The First Christmas Story
There are four accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible, but only two of them describe events before he was thirty. They are called the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, and they were written about thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death. It may have been that the eyewitnesses were dying out, and it became important to record how Jesus was born.
By bringing these facts together, Luke created an account in which the young Mary, engaged to Joseph but not yet married, was visited in Nazareth by Gabriel, an angel. Gabriel told her that she had been chosen by God to give birth to a son. The baby would be conceived through a unique act of God. Through this child, God would live among his people in an unprecedented way. She was to call him Jesus (which means, ‘God saves us’).
The authors researched the recollections of those who knew and followed Jesus. The writers also knew the scriptures had led the Jews to expect a unique leader called the Messiah or Christ.
The writings foresaw that this Christ would be associated with the ancestral line of the greatest king in Israel’s history, David; with David’s birthplace, Bethlehem; and with a virgin birth. However, Jesus’ family homewas Nazareth, seventy miles away, and his parents were known to be named Joseph and Mary.
Mary was spared the disgrace associated with being pregnant and unmarried at that time because Joseph acted in a compassionate way. She gave birth in Bethlehem because that was where Joseph’s ancestors lived, and he needed to register there in a census.
Matthew’s version of this story stresses the fact that Jesus’ mission had no national boundaries. He records a visit by foreign academics (‘wise men’), who were drawn to the place through their study of sciences and astrology.
Luke’s gospel continually stresses Jesus’ care for marginalised people, and it is appropriate that he records Jesus being visited by local riff-raff (shepherds, guided to Jesus’ birthplace by a vision of angels).
In Matthew’s version, tragedy overshadowed these events. Herod the Great had been installed in Jerusalem as ‘King of the Jews’ by the governing Roman authorities. He heard rumours of the birth of a rival, and tried to eliminate the threat by having male children in Bethlehem murdered. However, his soldiers arrived too late to harm Jesus, whose family had fled to Egypt.
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