If you're interested in the earliest ideas about Christmas, you must sooner or later cope with the Gospel according to Matthew. And that is a challenge.

Luke's, the other version of the Christmas story, is poetic in substance and urbane in the telling. It features angel choirs, astonished shepherds and country landscapes, illuminated by heavenly light. The tone is universal. Matthew's version, though possibly older, suffers by comparison. It is parochial, prosaic and businesslike, the tone set by a stupefying set of genealogical lists. It is as if Matthew had been, among other things, the Debrett of his day.

The centerpiece of Matthew's birth narrative, moreover, is royal political intrigue. No sooner do the appealing Magi make their appearance, following the star to Bethlehem, than they -- and the story -- become involved with the devious King Herod. Elsewhere, Herod is depicted as a civilized young man, educated at the Roman court. Here he is a bloodthirsty baby-killer, alarmed that an obscure peasant child may supplant him.

His blood lust is responsible for the otherwise inexplicable flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. The story of that refuge in Egypt is otherwise unknown. Like so many of the stories Matthew tells, it may be designed only to give the birth story Mosaic roots and to suggest the fulfillment of obscure Old Testament prophecy. Matthew, in short, is among the earliest known storytellers whose narrative sense is often strained by polemical purpose. Does he have a hidden agenda? It has been thought so.

It seems to be his ultimate purpose, in addition to proclaiming Good News, to accentuate the tragic rupture between Judaic history and the Christian departure from it -- and to brand one side as willfully resisant to the Light. There are signs that he had an especially bitter quarrel with the Judaic orthodoxy of his day, a quarrel that goes beyond the dispute over messianism.

Even an amateur reader can get the drift of his special pleading: a constant effort to demonstrate close connections between Jesus' ministry and Old Testament prophecy. The aim is apparently to suggest the errancy of other interpretations. Moreover, Matthew's Lord is uncharacteristically biting and acerbic in his retorts to the spokesmen of orthodoxy, in a manner quite unparalleled in the other gospels.

This stark antithesis between the two great traditions, Hebraic and Christian, is unappealing today -- an element which Matthew imposed on the material he drew from Mark. Matthew lacks the subtlety and clarity -- and charity -- with which St. Paul pleads the same cause. Some would go so far as to identify this gospel as a significant historical source of modern anti-Semitism -- which, considering its many sublime and universal teachings, may be a bit unfair. But Matthew ultimately even goes to great lengths to minimize the legal responsibility of the Roman authorities in Jesus' execution, though they were, after all, in charge.

Perhaps none of this matters very much now. Christmas is overwhelmingly commercial, even pagan, and leaves little time for the contemplation of origins. Maybe it was rarely much else. For more than a century, moreover, Matthew's claim to priority among the four Evangelists has been in question. It was first authoritatively doubted exactly 150 years ago, in 1835. In most arrangements Matthew still is first by convention. But it is now widely accepted that Mark came first, that Matthew borrowed from him.

Similarly, the traditional identification of the gospel writer Matthew with the tax collector-apostle of that name is no longer tenable. Had Matthew the Evangelist been a contemporary observer, his changes in Mark's account would look more like editing than error.

And finally, the thirst of the present age has increasingly been for the recovery of apostolic purity of belief and custom, unalloyed by special pleading. For all Matthew's majestic touches (he is the source of the Sermon on the Mount) his approach is unsympathetic. Unlike Luke, he unwarily ensnarled his proclamation of "peace on earth among men of good will" with messianic politics and sectarianism. That is its challenge -- and its warning.