Why are the Birth Narratives so Different? (I)

The question is why are the birth narratives so different, and are they ‘dueling banjos’? My response is no. There are three sorts of problems: macro, micro, and in between. The macro problem has to do with the genre issue, which is not taken into account in a book like ‘Misquoting Jesus’ at all. The in between problem is the problem of comparison and contrast which is overplayed. The evidence is over-read in a certain tendentious way. The third problem is the micro problem – not allowing the Greek text to be translated in a way that might show that Luke did not have a senior moment, but knew what he was talking about.

In the first place, when you are dealing with Matthew and Luke, you are dealing with two different genres of literature. Matthew is more akin to an ancient biography, so it is going to focus on telling the story of Jesus from womb to tomb, and beyond. Luke, on the other hand, is operating as an ancient Greek, yet Jewish, historian. His concerns are – as he says in Luke 1:1-4 – about the things that have happened amongst us. His focus is not on personalities or even just the person of Jesus. His focus is on events – what we would call ‘salvation historical events’.

Matthew is writing a Jewish biography of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. Of course, he has to start with the genealogy. The reader needs to know the pedigree before they can engage in figuring out who this person is. Luke really is not all that concerned about that. He wants to explain the things that have happened amongst us – the things that have been eye witnessed by various people. He is going to argue a case for probably a Gentile patron named Theophilus, or a God-fearer – somebody who may be a new Christian, or is interested in Christianity. Luke is arguing apologetically a particular case about the things that have happened amongst the people, the importance of these things, and why the reader should care about them. So Matthew and Luke have very different agendas.

We should not be surprised that they come at the birth story of Jesus from very different angles of incidence. They come at them differently, and intentionally differently. Considering how very differently they are approaching their material, what is surprising are the points of convergence, not the points of difference. The points of coincidence are the remarkable ideas of a virginal conception; a birth in Bethlehem; and Jesus being the Son of God, the Messiah who has come into the world. These are the real points of convergence in these ‘Christmas stories’.

One of the really problematic things that happens in Bart Ehrman’s work is that he actually asks us to read the texts like fundamentalists – without any intention to the genre of the literature or the different purposes of the authors. We are asked to just flatly compare ‘statement A’ to ‘sound bite B’, so we come to ‘conclusion C’ which shows they must be contradicting each other. As I suspect Dr. Ehrman would not want that done to his work, it is unfair to do that to the Gospels. The way he is approaching the differences in the text ignores the larger literary issues of genre, kind of literature, purpose, etc.