NT Gospel Doctrine Lesson 3: Luke 2, Matthew 2

Arvo Pärt’s Nunc Dimittis, the Latin text of Luke 2:29-32, “Now dismiss…”

Matthew and Luke provide us with two different but similar narratives, which are probably among the most familiar to any Christian. We typically combine these narratives together in our Christmas celebrations, art, creches, and cartoons, but they *are* different and separate. For example, Matthew talks about the visit of the wise men (not portrayed as visiting soon after the birth), but does not mention shepherds on the night of the birth.

Luke, on the other hand, talks about the angel visiting the shepherds, and the shepherds going to see the baby in the feeding trough (which is what a manger is), but Luke says nothing about a visit of the wise men.

I decided to go through both chapters and make a very rough outline to compare them. (Outlining is a great study skill when done with a little more depth. See the outlining chapter in Faulconer’s Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions)

Matthew 2

Luke 2

  • Jesus born in Bethlehem.
  • Wise men from East go to Jerusalem to inquire about birth
    • Wise men go to Bethlehem, return home another way
  • Joseph and family flee to Egypt after a dream.
  • Herod kills all the children under age of two.
  • Death of Herod prompts return to Israel, where Joseph “settles” in Nazareth.
  • The “tax”/census
  • Joseph goes to from Nazareth to Bethlehem
  • Birth, manger, no room at “inn” (not an inn, btw)
  • Shepherds receive angelic invitation to Bethlehem
  • Jesus named, circumcised, presented in temple
    • song of Simeon, Anna in temple.
  • Return to Nazareth, where Jesus grows up
  • 2:41, Jesus as a 12-yr old in temple

It is likely that the differences between these stories are due to different traditions circulating about Jesus, or different theological points to be made. Matthew, as is obvious, takes great pains to point out Old Testament passages that seem relevant to him. (Read Hosea 11 in entirety, verse 1 is quoted by Matthew as “out of Egypt have I called my son” and see how relevant it appears to your modern point of view.)

Remember that none of the disciples were there, and that the Gospels are based on written and oral sources, as Luke indicates in his opening verses. (Luke makes clear that he was not an eyewitness, but made diligent inquiries of those who were.) I don’t want to spend too much time on themes of “major differences between Gospels,” “historical problems” (of which there are definitely some problems. Eric Huntsman, a BYU NT professor, looks at some here), or “tradition has helped us misread this part of the NT” (which I already did for the Nativity here, a bit: there’s no inn and no mean innkeeper. Reread it.)

So, in my ignorance, I asked, which Herod is this? There are several Herods in the New Testament.

Herod the Great, who dies in 4BC, prompts Joseph’s return to Israel, according to Matthew. This Herod is the one who begins the project of greatly expanding the Jerusalem temple to appease the Jews. He himself was Jewish, kinda. This is the Herod of the Nativity, and we know all kinds of palace intrigue, poisonings, murders, marriages (Herod was married to 10 women at various times), plots, counterplots, multiple wills, contesting of wills, etc. were happening at this time in the royal family. Real soap opera/Game of Thrones type stuff.

Herod the Great quite rightly feared for his own life, and also feared the people that he oppressed would rise up against him. Consequently, he built little fortresses all over the place, “safe rooms” to flee to whenever he heard of an uprising. One was Herodion, set on a hill a few miles south of Jerusalem.


Herodion from above. (Public domain, wikipedia.)

Another was his palacious home/fortress atop Masada, with the three tiered balcony/bedroom/dining room overlooking the Dead Sea (much smaller today than it used to be.)


A model of Herod’s palace at Masada. (All these pics by me.)


Looking down from Masada


Looking back towards the entrance of one of the several cisterns on top of Masada.


From the entrance looking down into the cistern.


You can either walk the serpentine path up to the top… or be a lazy tourist and ride the tram. Take the tram.


some of the remaining decoration on the dining room level hanging off the side of the cliff.

At Herod’s death, his kingdom was divided between his sons.

Archelaus– son of Herod the Great, Archelaus rules in Samaria, Judea, and Idumea. Like his father, he’s pretty heavy-handed. You can get an idea of things from this excerpt of Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, “Herodian Dynasty”

Archelaus got off to a bad start. Even before he left for Rome to contest Herod’s final will he overreacted to an uprising in the Temple at Passover by sending in his troops and cavalry, killing about 3,000 pilgrims. While he was in Rome a revolt broke out again in Jerusalem at the feast of Pentecost, this time against Caesar’s procurator, Sabinus, and spread to Judea, Galilee and Perea. Archelaus’s brutal treatment of the Jews and the Samaritans… is in keeping with what Matthew tells of Joseph, who heard that Archelaus was ruling Judea and was afraid to go there. Being warned in a dream on his return from Egypt Joseph, Mary and Jesus went to live in Nazareth in Galilee (Mt 2:20–23). Soon after his return from Rome, Archelaus removed the high priest, Joazar, blaming him for siding with the rebels. He replaced him with Joazar’s brother, Eleazar, and later replaced Eleazar with Jesus, son of See. Around this same time Archelaus divorced Mariamne and married Glaphyra, daughter of King Archelaus of Cappadocia. She was the former wife of Alexander, Herod’s son and Archelaus’s half-brother. This was a transgression of ancestral law…. Either or both of these last two incidents may have caused the unrest that erupted. Archelaus used oppressive measures to quell the opposition.

Herod Antipas, also son of Herod the Great. After “the Great” dies in 4BC, Herod Antipas rules in Galilee and Perea for c. 45 years, which takes us through the end of the period covered by the Gospels. Herod Antipas is the one who marries Herodias, who had been married to “Herod” Philip, another of Herod the Great’s sons. John the Baptist’s criticism of this marriage is what gets him killed (Matthew 14:1-12, Mark 6:14, etc.). He’ll be executed at Machaerus across the Jordan, another of Herod the Great’s safe houses.

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7 thoughts on “NT Gospel Doctrine Lesson 3: Luke 2, Matthew 2

  1. How do I dispel the idea that the Gospels were written by the disciples? I hate to sound smug and like a “know it all” but when I have class members talking about it, it makes me very uncomfortable. And I already feel like I’m undermining so much of my class members’ “traditional” religion that I don’t want to take that too.

    I believe that one in particular thinks I’m making stuff up. I even used your “monopoly” example about how we bring tradition to our scripture study. She just gives me this over arched brow raise.


    1. Remember the words of wisdom from Saints John, Paul, George and Ringo: “let it be.”

      Or from Brother Croce: “Don’t tug on Superman’s cape, don’t spit into the wind, don’t pull the mask of that old Lone Ranger, and don’t mess around with Jim.”

      More seriously, one of the modifications to the curriculum is that we’re now “allowed” to have informal study groups. Find a group of like-minded folks and hash it out together, leaving GD for doctrine.


      1. But when scripture is misconstrued and wrongly interpreted and that scripture forms the foundation for doctrine, then we have a problem. Further, the church’s literalistic reading of the scriptures often misses so much of what the New Testament teaches us about the Savior’s ministry and how we should follow in his footsteps.

        Even a misconstruction that appears on its surface to be benign, such as whether or not the disciples wrote the four gospels, can blind us to the cultural context in which the various authors compiled the gospels and the extent to which one drew upon, and sometimes developed, the work of another.

        The scriptures are messy, full of ambiguities and contradictions and, in some instances, things that are simply not true. Just like each one of us and the leaders of the church. We can embrace this or simply choose to never intellectually graduate from Primary. Study groups are great but we need teachers who are willing to begin the long, arduous process of filling in what the manuals leave out and correcting their frequent errors.


      2. Completely agree. I’m not arguing with any of that, but I’m also not going to be ‘that guy’, because it never leads anywhere useful. In my experience, many folks don’t even want to graduate from Primary (an apt description); there’s a preference for things to be neat and tidy, a storybook character instead of the messiness of real people. I’ve found that trying to stretch such minds only results in angry words. So I’ll find me a roomful of like-minded people. Ben Spackman addressed your concern here, and I heartily agree with his conclusions – the oversimplified, binary (official) reading we’re given is not enough for the challenges ahead: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/benjaminthescribe/2018/09/the-future-faith-of-our-seminary-students/. Also take a look at his comments on genre in the Bible, if you haven’t.


      3. I agree that having a group of like minded people to share with is helpful. I have one, unfortunately we only text and email, as we are spread out across vast distances. I much prefer to discuss in person.

        As the teacher, I have a hard time with the presentation of some material- and if I can’t reconcile a way to deal with it “faithfully” (for those that remain in the “Primary” mindset) then I skip it and allow another to bring it up for discussion.
        I’ve pondered on this for a few weeks, and thought much about the responses I have received here (thank you all), and have decided that the “simplistic” ways that many read the scriptures doesn’t make it less powerful for those readers. If they are growing and changing for the better, it’s not my place to disrupt that.


  2. Not only are the historical problems with the first two books of Matthew and Luke huge—in my opinion, they are insurmountable—if we don’t dispense with the notion that these chapters describe actual events (with, perhaps, the exception of the annunciation stories), then we will miss the important messages the authors are trying to convey about Christ’s ministry. Raymond Brown, in his magisterial work, “The Birth of the Messiah,” does this better than anyone. And for those who don’t have time for his magnum opus, then read his much shorter works “A Coming Christ in Advent” and “An Adult Christ at Christmas.” But be forewarned: questioning the inerrancy of the infancy narratives in a gospel doctrine class will likely provoke a visceral response akin to telling a seven year old that there is no Santa Claus.


  3. I love Pärt. Probably my favorite living composer. Certainly of choral music. You would probably really like his “Which was the son of…”


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