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The Birth of Jesus: Two Gospel Narratives

Introduction to the Two Infancy Narratives

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The tutorial segment on “The Three Stages of Gospel Development” noted that the most important “stage” for Christian faith is the time of the Gospel writers. This is because it is there that the Evangelists’ inspired insights into the meaning of Jesus Christ can be discerned. Today’s cultural preference for historically verifiable information can sometimes lead Christians to forget that when we read the Gospels we are not reading “history” – in the modern sense. We can forget to look for the religious meaning of what we read.

This principle is perhaps most important in regard to the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Though they do contain some historical data, these chapters are especially driven by theological interests. “Stage 3” perspectives – the writers’ concerns, insights, and issues – predominate in their infancy stories and both narratives summarize and introduce the distinctive theological themes of each Evangelist.

Hearing the distinctive voices of Matthew and Luke is made more difficult by the blending of their two accounts in our Christmas observances. Their unique insights can easily be obscured in a combined story – often seen in Christmas crèches – in which, for example, Matthean magi find Jesus in the Lucan manger.

Here are some major differences in the two narratives’ storylines; their theological commonalities will be discussed later:

Different Places

In Luke’s narrative, Mary and Joseph are Galileans who travel to Bethlehem of Judah because of a Roman census. The newborn Jesus is placed in a manger. They return home to Nazareth afterwards, seemingly stopping at the Temple in Jerusalem on their way. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary are introduced as natives of Bethlehem, where they reside in a house. After fleeing to Egypt to escape the murderous designs of Herod the Great, they relocate to Galilee.

Different People

The Evangelist Luke repeatedly compares Jesus with John the Baptizer, who is not mentioned at all in Matthew’s infancy account. In Matthew’s narrative, Jesus’ birth is detected by foreign priests, the magi; in Luke it is lowly Jewish shepherds who first learn the news.

Different Attitudes

In Matthew’s narrative, King Herod in Jerusalem hunts throughout the region for the infant Jesus to kill him. In Luke’s narrative, the child is publicly proclaimed in the very heart of Jerusalem by Simeon and Anna. Luke portrays Jesus’ family observantly going to Jerusalem, but in Matthew they avoid the city.

Different Features

In Matthew’s narrative the spotlight shines on Joseph.  It is he who receives divine guidance in a series of dreams. In Luke’s account it is Mary who shines, portrayed as the one who hears and keeps God’s word. Luke’s narrative includes a number of unique “songs” or “canticles,” whereas Matthew offers a series of distinctive “fulfillment passages” that relate Jesus to Israel’s history.  Matthew starts his infancy narrative with a genealogy of Jesus from Abraham down to Joseph and Mary.  Luke’s genealogy is presented at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and runs backward from Joseph to Adam.  Having been introduced to the distinctive aspects of their narratives, please continue with the separate commentaries on Matthew and Luke to explore the religious messages that each conveys.