Why are Matthew’s and Luke’s Nativity accounts so strikingly different?
They agree Jesus was born to a virgin in Bethlehem, and little else
When we see crèches or other portrayals of the birth of Jesus, we often think of a solitary story beginning with Mary and Joseph being visited by angels and culminating in a stable where the newborn baby is visited by shepherds and magi. But it doesn’t take more than a cursory reading of the gospels of Matthew and Luke to realize that there is no single story about the Nativity — the accounts in the two books are so different from each other that it barely seems like they’re describing the same event.
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Oh, there are similarities, to be sure. In both accounts Jesus is born in Bethlehem and is conceived with Mary being a virgin, and those two details have placed a major role in shaping the Christian understanding of who Jesus was and is. But the differences aren’t trivial: In Luke, Mary apparently was living in Nazareth, and she and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to participate in a census. In Matthew, there is no indication that Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem, and it wasn’t until some time after Jesus’s birth that they ended up in Nazareth. In Matthew, an angel appeared to Joseph; in Luke, an angel visited Mary. In Matthew, Jesus’ first visitors were foreigners from the East; in Luke, they were shepherds.1 In Matthew, those who learned of Jesus’ birth were frightened; in Luke they were delighted. In Matthew, Jesus’ first journey was to Egypt; in Luke it was to Nazareth. In their substantially different genealogies of Jesus, the two authors can’t agree even on who was Joseph’s father.
So we can’t help but wonder: Why did Matthew and Luke,2 whose gospels largely report the same stories in Jesus’ adult life, based mostly on the gospel of Mark,3 differ so much in telling the story of his birth?
The quick answer is that Matthew and Luke were writing to different audiences and thus had different purposes in telling the story. Let’s look briefly at what the two gospel writers were up to:
Matthew, proclaiming Jesus as a new leader
Matthew makes clear throughout his gospel that he’s writing to Jews and seeks to show that Jesus is a sort of new Moses in a fulfillment of prophecies from the Hebrew Bible.4 In the birth account, he quotes from Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah, tying the three prophets to Jesus’ virgin birth, the city where Jesus was born, and the escape to Egypt, respectively. And in his first writing of Jesus’ adult life, he connects John the Baptist with a prophecy in Isaiah.
Among the parallels Matthew offers us between Jesus and Moses in his first chapters are:
The infancy narratives of Moses and Jesus take place at time where Israel is under foreign domination.
The foreign leader threatens to kill young children.
Miraculous events allowed both Moses and Jesus to avoid death as infants.
Jesus is called out of Egypt, just as were the Israelites.
Matthew also makes other parallels with Moses elsewhere in his gospel. For example, what we know as the Sermon on the Mount has Jesus offering new teaching from a mountain. (In Luke, he teaches from a flat place in what is known as the Sermon on the Plain.) And while Moses wandered in the desert for 40 years on the way to what was supposed to be the climax of his leadership, Jesus was led by the Spirit to spend 40 days in the desert before he could start preaching.
Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus begins with David as the descendant of Abraham, connecting Jesus with the great king and the father of the Israelite people. Matthew leaves out some of Jesus’ ancestors to put the ones listed in three groups of 14, possibly as a symbolic way of emphasizing Jesus’ royal heritage. Matthew also portrays Jesus as a sort of royalty with the story of the magi bring him expensive gifts.
Luke, portraying a Savior of humble origins
In contrast, Luke uses the birth narrative to emphasize to portray Jesus as one born in a humble state, one who would exalt the lowly. He develops this theme beginning with the prayer of Mary that has become known as the Magnificat. Among the portions highlighting this theme:5
My soul magnifies the Lord.
My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,
for he has looked at the humble state of his servant.
For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed.
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down princes from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things.
He has sent the rich away empty.
In Luke’s account, Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem and were unable to find a place to stay,6 and Jesus’ first bed ended up being a feeding trough. The first to come see him were shepherds, most likely among the poorer residents of the area. And when Mary took Jesus to the Jerusalem temple a few days after his circumcision to be presented to the Lord, Luke tells us, she brought as an offering a pair of doves or two young pigeons. This was the offering that was given by those who could not afford a lamb.
Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, like Matthew’s, leaves out some names for what may be symbolic reasons. Where it differs theologically is in ending with Adam, thus portraying Jesus as someone sent for all people, not just the Jews.7
Elsewhere in the New Testament
Of the four gospels, only Matthew and Luke mention Jesus’ birth. Mark begins his book with an account of John the Baptist. John begins his with a theological statement equating Jesus with the Word who came to live among us. Outside of Matthew and Luke, there are no references in the New Testament to the Nativity beyond Paul writing that Jesus was born to a woman, a descendant of David.
This commentary on Matthew and Luke is part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series, published to roughly coincide with the schedule of the Come, Follow Me curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Views expressed are solely those of the author. Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.
Matthew’s account suggests that the visit from the magi occurred a significant amount of time after Jesus’ birth. Thus the traditional scene of the baby being visited by shepherds and the magi at the same time is best seen as an artistic conflation rather than coinciding with the Biblical accounts.
The gospels of both Matthew and Luke were written anonymously, although traditions dating to at least the second century ascribe them to Matthew the disciple and Luke, a traveling companion of Paul, respectively. However, historians and other scholars have raised questions particularly about the authorship of Matthew, as that book does not appear to nor claim to have been written by someone who witnessed the events of Jesus’ life in the way that one of the disciples would have.
Matthew and Luke also include similar or identical stories about Jesus’ life that aren’t in Mark. It has been hypothesized that they come from a document known as Q, named from the German Quelle, meaning “source.”
What Christians today call the Old Testament.
See Luke 1:46-56.
Although the King James Version and other traditional translations say there was no room at the inn, the Greek word used here more likely suggests that they couldn’t find room in a guest room of a relative’s home and thus were forced to go where animals were kept.
Luke names Heli as the father of Joseph; Matthew says his name was Jacob. The reason for the discrepancy is disputed. Luke also wrote the genealogy through the line of David and Bathsheba’s son Nathan, while Matthew wrote his through the line of David’s son Solomon, who became king.