The Nativity – an overview

The story of the Nativity of Christ is one of the most familiar biblical episodes. From school nativity plays to services of lessons and carols, these events are ingrained in Christian culture. And yet – there isn’t one nativity narrative in the bible, but two. The gospels of Luke and Matthew are very different, and sometimes quite contradictory.  Let’s put them side by side, verse by verse.  

Events in Matthew chapter 2

1.Jesus is born in Bethlehem in the reign of King Herod.

2. Wise men come from the East to Jerusalem to worship the ‘King of the Jews’ , having seen a star.

3. This caused consternation in Herod and all Jerusalem.

4- 7 The chief priests and scribes pinpoint Bethlehem as the place.

8 He sends the wise men to Bethlehem and asks them to bring him word of what they find.

9- 10 They follow the star to Bethlehem.

11 They worship Jesus and give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 They are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and head home a different way.

13 An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take Jesus and his mother to Egypt, to avoid the wrath of Herod.

14  - 15 He does so, and they remain in Egypt until the Death of Herod.

16 - 18 A furious Herod orders the massacre of all the male children in Bethlehem who are two years old or younger.

19 Herod dies

20 -23 Joseph fears a return to Judea so turns aside into Galilee, to the city of Nazareth, thus fulfilling the prophecy that the Messiah would be a Nazarene. 


Events in Luke chapter 2

1– 3 Caesar decrees that all should be taxed, and everyone went to their own city for this purpose.

4-5 Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem to be taxed, because he is of the House of David.

6 – 7 While they are there, Jesus is born, and laid in a manger as there is no room at the inn.

8 – 14  An angel appears to shepherds in the fields and tells them of the birth of the Saviour, Christ the Lord. A host of angels then appears, praising God.

15 - 20 The shepherds head to Bethlehem and find Mary, Joseph and the child. They tell people what they have seen.

21 After eight days the child is circumcised and names Jesus.

22 - 24 When the days of the purification of Mary were completed Jesus was presented to the Lord at the temple in Jerusalem.

25 – 38 They hear the prophesies of Simeon and Anna.

39 They return to Nazareth.  


  The solution, of course, was, and is, a composite narrative of the best bits. Many Nativity images feature, for example, both the Shepherds and the Magi. Inevitably,  this glosses over the very real problems and contradictions inherent in these texts. 

    I will have more to say about this in the section on the Journey to Bethlehem. Two constraints on the gospel writers was the need to link Jesus with Bethlehem, and the unidentified prophecy concerning Nazareth mentioned by Matthew in verse 23.  In Luke the Holy Family start in Nazareth and return there. In Matthew it is suggested that expediency leads them to settle in Nazareth rather than returning to their old home in Judea, presumably Bethlehem.

 Time scale
    Luke allows no time for events such as the arrival of the Magi, the slaughter of the innocents or the Flight into Egypt. The massacre of those under two years old suggests an extended timescale. The Magi's visit is celebrated as Epiphany (January 6th) though nothing in Matthew suggests that the visit took place immediately after the Birth of Christ.
      It is interesting that Matthew does not actually tell us that there were three wise men; this is inferred from the three gifts. 

  It is generally agreed that the longer, more mystical text of St. Matthew's gospel was intended to resonate with a Jewish audience. Many of the events of the nativity parallel the story of Moses. Geza Vermes in The Nativity describes Luke's narrative as 'a simple story for simple people', which perhaps sells its Gentile readership rather short. 

   As time passed, people weren't satisfied with the brief narratives provided by the gospels. Later writers obliged, and the simple stories were extended and embroidered by various apocryphal infancy narratives. These new elements were seized on with relish by artists, and I will be looking at them in the following pages.

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