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Differences in the Gospel Nativity Accounts?

Q. Why do only two of the Gospels tell about Jesus’ nativity, and why are these two accounts so different?

A. The Gospels were written by different authors, at different times, for different audiences, with different emphases, and drawing from sources that were not all the same. So we should not expect them to be all alike, even if they all have the same purpose: to tell the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel of Mark is an early account of Jesus’ life — perhaps the earliest, though an ancient tradition reports that Matthew was written first. St. Mark was a ministry companion of St. Peter, and his account reflects Peter’s testimony and preaching. It was written in Rome, primarily for a Roman audience, and its brevity and fast-paced narrative would have suited Roman tastes in storytelling. Mark begins, then, not with events surrounding Jesus’ birth, but rather much later, at the point in the story where the most gripping “action” begins: the launch of Our Lord’s public ministry.

John was the last of the four Gospels to be composed, some decades after the others were already in circulation. This account reflects the long time the Apostle had been allowed to ponder the deeper meanings of Christ’s life and His identity as God in the flesh. In addition, he knew that he could leave out certain parts of the story that the other Gospel writers had previously reported, parts already familiar to his audience. So instead of describing Jesus’ nativity, his story opens before all history has even begun. John focuses on the “big picture,” beginning with Our Lord’s preexistence as the co-eternal Word of God who in time becomes a Man.

The Gospel of Matthew was written for a primarily Jewish audience, so he begins with Jesus’ genealogy to show that Our Lord was a Himself a Jew, a descendant of Abraham. St. Matthew tells the story of the Nativity from the viewpoint of St. Joseph, who was Jesus’ legal father. In Jewish culture, that relationship was especially important, because it conferred rights of inheritance, including the fulfillment of Messianic promises to the Jewish people. Given the priority of St. Joseph’s role in this account, it’s only natural that Matthew would have focused on Joseph’s dreams, his interior struggle, and the events that prompted him to take the Holy Family to Egypt.

St. Luke, on the other hand, was a ministry companion of St. Paul, who wrote with the Apostle’s primarily Gentile (non-Jewish) audience in mind. So his genealogy traces Jesus’ line all the way back to Adam, emphasizing Our Lord’s kinship with the entire human race. Even more importantly, St. Luke tells the story primarily from Mary’s point of view, apparently drawing testimony from Our Lady herself or her close associates. So his account of the Nativity focuses on the events in which she and her extended family are involved: the birth of St. John the Baptist, the Annunciation, the Visitation, and all the other memories that she kept “pondering … in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

Despite such differences in these and other Gospel accounts, the ancient Church affirmed that the voice of God speaks through all four of these human voices, and their words are divinely inspired.

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