The Advent-Christmas cycle of feasts brings to us some of our most colorful and cherished Biblical narratives from both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. From the prophesies of Isaiah to the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the biblical/liturgical texts of the Church observances are probably the ones most easily retrieved by most of us. As a past teacher of catechists, I find the Advent-Christmas texts very useful in introducing Bible studies in general, for we rarely have a season when so many distinctive traits of Scriptural literary forms bump up against images so vivid in our seasonal art, hymns, story-telling, and catechetics.
Of course, our pastoral memories of the birth of Jesus are based on a part of the whole. There is a bit of cherry picking in the way we teach or narrate the “Christmas story.” There are some inconvenient truths in both the Hebrew and Christian texts that intrude upon our nostalgia, and woe to the preacher, teacher or parent who breaks this news for the first time. The dedicated student of the Bible can be quite puzzled at Scripture’s full presentation of Christmas and all that leads up to it during Advent. As Father Raymond Brown put it in his masterful An Adult Christ at Christmas  “That is why I claim that for many people the narratives of Jesus’ birth and infancy ‘constitute “the last frontier” to be crossed in gaining an appreciation of the implications of a modern scientific [critical] approach to the New Testament.’” [p. 3]
For starters, the Infancy Narratives or Gospel Christmas stories of Christ’s birth are plural, not singular, specifically written by two different evangelists in two different settings. Surprisingly only Matthew and Luke contain material related to what we know as “Christmas.” Mark [the first evangelist] and John [the last] begin their gospels with an adult Jesus, indicating that the exact details of Christ’s birth as history were not major preoccupations with first century Christians. By contrast, the Baptism of the adult Jesus—the final feast of the Advent-Christmas cycle and the beginning of Ordinary Time, is reported across the board in all four Gospels, passing what scripture scholars call “the law of multiple attestation test,” or “the more an event is reported across the board of New Testament writing, the greater likelihood of its historical grounding.” More surprising, the two narratives of Matthew and Luke do not agree with each other on significant points in the Christmas narrative. Why is this so, and do such discrepancies discredit the Bible as a whole?
One need not worry that the Bible is not inspired by God, or that it does not constitute everything that we need to know and believe to be saved. The recently published The Paulist Biblical Commentary  includes a summary of official Church teaching on Biblical interpretation and scholarship over the past century [pp. 1615-1621]. While too much detail to produce here, the Church recognizes that while the inspiring wisdom of God is perfect, it is narrated and revealed by humans with the limitations of personality, time, and culture. Thus, biblical scholars attempt to know much about the identities and characteristics of the authors, specifically their intentions in writing what they understood, and how their communities or first hearers formed and received the preaching and/or writing. The Gospels, for example are the products of actual events in the ministry of the adult Jesus which were preserved by a believing community and then put in writing by the four evangelists, each inspired by a necessary and unique understanding of the Christ. It is not an exaggeration to say, for example, that the Holy Spirit inspired the Christian Church to accept the New Testament and verify its veracity.
Scholars have long recognized that the words attributed to St. Peter in Acts 2: 22-24 may be our closest connection to what the earliest apostolic church communities held to be a faith biography or creed about Jesus: “Jesus the Nazorean was a man commended to you by God with mighty deeds, wonders, and signs, which God worked through him in your midst, as you yourselves know. This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him. But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.”
The 1964 Pontifical Biblical Commission, writing on the historicity of the Gospels, said this about the four evangelists: “This primitive instruction [of the Apostles] was passed on orally at first, and later written down. Indeed, it was not long before many attempted "to draw up a narrative” of the events connected with the Lord Jesus. The sacred authors [Evangelists], each using all approaches suited to his specific purpose, recorded this primitive teaching in the four Gospels for the benefit of the churches. Of the many elements at hand they reported some, summarized others, and developed still others in accordance with the needs of the various churches. They used every possible means to ensure that their readers would come to know the validity of the things they had been taught. From the material available to them the Evangelists selected those items most suited to their specific purpose and to the condition of a particular audience. And they narrated these events in the manner most suited to satisfy their purpose and their audience's condition.”
The Gospel writers thus had considerable leeway in the ways they conveyed the meaning of Jesus’ life. The 1964 Pontifical Decree, along with several others to follow in the twenty and twenty-first centuries, acknowledge that the four evangelists, working from a primitive historical oral base, have enlarged the meaning of Christ into unique narratives. One may ask why the Church does not synthesize these four Gospel narratives to smooth out notable differences. In fact, such a project was completed between 150 and 200 A.D. by one Tatian, at a time before the Church had formally defined the canon or books of the New Testament. Tatian believed that a harmonization of the four Gospels would be useful, and he blended the books together into one, known as the Diatessaron. Scholars estimate that about 25% of the Gospel material was eliminated from surviving copies.
Tatian’s work is today considered counterproductive to the Church because it assumes two critical factors that modern scholarship rejects:  that the Gospels were intended to be read as raw history, not theological history, and  that narrative differences and disagreements were problems, not clues. Today there is general agreement that the Gospels are faith statements generated from preaching and belief of a Jesus whose detailed history is unavailable to us. The “differences” among the four evangelists enable us to understand the unique theological vision of each inspired writer on the meaning of the Christ. The Christmas narratives illustrate in a striking fashion. The “Christmas stories” were not part of the earliest apostolic preaching, for the simple reason that no apostle—or anyone else, for that matter—witnessed the event. From a purely historical point of view, the few details outlined in the Christmas texts of Matthew and Luke cannot be verified, either. King Herod’s “Slaughter of the Holy Innocents” is nowhere recorded in secular history, not even by a reliable historian of the time, Josephus, who does record a brief sketch of the adult Jesus and his crucifixion.
Rather, the Christmas narratives of Matthew and Luke are twin theological statements. Matthew describes Jesus’ birth as the fulfillment of Jewish destiny and Jesus himself as the new Moses. Luke’s Christmas narrative emphasizes the Holy Spirit as the life of the Church and Jesus as savior of the world. These writers’ theological emphases account for two depictions of Jesus’ origins in a way that would help the Church shape its identity. We will look at those different Christologies in the next post.