The Historical Unreliability of Matthew – Part 2: The Birth Story

There is no story about the birth of Jesus in the earliest gospel: the Gospel of Mark. Although the Gospel of Matthew borrows most of its stories about Jesus from the Gospel of Mark, it does make one obvious and major addition: a story about the birth of Jesus. If this major addition to the stories about Jesus from Mark is historically dubious, then that would give us a good reason to doubt the historical reliability of other changes and additions made by the author of the Gospel of Matthew to the stories from the Gospel of Mark.

Jesus Scholars View the Birth Story in Matthew as Historically Dubious

Scholars who study the historical Jesus generally agree that the birth story in the Gospel of Matthew is a legend and that it is historically dubious:

The clearest cases of invention are in the birth narratives. Matthew and Luke write that Jesus was born in Bethlehem but grew up in Nazareth. This probably reflects two sorts of ‘facts’: in ordinary history, Jesus was from Nazareth; according to salvation history, the redeemer of Israel should have been born in Bethlehem, David’s city. The two gospels have completely different and irreconcilable ways of moving Jesus and his family from one place to the other. …It is not possible for both these stories to be accurate. It is improbable that either is. They agree only on the two sets of ‘facts’: in real history Jesus was from Nazareth; in salvation history, he must have been born in Bethlehem. They disagree on which town was originally the family’s home, and they also have completely different devices for moving it from one place to another.

The Historical Figure of Jesus by E.P. Sanders, p.85-86

The Gospel of Matthew is based on Mark, the Logia material and special material of various kinds, the value of which as sources has to be checked by examining individual texts…there is legendary material (like the prehistory in Matt. 1-2… [the birth story in Matthew is presented in Chapters 1 and 2 of that gospel]

The Historical Jesus by Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, p.30

Jesus was born in Nazareth shortly before the end of the reign of Herod I (37-4 BCE), the son of Joseph, a craftsman in wood and stone, and his wife Mary.

The Historical Jesus by Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, p.569

Since both the birth story in the Gospel of Matthew and the birth story in the Gospel of Luke claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in asserting that Jesus was born in Nazareth, Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz clearly indicate that those birth stories are basically fictional.

Most critics doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.

The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, edited by Markus Bockmuehl, “Context, Family, and Formation” by Craig A. Evans, footnote 7, p.22

Many New Testament experts are convinced that Jesus’ place of birth is unknowable. They point out that the earliest parts of Jesus’ life were probably last written and thus farthest away from eyewitnesses. That means the Evangelists [the authors of the Gospels] and even the disciples were not eyewitnesses.


The birth narratives, or infancy gospels, are found only in Matthew and Luke; and these are late gospels that depend on Mark and other early sources. The two accounts are motivated by the desire to show how Jesus’ life proves prophecy, and are highly charged theologically, and are vastly different. The theological affirmations that Jesus was born in Bethlehem do not prove that Jesus could not have been born there; but they do cloud the issue. …

The Historical Jesus by James Charlesworth, p.68

When one examines all of the canonical evidence, it is impossible to be certain where Jesus was born. He may have been born in Bethlehem of Judea, but the vast amount of independent evidence…indicates that Jesus most likely grew up and was born in Nazareth…

The Historical Jesus by James Charlesworth, p.73

Very little is known about Jesus’ life before the time of John the Baptist. The birth stories of Matthew provide little chronological information, and themes of Matthean theology are so deeply interwoven with the introductory genealogy (1:1-17) and the various recorded incidents…that it is not possible to separate out the historical from the theological data in the accounts.

HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition, “Jesus Christ” by Charles E. Carlston, p.511

While Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem cannot be positively ruled out (one can rarely “prove a negative” in ancient history), we must accept the fact that the predominant view in the Gospels and Acts is that Jesus came from Nazareth and–apart from Chapters 1-2 of Matthew and Luke–only from Nazareth. The somewhat contorted or suspect ways which Matthew and Luke reconcile the dominant Nazareth tradition with the special Bethlehem tradition of their Infancy Narratives may indicate that Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem is to be taken not as a historical fact but as a theologoumenon, i.e., as a theological affirmation (e.g., Jesus is the true Son of David, the prophesied royal Messiah) put into the form of an apparently historical narrative.

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume 1, by John P. Meier, p.216

During the reign of Herod the Great…Jesus was born in the hill town of Nazareth in Lower Galilee.

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume 1, by John P. Meier, p.350

What about the birth narratives themselves? Do they not constitute the impact made on Mary? That is hardly likely. It is not only that they are stories told about Mary (and others) rather than by Mary. More weighty is the evidence of the accounts themselves, that they have been in considerable measure contrived to bring out various significant allusions and theological emphases, not least by Matthew and Luke themselves. p.340

Jesus Remembered (Christianity in the Making, volume 1) by James Dunn, p.340

In other words, so far as the tradition itself is concerned (the birth narratives), the earliest we can trace them (the tradition itself) is probably to that conviction–that is, the conviction that Jesus was not only David’s son but also God’s son. Here again, therefore, we are driven back to a starting point for the tradition as tradition to a conviction which probably took shape in these terms only after Easter. …But so far as the tradition itself is concerned, at least as we have it in Matthew and Luke, it must be judged unlikely that the conviction emerged from the episodes recounted in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. The birth narratives seem to be the outworking of the conviction rather than vice-versa.

Jesus Remembered (Christianity in the Making, volume 1) by James Dunn, p.343

The Geneology in Matthew 1:1-17 is Historically Dubious

The birth story of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew begins with an alleged genealogy of Jesus. But this genealogy is historically dubious:

The purpose of the genealogy is not to give accurate history, but to set the story of Jesus into the context of the ongoing story of God’s acts in history that will eventuate in the coming of God’s kingdom, and of the one who is himself God with us. The genealogy is not the result of a biographical effort to discover genealogical data, but a literary-theological construction by Matthew himself, from his Bible, and (perhaps) from traditional genealogies circulating in Jewish Christianity.

…In addition, the conflicts between Matthew and Luke where their genealogies overlap…and the domination of the artificial and distinctively Matthean structure and theological concerns indicate that the Matthean genealogy is not a traditional list that goes back very early in the life of the church or to the family of Jesus. Except in priestly families, detailed genealogical records were rarely available. Many genealogies were tangled, and even some religious leaders could not trace their own genealogy. …Thus the speculative, novelistic picture of Matthew or some other early Christian researching the genealogical archives of Bethlehem or interviewing members of Jesus’ family should be abandoned as a fundamental misunderstanding of the historical reality of the times and of the gospel genre.

The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, “The Gospel of Matthew” by M. Eugene Boring, p.128-129

Detailed studies of biblical genealogies indicate their fluidity and that their function was not to reflect ancient history but to express and support a contemporary domestic, political, or religious point.

The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, “The Gospel of Matthew” by M. Eugene Boring, p.131

Only the late Gospels of Matthew (c. 85 C.E.) and Luke (ca. 90) present Jesus’ genealogy, and the two accounts differ markedly. Scholars generally concur that it is impossible to remove the difficulties in Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies and find history. In the genealogies there is no obvious evidence of early tradition or searching for historical answers. They were compiled to provide Jesus’ credentials for being the Messiah…


The genealogies tell us about Christology and claims regarding Jesus’ credentials for being the Messiah. Those who wrote and those who edited them are not motivated by objective historiography; hence scholars are dubious that they preserve reliable history.

The Historical Jesus by James Charlesworth, p.64

The primary purpose of the genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew is theological; it was intended to portray Jesus as a descendant of King David and to proclaim that Jesus fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah of Israel would be a descendant of King David.

The Pregnancy of the Virgin in Matthew 1:18-25 is Historically Dubious

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Mary became pregnant while she was still a virgin:

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. …24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had given birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.

Matthew 1:18-20 & 24-25, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

How did the author of Matthew, who was writing this birth story about ninety years after the birth of Jesus (in about 4 BCE) know the intimate sexual details about what happened between Joseph and Mary? Joseph and Mary were probably long dead by that time, given that life expectancy was significantly shorter in first-century Palestine than in modern European countries.

Jewish men in first-century Palestine were typically older than their wives, and women typically married at a young age:

If, as sources suggest, Mary’s first child Jesus was born around 4 BCE and she was espoused around the age of fourteen, as was common, then Mary was probably born in 18 or 20 BCE.

The Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan, “Mary, Mother of Jesus” by Valerie Abrahamsen, p.499

Joseph was probably at least eighteen or twenty when he married Mary. In that case, he would have been born four to six years earlier than Mary, i.e. between about 26 BCE and 22 BCE. Since the Gospel of Matthew was written about 85 CE, Mary would have to have lived to be about 103 to 105 years old, to be alive when the Gospel of Matthew was written, and Joseph would have to have lived to be about 107 to 111 years old, to be alive when the Gospel of Matthew was written. People at that time usually died in their forties or fifties. It was rare for people at that time to live to their seventies or eighties.

How reliable would the memories of Joseph or Mary be if they had lived to be about 100 years old and spoken to the author of the Gospel of Matthew about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth (that occurred in about 4 BCE)?

Furthermore, what facts or evidence could Joseph or Mary provide to verify the claim that Mary and Joseph did not have sex prior to the birth of Jesus, and that Mary did not have sex with any man prior to the birth of Jesus? The claim of the “virgin birth of Jesus” is a miracle claim, and supporting such an extraordinary claim would require very powerful evidence, not just the say-so of one or two very elderly people.

Additionally, although Mary was still alive when Jesus was crucified (according to the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts), no mention is made anywhere in the New Testament of Joseph doing or saying anything after Jesus’ twelfth birthday (i.e. Luke 2:41-50). So, it appears that Jospeh died (or abandoned his wife and children) sometime before Jesus began his public ministry. In that case, Joseph would not have been available to discuss events surrounding the birth of Jesus with early Christians.

Finally, the author of Matthew makes no claim to have ever spoken with either Mary or Joseph, so we don’t even have alleged testimony from the two most relevant eyewitnesses. At best, what we have is HEARSAY from some unidentified source.

In addition to the problem of the complete lack of any credible evidence for “the virgin birth”, there is also the problem that the birth story in Luke says nothing about an angel talking to Joseph or about Joseph having a dream about Mary’s pregnancy or the coming birth of Jesus. It seems very unlikely that the author of Luke would leave such significant information out of the birth story in that gospel if such information was available. This casts doubt on the historical reliability of that part of Matthew’s birth story.

Another reason for doubting this story about the alleged pregnancy of a virgin is that this was already a common part of myths about heroes and leaders:

The modern interpreter needs to know what Matthew and all his readers surely knew, that there were many stories of heroes and special personages who were “sons” or “daughters” of God through miraculous conception. In parallel to this, Judaism had apparently already developed traditions suggesting great figures such as Isaac and Moses had been supernaturally conceived, so that Jesus supernatural conception is a part of Matthew’s Moses typology.

The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, “The Gospel of Matthew” by M. Eugene Boring, p.137

So the author of the Gospel of Matthew (or the source used by the author) might well have invented the virgin birth story in order to make Jesus appear to be a great leader or prophet by having a supernatural birth, just like in stories told about other heroes and great leaders.

The author of the Gospel of Matthew believed that Jesus fulfilled many predictions or prophecies found in the Old Testament. The alleged virgin birth of Jesus was, according to the author of the Gospel of Matthew, one such fulfillment that was proof that Jesus was the promised Messiah or savior of the Jews:

20…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 “Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.”

Matthew 1:20-23, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

First, the Hebrew word translated as “virgin” here did NOT mean “virgin”, it meant “young woman”, so the Old Testament did NOT predict that the Messiah would be born to a virgin.

Second, the quotation of this alleged Messianic prophecy casts further doubt on the historical reliability of this miracle claim, because the idea that Jesus was born to a woman who was a “virgin” might well be a case of prophecy historicized.

Some early Christians, like the author of the Gospel of Matthew, believed that Jesus was the Messiah and thus that Jesus must have fulfilled various alleged OT predictions about the coming Messiah. They (or perhaps the author of Matthew) inferred from a mistaken translation of an OT passage that the Messiah MUST have been born to a woman who was a virgin, and they inferred that since Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus MUST have been born to a woman who was a virgin. No historical evidence was required for such believers. The OT prophecy was all the evidence they needed.

Therefore, the awareness of this OT prophecy is sufficient to explain the origin and basis of this story about the alleged virgin birth of Jesus, even in the complete absence of any eyewitness testimony or historical evidence for this event.