The One and Only Christmas Story
The Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies (CHLS) provides a regular column to AG News that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In this article, Wave Nunnally, Ph.D., professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Evangel University and a regular instructor in Israel for CHLS, shares his appreciation of the difference one person can make as Luke was the only one who recorded the details surrounding Jesus’ birth.
When we compare the four gospels to one another, something becomes obvious immediately: they’re really different! However, this shouldn’t come as a surprise: Our spouse, children, and grandchildren, neighbors, and co-workers all have a different relationship with us, and this impacts their perspective about us. The same can be said about the relationship between Jesus and His earliest followers, four of whom became the writers of the gospels in our Bible. The unique relationships with, and therefore perspectives on, this most important Life ever lived in turn impacted the stories each told. In God’s infinite wisdom, He then saw that it was important that we have the benefit of four witnesses, not just one.
The “Christmas Story” is no exception to the Jesus story as a whole. If you read the gospels in comparison to one another, you’ll find that Mark skips over the birth story completely, fast-forwarding through these “lead-in credits” to the beginning of John the Baptist’s and Jesus’ ministry (Mark 1:1-15). When it comes to the Gospel of John, instead of beginning with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, its introduction focuses on the fact that Jesus is an eternal being who had always existed, was the active agent of the Creation,1 and then took on human flesh to “dwell among us” (John 1:14).
So of the four gospels, only two of them provide any real detail about the early life of Jesus: Matthew and Luke. However, Matthew merely mentions that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great in passing (Matthew 2:1a), only to hasten on to the story of the arrival of the Wise Men (Matthew 2:1b-12). From the details in Matthew, it is evident that this story takes place when Jesus is a toddler, not a newborn. The Wise Men are not present at Jesus’ birth — their calculations, planning, and lengthy trip delay their arrival in Bethlehem almost two years. Recall that Herod commanded the murder of “all the children…two years old or under, according to the time which he has ascertained from the wise men” (2:16). By the time the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem, the holy family was living in a private home (2:11) and Jesus was already walking.2
This leaves only the Gospel of Luke, and it is there that we find the actual “Christmas Story.” Only in the Gospel of Luke do we hear the details of Jesus’ birth. Only Luke tells us of the arrival of the moment of delivery (2:6), the birth of Mary’s [Greek: “Miriam’s”] “first-born”, the “swaddling”,3 and Jesus being “laid in a manger [a feeding trough]” (2:7). Only Luke tells us of local shepherds who were able to visit the brefos (“newborn suckling infant,” a term never used by Matthew to describe Jesus) on the very night He was born (2:8, 11-12, 15-16).
Why all these intimate details, and why do these facts come to us only via the pen of Luke? Elsewhere in the New Testament, Luke is referred to as the “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14). As such, he is the gospel writer who consistently provides more detailed physical descriptions than the other gospel writers do.4 His training in observation and accurate diagnosis evidently led to greater interest in and closer attention to physical details.
Of course, the “star” of the Christmas Story, the One front-and-center, is clearly Jesus. He is the centerpiece of God’s self-revelation and redemptive work throughout history, and when His central place is compromised, everything is cheapened and out of place. Still, when we revisit the Christmas Story this year through a sermon, Sunday School lesson, cantata, or Christmas carol, we should be aware that without Luke, these presentations would be considerably shorter! Only Dr. Luke draws back the curtain and allows us a look into the delivery room to watch as “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us” (John 1:14). What a difference just one person can make!
This Christmas season, we will give thanks yet again for the Creator God who took on the form of a baby in a manger. This year, however, perhaps we could also stop to give thanks for the contribution of the Gospel of Luke and its author. Without Dr. Luke, we would not have the story of the actual birth of Jesus that means so much to each of us. Remember: it is only Luke that Linus quotes when he stands under the spotlight, blanket in hand, to tell us about the real meaning of the season in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
In addition, maybe this year, we could thank God for choosing a medical doctor to be an author of one of our gospels. Maybe we could be thankful for Luke himself: his years of professional training, his attention to detail, his willingness to use his skills to bless others, his obedience to be used by God in such a unique way to provide us such a unique look into the life of the Master.
Maybe we could take time to consider the similarities between Luke and ourselves: like Luke, most of us are not Jewish, not born in Israel, not among Jesus’ first disciples, and not trained as theologians. Yet also like Luke, because of our own unique background and relationship with Him, God is able to use us to convey the good news of Jesus’ rescue mission in a way that no one else can.
This Christmas, let’s covenant together to appreciate the unique “presence” God has given to us, and to be willing to share some of His “presence” with those who have none. Like so many who have read Luke’s version of the Christmas Story, there are people just waiting to hear your version of His Story.
1John 1:1-3, 14. See also Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:2-3; 1 Peter 1:19-20; Wisdom of Solomon 7:22, “[The Word/“Wisdom”]…was the fashioner of all things,” and is “eternal light”; Ben Sira 24:9, He is “from eternity, in the beginning…”; Philo of Alexandria, On the Confusion of Tongues 146-147, “His first-born Word [Greek: Logos]…the Name of God…He Who sees Israel…His eternal image…His most sacred Word [Greek: Logos]”; Targum Neofiti to Genesis 1:3, “And the Word [Aramaic: Memra] of the Lord said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light according to the decree of His Memra.”
2In all eight references, Matthew consistently refers to Jesus as a paidion — one moving about by the locomotion of the feet, 2:8, 9, 11, 13 (twice), 14, 20, 21.
3See Wisdom of Solomon 7:4, “[Even though I was royalty,] I was nursed with care in swaddling clothes [just like all other babies].”
4See, for example, Luke’s “high fever” (Luke 4:38 versus Matthew 8:14 and Mark 1:30), “withered right hand” (Luke 6:6 versus Matthew 12:10 and Mark 3:1, 3), “full of leprosy” (Luke 5:12 versus Matthew 8:2 and Mark 1:40), “His sweat became like drops of blood” (Luke 22:44 versus Matthew 26:39 and Mark 14:36), “right ear” (Luke 22:50 versus Matthew 26:51 and Mark 14:47), etc.