The Birth of Christ (And Merry Christmas)

The Gospels of Luke and Matthew tell us the story of the events concerning the birth of Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph. If you read both accounts, you will find different key events. The Sacred Author Luke tells us that there was a census and for that reason Joseph took Mary from Nazareth, in Galilee, to Bethlehem, near Jerusalem. As they found no place to stay, Jesus was born “in a manger.” An angel appeared to nearby shepherds, who then saw a “heavenly multitude” singing in the sky. Jesus was circumcised after eight days, and then presented in the temple, where the Holy Family encountered Simeon. Finally, while giving no indication of the time that transpired, Luke tells us that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth in Galilee. (Luke 2: 1-39)

In Matthew 1:18 – 2:23, we encounter a story that tells us of the danger that Mary and Joseph faced. Matthew recounts that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and that concurrently three magi sought of Herod “the newborn king of the Jews” (basileus ton Ioudaion). The magi encounter the child and bring him gifts, and leave the country without speaking to Herod. Herod, furious that the magi had not reported to him the whereabouts of the child, ordered ‘the massacre of innocents.” Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt with the child, and return to Nazareth after that exile. The imagery of the entire account borrows heavily from the events of the Book of Exodus. As a result, some biblical scholars are critical of the historicity of Matthew’s account.

If we reflect on the two passages, we can see that Matthew’s story plays up the image of Jesus, to use the words of the magi, as “king of the Jews.” In addition, the account of the “slaughter of the innocents” and the flight into and out of Egypt are not well attested outside of Scripture. Some scholars are quick to emphasize the differences in the two Gospel accounts as possibly irreconcileable.

To me, that is unfortunate. Assuming there are historical kernels to the two Gospel accounts, we should not automatically conclude that the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt cannot be squared with a timeline that allows for the circumcision of Jesus and his presentation in the temple. We can surmise that numerous reports, rumors and stories reached Herod in the weeks and months after the birth of Jesus. Perhaps months later, Herod finally became enraged by the numerous stories of a boy king somewhere in Judea (Mt 2:16). To end the incessant rumors, he barbarically ordered the execution of apo dietous kai katorero – all boys two years and under.

The argument that Matthew’s accounts were glosses, or “retrojections” cannot be well-defended. Matthew simply highlights accounts for a Jewish audience that Luke chose not to emphasize. For Luke, the emphasis in his account of the birth of Christ is the annunciation, the visitation, and the confirmation by the shepherds and Simeon that Jesus was a child with a special destiny. Matthew, on the other hand, contrasts how the news of the birth of Jesus is received by the local ruler, Herod, and the foreign magi. Nevertheless, both Luke (Lk 2:10-11) and Matthew (Mt 2:1-2) explicitly state that Jesus is either king or messiah.

Merry Christmas!

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