In our last blog, we discussed at length the nativity story of Jesus as told by Luke. We now turn to Matthew to furnish a comparison and a contrast which, I believe, will shed further light upon the Gospel of Luke.
Matthew’s nativity story is very different in many, many, ways. It is told in the first two chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew immediately shows a very different viewpoint of Jesus. “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham…” Matthew from the first focuses upon Jesus as: (1) the Christ; (2) the son of David; and (3) the son of Abraham. This squarely places Jesus, and thus the Gospel of Matthew within the Jewish tradition. Matthew in his genealogy begins with Abraham and then recounts in fourteen generations to King David, from there in fourteen generations to the exile in Babylon, and then fourteen generation to Jesus. This genealogy emphasizes Jesus as being a son of both Abraham and of David, and thus is, in essence, a quintessential Jew. Jesus thus is the Jewish messiah.
This approach is categorically different from Luke. Luke is writing a history. Luke says that he has interviewed eye witnesses. His history is addressed, presumably, to a Greek. Luke’s view is the world; Matthew’s is that only of the Jews.
Where are the shepherds and the inn? Where is the annunciation to Mary? Where is the birth of John? These elements are nowhere to be found.
Rather, Joseph, finding that Mary is pregnant before “they came together”, he contemplates divorcing her. It is at this point that the Lord appears to him in a dream and tells him not only that Mary has conceived due to the Holy Spirit, but also the name he is to give to child, thus implying that he is to not divorce his wife and to raise the child. Unlike Luke, this appearance is in a dream. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew dreams will figure largely in the story; this is unlike the almost complete absence of dreams in the Gospel of Luke.
Matthew follows this story of the dream with a quotation from scripture which is designed to prove that Jesus and the stories surrounding him are in fulfillment of the scriptures; Jesus Christ was foretold.
Like the Gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus according to Matthew is in Bethlehem. (As an aside, it should be noted that neither John nor Mark discusses the nativity of Jesus.) There is no mention of the census, nor is any other explanation given as to why Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem. The story focuses directly upon the Magi. The Magi, having seen a star in the east have come to Israel to find the King of the Jews and worship him. This news, understandably, unnerves and angers Herod, who is the reigning king. He directs the Magi to bring him news of the baby so that he too can worship the baby. The Magi find Jesus; they worship Him; and they give Him gifts. Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they leave the country by a different way. Joseph, also being warned by an angel in a dream, takes Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt. Matthew again punctuates this story by quoting scripture which proves that Jesus has been called out of Egypt in accordance with scripture. Herod reacts to the birth of Jesus by trying to exterminate all the boys born in Bethlehem at about the right time. This too is supported by scripture, as Matthew quotes the prophecy of Jeremiah. Finally, after yet another angel appearing to Joseph in a dream, Mary and Joseph with the child return to Nazareth, which again Matthews shows us was foretold by scripture.
So not only are the details of the story of the nativity, virtually entirely different, the whole approach of author is entirely different. Every step of the way, Matthew writes, was foretold by scripture. Every major decision which Joseph makes is based upon a dream where either the Lord or an angel appears to him.
The two Gospels agree only on a few things: Mary is a virgin; the birth occurs in Bethlehem; and the name of Jesus was given by an angel. Luke quotes no prophecies; Luke has no dreams. Matthew emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus; Luke tries to write a story that will appeal to Greeks and cosmopolitan Romans.
As I stated before, Christians conflate the nativity stories. This process robs each Gospel of its nuance and meaning. Luke’s Gospel is aimed at a different audience from that of Matthew.