The Gospel of Luke-Part V: The Nativity of Matthew Compared


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.

The Gospel of Luke: Part IV-The Nativity Story

We looked last week at the preface of Luke which opens the Gospel of Luke. Because it is Christmas time, it is only natural that we review the nativity story of Luke. But to do so in depth, I think that it is necessary to review the nativity story in at least three parts. The first part, this week will review the story as written in the Gospel of Luke. Next week, in the next part, I will relate and analyze Matthew’s story. Finally, in the third part of this mini-series with the series of analysis of the Gospel of Luke, I will compare and contrast the two stories.


It is necessary to review the story told in at least two Gospels, because Christians tend to conflate the story told in the Gospels and make it one continuous story. Thus, for example, the average Christian thinks of the shepherds and the Magi as both visiting the infant Jesus in one story. But while the average Christian makes this one seamless story, each of these two events is related separately in two different; neither of these Gospels relate both stories.



To set the stage, however, I must return to the preface of Luke, because a literary analysis of it will yield many themes which are carried out in the nativity story.


Luke, as we noted, is writing a history following the parameters of his time. He has made it clear that he will be a reliable narrator, who will give an orderly account, one that is fixed in time and space. He knows that his audience is aware of these events, but believes that his audience needs to have greater certainty of what has happened. Also, Luke’s voice is a personal voice: note the usage of the pronoun “I”. Luke is aware of audience and wants to convey things to them: note the usage of the pronoun “you”. Luke is also instructing Theophilus, who must be a person of some note. This fact that Luke, who is a subordinate person, is able to instruct a person of a higher class or order shows that Luke has a strong sense of self and a strong sense that he as an author has something important to impart. Contrast this with the highly impersonal narrative of Matthew and his opening which relates generation after generation.


Turning to the nativity story itself, Luke’s story has the following elements. An angel appears to the Priest Zachariah, who has an elderly wife named Elizabeth. The angel tells Zachariah that Elizabeth will bear a child. Zachariah protests this Elizabeth is too old and he is then struck mute. Elizabeth is then with child. Mary, who is a virgin, is visited by the same angel who visited Zachariah. Mary is told that she will bear a child. Mary responds by submitting to God’s will. Mary after a while goes to visit Elizabeth, who is her relative. Elizabeth’s baby leaps in the womb of Elizabeth in response to Mary’s coming. Elizabeth exclaims that Mary is blessed above all women. Mary sings a song praising God. Later, friends gather and suggest that Elizabeth’s child be named after his father. Elizabeth says that his name is John. When Zachariah is approached, he writes that the child will be named John and then his speech is restored. He then prophesies. A census requires Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem from their home. Because there is no room in the inn in Bethlehem, Jesus is born in a manger in Bethlehem. An angel appears to shepherds who are nearby and tells them of the birth of Jesus. The shepherds come and worship the infant Jesus. After eight days, Jesus is presented in the temple. Simon has been awaiting the messiah and has been hoping that he will see the messiah before he dies. Simon takes Jesus in his arms and exclaims that he can now die happy for he has seen the messiah. He then foretells the life of Jesus.

This narrative is one of cause and effect. People are where they are for a reason. For example, Zachariah is at the temple because he has drawn the lot to perform the rituals that day. Mary and Joseph are at Bethlehem because a census has forced them to go there. Next, there is no room in the inn, so Mary and Joseph must go to the stables and thus Jesus is born in a manager. Finally, the shepherds are in the fields, because they must watch their flocks to protect them.


Luke wants his story to convey how people react to their situations. Zachariah protests and he is punished. Mary responds with joy and sings a song. John in the wombs leaps at the pregnant Mary’s presence. Elizabeth exclaims when Mary greets her. The shepherds react to the angel’s announcement and the visitation of the heavenly hosts by all agreeing to get up, leave their flocks, and go to Bethlehem to see what they Lord has told them. Simon takes the baby Jesus in his arms and says that he now can die happy.


The reaction is thus an important element of the story. Luke wants us to know the emotions and the thoughts of the people involved in his story.


Further, all the people in Luke’s story are people going about their daily lives. Zachariah is a priest performing his rituals at the temple. The shepherds are doing their job watching their sheep. Simon is an old man who knows he is soon to die and he has an old man’s dying wish in his heart. Mary and Joseph are doing their duty to Caesar by going to register for the census.


Each of Luke’s stories has the clear tri-part structure of beginning, middle, and end. The shepherds are in the fields. The angel comes. The shepherds react and go and worship Jesus.


There is a parallelism between the story of Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth is too old to bear a child; Mary is a virgin. Both are under an impediment that would otherwise make them unable to bear a child, but with the action of God, both do bear children.


The Gospel of Luke-Part III: Genre

The Gospel of Luke begins with a preface, Chapter 1, verses 1-4.  This preface tells us a great deal about what Luke is attempting to do in his Gospel. These verses, while at first appearing to be simple and straightforward, are in reality packed with meaning.  Thus, we must devote a great deal of attention to each of the verses to understand all that Luke has written.

I shall use the NIV version for this analysis.

The first verse begins, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account…”  Some scholars have used this language as part of their argument as to the dating of Luke, thinking that Luke must be referring to Mark and perhaps Matthew as being the “Many”.  This position may be buttressed by the further language of verse 2, which states “…just as they were handed down to us…by those who…were eyewitnesses and servants of the word…”

The first verse through the fourth verse shows us that Luke is using a classical Greek literary form.  Luke writes a formal preface and this preface is in the style which suggests that he is following the model of other historiographies of his time, that is a writing based upon eyewitnesses. Historiographies of his time began with, as he begins his work, with a formal preface, followed by a statement of the purposes for writing the history, and the naming of a recipient of the writing.  By doing so, Luke is saying that he is writing a history in a manner which follows those of other recognized historians of his era.  By doing this, he is also stating that the story of Jesus is worthy of such a historical treatment.  By writing a history of Jesus, Jesus becomes a historical person. And in so writing, a classical Greek historical treatment of Jesus,  Luke is making Jesus accessible or more accessible to a learned audience, whether Greek or Roman.  This in turn stresses that Luke is writing a Gospel for the Gentile and not for the Jew.

The fact that Luke first alludes to other Gospels as having been handed down is important.  In that era, information that is “handed down” is authoritative tradition, the words “handed down” being a technical term, which Luke’s audience would have recognized.  In this manner, Luke is giving added weight to the other Gospels. They are thus more authoritative works upon which to base his own work.

Luke makes clear that he is not an eyewitness; however, Luke makes it clear that he, himself, “…carefully investigated everything…”  He emphasizes the depth of his investigation by further saying that his investigation was “…from the beginning…”  His investigation apparently included talking with eyewitnesses and other servants of the word.

The fact that eyewitnesses of the events were still alive to be interviewed by Luke is also a clue as to the dating of the writing of the Gospel.  If Jesus was crucified in 30 AD, a date of 60 AD for the writing would not be untoward.  Men and women who were in their 20s or 30s in 30 AD, could easily and conceivably have been alive in 60AD to be interviewed.  Obviously, later dates for the writing of the Gospel of Luke become more suspect, if one gives credence to Luke having interviewed eyewitnesses.

What is Luke’s purpose in writing this Gospel?  Verse 4 states: “…it seemed good to me to write an orderly account…so you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”  The purpose thus becomes at least two fold: 1. to write an orderly account and 2. to write an account so that the recipient may know the “certainty” of what the recipient has been already taught.

An orderly account seems to suggest that the other accounts with which Luke was familiar may not have been orderly, which suggest that they may have been fragments of the life of Jesus.  If this is so, then this also helps us to date the Gospel of Luke making a date of 60 AD seem more likely, than a later date, by which time, presumably, other “more orderly” accounts might have existed.

Further, an orderly account shows us that Luke is intending to write a Gospel which will detail the life of Jesus from beginning to end in a chronological fashion.

Luke in this second purpose is making sure that the faith of the recipient will not waver, rather that the faith of the recipient will be made more certain.  This would be accomplished  by the recipient knowing the account which Luke writes is based upon eyewitness testimony, upon the teaching of those who are servants of the word, as well as the Gospels which have been handed down.  The recipient, Theophilus, is known to Luke; Luke obviously cares about Theophilus and wants Theophilus’ faith to be made strong.  It is for this reason that Luke has made his thorough investigation of all things from the beginning, which investigation included the Gospels handed down, the eyewitness testimony, and the testimony of the servants of the word.

We do not know the identity of those who are the servants of the word.  My personal speculation upon this matter is that Luke is here referring to both Peter and Paul, with whom he worked and lived, as well as, perhaps, others.

As I began this analysis of the preface, I commented that it is packed with meaning in just four short verses.  While I do not think that I have unpacked all the meaning that may well lie within these four verses, I believe that this analysis is a solid foundation for our further review of the Gospel of Luke.