As I’ve said before, I love school nativity plays. But I worry about the way that some (most?) Christians treat the stories, as though if anyone asks if the events were not exactly as they’re portrayed in the school play that somehow the integrity and truth of the Bible is being questioned. “Biblical criticism” is used as a dirty phrase, and it shouldn’t be.
A serious look at the stories told by Matthew and Luke reveals some puzzles, but that’s only a problem if you’re determined that they are telling the same story. For example, Matthew clearly implies that Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem - they only go to Nazareth after their flight to Egypt. It is Luke who has them travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem and back again. Only Matthew mentions the star, and he doesn’t say anything about how bright it was. Whatever the carol may say, there is no mention of the shepherds (they’re in Luke) having seen it. If you put the two stories together as witnesses of “events”, what they agree about is that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth - and not much else. But that isn’t a problem. It’s a glory! The early church had ample opportunity to harmonise these accounts, and it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because both accounts are essentially true.
What, after all, is the purpose of these nativity stories? They’re a sort of preview of the good news that follows. They reveal what their authors believed to be the truth about Jesus. But they are not, absolutley not, biographies in any modern sense of the word. We are not dealing with objective, dispassionate writing. This is from the faithful for the faithful. Asking questions of these texts is not to deny their authority and truthfulness. It is about seeking the message that Matthew and Luke have for us by reading what they actually say, rather than reading their accounts through a filter of Primary School drama.