Matthew and Luke on the Nativity

Let’s do a short compare and contrast of Matthew and Luke on the story of the birth of Jesus. These are the only two Gospels that talk about the birth.

  • Similarities. Jesus is born in Bethlehem; his mother Mary is a virgin; after his birth he is visited by a group of men (shepherds in Luke; wise men in Matthew) who have been alerted to his birth by a heavenly sign (an angel in Luke; a miraculous star on Matthew); eventually he is taken to Nazareth where he is raised.
  • Differences (minor). Luke has shepherds. Matthew has wise men.
  • Differences (Hmmm). 
    • Matthew has Jesus’ hometown as Bethlehem, not Nazareth. So there is no traveling to Bethlehem. 
    • Matthew has no census. Luke does.
    • But Matthew has a flight to Egypt for two years. And after they return the magi come to worship. Not in Luke.

When doing these comparisons, it remains important to recognize that the authors of Matthew and Luke were not trying to write a historically-accurate account of the birth of Jesus. Their intent (70 years+ after the birth of Jesus) was to give a creative interpretation of the significance of Jesus to the world.

Note from the Marketing Department. Feel free to tell your friends and co-workers about these weekly blurbs. We would love to add to our email list (which will not be sold to anyone, even if we ever had an offer). Be sure and tell them we keep them short, because we know you won’t read them if they aren’t.

How and when did we get the 27 books of the New Testament?

Question of the week:  Did you ever wonder how we got 27 books of the New Testament? 

The first century. In the first century, multiple books (or scrolls) circulated in the region about the life and death of Jesus. The authors Of these various writings were all expressing their version of the truth. Luke 1:1-4 actually acknowledges that there were other accounts that had been previously written. But he emphasizes that his is the real one. And remember this was written in around 80 CE, 50 years after the death of Jesus.

Luke 1:1-4 (NIV):  Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Forgeries. There were several books written by authors who put the name of one of the apostles on it, claiming it to be authoritative. But in reality, most of these were forgeries.Some Christian groups, though, continued to consider the Gospel of Peter or the Gospel of Thomas as authoritative; others accepted a variety of “other” letters of Paul; other churches accepted the Apocalypse of Peter.  Many churches did not accept Hebrews or Revelation; most had never heard of 2 Peter. 

Finally someone drew a line in the sand. It was not until 367 CE that anyone-who-was-anyone listed the 27 books we see today.  This came in a letter written by the powerful bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, addressed to his churches at the time. 

Retraction. In earlier 3BT posts, we made a statement that the Council of Nicaea in the 300s made the definitive ‘cut line’ for which books were in. But a recent post by Bart Ehrman claims that the New Testament was derived more by consensus (although not universal) than by formal vote.   
Letters to the Editor

Last week’s edition prompted multiple responses. This was surprising because, well … it was Leviticus. Nevertheless, this one from subscriber Janelle was timely. 

”Leviticus 11:8, which is discussing pigs, reads “You shall not eat of their flesh nor touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you.” And you’re doubly breaking that if you wake up, eat some sausage then go throw around the football.

Janelle did not take direct credit for finding this observation. But we thought it was definitely worth a publication.

Question of the week: Who killed Jesus and why?

Probable Answer:  As usual, it’s a little complicated. The Gospels give different accounts on this. Luke says the Jewish religious authorities did it.  Mark and John indicate the Romans did it. Matthew says the Jewish Sanhedrin arrested him, but ultimately the Romans carried out the crucifixion. Most Biblical scholars today believe the Romans did it for political reasons, at least according to Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman.

  • If the Romans did it, why did they care? The Romans did not care if Jesus was offending the Jewish religious authorities. And Jesus merely taught about love and forgiveness and the coming Kingdom of Heaven, right? Well, yes. And it’s that last thing that may have caused the problem. Pilate and the Roman authorities did not like anyone saying they were ‘king’ of anything. Rome was in charge, not the Jews. And word got out that Jesus was touting himself as King.
  • But did Jesus say this publicly? No. That’s where things get more interesting. Jesus knew that saying things like that in public might not go over well. But he did talk to his disciples about it. And this might be yet another explanation of the Judas betrayal story — Judas may have reported to the Romans about a coming kingdom with Jesus in charge.
  • Then why did Luke write that it was the Jewish religious authorities?Remember that each of the Gospel writers had an agenda when they took the pen 30-50 years after Jesus’ death. Luke was a Gentile writing to a Gentile audience during a time of great political unrest between the Jewish people and the Roman government. And if you are trying to market to a Gentile audience and not offend those in authority, you place the responsibility for the death of your spiritual leader on someone else. Luke spends a lot of ink constructing a story where Pilate and Herod (son of THE Herod) both wash their hands of the situation, leaving the blame to the Jewish authorities.

Next week:  Does Leviticus condemn Golden-doodles?

The Gospel of Judas

Did you know that there is a recently-discovered book called the Gospel of Judas. Yep. Seems like an oxymoron, but there it is, found in 2006 in a crypt in Egypt (where else?). It’s 26 pages written in Greek. 

Any good stuff in there? You bet. The big reveal in this book is when Jesus tells Judas “you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” According to certain scholars, Jesus was saying that Judas, by helping him get rid of his physical flesh, was really helping to liberate the true divine being within Jesus.

Sooo, Judas was a real person? Probably, although we do not have any eyewitness accounts to Judas’s activities.  Our earliest Christian sources of anything related to Jesus are the letters written by Paul. And he never mentions Judas.  The Gospels of the New Testament are therefore our earliest accounts of the man.  The four Gospel writers never claim they were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus. And historians have long recognized that they were produced by second- (or third-) generation Christians living in different countries from Jesus (and Judas), speaking a different language (Greek instead of Aramaic), and addressing different audiences.

And what about his last name — Iscariot? No one really knows. In those times people did not have last names. So the second word attached to the person’s first name would be a reference to a characteristic or the person’s place of origin. If we like intrigue (and why else would you read 3BT?), several scholars argue that ‘Iscariot’ comes from a group of zealots during Jesus’ time who wielded knives and were proponents of violence against the establishment. This might also explain Judas’ betrayal of Jesus — Jesus was not as radical as Judas wanted him to be.

Brief Theological Rabbit Trail

What does ‘liberating the true divine being’ mean in the first bullet above? In the diversity of early Christian thought, a group known as Gnostics believed in a secret knowledge of how people could escape the prisons of their material bodies and return to the spiritual realm from which they came. Unlike the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, or Dan Brown novels, the Gospel of Judas says that Judas Iscariot alone among the 12 disciples understood the meaning of Jesus’ teachings and acceded to his will. 

Next week:  Why was Jesus crucified? 

Why did the Bible get written?

Question of the Week:  Why did these Bible stories get written down in the first place?

  • Creation Stories. The Israelites started putting together their written accounts during their exile after they were overthrown by the Babylonians. This was around 400-500 BCE. The Babylonians had a pretty violent creation story, involving their god Marduk ripping carcasses apart and using two pieces to form the earth. The Israelites did not want to embrace the same violent concept of creation. In fact, part of the process of keeping their tribe separate was to create a different creation story, one evolving from a basis of love and creativity. 
  • Exodus Stories. They also wrote down the Exodus story in this time period, which also happened a long time before the Babylonian exile. Note that the story of Moses and the Jewish nation in exile in Egypt was a parallel to the situation of the Jewish nation in Babylon.
  • New Testament Stories. Turning to the New Testament (with the first books starting in around 50 CE with Paul’s letters), we find again the Jewish nation under the oppression of the Roman Empire. The New Testament was an attempt by the writers to instill a sense of dignity to their people, which again had been desecrated through the oppression of the Romans. This is what the gospel writers and Paul were both trying to do. Paul was all over the place in his letters, dealing with hair and women and who’s sleeping with who and all that. But then he throws in random comments such as “love is patient and kind.”

Research question the interns are working on:  When was the last time God (or Yahweh) spoke directly to man? A recent lecture the Chief Editor was listening to said it was Job.