Saturday, 4 December 2010

Biblical Inconsistencies in the accounts of Matthew and Luke

Post by Ian

Literalists often claim that the Bible holds no inconsistency in the accounts. The mental gymnastics that have to be undergone in order to come up with this position ensure that only people who are of the same opinion will ever believe the same. There are plenty of inconsistencies in the Bible, as is only to be expected with a book written over hundreds of years, by several different authors, edited at various points in its history and subject to clerical transcription errors.

The inconsistencies in the New Testament are most easily demonstrated in the accounts of Matthew and of Luke. Where the material has not been taken from Mark, these two accounts differ widely. The simplest inconsistencies to demonstrate are those of the genealogies and the infancy accounts.

Genealogy of Jesus
The genealogies of Jesus, showing the descent of Jesus from David are different in Matthew and Luke. The genealogies have been the subject of much discussion and commentary. Several attempts have been made in the past to try and resolve the accounts, the most well known being that of Annias of Viterbo at the turn of the 16th Century.

Annias suggested that the account in Luke was the genealogy of Mary. The suggestion is rejected by the majority of Biblical scholars as there is nothing to support the claim. Annias used forged document in order to support his claim, which had been rejected by the end of the same century. In addition, the Lukan account contradicts other traditional genealogies for Mary - which have her descended from Nathan, with immediate descendency from Joachim (Heli), Barpanther and Panther (writings of John of Damascus, Justin Martyr & Ignatius).

Infancy Accounts
The accounts of Jesus' birth differ in the locations used within Matthew and Luke. The traditional nativity story mixes these two accounts in an attempt to harmonise them. They are actually two separate accounts making points about Jesus' fulfilment of prior prophecy regarding the messiah. Attempts to reconcile them again skew chronologies and add in further locations that are not in the accounts. Matthew's account highlights Jesus' Davidic descent and kingship. Luke highlights Jesus' message being for the common man.

Firstly, chronology:
The account of Matthew is set some ten years prior to the account in Luke. This can be calculated using known historical events.

Matthew includes Herod the Great in the infancy story. Herod died in 4BC, so that account is usually dated at around 6BC.

Luke includes a Roman census in his account. While there was no Empire-wide census at any time, there is a census that took place when Quirinius became governor of Syria. This census took place between 6AD and 7AD.

Hence, approximately ten years lie between the accounts.

Secondly, the locations in the accounts:
Matthew starts his account in Bethlehem, where Joseph has a house and is living with Mary. Once the child is born they continue to live in the house until visited by the Magi. Following the visit, the family flee to Egypt (having been warned of Herod the Great's impending massacre by an angel). They remain in Egypt until told of Herod the Great's death (again by angel). The family return and settle in the town of Nazareth in Galilee.

Luke has Joseph and Mary living in Nazareth to begin with. On hearing of the census they travel to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born (in a stable). The family is visited by shepherds. After eight days, Jesus is circumcised according to the law of Moses. When the time of their purification passes (thirty-three days), the family travel to Jerusalem in order to present Jesus at the temple (again, in accordance with the law). When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth (Luke 2:39). They return directly to Nazareth from Jerusalem.

So, in conclusion, there are inconsistencies. The accounts are different. No manner of mental gymnastics can rationally reconcile the accounts.

Above all: this is only a problem if one subscribes to the doctrine of literal inerrancy that Charles Hodge came up with in his Systematic Theology (1871–1873). For non-literalists, the accounts form two interesting and complimentary accounts of Jesus' birth and life. They complement each other, but definitely contradict each other in places.


  1. Thanks Ian. As you infer, it must be difficult to justify a position on this unless you`re a non-literalist.

    I`m happy with that.Most people who write, including I`m assuming the gospel writers, had more than a sharp ear out for their audience. Geza Vermes would be `with you` I guess; reflecting on issues such as you describe he commented "....understandably christianity considers itself the transmitter to posterity of the legacy of Jesus, albeit one that has been converted by the church into a gospel for the whole human race. Yet on reading the original message, thinking and honest members of the various christian faiths may (should ?) feel the need for a thorough re-examination of the fundamenmtals of their beliefs, ethics and piety, a reconsideration of which may demand a complete doctrinal reconstruction, a new `reformation` " (The authentic gospel of Jesus p 413)

    That `original message`, as with the nativity account you so clearly remind us of, was an interpretation; I`m very glad though that those accounts exist, for the example that they give, and for the freedoms I am lucky enough to enjoy to be able to apply some reason as well as faith to my understanding.

    Thanks again

  2. Thanks, Ian, for a detailed and learned account of the Nativity story. Most Unitarians would subscribe to your thesis. Graham