How We Construct Christmas: Building the Birth Narrative in the Gospels

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With Christmas quickly approaching, many believers will turn to their Bibles, church services, advent calendars, etc. to recall the birth of Christ. Regardless of one’s faith, the imagery created by this time of season is inescapable.  I defy anyone to drive down a street in a small town or suburb in America and not see some representation of the nativity scene. The imagery is everywhere and, because of its connection to the Bible, I feel compelled to address the birth of Christ.

Today’s article is not an attempt to tear the Christmas story apart. Rather, I want to explain to readers how the Christmas story is constructed, using the accounts we have in the New Testament, along with providing a little proper historical background in order to shed light on certain aspects one may be familiar with from the story.

Our imagery and notions of the Christmas story stem from two sources: the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. How we view Christmas comes from these sources. However, careful readers will note that neither Gospel presents a complete picture. More importantly, the different details in each Gospel presents the question of what one should do with sources that are clearly independent from each other, yet covering the same event. Therefore, let us look at which source contains the separate elements of the birth narrative.

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The Gospel of Matthew

     First, please note that Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus contains multiple references to prophecies from the Tanakh. I already discussed at length the Virgin Birth prophecy, which you can read about by clicking here. Thus, I will not discuss it in this article. In order to keep this simple, let me present features of Matthew’s Gospel in a simplified list form:

–   Jesus is born in a house in this version, not out in the stable (Matthew 2:11)

–   The Gospel notes that the birth of Jesus occurred during the betrothal period, which places Mary at roughly twelve years of age.

–   Wise men appear and present gifts to the baby Jesus. Although tradition suggests three wise men, based on the number of gifts, the text does not specify how many wise men came to Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:11-12)

–   The family sojourns in Egypt, in order to escape Herod (Matthew 2:13)

–   The family is from the province of Judea, possibly even the town of Bethlehem. It is only after the return from Egypt and fear of Herod’s son Archelaus that Joseph decides to move the family to Nazareth. (Matthew 2:22). Interestingly, Archelaus was deposed in 6 C.E, having been replaced by direct Roman rule.

Again, for the sake of brevity, I am merely pointing out some of the differences between the Gospel accounts. The other important feature to take note of with the Gospel of Matthew’s version is the reliance on Jewish scripture.

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The Gospel of Luke

Luke’s Gospel contains other familiar aspects of the birth narrative, yet different details from Matthew’s account. After a passage regarding the birth of John the Baptist, the birth narrative of Jesus picks up in verse 26 of the first chapter. Here are some details pertaining to the Gospel of Luke.

–   In this version, Mary explicitly lives in the village of Nazareth. Also, the text states that the couple are engaged, thus suggesting the signing of the marriage contract had taken place (Luke 1:26-27)

–   Luke’s version contains the passage known as Mary’s Magnificat, a prayer modeled on Hannah’s prayer from 1 Samuel (Luke 1:46-55).

–   Luke’s Gospel contains the plot device of the Roman census, a feature missing in Matthew’s Gospel. Outside of the Gospel, this census is unattested. (Luke 2:1-2)

–   The census is the reason the family ends up in Bethlehem. It is possible that the author of Luke’s Gospel knew Jesus was born in Bethlehem, however lacked a way to have the family there at the time of his birth.

–   Jesus is born and placed in a manger because there is no room at the inn. This is an exclusive feature of Luke’s Gospel and not found in Matthew’s. (Luke 2:7). It is also possible that there was no room at the inn for the privacy required for a birth, not necessarily physical room.

–   In this version, we have the shepherds of the field. As has been noted by other scholars, Christian imagery of this is not historically accurate. Typically, Christmas stories and nativity, view Shepherds as somewhat outsiders, however this is not the case. Positive images were common for shepherds at the time, as the profession connected one back to King David. Also, it is possible that this places the birth around September, as the shepherds are out with their flocks. However at this point, I have yet to find corroborating evidence to support this notion.

What should one make of this? Well, my opinion is that the Gospels represent sources that are recording events, for either historical or theological, or possibly both, reasons. I am not looking to necessarily go into a deep discussion regarding the differences in the birth narratives, but here is what I do want you the reader to take away.

The birth of Christ, as presented in the Gospels, is one of many examples of popular Christian images that evolve from an amalgamation of events recorded in the Bible. No single source from the New Testament contains all the details of the birth narrative, and as with most sources from history, the details are contradictory.

Regardless, for those that hold to the Christian faith, I wish you the merriest of Christmases, as we celebrate the birth of the Savior. As always, I encourage you to read your Bible carefully and take into account the nuanced details of the narratives and meditate on their implications. Thank you for reading, and Merry Christmas!

-Andrew

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