10 September 2016

Labor Day is over. Schools are in session. The frost will soon be on the pumpkin. Just over a hundred days until Christmas.

A few readers have asked about biblical interpretation as it involves the New Testament. Since this is still early September, I thought I would offer a reflection about the Infancy Narratives..  

Years ago I learned, in a parish Bible-study group, that it is difficult to comment about Jesus’ birth close to Christmas. Once the manger scenes are in church and the herald angels are singing, it is impossible to rationally discuss the creative imagery, historical questions, and theological belief about Jesus’ infancy, which often gets mixed with non-biblical (but often understood as biblical) legends and folklore. 

First of all, any Bible-study should begin with the acknowledgement that we know more today about our history and our scriptures than we did forty years ago….And of course we are still learning. 

We have a better understanding of ancient languages, ancient cultures, and the origins and historic evolution of texts. Before 1943, for example, official Roman Catholic teaching was that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch: the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. TODAY we know this was impossible. Moses lived around 1648 BCE. The Pentateuch (first five books of what we used to refer to as the “Old Testament”) was written between 950 BCE and 400 BCE. 

Yes there is history in the Bible, but our Sacred Scriptures focus more on faith and belief than history. Biblical scholars help us distinguish historic fact from the creative and imaginative imagery often used to convey theological belief. And here the Infancy Narratives are a good example. 


The only place in the New Testament where the birth of Jesus is described is in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Paul, whose writings predate Matthew and Luke, provides no information about Jesus’ birth, although he mentions it in three letters (Romans 1:3, Galatians 4:4, 7, and Timothy 2:8). 

The Infancy Narratives in Matthew 1:18-2:23 and Luke 2:1-3 present more of a theological understanding of Jesus than a strictly historical one, although they offer, of course, no challenge to an historical Jesus. That is why theologians speak about “infancy narratives” not about infancy stories. 

Right from the beginning, the purpose of the Infancy Narratives has been to preserve and present a theological understanding of Jesus of Nazareth. 

The infancy narrative in Matthew was written around 85 CE and was written for Jewish converts to Christianity. The infancy narrative in Luke was written around between 85 and 90 CE possibly as late as 95 CE and was written for highly educated Gentile converts to Christianity.  

The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are in some respects quite different from one another. Some differences…….. 

– Luke mentions the census which requires Joseph to go to Bethlehem.

– Matthew, however, gives no details of how Joseph and Mary came to be in Bethlehem

– In Luke, shepherds guided by an angel find Jesus in the manger.

– In Matthew, wise men from the East, guided by a star, come not to Bethlehem but to Jerusalem to worship the Infant.

– In Matthew Joseph flees with his wife and child to Egypt where they live until Herod’s death; then they return to Nazareth instead of Bethlehem.

– Luke, on the other hand, does not mention the descent into Egypt. Instead, he describes how the Infant is brought to Jerusalem for the ritual of the first-born.

Luke and Matthew are not necessarily contradictory, but they are certainly different from one another. AND there are some historical problems, if one sees them as strict history. Herod died in 4 BCE. There was a local census in Syria by Quirinius when he was governor in 6 CE; but there is no historical record of Caesar Augustus’ decree that “all the world should be enrolled” (Lk. 2:1). The Romans kept very detailed records of such events. 

By the way, there is no mention of “three kings” in either infancy narrative. ONLY Matthew mentions “some wise men.” No specific number of them and no names. The “traditional names” Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar are probably derived from a Greek manuscript composed in Alexandria around 500 CE. A Shrine of the Three Kings can be seen in Cologne Cathedral. According to an old tradition it contains the bones of the Three Wise Men. An old tradition says that the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena (250 – 330 CE), found the bones during her famous pilgrimage to Palestine and the Holy Lands. She was a great collector of religious artifacts. An old legend says she also found the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Helena packed up the bones and took them, first of all, to the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. They were later moved to Milan, before being moved, by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I in 1164 , to their current resting place in Cologne. (One of my now deceased old professors at the University of Louvain had a look inside the reliquary in Cologne Cathedral and told us his students: “Yes I saw a bunch of bones, but I don’t think they were human.” But that is a relics story for some other time.)  

Back to the theology of the Infancy Narratives. 

The great expert on the Infancy Narratives was the U.S. Roman Catholic biblical scholar, Raymond Brown. He supported the present day consensus of scholars that the Infancy Narratives were created by the early Christian community primarily to express its theology. The central element in the earliest Christian Proclamation was the Holy Spirit’s designating Jesus as the Son of God in association with his resurrection. As the Christian community reflected on Jesus as the Son of God, this belief was projected back into Jesus’ birth and infancy. The Hebrew Scriptures were then re-interpreted as pointing to Jesus. The authors of Matthew and Luke, therefore, who probably did not witness the birth of Jesus, imagined the birth of Jesus to have occurred in a certain way that would support their religious belief about Jesus. 

Some specific examples and comments: 

Matthew makes use of the story of Moses to explain Jesus as the New Moses. Matthew tells of the murder of infant boys by King Herod. Actually there is no historical evidence for this event. From the writer Flavius Josephus, the first-century Romano-Jewish scholar and historian, we have a long list of Herod’s cruel misdeeds but no mention of this mass murder. Rather than strict history, the imaginative episode reveals Matthew’s theological interest in relating the early life of Jesus to that of Moses.  

Matthew also re-interprets the prophecy that King Ahaz (742 BCE) will have a son and then applies it to Jesus. In Isaiah 7:14 we find a verse in which the prophet Isaiah, addresses King Ahaz of Judah. Isaiah predicts that a young woman of marriageable age will shortly give birth to a child whose name will be Immanuel, “God is with us.” (Where the Hebrew Scriptures used a word that meant “young woman,” the Septuagint Greek translation of the same text from Isaiah used a word which meant “a virgin.”) 

Matthew also constructs a highly stylized genealogy to show a direct line from Abraham, father of the Jewish people, down to Joseph father of Jesus. Matthew also has the wise men following the star of Jesus, because in the ancient world every important person had his special star. Theological imagination: Jesus would certainly have had his star. 

Luke focuses more on Mary, the shepherds, and the angels. His audience did not have as much background in the Hebrew Scriptures as Matthew’s audience. 

Creatively adjusting the imagery of their message to the backgrounds of their audiences, the authors of Matthew and Luke proclaim the unique revelation of God in the birth of his Son Jesus of Nazareth. 

As I said last week, the Bible is not a collection of fairy tales. Nor is the Bible, strictly speaking, a history book. It is a book about people’s faith experiences across many centuries, written in a variety of literary styles. When one knows the languages and literary forms of Sacred Scripture, ancient texts come alive, as statements of profound belief and theological truth: God is with us in every dimension of our existence.  

5 thoughts on “Three Kings?

  1. There is an important message behind the glory of angels and shepherds in the gospel of Luke: That the comming of God is accompanied by a great joy both for angels and for people. God uses this joy as an identity card when he comes into our hearts. The gospel is here to prepare us for this.

  2. Thanks so much, Jack, for another scholarly (AND entertaining) essay on the historical and cultural background on scripture. It’s always better to be able to separate the theological intent from whatever lack of reality there is in our favorite scriptural stories. Much appreciated.

  3. I believe the Gospels flat-out contradict each other, and that the contradictions are not only good, but inspired and inspiring. It is with different perspectives that we come to appreciate and acknowledge the loving mystery of God–reaching the truth as adults.

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