In most nativity sets, we blend the various Christmas stories together in one big, happy créche–shepherds, angels, wise men, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, manger, and the rest. And rightly so. Each character adds a different flavor to the rich celebration of the coming of the Christ Child. Even the extras that crowd the scene like the ox and donkey, although not mentioned in the Christmas stories, can bring extra theological depth for those who have eyes to see.
However, sometimes in all the Advent amalgamation, we can overlook the distinct Christmas narratives that Matthew and Luke are telling. If you have read the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, then you know how much of the content overlaps in their books. However, when it comes to the first two chapters of each Gospel–when it comes to the way they narrate Christmas–they couldn’t be more different.
Has it ever struck you how different the Christmas stories are in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?Tweet
In fact, considering how much of their stories do align, only specific intentionality can explain how differently they recount the Advent of the Christ. When you set their two accounts side by side, it becomes clear that each is making volitional, contrasting editorial choices. Consider these for a start:
- In Luke, Caesar Augustus looms large in the background (Luke 2:1).
- In Matthew, King Herod acts in the foreground (Matthew 2:1-ff).
- Luke’s Gospel is told from Mary’s perspective and treats her as the main protagonist.
- Matthew’s Gospel is told from Joseph’s perspective and treats him as the main protagonist.
- In Luke, an angel appears to Mary before conception (Luke 1:30-31).
- In Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph after conception (Matthew 1:20).
- In Luke, the angel tells Mary “and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31).
- In Matthew, the angel tells Joseph “and you shall call his name Jesus” (Matthew 1:21,25).
- Luke’s Gospel features “a multitude of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13).
- Matthew’s Gospel features a solitary star (Matthew 2:1-ff).
- Luke’s birth announcement is brought by angels to the shepherds of the flock in Bethlehem (Luke 2:8).
- Matthew’s birth announcement is brought by magi to the false shepherds of God’s people in Jerusalem (Matthew 2:4).
- Luke’s birth announcement brings peace on earth (Luke 2:14).
- Matthew’s birth announcement brings trouble to all Jerusalem (Matthew 2:3).
- In Luke’s telling, the shepherds instruct one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem…” (Luke 2:15).
- In Matthew’s version, King Herod sends the magi “to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child…'” (Matthew 2:8).
- In Luke, Hebrew shepherds “in the same region…out in the field” find the child (Luke 2:8,16)
- In Matthew, Gentile “magi from the east” find the child (Matthew 2:1,11)
- In Luke’s account, shepherds visit baby Jesus (Luke 2:16)
- In Matthew’s account, baby Jesus is the shepherd (Matthew 2:6)
- At Luke’s Christmas, Bethlehem is filled with singing (Luke 2:13,20).
- At Matthew’s Christmas, Bethlehem is filled with weeping (Matthew 2:18).
- In Luke, we find spiritual treasures: “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
- In Matthew, we find earthly treasures: “Opening their treasures, [the wise men] offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
- In Luke’s narrative, Mary and child enter the Temple to worship the Lord (Luke 2:22,27).
- In Matthew’s narrative, the magi enter the house, see the child and Mary, and worship him (Matthew 2:11).
- Luke’s holy family travels to the Temple (Luke 2:22).
- Matthew’s holy family escapes to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14).
- Luke recounts the circumcision and Passover redemption of the male infant Christ (Luke 2:21,23,27).
- Matthew recounts the cutting off of all the male infants in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16).
The two Christmas narratives finally converge at the ends of their second chapters:
- Luke 2:39, 51–“they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth…And he went down with them and came to Nazareth”
- Matthew 2:23–“And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth…”
From this point on, Matthew and Luke largely walk hand-in-hand through the rest of the story of Christ’s baptism, ministry, teaching, miracles, arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection.
This leaves us with a question: Why? When authors take intentionally divergent paths as they recount the same historical event, they do it for a purpose. Particularly, we are talking about the opening chapters of the book. These chapters play a huge role in shaping the way we read the entire rest of the story–setting our expectations, creating categories for interpretation, introducing characters, themes, and motifs, and creating a narrative arc that will be closed in a unique way at the conclusion of each book, respectively.
It’s a tale of two Christmases. What unique perspective is Matthew seeking to communicate with his particular Christmas narrative? What stage is Luke setting with the way he relates the events of the Advent?
We could spend an entire book exploring this question. Certainly, Matthew and Luke show us that the events of Christ’s life can be read, understood, and interpreted in multiple ways. The contrast between their Christmas narratives cannot be accidental. There are marks of pointed, intentional, editorial distinctions in each. Although Matthew and Luke have a ton of overlapping content and follow a very similar timeline of events, their contrasting Advent accounts invite us to see these events through two different lenses. Matthew and Luke are seeking to provide complementary readings, not contradictory–much like the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2.
The purposes for Matthew’s version of Christmas vs. Luke’s version come to light only as we continue to read the rest of each book. Theology planted in seed form in Matthew’s Christmas and Luke’s Christmas begins to blossom and bear fruit as each gospel writer tells the rest of his tale.