Most of us are familiar with the opening to John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God..." It's inspirational stuff, pointing to the fact that Jesus, the Word, the Son of God, is fully God. He has always existed, he was involved in creation and, amazingly, he came and lived among us. For the Christian, this prologue is one of the deepest and most meaningful passages of the Bible.
But there is also something strange about it. There is no manger, no star, no wise men, and no angels. In fact, there are none of the familiar Christmas themes at all. John manages to introduce Jesus without making any reference to the amazing events of the first Christmas. Why would he do that?
The first thing to notice is that John isn't the only Gospel writer to miss out Christmas. Mark's Gospel starts right at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry and makes no mention of his birth or childhood. However, this is easy to understand. Mark was the first of the Gospels to be written and it doesn't go into much detail at any point. It's as if Mark was trying to get the essential things written down, perhaps knowing that others would come along and fill in the details later. John's Gospel, on the other hand, was the last of the four to be written and is more reflective than the other three, dwelling on the significance of events in a way that the others don't.
Some people suggest that John didn't include the Christmas story because he didn't know about it. The idea is that the details of Jesus' birth were embellished by the first Christians to give support to their claim that he was the Messiah. John, who lived a long way from Jerusalem, wasn't aware of these embellishments, so they didn't find their way into his Gospel.
However, there is another explanation. The first thing to note is that John admits he didn't give all the details of Jesus' life. There was much more that could have been written if he'd had the space (John 21:25). So John doesn't tell us anything about Jesus birth and childhood, but despite that he drops a couple of hints along the way.
Toward the end of the first chapter of John, Philip tells his friend Nathanael about Jesus, who he calls "Jesus of Nazareth". To which Nathanael replies: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" John just drops Jesus hometown into the story without a word of introduction. The best explanation is that John expected his readers to know already where Jesus came from.
Moving on to Chapter 7, there is an intriguing incident where people are arguing about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. In 7:42, people say that Jesus can't be the Messiah because he comes from Galilee, not from Bethlehem, the city of David. Just think about this for a moment. If John and his readers did not know the Christmas story – the story of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem – this incident would prove that Jesus wasn't the Messiah. If Jesus had been born in Nazareth or Capernaum, he would have been an imposter. But as we know and John and his original readers must have known, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
John didn't retell the Christmas story or give any details about Jesus' childhood, but he clearly expected that his readers would know enough to fill in the missing details for themselves. There is no Christmas story in John's Gospel, because Matthew and Luke had already said what needed to be said; leaving John free to write his amazing poetic introduction to the Messiah.
Eddie Arthur is director of strategic initiatives for Global Connections, a network of UK agencies, churches, colleges and support services that seeks to serve, equip and develop churches in their mission.