When the early Christian communities began standardizing the written witness to the Christ event, and rejected Marcion — a first century heretic who advocated a scrapping of the Jewish Scriptures or Old Testament — it became clear that different communities and local churches emphasized different elements of the life, mission, death, and resurrection of their Lord.
Thus, the Bible as we know it today gathered a number of complementary texts to explain salvation history.
In terms of the New Testament accounts of Jesus, the writings ascribed to Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the “synoptic” Gospels, as they are somewhat similar, at least relatively speaking, when compared with the unique Gospel of John. Scholars posit (though this is debated) that Mark is the earliest of the four, but that some of Paul’s letters likely predate him. Traditionally Mark was viewed as Peter’s “secretary,” and so the earliest Gospel — that of Mark — is perhaps Jesus’ story as told through Peter’s eyes.
It is thought that Matthew and Luke, writing separately to distinct audiences, sort of “cut and pasted” elements of Mark’s Gospel and what is believed to be another source — which has never been found — called by scholars “Q” (from the German word Quelle, simply “source”). So Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts share common building blocks (Mark and this hypothetical Q), but are stitched together in unique ways, and with new passages independently added, providing a depth of perspective which a single narrative could not have accomplished.
The infancy narratives are perhaps the easiest example to break this down a bit. Our familiar nativity scenes are a conflation of distinct stories. Nowhere in Scripture are the shepherds and the Magi together at the crib.
First of all, Mark and John have no birth narrative whatsoever. Mark begins with Jesus as an adult, and John begins with a philosophical and “cosmic” view of the beginning (of time) when the Word was with God and was God, etc.
Matthew, writing to what is thought to have been a moderately wealthy community familiar with Jewish laws and prayer-life, presents Jesus as the New Moses, and so has the Magi arrive with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, to signify his stature as priest, prophet and king. Myrrh was a burial spice, and so also foreshadows his passion and death.
Matthew’s text says neither that there were three visitors (it’s merely a plural noun, though three gifts are enumerated), nor that they arrived at the manger and not slightly later in Jesus’ childhood (some church fathers said 12 days later, hence the feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6 and the 12 days of Christmas tradition, while others argued perhaps as much as two years later).
Luke, writing to poorer gentiles unfamiliar with Jewish expectations, has the shepherds the first to hear the Good News and respond, their savior born in the humblest of conditions to share in their plight of marginalization.
Luke’s focus on the outcast and the reversal of expectations of an earthly messiah is consistent through his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles (the latter being likely the second volume of the story by the same author, often referred to together as “Luke-Acts”).
None of the four have the scene we see all over town every December, and as so many of us grew up picturing it. The nativity scene is a selective, but not untrue, mashing-together of very distinct stories with different theological aims. However, the plurality doesn’t detract from pondering “what really happened,” but rather allows each element to add a dimension to the story which would be lacking if not heard “in symphony.”
Our modern (or post-modern) sensibilities tend to look at veracity and historical truth differently than our fore-fathers and -mothers in the faith. We worry so much about “explaining” things from a scientific angle that often we pay less attention to “understanding” them from a deeper and more holistic one.
The richness of the multiplicity of the Biblical narratives is an example of pondering the unfathomable occurrence of the Christ-event from a variety of perspectives, an endeavor which is, to borrow a phrase, ever ancient and yet ever new. “Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.