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Jesus Origins

Discovering the original Christianity

A tale of two nativity stories

Image: Giotto’s Birth of Jesus from the Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua

This post draws on my book, The Gospel of Domitilla.

It is extraordinary that the only two gospel nativity accounts, found in Matthew and Luke, differ in almost every detail. Looking at how the Gospel of Luke changes the male-centric account in Matthew gives us vital information about the unknown author of Luke. It is one of several lines of evidence that a woman wrote Luke/Acts—a woman who was a mother and had been through childbirth herself.

The nativity

Apart from a few atheist-scrooges, everyone loves a nativity play. The children dress up as wise men, shepherds and angels, with the stars of the show (always other parents’ children) being Joseph and Mary with a doll as the baby Jesus. It remains one of the most pleasant Christmas traditions, still relatively unaffected by the materialism of our age.

Most of us who have grown up in Christian cultures are familiar with the story. An angel comes to Mary to announce that she will bear a baby who will be the looked-for king, the Messiah. As the time approaches, Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary must travel to Bethlehem to register for the census. Joseph leads Mary riding a donkey to the little town, where they find the inn full and have to lodge in a stable. There, Mary gives birth.

Meanwhile, three wise men in the east have seen the star announcing Jesus’ coming. They follow it to the stable where the baby Jesus lies in a manger. They are not alone in giving homage to the new-born king. Some shepherds, watching their flocks by night, are visited by angels who tell them to go to the stable. The wise men present their gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, to the baby, while the shepherds can give nothing but the wonder in their hearts.

It is undoubtedly a beautiful story. But it is not found like this in any gospel. The nativity play is an amalgamation of Matthew and Luke’s two gospel nativity accounts. And the two nativities differ in almost every single detail.

Same but different

It is relatively easy to determine the relative order of the gospels but much more challenging to assign absolute dates. The first gospel to be written, Mark, is conventionally dated to the early 70s AD. It says nothing about the birth of Jesus. Mark was followed by Matthew (c. 80 AD), Luke (c. 90 AD) and then John (uncertain, but perhaps around 100 AD). Mark, Matthew and Luke, the three synoptics, are closely linked, which is explained by both Matthew and Luke using Mark as a source. Matthew and Luke also share much material not found in Mark, which has been conventionally explained by their use of a third, hypothetical sayings gospel called Q. But as not the slightest trace of the existence of Q has ever been found, this theory is now attracting a degree of scepticism.

In fact, the evidence points strongly to the author of Luke knowing the Gospel of Matthew, removing the need for Q. The introduction to Luke talks about many other gospels in circulation. If these gospels didn’t include Matthew, it is difficult to see what they did include. Also, Luke has the same structure as Matthew: they are both based on Mark, add a nativity and a genealogy, and contain the extensive “Q” material. The probability of two authors independently making the same choices on all these features is low. One of the two is aware of the other gospel: there can be little doubt that it is Luke that copies Matthew.

The two nativity accounts are an excellent example of the phenomenon I call “the same but different” pattern. The author of Luke is strongly influenced by the Gospel of Matthew and yet changes all the details in an almost perverse way. For example, Matthew has a sermon on the mount, so Luke places the sermon on a plain. How do we explain this odd tendency of the author of Luke to change the details they find in Matthew? They have to use Matthew because it includes much extra material over Mark. But their aim, as announced in the introduction, is to produce an account superior to anything that has gone before. So they cannot simply copy Matthew—they must supersede it.

With that background, we can compare the two nativity stories. The author of Matthew writes a male-centric nativity primarily around the figure of Joseph. The author of Luke changes this entirely to a female-centric account around Mary. In fact, women play a larger in Luke’s nativity than anywhere else in the New Testament.

Who does the angel visit?

The annunciation is one of the most beautiful subjects of renaissance art. The angel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit. The greatest artists loved to paint this scene. Perhaps the most famous version is by Leonardo da Vinci. The angel, kneeling on the left, speaks to a surprised Mary seated on the right. The angel points at her as if to give, and Mary raises her hand to receive. It is a celebration of incipient motherhood. And yet Gabriel only appears to Mary in Luke:

“Do not fear, Mary, for you have found favour with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will not end!” (Luke 1:30-33)

Mary asks how this can be since she is a virgin:

The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. The holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)

Mary replies that she is the Lord’s servant: “may it happen according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

The previous nativity of Matthew also has a visitation by an angel announcing the coming birth of Jesus. But the angel does not appear to Mary but to Joseph. The author of Luke takes the idea of the angel’s message from Matthew but changes the details, moving the focus from the male to the female. In Matthew, we see events through the eyes of Joseph. In Luke, we see things through Mary and her older relative, Elizabeth. This switch in perspective is true not just of the annunciation but of the whole nativity account.

A Joseph nativity

This is how the nativity in Matthew starts:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ came about like this: his mother Mary was pledged in marriage to Joseph, but before their coming together, she was found to be with child of the holy spirit. Because Joseph, her husband, was a righteous man and not willing to expose her publicly, he resolved to send her away secretly.

Having pondered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to receive Mary as your wife, for that conceived within her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to call his name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:18-21)

Joseph is understandably upset at finding his betrothed is pregnant and naturally thinks she has had sex with another man. As a righteous person, he cannot marry her, but as he is humane and perhaps still loves her, he resolves to avoid public disgrace and secretly put her away. The angel’s visit in a dream is necessary to change his mind. He is given the extraordinary news that Mary has not been unfaithful but has conceived from the holy spirit. We are not told how Mary felt at being unjustly accused of adultery. Nor are we told anything about her experience in becoming pregnant or whether she had any warning or message. We see everything from Joseph’s perspective, and this continues in what follows:

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and received his wife, but he did not know her until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:24-5)

Jesus is born in Bethlehem, and his arrival does not go unnoticed. Magi come from the east to ask Herod about the “King of the Jews” who has been born, for they have seen his star. Herod is disturbed but directs them to Bethlehem, where the prophecy predicts the Messiah will be born. The Magi follow the star to Bethlehem:

And coming to the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. And having opened their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:10-11)

This is the only time in the Matthew nativity that Mary is mentioned without Joseph. Afterward, Joseph has another dream:

When they had left, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to seek the child to destroy him.” And having risen he took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt… (Matthew 2:13-14)

An angel warns the wise men to return by another route, but an enraged Herod orders all the baby boys under two in Bethlehem to be killed. When the danger has passed, Joseph is told to return:

When Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “having arisen, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the life of the child have died.” And having arisen, he took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. (Matthew 2:19-21)

Joseph decides to settle in Nazareth rather than return to Bethlehem, where he would be under the power of Herod’s son. In Matthew, the angel appears three times to Joseph but never to Mary. It is always Joseph who takes action, and he never consults his wife. Mary is carried around like a piece of baggage, which is consistent with the male perspective adopted by most ancient literature. The wife’s purpose is to give birth to children, and the husband decides everything else. Or so the male perspective would have us believe—real-life relations between the sexes have always been more complex.

A Mary nativity

Turning from Matthew to Luke, we find a very different account of conception and nativity. The Luke version is written entirely from the female perspective and is more appealing to modern tastes—it seems only fitting that the woman should take centre stage in a story about giving birth. In fact, the Luke account goes to the other extreme and completely neglects Joseph’s point of view. We are not told how Joseph took the news that his future bride was pregnant or how he came to believe that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit. The idea that the husband may have had some strong feelings on the subject seems not to have occurred to the author of Luke.

The Gospel of Luke introduces a counterpoint to the main nativity story, with the account of the birth of John the Baptist to his elderly parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. John features in the other gospels as the prophet who foretells the coming of Jesus and who is present at his baptism. On the face of it, including John’s birth is very odd, but it enables the author of Luke to develop a beautiful structure for their nativity account and shows Mary celebrating with another mother-to-be.

In the ancient world, infant and child mortality was high, and the average woman would be pregnant several times in her life. A pregnant woman would be supported by the network of women around her, both family and friends. If she were a girl giving birth for the first time, their help would be vital. Pregnancies would frequently overlap, and pregnant women would want to meet to compare notes. Men would be excluded from such gatherings. In Luke, we are given a privileged view of this feminine world of childbirth.

When she becomes pregnant by the holy spirit, Mary goes and stays for three months with her relative Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John. We are not told how Joseph feels about this or why he has not yet married his betrothed. Elizabeth immediately recognises Mary’s special nature: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” The two women celebrate their coming motherhood together, and Mary gives a hymn of praise, the Magnificat.

This scene of two women prophesying together with no man present is unique in the New Testament. After Mary returns home, Elizabeth gives birth to John. The story then moves on to the birth of Jesus:

In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the world. This registration first took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. (Luke 2:1-5)

This is completely different from Matthew which does not mention any census. In that gospel, Joseph lives in Bethlehem and only moves to Nazareth after his return from Egypt.

There are three significant errors in the Luke passage above. Most notoriously, the birth of Jesus is supposed to have taken place no later than 4 BC while Herod the Great was king. But the census under Quirinius took place ten years after Herod’s death, in 6 AD when Judea became a Roman province. The second problem is that the Romans would never have obliged anyone to travel to their supposed ancestral home. They were a practical people intent on taxation and took the census according to where people lived. Joseph would have been registered in Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

The final problem is that Mary is supposedly only betrothed to Joseph, but the two could not have travelled together unless they were already married. And if Mary were not married at the time of the birth, then Jesus would have been illegitimate. It would seem that the author of Luke has misunderstood the statement in Matthew that they did not have sexual relations until after the birth to mean that the two were not married until this time. In Bethlehem, the baby is born:

While they were there, the days were fulfilled for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7)

The emphasis here is on Mary; the child is her “firstborn,” and she performs all the actions. There is no slaughter of the innocents by Herod in Luke, and shepherds replace the Magi. The author of Luke is well informed about the Herods and would know that Herod the Great had never ordered the murder of infants.

The shepherds are another example of the “same but different” pattern. Luke keeps the structure of a group of men given supernatural directions to come and pay homage to the baby Jesus. In Matthew, a star guides the Magi, whereas angels speak to the shepherds in Luke. When the shepherds visit the stable, they find “Mary and Joseph and the Baby.” Note the order of the names. Everyone is amazed at the shepherds’ story, and we hear about one person’s reaction in particular: “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

In Jerusalem, both parents bring the child to the temple, and an old man called Simeon gives a prophecy. Both are amazed, but Simeon addresses just one of them, “his mother Mary,” telling her that “a sword also will go through your own soul.” An elderly woman, Anna, also gives a prophecy about the child at the temple, and afterwards, they return to Nazareth.

When Jesus is twelve, the family goes up to Jerusalem again for the Passover. As they return, the parents fail to notice for a day that Jesus is not among the group. They turn around and find him in the temple, talking to the elders and astounding everyone with his questions and answers. Once again, it is Mary we hear from:

“Child, why have you done this to us?” his mother asked. “Your father and I have been distressed, seeking you.” (Luke 2:48)

After they return to Nazareth, we are again given Mary’s view on events: “his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.”

Male-centric to female-centric

We can see how the author of Luke changes the perspective of the nativity from Joseph to Mary. This can even be quantified by the number of occurrences of each name:

Matthew—Mary 4, Joseph 7

Luke—Mary 13, Joseph 3

Although many modern novelists are adept at writing from the perspective of the opposite gender, it has required centuries of development to get to this point. Writers in the ancient world were much less able to see things from the other side. This change from a male to a female perspective is evidence that a woman wrote the Gospel of Luke.

A kick in the womb

In all the other gospels, John baptised Jesus, who then received the holy spirit. In Luke, however, it is ambiguous whether John baptised Jesus. His baptism comes in the narrative after the arrest of John. So Jesus and John may never meet as adults in Luke. But they have already become acquainted with each other in their mothers’ wombs.

It is extraordinary that in Luke, the meeting between two grown men has been changed into an encounter between their pregnant mothers:

And when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the holy spirit. (Luke 1:41)

So the unborn John has signalled his recognition of Jesus with a kick in the womb. We see events from the perspective of motherhood. No man would recast a meeting between two adult men as a leap of joy in the womb. A woman wrote that, a mother who had experienced the kick in the womb herself. Including the nativity story of John changes the focus of the account: the new covenant comes through pregnancy and birth, and it is the mothers who are at the centre.

Conclusion

The Luke nativity is based on the previous nativity account in Matthew. And yet, almost every detail has changed. The angel of the annunciation appears to Mary rather than Joseph, the wise men become shepherds, the star becomes a visitation of angels. The most significant change is that a story based around Joseph’s suspicion of Mary has become a celebration of motherhood. The inclusion of the nativity of John the Baptist and the emphasis on his supposed mother, Elizabeth, allows the development of this theme of motherhood. And it finds its culmination in the leap of joy in the womb.

In Luke, Mary celebrates that she will be the mother of the king of heaven who will occupy the throne of David. I have suggested that the author of Luke was Flavia Domitilla whose own boys were the acknowledged rulers-to-be of the Roman Empire. We can’t go that far based on the evidence of the nativity alone. But there is little doubt that it was written by a woman who was herself a mother.