The Gospels of Matthew and Luke begin with THE INFANCY NARRATIVES - stories of Jesus’ conception and birth.  The other two Gospels tell us nothing of Jesus’ family origins.  Mark does not even mention Joseph, while John never gives the name of the mother of Jesus.  The Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are not at all alike, have supplied the raw material for the Christmas feast so dear to Christians. What are we to think of them?

The Church through the Pontifical Biblical Commission founded in 1953 teaches that the Gospels are historical in the sense that the four accounts of the ministry of Jesus took their origin in the words and actions of Jesus. Yet, those words and actions underwent considerable adaptation from the time of Jesus’ ministry until the time when they were written down in the Gospels.  For instance, there was a period when the apostles preached what Jesus had said and done; but they put over the story of Jesus with an understanding of him which they had not had when he was alive. Then, when the evangelists put this down in writing there was a further selection, putting together an explanation of the accounts of the life of Jesus that had come down from apostolic preaching with the result that the final Gospel narratives of his ministry are not necessarily literal accounts of what Jesus did and said:

  1. “The truth of the story [of Jesus] is not at all affected by the fact that the Evangelists relate the words and deeds of the Lord in a different order and express his sayings not literally but differently, while preserving their sense.”

Unfortunately most Roman Catholics, including many teachers of religion, do not know this official position about the gospels taken by the Church, so that there is still uneasiness if someone argues that a particular section dealing with Jesus’ ministry is not literal history.  We will never understand THE INFANCY NARRATIVES without first understanding that, in the course of transmission from Jesus to the evangelists, all Gospel material has been coloured by the faith and experience of the Church of the first century.

The Instruction of the  Pontifical Biblical Commission about the Gospels does not cover the birth stories, for it concerns only what Jesus said and did during his ministry—words and deeds witnessed by apostles who subsequently passed them on.  (No one has ever suggested that such apostolic witnesses as Peter and John were around for the events at Bethlehem.)  Put simply, scripture study on the infancy narratives has passed through two stages and is entering a third.  The first stage was one of recognizing the importance of the distinction already mentioned, namely, that the birth material had a different origin from the material concerning Jesus’ ministry.  Our knowledge of Jesus’ ministry came from the apostles; but we simply do not know who [if anyone] supported a story like that of the magi and the star from the east.  There was a tendency to suggest family testimony (of Joseph and/or Mary) underlying the infancy stories, but that was simply a guess.

That guess became more and more difficult to sustain as scripture study moved into the second stage, involving examining the infancy stories taken separately from the rest of the Gospel.   Matthew and Luke tell two very different stories of Jesus’ birth and infancy — stories that agree in very few details and almost contradict one another in other details.

  1. Read  the introduction to the Infancy Narrative in each Gospel —  Matthew and then Luke.

A complicating factor was the impossibility of proving some of the startling events which should have attracted public notice—for example, a star that moved through the heavens in a totally irregular way but left no astronomical record.  The resulting doubts about historical accuracy were aggravated when it was recognized that the infancy stories echo Old Testament stories to an extent not seen in the rest of the Gospels.


But we are now entering a third and much more positive stage of investigation.  Scholars have asked - whatever their origin or historical accuracy, why were these stories included by Matthew and Luke in their gospels? How do the infancy narratives convey the good news of salvation, so that they are truly and literally “gospel”?

Why were these stories thought appropriate by Matthew and Luke to be included in their Gospels?

In the period before biblical criticism this question would not have been asked: the Gospels were looked on as the life story of Jesus, and so it would have been only common sense to include material about the birth of Jesus. But now we  recognize that the Gospels are not first and foremost biographical – that is all about the life story of Jesus - in their origins; rather they come from an apostolic preaching where the salvation importance determined what was preserved and written down about Jesus.

The oldest preaching concerned salvation — that is, the death and resurrection of Jesus; and so the passion story or narrative was the oldest part of the gospel tradition.  That is where the story of Jesus began in the early Church—Holy Week and the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was God from his resurrection. To the passion narrative (and in a process that worked backwards in time) were eventually joined collections of sayings and healings, precisely because in the light of the resurrection the true salvation import ance of such memories of the ministry of Jesus became clear.  The first evangelist, Mark, called the baptism of Jesus “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ”: the beginning of the gospel was thought to be the beginning of the preaching of the kingdom.  Clearly Mark’s interests were not biographical, not about the life of Jesus; he tells us nothing of Jesus’ origins.

Why did Matthew and Luke move the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the baptism back to his birth and conception?  The answer lies in the importance that they saw in the conception and birth as showing who Jesus was.  For them, not the baptism but the conception [Luke] and birth [Matthew] was the moment when God revealed who Jesus was. In the earliest   preaching the moment when God revealed the identity of Jesus was the resurrection exaltation: “This Jesus God raised up…..God made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:32, 36; also 5:31)

As more attention was focused on Jesus’ ministry and on his proclamation in Galilee of the kingdom through words and mighty deeds, the emphasis on the resurrection as the moment when Jesus was “made Lord” and “begotten” or “shown to be” God’s Son was seen as inadequate.  It did not do justice to the continuity between the Jesus of the ministry and the risen Lord. Thus, for the oldest written Gospel, Mark, the Christological moment has moved from the resurrection to the baptism, where Jesus is declared by divine revelation to be God’s Son.  The Holy Spirit, which in early Christian experience was associated with the risen Jesus, now descends on him at the baptism and remains with him during his ministry.

But this development in Christian understanding still left unsolved the question of whether the baptism was the moment when Jesus became God’s Son.

It is at this point that the two evangelists  - Matthew and Luke — we believe in that order, pick up the story by introducing the Infancy Narratives which we celebrate at the Solemnity of Christmas. The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, make clear that Jesus was God’s Son during his whole earthly life, from the moment of his conception through the Holy Spirit.  The divine declaration of sonship, once attached to the resurrection and then to the baptism, is now attached by an “angel of the Lord” to the conception of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  This declaration makes it clear that the child is the Messiah, “the king of the Jews” (Mt 2:2) “a Saviour who is the Messiah and Lord” (Lk 2:11).  And so the story of Jesus’ conception is no longer just an item of popular biography; it is the vehicle of the good news of salvation; in short, it is Gospel. Reflection on how this came about will explain the   Introduction: “On Putting an Adult Christ Back into Christmas.” 

The process was literally an interpretative one of reading back later insights into the birth stories, and those later insights involved an adult Christ who had died and risen.

Both in Matthew and in Luke the first chapter of the Gospel narrates the story of the conception of Jesus with the accompanying revelation of who he is.  The second chapter of each Gospel concerns the Christmas story of the birth at Bethlehem of the child who has been conceived in Mary’s womb.  Why is this also gospel? The answer to this question lies in the historical aftermath of the revelation of the good news of salvation—a revelation that, as we have seen, was once attached to the resurrection.  After the resurrection of Jesus the apostles went forth and proclaimed that good news, first to Jews and then to Gentiles.  This proclamation was met by a twofold response: some believed and came to worship the exalted Lord Jesus; others rejected both the message and the preachers.  When the evangelists looked back into the life of Jesus with hindsight after the Resurrection, they could see the same sequence after the baptism of Jesus (which had become an earlier moment of the revelation of who he was).  Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom throughout Galilee and this led to a twofold response: some drew close to him and became his disciples; others rejected him and came to hate him.  And so when the evangelists told stories of the conception of Jesus attaching the revelation of Jesus’ identity to that moment of his life, they tended to follow the sequence once more.  In the second chapter of each Gospel we hear how the good news was proclaimed to the others and how that proclamation met a twofold response.

In the fourth Gospel  - the Gospel of John—the journey of the first Christians to the understanding of Jesus as God reaches its conclusion.

Let’s listen to it.  

In the next two weeks we will look at the way in which the birth of Jesus is set out in the Gospel of Matthew and then the Gospel of Luke, with the hope that in our own lives the recognition that there is an adult message about Christ in Christmas which will lead us to proclaim that revelation to others that they too may respond in faith.

Father Brown was Auburn Professor of biblical studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Among his many honorary doctorates in divinity and theology are those awarded by the European university faculties of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Uppsala and Louvain. He was simultaneously a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and a consulter of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity. In 1973 Father Brown was the only American named by Pope Paul VI to the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission.

He is author of some dozen books on the Bible, including a two-volume commentary on The Gospel According to John in the Anchor Bible Series (1966-1970), Priest and Bishop (1970), The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (1973), Biblical Reflections on Crises Facing the Church (1975) and the full-scale commentary of 600 pages on the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, entitled The Birth of the Messiah (1977).