In the month of December it isn’t hard to come across a Nativity scene. Be it in your neighbor’s yard or A Charlie Brown Christmas, the story of the birth of Jesus is at the center of the Christmas season. However, when one actually reads the birth narratives found in the Gospels, it doesn’t take long to notice that the commonly portrayed Nativity story isn’t actually there. In fact, it seems as though someone has taken two completely different stories and cleverly spliced them together to paint a bigger picture. Such a practice certainly sells more Christmas decorations, but it shortchanges the visions of the gospel writers.
To try and answer the question of why the birth narratives found in the Gospels are different, one has to consider the intentions of the authors and the stories they were telling. Matthew and Luke, the two out of four canonical Gospels that contain birth narratives, are trying to call the reader’s attention to the eras of the past. Not surprisingly, it is also these two Gospels that contain lengthy genealogies for Jesus. Genealogies, by their very nature, call attention to the past, and this is especially true for the original audience of the Gospels.
For Matthew, the story of Jesus is one of a new Moses—a new deliverer to free the people of Israel from bondage. With this in mind, it is easy to see the numerous references to the Book of Exodus scattered throughout Matthew’s Gospel. This is very easily seen in his Nativity story. Like his ancient namesake in the Book of Genesis, Joseph son of Jacob is given dreams of warning. In the first, Joseph learns of the true identity of the child that his betrothed is carrying—the long-awaited deliverer (Matthew 1:20–21). In a later dream, he is warned that King Herod seeks to take the life of the child (Matthew 2:13, in a direct parallel to the pharaoh in the birth narrative of Moses. It is by no means a coincidence that an angel of the Lord tells Joseph to take his family and flee to Egypt. In verses filled with poetic irony, the new deliverer must escape to the land of the pharaohs because the Promised Land isn’t safe. After the wicked king is dead and the threat is over, Joseph and his family return home and settle in Nazareth.
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Unlike most popular versions of the Nativity story, however, Luke’s doesn’t end at the manger, and the three magi do not appear. Instead, like any Jewish newborn of the day, Jesus is circumcised eight days later and is presented at the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:21–22). At this occasion, a devout man named Simeon rejoices to see the messiah and is given a prophecy concerning him (Luke 2:29–32). Soon after we are told of an enigmatic prophetess named Anna (Greek form of Hannah) who also happened to be there to witness these events and subsequently went on to become the first evangelist (Luke 2:38).
Following this, Luke draws further parallels with the Book of Samuel by including a story of Jesus as a boy that echoes that of the young prophet (Luke 2:41–51). The adults in both stories are seemingly confused, while the young men are shown to be worthy and ready to do the Lord’s will. Samuel and Jesus then both “increase in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”
While not direct parallels, the birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus weave a tale that anyone intimately familiar with the Book of Samuel would most certainly have noticed.
Since the stories don’t seem to contradict each other, it isn’t hard to combine the narratives of Matthew and Luke to form a bigger picture. However, when we do this, we are doing a disservice to the stories themselves and end up with something the original authors didn’t intend. Hollywood does this quite often when they turn books into movies, and I imagine Matthew and Luke would react to this the same way many of us did to The Hobbit trilogy. Some things just shouldn’t happen.
Read more about the similarities and differences between the nativity stories in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke in “The Whole Christmas Package: Jesus’s Infancy Stories” published in the Winter 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
The Origins of “The Cherry Tree Carol” by Mary Joan Winn Leith
Ever since I first discovered it in college, the “Cherry Tree Carol” has been one of my favorites. Its surprisingly risqué story line shines an unexpected light on the familiar Christmas Journey to Bethlehem from Luke 2:4–5: Joseph walking alongside the donkey and Mary, very pregnant, perched on its back. Creatively building on gospel narrative, the song fills in the gaps of the brief Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke.
We Three Kings of Orient Are? by Mary Joan Winn Leith
Look up the original story in the Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12. Notwithstanding the famous Christmas carol by Mr. Hopkins, Jr (of Williamsport, PA), Jesus’s visitors from the east are Magi: technically, a title for Zoroastrian priests but Matthew’s usage follows the Greco-Roman notion that Magi were dream interpreting astrologer-astronomers from Persia or Mesopotamia who possessed secret knowledge (“magi” and “magic” are etymologically related). Matthew’s Magi weren’t commonly portrayed as kings until the thirteenth century,
Christmas Stories in Christian Apocrypha by Tony Burke
One of the most familiar images of the Christmas season is the nativity scene—the well-known depiction of Jesus’ birth—displayed in an array of public and private settings, including churches, parks, store windows and on fireplace mantles. The scene, first assembled by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, is iconographic, meaning its various elements are intended primarily to depict theological—not historical, nor even literary—truths. It harmonizes two very distinct stories: Luke’s birth of Jesus in a stable, visited by shepherds, and attended by an angelic host and Matthew’s Magi, who are led by a star to the home of Jesus’ family sometime before Jesus’ second birthday.
In the oldest known Christian church, located at the site of Dura-Europos in eastern Syria, a wall painting depicts a woman leaning over a well. Who is she? Some believe this is the Biblical scene of the Samaritan woman who speaks with Jesus beside Jacob’s well (John 4:1–42). In “Earliest Depictions of the Virgin Mary” in the March/April 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Biblical scholar Mary Joan Winn Leith discusses another possibility.
When the Christmas season draws near each year, the Nativity story is revisited in churches and households around the world. Passages from Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2, the infancy narratives in the Gospels, are read and sung—and even acted out in Christmas pageants. Where was Jesus born? In the Bible, the answer seems straightforward: Bethlehem. Both Matthew 2 and Luke 2 state that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea.
However, Biblical scholarship has recently called the identification of Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace into question: If Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem, why is he called a Nazorean and a Galilean throughout the New Testament, and why is Bethlehem not mentioned as Jesus’ birthplace outside of the infancy narratives in the Gospels?
Was Joseph Jesus’ biological father? If not, who was Jesus’ biological father?
The annunciation stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke recount that Jesus was conceived without the participation of a human male. Ancient views on the biology of conception—based on Aristotelian theory—differed from our modern understanding of genetics and biology. For Jesus to have been considered fully human by our modern standards—and not a semi-divine or special being—he would have needed complete human DNA. While Mary would have supplied the X chromosome, who supplied the essential Y chromosome? God? Joseph?
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