I do not claim that the arguments presented here are original. The editors of BR have invited me to make a summary statement on the issue in conjunction with year 2000 celebrations.
In the ancient Mediterranean, one’s ancestry was public business. Membership in the aristocracy was a condition of success in many spheres. City or town of origin was considered important, even if one had long since moved from the family home and birthplace. Unprecedented numbers of people traveled on the long Roman roads and relatively safe Roman seas; nevertheless, men from the eastern Mediterranean, who lacked the traditional three Roman names, were usually known as “X of Y,” where Y was the ancestral home (Greek, patris or oikos)—Justus of Tiberias, Ptolemy of Ascalon, Nicolas of Damascus and so on. Even villages could be important for identifying someone. In discussing events in Galilee, Josephus distinguishes those whose ancestry was in a particular town from those who were merely living there but had their family heritage elsewhere (Josephus, Life 16.126,142,162). For everyday purposes, Judea and Galilee were much like other Mediterranean locales in this respect.
My assumptions about the authorship and dating of these texts are generally accepted in New Testament scholarship and are presented as standard views in universities, seminaries and many Bible colleges. A detailed and balanced account may be found in E.P. Sanders and Margaret Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990). See also Steve Mason and Tom Robinson, eds., An Early Christian Reader (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, forthcoming).
Several prophetic texts had promised a restoration of King David’s ancient throne, which had been lost at the time of the Babylonian destruction in 586 B.C. In the Book of Samuel, the Lord sends David the following message: “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom…I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me…Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12–16); see also Isaiah 9:7. For the hopes for David’s royal descendant Zerubbabel after the Exile, see Haggai 2:20–23; Zechariah 4:6–10; see also Sirach 49:11; 1 Maccabees 2:57; 2 Esdras 12:32; Psalms of Solomon 17; and frequent mentions in rabbinic literature. Although it is doubtful that physical descent from David could be confidently traced a thousand years after he had died, establishing some kind of connection with David might have been critical for a messianic figure or other leader in Jesus’ time. According to the fourth-century church historian Eusebius, the emperor Domitian (81–96 A.D.) launched a campaign against descendants of David because he was afraid of the competition (Eusebius, Church History 3.19–20). The story itself is unlikely, but it highlights the importance of Davidic lineage in Christian thinking at least. And when Rabbi Akiva allegedly endorsed Simeon bar-Kokhba, leader of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132–135 A.D.), as the Messiah, one of his colleagues is said to have demurred on the ground that this man was not a descendant of David (Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 4.5 [68d]). See Ephraim Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, trans. Israel Abrahams (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1979), p. 674. In later periods, both the Jewish patriarchs and the heads of the Babylonian Jewish communities would be furnished with suitable Davidic ancestries (Genesis Rabbah 33). See, conveniently, Isaiah Gafni, “The World of the Talmud,” in Hershel Shanks, ed., Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: A Parallel History of Their Origins and Early Development (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1992), pp. 229, 248, 263. The medieval Seder Olam Zutta traced a Davidic lineage for the Babylonian exilarch. So lineage in general was important, and many considered Davidic lineage essential for messianic figures. The Dead Sea Scrolls and other texts indicate that some groups hoped for priestly and/or prophetic anointed figures (messiahs). So, too, the Talmud reflects a variety of messianic hopes, even though the dominant language speaks of the “Son of David.” See Jacob Neusner, Messiah in Context: Israel’s History and Destiny in Formative Judaism (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1984).
Further, for the Synoptics, the extensive literary borrowing, the thematic arrangement of discrete episodes (e.g., conflict stories, teaching examples) with only the loosest chronological links, and the free adjustment of this material for literary purposes indicate that the authors—like other ancient biographers—are weaving material relayed to them by tradition rather than simply reporting what they saw.
My basic point would remain intact, however, even if it turned out that the texts had some other relationship.
In Matthew 1:2–17, the numbers of generations in each block are actually 13, 14, 13 instead of the three 14-generation blocks claimed by the author.
On the various patterns, see Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977), pp. 48–54, 96–121. The powerful Matthean literary themes of scriptural continuity and the coming of foreigners into salvation (the Magi; cf. Matthew 8:11–13, 28:16–20) can hardly be missed.
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 14–17.
Whereas Matthew locates Jesus’ gradual rejection by Israel near the middle of the story (Matthew 11–12), Luke delays this until the very end of Jesus’ life, when he encounters the Temple authorities in Jerusalem (Luke 19:47); and it is only in the second volume, which we know as Acts, after the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, that Israel in general rejects him. Throughout Luke and the early chapters of Acts, Jesus and his followers remain steadfastly committed to the laws of Moses, and they get along fairly well with Pharisees and common people (see Luke 7:36, 11:37, 13:31, 14:1, 17:20–21, 19:39; Acts 5:33–42).
Once again, we have reason to be suspicious. Just as in Matthew, certain elements of Luke’s birth account do not appear to be straight reporting but reflections of the author’s own habits of thought, as expressed in the rest of the Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles (which was written by the author of Luke). The birth account displays the author’s ongoing interest in John the Baptist, whose work he will describe in detail (Luke 3:1–20, 7:18–35; Acts 1:5, 22, 10:37, 11:16, 13:24–25, 18:25, 19:3–4); his pronounced theme of reversal (Luke 1:53; cf. 6:21–25); his preservation of a classic Jewish messianic hope, according to which Jesus will ultimately restore the throne to Israel (Luke 1:33, 74; cf. Acts 1:6); and his unique connection of Christian origins with external political events (cf. Luke 3:1).
Josephus, The Jewish War 2.117–118; Antiquities of the Jews 18.1–11.
The classic discussion of the well-known historical issues related to the census is in Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, ed. Geza Vermes et al., 3 vol. in 4 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1973–1987), vol. 1, pp. 399–427.
Most striking is the absence of Bethlehem from Acts. There the author of Luke takes every opportunity to use Old Testament scriptures to prove to Jewish audiences that Jesus was the Messiah (e.g., Acts 2:22–36, 4:8–30, 7:2–53, 13:16–43). Micah 5:2 would have been an obvious choice.