Kin Hubbard once said, “Next to a circus there ain’t nothing that packs up and tears out faster than the Christmas spirit.” Well, that’s not good! And so, to stop this loss of spirit, let’s talk about the Christmas story even though it is January, (or at least, use it as a springboard to talk about other things). Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s, we were talking to good friends who asked a great question: “Why is Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth so different from Matthew’s?” It was a really good question, and it gets to the heart of how the gospels were put together (which is kind of important stuff!).
How different are Matthew and Luke’s accounts? Well, let’s look!
Here’s what we see when we read through MATTHEW’S ACCOUNT:
- There’s a genealogy of Jesus (starts with Abraham and ends with Jesus).
- The angel visits Joseph to answer his question about divorcing the pregnant Mary (“Don’t do it!” “She’s cool!”).
- The angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.
- There is the promise of Immanuel.
- Joseph takes Mary home to be his wife.
- They name the baby Jesus.
- We are told that the birth happened in Bethlehem (“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea,during the time of King Herod. . . .”).
- The Magi journey from the east, stop at Jerusalem for directions and then go to Bethlehem and bring gifts to the child Jesus.
- The Magi are warned in a dream and they take another route home.
- The angel appears to Joseph and warns him about Herod’s murderous plot.
- The Holy family escape to Egypt.
- Herod slaughters the innocents.
- Sometime later, Herod dies and the angel tells Joseph they can return home.
- Joseph, Mary and Jesus move to Nazareth.
Here are the main headings for MARK’S ACCOUNT:
(That’s right, nothing. Zippo. Mark, like John, has no Christmas spirit and, instead, chooses to go directly to the story of John the Baptizer preaching in the wilderness.)
Here are the main headings for LUKE’S ACCOUNT:
- Zechariah receives a visit from an angel about the miraculous birth of John the Baptizer.
- The angel comes to Mary to announce her pregnancy.
- The angel tells Mary to name the child Jesus (but says nothing about him forgiving sin).
- Mary visits Elizabeth (Zechariah’s wife).
- Mary’s song of praise
- The birth of John the Baptizer
- Zechariah’s song of praise
- Caesar Augustus issues a decree.
- Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem and have the baby there.
- Shepherds get a visit from the angels and then visit the baby in the manger.
- Eight days later, Jesus is circumcised.
- Forty-one days later, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem to be presented in the temple.
- Simeon blesses Jesus.
- Anna blesses Jesus.
- Joseph, Mary and Jesus move to Nazareth.
- Jesus is 12 years old and gets “lost” in the temple.
- John the Baptizer calls the people to repentance.
- Jesus is baptized.
- Jesus’ genealogy (starts with Jesus and ends with Adam, the son of God)
Now, I don’t mean to ruin Christmas, but there is not a lot of overlap here. To help you see what overlap there is, I put those items in bold. Now, we know these two accounts are both telling the story of the birth of Jesus; but at first glance, they sure don’t look like they are telling it the same way. Some suggest that Matthew used one source and Luke used another, and the two sources were very different (after all, neither Matthew nor Luke were there at the manger to interview Mary or Joseph). Regardless of how it happened, this we know: the two genealogies are very different. Just look at them. (If you would rather not get into the tall weeds today, just trust me when I say the genealogies are impossible to reconcile and skip the next paragraph.)
Matthew begins with Abraham and moves forward to Jesus. Luke begins with Jesus and moves backwards to Adam, the son of God. So far, so good. More good news: agreement with all the names from Abraham to David (although four women’s names are added in Matthew’s account – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba). Now, the bad news: Matthew and Luke do not agree at all from the time of David moving forward to Jesus. Matthew traces the line through Solomon until the exile. Luke traces the line through Nathan until the exile (raise your hand if you knew David had a son named Nathan!). After the exile, Matthew has Jeconiah, Shealtiel, and Zerubbabel. Luke, however, has Neri, Shealtiel and Zerubbabel. And Matthew’s list culminates in declaring that Joseph’s grandfather was named Matthan and his father was Jacob while Luke says that Joseph’s grandfather was Matthat and his father was Heli. And all God’s people said, “There is something rotten in Denmark!” Both can’t be right. (Interesting side note of absolutely no value whatsoever, but there’s a great story of a careless scribe in the 14th century who was copying Luke’s genealogy from a manuscript that had the names in two columns. Unfortunately, the scribe wasn’t paying attention and instead of working down the first column and then up and over to the top of the second, he copied the lines across both columns with the result that the genealogy no longer ended with Adam, the son of God, but rather, with Phares. That’s right, Phares was now the source of the entire race! And God, well, God was now the son of Aram and is stuck in the middle of the list! Who says this stuff isn’t fun?). Now some argue that Matthew gives Joseph’s lineage and Luke gives Mary’s (even though he inserts Joseph’s name); and some argue that one is Joseph’s literal line while the other is his royal line, but neither argument is very convincing. The two genealogies are just irreconcilably different.
But the genealogies are not the only differences. The stories are just different. In Luke, it’s the shepherds. In Matthew, it is the Magi. In Luke, the focus is on Mary. In Matthew, the focus is on Joseph. In Luke, the manger scene in Bethlehem plays a central role. It is where the shepherds go. In Matthew, there’s no manger. The Magi go to a house where Mary and Joseph and Jesus are living. In Luke, the angel(s) speak to Zechariah, to Mary, and to the Shepherds, but not through dreams. In Matthew, the angel speaks to Joseph (4x) and to the Magi, but only does so in dreams. But we can somewhat easily reconcile these facts together. It is harder to do that in regards to the move back to Nazareth (and this was our friends’ main question). In Luke, after Jesus is presented in the temple, the holy family seems to pick up stakes and move to Nazareth. Luke 2:39 confirms this: “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.” It would take roughly 41 days for Mary and Joseph to do everything required by the law after Jesus was born (Jesus would be circumcised on day eight; and then, Mary would have to wait an additional thirty-three days before she could be declared ceremonially clean again). And Luke makes it sound like they left pretty close to when these 41 days were over. But we know that is not the case. Long after these 41 days are over, the Magi show up in Bethlehem. When they leave, Joseph encounters an angel who tells him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt. They spend at least one or two years in Egypt (maybe three) and only come back to Israel after they hear that Herod is dead. And once they return to the land, they decide to move back to Nazareth.
Now, certainly we know that there has to be a gap between the first half of Luke 2:39 (“When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord. . . “) and the second half (“they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.”) that allows time for the Magi, the escape to Egypt, Herod’s death and the angel giving the okay to return to Nazareth. The question is not, “How can we reconcile this sequence of events?”; the question is, “Why are Matthew and Luke’s accounts so radically different?”
ANSWERS AND AN EXAMPLE
We will explore this more next week, but let me give you a quick answer. All four gospel writers choose what material to include, what material to leave out and what material to “modify” in some way in their accounts, depending upon what best suits their purpose(s). See, the gospel writers are not simply writing history. They are telling the story of Jesus. Each author has an argument to make, themes they want to accent, and a theology to proclaim; and they feel free to leave things on the editing floor if they do not feel it advances their case. Now, that is not to say they lie, cheat and steal and will make up any old thing they want. Not at all, but they are much more thematic and theological, than journalistic and historical. Again, it is not that they do not care about history or facts or chronology; they most certainly do, but they are much more interested in proclaiming the truth about who Jesus is.
One quick example to show you what I mean. We saw that Matthew’s genealogy starts with Abraham and ends at Jesus, while Luke’s starts with Jesus and ends with Adam, the son of God. Now, it could be that Luke was just a contrarian and liked to do thinks backwards, but it is far more likely that Luke had a thematic purpose behind this strange choice. Throughout his gospel, Luke presents Jesus as the Savior of the world. In presenting his genealogy in this way, the last name of the list is Adam. The next thing Luke wants to talk about is the temptation of Jesus, in which he presents Jesus as a type of second Adam. But this Adam, unlike his predecessor, is not going to yield to temptation and, instead, will be victorious over the evil one. His choice to order things the way he did (including putting the genealogy after the story of John the Baptizer) sets us up as his readers to see and feel that connection more profoundly than we would have if Luke had chosen to order things in another way. The author’s purpose and themes drive what to include and where to include it. It’s all about what serves their purposes best.
And with that we are done for today, but be of good cheer. We are just getting started! I’ll show that Kin Hubbard that we are not packing up Christmas quite yet!