The Nativity Stories

I was discussing this with a friend the other day, and thought it might be worthwhile to post about. There are two versions of Jesus’ birth in the Bible. The authors of Mark and John decided it wasn’t important enough to write about, but Luke and Matthew have very different stories. So, let’s start with Matthew. Matthew 2 has the story about the wise men from the East. It has Herod killing all of the first born, and it has an escape to Egypt. It has no shepherds and no census. Now let’s turn to Luke.

Luke 2 has the shepherds and the census, but makes no mention of killing all of the first born. The census is the worst thing Herod does.
That’s not to say there is nothing in common between the stories. Both have Jesus born in the City of David, which I suspect was a spiritual necessity. Both have Jesus growing up in Nazareth in Galilee, which I suspect was a historical necessity.

Is this old news? It proves once again that a literalistic view of the Bible is unacceptable, but does it do anything to your faith? What do you take from the stories?

7 replies on “The Nativity Stories”

I am reading a book that discusses this, “The First Christmas” by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. I realize that so much of my understanding of the Christmas story is based on storytelling-pagents, I guess and other public media, not the Bible story. I remember talking about the fact the shepherds and the wise men are not in the same story, but I never tracked the path.

Borg and Crossan have some interesting comments on the intended audience, what other stories people of the time were hearing and some of the period references the stories make.

I could go on.. I find the book fascinating, but it is enough for now:)

I don’t know how someone who literally interprets the Bible works this out. Except if they don’t compare the text, but just remember the pagents, as I seemed to do. Maybe you notice these differences when you are ready to accept them?

I am coming from something other than a Christian tradition, but I am steeped biblical teaching, both religious (Southern Baptist) and secular.

I also am continuously amazed that anyone can reconcile a literal interpretation. The straight contradictory passages are one thing, but I’ve been reading recently about how the Christ story, nativity in particular, parallels so completely the Mediterranean religions which preceded Christianity. Christ pretty clearly took the mantle of several heroes and gods prior to the first century.

And I wonder how much of this was understood by First and Second Century readers/listeners. For example, in that time, it was perfectly acceptable for followers of Paul’s school to sign letters as from Paul. So, while some Christians today are scandalized to learn that a letter titled Paul’s Letter to X in the King James Bible, is not really written by Paul, the original readers would not have been.

Similarly, I wonder if those who read Matthew’s Gospel would have looked at each other and said, “Do you remember Herod killing all of the first born? Seems like we would have remembered that.” or if instead they understood Matthew’s point and nodded to each other, “Yeah, he was as great as Moses and [Mediterranean Hero Who No One Knows Anymore]”.

I really don’t know.


I appreciate that you refrained from using scare quotes around the word maps. I did find your post interesting and particularly like your evaluation of efforts to harmonize the two stories. “Ironically, the effect of such a harmonization–in a case like the nativity stories–is that the conservative Christian interpreter prefers the story he concocted himself to the biblical accounts of both Matthew and Luke.”

For me the question is what do we get from the separate stories. In Genesis, each creation story carries its own punch and provides new insight into the nature of God. Here, I’m not so sure.

But as I have posted elsewhere, I’m very slow to throw something out as unhelpful. I need to spend more time contemplating what we can get from the two stories.

But you are right on to insist that we not merge them. I’m teaching a Sunday School lesson this week that tries to do that. I will have to deviate from the text.

I was reading somebody’s scholarly work comparing Joseph (of multi-colored coat fame) and Joseph (Jesus’ father), and how they are essentially the same person. How Jesus fulfills essentially the same prophecies as Moses and as Elijah.

The study went into the cultural norms of ancient Jews, who traditionally told stories of their heroes as a way to understand divinity, not as any kind of literal thing.

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