With Christmas just around the corner, I thought I'd repost an essay I wrote on my livejournal two years ago:
My wife Angelyn collects nativity scenes. She has several. Some of them have extra pieces, others have missing ones. A few have Marys that don't exactly match their Josephs or that kind of thing. Others have four wise men. I've noticed that a complete nativity set typically has all the following figures (with slight variations): 1 Jesus, 1 Mary, 1 Joseph, 1-2 shepherds, 3 wise men, 1-2 angels, 1-2 sheep, 1 donkey, and a camel. Usually, of course, Jesus is sleeping in a manger, and sometimes the whole thing comes with a sort of facade background of a stable. What fascinates me about this arrangement is its complete revisionist approach to the scriptural narratives. While Christmas carols and Handel's MESSIAH may give us a cohesive vision of "the first Noel," the fact is that we have only two biblical sources (the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke) for these accounts, and the sources are largely in direct conflict with one another.
Matthew recounts the birth of Jesus as follows: Mary is pregnant; Joseph decides to divorce her, but an angel tells him not to; Jesus is born (in Bethlehem), though the particular circumstances of his birth are never covered; some time later, an unspecified number of astrologers journey to Jerusalem and start asking around about the newborn king of the Jews; a nervous King Herod hears about this, calls up his scribes, and discovers that the Messiah (the future king who would deliver Israel out of bondage) was to be born in Bethlehem; Herod calls in the astrologers, instructs them to go find Jesus and to send word when they find him, so he too can pay tribute; the astrologers find Mary and Jesus and give them presents; after being warned in a dream, the astrologers leave town without sending word to Herod; another angel comes to Joseph and tells him to flee with his family to Egypt; he does; Herod kills every child two years old or younger in and around Bethlehem; Herod dies, and an angel tells Joseph to return to Israel; afraid of Herod's son, Joseph decides to move the family to Nazareth where they can hide and avoid any unwanted attention. That's it. That is all Matthew has to say about the adventures of young Jesus. Imagine if this were the only source we ever had. No nativity scenes with shepherds and sheep and mangers.
Luke, however, paints a very different picture: Mary is told by an angel that she will become pregnant; sometime later, when she is near giving birth, she and her fiance Joseph -- both already residents of Nazareth -- travel to Bethlehem because of a census that requires people to travel to the home of their ancient ancestors in order to register; Mary gives birth while on this trip and must lay her baby in a manger since there is no room for them in the inn; some angels come down and tell some shepherds that a savior is born in Bethlehem; the shepherds go there and find Jesus; eight days later, they circumcise Jesus and take him to Jerusalem to be dedicated in the Temple; after visiting the temple, they go straight to their hometown of Nazareth.
We can see here that we have two very different sources for the narrative traditions of Jesus' birth. In Matthew, we can only assume that Mary and Joseph always lived in Bethlehem since there is no reason given for their being there and since it is made clear that they only decide to go to Nazareth because it is off the beaten path. Likewise, it is already obvious that Mary is pregnant before anyone knows of any supernatural cause, and it is Joseph who is visited by an angel. It also seems that the family dwells for a while in Bethlehem before escaping to Egypt, while in Luke, they go immediately to Jerusalem after Jesus' birth and then home to Nazareth.
Other differences are a matter of omission. Jesus being laid in a manger isn't ruled out in the Matthew account, and the shepherds and astrologers don't directly contradict each other. However, I think it can easily be seen that if 2000 years of Christmas tradition hadn't've already fused these two stories together in our heads, no one would deny the obvious differences between them today. Christians today feel defensive about the Gospel's place in history, so they try to ignore the differences. Denying the differences, however, erases their mythological import -- the reason the writers recorded these stories to begin with.
In Matthew, the theological message is a very Jewish one. It is the promise of lost kingship restored. Those who are wise will know the coming of the king. Those who are foolish will try to thwart it. God, however, is always one step ahead of evil. Angels are appearing at every turn and everyone has dreams of warning. It is a story of political intrigue with universal implications, because the king of the Jews will be the king of all kings.
Luke, on the other hand, carries a very different meaning. Luke is about Rome versus Israel, secular power versus spiritual power, and the God of Conquest versus the God of Peace. In Luke, angels appear only twice, to Mary and to the shepherds, and both times they come with proclamations of peace and blessings. It is also not at all insignificant that in Luke, the angels appear only to a woman and to the peasant animal workers. These are the lowest rungs of society at that time, the precise opposite of Caesar's Rome. Jesus is not a king, but a savior. He is not powerful, but meek. Luke asks the question, "where do you find God, in the imperial palaces of Rome or in a manger in Bethlehem?"
By and large, these are the overall issues raised in Matthew and Luke respectively as gospels. Matthew is primarily concerned with how the event of Jesus is tied to the promised Kingdom of Israel. Luke, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with the inclusivity of all oppressed peoples into such a kingdom. By mixing and shaking down the birth narratives, one loses these separate but equally pressing lessons. If one wishes to truly hear the inspired Word of God, one would be well advised to deconstruct the myth of the one Christmas and explore the two problematic stories beneath it. Only then can one seriously expect to celebrate the infant Jesus as the reason for the season.
Andrew Kenneth Gay studied philosophy of religion at Flagler College before he decided it would be too difficult to learn Latin. Many of the ideas expressed above are indirectly plagiarized from the geniuses who wrote the books Andrew read and almost understood while at Flagler. In particular, he owes much of his interpretation of Luke to the scholarly work of John Dominic Crossan, a man who once said that Jesus' body was probably eaten by dogs.