I love nativity plays, but I worry about the way that some (most?) Christians treat the stories, as though if anyone asks if the events were not exactly as they’re portrayed in the school play that somehow the integrity and truth of the Bible is being questioned. “Biblical criticism” is used as a dirty phrase, and it shouldn’t be.
Let’s remind ourselves of the storylines: In Matthew we begin apparently in Bethlehem. The angel appears in a dream to Joseph. Jesus is born. The visitors from the east follow a star. The flight to Egypt. The slaughter of the innocents. Joseph moves his family to Nazareth. In Luke, we begin in Nazareth. The angel comes to Mary. (There’s a sub-plot concerning the birth of John). The imperial census and journey to Bethlehem. Laid in a manger – no room at the inn. Shepherds. Heavenly host. Circumcision and presentation at the Temple. Simeon and Anna rejoice.Both writers have genealogies of Jesus, but they’re different.
Most often we read these accounts as though they’re giving different details of the same story. Whilst that’s just about possible, I think doing so misses important truths because it erases the distinctive emphases of the two gospel writers. And it also throws up some interesting surprises.
Matthew, it is often said, is the most Jewish gospel. In it, Jesus is presented as the successor to Moses. He gives a new law from the mountain and renews the Covenant relationship with God. It is not surprising, then, that the infancy of Jesus parallels the infancy of Moses though where Egypt was a place of slavery it becomes a haven. Matthew’s nativity is full of OT echoes: Joseph’s dream inevitably brings to mind his visionary namesake, whilst Herod’s massacre of the Innocents clearly parallels the infanticide of Pharaoh in Moses’ birth story. The genealogy of Jesus places him very firmly in the history of Israel, beginning with Abraham. The Church is the new Israel, with Christ at its head. But here’s the big surprise: in this most Jewish story the first visitors are foreigners and followers of another faith. Jesus is a Jewish Messiah for all the world.
By contrast, Luke is a gentile gospel written in a style much like that of his contemporary biographers and historians. His genealogy of Jesus places him in the history of the world, tracing his ancestry back to Adam. The context of Luke’s nativity is firmly in the Roman Empire, “when Quirinius was governor of Syria”, perhaps emphasising the global reach of this new king. This message is further reinforced by the proclamation of the angels to the shepherds. It is not Israel which is being renewed, but humanity itself. Jesus is the second Adam. Just as the rest of his gospel is filled with stories of the outcast and powerless, so in the nativity story the main actors are of little account – a barren woman, a pregnant teenager, shepherds, the elderly Simeon and Anna. This is to be the Messiah who announces good news to the poor, the year of the Lord’s favour. But even though this might be thought of as a gentile story, Luke is careful over the fulfillment of the rituals of the Jewish law. This is a Saviour for the whole world, but there is a continuity between the traditions of Israel and the ministry of Jesus.
Matthew and Luke are not merely recorders of events. They are at least as much theologians as they are historians, much more so in my view. They shape their material to give the best account they can of the truth about Jesus. What concerns them is not principally his birth story, but his significance as “the Son of the Most High”. That’s what needs to concern us today.