One exercize that can be useful in introducing students to the academic study of the New Testament is to have them study independently the birth stories about Jesus in the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke, and to consider each of these birth narratives within the continuing story of each gospel. For those familiar with the Christmas stories, these two narratives tend to blend together inseparably, as in the claymation version of the Little Drummer Boy which has both the shepherds (from Luke–at Jesus birth) and the three “wise men” (from Matthew–placed a couple years after the birth) in a stable at Jesus’ birth. (This is not to knock the show, which I’ve enjoyed since little, along with all the other claymation ones. I have to admit that the one with the Heat-miser tops my list, however).
In historically studying early Christian gospels (or Paul’s letters for that matter or any other ancient document), it is important not to blend everything together into one big lump, thereby losing the distinctive characteristics and aims of the individual narratives (stories) or writings (and the specific audiences involved).
This process of blending the originally independent birth narratives in Matthew and Luke began quite early, as attested in the Protevangelium of James, for instance (late second century CE; available online here). This writing in the New Testament Apocrypha expands on the origins of Jesus in the canonical gospels not by telling the childhood deeds of Jesus (as in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in a previous post), but by going back further to the origins of Mary herself. This story of the miraculous birth of Mary to the infertile Anna and Joachim, followed by Mary’s Samuel-like dedication in the temple, came to heavily influence the cult of Mary in the middle ages, of course. It is also worth noting that Mary took her first steps at the early age of 6 months (6:1), according to this story (beats my little Nathaniel, who is always ahead according to my biased opinion).
But for present purposes what is especially noteworthy is the way in which the Protevangelium tells and considerably expands the story of Jesus’ birth. The author (supposedly James, the brother of Jesus from an earlier marriage) weaves together detailed threads from both Matthew and Luke in a way that creates a new story different from each. The author also considerably expands the story along the way, as when the priestly authorities of the temple have Mary and Joseph take a “truth serum” (“the water of the conviction of the Lord”) to see if they are lying about Mary’s virginity (15:1-2), or when the midwife double-checks Mary’s virginal status after birth (19:2).
Although such blending of stories might be expected in religious (church) and popular (TV) settings, it is important to take a different approach within the academic study of religion.