The Gospel of Matthew opens with the story of the Magi following a star to find the baby Jesus,the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the flight into Egypt and Herod ordering the massacre of all infants near Bethlehem to be sure of getting rid of the unidentified newborn king.
The Gospel of Luke could not be any more different, or so it seems. No Magi, no precious gifts, no flight into Egypt, no Herod or mass infanticide. Rather we have shepherds being directed by angels to find Jesus in a manger.
The most common explanation for this narrative gulf between the two is that the author of the Gospel of Luke (let’s take a wild guess and call him Luke) knew nothing of the existence of the Gospel of Matthew and had quite different sources to draw upon to account for Jesus’ birth. It is impossible, the argument goes, to imagine Luke discarding such a dramatic and memorable story as found in Matthew’s Gospel had he known it.
Michael Goulder disagreed and in Luke: A New Paradigm (1989) he published his reasons for believing Luke did know of the Magi and Herod narrative and deliberately changed it.
First, notice the points that Luke has in common with Matthew.
- Mary ‘bore a son’ (έτεκεν υίόν, Mt. 1.25; Lk. 2.7).
- It was in Bethlehem of Judaea, as Micah had foretold (Mt. 2.1, 5f), and Matthew turns the citation in line with the prophecy to David, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel’ (v. 6d, 2 Sam. 5.2); Luke says that Joseph went up to Judaea to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, being of Davidic ancestry, and Mary with him (2.4).
- In Matthew God brings a company of strangers, magi, leading them by a star rising in the sky; in Luke God brings a company of strangers, shepherds, summoning them by his angel, and the multitude of the heavenly host.
- When the magi saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy (έχάρησαν χαράν μεγάλην σφόδρα, 2.10); the angel brought the shepherds good news of χαράν μεγάλην for all the people (2.10).
- The magi come and see the child (τό παιδίον) with Mary his mother, and fall before him (‘when you have found him’, said Herod). The shepherds came with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the baby laid in the manger; and when they had seen, they made known the saying told them of the child (του παιδιού τούτου, 2.17).
- Magi and shepherds close the scene by returning whence they had come; and Luke then notes that ‘his name was called Jesus’ at his circumcision, just as Matthew says that Joseph called his name Jesus (1.25).
(From Goulder, Luke: A New Paradigm, p. 247, with my formatting)
Goulder expresses dismay that the renowned Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown could notice all of the above points yet still conclude that Luke knew nothing of the Matthean story. Here is Brown’s argument from The Birth of the Messiah, pp. 411-12), again with my formatting and bolding:
The latter observation points to the fact that the real parallel for the annunciation to the shepherds is not the annunciations before Jesus’ birth in Luke 1:26-38 and Matt 1: 18-25, but the magi story in Matt 2: 1-12. In both Matthean and Lucan infancy narratives, after a first chapter which informs one parent of the forthcoming birth of Jesus, there is a similar sequence of events early in ch. 2:
- a brief mention of birth at Bethlehem;
- the revelation of that birth to a group who were not present (magi, shepherds) [footnote: Appropriately revelation by a star for Gentiles and by an angel of the Lord for Jews.];
- the coming of that group to Bethlehem under the guidance of the revelation;
- their finding of the child with Mary (and Joseph);
- an acknowledgment on their part of what God has done;
- and their returning to whence they came.
The fact that the group which receives the revelation (magi, shepherds) are the central characters in the respective scenes is explicable once we remember that the conception and birth of Jesus had now become the christological moment. As I indicated in § 6, A2, when the christological moment was the resurrection, the recipients of that revelation became apostles who went forth to proclaim the good news of salvation; and their proclamation of christology was met by the twofold reaction of either acceptance/homage or rejection/persecution. We saw in Matthew’s infancy narrative this same sequence of christological revelation, proclamation through a star, and the twofold reaction of acceptance/homage by the magi and rejection/persecution by King Herod, the chief priests and scribes. In Luke’s infancy narrative the sequence is also preserved, for the revelatory annunciation in ch. 1 is followed by a proclamation through an angel in ch. 2, with the twofold reaction of acceptance/praise by the shepherds, and of Simeon’s warning of rejection/persecution in 2:34-35.
All these points are noted by Brown in a remarkable passage (pp. 411f.), which seems to defy his conclusion that Luke was unaware of the Matthaean form of the story. He even notes how appropriate it is for Luke’s Jewish shepherds to be summoned by the Lord, while Matthew’s Gentiles are led by a star; and that the acceptance of Christ by the magi and his rejection by Herod are paralleled by the prophecy of both salvation and fall in the Nunc Dimittis.
Goulder sees a more obvious parallel in the Matthew’s and Luke’s respective angelic messages. Look at Matthew 1:20-21 (NASB):
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. . . .
But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid . . . [Mary] will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
Then look at Luke 2:9-11 (NASB)
And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
The “angel of the Lord” may not seem so remarkable until one recalls that Luke has already twice introduced this angel by his personal name Gabriel. In Luke 1:19 and 26 we met Gabriel bringing God’s announcements to the father-to-be of John the Baptist and to Mary. In chapter 2 Luke appears to have reverted to Matthew’s influence again with the formally impersonal “angel of the Lord”.
The passage in Luke here follows Matthew in limiting the Saviour’s impact to “the people”, or Israel. Luke 2:14 and 2:31-32 lead the reader to expect the Messiah is going to have a wider presence than that. “Savior” is, furthermore, not a common word in Luke, Goulder points out. Putting these points together,
and the link of ‘the people’ with a saviour (not a common Lucan word) itself suggests the influence of Matthew’s etymology of Jesus’ name, as it did at 1.77.
Luke normally uses the Greek word τὸ βρέφος for baby or infant but in 2:17 he picks up Matthew’s preferred word, τό παιδίον . . .
just as we saw John move from being a βρέφος in 1.41, 44 to a παιδίον in w. 66, 80 under the influence of Gen. 21: Mark’s παιδία become Lucan βρέφη at 18.15. (p. 248)
Why omit the Magi?
By the time we come to Acts, the second volume of Luke’s work, we learn that Luke hated the magi. The apparent founder of Christian heresy was Simon Magus, or Simon the one who worked magic (Acts 8.9, 11). Another magus was the Jewish false prophet Bar-Jesus whom Paul justly struck blind (Acts 13:6, 8). In Ephesus the new converts who had one practiced magic publicly burned 50,000 silver piece’s worth of their “abominable books (Acts 19:19)”.
Magic was a vile superstition which had no part in Christian truth, and astrology will lead no man to God, nor to Jesus Christ. (pp. 248-9)
Luke retains Matthew’s structure but the Magi have to go.
I also think that another reason for Luke wanting to excise them from here was his larger structural plan for his narrative to begin in Jerusalem, and among the Jews, with the gentiles having to wait for the foundation of the church after Pentecost and the sending of the apostles. The gentile visitors at this point of the narrative spoiled this theme.
Another possibility, in my view, is Luke’s preference to make the lowly characters the heroes (compare the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the lowly Mary . . .) in contrast to Matthew’s preference for putting high standing characters to the forefront of his narrative. Note how Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is traced back through the great names of Solomon and the kings while Luke’s is through the lowly branch.
Matthew’s whole Herod-legend is full of undesirable political overtones, with claims to kingship and expensive presents from foreign potentates, and Luke is glad to be rid of it. (p. 249)
But now the problem
Once having gotten rid of the magi and Herod Luke was faced with a problem. The Book of Micah was interpreted as saying the messiah had to be born in Bethlehem — that much Luke could take from Matthew. But Jesus was to grow up in Nazareth and preach among the Galileans. How to reconcile these points?
Luke had heard Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews being read or had read it himself (we find several influences of this work in Luke-Acts) and knew that
‘Judas the Galilean had arisen in the days of the census, and drawn away some of the people after him’ (Acts 5:37)
‘[T]he census’ was thus a major fact of popular memory from around the turn of our era, and the association of Judas ‘the Galilean’ with it (in fact of Golan, Jos., Ant. 17.13.5) must seem to imply the involvement of Galilee. Since Luke also knew that Roman census officials did not tour every farm, but expected people to come and register at local towns, it seems that his problem has an obvious solution. Joseph, as a descendant of David, will have been required to attend at David’s home-town, Bethlehem, and Mary with him; and the baby will have been born during the visit. As many other areas than Palestine had been assessed for taxes during Augustus’ principate, Luke dignifies the occasion with a world-wide decree from the Emperor himself. (p. 250)
Goulder finds other passages in 2 Samuel 24 and Judges 19 — David’s census and the levite’s seeking accommodation with his concubine in Gibeah — that he suspects inspired the fleshing out of some of Luke’s story. That’s taking us into the realm of another post, however.