2007-09-25

A reason Luke might have rejected Matthew’s nativity story

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by Neil Godfrey

There are arguments for and against Luke having known and used the gospel of Matthew, but one of the stronger arguments against him having done so is that his nativity story appears to owe nothing to Matthew’s – indeed appears to have been composed in complete ignorance of it. Matthew tells the story of the star, the visiting Magi, the infant Jesus being whisked off to Egypt to escape the Herod’s massacre of the infants, and eventual settlement in Nazareth. Luke’s story is as much about the miraculous birth of John the Baptist as it is about Jesus, involves shepherds instead of Magi, no Herodian massacre, and a presentation at the Jerusalem Temple rather than a flight to Egypt.

If Luke as we have it was, with the book of Acts, a response to Marcionism (or even an attempt to baptize Paul into orthodoxy quite apart from Marcionism), then it would seem he would have every reason to dismiss the Matthean nativity totally.

Marcionism claimed ownership of Paul as the sole apostle, and stood against the Jerusalem tradition with its twelve apostles led by Peter and James and one foot in Jewish scriptures. (Or is it possible that the Jerusalem tradition was created to counter Marcionism?) The author of Luke-Acts as we know those books today was very likely attempting to co-opt Paul into a more orthodox framework. (I know some question this but I’m playing with the late and anti-Marcionite Luke-Acts model here (Tyson).)

This meant Paul had to be subservient to the tradition that claimed Jerusalem as its starting base. What became orthodoxy found its roots in an allegorical interpretation of ancient Jewish writings. The twelve apostles were quite possibly originally created as an attempt to identify the church as a new Israel born out of the old. (See my discussion of the so-called confirmation of the historicity of the Twelve by Meier in this and subsequent posts.)

Luke’s nativity story establishes the Christian movement in Jerusalem and the Jewish tradition. The Jewish Temple is a significant backdrop for the rise of Christianity right up till the time its doors are shut in Acts 21:30.

Matthew’s nativity would have had no place in such a narrative plan. Although Matthew’s nativity was modeled on the story of the birth of Moses, it was gave priority to the role of gentiles at the foundations of the Christian story. Magi and Egypt are central to its plot and the Jewish king is the villain. Such a story could well play into the hands of the anti-Jewish Marcionite Christianity that was widespread enough to pose a serious alternative to what we call orthodoxy.

Or even if Marcionism per se was not the target, even if on other grounds the author of Luke-Acts was working on “half-way Judaizing” Paul, attempting to bring him in from the anti-Jewish gentile Cold, the nativity of Matthew with its focus on the light among the gentiles would only be flirting with failure before one started.

Luke was careful to see that the gospel was taken to the gentiles after the Jerusalem church and Peter, leader of the Twelve, in particular opened that door. Any hint of gentile priority had no place in his ideological intent.

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