Are the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke reconcilable?

By John W. Welch

The Christmas stories of Matthew and Luke are very different. They tell us different things. Each has a different perspective, approach, and audience. But underlying their differences is essential agreement on ten most important points.

In the Gospel of Matthew, the story is told from the standpoint of a man, especially Joseph. It tells of his concern about taking Mary to wife until he is reassured by the angel of Mary’s virtue and thus of her purity (Matt 1:19–25). Matthew records Joseph’s speedy responses to the angel’s instructions to get his family out of Bethlehem (1:13–14), to bring them back from Egypt (1:19–21), and to avoid living in Jerusalem (1:22). He portrays Herod’s fears and his cruelty (2:1–8, 16–18). He talks about the visit of the wise men (2:9–15). His account is filled with royal elements, the chief priests, and concerns about power. He begins the story of Jesus with his genealogy, starting with the patriarch Abraham, and King David, and then working down to Joseph, “the husband of Mary.” Mary is hardly mentioned. Neither is Elizabeth or Anna.

Perhaps this is because Matthew was especially interested in history, politics, prophecy, and priesthood. He may even have been a Levite before he became a disciple of Jesus. For example, one of the jobs of the Levites was to work with and interpret the scriptures, and Matthew tells the story to emphasize its fulfillment of five prophecies. Matthew wanted people to recognize that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah, the governor and ruler of Israel, the restorer of the nation of the Jews, and the eternal King of the Jews.

In the Gospel or testimony according to Luke, the perspective is much more from the woman’s side. The story begins with Elizabeth and Zacharias and their miracle, the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5–25). It tells of the annunciation and Mary’s response (1:26–38), the support of Elizabeth and the rejoicing of these women together at their blessed circumstances (1:39–56), the completion of Mary’s pregnancy, and the birth and care of the holy baby, the swaddling clothes, and the manger (2:6–7). He records the visits of the humble and lowly shepherds, whose career placed them very low on the Jewish list of social acceptability, yet they were alerted by angels to come find the new-born son of God.

Embedded in Luke’s account are clues about what his Gospel will emphasize. Luke was especially interested in ordinary people, widows, Samaritans, prodigal sons, and relationships. Luke, who does not present the genealogy until the beginning of the Savior’s mission (3:23-38), begins with Jesus and then pushes his genealogy backwards past the Hebrew fathers to Adam and God. Thus, Luke makes it very clear that Jesus was promised as a Savior of the world, not just for the House of Israel, but for all mankind. He signals that even though Jesus will preach and work among the Jews, the power and the ministry of Jesus will extend to everyone. The gospel was, in Luke’s eyes, for everyone, the humble, the travelers, the taxed, and the peaceable.

While it is evident that these Gospels are different, and while it is true that it is hard to reconcile certain details—for example, it is hard to harmonize the report of Luke that Jesus was taken publicly to the temple forty days after his birth (Luke 2:22), with the impression that Matthew gives that the life of the infant was soon in danger (Matt 2:1-16), or to harmonize Matthew’s report of the flight into Egypt (Matt 2:14) with Luke’s indication that the holy family returned to Nazareth once Mary had been purified (Luke 2:39)—still, one should not overlook the larger, composite picture. Indeed, here are ten essential points on which Matthew and Luke are in complete agreement:

1. Joseph was of a direct male descendant of David and Abraham (Matt. 1:1, 16, 20; Luke 1:27, 32, 2:4).

2. Mary and Joseph were only betrothed at the time of the conception of Jesus, and they had had no sexual relations before Jesus was born (Matt 1:18, 25; Luke 1:27, 34; 2:5).

3. The conception of Jesus was miraculous, involving the Holy Ghost (Matt 1:18, 20; Luke 1:35).

4. An angel announced the forthcoming birth of the Messiah (Matt 1:20-23, as Immanuel; Luke 1:30-35, to reign over the house of Israel forever).

5. An angel decreed that the baby’s name should be Jesus (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:31).

6. An angel stated that Jesus would save his people and is the Savior (Matt 1:21, Luke 2:11).

7. The baby was born of a virgin (Matt. 1:23, 25; Luke 1:34).

8. The birth took place in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:4-6).

9. The birth is chronologically related to the reign of Herod the Great (Matt 2:1; Luke 1:5).

10. The holy child was raised as a mortal in Nazareth (Matt 2:23; Luke 2:39).

 For me, these are the big points, the cherished essentials, crucial details that matter. These key truths, on which Matthew and Luke stand in agreement, lay the foundation of Christmas. Building on this unified foundation, the two gospels of Matthew and Luke allow us to approach Christmas with both nobility and humility, with riches and poverty, with men and women, with parents and children, with heaven and earth, with both confidence and fear, and with joy and apprehension, and to come away renewed with testimonies of the light of eternal truths both born, borne, and reborn.