Home > Uncategorized > Differences in the Nativity Stories

Differences in the Nativity Stories

Joseph's wondering, "How am I going to pay for this kid's college?"

This might be old news to everyone already, but I just noticed it today:

The Nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke are completely different. Well, not completely. A baby is still born to a virgin. But setting that aside, the tone, structure, and sequence of events are so distinctive it’s bizarre. I would think they were talking about two different babies if they didn’t call both “Christ.” In fact, one not familiar with Christianity might reasonably assume that they were written to be intentionally inverted accounts of Christ’s birth. Consider:

Matthew’s account is very male-oriented. Joseph, the wise men, and Herod are the main actors; Mary barely gets a mention, and there’s no account of her angelic visitations. The account is very political, focused on kingship and Herod’s anxieties about ruling.

Luke, on the other hand, tells us about more women than perhaps any two chapters in the whole bible. We hear about Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Mary’s “Mangificat” hymn, her visit with Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s spiritual inspiration–we even get a prophet, Anna, serving in the temple who gets to see the Savior before she dies.

Matthew’s account is also very dark and foreboding. Mary’s pregnancy is an embarrassment, a social faux pas that needs to be covered up. The wise men and Herod play out a dangerous chess game of promises and feigned intentions. Angels help Joseph navigate one dangerous situation after another. After being duped, Herod retaliates by slaughtering probably thousands of baby boys. Here, women are not rejoicing in the Lord, but “A voice was heard in Ramah, / wailing and loud lamentation, / Rachel weeping for her children; / she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Luke’s account is full of hymns, joyous singing, inspired salutations–being born in a manger seems quaint and non-threatening. In fact, angels herald “peace on Earth, goodwill towards men!” (though modern translations read more like “on earth peace among those whom he favors!”). Shepherds and temple workers welcome the newborn child; he does not escape in secret flights for safety. Of course, Simeon’s warning to Mary is troubling, but Luke withholds any hint of what pain Mary will have to face.

There are many other minor differences: Matthew is very interested in prophecy-fulfillment, while Luke seems more interested in miracles and prophetic heralding. But it never occurred to me until now that I had been blending two very different accounts into one “whole” story about Christ’s birth. Does this mean that one is more right than the other? Not necessarily, though possibly; I don’t know really anything about biblical scholarship on the Nativity. But it does make you wonder what purpose the Nativity story serves in each author’s gospel–what is Matthew trying to suggest about Jesus’s life and mission through his account that’s different from Luke’s?


Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Liz
    December 15, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Have you listened to the Mormon Matters podcast on this exact topic? It’s really interesting (and points out a lot of what you’re talking about).


  2. DLewis
    December 19, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    Hmmm, I’ll have to check that out. Thanks, Liz.

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