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Why Are Jesus' Birth Narratives Different?

This week we ponder the differences of the birth narratives of Jesus. "Why are the two birth stories so very different?"

We find the accounts of Jesus' birth in Matthew and Luke. Luke's account, the most popularly known, includes the angel's visit to Mary, the world-wide census, the birth in the manger in Bethlehem, the angels' visit to the shepherds, and the shepherd's visitation to the stable.

Matthew's account is different. It contains Joseph's visit by an angel in a dream, the birth in Bethlehem (with no details), the visit by the magi (the wisemen), the presentation of their gifts, the subterfuge of King Herod, and the escape to Egypt by the holy family.

Why are there differences between the accounts? There are three possible reasons. The first is that birth records may have been considered unimportant, with the exception of the birthplace or the lineage. Thus that we have any details at all could be rather exceptional and would explain the seeming lack of a coherent structure between the accounts.

The second possible answer is considered the most traditional. Both Matthew and Luke were writing their accounts for differing audiences and with different purposes. Matthew wrote for a decidedly Jewish readership, while Luke wrote primarily for a non-Jewish audience. Matthew wrote to show the messiahship of Jesus. In doing so he cites a plethora of Old Testament scripture to prove Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophesies. The story of the magi visiting the infant Jesus was likely included to show authoritative acceptance of Jesus as the Jewish messianic king. Luke likely included the shepherd's story to indicate Jesus' inclusive ministry to the oppressed, the poor, and the outcast.

But there is a third possibility as to the differences: the birth details may have been unknown and so Matthew and Luke constructed the stories to support the message of their gospels. The construction of stories to teach and to support issues was common in biblical times; indeed, Jesus used a variety of parables to illustrate his teachings. Many scholars believe this may be the case of the birth accounts in the gospels and there is significant evidence to support their claim.

For one, the differences between the two accounts are suggestive on their own, but the exclusion of references to the birth or birthplace of Jesus by the other gospel writers offers little support for the Bethlehem birth story. Mark never even uses the word "Bethlehem" in his gospels and John makes only a single reference. And in John's only reference there is an assertion that Jesus was born in Nazareth. "Others said, This is the Messiah.' But some asked, "Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee [the county where Nazareth is located], does he? Has not the scripture said the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem?'" (John 7.41-42).

The notion of a Nazarene birth is further bolstered by the use of the title "Jesus of Nazareth." In biblical writings, as well as other contemporary works, people were generally identified in one of three ways: (1) by their ancestors (James son of Zebedee); (2) by their profession (Simon the tanner); (3) by their birthplace (Saul of Tarsus, Goliath of Gath). Jesus is called the son of David, based on his lineage. He is called the carpenter based on his earlier profession. And he is called Jesus of Nazareth based perhaps upon his birthplace.

Although all four gospels use the title "Jesus of Nazareth," Matthew uses the title but once. It is also interesting Jesus is never called "Jesus of Bethlehem." Indeed, in the gospels, Bethlehem is not mentioned outside of the birth narratives with the single exception of John 7:41-42, and there only to deny a Bethlehemic birth.

So, the differences between the birth stories in the gospels may have been for a variety of reasons, including the possibility that Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem at all. However, the two birth accounts do inform us of God's intentions to minister to rich and poor, oppressed and mighty. And that Jesus, even as an infant, was Emmanuel God with us.

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