Accounts of Jesus’ Birth and their Differences

Accounts of Jesus’ Birth and their Differences

One interesting area of study is the difference in the accounts of Jesus’ birth, as described by Matthew and Luke. The reason that the two versions are different is that they were written for different audiences. Matthew was a Jew, and he presents Jesus as the New Moses. Consider the parallels:

1) In Genesis 37:5-9, 28, Joseph was taken to Egypt because of his dreams, which ultimately led to deliverance by Moses. In Matthew 1:20-23, 2:13, and 2:19-20, Joseph takes his family to Egypt because of his dreams.

2) Joseph is the son of Jacob in Genesis 37:1-3. Jesus’ father, Joseph, is the son of Jacob Matthew 1:16.

3) The Pharaoh of Egypt orders the killing of male Hebrew babies before the exodus in Exodus 1:15-16. Herod the Great orders the killing of Hebrew boy babies in Bethlehem in Matthew 2:16.

4) Joseph sends for his family to come to the land of Goshen to survive a famine and set the stage for their deliverance. In Matthew 2:13-14, Joseph takes his family to Egypt to save the child, Jesus.

5) Moses led the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt to the land God promised Abraham in Exodus 14, Deuteronomy 34, and Genesis 17:6. Jesus returned from Egypt to live in Nazareth in Matthew 2:19-23.

Matthew is a Jew writing for a Jewish audience and showing that Jesus had significance for the Jews and the gentiles. Luke is a Greek and is writing for a Gentile audience. Luke begins by relating Jesus to John the Baptist, with John being the herald of Jesus in Luke 1:76-77. In 2:1-5, Luke tells us about the census under Quirinius to explain how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem. Luke then presents a different emphasis than Matthew:

1) Angels take the news of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in Luke 2:8-12.

2) Angels participate in heaven’s jubilation in Luke 2:13-14.

3) The shepherds visit the family and are the first evangelists in Luke 2:16-18.

4) Jesus is taken to Jerusalem and presented at the temple. There He is proclaimed “a light for the Gentiles and a glory for Israel” in Luke 2:28-32.

5) The childhood of Jesus at the age of 12 returning to Jerusalem in Luke 2:40-52. The re-connection with his cousin, John, in Luke 3.

The two accounts of Jesus’ birth remarkably complement each other. Those who try to find contradictions between Matthew and Luke are not considering who wrote the accounts, to whom they were directed, why they were written, and how the readers would understand them. The gospels of Mark and John were written for different purposes and do not tell about the birth of Jesus. 

Much of the Christmas narrative we hear at this time of year is not even in the Bible, and it is speculation about what might have happened. Reread the accounts, thinking about the purpose of the narratives and to whom they were written. You grow when you stick to the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the Bible and ignore the later embellishments.

— John N. Clayton © 2020