Birth Stories in Matthew & Luke

Charting the two gospels is fascinating. The two stories were one story after many Christmas retellings, but the differences are exciting. It brings to life the struggle of early Christianity. Matthew wrote for a community of male Jews near Jerusalem. Luke wrote for Roman women, possibly benefactors.

The Gospel According to Matthew agrees with The Gospel According to Luke on seven vital points and that’s it. Both gospels agree that Jesus was named Jesus and that the name was part of the message from an angel. They agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem when Herod was ruler, and that he was from Nazareth. They agree that Joseph was the father, who was a descendant of David. And that Mary was the mother, a virgin who was impregnated by the Holy spirit, which would, “naturally,” make the child pretty special! Finally, they both say Mary and Joseph were engaged when she became pregnant.

Agreement of the vital statistics validate the historicisity of Jesus. The assignment of the common Hebrew name Joshua (he saves; Jesus in Greek. see notes p.1669, Harper Collins Study Bible) requires an explanation. If it goes against the bias of the author it is probably true according to “the criterion of dissimilarity.” After all if somebody came up to me and said, “ Have you heard Bob from Baltimore preach? He must be the son of God.” I would want to know what in the world qualified “Bob” as the son of god. The father in paternalistic societies names the child and certainly God would give his own son a unique name. This point is solved by the angel’s mandate; presumably from God to name the baby, Jesus. Both gospels use this device.

Jesus certainly came from Nazareth. Cities of origin are still a common way of establishing identity; often the first question that is asked. Since the birth in Bethlehem requires plot elaborations in both gospels to get him out of Nazareth he must have had a fairly public reputation which would include his town of origin. The authors were not able to simply say he was born in Bethlehem, the city of his father.

Since neither story specifies the actual year he was born nor makes up a number with mystical significance, his age is indeterminate and not important to the purpose of the story. Besides these vital statistics the “gospels” are not the historical truth. The birth stories are wildly different. It is revealing to chart the differences.

Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew focuses on Joseph from beginning to end. First, Joseph is established as a decent guy. He knows Mary is pregnant–presumably she confessed it to him, not one of the neighbors, since he plans to dismiss her quietly and save her public embarrassment. There is not a single word indicating how Mary felt about being pregnant and a virgin. Joseph had, “no marital relations with her until she had borne him a son.” Matt 1:25, but clearly did enjoy his conjugal rights during their marriage.

The plot moves forward according to Herod’s wily evil ways and the protagonists ability to outwit this powerful overlord with the help of timely informative dreams. It is an exciting action drama with Joseph as the hero saving the special baby that is not even his. Joseph is the epitome of modest hero. This is a man’s story.

Luke’s Gospel

Luke is completely the opposite. Luke’s version is a woman’s story. The plot, characters and scenes all present a woman’s outlook. In fact, important details are so unique to a woman’s perspective, that I believe this birth story of Jesus was written by a woman. Before the verses (Luke 2:1-20) of the Christmas story, there is a very long story about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy in old age. This story of a woman and her God is nonexistent in Matthew. Next, Gabriel visits Mary. She doesn’t throw herself on the floor like Zechiariah or Daniel, when the angel, Gabriel appears to her. She questions his compliments and his statement that she is to be the mother of God. Mary has her wits about her. Gabriel restates the miracle of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and explains the mechanics of spiritual sex before Mary agrees to accept the honor of mother of the Most High. Unlike Matthew, there is no dream for Joseph.

Mary goes “. . .with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,” (Lk:39). On the map this looks like 20 miles. The sentence makes it sound every day, but from general information about hilly, desert conditions, this is a challenging distance without a Land Rover. Absolutely no mention is made of a caravan or permission from Joseph or Mary’s own father. Mary is without doubt, a very capable young woman.

It just so happens that, Mary’s encounter with the Holy Spirit happens when Elizabeth is six months pregnant with her own miraculous son. The timing is perfect for the observance of age-old traditions.  Mary goes immediately to Judea at a time when an older woman who is pregnant for the first time would need the most help. Luke says she, “. . . remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.”(Lk 1:56) Obviously this brings us to the time of Elizabeth’s delivery, purification and the circumcision eight days after birth. Why would Luke put in this scenario? It is not necessary to the plot or the message of the birth of a savior. The humanity of Jesus, doesn’t depend on pregnant women spending time together. However, it does give another proof of divinity when John, who is in the womb recognizes Jesus, who is also in the womb as the Lord. Babies moving and kicking in the womb are a divine part of life for mothers, but as lovely as those moments are they are rarely used to prove greatness. The simplest explanation for this piece of business is that Luke’s version was either written for women or written by a woman.

Luke doesn’t deny that Joseph, Mary and therefore, Jesus were from Nazareth. He does create a deus ex machina to get them to Jerusalem, via a Roman decree for the first census, in time for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, but he doesn’t marry Joseph and Mary. She is still unmarried when they go to Bethlehem. She is on business when she gives birth to her firstborn. Again, Mary is very capable. She travels as an unmarried woman, gives birth and will continue to bring children into the world if the use of “firstborn” is any indication. “Firstborn,” is also an indication of conjugal rights being enjoyed from the perspective of a woman, not a man. Mary doesn’t just put large fabric pieces on the baby. She has found bands of cloth and wrapped him so that he was dressed. In Matthew’s gospel there is no mention of how the baby is dressed.

The shepherds invoke the memory of David as does Matthew’s “King of the Jews” but the shepherds spread the news locally while the wise men fled for their lives to the east. They didn’t have a chance to talk with strangers about the wonder of the new-born King. Mary treasured in her heart the things the shepherds told; things she already knew from her encounter with Gabriel. This is an expansion of every mothers experience when a new child is born and everyone predicts the beautiful baby will grow up and be handsome and wonderful.

Since Luke has the shepherds describe Jesus as the Messiah rather than Matthew’s “King of the Jews” his version must have been written for Romans. Talking about a King other than the Roman Emperor in Rome was too dangerous and alienating to Roman Gentile converts who were satisfied with their ruler.

The Circumcision and Naming Ceremony

In Luke, Mary and Joseph go straight to Jerusalem for circumcision! Wouldn’t every mother want her baby to circumcised in the best and biggest temple? There is no circumcision in Matthew — very surprising if this was written for a Jewish community unless he was de-emphasizing Jewish customs that would irritate Roman overlords. Instead of a glorious ceremony in the the world’s grandest temple, Joseph takes Mary and the baby to Egypt in the dark of the night, saving them from certain death. After Herod dies, Matthew has an angel inform Joseph it is safe to return to Israel, but when they get there Joseph realizes he must continue to lay low because Herod’s son who is now on the throne would happily kill them also. Joseph ends up making a new life in Nazareth probably still financed by the gifts from the wise men.

In Luke 2:36, Anna, a devout prophet, at the moment of circumcision began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. The story finishes with the family completing all that was required by the law and returning to Nazareth, where Jesus, “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:40)

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