Comparing the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew reveals only a few details common to both Gospels: Joseph was betrothed to the Virgin Mary, and Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In Luke, the angel Gabriel delivers messages to Zechariah and Mary. In Matthew, divine guidance comes to Joseph (not Mary) via dreams. Luke emphasizes Jesus’ ministry to the poor. When Joseph and Mary have Jesus circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, instead of offering a lamb for purification, they “offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’” (Luke 2:24). According to Leviticus 12:8, this two-bird offering was for poor people who could not afford a lamb. In Luke, Joseph and Mary live in Nazareth, and they go to Bethlehem for taxation because Joseph is from that village. Poor shepherds adore the newborn savior (Luke 2:8–20). Luke places far more emphasis on Mary than he does on Joseph.
Matthew’s birth narrative presents a picture fitting for the arrival of a Jewish king, with foreign dignitaries bringing expensive gifts to the young Jesus (Matthew 2:1–12). Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem, and Jesus is around two years old when the wise men from the East come with gifts. Only in Matthew does Herod kill the little children. Only in Matthew does Joseph take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. And in Matthew, Joseph moves to Nazareth only after he returns from Egypt and fears to relocate in Bethlehem (2:22–23). Matthew focuses on Joseph, the pious Jewish father, not Mary.
Whereas Luke 1–2 describes the parents of John the Baptist and his birth, Matthew is silent about these matters. Whereas Luke 1–2 includes poetic pronouncements attributed to various characters, Matthew 1–2 uses frequent Scripture quotations. The other Gospels refer to Scripture, but none approaches the extent to which Matthew quotes the Bible for his Jewish Christian audience. Matthew’s birth narrative repeatedly quotes the Prophets to explain why events happened: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (1:22; see also 2:5; 2:14; 2:17; 2:23).
Matthew opens with a genealogy that begins with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people, and traces the royal lineage forward through King David to Jesus. The genealogy in Luke 3:23–34 begins with Jesus, Son of God, and traces back to Adam, son of God, emphasizing the Messiah came for all people. Although different, both genealogies trace Jesus’ lineage through Joseph.
I used to divide my introductory Bible class into two groups, one using only the Gospel of Matthew and the other using only the Gospel of Luke. Each group created a Nativity play based only on their Gospel. The results were always very revealing.
Harmonizing passages from the Gospels often diminishes the unique portrait of Jesus the Evangelists worked hard to create for their particular audiences. I do not conflate the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, having the wise men appear at the same time as the shepherds, etc. Sure, it creates problems with our family Nativity sets; but I take each Evangelist’s contributions seriously. For more information about the compositions of each Gospel, see Interpreting Biblical Literature (chapter 14), and for detailed studies of the Gospels’ unique depictions of Jesus, see Portraits of Jesus: An Inductive Approach to the Gospels.