The focus of this article will be on the context of Matthew and Luke’s record of the birth and infancy of Jesus.
The Christmas story in context
Most of us know the Christmas story. Most people, especially Christians, don’t realize there are two separate and distinct stories which are factually and logically irreconcilable. One records the birth (Luke) of Jesus while the other the infancy (Matthew) of Jesus. One starts in Nazareth and moves to Bethlehem (Luke). The other starts in Bethlehem and moves to Nazareth via Egypt (Matthew). In one, Jesus is born in obscurity in a lowly manger and announced to shepherds (Luke). In the other, Jesus birth is heralded by a star and celebrated by magicians from the East.
If Christianity had died out before the end of the first century, and we were examining these stories as ancient superstitions (which they are), nobody would have any qualms about seeing these as two separate incompatible Christian traditions about Jesus’ birth. To an objective eye, it is obvious. To the evangelical* eye, they must be made to harmonize for the sake of inerrancy and the analogy of scripture.
*The term “evangelical” is loosely applied with the understanding those who subscribe to this term have widely differing views some of which are inconsistent with classical evangelicalism. Others have vacated the term but still hold to classical evangelical beliefs such as the divine inspiration or inerrancy of Scripture and the need for a personal conversion experience for assurance of salvation.
A Myth is born
Throughout this book we will make a basic assumption in biblical infallibility. We will treat all details as absolutely factual because this is the claim of inerrancy by evangelicals. The moment one begins to pick and choose what is and isn’t inerrant, everything empirically unverifiable becomes suspect.
Most of the Bible is historical fiction. Any great myth is anchored to some event(s) or person(s) known to be historical. Around this kernel of truth a fiction is wrapped. The intention is the story assumes the validation of the historical person or event bolsters the myth. In the case of Jesus’ miraculous birth, this event is set in the context of Herod the Great’s reign which we may assume was contemporaneous. This, Mary and Joseph and the hometown of Nazareth is probably the only actual true detail about Jesus’ birth.
The nativity story of Jesus was essential to establish his messianic pedigree, the most important detail being his birthplace. The Messiah will not come from Nazareth, he will come from the place David was born — Bethlehem.
40”On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.” 41Others said, “He is the Messiah.” Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? 42Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” 43Thus the people were divided because of Jesus.”(John 7:40-43).
It is important to note in the above passage neither Jesus nor his disciples contested or corrected these words suggesting Jesus did in fact have no connection to Bethlehem by birth or otherwise. Furthermore, throughout his ministry he spoke and acted like a prophet not a messiah (Matt. 16:14, Mk. 6:15, Jn. 1:23). It was only the final week of his life, according to the gospels, he chose to announce his role as king of the Jews.
Whose son is the messiah?
I imagine most readers of the Bible gloss over this verse unaware of the deep and complex meaning given to it by the originator of this text. It is the most quoted text from the Hebrew writings by New Testament authors.
41”While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42“What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.
43He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
44“ ‘The Lord [‘Yahweh’] said to my Lord [‘adonai’]:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.” ’ [Ps. 110:1]
45If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”(Matthew 22:41-46, also Mk. 12:35f., Lk. 20:41f.)
The author is suggesting, David “speaking by the spirit” has recorded a conversation in heaven between Yahweh and Jesus.
Somehow David has assumed the prophetic role and has been made privy to what could only be described as a dialogue within the godhead between Father and Son. There are multiple issues to discuss.
At first glance, it begs the obvious question, Why if Jesus was born in Bethlehem, of Davidic lineage and conceived by the Holy Spirit, as Matthew and Luke demonstrate, would he need to make this argument? The writer is attempting to establish the pre-existence of the heavenly messiah making physical birth by David impossible and unnecessary. In effect, Jesus is referring to himself in the third person as the “Lord” to whom Yahweh, his father, is addressing as future messiah.
Secondly, the Messiah’s Davidic lineage is a belief beyond dispute among Israelites. It is a bedrock teaching and not subject to question (2 Samuel 7:12–16; Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5–6; Micah 5:2). The only reason to explain this tradition is Jesus’ true lineage and birthplace (Nazareth) was common knowledge. After the heavenly messiah story took root, Christians were forced to create teachings to override his physical background. Ironically, the nativity stories take an opposite approach by explicitly showing Jesus did descend from David.
The writers appeal to Psalm 110, quoted within this text, is a classic example of Christian misinterpretation. It reveals a fundamental technique employed by early Christians to build Jesus’ messianic credentials. They would scour the Hebrew writings looking for texts to support their claims. In some cases, as we will see with the nativity stories, “facts” were invented by selecting key texts and building a narrative around them.
It must be stressed this was not done to deceive. These Christians believed they were writing under the influence of God’s spirit who was revealing to them heretofore hidden truth. Evangelicals are fond of saying New Testament writers took excessive liberties with the Hebrew text because they were creating new scripture and were therefore not bound by rules of interpretation.
26”But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”(John 14:26)
13”But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”(John 16:13-15)
It is difficult to know whether they were following the traditional view David was the speaker or had decided to build this idea into the verse as the esoteric meaning. Regardless, they took the traditional Judaistic interpretation which suggests either Yahweh is taking to Solomon, David’s son, about establishing his kingdom. Or Yahweh is taking to David about his kingdom. The heavenly context is entirely Christian.
The compelling argument Jesus is said to put forward, “No one could say a word” is nonsense. Simply stated on the most basic meaning, any son who takes over his father’s throne is called, “Lord” by his ex-king father out of respect for the office. The rank of king/subject and the biological relationship of father/son are separate and do not invalidate the other.
Final textual note: Many Psalms have the superscription “ledawid” attached to them. The preposition “le” in Hebrew typically is interpreted as “to” or “for” implying the psalmist had dedicated it to David. Christian translators have forced the meaning “by” David following the lead of the New Testament making David the author instead of the recipient for whom the Psalm was intended. As discussed above, this dramatically alters the meaning and opens to door for interpretive abuse.
Our purpose in this article has been to show Jesus’ messianic qualifications were disputed invalidating the Christian message. Undeterred by their own conviction, these Christians viewed the prophetic writings of the Hebrew canon as opportunity to unearth the many hidden gems detailing Jesus’ life. Since they and the writings were both under the influence of God’s prophetic spirit, the literal, historical surface meaning was often ignored in favor of the deeper truths. While we may forgive their naiveté and romanticism, it is remarkable evangelicals continue to follow in their primitive footsteps.