What does the Bible teach us about Jesus’ childhood? This episode is not about the fables that secondary literature provides with strange miracle stories and superhero-like scenarios. Instead, we are going to investigate the way that the two gospels that include the birth of Jesus (Matthew and Luke) situate the context of Jesus’ birth and childhood. This is Better Bible Reading with Kevin Morris!
Comparing Jesus’ Childhood in Matthew and Luke
The first similarity found between Matthew and Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and childhood is that of the genealogy of Jesus. Both gospels place Jesus in a historical, chronological context of the saints of the Old Testament. No doubt this was done in large measure to position the gospels as a claim of historicity. While the contemporary audience would acknowledge the existence of Jesus, later generations or people removed from the initial context of the gospels would be skeptical as to Jesus’ origins The genealogies help us with that. But while both gospels include a genealogy, they differ in the theological intent of their respective genealogies. Matthew’s account speaks of Jesus as the Son of David, and the genealogy is situated in order to prove Jesus legal and ethnic right as the King of Israel. Luke on the other hand situates Jesus as a descendant of Adam and Abraham, making the claim that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises of God for the world (embodied as the new Adam and the one who blesses the nations).
The second similarity is the exaltation of Jesus by the contemporaries. Jesus is honored as the fulfillment of God’s promise and the messiah in both Matthew and Luke. Yet, even in this similarity, there is a difference in the type of exaltation. Matthew focuses on the kingly nature of Jesus. As such, Jesus is exalted by gift-giving, specifically in the narrative of the wise men traveling to see this king. The gifts they gave to Him were demonstrations of exalting the honor of a king. Luke’s gospel exalts Jesus in the same manner as the genealogy in Luke- by celebrating His birth as the fulfillment of God’s promises. We see this in the songs of Mary and when Jesus is presented at the temple. Songs of celebration are the type of exaltation bestowed on Jesus in Luke’s gospel.
Thirdly, Matthew and Luke are similar in depicting Jesus’ earthly parents as people of faith. Mary and Joseph were people who trusted in the God of the Bible, and they were willing to follow the instruction of the angels who visited them. What makes the two gospels different is not in the way the parents are represented, but the writer’s choice of parent in the narrative focus. Matthew focuses much more on Joseph, speaking of his reaction to Mary’s pregnancy and his leadership in moving from place to place when instructed by the angel. Mary is certainly not the focus in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ early life. However, very little of Joseph is mentioned in Luke’s gospel. Instead, Mary is the parent mentioned again and again in terms of her obedience to the angel’s instruction and her celebratory song. Thus, both parents are depicted as people of faith, but each gospel selects a different parent to focus on.
Question: If Jesus is not the biological son of Joseph, why is Joseph included in the genealogy?
I think Matthew focuses on Joseph because he is included in that genealogy as the rightful heir in the Davidic line. Regarding Luke’s gospel, Mary is the sole parent focused on because Luke is writing an eye witness account. According to church history, it is said that Luke interviewed Mary herself. While this can’t be verified for sure, I think it explains why Luke’s gospel provides a detailed account of Mary’s own thoughts and conversations with others. Further, if Luke did interview Mary after the fact, this would mean that Joseph was already deceased and unavailable for interview. This is probably true due to the fact that Jesus commissioned John to look after Mary at His crucifixion. Such a commission would make sense if Joseph had died at that point and Mary was a widow who needed to be looked after.
We as people are normally very hard on the people in scripture, but I think Joseph depicts a tremendous man of faith. It would be very hard to hear your soon to be wife say in essence, “I’m pregnant, but I did not get pregnant from anyone. I am still a virgin.” Any man, no matter how pious, would have to think “Yeah, sure….” I think this is something that Joseph did struggle with. Remember, he was determined to divorce her (although graciously for her own safety), and it wasn’t until he was told by the angel that he believed her testimony.
I think the account of Jesus’ birth is a clear example that the gospels are not just historical narratives or biographies. Rather, they are theological writings that possess a clear purpose and goal the author wants to communicate to the reader. When we see this displayed in Matthew and Luke, it should reinforce our interest in all the gospel accounts, because this is a clear example of how much more depth is added to our understanding when we take time to appreciate the distinctive of each gospel!
In knowing who their audience was, they worked backwards from there and constructed the details of their accounts accordingly. Of course as you say, this does not mean they embellished the details or intentionally tried to convince their audience by falsehood. Instead, they wrote to prove the particular theses of each gospel. When we know the Jewish nature of Matthew’s gospel, we understand why Jesus’ birth is described the way it is. And, when we know the apologetic nature of Luke’s gospel, we understand why so many details are packed into the narrative that are not found anywhere else!