Jesus' Birth-- The Contradictions of Matthew and Luke

For contradictions in Jesus' death, click here

The accounts of the birth of Jesus given by the anonymous authors of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew contradict each other to the degree that each renders the other impossible. It takes only a cursory examination to reveal the flaws in each story.

The following is from Robert Green Ingersoll.

According to the author of Matthew, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take Mary and the child into Egypt for fear of Herod. So Joseph took Mary and the child to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. Then Herod, finding that he was mocked by the wise men, "sent forth and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem and in all the coasts thereof from two years old and under."

After the death of Herod an angel again appeared in a dream to Joseph and told him to take mother and child and go back to Palestine. So he went back and dwelt in Nazareth.

Is this story true? Must we believe that Herod murdered the babes of Bethlehem? Is it not unbelievable that the enemies of Herod did not charge him with this horror? Is it not marvelous that Mark and Luke and John forgot to mention this most heartless of massacres?

Luke also gives an account of the birth of Christ, but a very different one. He says that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed; that this was when Cyrenius was governor of Syria; that in accordance with this decree, Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to be taxed; that at that place Christ was born and laid in a manger. He also says that shepherds, in the neighborhood, were told of the birth by an angel, with whom was a multitude of the heavenly host; that these shepherds visited Mary and the child, and told others what they had seen and heard. He tells us that after eight days the child was named, Jesus; that forty days after his birth he was taken by Joseph and Mary to Jerusalem, and that after they had performed all things according to the law they returned to Nazareth. Luke also says that the child grew and waxed strong in spirit, and that his parents went every year to Jerusalem.

Do the accounts in Matthew and Luke agree? Can both accounts be true? Luke never heard of the star, and Matthew knew nothing of the heavenly host. Luke never heard of the wise men, nor Matthew of the shepherds. Luke knew nothing of the hatred of Herod, the murder of the babes or the flight into Egypt. According to Matthew, Joseph, warned by an angel, took Mary and the child and fled into Egypt. According to Luke they all went to Jerusalem, and from there back to Nazareth.

Both of these accounts cannot be true. Will some Christian scholar tell us which to believe? When was Christ born? Luke says that it took place when Cyrenius was governor. Here is another mistake. Cyrenius was not appointed governor until after the death of Herod, and the taxing could not have taken place until ten years after the alleged birth of Christ. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, and for the purpose of getting them to Bethlehem, so that the child could be born in the right place, the taxing under Cyrenius was used, but the writer, being "inspired" made a mistake of about ten years as to the time of the taxing and of the birth. Matthew says nothing about the date of the birth, except that he was born when Herod was king.

It is now known that Herod had been dead ten years before the taxing under Cyrenius. So, if Luke tells the truth, Joseph, being warned by an angel, fled from the hatred of Herod ten years after Herod was dead. If Matthew and Luke are both right, Christ was taken to Egypt ten years before he was born, and Herod killed the babes ten years after he was dead. Will some Christian scholar have the goodness to harmonize these "inspired" accounts?

Ingersoll was on the right track. But his oration needs some clarification. Yes, Cyrenius was an important Roman official in the time of Augustus. His name was really Quirinius, which became Kyrinios in Greek, and Cyrenius in English. (The RSV bible has corrected his name back to Quirinius.) He was in charge of Roman military matters in Syria, which placed him over the legions in Judea as well, on 2 different occasions: 6-4 BCE and 6-9 CE. Apparently this information was unknown to Ingersoll, who claims Cyrenius did not come into power until ten years after the death of Herod the Great. What Ingersoll is speaking of is Cyrenius' second term, from 6-9 CE.

No Christian scholar contends that Jesus was born as late as 6-9 CE. The consensus among Christian scholars is that he was born in 4 BCE, during Cyrenius' first term. And all Christian scholars, even Fundamentalists, agree that Cyrenius was governor twice.

According to Josephus, there was a census taken for the purpose of assessing a special tax initiated during Cyrenius' second administration. During this time, Herod Archelaus (son of Herod the Great) had been deposed as ethnarch, and Judea had come under direct Roman rule-- it became a "procuratorial province" with its capital at Caesarea and Caponius as procurator. This we know as fact. This change in rulership-- Judea coming under direct Roman authority-- is the reason behind the special taxation. As long as Judea was under the control of a native ruler, Rome was willing to let the taxes be collected in whatever way that pleased the ruler, as long as the appropriate amount was sent on to Rome. But once Rome took control, taxation had to be done systematically, and hence the need for the census-- numbering the people and their possessions. And that's why only Luke's story mentions that the taxation was under Augustus Caesar, and he says nothing of Herod Archelaus-- because Herod was gone.

Herod the Great (Herod Archelaus' father) ruled Judea as king during Cyrenius' first term, but he died in 4 BCE. This is the 'death of Herod' mentioned in Matthew. Between Cyrenius' first and second terms, Herod Archelaus was governor of Judea; but he was deposed prior to Cyrenius' second term. The taxation that Luke claims Joseph and Mary fled from happened in Cyrenius' second term, under the direct rule of Augustus Caesar.

The contradiction stands, even stronger now than in Ingersoll's day. If there was a Jesus, and if he was born around 4 BCE, then yes, Cyrenius was governor at that time. BUT, that's not when Luke's taxation under Augustus happened. It happened in Cyrenius' second term around 7 CE, when Jesus must have been around 11 years old.

Did the killing of the infants really happen?

The killing of all the children under two years of age by Herod the Great is not recorded anywhere outside of the Gospel of Matthew. That great weaver of prophecy-- the anonymous author of Matthew (hereafter referred to simply as "Matthew"), goes to great lengths to tie Jesus to Old Testament prophecy, and the killing of the infants is just another attempt. He is attempting to create a similarity between the birth of Jesus and the birth of Moses, when Pharaoh killed all the infants of Egypt. Matthew is trying to imply for Jesus at least an equal status to Moses. Matthew even sends Joseph and Mary into Egypt, of all places, to avoid the wrath of Herod! Could anything be more blatantly obvious?

The claim that Herod the Great, who had been firmly established by Antony in his government, and who had full-grown male heirs to succeed him, was afraid that the baby of an obscure Nazareth carpenter would supplant him in his kingdom is enough to cause a Puritan to laugh on Sunday. Had Herod issued such a decree, his family would have probably confined him in a madhouse.

The fact that the Roman and Jewish historians of the day (one of whom was an enemy of Herod, and gives a full and complete account of Herod's life) knew nothing of this infant slaying, and that an anonymous author, writing some two centuries afterward, is the only person on earth who mentions it, is of itself sufficient to brand the story as an atrocious falsehood.

No trace of this horrendous massacre appears in recorded history. Why, if it happened, did it not get recorded? Was it because "the winners write the history"? Was it because historians feared the consequences of writing such an event?

This cannot be the case. We know that Herod the Great had ordered the assassination of Malichus. He arranged the murder of 45 members of the Sanhedrin (a ruling body), and confiscated their property. He executed Hyranicus, former governor of Syria, who had previously pardoned Herod. He also had his wife Mariamne executed. He also had her brother, Aristobulus III, drowned at Jericho. We also know that Herod executed his own two sons by Mariamne, and on his deathbed, ordered his death of his eldest son Antipater (named after Herod's father). There is absolutely no reason to suppose that any of Herod's outrageous deeds would be suppressed by history.

Some apologists say that the killing of the infants by Herod was consistent with the way Romans did things. Well, Herod wasn't a Roman. He was descended from a family of Idumaean origin. He came to Rome when he was 33 years old, where Antony, who had been a friend and ally of Herod's father Antipater, persuaded the Senate to declare him King of Judea. In 39 BCE Herod returned to Palestine and, when the presence of Antony put the reluctant Roman troops entirely at his disposal, he was able to lay siege to Jerusalem two years later. Secure of the support of Rome, he endeavored to legitimize his position in the eyes of the Jews by taking the Hasmonaean princess Mariamne to be his second wife. By 37 BCE, Herod was king of Judea. He died in 4 BCE.

Thomas Paine, usually a very good source, makes the following error. He says:

Matthew makes Herod to die while Christ was a child in Egypt, and makes Joseph to return with the child on the news of Herod's death, who had sought to kill him. Luke makes Herod to be living, and to seek the life of Jesus after Jesus was thirty years of age... The obscurity in which the historical part of the New Testament is involved, with respect to Herod, may afford to priests and commentators a plea, which to some may appear plausible, but to none satisfactory, that the Herod of which Matthew speaks, and the Herod of which Luke speaks, were two different persons.

That's because they were two different persons. Herod the Great is whom Matthew is speaking of, and Luke speaks of Herod Antipas, his son.

Matthew calls Herod a king; and Luke (iii, 1) calls Herod, Tetrarch (that is, Governor) of Galilee.

That's exactly right. Herod the Great is called king of Judea. Herod Antipas is called Tetrarch of Galilee-- and his brother Herod Archelaus is Tetrarch of Judea, and his other brother, Herod Philip, is Tetrarch of Iturea. One needs a scorecard to keep track...

But there could be no such person as a King Herod, because the Jews and their country were then under the dominion of the Roman Emperors who governed then by tetrarchs, or governors.

And here Paine is exactly right again. There WAS no King Herod when the Jews were under Roman rule-- they were governed locally by the tetrarchs, the sons of King Herod. But there used to be a King Herod, in the previous generation, before the Romans took control of Judea.

Luke ii makes Jesus to be born when Cyrenius was Governor of Syria, to which government Judea was annexed; and according to this, Jesus was not born in the time of Herod. Luke says nothing about Herod seeking the life of Jesus when he was born; nor of his destroying the children under two years old; nor of Joseph fleeing with Jesus into Egypt; nor of his returning from thence. On the contrary, the book of Luke speaks as if the person it calls Christ had never been out of Judea, and that Herod sought his life after he commenced preaching, as is before stated.

So you can see that Paine's argument is based on the incorrect assumption that Matthew and Luke were speaking of the same Herod. I hardly like criticizing the monumental Paine, but errors need to be corrected. But Paine wasn't the only one to make such an error-- the Gospel of Mark, in 6:14, makes the same mistake and calls Herod Antipas (the tetrarch of Galilee) a king. Well, no one is perfect, including the author of Mark.

If the author of Matthew is right about the killing of the infants, then the author of Luke wrong about the taxation. And if the author of Luke is correct, then the author of Matthew is mistaken. Both gospels cannot be correct.