Birth narratives

John’s Gospel begins pre-creation, and Mark’s Gospel begins as Jesus comes onto the public scene (or just before, with his cousin John), but Matthew and Luke each record something about Jesus’ early years. This was an expected component of the ancient biography, but the Evangelists turn this convention to their own purposes. With Matthew, we sense the continuation of the Old Testament Scriptures, as we hear about dreams in which God’s angel speaks: the Gospel is not something alien to the story of Israel, but its fulfillment.1 With Luke, Jesus’ early story is told in parallel with that of John, but in such a way as to show his essential superiority to his cousin. John may be the greatest prophet born of women (Luke 7:28), but Jesus is the only true Human, the desire of the ages, the fulfillment of hope for Jew and Gentile.

And so, in Matthew’s account, we hear of Joseph’s dilemma, of his dreams, of the star and the magi, of Herod’s machinations, of the slaughter of the innocents, of the flight into Egypt, and of the holy family’s return to Nazareth. The narrative is full of intrigue, suspense, foreshadowing, and human touches. Its ins and outs are punctuated with verses from the Old Testament, as the Evangelist frequently tells us “this was to fulfill what was written….” As hearers, we are well prepared for what will come as we move beyond Jesus’ infancy and childhood— the astonishing teaching and actions of this One who has come as a fulfillment.

Luke’s account is wonderfully artistic, weaving together the infancy stories of Jesus and John as they meet, even in the wombs of their mothers. Instead of actual quotations from the Old Testament, the stories are told so that they recall older stories of Eli, of Hannah, of the prophets and kings. We hear luminous words from the angel Gabriel, from John’s father, from Simeon, from Elizabeth, and from the Theotokos, as Luke pairs male and female witnesses to this One who has come to change the history of humankind. We follow this child through to his twelfth year, where we, with his parents, find him aptly “in the house of [his] Father,” teaching the teachers. John may be great, but early in this gospel, even in the womb, the prophet John acknowledges the presence of One who will increase in all things: like Mary, we treasure these things in our hearts, and prepare to learn more!


  1. Edith M. Humphrey, “God and Angels” in Jesus among Friends and Enemies, ed. Chris Keith and Larry W. Hurtado (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 46–49.