2014-09-15

How and Why Luke Changed Matthew’s Nativity of Jesus Story

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by Neil Godfrey

One of the earliest known depictions from a th...

One of the earliest known depictions from a third century sarcophagus. Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 strangersshepherds, 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. 

Goulder’s dismay:

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.

And Herod?

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)

Govert Flinck [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

15 Comments

  • Paul Thomas
    2014-09-15 13:08:46 UTC - 13:08 | Permalink

    Hi Neil

    Interesting as always.
    Marc Goodacre is, apparently, also a good source for this argument – ‘The Case Against Q’, though I haven’t read it yet.
    I have read Richard I. Pervo – ‘The Mystery of Acts’, where he engages in a thorough examination of Luke’s second book, coming up with a convincing case that Luke wasn’t writing history but chartering a movement from east (Jerusalem) to west (Rome), whilst papering over theological cracks (e.g, having Peter and Paul singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak).
    One thing I found frustrating about Pervo’s book is that he identifies Josephus as a source for Luke, but fails to provide examples; who do you think makes the most thorough case for the connection between Luke and Josephus?

    Thanks

    • Phil W.
      2014-09-16 00:45:49 UTC - 00:45 | Permalink
    • 2014-09-16 00:50:52 UTC - 00:50 | Permalink

      Yes, it might even be said that Mark Goodacre has taken up Michael Goulder’s mantle today. Goulder has some very positive things to say about Mark in his “memoirs of a biblical scholar”, Five Stones and a Sling. He espccially appreciates Mark Goodacre’s critical analysis of where his theory’s weak spots lie as well as its strengths.

      Two works that I know of that address Luke’s use of Josephus:

      Steve Mason: Josephus and the New Testament (This is accessible online at Scribd and Bookzz)

      Richard Pervo: Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists Maybe I could do a post on this some time, collating Pervo’s list with the others.

      Richard Carrier has a discussion on the Secular Web at http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/lukeandjosephus.html

      See especially Goldberg’s list at http://www.josephus.org/ntparallels.htm

  • JW
    2014-09-15 23:50:02 UTC - 23:50 | Permalink

    Interesting hypothesis, but it seems to me, that it could work both ways, and be turned about to show that Matthew had read Luke, and eliminated the ignoble shepherds replacing them with the upmarket Magi, and also did a general rewrite to eliminate some of Luke’s more egregious historical and stylistic clangers.
    If Matthew followed Luke, that leaves Luke linked only to Josephus, instead of also having to link Luke to both Josephus and Matthew. This also eliminates the need for “Q”. “Q” always made me uncomfortable, some of the arguments for “Q” seemed shaky to me, and “Q” theory seemed more like theological legerdemain invented to keep the doctrine of individual divine inspiration from experiencing total die off Evan Powell’s books contain excellent arguments against “Q”.
    Luke’s nativity occurs in an Arcadian Hellenistic setting with sturdy Attic shepherds, while Matthew’s nativity reminds the hearer of the birth of Mithra attended by Cautes and Cautopates dressed as Magi (though sometimes they appear as shepherds, go figure).

  • Luke Burrage
    2014-09-16 22:33:08 UTC - 22:33 | Permalink

    Neil, if you don’t mind, here are my notes from a paper/essay/blog post I never got round to finishing on this very subject, with extra references and reasoning based on Lena Einhorn and her paper JESUS AND THE EGYPTIAN PROPHET. I hope you enjoy it.

    Why did Luke change Matthew’s Nativity?

    Very short answer: He didn’t want anyone confusing Jesus with the Egyptian Prophet!

    Longer answer:

    Step 1: For Mark, the Egyptian Prophet was just one source of many.

    Via Lena Einhorn and her paper JESUS AND THE EGYPTIAN PROPHET we know that Mark already knew about the Egyptian Prophet and, at a minimum, based some of the stories of Jesus partly on that figure. She also shows how Jesus’s ministry and death fit far better with the historical figures, language, and setting in the period of 48-56 CE rather than 30-35 CE.

    I don’t think Jesus WAS the Egyptian Prophet mentioned in Josephus and Acts, he was just one of many figures Mark used as an inspiration for Jesus.

    Step 2: Matthew – adding to the confusion.

    Matthew wanted to cast Jesus as a new Moses. To get a new Moses to come OUT of Egypt, he needed someone called Joseph, son of Jacob, to get his new Moses INTO Egypt (Matthew 2:15 from Hosea 11:1).

    Matthew included these elements cribbed/midrashed from Genesis and Exodus:
    – Jesus has a father called Joseph and a grandfather called Jacob.
    – Joseph had dreams (both stories have soooo many dreams).
    – Astrology (wise men, Joseph’s dreams of stars, etc).
    – Jesus being treated like a new King (Moses being raised as a Prince of Egypt)
    – Herod slaughtering children (Pharaoh slaughtering children).
    – The trip down to Egypt.
    – The trip back out of Egypt.

    Matthew didn’t think that Jesus was the Egyptian Prophet either, but his adding all this “Jesus as a new Moses” material didn’t help OTHERS keep the two of them separate and the issue straight.

    The Egyptian Prophet was obviously a known figure, from Josephus or otherwise, and such was the confusion that even Paul was asked about it too: “Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” (Acts 21)

    Step 3: Luke – stopping the confusion!

    As per Einhorn’s research, the version of Matthew’s Gospel that Luke first read obviously included far more of the original dating of the commonly understood time frame of Jesus’s ministry (the run-up to the Jewish Wars).

    Luke’s mission, in changing Matthew’s Nativity, was to cast Jesus as someone NOT-Egyptian. It’s not only that Luke didn’t have a problem changing Matthew’s story, but that he was actively writing AGAINST Matthew on this very topic. Instead of a new Moses, Luke wanted a new Elijah: “he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah” 1:17. (Plus lots more David references than Matthew.)

    And keep in mind that Luke usually casts Jesus as more of a champion of the poor than Matthew. This also explains the double tradition’s “strong similarities with the teachings of the Cynics”; Luke took anything remotely “Cynical” from Matthew, and only parts of the rest.

    So now we know why Luke removed what he did from Matthew’s Nativity:
    – Joseph is now the son of Heli, not Jacob.
    – Removed all references to kings and kingly gifts.
    – Removed all references to Egypt.
    – Removed all dreams. In Luke angels appear directly, not via dreams.
    – Removed slaughter of innocents.
    – Removed all astrology.

    What Luke left intact:
    – The names of Joseph and Mary (the name Joseph isn’t a problem without the dreams, father called Jacob, connection to Egypt, etc).
    – Bethlehem as a place of birth (a “fixed” location by previous scripture, not Matthew).
    – Ending up in Nazareth (again based on previous scripture).

    What Luke added instead:
    – Lots of John the Baptist material (which isn’t the an issue for this theory)
    – The census, which is about money and taxes, a common Luke theme. Also see Einhorn: “As related by Josephus… The census marks the birth of the organized anti-Roman resistance movement.”
    – No room at the inn and Jesus placed in a manger. More focus on the poor.
    – The opposite of Kings: Shepherds. See: David, etc. From Shepherd to King. Not from King to King.
    – Jesus presented at the temple. Various reasons, including confirming Jesus as a figure like Elijah to challenge Israel, not lead them as a king (Luke 2:34).

    The issues that Lena Einhorn raises about the dates in the Gospels not lining up, and being explained by an Egyptian-Time-Slip, also makes sense if we take Luke’s writing against Matthew as the beginning of this process. In other words, Luke didn’t only recast Jesus at a far remove from the Egyptian Prophet as possible in terms of origin story, but also moved him in time.

    Finally, there are two options for WHEN Luke wrote his new Nativity, in relation to when his congregation learned of Matthew’s Nativity:

    1. Luke wrote his Nativity BEFORE Matthew’s Gospel/Nativity was widely known by the members of his church. That meant his own expanded stories about Jesus would be accepted by his church without having to battle against Matthew’s influence.

    2. Luke wrote his Gospel AFTER Matthew’s Gospel was already widely known, but he felt so strongly about Matthew’s version of events that he took up the mission to “set the story straight” anyway.

    Step 4: Luke’s success.

    Luke, in the final reckoning, was successful. If the only Nativity had been Matthew’s, the Moses/Egypt connection would have been overly obvious, and the confusion between Jesus and the Egyptian Prophet may have continued far longer than it did.

    Also Luke’s placing of Jesus in time (between 1 and 36 CE) stuck, though the “correcting” of the Mark and Matthew that followed throws up many issues, as outlined by Lena Einhorn (with the roles of certain known authority figures in the originals seemingly just switched to different authority figures with the closest names and/or position in the new time frame).

    That’s all for now. Thoughts?

    • Tim Widowfield
      2014-09-17 06:35:11 UTC - 06:35 | Permalink

      All very interesting information. BTW, for anyone interested, Lena Einhorn’s paper can be found here in PDF format.

    • Phil W.
      2014-09-17 08:42:03 UTC - 08:42 | Permalink

      My long-time idea that ‘King Herod’ in Mark 6:14 was Agrippa I would then be close, but would fit better according to Einhorn’s ideas with Agrippa II. It looks like whoever wrote the first Gospel from some historical account got his dates (and ‘procurator’) wrong, as I suspected.

      • MrHorse
        2016-05-23 00:55:54 UTC - 00:55 | Permalink

        or, as we are increasingly considering, via Lena Einhorn, the Gospel-writer used events from one time period on which to base narrations in the NT and set them in another time period.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-09-17 12:29:31 UTC - 12:29 | Permalink

      I can only say the same: interesting. It’s a perspective I’d need to do more reading around to be able to comment further so I welcome the Lena Einhorn reference. Unfortunately her article is another 40 pages to read so I can only request a little more time till I have had the chance to read that and take it in.

    • Thor
      2014-09-18 18:18:56 UTC - 18:18 | Permalink

      “- Removed all references to kings and kingly gifts.”

      Removed from Matthew’s Gospel? I might be confusing things, so perhaps someone could mention passages this refers to?

      • Neil Godfrey
        2014-09-18 19:35:33 UTC - 19:35 | Permalink

        I stepped into a colloquialism puddle — magi are commonly referred to as “wise men” and/or “kings”.

  • Greg G.
    2014-09-18 09:43:42 UTC - 09:43 | Permalink

    I think it’s more likely Luke used Matthew. Luke may have been appalled that God would save only Jesus while allowing all the other babies to be killed. Luke may have used a different genealogy because he didn’t like Jesus being descended from the David and Bathsheba union that caused the death if her first husband.

    I can’t fathom Matthew reading Luke and thinking “this story needs dead babies”.

  • Giuseppe
    2014-09-18 10:07:53 UTC - 10:07 | Permalink

    Joseph can be imagined as an allegory of Paul regard how he beheaves with his wife Mary, symbol of Israel?

    In Mark ”Mary” is symbol of corrupted Israel (Israel, as a group, is like a wife – Hosea 1-3 – or a woman – Ezekiel 16 and 23) and her sons are then all corrupted according the Nazareth people.

    In Matthew ”Mary” is rehabilitated becoming faithful to God and Joseph is assured by angel about her honesty.

    ”Carpenter” in Mark alludes to Paul.

    That word is often translated ”carpenter” but it means more generally ”builder”, and that is the maning tipically ascribed to it in 1 Corinthians 3:10, where Paul likens himself to an architekton, often translated ”master builder”. The words are the same except for the prefix in 1 Corinthians.
    (Tom Dykstra, Mark, Canonizer of Paul, p. 156)

    In Matthew Joseph is the carpenter, and not Jesus. In this way ”Mary”, i.e. Israel, is adulteress only to the eyes of Nazareth people, but she becomes for insiders the symbol of true Israel. Then Paul, for Matthew, is the man who doubted about the faith of Israel (”Mary”) and that after was
    re-concilated with his wife by angel (and Paul went to Arabia, i.e. Sinai, near the Egypt, cfr. Gal 1:17, by divine revelation). This can be relative to evolution of Paul’s view (from being against the Law in Galatians to being pro Law in Romans).

    If I am right (but I recognize that the idea is too speculative), then ‘Joseph’/Paul will be who named the Son of God with the name ”Jesus”. In History, maybe Paul would be the first to call the Son with ”the name that is higher than other names”.

    • James D Williams
      2016-05-24 07:35:57 UTC - 07:35 | Permalink

      Giuseppe has put another brick in the Parvusian edifice with his post’s offering of ‘Joseph’/Paul, and ‘Mary'(rehabilitated, adulteress)…
      if the combination is seen as “Simon and Helena” in Matthew, of all places!

  • David Ashton
    2016-05-24 16:51:04 UTC - 16:51 | Permalink

    Woman=Israel in the Apocalypse.

    If “tekton” translates the Aramaic “naggara” it can imply scholarship – Jesus trounces the scribes.

    Another speculation is that during the “missing years” he did building work in Sepphoris and visited its theatre.

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