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An adjunct assistant professor of the New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, Rodolfo Estrada, recently wrote the following: “Every Christmas, a relatively small town in the Palestinian West Bank comes center stage: Bethlehem. Jesus, according to some biblical sources, was born in this town some two millennia ago. Yet the New Testament Gospels do not agree about the details of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Some do not mention Bethlehem or Jesus’ birth at all. The Gospels’ different views might be hard to reconcile. But as a scholar of the New Testament, what I argue is that the Gospels offer an important insight into the Greco-Roman views of ethnic identity, including genealogies.“
I was quite surprised to read this, especially coming from a “scholar of the New Testament.” Estrada espouses here an oddly one-dimensional view of the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus. “Yet the New Testament Gospels do not agree about the details of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Some do not mention Bethlehem or Jesus’ birth at all,” wrote Estrada. What most attentive parishioners and first year Bible College students know, this writer seems somehow to have missed; the two Gospel accounts tell different parts of the story of the birth of Christ, and from differing perspectives. While there is some overlapping in the two accounts, they are written by different authors for different audiences and focused on different aspects of the story. Taken together, they give a more complete account of the events around the birth. And where they overlap, they are remarkably consistent.
Estrada sums up his opinion by stating, “The Gospels’ different views might be hard to reconcile.” They are hard to reconcile only if one wants to avoid the reconciliation. The two accounts contain startlingly complimentary features. Matthew’s account was written to a Jewish audience, and focuses on two important aspects to his Jewish audience: the miraculous conception and the genealogy that verifies the kingly line of David through Joseph, his adopted father. Mathew’s purpose appears to be to establish the legitimacy of Jesus as the promised Messiah and a descendant of David. He also includes the story of the Magi as corroboration of that status, for these “outsiders” knew this child to be the promised King of the Jews. Matthew’s audience was Jewish people seeking the Messiah.
Luke is telling the story of Mary – her experiences, her relatives, the shepherds visit, and the later flight to Egypt. He is writing to a Greek and Roman audience in a way that would give them the background they needed to understand the events that occurred in Bethlehem. Luke appears to have interviewed Mary and written largely from her perspective. Interestingly, Luke includes a genealogy as well. His focuses on the line of Davidic kings coming to Jesus not through Joseph but through Mary herself. This genealogy diverges from Joseph’s in that Mary’s line bypassed King Jeconiah. Bypassing Jeconiah was necessary because he was cursed, a curse which prohibited his descendants from the “Throne of David,” and from being the Messiah.
The two accounts dovetail remarkably. The lineage through Joseph establishes the King-Messiah line in general, but does not account for the curse of Jeconiah, which impacted Joseph directly. But Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, so that break in the lineage was irrelevant. Mary’s bloodline was also of David, but by skipping Jeconiah she was “qualified” to be the parent of the King of the Jews.
Taken together, the two account tell a more complete story of the events leading up to the birth, the birth itself, and the local reactions to the birth. They explain the later arrival of the magi (apparently months after the actual birth) and their confirmation of the royal title of the infant Jesus. And the two accounts clear up the seemingly contradictory promises of God to both David and Jeconiah. That two of the Gospel accounts do not mention the birth story is not relevant; they were written for other purposes.
Some point to the “Star of Bethlehem” as being problematic for the Christmas story. What was the star? And how could it behave as it was described in Matthew’s account?
Efforts have been made to pin the identity of the star on Halley’s Comet (near earth in 12 B.C.), on the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter (approximately 6 B.C.), or between Jupiter and a star in the constellation Aries. Each of these have their adherents and their problems (see the article linked below for a better solution).
Another issue is the statement in the Matthew account of the Magi finding Jesus the house in Bethlehem. Matthew 2:9 states it this way: “After hearing the king, they went on their way; and behold, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on ahead of them until it came to a stop over the place where the Child was to be found.” The idea that the Star of Bethlehem moved ahead of the Magi, then stopped over the house has been argued against by many, including scientists. “Such activity by an astronomical object is impossible” is the theme.
Or is it? Planets, due to what is known as “retrograde motion,” are known to appear to stand still on occasion. They actually do not stop, but appear to do so as a consequence of alignment and movement as perceived from our mobile platform of observation, the planet earth. It is not impossible, astronomically speaking, for a planet to appear to stand still for a period of time, albeit briefly.
For a fuller treatment of Star of Bethlehem, please check out this piece from 2015 written by my brother, Jim. https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/jrr-tolkien-the-star-of-bethlehem-and-the-fairy-story-that-came-true
The point? If you start from a place of firm belief, anything in the Christmas story is possible. Likewise, if you start from a position of firm disbelief, little in the story is possible. All people are religious to the core, and even skeptics hold their skepticism and disbelief with religious fervor. Objectively (said the believer), there is much in the Christmas story that stands on the evidence presented alone, if we apply the so-called “rules of evidence of historicity” equally in this event as we do in other events. If we can believe in the existence of, say, Shakespeare, we can believe in the events of the Christmas story. The story has better evidence.
A true story that some have decided should be a fairy tale, is actually a fairy tale-like story that is patently true.