Since it has been the most influential English translation in history, I will refer to the King James Version of the Christian Bible.
It is important to note that the book of Matthew precedes the book of Luke. Despite this, the most famous passage describing Jesus’ birth is the one from Luke. To understand why, I will now compare and contrast each version.
In Matthew 2:1-23, the story of the nativity focuses mostly on the aftermath. Verses 1-12 describe how the three wise men of the East traveled to Jerusalem and met with King Herod to inquire about the birth of the “King of the Jews.” Since Herod is the earthly king, this phrasing disturbs him greatly. He instructs the wise men to go to Bethlehem and see the child, then report back to him. However, the wise men, after presenting their gifts to the newborn child, do not return to Herod because they were “warned of God in a dream.”
On the night of Jesus’ birth, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and instructs him:
Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
The rest of this passage explains how Joseph, Mary, and Jesus remained in Egypt until Herod’s death. Back in Bethlehem prior to his death, Herod had slaughtered all children under age two. Joseph eventually settles his family in Nazareth because of God’s prophecy.
This version of the nativity deemphasizes the particulars of Jesus’ birth in favor of discussing the persecution Jesus would face throughout his life. From a theological standpoint, this version implies that Jesus’ birth stood in direct opposition to the worldly order of Jerusalem. This foreshadows the pushback Jesus will receive from his own people when it is revealed that he is the Messiah. This version also highlights the brutal nature of man without God, as represented in Herod.
In Luke 2:1-20, the nativity is described in more specific terms. The first several verses provide backstory, indicating that Joseph led his pregnant wife out of Nazareth and into Bethlehem on a journey to pay taxes to the Romans. He decides to stop at Bethlehem because he is a descendant of David, a fact that is not mentioned in the Matthew version. In verse 7, Mary finally gives birth:
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
This suggests that Jesus is destined to live a humble life because of his humble beginnings. Meanwhile, shepherds out in the fields surrounding Bethlehem are greeted by a “multitude of the heavenly host” who say, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” This famous verse indicates that Jesus’ birth will herald in an unprecedented age of peace and harmony. This joyful depiction of the nativity contrasts with the Matthew version. The theological point, then, is to communicate the hope that Jesus’ birth bestowed upon mankind.
Each version of the nativity emphasizes a particular aspect of Jesus’ destiny. While Matthew focuses on the world’s resistance to accepting Jesus as the Messiah, Luke underscores the spiritual hope and peace that Jesus’ arrival will bring.
Earlier, I explained how the passage from Luke is more often referenced in popular discourse about Jesus’ birth. Based on the discussion above, I would suggest that this is the case because Luke includes more details about the actual birth coupled with a hopeful message. Even so, modern visions of the nativity in popular culture tend to neglect the particulars of either version in favor of a tidier narrative.