Have you ever spent time comparing the Gospels. This article summarizes the differences and similarities between the beginnings of each Gospel. Explains what these differences tell us about the emphasis of the authors in each Gospel and describes the details of Jesus’ birth and childhood. It also offers a contrast between the accounts of Matthew and Luke. How are they similar and how are they different? Which one describes visions of angels as the way God warns Joseph and Mary? Which utilizes dreams? Finally, it evaluates the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. Can they be harmonized? Why or why not?

The historical, religious, and cultural introduction by Luke sharply contrasts with the Gospel of Mark which immediately pairs Jesus alongside John the Baptist in the desert (Squires, 2006, 162). John diverges from the Synoptic Gospels by providing a preview of the central themes including the Word, the Light, and the world (Lea, 2003, 172). Matthew’s story immediately focuses on the Messiah’s lineage and moves directly into a creative delivery of place names emphasizing Old Testament prophecies (Barton, 2007, 124). Unlike Mark and John, Mathew and Luke both detail the birth and childhood of Jesus as well as document Jesus’ genealogy (Lea, 2003, 171, 173-174).

The conscientious historical focus of Luke emphasizes a message directed toward a Hellenistic population who advocated good history and its beneficial application (Squires, 2007, 160). John, however, emphasized an indiscriminate message of progression toward the light (Lea, 2003, 173). Matthew’s introduction supports Israel’s perspective of the Davidic Messiah and, like King David, shows Jesus as being from the tribe of Judah and the town of Bethlehem, emphasizing a message directed toward the Palestinian Jews (Barton, 2007, 124). Finally, Mark’s intentional exclusion of Jewish ancestry and history appears to support an emphasis of ministering in Rome (Lea, 2003, 122).

According to Lea (2003), Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, was the home of Joseph and the Virgin Mary due to a government decree as recorded solely in Luke. Luke also reports that shepherds were directed by angels, and Matthew reveals that the Magi were directed by a miraculous star, both pointing to Bethlehem. In accordance with Jewish law, circumcision took place on the eighth day and a ceremonious offering was given on the fortieth day. Prompted by an angelic dream as recorded in Matthew, Joseph transported Jesus to Egypt for protection from Herod. Two additional dreams instructed Joseph to return to Israel and, finally, to Nazareth. Luke, alone, chronicles Jesus’ messianic consciousness exemplified by his involvement in temple discussions at age twelve (Lea, 2003, 177-179).

The narration of Jesus’ birth, as emphasized by Lea (2003), is from the perspective of Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew, but from the perspective of Mary in Luke’s gospel. Accordingly, it is Luke who reports angelic conversations, including one between Gabriel and Mary conveying Elizabeth’s pregnancy (Lea, 2003, 175-176). Matthew’s story, however, is “told in such a way to recapitulate the story of Moses and the people of Israel” paralleling Herod’s threat toward Jesus with the threat toward an infant Moses and juxtaposing Moses as the deliverer of Israel with Jesus, the savior of Israel (Barton, 2007, 124).

The genealogy in Matthew descends from Abraham to Jesus utilizing, “three sets of fourteen generations” including an adulteress and a harlot suggesting a “theme of grace” (Lea, 2003, 174-175). Luke’s lineage commences with Jesus and reaches back as far as Adam setting forth the story’s universal horizons (Squires, 2007, 163). Although Lea (2003) notes that ancestral references from Abraham to David are very similar, from David to Joseph the divergence in Matthew and Luke is significant. Three explanations are offered in an attempt to harmonize the genealogies (Lea, 2003, 173-174). First, it has been suggested that, “Matthew’s gospel provides the genealogy of Joseph,” and “Luke’s gospel provides the genealogy through Mary” (Lea, 2003, 174). Others suggest Matthew presents an ancestry through Jacob, Joseph’s actual father, and Luke presents an ancestry through Heli, Joseph’s legal father (Lea, 2003, 174). A final explanation is that, “Matthew named the legal descendents of David,” and Luke named the “descendants of David in that branch of the Davidic family to which Joseph, Mary’s husband, belonged” (Lea, 2003, 174). 

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Carson, D.A., & Moo, D. J. (2005). An Introduction to the New Testament (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Lea, T. D., & David Alan Black. (2003). The New Testament its Background and Message (2nd ed.). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman.

Maas, A. (1909). Genealogy of Christ In the Catholic Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06410a.htm

Squires, J. T. (2006). The Gospel according to Luke: The Cambridge Companion to The Gospels (Stephen C. Barton ed.). Oxford, England: Cambridge University Press. Cambridge Collections Online, Cambridge University Press.18 February 2010, DOI:10.1017/CCOL0521807662.009