In carrying out a critical assessment of the extent and importance of the historical issues that may arise for theology through study of the narratives of Jesus’ birth, it is expedient that one first of all consider the concept of authorial intent or authorial intention.
In literary theory and aesthetics, authorial intent refers to an author’s intent as it is encoded in their work. In an extract from her article published in 2010, entitled: Authorial Intention, Mitchell noted that:
Arguments over authorial intention — and the relevance of this to the interpretation of a text — go back many centuries, having a notable force and currency in the discussion of religious texts. However, contemporary debates about authorial intention in the literary sphere can be quite precisely dated to the publication of a seminal article, entitled “The intentional fallacy,” by W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, which first appeared in 1946 in the Sewanee Review. In that article, Wimsatt and Beardsley, who are generally associated with the school of literary criticism known as new criticism, argue that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a literary work of art” (1962: 92).
Staying on this topic, and using Luke’s narrative as an example, we notice the story of Samuel anointing David as king (1 Samuel 16:1–13), in his telling of the story of John the Baptist (JTB). So, JTB is the prophet that baptised Jesus, just as Samuel anointed David as king of Israel. Sander & Davies (1989) noted that, “Although scholar sometimes suggest that the genre ‘gospel’ was something new, they also admit that literature always draws on what went before, combining, transforming, dividing motifs and genres already familiar to listeners, readers and writers” (p. 252).
There are also elements of syncretism in Luke’s version of events, in the sense that there are comparisons between Jesus and JTB, so one learns about John through Jesus and vice versa. This was perhaps because JTB was seen by some as the messiah, owing to his ancestry, events leading to his birth, popularity, ministry, baptism of Christ and death by the hands of Herod. Sadly, we miss this vital point because we are reading the gospel over 2000 years after they were written. Perhaps this goes to show the quality of their literary work.
With this in mind this essay will focus on the virgin birth and dates as mentioned in the birth narrative.
Dates in the birth narrative
Matthew and Luke tell a different story. Matthew’s lenses are on events unfolding in Bethlehem, while Luke starts from Nazareth. The dates in both narratives do not synchronise either, so even though they highlight the reign of Herod the Great, a Roman King; the differences between their dates amount to up to 10years in some calculations.
Luke gives us a snippet into Jesus’ life when he was twelve (Luke 2:41–52), and then mentions that Jesus was around thirty years old when he started preaching, which would take his birth year back to 1 BCE. But according to recent calculations, it seems more likely that Luke slightly miscalculated the death of Herod, as such Jesus would have been born around 4 BCE, approximately bout 2,019 years ago.
Also in Luke’s account, the dates in chapter 3 with regards to the public ministry of John and Jesus was noted as to be in the era of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate and Herod. However Sanders and Davies (1989) noted that, “The high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (see also Acts 4:6) causes some historically difficulty because Annas became high priest in CE 6 but was deposed in CE 15, whereas Caiaphas from CE 18–36” (p.277). Sanders and Davies (1989) also noted that the dates in Luke 1:5 and Luke 2:1–5, are irreconcilable historically, and that the idea of everyone having to go to their ancestral cities to be counted would have caused much chaos and thereby counterproductive for the Romans (p.277).
But Stanton (1993) argues that, “even though the ancient biographers did not trace character development and rarely summed up their subject’s character in their own words, they were interested in the character of a person and knew how to portray it by using an indirect method of characterization” (p.18).
The virgin birth in the birth narrative
The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are the only accounts of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament. Both Matthew (1:18) and Luke (1:35) attribute the birth to the creative power of the Holy Spirit (Ladd, 1994, p.323). And they make no link to the virgin birth with Jesus’ ministry as the story progresses.
It is also important to note that there were other miraculous births in the Bible, for example in the Old Testament, we have the accounts of Samson and Samuel, while in Greek mythology, Heracles, and Alexander the Great as told by Plutarch.
On this point, it is vitally important to note that some theologians argue that verses in Jesus’ conversation with the authorities in John 8, highlight the fact that there were disputes over Jesus’ origins: “You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children [born out of fornication]; we have one father, God himself.” (8:19, 41). For example, Tabor (2006) argue that Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera (c. 22 BC — AD 40), a Roman soldier whose tombstone was found in Bingerbrück, Germany, in 1859, was the father of Jesus. He based his arguments on the accounts of a Greek philosopher named Celsus, who attested that some Jews claimed Jesus was the result of an affair between his Mary and Tiberius Pantera who was serving in the region at the time of Jesus’s conception, stating that she was “convicted of adultery and had a child by a certain soldier named Panthera” (The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 64–72).
Matthew models the story of Moses in his telling of Jesus’ birth, emphasising to his readers that Jesus fulfils Moses’ prophecy in Deuteronomy 18:15: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet”; especially at a time when they were seeking deliverance from the scourge of Roman occupation. This style of writing is known as mimesis, which can be defined as the imitative representation of the real world in art and literature. Matthew focuses on the big picture: history, big figures — Herod, Caesar etc., while Mary and Joseph have a very small part to play in the grand scheme of the narrative. God is sovereign, while Jesus plays the role of the nation Israel as he fulfils prophecies.
According to Stanton (1993), “Matthew’s Prologue falls into two parts: the infancy narratives in chapters 1 and 2 (which do not have parallels elsewhere), and the accounts of preaching of John the Baptist and the temptations of Jesus in 3:1–4:11 (which are taken from Mark and from Q)” (p. 65). Matthew also recognises Jesus as the Son of David (2 Sam 7:12–15), and Son of God in reference to royalty as in Psalm 2.2. In fact Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:1–16 is built around David, with three sets of fourteen generations at the centre is David. The first set — Abraham to David, second set — the exile, the third — the birth of the messiah (Matthew 1:17). On the issue of the Virgin Birth, I believe it is also noteworthy to emphasise the presence of gentile women such as Bathsheba, Rahab, and Ruth, with scandalous past, in a strange contrast to Mary the virgin mother of Jesus. In fact the first worshippers (the wise men from the East) as recorded in Matthew 2:1–12 were also gentiles.
Sanders and Davies (1989) notes that Matthew’s writing “imitates parts of that in 1 Chronicles 1–3” (p. 259). In reference to the virgin birth, Matthew quotes Is. 7:14 in Matthew 1:23, using the Septuagint (Greek translation) which for some unknown reason translated the word young woman in Hebrew to mean a virgin, while Luke records his version in Luke 1:26–38. However John’s gospel which perhaps has the highest Christology apart from Paul’s writing, has no record of a virgin birth. Even though Jesus refers to God as his father over a hundred times, and Joseph only twice. Instead John uses the word logos, as he introduces a pre-existence Christology (John 1:1–5), and in 1 John 3:5 he uses the word revealed.
With regards to Luke’s narrative, Brown (1994) noted that “Jesus’ identity as God’s Son is proclaimed by an angel at his conception, by Jesus himself the first time he speaks (2:49), by God at the baptism (3:22), and by Paul after the resurrection (Acts 13:32–33)” (p. 131). For Luke the highpoint of the birth narrative is captured in the preceding verses after his prologue in Luke 1:1–4. He sets the stage with an old priest burning incense in the temple, while the people were praying outside. And Yahweh in his sovereignty answers both prayers through JTB and Jesus Christ. In doing this, he takes away the reproach of Zechariah and Elizabeth, but perhaps most importantly, the reproach of the nation of Israel (Luke 1:5–24).
For Peter, the focus is on Jesus’ revelation (birth) and glory (resurrection) in 1 Peter 1:11, 20. In similar vein, Paul writes in Hebrews 2:14, 9:26 — just using the word appeared. Furthermore Paul referred to Jesus as being born of a woman (Gal. 4.4), and Phil. 2:5–11 (which many believe to be a familiar hymn in the first century church) has no mention of a virgin birth, just Jesus’ incarnation. Mark went straight into John’s ministry at the river Jordan, before delving into Jesus’ baptism, temptation and ministry. James also makes no mention of a virgin birth (1:1), in like manner to Peter and Paul, focussing on his glory (2:1).
And even though some scholars cite Romans 5:12, 17, and 19 as Paul’s endorsement of a virgin birth, these references are quite weak. If anything they strengthen the argument for a focus on Jesus’ death and the justification of believers. And if the virgin birth was so significant, then Paul should have recorded it within the verses of Romans 5.
For Bultmann (1968) “the verses which contain the reference to the Virgin Birth are a Christian addition and derive from the same Hellenistic sphere as Matt. 1:18–25” (p. 296). Furthermore he noted, “admittedly this could not have then contained the motif unheard of in a Jewish environment, a virgin birth. It was first added in the transformation in Hellenism, where the idea of the generation of a king as a hero from a virgin by the godhead was widespread” (pp. 291–292)
First and foremost, it is important to note that in Matthew and Luke’s account of the birth narrative, their gospels, and other writing as with the book of Acts for Luke; Jesus never used the virgin birth to justify or validate his origins or being.
It is also important to note that history cannot be recaptured in essence because it is impossible to recover every millisecond as events unfold. In Heraclitus’ vision of change, in relation to time he uses an epigram of the river of flux, and noted, “we both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not” (B49a).
Even when history is captured, we still need to validate accounts for objectivity, biases and idiosyncrasies. On this point Stanton (1993) argues that “while Christian faith does not depend on the accuracy of every detail in the gospels, Christians do need to know whether or not the evangelists’ differing portraits are misleading (p. 151).
So, very much like poetry, the authorial intent of a writing can sometimes be difficult to fully grasp. They are often polyvalent (having many different functions, forms, or facets), just as with Jesus’ parables. But contrary to the views of some scholars, I hasten to qualify that this does not mean that these stories were just fabricated by the evangelists. In fact in Luke’s prologue he makes mention of eyewitnesses who were interviewed, albeit informally, in the process of his writing. In reference to this Ladd (1994) cited Cadbury (1923) who noted that “by the use the word parekolouthekoti (“having investigated”) in verse 3 Luke means to say that he has participated in the events he is to relate” (p. 349), which thus “shows, however, no more than that an historian is only as good as his sources, judicious good sense and skill in presentation” (Sanders & Davies, 1989, p.277).
So in optimism I am reminded of Wright (2015): “I regard the continuing historical quest for Jesus as a necessary part of ongoing Christian discipleship. I doubt very much if, in the present age, we shall ever get to the point where we know all there is to know, and understand all there is to understand, about Jesus himself” (p. 3).
Brown, R. E. (1994) An introduction to new testament Christology. London: Geoffrey Chapman.
Bultmann, R. (1968), The history of the Synoptic traditions. Blackwell, Oxford
Davies, M. and Sanders, E. P. (1989) Studying the Synoptic Gospels. 5th edn. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International.
Ladd, G. E. (1993) A theology of the New Testament. Edited by Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Mitchell, K R. (2010), Authorial Intention. In Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literary Theory, ed. Robert Eaglestone, Blackwell. eScholarID: 3b2968
Stanton, G. N. (1989) The Gospels and Jesus. Oxford University Press.
Wright, N. T. (2015) The Challenge of Jesus. United Kingdom: SPCK Publishing