The Infancy Narratives
In the New Testament, only Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ birth and youth. Our Christmas cribs harmonize and intermingle details from those two Gospels, but if you read the accounts without that conditioning, you will find that they diverge on many points, for neither evangelist was simply recording a life of Jesus.
Matthew pictures Mary and Joseph living at Bethlehem and having a house there. The coming of the Magi, guided by the star, causes Herod to slay children at Bethlehem while the Holy Family flees to Egypt. After Herod’s death, the accession of his son Archelaus as ruler in Judea makes Joseph afraid to return to Bethlehem, so he takes the child Jesus and his mother, Mary, to Nazareth in Galilee, seemingly for the first time.
Luke, on the other hand, tells us that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth and went to Bethlehem only because they had to register there during a Roman census. The statement that Mary laid her newborn child in a manger because there was no place for them in “the inn” indicates they had no house of their own in Bethlehem. In recounting the peaceful return of the Holy Family from Bethlehem through Jerusalem to Nazareth, Luke leaves no room for the coming of the Wise Men or a struggle with Herod.
With little success, some scholars have tried hard to reconcile the discrepancies between Matthew and Luke. A greater fidelity to Scripture would recognize that the Holy Spirit was content to give us two different accounts of the Christmas events, and that the way to interpret them faithfully is to treat them separately. Scripture is inspired by God, and sometimes the drive to harmonize the two stories arises from the false idea that each infancy account must be approached as if it were an exact historical record. Yet the Catholic Church teaches clearly that the Bible is a library containing many different types of inspired literature, including poetry, drama, and parable. Only part of the collection consists of books that are historical in various degrees.
In one respect the accounts of Jesus’ birth differ significantly from the Gospel versions of Jesus’ ministry and death. The latter were drawn from the oral preaching of apostolic eyewitness, but the apostles were not on the scene at Jesus’ birth. Some may object that the authors of the two Gospel infancy narratives surely got their information about Jesus’ birth from his parents. Yet that is never claimed in either the New Testament or in the earliest Church writings. Indeed the sharp differences between the two Gospel versions make the idea that they came from Mary and Joseph improbable. Moreover, the rest of the New Testament offers no confirming echo of the peculiar information that appears in the infancy narratives.