What is the source of Matthew’s and Luke’s material concerning the birth and early years of Jesus? Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
A special historical problem attends the gospel accounts of our Lord’s Nativity: where did Matthew and Luke find the historical material that fills the first two chapters of each of their gospels?
The earliest apostolic preaching was based on a defined narrative structure, which invariably began with the ministry of John the Baptist. It contained nothing pertinent to the Lords conception, birth and childhood. We discern the structure of that preaching in Acts. Thus, when St Peter began to evangelize Cornelius and his friends at Caesarea, he began with the ministry of John [10.36-7]. He went directly from John to Jesus; nothing was mentioned about Jesus prior to his baptism.
The evangelical narrative
The same is true of Paul’s evangelization of Pisidian Antioch. Paul began by linking Jesus directly to the ministry of John. He included not one word of Jesus’ life prior to that time [13.23-5]. That is to say, the ‘evangelical narrative’ embraced the ministry of Jesus, beginning with John the Baptist. It contained no information about Jesus’ earlier years.
This is exactly what we should expect from a close inspection of the directive that Peter gave to the assembled Apostles prior to the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit. When they determined to choose some person to take the place of Judas Iscariot, Peter specified the time period concerning which that chosen person would have to bear witness. He must be selected, said Peter, from among ‘these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism by John to the day that he was taken up from us’ [1.21-2]. This time period defined the specified limits of the original apostolic narrative.
Two of the Gospel writers adhere rather strictly to these limits. Thus, Mark’s Gospel begins with the ministry of John the Baptist [1.2-3]. Even the evangelist John, before declaring that ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,’ proclaims, ‘there was a man sent forth from God whose name was John.’ He then describes the Baptist’s ministry at some length [1.6-40]. He moves directly from John to Jesus. Neither Mark nor John mentions a single detail about Jesus’ life from an earlier period.
In short, then, the inherited story structure of the first apostolic witness began the story of Jesus’ life at the point of the preaching of John the Baptist. Consequently, Matthew and Luke had available no pertinent material on Jesus’ conception, birth and early life from the earliest apostolic preaching. So where did they obtain the narrative material that fills the first two chapters of each of their Gospels?
The personal source
The only reasonable answer, it seems to me, is Jesus’ own mother, of whom we are told, ‘Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart’ [Luke 2.19, 51]. Luke is obviously disclosing his source here. Mary alone was still alive to remember, years later, those details no longer known by anyone else. She is the living witness of the precious stories about herself and Joseph, the conception and birth of John the Baptist, her own virginal conception, the manger in the stable, the angels and the shepherds, the Magi, the Lord’s circumcision, the presentation in the Temple, Simeon and Anna, and the dramatic event that occurred when Jesus was twelve years old.
Matthew and Luke differ greatly between themselves with respect to details, and their differing literary and theological interests, but they tell essentially the same story, and it was a story they could have learned from only one source.
Consequently, to read their Christmas stories is to enter into a mother’s contemplative heart where those stories were preserved until they were written down in the gospels under the inerrant guidance of the Holy Spirit. Holy Church, in order to proclaim this earlier part of Jesus’ life, draws us into the immaculate heart of Mary, to share in her inner faith and contemplative vigilance, to understand Christmas as she understood it.