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As many will know, I have written a book that sets out to particularly debunk the historical narrative of the birth accounts of Jesus – The Nativity: A Critical Examination. It simply didn’t happen like that. The full gamut of posts on the subject appears at the bottom of this article.

What I would like to do here is, dipping into the aforementioned book, look to evaluate the sorts of claims that Christians like Raymond Brown (eminent Catholic scholar and author of the seminal book, The Birth of the Messiah) make.

Brown is pretty condemning of the historical claims within the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I could provide a heap of quotes from the book, but these will suffice:

But if originally there was one narrative, how did it ever become fragmented into the two different accounts we have now? As I hinted above, the suggestion that Matthew is giving Joseph’s remembrance of the events, while Luke is giving Mary’s, is just a pious deduction from the fact that Joseph dominates Matthew’s account, and Mary dominates Luke’s. In point of fact, how could Joseph ever have told the story in Matthew and not have reported the annunciation of Mary? And how could Mary have been responsible for the story in Luke and never have mentioned the coming of the magi and the flight to Egypt? [p.35]


Herod’s failure to find the child at Bethlehem would be perfectly intelligible in a story in which there were no magi who came from the East and where he had only general scriptural knowledge about Bethlehem to guide him. It becomes ludicrous when the way to the house has been pointed out by a star which came to rest over it, and when the path to the door of the house in a small village has been blazed by exotic foreigners. [p.190]


Matthew did not draw upon an account of historical events but rewrote a pre-Matthean narrative associating the birth of Jesus, son of Joseph, with the patriarch Joseph and the birth of Moses. [p. 228]


Indeed, as regards the non-biblical “evidence”, it is doubtful that anyone would have even thought about an earlier census if he were not trying to defend Lucan accuracy. [p.554]

What Brown claims is essentially that you can drop the historical claims of the birth narratives and there is still a truth to the accounts. He sees there being two ideas: “history and verisimilitude”. However, as I have made pains to establish in my book and postings (drawing, at times, on the work of Brown himself), on what foundation is the verisimilitude built if there is no history? Thus the accounts are inspired by trying to develop an “intelligibility” for the reader. These accounts would certainly be full of theological meaning and intelligibility, but then so do stories of pure fiction placed in historical settings.

For example, we might look at Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (set in historical London) and derive some universal truths about, say, humanity or the human psyche. However, you cannot derive truths about Sherlock Holmes from the historical settings because Holmes is a fictional character.

Furthermore, if we were to make claims of David Koresh being a messiah based on childhood events by looking at the messianic claims in a couple of biographies of his, but then found out that the biographies were wholly inaccurate, pertaining to those childhood events, then those theological claims therein would suffer too, necessarily so.

I simply don’t understand how we can know things about Jesus if we seer those historical claims as false. if Jesus is coming out of Egypt, as in Matthew, to fulfil prophecy and show Jesus to be the new Moses, but he didn’t even go to Egypt, what are we to make of those theological claims and prophecies?

Any theological claims taken directly from the accounts are nullified. Any reliance on the narratives to show the messiah-ship of Jesus is misplaced.

For Brown, it seems that Matthew is all about being both “interesting folklore” and “a salvific message that Matthew could develop harmoniously”.

In other words, it never happened as Matthew claimed it did. Jesus may offer salvation, but we cannot derive that truth from these narratives since these narratives seem to contain little or no historical fact.

The ramifications for pulling the rug out from under the believers’ feet is that we are left with no proper account of Jesus’ life until, really, he starts his ministry. Furthermore, we have no real evidence for the claims that Jesus is the Messiah and is derived from Messianic and Davidic heritage. As a result, we have only the accounts of the miraculous events surrounding Jesus’ ministry and death. However, the same problems afflict these accounts: they are uncorroborated by extra-biblical, non pro-Jesus attestation and rely on unknown authors writing in unknown places. What is particularly damaging, as I have already set out, is that if the birth narratives can be shown to be patently false, and the narratives involve sizeable accounts from two Gospel writers, then how can we know what other purported facts are true? If these infancy miracle claims are false, then what of the myriad of other miracle claims—the walking on the water, the water to wine, the resurrection? It is a serious indictment of these writers (especially since Luke is declared as being a reliable historian by so many apologists[1]).

The undermining of these narratives does not disprove that Jesus was the Son of God, or that he had Davidic lineage, or whatever else these passages were trying to establish, per se. However, one has to recognise that some really damaging chinks are undoubtedly beaten into the apologetic armour of claims of Jesus’ divinity.

In my books and posts, I believe that I have provided a cumulative case which is overwhelmingly decisive in showing that the infancy narratives are almost certainly non-historical. As a result, it then follows that the rational belief in the divinity of Jesus, if based on such historical evidence in any way, then becomes equally damaged. Because these claims involve events which can be investigated in some way using existing sources outside of the Bible, we are in a more historically verifiable position to analyse these narratives. Other passages in the biographical accounts of Jesus’ life are not afforded such verifiability, unfortunately. As such, the assertions of the rest of the Gospels are taken on their own merits rather than allowing historians to be able to see if they match up with extra-biblical evidence.

As apologist Jason Engwer on influential Christian internet site “triablogue” asserts after investigating many theological and historical analyses of the nativity:

It seems that the early Christian and non-Christian consensus that viewed the infancy narratives as historical accounts was correct. Whether those historical accounts about Jesus’ infancy were accurate is another issue … but the accounts were meant to convey history.[2]

So there are theists (indeed, many) who certainly do believe it is indeed an attempt at history, and not just theology dressed up as history. Catholic Tarcisio Beal in Foundations of Christianity: The Historical Jesus and His World (2009, p. 123-4) in referring to the work of Richard A. Horsley, argues that the history of the narratives is rooted in the very real context in which they are set—one of “Roman and Herodian oppression”:

The heavy burden of taxation, not historical accuracy, is the main point of the census of Quirinius …

Thus, the story of the “Massacre of the Innocent” is rooted in the historical reality of Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth. No, it did not happen the way Matthew tells us or some other contemporary sources would have mentioned it.

This is pitted against Engwer’s approach, and both are Christians. I would agree with Beal, but would add crucially that while the context may well be true, this has absolutely no bearing on the claims to a historical Jesus.

New Zealand biblical scholar and philosopher Gregory Dawes in The Historical Jesus Question: the Challenge for History to Religious Authority (2001, p.301) affirms:

It shows us that the early Christians were so keen to demonstrate that the kerygma had a historical grounding that, where necessary, they were prepared to invent an appropriate history… As Käsemann writes, “Matthew no longer has any doubt that he is recapitulating genuine history.”[3] By handing on what we would judge to be a fictitious history, Matthew unwittingly bears witness to how much he valued historical facts.

Which brings us back round to the doubting of the other [Matthew’s] historical claims within the Gospels. Therefore, it appears that no matter which tack an apologist takes, whether to defend a historical reliability or a purely theological one, the nature of the evident deconstruction of the infancy narratives undermines any rational defence of the infancy narratives (and, to an extent, the Gospel accounts as a whole) embodying some sort of truth.


[1] It is worth referring you to another work of Richard Carrier, Not the Impossible Faith, which does an excellent job of dispelling this ubiquitous assertion.

[2] (retrieved 07/03/2012)

[3] Dawes references German biblical scholar Ernst Käsemann’s famous essay “The Problem of the Historical Jesus”, p.26.



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A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...