At our house on Christmas morning we have a tradition of reading about the birth of Jesus, usually from the Gospel of Luke, before we do anything else. At times it is enough to hear the story again, listen with the heart, and open our spirit to receive God’s gifts. (Then we move on to exploring our stockings, and tearing away at wrapping paper!)
While there are moments to just soak in the wonder of the biblical stories- there are also times to use our intellectual gifts. It is worth the time to read from Matthew and Luke, and note any differences you see, in their treatments of Jesus’ birth.
Both Gospels offer a “genealogy” for Jesus. (Matthew’s is in chapter one, Luke’s is in chapter three) These family trees are very different. One example is that Matthew says Jacob was Jesus’ grandfather, and Luke says it was Heli.
Matthew does not describe the birth of John the Baptist or the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, announcing that she will bear a child. Matthew does not describe Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, or Mary’s recitation of the Magnificat (which is almost certainly lifted straight from Hannah’s song in the Samuel story). Matthew makes no mention of the journey to Bethlehem. There is no Roman census. Jesus is not wrapped in bands of cloth or laid in a manger. There is no inn, no stable, and there are no shepherds or angels (except the angel that appears to Joseph in his dreams). In Matthew, the Magi visit Jesus in a house.
Luke’s story does not include the Magi, or the star. There is no mention of Herod ordering the death of all Hebrew boys under the age of two, and Mary and Joseph do not flee to Egypt with Jesus.
Despite the efforts of pageant directors to “harmonize” these two stories, a close look reveals they are not complimentary tales that fill in blanks left by the other.
There are some things about which these writers agree. They both say that Jesus was born near the end of the reign of King Herod. Bethlehem was his birthplace, but he grew up in Nazareth. They both present Joseph as the father of Jesus (in fact, the genealogies, though different in detail, demonstrate that as Joseph’s son, Jesus was of the line of King David.) They agree that Mary was the child’s mother, and that his name was Jesus. In both stories an angel announces that this child is destined to be a saviour. (In Luke the angel tells Mary, in Matthew, Joseph is told by an angel in his dream.)
Both gospels say that Mary and Joseph were betrothed but not married at the time of Mary’s pregnancy, and that Jesus was born after they began to live together. Both suggest that Mary was a virgin, and that Joseph was not involved in Jesus’ conception- that it was by the Holy Spirit.
Outside of the two Nativity stories, and the story of the boy Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52) in deep discussion with the Temple priests, the Gospel stories are all about Jesus as an adult. (There are fanciful tales about the boy Jesus as a trouble-maker and wonder-worker, but they are not found in the Bible. These are in documents written much later, considered of doubtful authenticity.)
Until the moment Jesus began his public ministry, and gathered followers, why would anyone (outside of his family and neighbours) have known of his early life? He was the child of simple, probably illiterate people, from an obscure village in an unimportant province of a small territory of the Roman Empire. Who would have been there to write down the “real story”?
What do we do with all of this? Personally, my faith in God, and my passion for following the way of Jesus do not depend on the reliability of stories about his birth. If we read the rest of the stories about Jesus, as we have them in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there are many more disagreements. As I have mentioned in other letters, I don’t think they were writing history- they were telling stories to teach theology. I am drawn to the meaning of the stories, and the “rightness” of the way that Jesus taught.