The Nativity Stories
In the popular imagination there is one Christmas nativity story, involving the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem because of a Roman census, an over-full inn, a stable where Jesus is born and laid in a manger, a visit to the Christ-child by shepherds from nearby fields, a subsequent visit by three exotic magi, whose enquiries unleash the wrath of Herod the Great, and a flight into Egypt before the holy family settle in Nazareth, where Jesus spends his childhood — the whole preceded by the account of the Annunciation to Mary by the Angel Gabriel, Joseph’s uncertainty about what to do, his divine reassurance, and the companion narrative of the birth of John to Elizabeth and Zacharias, itself characterised by a sequence of events which mark it out as special.
But this single narrative, as we carry it in our heads, does not exist: it is a conflation of versions of the story occurring in only two of the gospels. Mark, the earliest of the four, starts with the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, while John’s, the last of the four to be written, opens in a completely different way, which sets the tone for an approach to the good news of the gospel that makes it quite distinct from the other three. Only Matthew and Luke, written after Mark and before John, narrate the Nativity, but with different details and emphases one from the other. It prompts us to ask where these stories came from. They are clearly not from the authors’ first-hand observation; and, if they came from stories passed down orally, how factually accurate is any of their detail? How had these stories been shaped and developed? How much had they been gradually re-framed to harmonise with the prophecies of the Old Testament, to which they refer? What details had been re-fashioned or even introduced to draw out the essential meaning: that this child (looking back from the perspective of at least a generation after the Crucifixion and Resurrection) was known to be — and needed to be narratively presented as — someone who was more than ‘just’ human because he was God incarnate, the ‘Messiah’, the ‘Anointed One’, or ‘Christos’ as it is in Greek.
Oral traditions invariably shape narratives as they are passed on, in ways pointed to by these questions. It is a progression in narrative formation that is found in all ages and cultures, all the more so when there is a compelling need for the narrative to convey a Big Idea, as in this case. At the simplest level, Matthew and Luke were probably drawing upon stories already developed to satisfy curious interest about the earlier stages of Jesus’ life, which generated yet more detailed accounts of his birth and childhood in the apocryphal gospels of later centuries. But such infancy narratives would also have satisfied a powerful expectation, found in all traditional cultures, that special figures (gods, heroes, and so on) are marked out by the exceptional nature of their birth and the circumstances surrounding it. A birth-narrative defining the nature of that exception is looked for, and Matthew and Luke met the need by including versions of the stories that had grown up around Jesus. Part of the reason for how they differ from each other is that they were writing for different kinds of reader — gentiles in the case of Luke, and believers from the Jewish tradition in the case of Matthew. But exploration of their differences is for another occasion, perhaps next Christmas.