Harmonizing the the Gospel Birth Narratives Raises A Problem

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by Neil Godfrey

Professor Jim West brought back memories of my fervently believer days (when I “knew” that the gospels, being words of Truth, could and did not contradict themselves) with his post, There are No Contradictions Between the Matthean and Lucan Birth Narratives: It’s a Matter of Time. West recycles the old assertion that in Luke we read of the birth of Jesus (the angels directing the shepherds to cause a commotion in the village until they eventually found the babe in the manger) while in Matthew we read of the magi visiting Jesus two years later when he was more securely resided in a solid house. See? No contradiction at all. It’s only a matter of time.

Except . . .

The general idea among many biblical scholars today seems to be that the gospels are ancient forms of biography. That is, the authors, like other biographers of the day, were devoted to writing what they knew about the life and teaching and significance of their subject.

Matthew’s gospel is generally said to have been written around 80 CE. How likely is it that its author (we’ll call him Matthew) at such a late date apparently had never heard of the angelic circumstances surrounding the actual birth of Jesus? If there is one detail ancient biographers loved to seek out and narrate about famous persons (e.g. Apollonius of Tyana, Julius Caesar …) was some great prodigy that marked the moment of their birth and another at their death. How plausible is it that Matthew by around 80 CE had never heard (presumably made very little effort even to seek out!) of the “tradition” that was surely circulating by then about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth?

After all, Luke, we are told, knew only that tradition of the miraculous circumstances of Jesus’ birth and had never even heard of the dramatic events only two years later — the slaughter of the innocents, the state visit of prominent persons from the East, the miraculous star that presumably hovered only meters above the earth so as to point out a particular house, etc — even though he was writing, again we are assured, only ten years or so after Matthew.

And we know, don’t we, that Luke insisted that he knew “everything” that had been written and rumoured about Jesus before he started to write and that his biography was going to be the one to set out everything “in order”.

(By the way, for another view of what Luke’s prologue actually does say, see What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See? and “Eyewitnesses” in Luke-Acts: Not What We Think.)

A harmonization of the two narratives, the events of Jesus’ birth and of two years subsequently, are exactly what we would expect of a genuine ancient biography written a generation or two after the biographee. Biographers are interested in recording what they know about their subject and believe their readers will find both entertaining and profitable. It is very difficult to imagine both Matthew and then Luke somehow deciding that either the birth details or the details two years later would not have been of interest or potential instruction for their audiences.

Totally different accounts, each with their distinctive theological flavour and themes, is exactly what we would expect from a form of literature that Roger Aus labels “etiological haggada”¶, or from creative theology.

No doubt scholars have pondered this question in their literature. If anyone knows of some of the more interesting critical discussions addressing the problem I have raised here do feel free to add a comment.


¶ I have taken the term “etiological haggada” from Roger Aus, Water Into Wine and the Beheading of John the Baptist, 1988. Brown University, Atlanta, Georgia. p. 68

B. The Literary Form

The Baptist narrative has been described as a “legend,”166 a “popular folk-tale,”167 a “Volkssage,”168 a “midrash,”169 or a haggadic ma’ase.170 Legend, folk-tale and saga are very broad terms in English. In addition, they usually imply that the content of the narrative is either unhistorical or not to be taken seriously. The term “midrash,” although employed more and more by NT scholars, really only applies to the verse by verse interpretation of a biblical book, for example Esther in b. Meg. 10b-17a.171 A ma’ase in rabbinic sources is a specific example of a general statement, usually in a legal context.172 Bowman, who applies the term here, assumes that Mark 6:16 is such a general statement

Although I disagree with the latter, Bowman is nevertheless basically correct in his designation. . . .  .

I propose the term “etiological haggada” for the Baptist narrative. The story not only explains the cause of John’s being beheaded (his rebuke of Herod Antipas for marrying his former sister-in-law while his own brother was still alive), but also fills in the manner of the beheading, something typical of haggada.173

– – – – – – – –

166 See R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (New York: Harper & Row, 1963) 301; Klostermann, Das Markus-evangelium 58; as well as Grant, “The Gospel According to St. Mark” 734: “a popular legend.”

167 Anderson, The Gospel of Mark 167.

168 Merx, Das Evangelium Matthaeus 228.

169 See I. de la Potterie, “Mors Johannis Baptistae (Me 6, 17-29)” in VD 44 (1966) 147.

170 J. Bowman, The Gospel of Mark. The New Christian Jewish Passover Haggadah (Studia post-biblica 8; Leiden: Brill, 1965) 154.

171 See Strack and Stemberger, Einleitung 223.

172 Ibid., 36. It is the thirteenth of the thirty-two middot For such a ma’ase, see m. Yeb. 16:7 (“Once it happened that…”) in Danby, The Mishnah 245.

173 See I. Heinemann’s term, “the creative writing of history,” which fills in biblical narratives, quoted in Strack and Stemberger, Einleitung 225. Grossfeld in The First Targum to Esther iv defines haggada as “legendary recountings of incidents to supply gaps in the canonical history.”


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7 thoughts on “Harmonizing the the Gospel Birth Narratives Raises A Problem”

  1. It’s interesting how well this phenomenon maps to Star Wars fans who try to reconcile the differences between the Disney SW universe (beginning with The Force Awakens) and the pre-Disney SW universe. I read some fan theories today about how the main bad in the Disney SW universe, Snoke, is actually the bad guy who was Emperor Palpatine’s master (pre-Disney SW lore).

    Both are premised on the idea that these aren’t stories told with a particular purpose by authors with creativity, but CNN like reports that have to be made to make sense if (or because) they happened in the real world.

    Both, in turn, do massive disrespect to the artistry required to craft these stories. Reconciling them destroys the entire point behind why the stories were written in the first place. Christians in particular seem to think that their ancient religious ancestors were rote fact-repeating drones with zero creative spirit.

    It would be a bit sad, if these sorts of Christian apologetics weren’t taken as respectable scholarship.

    1. It reminds me, as well, of people trying to figure out how to make sense of all the different Star Trek series, universes, timelines, etc. Some of them take it very seriously.

    2. I even remember a Star Wars fan on the Internet claiming, quite seriously, that there are no continuity errors in star wars novels, only fans who like to look for continuity errors. Then, when confronted with textual evidence about a character’s eyes changing colour between books/authors, he tried to claim that the character must have been afflicted by a medical condition that caused eye-colour change!

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