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Do You Need the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in Order to Have Christmas?

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Detail from Bernardo Cavallino's "Natività," created around 1650.

Detail from Bernardo Cavallino’s “Natività,” created around 1650. Photo by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.
In the collection of the National Museum of Abruzzo (Italy). Click image to view the entire painting.

I loved climbing into the family car with my brother and sister at night during those dark days of December. Our parents drove us around the neighborhood, so we could see the Christmas lights and find all the ‘baby Jesuses.’ I learned later that those little scenes were called ‘creches,’ and that they replicated the biblical story of Jesus’s birth near an inn, replete with angels, wise men, shepherds, and a star.

I didn’t care which Gospel the story came from. I just loved the excitement that came from welcoming the baby Jesus and angels singing about Him. When our church family got together, all the kids acted out the story that we all knew so well. I even got to play ‘Mary’ once.

But later, when I could read the story for myself, I found it quite confusing that we read about the angel talking to Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew, but not in the Gospel of Luke. And the angel talks to Mary in Luke, but not in Matthew. The wise men follow a star and offer gifts in Matthew, but there is no wiseman or star in Luke.

In Luke, there are shepherds who are guided by a glowing angel to a child lying in a manger, but not in Matthew. In Matthew, the family flees to Egypt, but in Luke, they go to Jerusalem for the blessings in the Temple.

What gives? This is the Christmas story! And the two gospels completely disagree on what happened.

I tried to figure out how to ‘straighten out’ these two Gospel accounts and get down to the ‘true’ story, but I couldn’t piece it together. I was willing to go along with it the way I heard it in church, because the teachers I loved and trusted encouraged me to just consider the story as a whole in my heart, somewhat like the children’s plays.

Years later, though, my curiosity told me it was time to understand the ‘whole story.’ Looking through the rest of the New Testament, I was startled to realize there simply wasn’t any story about Jesus’ birth at all in the Gospels of Mark or John! He first appears as an adult, coming to his cousin John for baptism. Why didn’t these gospel writers bother to tell this most amazing of stories in their Gospel accounts?

I tried to remember if Paul said anything about it. As the earliest writer of New Testament books, he surely would have thought it important enough to include in his teachings for the new Christian converts. But I couldn’t find a thing.  The same was true of the letters of the apostles. Nobody else in the New Testament texts – not even Jesus’s brother James who absolutely would have known of it – even hints they know anything about Jesus’s remarkable birth story!

The missing Christmas story may have been obvious to all my church mentors and friends all along, but I had never noticed it before. Out of all the writers of the New Testament, only two bother to tell the story, and even they are contradictory?

I was afraid to consider the implications, because Christmas had become a profoundly religious experience for me by now.

Was this discovery going to shatter my faith? 

What was I leaning on? What was it that I loved so much about Christmas? I had to admit it didn’t really matter whether there were shepherds or wise men who found the baby Jesus.

And it really didn’t change my views of Jesus’s little family to consider whether they went to Egypt or to Jerusalem, or even nowhere. There was something else in that fragmented story that still spoke deeply to me.

At different times and places, Mary and Joseph both noticed it as the voice of an angel. Shepherds noticed it as a bright shining light in the sky, or angel. What touched me about this is the realization that it was Christ, the indescribably beautiful gift from God, that was dawning on Mary, on Joseph, and on shepherds in different ways.

Even King Herod noticed it, because he felt it was a threat to his power base. In the Gospel of John, it dawned on John the Baptist, when he said, “Here is the Lamb of God” (1:29)! In the Gospel of Mark, “a voice came from heaven” (1:11).

When Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians, he constantly gave thanks that they “didn’t think of our words as mere human ideas. [They] accepted what we said as the very word of God—which, of course, it is. And this word continues to work in [those] who believe. (2:13).

I’m no Mary, Joseph, Jesus, or New Testament writer, but I know I have heard it too. I heard it when I thought my career path had twisted into dead-ends. I’ve heard it when I’ve been sick and when I’ve been angry. I know it’s the same Christ that appears throughout the ages, because it always changes me for the better.

That childhood joy comes back all over again, reminding me that the Gospel stories in Matthew and Luke aren’t history lessons. All the gospels tell the ‘good news’ in different ways, speaking to the heart, and making it possible to feel the touch of Christ wherever we are and whoever we are.