The Birth Myth – Part 4: Conflicting Stories December 16, 2009Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, Christmas.
Tags: birth narratives, conflicting stories, Gabriel, gospel, Jesus, Joseph, Luke, Mary, Matthew, myth, nativity
What comes to mind when you think of the story of the birth of Jesus? A manger in Bethlehem? Shepherds and wise men? Angelic announcements and special stars?
The truth of the matter is that we know far less than one might think about the supposed event. The birth is covered in only two of the four gospels and those stories have more differences than they do similarities, making our popular version of the birth narrative a conglomeration of these two works.
Before delving into the comparison of the gospel accounts, let us consider the absence of birth stories from earlier writings. The first books of the New Testament canon to be written were the works of Paul, none of which contain reference to the miraculous birth. The earliest gospel is that of Mark, whose account begins with the baptism of Jesus and has no mention of the birth. It is not until the books of Matthew and Luke, written decades after the crucifixion, that the birth stories are put on paper.
Luke’s account includes the miracle birth story of John the Baptist, a tale that goes untold in the other four works. John’s father, Zechariah, is a priest and his wife, Elizabeth, is barren and past the age of childbearing. One day while in the temple, the angel Gabriel appears to him and announces that he will have a son, thus setting up the first miraculous birth story.
Both Luke and Matthew record angelic announcements of Jesus’ coming, though the actual stories themselves differ greatly. According to Luke, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that she will bear a child by the Holy Spirit and that they will name him Jesus. Matthew tells of an unnamed angel who appears to Joseph when he considers divorcing his pregnant fiancée, telling him that the child is from the Holy Spirit and he will be named Jesus. Thus begets the first conundrum in the birth stories – which of the angelic encounters happened, or perhaps did both of them happen? If both of them did occur as written, why did the angels see fit to repeat the same things to each of the future parents? Could the account in Matthew, in which the angel appears to Joseph, have been added to placate a patriarchal society?
The gospel of Luke tells the manger story, in which the couple goes to the town of Bethlehem for the census and the baby Jesus is born in a manger because there was no room at the inn.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.
Matthew tells us a different story, one that takes place directly after the angel appears to Joseph.
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…
A few things jump out on a careful reading. First of all, Luke seems to say that Joseph and Mary are still unmarried when Jesus is born, while Matthew tells of the couple getting married immediately after the angel spoke, with Jesus being born later. Secondly, Luke says that the couple are from Nazareth, but they travel to Bethlehem for the census and are forced to have the baby in a manger. Matthew makes no mention of a manger, but instead says that Joseph takes his bride home and that she later has a baby in Bethlehem. This short account and the one of the magi which we will talk about next, seem to assert that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem, while Luke states that their home was in Nazareth. The common practice has been to shove the two stories together into one and gloss over any pesky details that get in the way, but I wonder if that is actually the best way to go about things.
Next: The Visitors