. . . . 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.
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