Two Nativity Stories

By Marjorie Foerster Eddington


How can we reconcile the differences in the nativity stories found in Matthew and Luke?


The nativity story, as we've come to understand and celebrate it at Christmas time, is really a combination of both Matthew and Luke's stories. But it's important to recognize their differences. Each gospel's unique purpose and viewpoint contribute significantly to our understanding of Jesus' mission.

Matthew's gospel

  • Begins with Jesus’ genealogy (1:1-17).
  • An angel of the Lord tells Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy and that the baby is the savior, and Joseph follows the angel’s direction (1:18-25).
  • After Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the wise men come to King Herod the Great looking for the “child who is born king of the Jews” (2:2); present gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the child (2:11); and are “warned in a dream” not to tell Herod (2:12).
  • The angel tells Joseph to go to Egypt because Herod wants to destroy him (2:13-15).
  • Herod orders the killing of children two years or under in Bethlehem, which was most likely not a massive scale murder, but still ruthless (2:16-18).
  • The angel tells Joseph to go back to Israel, and Joseph settles in Nazareth (2:19-23).
  • Then Matthew takes us directly to John the Baptist proclaiming the “kingdom of heaven” (cpt 3).

All of this is done to fulfill what the prophets had been told by the Lord.

Luke's gospel

  • Begins with a dedication.
  • Prepares the stage for the birth of Jesus:
    • The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah, John the Baptist’s dad, about John’s birth (1:5-24).
    • Gabriel tells Mary about being the mother of Jesus, the “Son of God” (1:26-38).
    • Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John, who “leaped in her womb” when Mary arrived pregnant with Jesus; Elizabeth recognizes the fulfillment of God’s words (1:39-45); and Mary magnifies God (1:46-56).
    • John the Baptist is born (1:57-66), and Zechariah prophesies about John’s role (1:67-80).
  • Roman Emperor Augustus calls for a census, and Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem (2:1-5).
  • During their stay, Mary gives birth to her “firstborn son” and puts him in a manger (2:6-7).
  • The shepherds in the fields are startled by an angel of the Lord standing before them while the “glory of the Lord sh[ines] around them” (2:8-9; the “good news of great joy for all people” that the angels proclaim makes them search for and find Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (2:10-16); then they spread the great news (2:17-20).
  • When Joseph and Mary take Jesus to have him circumcised, Simeon and Anna recognize that Jesus is the savior and make prophesies (2:21-38).
  • They return to Nazareth (2:39).
  • Then Luke includes the following narrative after the nativity story:
    • When Jesus is twelve, his family loses him while he’s speaking to the teachers in the temple (2:41-52).
    • John the Baptist is preaching and baptizing, including baptizing Jesus (3:2-22), and then we are told about Jesus’ genealogy (3:23-38).

So what can we glean from all of this?

Clearly, the authors of Matthew and Luke have different reasons they wrote their gospels. They highlighted what they thought was important for their specific audience.

Scholars argue that Matthew was writing primarily to Jews. There's evidence that the author was writing to a very specific group of Jews (along with some Gentiles) to encourage them. His message: Jesus fulfills the Hebrew prophecy recorded in the Scriptures; Jesus is the Messiah.

Luke, on the other hand, was probably written by a Gentile, a God-fearer (a Gentile who appreciated the Jewish teaching). Though it is addressed to Theophilus, which means lover of God, Luke's message is universal: Jesus' mission and the church founded upon Jesus' teachings are for everyone -- Jew and Gentile, alike.

Matthew points out that Jesus is the "son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matt 1:2), showing his Jewish roots. Luke traces Jesus' ancestry through David back to Adam as the "son of God" (Luke 3:38), emphasizing the universal appeal of Jesus' heritage.

Both Gospels were most likely written by subjects of the Roman Empire, which does influence their work. As a result, they both make political and social comments, though that is not their primary goal.

In his introduction to Matthew in The Harper Collins Study Bible (HCSB), Dennis C. Duling points out that Matthew takes a subtle anti-Roman stance. His lineage of Jesus records kings. He shows Jesus as a King of the Jews as opposed to Herod being the king appointed by Rome; he speaks of the "kingdom of heaven" rather than a kingdom established by Rome.

According to David L. Tiede and Chrstoher R. Matthews in HCSB, Luke is concerned about showing how Christianity is not a threat to the Roman Empire. Rather, Christianity is for everyone -- again the universal appeal. And, as other scholars point out, Luke does more than any other Gospel to include the outcast.

The nativity stories reflect these differences in purpose. Going along with the kingly theme, Matthew includes the magi "from the east." Luke has the shepherds, who, by Jesus' time, were looked down upon. Matthew shows that the angel of the Lord talked with Joseph. Luke reveals that Gabriel spoke with Mary. There's so much information about Mary and her family in Luke that some people affectionately refer to Luke's record as "Mary's baby book."

So what do we learn from the account of Jesus' nativity in these two gospels?

The kingdom Jesus shared with us all was not a princely or a political kingdom; it was a spiritual kingdom. And this kingdom is for everyone!

Other sources:
The NIV study Bible
Eugene Peterson's The Message