When Jesus was born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago there was no “Bethlehem Tribune” and the Anton Media group which brings you this fine publication was nowhere to be found. So the usual reliable local and real news you’ve come to expect each week wasn’t around. In fact the accounts of Jesus’ birth weren’t written until around 80 years later. In two of the gospels (Mark and John) his birth isn’t described at all. Only Luke and Matthew’s gospel have an account of his birth and they are quite different from each other in many respects.
The differences often come as a surprise, especially to Christians who have heard the stories of the birth of Jesus their whole lives long. And that’s because both different stories are woven together when children’s Christmas books are written or there are pageants about the nativity of Jesus as if they are one account. But they are amazingly different.
Once it’s clear that there are different accounts of the birth of Jesus, it’s natural for people to wonder, “Which one is true?” The answer is “both!” One doesn’t need to be a scripture scholar to know this. Grandparents are experts in telling stories that are both true and contradictory. In fact, not only does one grandparent differ from the other, but sometimes the story changes each time the same person tells it.
The contradictions and changes are not indications of lies or falsehoods. They’re not “fake news.” For in each telling, the stories capture the most important realities underlying the “first time Grandpa and I met”, or “what your mother was like when she was a little girl”, or “why our family immigrated to America.” Whether their first date was on a Wednesday or a Thursday, whether the little girl was four years old or five when she fell out of a tree, whether it was poverty or a desire for adventure that brought the family here, those details — even if contradicted — are usually not essential to the story’s deep truth.
Grandparent stories are also often told not to just transmit history, but more importantly they are told to provide a lesson for the hearer. “Don’t marry the wrong person — wait til you find the right one, like Grandpa and I did.” “While your mother worried us when she was little, she turned out OK — and you will too.” “Be grateful that you live here in this country.”
As we’ll see in next week’s column, Matthew and Luke agree on some things: Mary was Jesus’ mother; Joseph was her husband; Bethlehem was the birth town. But each will enchant their hearers with fabulous signs and wonders to get them to want to know more about who Jesus turned out to be.
I just didn’t want my readers to be confused when Luke tells of shepherds finding Jesus in a stable and Matthew has Magi finding him in a house. Luke has angels, Matthew has a star. In Luke, Jesus’ parents take him to Jerusalem after his birth; in Matthew, they take him to Egypt. While these details aren’t necessarily contradictions, the reason each gospel writer includes them is fascinating.
If you have a bible with the New Testament in it, why not read the first few chapters of both Luke and Matthew and see what you notice yourself?
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