Gospel Accounts of Christmas

Gospel Accounts of Christmas

The Christian Bible provides two accounts of the birth of Jesus. One account appears in the first two chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew, and the other in the first two chapters of the Gospel according to Luke (see also Jesus,Year of Birth). A quick review of these accounts reveals a number of broad similarities as well as some striking differences.

Similarities

Jesus' parents, Joseph and Mary, figure in both accounts. Both Matthew and Luke assert that Joseph was a descendant of the Old Testament hero, David. They also agree that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. An angel appears in order to explain the nature of Mary's pregnancy, according to both writers. Both accounts affirm that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great. Finally, Matthew and Luke both tell of strangers called by God to witness and worship the birth of the Savior.

Differences

If probed more closely, a few of these similarities turn out to be only partial, however. Both Matthew and Luke state that Joseph is a descendant of David, but Matthew takes Joseph's lineage back to Abraham, while Luke takes it all the way back to Adam. Moreover, Matthew includes five women in Jesus' genealogy, while Luke mentions no women at all. In Luke the angel Gabriel, who explains the nature of Mary's pregnancy, appears to Mary herself, while in Matthew the angel appears to Joseph. Although both writers agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Matthew implies that Jesus' family lived in Bethlehem, while Luke states that Jesus' parents lived in Nazareth and came to Bethlehem only to comply with a Roman census. While Luke's account describes the events that took place on the night of Jesus' birth, Matthew's account leaves vague the issue of whether Jesus was a newborn infant or already a toddler on the night when the Magi arrived to worship him.

Some elements of Matthew's story have no parallel whatever in Luke's account. Matthew tells of learned men called the Magi who bring Jesus expensive gifts fit for a king. They find him by following a star which suddenly appeared in the heavens to signal his birth (see Star of Bethlehem). Moreover, in Matthew's account the Magi inadvertently alert Herod to the existence of the newborn king. As a result, Herod sends soldiers to kill all of Bethlehem's male infants (see Holy Innocents' Day). Finally, an angel visits Joseph warning him of Herod's intentions and telling him to escape with his family into Egypt (see Flight into Egypt). After Herod's death the family returns from Egypt, but decides to settle in Galilee, far from Herod's brutal successor.

Turning now to Luke's account of Jesus' birth, we can identify a number of elements that don't appear in Matthew's Gospel. According to Luke, humble shepherds, rather than noble Magi, witness Jesus' birth. Moreover, the shepherds learn of the Savior's birth from an angel instead of by studying the stars. In Luke's story Mary and Joseph must search for lodging because they don't live in Bethlehem. The innkeepers cannot accommodate them, so they end up spending the night in a stable, where Mary gives birth to Jesus.

Folklore

Scholars have attributed much significance to both the similarities and the differences contained in these accounts. Although these differences may perplex researchers, they do not appear to have inhibited the representation of Jesus' birth in folklore. Around Christmas time Nativity scenes, store window displays, and Christmas pageants present us with colorful images of Jesus' birth (see also Nativity Play). Often these scenes mix together shepherds, wise men, stars, angels, animals, and other figures. These happy scenes suggest that Matthew's and Luke's accounts of Jesus' birth have merged together to form a single story in the popular imagination.

Further Reading

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New updated edition. New York: Doubleday, 1993. Horsley, Richard A. The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives inSocial Context. New York: Crossroads, 1989. Porter, J. R. The Illustrated Guide to the Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003