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


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[1946]: 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





Did I just hear him say, ‘Go sell all, give to the poor, and follow me?’


An assessment of the historical value of Acts (2:41–47; 4:32–5:11; and 6:1–6), for understanding the real economic life of the early Jerusalem church


In consideration to the question at hand, let us have a look at Jesus’ exchanges with some of the rich people he encountered during the course of his ministry. Of particular interest to me was his conversation with a man just described as the rich young ruler, captured in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 19:16–30, Mark 10:17–31 and Luke 18:18–30); and the conversation that ensued between Jesus and his disciples afterwards.

By way of background, this young, pious, wealthy, and perhaps ambitious young man was obviously drawn to Jesus’ ministry for reasons we are not particularly clear about. His lifestyle received a rare praise from Jesus who was at most time at loggerheads with the theology, philosophy, and ethics of the ruling classes of his time. This gulf in understanding was profound, most times evidenced in the trick questions and debates posed at Jesus – especially from the Pharisees.

The kingdom of God

Jesus’ ministry was heralded by John the Baptist, who some theologians allude to having led a lifestyle not dissimilar from that of the Essenes; preaching: ‘Repent for the kingdom of God has come near.’ (Mark 3:2 NRSV). With this in mind I hasten to clarify that Mark, Luke and John use the term kingdom of God, while Matthew uses Kingdom of heaven. Therefore, avoiding any theological debate with reference to God or heaven, I would like us to consider both interchangeably, as traditional thinking allude to God’s domain being heaven – as such, the kingdom of God or heaven simply means God’s Government.

According to Scott Mcknight (2008) this term was ‘the central category used by Jesus to express his mission and vision for what God was doing through him for Israel.’ (p. 354). To this end the word kingdom becomes increasing important as we build our thoughts on the question at hand. For instance, in a content analysis I carried out on the Kings James’ translation of the New Testament for the term kingdom of God, I discovered that it appears seventy-six times, surprisingly, fifty-four of these occurrences are found in the gospels. A similar exercise on the Old Testament, reveals that it appears in less than half of this figure – only thirty times. When we consider the fact that most of Palestine at this time was under Roman occupation, the thrust of Jesus’ ministry was not welcome development for the ruling elites – regardless of tribe or stock. However, for those that were poor, sick, widowed, orphaned, imprisoned, enslaved, oppressed, or marginalised; this was a message of hope. They now had something to live for, perhaps best encapsulated in the words of Paul to friends in Rome: a hope [that] does not disappoint us (Romans 5:5 NRSV).

For followers of Christ, this kingdom not only provided hope after death, it also demonstrated deliverance from practical challenges in this world. This mind-set was evident in many accounts in the New Testament, and succinctly articulated in Luke’s writing in Acts: ‘how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.’ (Acts 10:38 NRSV). Those last five words (for God was with him), echoing something about the origin of the power and authority in operation through the person of Jesus Christ; for a kingdom ceases to exist once its means of power and authority is taken away. But even after his death, this power continues to be demonstrated through his followers by the same spirit – God’s spirit (the Holy Spirit). (John 14:12).

It is imperative to note also that not all who came to Jesus came for their worldly needs, others had deeper needs. To this end the following individuals come to mind: Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), and of course the rich young ruler. Apart from his financial and political background, his religious or tribal affiliation is not exactly clear, however his alias (the rich young ruler) brings in the possibilities of family ties with the ruling aristocracy, he was probably a Pharisee, Sadducee, or Scribe. But unlike some from similar background, his was not a trick question. He asked Jesus: ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ (Matthew 19:16 NRSV). After a brief exploration of his spiritual background, Jesus said to him: ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ (Matthew 19:21 NRSV).

These words bears some resonance to the exchange between Elisha and a widow whose sons were about to be enslaved by her late husband’s creditors. In those days debts were passed on to a next of kin, and because work opportunities were limited for women, male offspring were attractive redemption for these ruthless creditors. In the absence of equity and social justice, she came to the prophet for divine intervention (the kingdom of God). The prophet instructs her to go and borrow as many vessels as possible, and pour the contents of the only jar of oil she had into all the vessels she had collected. Miraculously, the oil continued to flow until she ran out of vessels. Not knowing what to do next, she went back to prophet, and he said to her: Go sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest.’ (2 Kings 4:7 NRSV).

Sadly the rich young ruler went away with a heavy heart, unable to comply with Jesus’ instructions. And as the young man turned his back from the kingdom of God, enroute back to the kingdom of this world; Jesus dropped a bombshell on his disciples: ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Matthew 19:23, 24 NRSV). In shock, they asked: ‘Then who can be saved?’ (Matthew 19:25 NRSV). Jesus replied: ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’ (Matthew 19:26 NRSV). Still stunned at what he had just heard, Peter had a mini stand-off with Jesus – he said: ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ (Matthew 19:27 NRSV).

In response Jesus made this profound statement: ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’ (Matthew 19:28, 29, 30).

Grippingly, it might seem that the poor and needy are provided for in God’s kingdom – albeit sometimes miraculously, while the rich are instructed to sell all and disburse the proceeds of their wealth among the poor in their community. This story provides us with a beautiful backdrop as we assess the historical value of Acts: 2:41–47; 4:32–5:11; and 6:1–6; for an understanding of the real economic life of the early Jerusalem church.

The early Jerusalem Church

As with the conception of Mary by the Holy Spirit, the early Jerusalem church was born out of a similar experience on the day of Pentecost. The followers of Jesus were all together in one place (Acts 2:2 NRSV) as he instructed, then suddenly they heard a sound like that of a rushing mighty wind, tongues of fire descended on each one of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit – demonstrated initially in their ability to speak in unknown tongues. They were emboldened to preach, teach, baptise converts and manifest miracles. This small community of believers suddenly witnessed a surge of converts after Peter inspired by the Holy Spirit, delivered an impromptu sermon to the crowd of onlookers, and: ‘So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:41-42 NRSV).

According to Haenchen (1971), ‘verse 42 leads to the following description of the situation which does indeed still speak of the new converts, but at the same time describes the life of all the faithful.’ (p. 190). The new converts not only accepted Jesus Christ as their lord and saviour, they also accepted the underlying culture of the disciples. Luke gives us a snippet into some of the cultural practices within the community in verses 42-47. Jeremias and Bauernfeind (1930) listed them as: instructions by the apostles, contribution of offering, solemn partaking of food together and prayers (cited by Heanchen, p. 191). However, Haenchen (1971) sees these verses in a dual sense – perhaps not dissimilar to the practices in most churches today, where as well as their various vocation, they also had communal and individual or family worship. Another important point to note in verse 45 (with regards to properties and goods), is that properties were sold as and when a need arose by owners who voluntarily relinquished the proceeds of sale towards kingdom projects.

This line of thought strengthens Peter’s indictment to Ananias in the book of Acts: ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart?’ (Acts 5:3-4 NRSV). Furthermore Capper (1983) mentioned that Ananias and Sapphira sold what was to be termed extraneous assets, in other words, anything they did not need for accommodation or work. (p. 121).

When Jesus commissioned the disciples for mission, he said to them: ‘Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.’ (see Matthew 10:5-15 NRSV). This corroborates with Jesus’ response to the scribe who offered to become one of his disciples: ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (Matthew 8:20 NRSV).

Among the sects in Jesus’ era, the Essenes were the closest to this approach to community life. According to Geza Vermes (1982), ‘they lived on the fringes of Jewish society as an esoteric community and imposed a lengthy initiation process on aspiring candidates.’ However, theirs was highly formalised. For instance they had: a probationary period for new converts, a hierarchical structure, training, rituals, tribunal board, vow of membership, and an excommunication process (p.125). Also, fully fledged members were required to hand over their belongings and earnings to stewards, and in return all their needs were met (p. 126). This model contrasts, the light touch approach we see used in addressing the dispute between Hellenists and Hebrews believers within the community of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-7). If anything, the appointment of seven stewards was in order to alleviate the problem at hand.


Haenchen (1971) in his exegesis on Act 4:32-37 highlights a pertinent point with regards to worship for believers in this community by linking the mention of heart and soul to references in Deuteronomy 4:29 – ‘with all thy heart and with all thy soul’; emphasising that they control our conduct and personality, and both elements are integral for worship. (p. 231).

In light of this, one can argue that the call to sell all and follow was for those in leadership as was the case with the twelve who were called to follow Jesus. For example we see Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) on his own accord being inspired through Jesus’ teaching and preaching to give freely out of all he had; as such what was his, remained his, and he was not under any compulsion. The call to leadership is therefore a call to total dependency on the kingdom. Paul articulated this in a letter to Timothy (his protégé) when he said:  No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer.’ (2 Timothy 2:4 NRSV); most likely inspired by Jesus teaching on being single minded: ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.‘ (Matthew 6:24 NRSV). As such these leaders were meant to be free of worldly pressures with a view to immerse themselves in the work of the ministry. The community of believers were meant to reciprocate through freewill or voluntary contribution for their leaders and those in need within the community.

This concept also aligns with Old Testament paradigms, for instance David (1 Chronicles 29:1-9) raised funds towards the building of the temple, and in similar vein Moses (Exodus 35:4-29) asked the people to give voluntarily for causes that can be best be described as national projects. Therefore, this new community of believers were likely to be building on this tradition in addressing missional and social causes.

To this end we can deduce that the rich young ruler was only asked to sell all, give to the poor and follow because Jesus wanted him to be a disciple – perhaps not dissimilar to his call to Matthew the tax collector (Matthew 9:9), and the fishermen (Peter, Andrew, James and John), (Matthew 4:18-22).


Brian J. Capper, The Interpretation of Acts 5.4, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 19 (1983) 117–131.

Haenchen, E. (1971) The acts of the apostles. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Mcknight, S. (2008) The Kingdom of God. In: Evans, C. (ed.). Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus. New York, Routledge/ Taylor & Francis Group, p. 354.

Scripture quotations marked (KJV) are taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: American Bible Society: 1999;, 2000. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the Holy Bible, The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Vermes, G. (1975) The Dead Sea Scrolls. 2nd edn. London: SCM Press Ltd.


Community Bible Experience: The Gospel According to Matthew


Community Bible Experience operates like a Reading Club…

Participants agree a weekly reading plan, then every Friday we meet in a relaxed fashion for an hour to discuss the following simple questions:

  • What’s something you noticed for the first time?
  • What questions did you have?
  • Was there anything that bothered you?
  • What did you learn about loving God?
  • What did you learn about loving others?

Afterwards, we enjoy light refreshments while we catchup, pray, challenge, and encourage each other.

We recommend a copy of The Books of The Bible by Biblica because of it’s contemporary design and translation, and we set ourselves a weekly target to read eleven pages.

Today week we continue with the book of Matthew (The Books of the Bible, New Testament, pages 270-283 )!

  • (7:00 – 8:00)pm on Fridays
  • 52 Arcadian Avenue, Bexley, Kent DA5 1JW

If you need help with setting one up in your home, community space, church or offices, please get in touch!