October 28, 2017

The only biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth are found in Matthew 1-2 (composed most likely between 80 and 90 CE) and in Luke 1-2 (composed between 80 and 110 CE). The biblical authors were not eyewitness observers when Jesus was born….but their faith in Jesus Christ was strong indeed.

Contemporary theologians speak about “infancy narratives” about the birth of Jesus not about infancy stories. They stress that the narratives present more of a theological understanding of Jesus than a strictly historical one. The infancy narrative in Matthew was written for Jewish converts to Christianity, while the infancy narrative in Luke was written for highly educated Gentile converts to Christianity.  

Although I have rarely done it in the Christmas season, I have found the infancy narratives a helpful way to begin an historical-critical understanding of the Gospels. In these days of alt-truth and bizarre interpretations of Christian belief, a healthy and balanced approach to Bible study is of great contemporary importance. It requires faith and study.

With an historical-critical understanding of Sacred Scripture, we appreciate the great variety of literary forms in our Jewish and Christian scriptures (imaginative figurative language, simile, metaphor, symbol, history, etc.) and that while there is indeed history in Sacred Scripture, it is secondary to theological content: who God is for us and who we are in relationship to God.  The infancy narratives are a fine example. Taking a close look at the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, we see a variety of literary forms and some significant differences: 

(1) Luke mentions the census of Quirinius which requires Joseph to go  to Bethlehem.  

(2) Matthew, however, gives no details of how Joseph and Mary came to be in Bethlehem.

(3) In Luke, shepherds guided by an angel find Jesus in the manger.

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

(5) 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.  

(6) 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. 

(7) Luke and Matthew are not necessarily contradictory, but they are
quite different from one another. AND there are some historical problems if one sees them as strict history: Herod died in 4 BCE. The census of Quirinius was in 6 CE. 

By the way, there is no mention of three kings in either infancy narrative. ONLY Matthew mentions “some wise men.” 

A real expert on the infancy narratives was the US Roman Catholic biblical scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown (1928-1998). Brown would agree with the present consensus of scholars that the infancy narratives were created by the early Christian community primarily to express its theological belief about Jesus Christ.  

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—so designated by the Holy Spirit—this designation was projected back into Jesus’ life: (1) Because of their belief in his divinity, early Christians creatively imagined the birth of Jesus to have occurred in a certain way, and (2) Hebrew Scriptures events were re-interpreted as pointing to Jesus. Some specific examples and comments: 

(1) Matthew makes use of the story of Moses to explain who Jesus is as the New Moses. Matthew also reinterprets the prophecy found in Isaiah 7:14 that King Ahaz (742 BCE) will have a son and then applies it to Jesus: “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” 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 has the wise men following the star of Jesus. In the ancient world every important person had his special star; and, therefore, the author of Matthew’s Gospel presumed Jesus had his special star. 

(2) Luke focuses more on Mary and the shepherds and angels, because his audience did not have much background in Jewish Scriptures: Mary learns from an angel, Gabriel, that she will conceive and bear a child called Jesus. When she asks how this can be, since she is a virgin, he tells her that the Holy Spirit would “come upon her” and that “nothing will be impossible with God.” At the time that Mary is due to give birth, she and her husband, Joseph, travel from their home in Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home in Bethlehem to register in the census of Quirinius. Mary gives birth to Jesus and, having found no place for themselves in the inn, places the newborn in a manger (feeding trough).  An angel of the Lord visits the shepherds guarding their flocks in nearby fields and brings them “good news of great joy”: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem to be circumcised, before returning to their home in Nazareth.  

Over the years, and for Roman Catholics especially since the September 1943 encyclical by Pope Pius XII: Divino Afflante Spiritu, Christians have moved from a literal to an historical-critical understanding of the Bible. Before 1943, for example, Catholic teaching was that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament). TODAY…we know this was impossible. We have grown in our understanding. Moses lived around 1648 BCE. The Pentateuch (first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) was written between 950 BCE and 400 BCE. 

The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are creative interpretations of the birth of Jesus the Christ, written to explain Christian belief to religiously and culturally different groups: educated Jewish converts, in Syria, for Matthew; and highly educated Gentile converts in an urban setting in Greece for Luke. In their unique ways, they affirm that Jesus Christ is truly “SON OF MAN” – fully human in a very special way — AND “SON OF GOD” – truly Divine and God’s revelation for all humanity. 

Considering the creative imagery of the infancy narratives, one can ask about other New Testament imagery.  That may well be a future reflection………

Right now, in our turbulent world, it is enough to reassure one another that we are not alone in our human journey. God has not abandoned us.

One thought on “A Pre-Christmas Biblical Reflection…

  1. As always, Jack, a wonderfully informative and inspirational blog on scripture! Beautifully summed up: “it is enough to reassure one another that we are not alone in our human journey. God has not abandoned us.” Amen!

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