The Birth Narratives and Dating

There are two stories about Jesus’s birth in the NT. One at the start of Matthew, the other at the start of Luke. They are very different in many regards. I wrote more about these in other places at Christmas, so I won’t recap too much about their content.

Because the stories are in some ways similar and in others completely different (and contradictory – unless you jump through some bizarre exegetical hoops) they give us a lot of data. From a source critical perspective, when you have two different accounts of the same thing, you typically divide the story into three sources: those sources that belonged to each individual (Matt and Luke) and the sources they both knew and drew on.

In this latter category, for the birth narratives, seems to be a set of interesting features, including:

1. Jesus came from Nazereth.
2. The Messiah comes from Bethlehem.
3. Jesus is the Messiah.
4. Jesus was born around the turn of the CE.
5. Jesus’s parents were named Mary and Joseph (Miriam and Yosef if you degreekify them).

Clearly 1-3 are a problem! And so many scholars believe that the birth narratives are motivated by the desire to resolve 1-3. To show how, even though everyone knows Jesus comes from Galilee, he must have been born in Bethlehem. And this is where the common source gives out. Whatever it was, it didn’t resolve the issue, because Matt and Luke each take a stab at squaring the circle and do so in different ways.

I’m posting on this topic because of imarriedaxtian’s comment in the previous post. I said that we can use the birth narratives as evidence of the dating of Jesus’s birth, even though few scholars think they are anything but mythological inventions. This is point 4, above.

We can deduce 4 because the *rough* dating is common, and therefore likely to be an earlier tradition. I say rough because, as is commonly pointed out, the disparities in the two accounts mean that they can’t both be exactly right – the dates just don’t line up. This has been pointed out many times, and is a favorite tool of ridicule by some atheists, who unfortunately stop right there and fail to think through the issue.

Having the dates not match exactly is not really surprising if you follow the standard model described above – both writers (or sources only they knew) are making up their birth narratives much later.

What is significant is that they both plump for the same kind of period. Imagine if you read two accounts of the birth of a famous man from the middle twentieth century. One places his birth in 1920, the other in 1926. From that I think you can probably say that the evidence points to a birth somewhere in the early 20s. Clearly the evidence does not support a birth in the 40s. You could deduce further that the two accounts don’t agree, they both can’t be right, and it may be that neither is correct. But the balance of probabilities suggest that the 1920s is the most likely period.

So the birth narratives give us evidence on the dating of Jesus’s birth, even though we don’t trust the specific dating that either gives us.

Of course, as I said in the previous comment, there are other threads of evidence for the dating of Jesus’s birth – just as (if not more) speculative, but contributing to a consensus view that Jesus was born somewhere around the turn of the CE.

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16 responses to “The Birth Narratives and Dating

  1. So the birth narratives give us evidence on the dating of Jesus’s birth, even though we don’t trust the specific dating that either gives us.
    –Ian

    That sentence seems odd: “untrusted evidence gives us evidence”

    But I get some of your point, the two narratives are probably feeding off the same impressions or agenda — whether those impressions/agendas are either actual historical facts or they agree to the same myth which either they heard or read.

  2. Ian

    @sabio Its a good observation. At some point we can’t tell if the previous source is based in fact, or is just the trunk of a whole other source tree. We can’t tell, for example, if the agreement between Matt and Luke means Jesus was actually born at the turn of the CE, or if it means that there was just a single source tradition that said he did.

    And here is where any historical study is somewhat more credulous than the sciences. If we have no counter-evidence, and no good reason to think otherwise, it is normal to trust such reconstructed data.

    As for untrusted evidence giving usable evidence, this is very common in contemporary dealings too. Given a range of eyewitness testimonies (about the time or date of an event, for example), we are happy to use a kind of average as a working assumption. Effectively trusting the group’s evidence (as long as we have no reason to think they were cooperating on their answers) while distrusting each individual.

  3. Sabio

    “if we have no counter-evidence”
    What would you count as “counter-evidence” in this case?

    “Given a range of eyewitness testimonies” — gospels are not eyewitness, as you know

    “as long as we have no reason to think they were cooperating on their answers” — we could easily imagine that

  4. Ian

    Counter evidence would be some other source that posited a different date. Lack of credibility isn’t counter-evidence, it just diminishes the amount of weight we give a source.

    Eyewitness: no, that was an analogy, not meant to be more than that.

    We could imagine cooperation, but again without evidence we assume they are independent. Source criticism has a particular assumption about lack of cooperation – when there is cooperation it is counted as a common source and pushed back. So in the eyewitness analogy, you’d say that the meeting they all had when they agreed a story was a prior (oral) source.

  5. imarriedaxtian

    I wrote more about these in other places at Christmas, so I won’t recap too much about their content.

    Sorry Ian, I thought I read all your posts here. But I can’t seem to find any trace of your referenced posts.

  6. Ian

    @imarriedaxtian – Sorry, that was remiss of me. The page I’m referring to is elsewhere:

    http://idm.me.uk/bible/christmas

  7. imarriedaxtian

    You wouldnt find me disagreeing with you here. But you forgot to explicate an unstated assumption viz., that Luke and Matthew are independent sources.

    If they are indeed independent, then scholars tend to treat the occasional parts of their narratives where they agree with more respect. A further example would be the names of JC’s parents, Joseph and Mary. Both these sources uses the same names.

    I am aware of the “standard” way to compute JC’s DOB. That is using Matthew’s Herod/Wise Men/ Slaughter of the Infants to date JC’s birth to before the death of Herod (in ca. 4 BCE); and Luke’s Fifteenth Year reign of Tiberius as well as Tacitus to calculate JC’s probable age and probable date of crucifixion. But what I am not sure of is what you wrote in an earlier comment to me. I cite your relevant passage below.

    But the dating they provide is only one of the reasons we date Jesus to the start of the first century (and the reasoning even there is somewhat more subtle than you seem to assume). The chronology through Paul (see particularly his timescale in Galatians),

    The part in bold is what intrigued me. I am not aware of any studies that uses Paul to date JC. Can you please elaborate?

  8. Ian

    You wouldnt find me disagreeing with you here. But you forgot to explicate an unstated assumption viz., that Luke and Matthew are independent sources.

    The assumption is a little more complex, it isn’t quite as you put it here.

    The birth narratives in Luke and Matthew are considered to be independent (I stress that for future readers, because Luke and Matthew clearly are not independent in other ways – we can get into synoptic problems later, if need be). Mostly because they conflict with one another. This is a good assumption – when stories diverge they are likely to be independent, when they converge they may have commonality.

    That is not to say that Luke didn’t know Matthew, for example. He might have done (though most scholars doubt it, I suspect the situation is quite nuanced, but that is a far more technical subject for another day). But let’s imagine he did: then Luke decided that Matthew was wrong and wrote a different birth narrative that contradicted his source. So where did Luke get this new narrative from? He could have made it up, or he might have used some oral information or prior document. Either way we call this ‘new’ Lukan material the Luke-source. So even if Luke knew Matthew, we are still justified in finding three sources: Matthew-only (the stuff Luke didn’t copy), Luke-only (the stuff Luke added) and Matthew-Luke (the common parts of the story).

    By definition then, Matthew-only and Luke-only are independent. The question isn’t their independence, but how much content we put in each of the three buckets. The 5 points I mentioned belong in the common source. There are a few other bits (such as the virginity of Mary, for example). But the names of Jesus’s parents are definitely part of that common source.

    I am not aware of any studies that uses Paul to date JC.

    “Studies” is an odd word to use here. If you look at Paul’s description of his conversion and ministry at the start of Galatians he gives a timescale. Based on the pretty firm consensus of Paul’s death in Rome (which in turn is evidenced by who was using Paul’s writing and when), and the evidence that the early church was around for at least a short time before Paul arrived on the scene, work backwards. You get another line of evidence that backs up the same date.

    All of these lines of evidence are individually pretty weak in scientific terms, but they all point to roughly the same kinds of dates. To seriously challenge this dating it isn’t enough to throw mud at each individual line of evidence, because the whole is greater than the sum. You’d have to show how all the evidence points consistently to some other dating, and how that other dating is better at accounting for *all* the data, from the first century onwards (since we have a overlapping set of early church writers right through from that point to the present).

    As far as ancient history is concerned, the dating of Jesus’s birth is pretty good.

  9. imarriedaxtian

    As far as ancient history is concerned, the dating of Jesus’s birth is pretty good.

    When stories start to aggregate around a hero, the fact that we have this hero interacting with historical figures does not necessary mean the hero was real or living in the same time period as the historical figures. All we can say is the the stories probably started circulating about then.

    So for example we can (if we are so incline) try to deduce the DOB of say James Bond (a fictional hero) from all the novels of Ian Fleming. This still does not make it a real birthdate. 🙂

  10. Ian

    Lots of generalities in that reply, unfortunately.

    That’s the problem of mythicism. It works on generalities, bizarre analogies and mudslinging, rather than dealing robustly with the actual data.

    Its the same process with many other similar ideological anti-scholastic movements, in my experience. The aim is to try to cast doubt on lines of reasoning or individual pieces of evidence, rather than trying to do any real work or genuinely engage with the field. I’m afraid I get bored pretty quickly: I’ve wasted too much of my life arguing with creationists.

    Weren’t you trying to argue for a later date for Jesus? What’s with the vanilla mythicism?

  11. imarriedaxtian

    Ian

    I apologize. My last remarks were typed in haste, thoughtless and flippant. But I am not a creationist trolling to get a rise out of you.

  12. Ian

    🙂

    I thought not. That’s why I asked about your previous hypothesis.

  13. imarriedaxtian

    Whew 🙂

    Its hard to hold a civil discourse on the Net without some one misunderstanding what you said and taking offense. Part of the problem is knowing where the other person’s limit is at and trying not to cross it. I can be quite flippant. 😦

    I am only a student just coming to grips with the NT. Your site interest me because we have nearly identical interests, textual criticism, historical-critical approach, which translation of the bible, and (your latest blog) which commentaries to use. Unfortunately my Greek is zip, so the advanced commentaries with greek is beyond me. So for me its only introduction type one-volume commentaries that you sniffed at. 🙂

    Part of the problem of an unstructured/unguided reading is the random direction it can take. I am currently reading The Messiah Myth by Thomas L Thompson. So bits of it must have been floating on my frontal lobe when reading your comments.

    As for my trying to get a later date for JC, it was only trying to tie up Paul’s Apollos with Apollonius of Tyana. I realized I did not have to do that if I can push back Philostratus dates for Apollonius. Some commentators even have him as JC’s contemporary.

  14. Ian

    Its hard to hold a civil discourse on the Net without some one misunderstanding what you said and taking offense.

    True. I don’t mind offense to much though – taking it or giving it – as long as it doesn’t end the discussion. I’d rather battle through, if there is a road through.

    I think one of the cool things about the internet is the ability to take offense and still engage. That is very difficult to do face to face (at least for me).

    So for me its only introduction type one-volume commentaries that you sniffed at. 🙂

    Yes that did come across unnecessarily sniffy, didn’t it?

    🙂

  15. imarriedaxtian

    True. I don’t mind offense to much though – taking it or giving it – as long as it doesn’t end the discussion.

    Yes, but what is the point of taking or giving offense to make one’s case? I am engaging with people like you to see if I can learn something new or worthwhile. Or at least make me think in a different way. Deliberately giving offense is counterproductive and may end the dialogue as you rightly fear.

  16. Ian

    I agree. It is better not to take or give offense. And certainly not deliberately.

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