Gospel Overtures - Excerpts

The Message of the Christmas Stories in Matthew and Luke

1. Biblical Truth and Historical Fact

When the ancient peoples wished to express an important truth, they didn’t write history books or philosophy books. Often, they wrote stories. The parables of Jesus are an excellent example. When he was asked “Who is my neighbour?” he didn’t give a conceptual response (such as the definition I learned as a child, “mankind of every description”). Instead, Jesus told a story. When faced with that question, he told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25¬–37), a memorable example of fiction used to teach a lesson. There was no historical “Good Samaritan;” he is a fictional character whose actions teach us what it means to be a good neighbour.

Hearing the statement that the Good Samaritan is a fictional character, students would invariably ask, “So it’s not true, right, sir?” My answer always was, “It is true; it teaches important truth about God and human values. It’s just not a historical fact.”

People of the twenty-first century prefer to rely entirely on factual information, and tend to dismiss as “untrue” anything that isn’t factual. As a society and as a community of believers, we definitely need greater respect for the truth expressed in literature and poetry, and for the depth and meaningfulness of symbolic writing. The bible (including the infancy narratives) is less “newspaper report” than “reflection on the place of God in human life,” often expressed in poetry, myth, or other forms of symbolic language—a matter of great importance that is far deeper than a presentation of simple facts. What is truly significant is recognizing meaning, getting to know Jesus, believing, and considering the importance of his teaching for our lives.

The Christmas Stories In Matthew

In addition to his own personal faith and insight, the author of Matthew apparently used a number of written documents as sources for his gospel. They included the gospel of Mark which had been composed some ten years earlier, a collection of sayings of Jesus with no narratives attached (now known as Q), and likely some other written and oral material that was known only to Matthew’s community. That community, about fifty years old and possibly located in Syria, included many Christians who were heirs of the Jewish tradition. A significant purpose of Matthew’s gospel was to present Jesus as the fulfilment of Jewish hopes, to support that segment of his community in their decision to become followers of Jesus.

Matthew developed his infancy narrative as a prelude or overture to the gospel, setting the stage for themes that would be explored in the body of the work. In creating his Christmas story, he may have used materials previously written by others. It is possible that, like the introductions or overtures to many works, the infancy narratives were composed after the body of the gospel.

As we begin a detailed discussion of Matthew’s infancy narratives, try to remove from your consciousness all the details that you remember from Luke’s gospel. That gospel did not exist when Matthew was written; the author of Matthew apparently knew nothing of census, manger, shepherds and angels. He developed his infancy narrative to prepare for his presentation of the good news of Jesus in a way that would respond to the needs of his community.

The first chapter of the gospel has two components, the genealogy of Jesus and the angel’s announcement to Joseph about the origin of the child and the role that Joseph is expected to play in his life. Chapter Two tells the story of the Magi who came from afar to honour the newborn child in Joseph’s home in Bethlehem, followed by the family’s flight to Egypt to escape the murderous king, the massacre of the male infants in Bethlehem, and the family’s migration, not to their original home but to the town of Nazareth in the district of Galilee where Jesus was to grow up and live most of his life.

The above summary represents the extent of Christian reflection on the origins of Jesus, at the time of its composition. Remember that none of his townspeople, nor the disciples who followed Jesus during his ministry, nor Paul nor the author of Mark had ever heard these accounts.

The Christmas Stories In Luke

As we begin the discussion of the Christmas stories in Luke, it might be useful to review the introductory chapter in this book, which is summarized briefly in the following paraagraphs.

The first point to remember is that Jesus’s most important teaching was, “The Reign of God has come . . . The Reign of God is upon you… The Reign of God is within you.” That phrase is a proclamation that if we will allow God to reign in our hearts, God will transform us and give us the spiritual energy to live in love, to meet life’s challenges with wisdom and courage, and ultimately to be true to ourselves and to God as we create our selves by our decisions. All those phrases are synonymous with the statement “God saves us.” “God saves us,” means that God reaches into our lives, overcomes our failings, and leads us to wholeness. That transformation will happen to the extent that we open our hearts to the Reign of God.

The second introductory segment is a brief history of the development of the New Testament. The authentic letters of Paul were complete and Paul had died before any gospel was written. The earliest gospel was Mark, written in the early 70s of the first Christian century. Neither of those authors is aware of any information that appears in what we know as the infancy narratives. Later, the gospel of Matthew was written in the early 80s; its author likely was not aware of what we read about Jesus’s birth in the gospel of Luke; Luke’s gospel had not yet been written. Matthew’s narrative includes a genealogy of Jesus and accounts of an angel’s message to Joseph, the visit of the magi, the flight to Egypt, the massacre of the boy children in Bethlehem and the migration of the family of Jesus to Nazareth. Each segment of the narrative has a distinctive purpose as an introduction to themes that are expanded in the rest of the gospel, and that have relevance for Christian believers today. The gospel of Luke was written near the year 90 CE. As far as scholars can tell, the author of Luke had not read Matthew, and so was not familiar with Matthew’s genealogy, or the episodes that are narrated in Matthew’s gospel.
Any items in the infancy narratives on which the two gospels agree may be understood as the product of tradition that dates back to a time before either gospel was completed. Such points of agreement include that Jesus was born during the reigns of Herod the Great and Augustus Caesar, that he was understood to be a descendant of David, that he was born in David’s birthplace, that his mother’s name was Mary and that her husband’s name was Joseph, that Mary conceived her child before she was fully married to Joseph, and that Jesus was conceived as the result of a creative act of God.

With that background renewed, we advance to a discussion of the infancy narrative in the gospel according to Luke.