Think of a widely known event in your country's history. It is well documented, written up by more than one historian. Now, what if someone told you that this event had never happened, that it was all a myth? Or, bringing the matter closer to home, what if someone claimed that much of what your family had told you about your own grandfather's birth and early life is false? In either case, the very suggestion might make you indignant. Surely you would not accept such claims at mere face value!
Yet, critics today commonly dismiss the Gospel records of Jesus' birth by Matthew and Luke. They say that these accounts are hopelessly contradictory and irreconcilable and that both contain blatant falsehoods and historical blunders. Could that be true? Instead of accepting such charges, let us examine the Gospel records for ourselves. In the process, let us see what they have to teach us today.
Purpose in Writing
At the outset it helps to remember the purpose of these Biblical accounts. They are not biographies; they are Gospels. The distinction is important. In a biography, the author may fill hundreds of pages, endeavoring to show how his subject developed into the figure that is so well-known. Thus, some biographies spend scores of pages detailing the parentage, birth, and childhood of their subjects. With the Gospels, it is different. Of the four Gospel records, Matthew's and Luke's are the only two that tell of Jesus' birth and childhood. Their aim, however, is not to show how Jesus developed into the man he did. Remember, Jesus' followers recognized that he had existed as a spirit creature before he ever came to the earth. (John 8:23, 58) So Matthew and Luke did not draw on Jesus' childhood in order to explain what kind of man he became. Rather, they related incidents that suited the purpose of their Gospels.
And what was their purpose in writing them? The word "gospel" means "good news." Both men had the same message—that Jesus is the promised Messiah, or Christ; that he died for mankind's sins; and that he was resurrected to heaven. But the two writers had markedly different backgrounds and wrote for different audiences. Matthew, a tax collector, shaped his account for a largely Jewish audience. Luke, a physician, wrote to the "most excellent Theophilus"—who possibly had some high position—and, by extension, to a broader audience of Jews and Gentiles. (Luke 1:1-3) Each writer selected incidents that were most relevant to and most likely to convince his particular audience. Thus, Matthew's record stresses the Hebrew Scripture prophecies that were fulfilled in connection with Jesus. Luke, on the other hand, follows the more classic historical approach that his non-Jewish audience might have recognized.
Not surprisingly, their accounts differ. But the two do not, as critics claim, contradict each other. They complement each other, dovetailing nicely to form a more complete picture.
Jesus' Birth in Bethlehem
Matthew and Luke both record an outstanding miracle concerning the birth of Jesus—he was born of a virgin. Matthew shows that this miracle fulfilled a prophecy uttered centuries before by Isaiah. (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:22, 23) Luke explains that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because a registration instituted by Caesar forced Joseph and Mary to travel there. (See box.) That Jesus was born in Bethlehem was significant. Centuries earlier, the prophet Micah had foretold that the Messiah would be from this seemingly insignificant town near Jerusalem.—Micah 5:2.
The night of Jesus' birth has become famous as the basis for Nativity scenes. However, the real story is quite different from the one so often depicted. Historian Luke, who tells us of the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, also tells us of the shepherds' spending that important night out-of-doors with their flocks. These two circumstances have led many Bible researchers to conclude that Jesus could not have been born during December. They point out the unlikelihood of Caesar's forcing the volatile Jews to trek to their home cities during the cold and rainy season, which could further enrage a rebellious people. It is equally unlikely, scholars note, that shepherds would have been living out-of-doors with their flocks in such inclement weather.—Luke 2:8-14.
Note that Jehovah chose to announce the birth of his Son, not to the educated and influential religious leaders of the day, but to rugged laborers living out-of-doors. The scribes and Pharisees likely had little to do with shepherds, whose irregular hours kept them from observing some details of the oral law. But God favored these humble, faithful men with a great honor—a delegation of angels informed them that the Messiah, whom God's people had been awaiting for thousands of years, had just been born in Bethlehem. It was these men, and not the "three kings" so often represented in Nativity scenes, who visited Mary and Joseph and beheld this innocent baby lying in a manger.—Luke 2:15-20.
Jehovah Favors Humble Seekers of Truth
God favors humble people who love him and are keenly interested in seeing the fulfillment of his purposes. This is a recurring theme in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. When, about a month after the child's birth, Joseph and Mary present him at the temple in obedience to the Mosaic Law, they make an offering there of "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." (Luke 2:22-24) The Law actually called for a ram, but it allowed for this less expensive option in cases of poverty. (Leviticus 12:1-8) Think of it. Jehovah God, the Sovereign of the universe, selected, not a wealthy family, but a poor one as the household in which his beloved, only-begotten Son would be raised. If you are a parent, this should serve as a vivid reminder that the best gift you can give your children—far better than material wealth or a prestigious education—is a home environment that puts spiritual values first.
At the temple, two other faithful, humble worshipers are favored by Jehovah. One is Anna, an 84-year-old widow who is "never missing from the temple." (Luke 2:36, 37) Another is a faithful elderly man named Simeon. Both are thrilled with the privilege God has granted them—before they die, laying eyes on the one who would be the promised Messiah. Simeon utters a prophecy over the child. It is a prophecy filled with hope but tinged with mourning. He foretells that this young mother, Mary, will one day be pierced with grief over her beloved son.—Luke 2:25-35.
A Child in Danger
Simeon's prophecy is a grim reminder that this innocent child will become an object of hatred. Even while he is still an infant, this hatred is already at work. Matthew's account details how this is so. A number of months have passed, and Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are now living in a house in Bethlehem. They receive an unexpected visit from a number of foreigners. Despite what countless Nativity scenes depict, Matthew does not specify how many of these men came, nor does he call them "wise men," much less "three kings." He uses the Greek word ma'goi, which means "astrologers." This alone should give the reader a clue that something evil is at work here, for astrology is an art that God's Word condemns and that faithful Jews scrupulously avoided.—Deuteronomy 18:10-12; Isaiah 47:13, 14.
These astrologers have followed a star from the east and are bearing gifts for "the one born king of the Jews." (Matthew 2:2) But the star does not lead them to Bethlehem. It draws them to Jerusalem and to Herod the Great. No man in the world holds such means and motive to harm young Jesus. This ambitious, murderous man had killed several of his own immediate family members whom he viewed as threats.* Disturbed to hear of the birth of a future "king of the Jews," he dispatches the astrologers to find that One in Bethlehem. As they go, something strange happens. The "star" that led them to travel to Jerusalem seems to move!—Matthew 2:1-9.
Now, whether this was an actual light in the sky or simply a vision, we do not know. But we do know that this "star" was not from God. With sinister precision, it leads these pagan worshipers right to Jesus—a child vulnerable and helpless, protected only by a poor carpenter and his wife. The astrologers, Herod's unwitting dupes, likely would have reported back to the vengeful monarch, leading to the child's destruction. But God intervenes through a dream and sends them back home by another route. The "star," then, must have been a device of God's enemy Satan, who would go to any lengths to harm the Messiah. How ironic that the "star" and astrologers are portrayed in Nativity scenes as emissaries of God!—Matthew 2:9-12.
Still, Satan does not give up. His pawn in the matter, King Herod, orders that all infants in Bethlehem under two years of age be killed. But Satan cannot win a battle against Jehovah. Matthew notes that God had long ago foreseen even this vicious slaughter of innocent children. Jehovah countered Satan again, warning Joseph through an angel to flee to Egypt for safety. Matthew reports that some time later Joseph again moved his little family and finally settled them in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up with his younger brothers and sisters.—Matthew 2:13-23; 13:55, 56.
The Birth of Christ—What It Means for You
Do you find yourself somewhat surprised by this summary of the events surrounding Jesus' birth and early childhood? Many do. They are surprised to find that the accounts are actually harmonious and accurate, despite some people's bold assertions to the contrary. They are surprised to learn that some events were foretold hundreds of years in advance. And they are surprised that some key elements in the Gospels differ markedly from portrayals in traditional Nativity stories and crèches.
Perhaps most surprising of all, though, is that so much of the traditional Christmas celebrations misses the vital points of the Gospel narratives. Little thought is given, for instance, to Jesus' Father—not Joseph, but Jehovah God. Imagine his feelings upon entrusting his beloved Son to Joseph and Mary for them to raise him and provide for him. Imagine the heavenly Father's agony in letting his Son grow up in a world in which a hate-filled king would plot his murder even when he was a mere child! It was profound love for mankind that moved Jehovah to make this sacrifice.—John 3:16.
The real Jesus is often lost in Christmas celebrations. Why, there is no record that he ever even told the disciples his date of birth; nor is there any indication that his followers celebrated his birthday.
It was not Jesus' birth but his death—and its history-making significance—that he commanded his followers to commemorate. (Luke 22:19, 20) No, it was not as a helpless baby in a manger that Jesus wished to be remembered, for he is nothing of the kind now. More than 60 years after his execution, Jesus revealed himself in vision to the apostle John as a mighty King riding into battle. (Revelation 19:11-16) It is in that role, as Ruler of God's heavenly Kingdom, that we need to get to know Jesus today, for he is a King who will change the world.
Appeared in The Watchtower December 15, 1998