The books of the New Testament tell the story of Jesus Christ and the birth of Christianity from a number of different points of view. Each book basically tells the same story. The reader is taken through Christ’s birth, teachings and death, but each is told in a different manner. Each book not only emphasizes different parts of the story, and to a different degrees, but they also place different levels of value on the people Jesus interacted with and what each individual took from his teachings.
The books of St. Matthew and St. Luke, for instance, vary from one another greatly. Matthew, overall, appears to take a stronger, harsher tone from the very beginning of the story. More emphasis is placed on Jesus’ lectures, and on punishment and the importance of prophecy. Luke, on the other hand, places more importance on the relationships between Christ and those around him as well as a changing social structure and ethics.
This difference is obvious immediately when reading the two books side-by-side. The book of Matthew begins the New Testament by discussing the lineage of Jesus through his earthly father Joseph. Not only does this establish Christ as being from a pre-chosen line, but allows for the suggestion of prophecy coming true, mainly that the Savior will come from the line of David. It shows the value in tradition; when the very bloodlines you come from make a difference.
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At the conception of Jesus, Matthew mentions at length the concerns of Joseph as to Jesus’ parentage, further increasing the importance of the bloodline and tradition. Also, there is much justifying of Jesus’ divinity by the use of prophecy. For example, Matthew 1:22 states “Now this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet…” This line and others like it are used many times throughout Matthew to justify various events and actions, showing the importance of not just lineage, but also past religious leaders and beliefs.
The book of St. Luke, however, has Mary and her cousin spending three months together, both delighted over their upcoming motherhood. There is more emotion and bonding shown between family members, rather than suspicion and mistrust. The book even begins with the story of John the Baptist’s birth and the relationship between their mothers, rather than with mention of Jesus himself. His paternal parentage is not taken note of until Luke 3:23-38.
It is interesting to note when comparing the first two pages of each book, that while Matthew is concerned first and foremost with the paternal lineage, only Mary’s family is noted in the early pages of Luke.
It is also important to observe that in Matthew, John the Baptist is rarely mentioned at all, other than his baptizing of Jesus and his death. Luke, however, places him as a character of much greater importance. This again shows the greater significance placed on the surrounding relationships and family. John is the cousin of Jesus and also a miracle of God. He is conceived (also with divine intervention) by a very old, religious couple in order to be a prophet and pave the way for the birth of His Son.
In Matthew, however, there is little implication that the two even know each other well, if at all, before the baptism. Jesus is the only miracle birth and the central figure of the story. John is not even mentioned as a person of very great importance except for his interactions with Jesus. Even after his death, his main talking point seems to be that Jesus is mistaken several times for John the Baptist having returned from the dead.
In the description of the Christ’s birth, the differences continue. While very little is said in Matthew about Jesus’ birth in the barn or the shepherds, the three wise men and their riches, along with the jealousy of Herod, are told in detail. Once again, the importance of prophecy is brought into play. “And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet.” Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem and the flight of the newborn child and his family make for a colorful and somewhat scary tale.
In Luke, rather than wise-men bearing riches and the flight of the new family, there is a much calmer story. In this version, the tidings are brought by humble shepherds, not rich wise men. The travels of the new family are done by tradition, not by fear of a murdering tyrant.
The difference is emphasized, specifically stating “And when they had preformed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.” This is a much different story from Matthew, which reads “…he (Joseph) was afraid to go thither notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth (Matthew 2:22-23).”
Very little is mentioned of the Christ’s childhood in either story. Matthew mentions only the baptism by John in which Jesus’ age is not given. Otherwise, childhood is skipped over completely. Luke, however, gives brief mention of Jesus at age 12, touching on his seemingly inborn understanding of scripture and man’s relationship to God. “And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers (Luke 3:47).”
Again, while Matthew appears to have a harsher tone, going straight into the stories of temptation and evil, Luke allows a momentary bit of bliss in the story of a child, separated from his parents and found again in a house of the Lord.
One of the most important scenes in Jesus’ life is the story of his temptation by the devil. This is possibly one of the most important scenes showing the differences between Matthew and Luke. The first verses can be compared to summarize this easily. Looking at these two lines:
“Then was Jesus led up of the Sprit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil (Mark 4:1).”
“And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness (Luke 4:1).”
In the first telling of this story, Matthew suggests Jesus being hauled out into the woods in order to confront and be tested by Satan. In the later version, there is a much gentler tone, with the Holy Ghost leading Jesus into the woods after his baptism. The rest of the tale is much the same, yet just as headlines often set the reader’s mind a certain way for a news article, so this first line can set the reader’s mind to see the same story in a very different light.
Many of the same stories do appear in both books, sometimes almost word-for-word. For instance, many of Jesus’ parables are similar or identical, such as the tale of the husbandmen in the vineyard. Both tales tell of a man who buys a vineyard, sets it up and then places it in the hands of others to work. In return for work and a place to live, they will provide him with the fruit at harvest. In both version of the story, these men betray the landowner, injure his servants and kill his son. They themselves are destroyed in turn, and the land is put in the care of more trustworthy men.
Even in these very similar tellings however, there are differences. In Matthew, the servants, as well as the son are killed, while in Luke they are only injured. However, the main point of the story remains true in both cases. The evil men in the story are the men who seek to destroy Jesus’ reputation for their own gain, and in each case, Jesus warns them that they will be destroyed by it.
Why are these books so different while telling the same story? The answer to this is there for the reading in each book. Different books were written by different men. One might imagine that Matthew was a traditionalist, studying the Jewish tradition for years and therefore seeing the story of Jesus through his chosen tint.
Luke, on the other hand, could easily be imagined as a younger man, less studied in tradition and more moved by the plight of those around him. It is interesting to note that in many of the stories where there are similarities, the major differences lay in the fact that Luke gives his characters names, while Matthew refers to them only by occupation (“the fisherman”) or gender (“a man”).
Anyone studying these writings could easily be given a very different vision of what Christ was like, and therefore how Christianity should be followed. A reader of Matthew might believe that the way to heaven is through absolute adherence to traditional laws and beliefs. It is likely that it is from Matthew that Christians have developed the belief in absolution as long as they worship God. It is in this book, after all, that one reads “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men (12:31).”
Those who prefer Luke’s version might take a less strict outlook and believe that being kind to one’s neighbors and turning the other cheek were the most importance lessons that Jesus had to teach. Even those who make mistakes can be forgiven, as in the parable of the Prodigal son. In this story, a son requests and is given his inheritance early by his father. He then squanders it all, and when a famine comes is broke and starving. In response “…his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him (15:20).”
It is important not to overlook, however, that the book of Saint Luke is not without its more vicious moments as well. “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, nay; but rather division (Luke 12:51).” Yet, even in these moments, Matthew 10:34 makes Luke look peaceful. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have come to bring not peace, but the sword.”
It is due to these different takes on a very complex individual that Christianity has so many branches. Some may be more forgiving, allowing for the imperfections in human nature and placing more importance on trying to do good for your neighbors. Others may be more inclined to stress tradition and the letter of the law, so to speak, rather than the spirit. While these differences may seem small to the outside observer, it is these differences which can often cause conflict. Even the difference of one sentence can cause for great rifts in any religion. There is, after all, a major difference between being divided from ones family, and putting them to the sword.
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