Matthew and Luke's Nativity Accounts: Symbolism or Fact?
Part II in a series about the Nativity.
Both Matthew and Luke, the gospel writers who brought the story of Jesus' miraculous birth into the Christmas tradition, wrote no earlier than the ninth or perhaps even the 10th decade of the Christian era.
This means that Christianity lived and flourished for 50 to 60 years before the virgin birth became part of its theology. This fact serves to demonstrate that the virgin birth is neither original nor essential to Christianity. It is also a story filled with obvious inaccuracies.
Matthew tells us that Jesus was born when Herod was king in Judea (Matthew 2:1). From other historical records, we know that Herod died in 4 B.C.E. To complicate the dating process, Luke's gospel repeats the Herod tradition (Luke 1:5) but adds that Jesus was also born when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1). From other historical records, we know that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until the winter of 6/7 C.E., by which time Jesus would have been at least 10 years old. The stories do not add up.
There are still other discrepancies in the two biblical birth stories of Jesus. Matthew appears to believes that Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem in a house over which a star can stop to bathe it in light. So he has to develop a story that will enable Jesus to move from Bethlehem, into Nazareth in Galilee--since Matthew had to deal with the fact that Jesus was known both as a Nazarene and a Galilean. So Matthew tells us that when the holy family returned from Egypt, God in a dream directed them to flee to Galilee, since Herod's brother was now on the throne and was regarded as a threat to Jesus' life.
Luke, on the other hand, believes that Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth. But in view of the fact that tradition suggested that the messiah had to be born in the city of David--Bethlehem--he had to develop a story that enabled Mary and Joseph to be in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth. The proposed census ordered by Quirinius served his purpose.
The literalness of this story is also called into question by the fact that there are no indications anywhere in Roman, Syrian, or Jewish records that there ever was an enrollment that required people to return to their ancestral homes. Luke is clearly stretching his story in several directions, and once more history is not well represented in these stories.