Why Did the Gospels Include the Birth of Jesus?

The gospels seemed to have been formed “backwards.” The initial preaching of the apostles was Christ Crucified and Risen. This is clear from Acts 2:23, 32, 3:14, 10:37-41, and 1 Cor 15:3-5. The teaching of Jesus (didache) was added to the “passion” of Jesus (kerygma). The last (canonical) stage of the development was to include a prologue concerning the origins of Jesus – was he simply a man?  Matthew and Luke include miraculous birth stories, John has a theological prologue announcing that Jesus is the Word who was with God from the beginning since he is God.  Notice the development taking mark as the earliest of the Gospels – there is no birth narrative and virtually nothing about his family history. The earlier one goes into the traditions of concerning Jesus, the less about Jesus’ birth we find.

Birth of JesusOne might extend this another step historically and include the infancy narratives that are created well after the end of the apostolic era. These apocryphal stories are much more fanciful and creative – and far less historically reliable. On the other hand, there are much more theological presentations of Jesus as well in the writings of the church fathers, in these Jesus becomes the Christ of theology.

Why were the infancy narratives written in the first place? Crossan thought the question should not be what Matthew and Luke tell us about the birth of Jesus, but “why they tell us anything at all?”  What would motivate the gospel writer to include an explanation of the birth of Jesus? Raymond Brown suggested three reasons (Birth of the Messiah, 29).

The most simple explaination for the birth narratives is curiosity.  Since Mark did not have many biographical details that people always seem to want to know about, the later gospels were interested in filling-in that gap.

Apologetic. One possible motivation for Luke’s presentation of John the Baptist’s birth along side Jesus’ birth is to show the superiority of Jesus over John, perhaps to answer non-Christian disciples of John (similar to those we meet in Acts 19) There is an apologetic value of the birth narrative when presenting the Gospel to skeptical Jews as well, helping to explain how the Messiah (who as to be born in Judean Bethlehem) ended up to be a native of Galilee. There is also the charge made by early Judaism that Jesus as of illegitimate birth, answer by both evangelists by the explanation of a virgin birth.

There are obvious theological motives as well. The genealogy in Matthew connects Jesus to David, Moses, Joseph, and the other great men in the history of Israel. Like Moses he survives the slaughter of children by a pagan ruler, and like Moses he goes to the mountain to dispense the Law (Matthew 5-7). There is a developing Christology in the four Gospels, Mark tells us that Jesus is already the Son of God at the baptism.  In the next two gospels (Matthew and Luke are chronological about the same time), Jesus is God from the moment of his conception, and in John he is God from the very beginning.  In fact, John tells us Jesus  is equal with God from  eternity since he is the creator (John 1:1).

I would add a fourth motivation for Matthew and Luke including the birth narratives.  More than Mark, these two gospels are interested in showing that Jesus fulfilled prophecy, beginning with his birth.  Readers familiar with the Old Testament know than God has done a number of miracles to bring special individuals into the world – Isaac and Samuel are examples of children born to elderly or barren parents.  Jesus is the ultimate “miracle child” since he was born from a virgin.

All of this highlights the uniqueness of Jesus at the very beginning of the story.  What might be a few other motives for the writers of the gospels to include the story of Jesus’ birth?  Or to think of it the other way, why did Mark and John omit the brith of Jesus?

13 thoughts on “Why Did the Gospels Include the Birth of Jesus?

  1. Why do some people say that Jesus was 2 years old when the shepherds went to him instead of at His birth?

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    • Because Herod ordered children under two-years old to be killed, based on when the wise men saw the star. It is possible it was only six months or a year after Jesus was born that the wise men arrived, but most people think it was more like two years for that reason.

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      • Thanks, but I am still confused as to why the Bible indicates in Luke that Jesus was a new born baby When the Wise Men arrived. I guess some things are not supposed to be understood. I appreciate your response.

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      • Both gospels use the birth stories as an into to their presentation of Jesus. Luke tells the story from Mary’s perspective, and focuses on the days right around the birth. Luke is interested in the poor throughout the gospel, so he highlights the announcement to the shepherd (the very poorest people). Luke also likes to have two stories, one featuring and man and a similar story featuring a woman, so he includes the presentation at the temple with Simeon and Anna.

        Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s perspective, and includes the story of the wise men since that has Joseph being warned in a dream to go to Egypt. Matthew tends to compare Jesus and Moses, so Herod’s attack on the children is included to make a connection to Moses. In Matt 5 Jesus goes up a mountain to discuss the law, etc.

        Hope that helps.

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  2. Our textbook talks about the genre of the Birth Narratives, as you said in this post later stories seem to be a lot more fanciful and creative. Our book says the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are sometimes left out of this discussion because of the skepticism concerning their historicity. While Matthew and Luke utilize old testament themes and motifs and have theological goals in crafting their narratives there is no evidence of wholesale creation. Luke explicitly states his careful method of historical investigation before telling us the story of Jesus’ birth indicating that it is meant to be read as a historical narrative.

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  3. To me, it seems odd to wonder why the birth narrative was included. I would never have questioned this part of Matthew and Luke before reading this post. When I am reading a biography or narrative non-fiction, I appreciate the inclusion of as many details as possible. This brings a higher sense of validity to the text. I can imagine if I were a non-believer reading the account of Jesus a lack of details around such a miraculous (or unbelievable) birth would cause me to have questions about the accuracy of the account. I found it interesting when Strauss says that these birth narratives are sometimes left out of discussions because of the skepticism of the historicity (Strauss 500). The details in Luke especially give a strong historical account that would seem to dispel questions. I understand that the question of why Mark and John do not include the story might give skeptics a reason to think it could be a fictional account. However, we studied previously that each author had a specific goal for their writings. Strauss says that Matthew presents Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and Luke presents Him as the Savior for all people. He then says that Mark’s portrayal was as the suffering Son of God and John’s as the eternal Son of God (p 30). These 4 descriptions appear to answer the question of why the birth narrative is present in only Matthew and Luke. While each author is writing about Jesus, the truth they wanted to convey differed. As a result, they would naturally emphasize different elements of His life and ministry, including the details of the birth or lack thereof.

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  4. On one hand the birth narrative exemplifies Jesus’ holiness/godliness but on a another, it exemplifies his humanity. A possible motive for including the narrative of Jesus’ birth could be, not to show his supernatural roots, but show that Jesus was in fact born and raised just as any other child, with a family, brothers and sisters, etc. This can make Jesus a more relatable figure, as well as exemplifying God’s power and ability to create a perfect human from an imperfect human. Jesus’ humanity is a very important element in the Bible, he came to earth as a man, lived among the people and died as one of the people.

    The Gospels including the birth narrative was important for many reasons. I’m sure many people of that day, as well as present day, were skeptical of the truth and facts behind who and what Jesus was. The birth narrative was important to people when it came to understanding who Jesus really was. I’m sure there was some confusion as to what Jesus was. Was he a spirit? Was he God himself? Was he just a man? And I think the birth narrative helps to shed light on some of those questions people may have had, revealing the truth, that Jesus was all three of those things, in one.

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  5. It seems as though the most obvious reason as to why the birth of Jesus was included was to show the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. This would explain why Jesus’ birth story and genealogy are included in the Scriptures, yet accounts of his childhood, teenage years, and young adulthood are left out. The birth stories of Jesus display the fulfillment of many prophecies, including that He would be born of a woman (Genesis 3:15), He would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), He would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), and that He would be a descendant of Abraham (Genesis 22:18), Isaac (Genesis 17:19), Jacob (Numbers 24:17), and King David (2 Samuel 7:12-13). Although the birth stories of Jesus don’t affect our salvation or daily lives, it would be rather strange if the Old Testament listed many prophecies about the birth of the Savior and then simply didn’t include their fulfillment. It could leave generations of Christians confused and curious if the prophets of the Old Testament were actually real or just full of nonsensical predictions of a virgin woman who somehow managed to give birth. This also explains why the Gospels nor the rest of the Scriptures give many specific details regarding Jesus’ birth. There are hints in the Scriptures that give a general time frame, such as Jesus being born during the reign of Herod the Great, and records of a very holy-looking supernova seen by Chinese astrologers in 5 or 4 B.C. (Strauss, 405). However, the passages don’t directly give precise dates and information simply because it is not relevant for the purpose of the text.

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  6. As stated in the post, there are many possible motivations for writing this account, but I tend to side with the 3rd and 4th motivations the most. Even at His birth Jesus was fulfilling prophecies from the Scriptures and proving that He was the promised Messiah. I had never considered the idea that it may have been to “prove the superiority of Jesus over John” (Phillip Long). However, it makes sense to me because even when John the Baptist was doing his ministry, he was constantly telling the people he was ministering to that he wasn’t the Messiah, but rather the one who was announcing the Messiah’s coming. Even the Gospel of Luke states in chapter 3 verse 15 that “the people were waiting expectantly and all of them were debating in their minds whether John might be the Messiah” (HCSB). The Bible does not just say some, but that ALL of them were considering this and if you look at what John stood for it is no wonder that they thought this. According to Strauss, John “deplored the Romans and longed for a return to the days of the kingdoms of David and Solomon” which was exactly what the people expected of the coming Messiah; the destruction of the Romans and a new kingdom like the ones of David and Solomon (486). I think that all four of the motivations are possible and true, but that two through four are likely the primary reasons.

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  7. There would be some skepticism about this Virginal Conception by none believers and even some believers I am certain. Even today it is a widely argued topic. Scholars argue that this birth story is just a fabrication, a Jewish interpretive procedure known as midrash. But I agree with Strauss’ point. (Strauss, 412). “Luke explicitly states his careful method of historical investigation immediately before presenting his birth narrative”.
    I also agree with the theological motives of Jesus’ birth included in the Gospels. His birth is a necessary inclusion that speaks to fulfill many prophecies in the Old Testament. I am thankful that Matthew and Luke included these stories, and am not sure why Mark’s account does not. I can only assume that both Matthew and Luke, if using Mark’s Gospel, realized that it was far too important to leave out. The uniqueness of Jesus’ conception needed to be included, not only that, it more clearly illustrates his humanness, before going into the stories about his miraculous ministry demonstrating his divinity.

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  8. in the textbook I realized it talks about the genre of the birth narratives as you said in this post. I realized that some of the stories displayed very good imagery and ways that I can understand it. In the book it says the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are sometime left out and broken up into its own way of being explained I read that and this is my opinion that Matthew and Luke refer to the old testament themes and motifs and it is not basically created. I feel like Luke gave the best description of Jesus story in the information that I read.

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