If the first readers of Luke’s Gospel also knew Matthew’s . . . .

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

. . . . What would they make of the different birth narratives?

The Gospels for All Christians (edited by Richard Bauckham) appeared about twelve years ago challenging the idea that each of our canonical gospels was tailored for a particular community audience: Mark, say, for Romans, Matthew to a church in Syria, etc.

The reasons for this argument, and the reasons for the original paradigm that each of the gospels was the product of a distinct community, are subjects for another post. I have been particularly interested in the subject of intertextuality — the dialogue one can see among both New and Old Testament works. Thomas L. Thompson is one scholar who in particular has addressed evidence for various prophetic works such as Isaiah and Hosea “speaking” to each other — taking up themes that one has raised and presenting an alternative side of the discussion.

I have tended to think of Matthew’s treatment of Mark’s Gospel as an example of the same process continuing into the Christian era. The point is that Matthew was addressing the same audience that knew Mark’s Gospel, and not that Mark wrote for one local audience while Matthew somehow got hold of Mark’s work and re-wrote it for a different community with different views about the role of Peter, the Law, etc. Similarly with Luke’s treatment of Mark. There are limits to this model, however. There clearly were Christian groups who bluntly opposed certain Gospels, and we can think of Marcion accepting none other than a form of the Gospel of Luke. So I am not suggesting that there was one happy universal Christian family open to every revision that came along. Far, far from it. But I have difficulties with the idea that each gospel was written for localized communities. The matters and themes they address are too universal for that to concept to fit well.

But when we take this model — that the gospels were written for (more or less) “all Christians” — then we come back to our old question of Luke’s knowledge of Matthew.

How can anyone think Luke knew Matthew yet chose to write such a completely different birth narrative and break up that “sublime” unit of the Sermon on the Mount?

Mark A. Matson has taken up this question in several publications, and in a 1999 SBL article, The Rhetoric of Gospel Re-Writing, he brings in a third party to help explain what Luke might have been doing. That third party is the reading/listening audience. The question then becomes (in his particular article): What was the impact of hearing the Gospel of Luke upon an audience who knew the Gospel of Mark. To answer this he examines the trial scene of Jesus before Pilate and discusses how an audience who knew Mark’s version might be expected to respond to hearing the differences in Luke’s gospel.

In short, the question shifts from “Why would Luke change Matthew (or Mark)?” to “How might Luke have been trying to affect and change the views of an audience who already knew Matthew?”

Tackling the trial of Jesus is fine. But I’ve decided here to take on a question that interests me much more than that: the different birth narratives. So here goes.

Luke responds to Matthew’s nativity tale

Luke’s opening draws the audience into a dramatic narrative setting of an aged holy man and his wife, and a visiting angel that takes them back to the days of the Jacob and Joseph, Samuel and David, or should one say, the days of Rachel, Ruth and Hannah, for it’s the women who soon become the centre of attention. Luke takes readers back to the days of the righteous patriarchs and judges, along with angels visiting godly mortals, very elderly, righteous and childless men and women, and devout prayers, faith and promises.

The audience familiar with Matthew’s opening of genealogical lists from Abraham down through David, several women with questionable reputations (Tamar who prostituted herself with her father Judah, Rahab the prostitute from Jericho, Ruth whose forward moves on Boaz demanded public protection of her honour, and the wife of Uriah who had an adulterous affair with David) is in a very different world with Luke’s narrative.

Readers of Matthew knew that after the Abrahamic genealogical line of Jesus came the new of Mary’s premature pregnancy and the angelic revelation to her husband-to-be Joseph. Mary is spoken about in Matthew, and it is Joseph who is addressed by an angel, and Joseph whose responsibility it is to decide to protect Mary.

Listeners to Luke, on the other hand, are taken into a new world where Joseph is virtually absent. The angel comes directly to Mary, and it is Mary herself who is the prominent figure. The lowly women, mothers of the prophet of Jesus and Jesus himself are the lead characters. And they glow like the holy women of old, Hannah, Sarah, as they submit to God and thank him for being so wonderfully blessed. The lowly are not shamed, but are exalted, and this is one of Luke’s themes throughout his gospel.

Readers familiar with Matthew are thus taken into a very different world from the one they had been familiar with earlier. The earlier narrative of shame, suspicion, and machinations of a man feeling a need to protect the honour of the mother of Christ are all dissolved away as they read of God honouring the lowly, and the characters are all reminiscent of the pious saints of the Jewish scriptures.

The birth of Jesus in Luke is bound far more tightly and colorfully to the prophecies of Jewish scriptures through the intertwining narrative of the birth of John the Baptist. The drama of Zechariah being struck dumb till the vital moment, and the visits of Elizabeth and Mary, allow a number of speeches elaborating on the momentous prophecies of old that are about to unfold. The parents of John the Baptist and the mother of Jesus are hewn out of the tales of the most pious heroes of olden days.

Matthew’s readers are familiar with the birth of Jesus being shadowed by that of Moses: the tyrannical ruler slaying the infants, escape of the infant within Egypt. Critical to the plot, too, are the three wealthy magi from a foreign land.

On reading Luke, however, those images are relegated to the background as Luke carries forward his narrative setting entirely within the holy land itself where earlier Israelite narratives of divine appearances to holy men and women took place.

If the same author was responsible for the Book of Acts, then it is certain his narrative plan was to establish Jerusalem and the land of Israel as the home-base for Christianity, with gentiles only finding a place after Pentecost. So Christ’s glory begins in Jerusalem and Judea. And once again it is the lowly who are exalted through Christ’s advent. There is thus no room for the great and wise, or for foreign lands, at this part of the story. Those called to worship the infant are not the magi from afar, but the humble shepherds outside Bethlehem. Jesus is not taken to Egypt, but to the Temple in Jerusalem for blessing. As if to reinforce the theme that this alternative story of Jesus is Jewish-centric from the beginning, readers are even informed of the moment of his circumcision.

Jesus’ birth is not a time for the death of the poor, or the infants of the poor, and the poor for fleeing as refugees from the mighty. It is through and through a tale of exaltation of the poor and lowly. The themes of exaltation and salvation displace the fearful images of Matthew. “Glory in the Highest” replaces murderous scheming of the earthly powers.

The Bethlehem-Nazareth conundrum is resolved

Discussions over the apparent difficulties facing the authors of the gospels in trying to have Jesus both grow up in Nazareth (presumably according to historical reality) yet be born in Bethlehem (to fulfil the prophecy of Micah) are resolved once one approaches the question through intertextual dialogue.

Matthew used prophecy twice over to have Jesus moved to Nazareth. First, Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem to begin with so that Jesus was born there according to the prophecy. He then, again according to prophecy, fled to Egypt. So that gave Matthew the opportunity to relocate Jesus to Nazareth on his return. Nazareth was chosen as the hometown because it could, through a forced pun, be assigned as another fulfilment of prophecy to explain why Jesus had been known as a “Nazarene”. This epithet was originally a religious label, probably meaning “keeper” or “guardian”, but that’s another discussion. (The notion of religious leaders and sects identifying themselves after a home-town of the leader is counter-intuitive and unprecedented.)

Luke, as we have seen, is creating a narrative that is to be read as a successor of the tales of the Israelite saints from the days of Abraham to Samuel. Gentile localities are excluded. So Luke took Matthew’s Nazareth hometown and had Jesus’ parents living there, instead of at Bethlehem. This way there was no need to send Jesus and his mother off as persecuted refugees to a gentile land. The theme of exaltation of the humble, and the centrality of the land of Israel as the thematic setting, was maintained by having Nazareth as the hometown from the start.

But of course Bethlehem has to be the place of birth, so Luke extrapolates a census of Quirinius into an empire-wide census ordained by Augustus. God moves the rulers of the world to fulfil his purposes and for the exaltation of the town of Bethlehem.

In the earlier tale Jesus was hidden for a while in Egypt. In the new one he is lost from sight too, but this time it is in the Temple of Jerusalem. In the earlier tale Jesus and his parents were hapless victims of the mighty. In the new tale Mary takes to heart what a holy and special son she has mothered.

Why would Luke change Matthew’s story?

Luke offered audiences familiar with Matthew’s narrative a far more exultant and personally encouraging narrative. The tale of how the mighty shed the blood of innocents and force the godly ones to flee for their lives into foreign lands was replaced by one where the lowly are exalted and given hope of salvation. It is set in the land of Israel where God has traditionally raised up the poor and cast down the mighty. The gentiles will learn of the good news in their due time after the resurrection of Jesus.

Luke’s nativity is not simply an alternative narrative. It is not an independent story. It is, arguably, tied at every turn of the plot and setting to Matthew’s earlier account. It is a point by point response to Matthew’s scenario. Where Matthew has resurrected reminders of shamed women and a need for Joseph to protect Mary from public humiliation, Luke removes the name of Joseph to a background signpost and portrays God through Gabriel exalting Mary to the highest honour. Where Matthew conjured up images of Moses and Pharoah, Luke rebutted these with more colourful reminders of Hannah the mother of Samuel and good shepherds.

I quite acknowledge that my argument is very largely subjective and based on an aesthetic view of the relationship between Matthew and Luke. To justify it in more objective terms would require much more effort. On the other hand, one might also wonder if the arguments that Luke could not have known the story in Matthew are also fundamentally aesthetic evaluations. This post is nothing more than an opening exploration of what might have been in the minds of those who did read and compose Luke given that they did have prior knowledge of the Gospel of Matthew.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

7 thoughts on “If the first readers of Luke’s Gospel also knew Matthew’s . . . .”

  1. Neil: “On the other hand, one might also wonder if the arguments that Luke could not have known the story in Matthew are also fundamentally aesthetic evaluations.”

    I think this is exactly the point that Mark Goodacre makes concerning scholars who “just can’t imagine” how Luke could have sliced up the Sermon on the Mount/Plain. In The Case Against Q, in the chapter called “The Synoptic Jesus and the Celluloid Christ,” essentially his argument boils down to this: It’s difficult to claim that no sane person would tear apart Matthew’s perfect order, since later artists, especially in film, did interrupt Matthew’s order, precisely for aesthetic/narrative reasons.


    1. There is also a possible theological interest in breaking up Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. As Spong, Allison and others have noted, Matthew’s Jesus is based on Moses. His Gospel is a five-part mini-Pentateuch. The delivery of the new law from the mountain is part of this pattern.

      Luke challenges this head on by overturning the Mountain into a Plain. Jesus the lowly one once again. The lessons are of love, the lifting up of the poor and casting down of the rich, and good fruits, compared with Matthew’s tightening up the old laws against murder, adultery, oaths, fasting, and requiring followers to be more righteous than the most righteous. The other injunctions, where they appear at all, appear in situ as words of comfort or warning, and not as a new set of Mosaic ordinances.

  2. ‘The Gospels of All Christians (edited by Richard Bauckham) appeared about twelve years ago challenging the idea that each of our canonical gospels was tailored for a particular community audience: Mark, say, for Romans, Matthew to a church in Syria, etc.’

    Has Richard Bauckham read that ground breaking work ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’.

    The author, whose name I forget at present, argues that the different names in the Gospels were because the gospels were tailored for a particular community audience. One community would be familiar with, say, Bartimaeus, while another community had no idea who he was, forcing the author not to tell them his name.

    That’s the trouble with mainstream Biblical scholarship. There are no criterion that produce results that two different scholars can agree on.

  3. JW:
    I’ve mentioned before that the lack of positive agreement between “Matthew” & “Luke” in their editing of “Mark” suggests that “Luke” either did not know “Matthew” or did not consider it authoritative. In an irony that I think “Mark” would really appreciate, “Luke” than considers Josephus authoritative for the Infancy Narrative setting, but not “Matthew”. Kind of says it all.

    Really, I think the most important difference between Gospels is between “Mark” and “Matthew”. With/Without resurrection sighting. To “Mark
    ” Christianity is still based on Paul’s Revelation. On the wrong side of what was originally written is “Matthew” which starts orthodox Christianity by claiming supposed historical witness of the resurrected Jesus. As always, each subsequent Gospel is primary evidence of its time and secondary evidence of its subject. “Mark” shows the original resurrection belief based on Revelation. “Matthew” shows it based on supposed historical witness in Galilee. “Luke” moves it to Jerusalem. “John’s” Jesus apparently had frequent fryer miles, so he goes to both. Ironically, this phenomena of the evidence getting better the farther you go from the event is an excellent sign of fiction as even the believers don’t believe the evidence they received.


  4. During the past few months, I have been thinking about writing an article about the concern for widows that is expressed uniquely in The Gospel According to Luke and in The Acts of the Apostles, both books apparently written by one author.

    One connection between these two books is the story of how a group of foreign-language-speaking Jews was assigned to take care of needy widows in Jerusalem. This group was headed by Stephen, who was stoned in an action conducted by Saul (Paul), who himself was a foreign-language-speaking Jew. I have wondered whether Saul himself had a widow mother living in Jerusalem and whether he himself was associated with that group.

    Saul grew up in a Greek-speaking Jewish family in Tarsus. I imagine that Saul’s father died, and then Saul and his widow mother moved to Jerusalem so that Saul could receive an education. I imagine further that similar foreign couples of fatherless sons and widowed mothers might have formed a small, coherent society in Jerusalem. The sons (e.g. Stephen and Saul) might have lived together in a dormitory, and their mothers likewise might have liked together in one area.

    While the sons mastered Hebrew, received educations and began careers, while the mothers wallowed in poverty, were subjected to discrimination and remained socially isolated. I speculate that the story about Stephen and Saul revolved around this social situation.

    I imagine further that the Jewish widows who could not speak Hebrew or Aramaic had particular problems visiting the Jerusalem Temple. They could not prove that they were Jewish, and therefore might have suffered the public humiliation of being turned away when they tried to enter the Temple.

    Luke is the only gospel that tells the story of a poor widow donating a mite in the Temple. I think that this story too is a link between Luke and Acts.

    Your article here has given me the idea that I should re-examine Luke’s Nativity story with this perspective of Luke’s special conern about poor, migrant, socially isolated women.

    1. Don’t overlook the possibility that the focus on the poor is all part of a longstanding “messianic” myth with a venerable history throughout the ancient Middle Eastern cultures.

      I wonder if there is significance in our redaction of canonical Luke (the final Lucan redactor also being responsible for Acts) in the mid second century being the gospel of the most universal (“catholic”) appeal giving so much attention to the poor and weak of society, while much of the earliest material evidence for Christianity is from the wealthier classes (e.g. the Santa Maria Sarcophagus in Rome), and their Jesus is quite unlike anything we find in the canonical literature.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading