It is of course only natural that there will be some similarities between the two films as the cover the same incidents (the birth of Jesus) using the same narrative strategy (harmonising the two differing accounts), setting (first century Palestine), and approach (attempting to be historically accurate). But there are also a number of similarities which were quite striking watching the two films in such close proximity. I'll summarise these as a list first of all, and then add a few comments.
- Both films depict Herod as a builder, taking a hands on approach to his building projects.
- Both films note how Herod killed two of his sons for plotting against him (even though these events occurred well before the birth of Jesus)
- Mary's parents (Joaquim and Anna) feature fairly prominently in both films.
- Both films make a point of stressing that Mary and Joseph will not be able to consummate their relationship for a year after their initial betrothal. Both times it's inserted into the dialogue quite awkwardly.
- In Joseph of Nazareth Elizabeth knows that Mary is pregnant without being told, and Mary responds by saying "how did you know"? The Nativity Story this is repeated and Mary's response is almost identical "how could you know"?
- In both films Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant after her visit to Elizabeth.
- Both films have Joseph carefully checking with Mary that a soldier hasn't raped her.
- Neither film has Mary gaining any assistance from other women during the birth
- In Matthew, Herod only becomes aware of, and concerned by, the birth of a messiah from Bethlehem after the visit of the Magi. Both films show it as a known concern well before the Magi visit.
- Both films prefigure Jesus clearing the temple. In Joseph of Nazareth, Joseph and Jesus are both equally disappointed by the state of the money changers etc. they find in the temple when Jesus visits at the age of 12. In The Nativity Story the comment is made by Joseph alone.
- Neither film shows the host of heaven appearing to the Shepherds. In The Nativity Story there is only a solitary angel. In Joseph of Nazareth we see only their reaction.
- Neither film includes Jesus's circumcision in Jerusalem, nor the presence of Simeon and Anna.
Now, as mentioned above, a number of these similarities would be expected, particularly as there is a great deal of tradition about Mary's parents, or the "three wise men". The attempts at historical accuracy might even go someway to explaining why the same additional details about Herod are included, even though they require the true timescale to be compressed to accommodate this.
Yet there are also a number of similarities which would be far less expected. Mary's almost identical response to Elizabeth, the awkward explanatory insertion regarding the "year's wait" before marriage is completed, questions about being attacked, or forced, and the comments about the temple (and these are gained from a single viewing of The Nativity Story.
Furthermore, the characterisations in the two films are all very similar. Herod and his son, Joaquim, Elizabeth, Joseph, the magi. Interestingly, it is the character of Mary, where there is actually the most biblical material, where the divergence is greatest. That said consider how similarly Joseph's discovery of the pregnancy is played. Mary and Joseph are reunited after a long time apart, Joseph finds out through someone else's reaction. Mary says very little whilst Joseph cross-examines her, raises the possibility of rape, and the options for divorce are laid out. Joseph goes off to gain advice, but finds himself accused. Mary remains steadfast about her innocence. Once he has had his dream, however, he is then overjoyed when God explains to him in a dream.
Yet consider the potential variations even given the self-imposed restriction of sticking to the biblical text. Mary could have told Joseph before she went away, or she could have outlined clearly what happened more actively, or her father could have (and no doubt would have) been the one to do the explaining. Joseph may not have needed to have options laid out for him by a Rabbi. Mary's assurance could have been shaken by this incident, Joseph may have been less than happy with his own role.
Some scriptwriters like to examine other version of the story they are about to write, others avoid them like the plague lest they interfere with their creative vision. I never had the chance to interview Mike Rich, but I would love to have asked him what his approach is, and if he had seen Joseph of Nazareth. Some of the similarities are quite striking.