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.
in Matthew chapter 2
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.
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.
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.
in Luke chapter 2
1– 3 Caesar decrees that
all should be taxed, and everyone went to their own city for this
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.
21 After eight days the child
is circumcised and names Jesus.
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.
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.