

 The critic cannot have it both ways. If the claim is that the prophecy inspired the story, then the story ought to reflect an imaginative setting for the prophecy as a whole and certainly for what were, to the Jewish mind, its most important parts. But the story in Matthew does not; and the story in Luke is, as Orr notes, told wholly without connection to Micah’s prediction.

It does not appear, then that there is any good reason for doubting the explicit testimony of both Matthew and Luke that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. What we should make of other parts of the Christmas story is an interesting question that will take us deeper into the primary sources and further back into the Old Testament for an adequate answer.

Read another interesting “inerrantist”/orthodox/traditional article on this topichere

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35 thoughts on “Discrepancies in the Bible: Was Jesus REALLY born in Bethlehem?

  1. This is what I get from the two accounts:

    Joseph and Mary are originally living in Nazareth, but go to Bethlehem for the census. They return to Nazareth approximately a month after Jesus is born, stopping in Jerusalem for Mary's purification, etc..

    Between returning to Nazareth and the account in Matthew of the Wise Men coming to visit Jesus, Joseph and Mary have moved to Bethlehem and have a house there. (Maybe they saw good opportunities for Joseph's carpentry business when they were there for the Roman census a few years earlier.)

    After the Wise Men leave, Joseph has a premonition from God about Herod's plot, and takes the family to Egypt. After hearing that Herod has died, they plan to return to their home in Bethlehem, but since Herod's son takes the throne, they decide to go back to Nazareth, Joseph and Mary's hometown.

    Too much of a stretch? Doesn't seem like it to me.

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  2. Dear Bro. Gary: I would say your reckoning is quite good.

    It might help readers to note too that the aims of Matthew and Luke were distinct in their reckoning of Jesus' genealogies. Matthew was concerned about proving Jesus' legal rights to the throne of David, and thus he presents an “ascending” geneaology that begins with Abraham, through David, through Joseph's side. Joseph was Jesus' legal father and thus Jesus has legal claim to the Davidic throne.

    Meanwhile Luke is concerned about showing how Jesus has literally bloodties to the throne of Israel and ultimately is the bloodline heir to creation as the New Adam. Hence Luke presents a “descending” geneaology that goes from Jesus day all the way back to Adam on Mary's side of the geneaology. Jesus is thus the literal bloodline heir by way of the virgin birth and Mary's bloodline to the Davidic throne.

    The points of contact between both genealogies are these: 1). virgin birth 2). Abraham's covenant and David's covenant are fulfilled in Christ 3). Christ is the Davidic King and heir of the world as touching His humanity as the virgin born Son of God (from Bethlehem).

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  3. I agree with you, Pastor Mahlon, but Ehrman's accusations against the “genealogies” will be that they are riddled with inaccuracies. I will deal with this “discrepancy” next.

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  4. It seems to me that Luke is telling the story of a newborn, while Matthew is telling the story of a two year old. If you read the two stories with that perspective, I don't see any contradictions. Anyone see something I am missing?

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  5. There are many interesting items regarding the birth narratives. Far too many to contain within a simple comment. Of course they contradict each other—indeed the fascinating question is why Luke (who I am persuaded had a copy of Matthew) felt it necessary to modify the Matthean account?

    Obviously, I will never convince you, Gary, regarding the contradictions. Our methodologies are too different. What is sad is how much more there is to unpack and learn here, yet we so often find ourselves caught up on the contradiction parts. A non-issue to me.

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  6. Morning Dagood S!

    Do you still see contradictions between the two accounts if you accept the view that Luke was describing as newborn infant, and Matthew was describing a two year old toddler?

    I'm going to print the first part of Matthew's story below.

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  7. Matthew 1: 18-25

    Now the birth of Jesus Christ[e] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed[f] to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

    23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall call his name Immanuel”

    (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

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  8. Matthew chapter 2

    Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men[a] from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose[b] and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

    6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
    for from you shall come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

    7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

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  9. Isn't it quite likely from the wording of this passage, that Matthew 1:18-25 is describing Jesus' birth, and does not mention his birthplace or describe the actual birth or events surrounding it, and in chapter 2, the discussion is about Jesus as a toddler, approximately two years old, living in Bethlehem?

    Does the opening statement of chapter 2, verse one, sound as if it is a continuation of the same narrative that occurs in the previous chapter? “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King…”

    That sure doesn't sound to me as if the wise men are showing up at the stable to stand next to the shepherds as Joseph is discarding the “after-birth”!

    It seems to me that the reason that everyone is getting themselves all worked up over the “contradiction” between these two stories is because the actual narrative contradicts, not the Bible, but our childhood fantasy that the wise men and the shepherds should be in the same Nativity Scene out on the front lawn of our church!

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  10. Gary,

    Luke was describing the birth, raising and ministry initiation of Jesus. So was Matthew. Under my methodology, they contradict as to how those events transpired. Under your methodology, you can have Joseph, Mary, et. al. traipsing back and forth between Nazareth, Bethlehem, Egypt and Jerusalem bouncing about from the Matthean account to the Lukan account, as much as you wish. Have ‘em travelling or moving once a month, once a year or once a week. Have fun with it! *grin*

    So…do I see a contradiction under the “whatever possible resolution” your methodology allows? Nope. As I said before, I will always agree to that. What I do NOT agree to is that methodology.

    “What is a person from Nazareth called?”

    A simple question introducing some intriguing topics. Alas, instead we (as in skeptics and Christians) seem to get so hung up on “Contradiction!” “No! Resolution” “Nonsense! Contradiction!” “Presupposition! Resolution!” that we never get beyond to what is far more interesting to me.

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  11. Dagood,

    I promise you this: if while reading Ehrman's JESUS, INTERRUPTED, I find a “contradiction” for which Christians do not have a CREDIBLE explanation, I am not going to just sweep it under the rug. As I said before, I am not a neutral party in this investigation, it is true that I very much do want to find that there are no contradictions in the Bible, but I am going to attempt to keep an open mind while looking at the evidence. If something does not pass the “smell test”, I'm not going to ignore it in the name of “faith”.

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  12. Gary,

    We are human. And humanity comes with certain characteristics—one of them being bias. Whether from our DNA, or our upbringing, or whatever you choose to attribute—we all have biases. Many times, it is of little consequence. You prefer stuffing over potatoes? So what. You think the Detroit Lions are a good football team? (Oh you poor deluded fool!) Fine.

    But when it comes to making truth determinations—what is reality?—we let our biases get in the way. We can want something so bad we ignore, downplay and set aside any evidence against what we want, while extolling, supporting and bolstering evidence in favor. Recognizing this human tendency, many systems put into place methodologies to reduce bias as much as possible. The American Justice system uses a neutral party to make determinations. Science uses peer-review. We attempt to reduce bias as much as we can.

    Being raised an inerrantist Christian firmly convinced the Protestant Bible was the inspired word of God; I was naturally and understandably biased in favor of no contradictions. I was taught that for over 30 years. My friends believed it. My family believed it. Every close interaction I had reinvested and reasserted the proposition. It was reinforced so many times; it was as obvious as the sun.

    I was biased. Now…in recognizing bias’ ability to conceal the truth (we see it so many times in so many facets of life), I searched for a method to remove the bias as much as possible. Can we ever remove it entirely? Until computers have artificial intelligence—I doubt it. But I want to reduce it as much as possible. Thus implementing a methodology I am so familiar with—what would a neutral person (one who neither gains nor loses regardless of the outcome) determine is more likely true?

    Gary, I promise you this—after reading any 1000’s of books regarding biblical contradictions, including Dr. Ehrman’s—you will not find a single contradiction. Why? Because—the person making the determination is YOU…and you are bias. (A human trait, not a fault.) You say it yourself in this last comment.

    “I find a ‘contradiction’ for which Christians do not have a CREDIBLE explanation…”

    Credible…to whom? To you! Of course you will find anything credible—you are already bias, as you forthrightly state, “[I]t is true that I very much do want to find that there are no contradictions in the Bible…”

    “If something does not pass the ‘smell test’…”

    But you are doing the smelling. Your own bias will tell you it passes.

    Thus the reason these conversations so rarely get anywhere. As long as the person making the determination is freely using their own bias to decide, their own bias will dictate the results.

    Now…I know my method is not for everyone. We get pretty good at determining what neutral parties would decide; others may not be so adapt or familiar. Fine—don’t use my method. But find one actively attempting to remove bias as much as possible—not embrace it to the point the method becomes meaningless as we already know what the outcome will always be.

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  13. I don't see Joseph and his family doing a lot of traipsing. Let's do a very brief review:

    Luke:
    1. Start in Nazareth.
    2. Go to Bethlehem.
    3. Jesus is born.
    4. They go to the Temple
    5. Return to Nazareth one month later.

    Matthew:
    1. Matthew says he is “now” going to describe Christ's birth.
    2. He then tells about Mary getting pregnant, Joseph's dilemma, his dream, the marriage, the birth, naming the child Jesus.
    3. Then, in the first verse of chapter 2, Matthew says “Now” I'm going to tell you about the wise men.

    Where is the contradiction? Where is all the SCHLEPPING (as my Jewish friends would say)?

    Movements of the Family combining these two stories:

    1. Hometown Nazareth.
    2. Bethlehem for birth.
    3. Jerusalem for purification for one month.
    4. Back to Nazareth.
    5. Two years later we find them in a house in Bethlehem.

    Did they move there? Are they there temporarily in a relative's house to celebrate a Jewish holiday or just for a visit? Did Mary want to move to Judea to be closer to Elizabeth? Did Joseph see good work opportunities when he had been in Bethlehem before for Jesus' birth?

    Who knows?? But so what! Two years later, after Jesus' birth, for some reason, Joseph and his family are in a house in Bethlehem and wise men come a calling. Joseph is advised of Herod's plan to kill the child and they flee to Egypt. After Herod's death, they want to go back to Bethlehem, but out of fear of Herod's son, they change plans and go to Nazareth.

    I like to watch those “who done it” murder mysteries late at night. These are NOT fictional tales, they are actual events from police files. The bizarre, but true, stories and testimonies on these programs make Matthew and Luke's testimonies look like a slam dunk for any jury to find believable.

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  14. Prior to becoming President, during the days that he was a community organizer, state senator, and then US senator, I would bet good money that if you had asked Barack Obama, “Hey, where are you from?” His answer would have been:

    “I'm a Chicagoan.”

    If you had asked people during that time where Barack Obama is from, I would again bet that most people would say, “Barack Obama is from Chicago. He is a Chicagoan.”

    How many people would have called him an “Hawaiian”? I will bet, not many.

    People referred to Jesus as a Nazarene, because he grew up in Nazareth since a very young age, had lived there for thirty or so years, and his parents and grandparents (presumably) lived/had lived there.

    Just because he was born in Bethlehem, and moved/visited there again when he was two years old, would everyone have called him a “Bethlehemite”??

    Seems like a real stretch of the imagination to arrive at that conclusion.

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  15. Thanks, Gary, for demonstrating the problem.

    A person from Chicago is called “Chicagoan.”
    From Hawaii, “Hawaiian.”
    Galilee – “Galilean.”
    Rome- “Roman.”
    Judah – “Judean”

    Notice what is done? We add the suffix to the ENTIRE place name.

    You are not a “Calian” or a “Califian” or “Califorian.” We add the suffix to the entire place name. You are “Californian.”

    So…[drumroll]…what would a person from Nazareth be called? A “Nazarethite” or “Nazarethene.” They would never, ever be called “Nazarene” because a Nazarene is a person from “Nazar” (or possibly “Nazara.”)

    Mark (skipping 1:9) never refers to Jesus as “Jesus of Nazareth” (despite what your Bible may translate) On the four (4) occasions he refers to Jesus, he refers to him as Iesous Nazarenos or “Jesus [the] Nazarene.” It is a title, not a place name moniker. Additionally, the Greek of Mark 2:1 implies the Capernaum house was Jesus’ home. If all we had was Mark, we would be discussing how Jesus was from Capernaum. The city “Nazareth” would never even be discussed.

    (I am personally convinced Mark 1:9 “of Nazareth” is a later addition, after Matthew’s Gospel became popular. Mark never identifies a person from two locations, like “of San Francisco of California.” He would say “of San Francisco” or “of California” but never both. The sole time the double demarcation is made is at 1:9 “of Nazareth of Galilee.” Additionally, all the other times he refers to “Nazarene,” not “of Nazareth.”)

    Matthew, reading Mark’s Gospel, makes the error “Nazarene” is a person from Nazareth, and creates the escape to Nazareth to link the two. Note Matthew deliberately links being from Nazareth as “Nazarene” in Matt. 2:23. A grammatical error. Also explaining why scholars have grappled with this verse as to what the heck Matthew was talking about.

    Unfortunately, inerrantists are so wedded to conforming every dot and speck to precise history, that such discussions regarding the etymology of “Nazarene” vs. “Nazarethene” are doomed. To dare suggest Matthew didn’t understand “Nazarene” was not a person from Nazareth…or to extrapolate the arguments for interpolation at 1:9…impossible!

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  16. I agree with you, but I think you are not having enough, dare I say it (?), FAITH, in me.

    When Bruce Gerencser referred to Ehrman's MISQUOTING JESUS…it DID change my mind. Even though I have not been a fundamentalist Baptist for 35 years, I continued to carry the fundamentalist belief of biblical inerrancy with me into Evangelicalism, then Liberal Lutheranism and Episcopalianism, and even into orthodox Lutheranism.

    I believed that every last one of God's words were transmitted to the original manuscripts AND that all God's words were preserved and passed down intact in the existing Greek copies of those manuscripts that we have today. I did believe that it is possible that the translators of our English Bibles had made translation errors, even the fundamentalists believe that, but to say that the existing Greek manuscripts do not contain every word God had said in the originals, or that God had allowed scribes to ADD to God's words in the existing Greek manuscripts, was INCONCEIVABLE to me!

    MISQUOTING JESUS almost…almost destroyed my entire Christian belief system. It almost destroyed my faith.

    But instead of just chucking my faith, I decided to investigate the orthodox Christian position on all these scribal changes and I came to realize that orthodox Christians (NOT fundamentalists and probably not most evangelicals) have known for almost 2,000 YEARS about these scribe alterations of the Scriptures, and see no reason to get worked up about them. Luther pointed out these alterations in his day. He didn't toss out the Bible, he just labeled the scribes who made the alterations as “ignoramuses”.

    The fundamentalist perspective of “inerrancy” is very different from the orthodox Christian perspective. In my investigation of this issue, I came to learn that orthodox Christians have NEVER believed that our Bibles today, or even the Greek manuscripts that we possess today, are inerrant…it is the WORD, the MESSAGE of God, that is inerrant, and that message has not been altered.

    So, you see. Good evidence DOES have the potential to change my mind. If I had learned that orthodox Christians have always held the fundamentalist definition of “inerrant”, I would now be on my way out of the Christian faith. But I did my investigating. What I realized is not that God's Word contains human errors and alterations. What I came to realize is that my DEFINITION, that God's Word is the exact same thing as the Bible on my nightstand, a definition received from the Baptist fundamentalists from the very days as a child that I started to walk and talk, THAT is what is errant, not Christianity, and not God.

    I think I am being much more unbiased in my investigation of these “contradictions” than you may realize.

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  17. FUNDAMENTALIST inerrantists would have a problem with this issue, we orthodox would not. “Jesus the Nazarene”, “Jesus of Nazareth”, “Jesus the Nazarene born in Bethlehem currently living in Capernum”. What difference does it make?

    This is what would make a VERY big difference:

    Matthew says that Jesus is BORN in Bethlehem of Judea.
    Luke says Jesus is BORN in Nazareth of Galilee.

    That would be a true contradiction that would flunk the “smell test”. If the Gospel writers had said these two different statements, then the two Birth Narratives would DEFINITELY be irreconcilable.

    Bottom line, on the issue of Jesus' place of birth and the Birth Narratives told by Matthew and Luke, I can't prove their stories are inerrant and historical, and you cannot prove that they are contradictory and “cooked up”.

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  18. Dear Bro. Gary and Dagood S: I have found these discussions to be quite interesting and certainly insightful. Bro. Gary I feel you have expressed and explained well the exegesis of Matthew and Luke's genealogies. Dagood S, for what it is worth, it has been a while since I have dialogued with a skeptic (i'm not sure if that is how you would describe yourself). At any rate I have been amazed at the level of judiciousness you have exercised in these dialogues.

    Certainly bias plays a major factor in any investigation of truth – whether it be scientific, legal or theological. There is no “neutral position” nor “objective view from nowhere” per se – all of us operate with a bias. I myself am similar in my bias to Bro. Gary, albeit I do have distinctives to which I hold too that he and I have discussed at length. Nonetheless when it comes to the essentials though, I believe Bro. Gary and I would fall on the same side of the fence.

    Dagood S you have a bias as well which I take to be that of a skeptic (perhaps there is a better name, and if so, please correct me).

    Just because we have biases does not mean we cannot explore the truth nor discover the truth. As one writer has put it: the bigger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder. To me, which worldview (i.e a systematized viewpoint and understanding of reality) most comprehensively explains the evidence at hand is obviously the better worldview.

    Furthermore, in subjecting a given interpretation of the Biblical data to a worldview test, which one will yield the most accurate explanation of what corresponds to life and reality? Which worldview, skeptical or Christian orthodox, can main consistent, internal coherence in its details and arguments?

    As a Christian, I believe that only the Holy Spirit can change our bias from that of being skeptical to that of faith. Romans 10:17 “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”

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  19. Very nice comments, Pastor Mahlon. Thank you.

    I would like to point out to you that Dagood is one of the Baptized, therefore, in my eyes and in the eyes of the world's orthodox Christians (RCC, EOC, Anglicans, and Lutherans) he is still a Christian…whether he claims to be or not. There is no way to “un-baptize” yourself.

    (I'm not sure if Dagood is using the term “agnostic” or “atheist” to describe himself, but I know that he no longer believes in the existence of the Christian God.)

    So, unless God has removed his Spirit from Dagood, and there is no way that any of us can know that, Dagood STILL has the Holy Spirit and is still a Christian in our orthodox view. We would therefore treat Dagood as our fallen brother, not as an alien to the Faith. We would not, therefore, pray for the Holy Spirit to quicken his spiritually dead soul, rather, we would pray that the Holy Spirit will convict him of his error and defiance of God's will.

    DaGood is my brother. I am talking to him as my brother, with compassion and understanding, but never denying the truth. What comes of it is up to God.

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  20. Gary,

    You absolutely amaze me. How much you can read and absorb in a day astounds me. You do very good work. And you have a dynamic spirit. Thank you for all you do — we Lutherans need it! You are a great example of a soul on fire.

    Abby

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  21. Gary, do you think I can prove the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are contradictory utilizing my method—more likely to be determined contradictory by a neutral determinate?

    Mahlon, Thank you for the kinds words. Alas, I can assure you I am quite the flaming jerk. Just not in our conversation. *grin*

    I quite agree I have a bias. I can tell you, even with bias, I have become pretty good at determining what a neutral jury will do—it is a method I use day in and day out in my life. If someone would come up with a method at least equally designed to remove bias, I would happily review it and embrace it.

    I like your statement regarding which worldview most comprehensively explains the evidence at hand. I would take just a snapshot of that in reviewing our discussion regarding the differences in the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives. Which better explains the differences—the authors are writing contradictory stories, or somehow they each managed to emphasize differing areas and ALL of these issues can be resolved?

    Apologists often take the approach of taking each part, breaking it up into smaller and smaller pieces to provide resolutions of each part, in an attempt to argue if each small part can be resolved, then the entirety is as well. But looking at the big picture–isn’t more comprehensive the accounts contradict? Look at all the variances:

    1) Differing genealogies,
    2) Disagree with Markan origin of Capernaum,
    3) Angels speak to Joseph (Matthew); Angels speak to Mary (Luke)
    4) Live in Bethlehem, move to Nazareth; Live in Nazareth, visit Bethlehem;
    5) Born under Herod the Great (pre 4 BCE), born during the Census 6 CE. (The arguments for Quirinius governing twice are so stretched to the point of being transparently thin.)
    6) Hiding in Nazareth to avoid the authorities; going to Jerusalem every year without fear.

    Yes, individually one can provide weak (in my opinion) possible resolutions. But taken as a whole, a neutral jury would determine the two accounts are contradictory.

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  22. Why was the US Constitution written saying that “all men are created equal” but then turns around and says that “black slaves count as only 3/5 of a person” for census purposes?

    Were the authors of the US Constitution contradicting themselves, or is there more to this story than the basic facts and simple English words, as we understand them in our 21st century world view, tell us?

    When Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote down their individual stories about the life of Jesus, they were not telling the world NEW news that no one had ever heard before. The story of Jesus had been an oral story for years, transmitted to most of the Mediterranean world. If something new had been fabricated, wouldn't we have evidence in the writings of the early Christians of a major controversy over this issue?

    (I hope you are not going to use the Great Catholic Conspiracy allegation: that those damned “Catholics” destroyed all evidence of such a controversy.)

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  23. I believe that you are 100% correct. If you only presented the testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in a court of law, the jury would say that their testimony is contradictory and unreliable.

    However, hopefully, the Christian side would have a good attorney, who would bring in evidence from the early centuries of the church that would strongly suggest that the early church saw no conflict in their stories. This attorney would also point out that for the first one hundred or so years of Christianity there was no “Bible”, only the oral tradition. So in those days, people did not hear God's Word “vertically” they heard it horizontally: One person would tell the account as described in Matthew, and another would tell the events as described in Luke. I am not an attorney, but I believe that the fact that there is no controversy in the early church, or in non-Christian writings of the time, surrounding the “discrepancies” in the Gospels, is strong evidence that everyone, including eye-witnesses, believed that the four accounts are NOT contradictory, but are an accurate reflection, from different angles, of the same facts.

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  24. Once again, if Luke is describing the events of a newborn, and Matthew the events of a two year old, there is NO contradiction. You, like Ehrman, are assuming that Matthew is saying that Jesus was born in the house in Bethlehem in which the wise men visit him. Matthew says no such thing.

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  25. Gary,

    I should note for any poor lurker happening upon this blog entry, I was referring specifically to Matthew and Luke (with a dash of Mark) I wasn’t talking about John at all. Further, I was only focusing on contradictions in my question—the question of reliability is far different. Additionally, I would never suggest nor have I ever recommended we rely solely the four canonical gospels. I agree we should additionally submit evidence regarding the social-economic make-up of the time, Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew language, the modifications over time (you do know 2nd century church fathers saw the discrepancies and struggled with them, correct?), the historical evidence regarding Roman census, genre classification, governmental make-up, Josephus account, etc.

    And finally, I never and would not recommend we submit them to a modern-day jury. Not what juries are designed for, nor what the genre was intended.

    Matthew says Jesus was born in the home in Bethlehem. Was from Bethlehem. And the Magi visited him in Bethlehem. Jesus didn’t move to Nazareth until after the Egyptian trip, according to Matthew.

    With all due respect, I left your arguments regarding Jesus born in Bethlehem, going back to Nazareth, Joseph moving back to Bethlehem for “good work opportunities,” then going to Egypt, and then returning to Nazareth alone.

    It is not supported by Matthew’s use of progymnasmata, the social make-up of 1st century Palestine, the culture, or the Greek language of Matthew. It was not the 21st Century. People didn’t “move for Job opportunities” or go visiting to relatives. Again, under your method you are free to make-up whatever tales suit the desire for resolution.

    In arguing to a neutral determinate, I am not allowed such luxury. Thanks for answering my question, though.

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  26. Daygood, my friend, there is nowhere in Matthew that says that Jesus was born in the “house” to which wise men came to visit him. Please give me the passage that you believe says this.

    There is a clear break in Matthew's narrative; one for the very brief birth story, and a longer one for the visit of the wise men. There is no clear cut contradiction between Matthew's account and that of Luke.

    If Matthew had said that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the house to which the wise men came to visit, and Luke had said that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in a stable, to which the wise men and the shepherds came to visit…THAT would be a clear contradiction.

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  27. Gary, there is a “clear break” in the Greek? Where? Is there a “clear break” in the progymnasmata? Where?

    This will be my last comment. If you can insert a move back to Nazareth in Matthew, between Chapters 1 & 2 even though one is not indicated in order to claim a resolution; can I insert something not indicated to create a contradiction?

    If not, how come you would not accept such an insertion from me, but I must accept one from you? How is that consistent?

    And I don't have any “trouble” with the discrepancies. Not at all. I recognize they are acceptable within the genre or are human error. Only inerrantists have trouble…not historians.

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  28. You are correct, I should have said that TO ME there seems to be a clear break. The end of chapter one talks of Jesus' birth, the beginning of chapter 2 begins with, “Now when…”.

    that doesn't sound to me like chapter one and chapter two all happened in the same night.

    So, my brother, why are we discussing this if you do not have a “problem” with the “discrepancies”? In your deconversion testimony you specifically state that it was these discrepancies that broke your faith in Christ as your Lord and Savior.

    Orthodox Christians do not believe that the WRITTEN BIBLE is inerrant, it is the message, the WORD, Jesus Christ who is inerrant. I again say that it all boils down to this point: Is there sufficient evidence to prove to YOU, not a jury, that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, having been truly dead for three days?

    If sufficient evidence exists, then it is proof that the WORD is inerrant. The BIBLE is NOT inerrant.

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  29. The author in today's blog post (on this blog) says this on the topic of our conversation:

    The Gospels writers did not change the basic truth of the tradition in its testimony to Jesus as the Christ and God's self-revelation of Himself in Jesus. But they did treat its message as a living tradition that could be applied and reapplied in the life of the community of Faith to call people to faithful response to that revelation, and to God. “

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