Tag Archives: Jesus’ Nativity

Review, parts 7 and 8. Litwa on Birth and Childhood Stories of Jesus – Widespread Cultural Tropes Recycled as “History”

Continuing a discussion of M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths. . . .  All Litwa review posts are archived here.

This post covers chapters 7 and 8, “Magi and the Star” and “Child in Danger, Child of Wonder”. Even though I often disagree with Litwa’s interpretations and conclusions I do find the information he presents and questions raised to be very interesting and informative.

Litwa’s theme is that even though the authors of the canonical gospels composed narratives that to moderns are clearly mythical, by ancient standards of historiography such “mythical” episodes were part and parcel of “what happened”. Similar fabulous happenings are found in serious works by ancient historians, Litwa claims. Such types of events belonged to the “thought world” of that broad culture throughout the Mediterranean and Levant.

[I agree: ancient historical works do contain “mythical” elements but I have certain reservations about authorial intent and gullibility since, in my reading, they generally found ways to distance themselves from any suggestion that they were committed to the veracity of those sorts of stories.]

Ancient authors meant for readers to understand them as part of history, not myth, Litwa insists: the stories were indeed fabricated but their presentation was in the form of historical narrative. Ancient readers would have accepted them as historical — which is exactly what the authors intended.

So in the case of the virgin birth, Litwa points out that ancient Persians, in their Zoroastrian beliefs, had a similar myth about a future saviour figure. The Magi are Persian figures, so it is interesting that in Matthew we find a story of a virgin birth of a saviour with magi present. No, Litwa is not saying one story directly derived from the other and he notes significant differences between them. That is Litwa’s point, recall. These sorts of stories were part of the cultural backdrop in the world that produced our gospels.

Litwa refers to Mary Boyce’s study and for interest’s sake I will copy a relevant section from one of her books:

The original legend appears to have been that eventually, at the end of “limited time”, a son will be born of the seed of the prophet, which is preserved miraculously in a lake (named in the Avesta Lake Kąsaoya), where it is watched over by 99,999 fravašis of the just. When Frašō.kǝrǝti is near, a virgin will bathe in this lake and become with child by the prophet, giving birth to a son, Astvat.ǝrǝti, “he who embodies righteousness”. Astvat.ǝrǝti will be the Saošyant, the Saviour who will bring about Frašō.kǝrǝti, smiting “daēvas and men”; and his name derives from Zoroaster’s words in Y. 43.16: astvat ašǝm hyāt “may righteousness be embodied”. The legend of this great Messianic figure, the cosmic saviour, appears to stem from Zoroaster’s teaching about the one “greater than good” to come after him (Y. 43-3)21, upon which there worked the profound Iranian respect for lineage, so that the future Saviour had necessarily to be of the prophet’s own blood. This had the consequence that, despite the story of the Saošyant’s miraculous conception, there was no divinisation of him, and no betrayal therefore of Zoroaster’s teachings about the part which humanity has to play in the salvation of the world. The Saviour will be a man, born of human parents. “Zoroastrianism … attributes to man a distinguished part in the great cosmic struggle. It is above all a soteriological part, because it is man who has to win the battle and eliminate evil”.

(Boyce, 282)

Magi and births of future kings

https://historyofpersiapodcast.com/2019/10/15/episode-21-the-faith-of-the-magi/

The Greek historian Herodotus tells a tale of Magi interpreting a dream to mean a future king has been born:

Astyages had a daughter called Mandane, and he dreamed one night that she made water in such enormous quantities that it filled his city and swamped the whole of Asia. He told his dream to the Magi, whose business it was to interpret such things, and was much alarmed by what they said it meant. Consequently when Mandane was old enough to marry, he did not give her to some Mede of suitable rank, but was induced by his fear of the dream’s significance to marry her to a Persian named Cambyses, a man he knew to be of good family and quiet habits – though he considered him much below a Mede even of middle rank. 

Before Mandane and Cambyses had been married a year, Astyages had another dream. This time it was that a vine grew from his daughter’s private parts and spread over Asia. As before, he told the interpreters about this dream, and then sent for his daughter, who was now pregnant. When she arrived, he kept her under strict watch, intending to make away with her child; for the fact was that the Magi had interpreted the dream to mean that his daughter’s son would usurp his throne.

(Herodotus, 1.108)

With this second dream the king is fearful enough to order the murder of the infant. The infant survives, however, and when the king learns his order has been defied he brings the magi in again for consultation. The king accordingly slew the innocent child of the servant who had disobeyed him.

Litwa identifies similar structures in the accounts of Herodotus and the Gospel of Mattew concerning

  • magi who inform a king that a child is born who will replace him,
  • the king ordering the child to be killed,
  • the child “miraculously” escaping,
  • and the king subsequently killing an innocent.

What interests Litwa, though, is that both “accounts are presented as historiography” (p. 107). Herod was known to be cruel, so even though there is no evidence that he did order the massacre of infants in Bethlehem, the tale in Matthew’s gospel “sounded enough like historiography to be accepted as true” (p. 107)

That sounds reasonable enough on its own, but what are we to make of the fact that Pilate was also known for his cruelty but all the evangelists, Matthew included, present him — most UNhistorically — as benign and soft when he meets Jesus and is cowered by the Jewish priests and mob into doing their will against his own will? Yet that story has also been accepted as true: despite what was known of Pilate’s character, it also “sounded enough like historiography”.

Litwa addresses other ancient tales involving magi (Plutarch, Quintus Curtius, in relation to Alexander the Great), informing us that those tales, too, are implausible to moderns (no persons can predict the future of an individual from dreams), so if the story of the magi in the Gospel of Matthew is likewise implausible, no matter, since that’s what the historical narratives of ancient historians looked like. There certainly are many accounts of dream interpretation in various historical works but they are “add-ons” and the overall narratives of historians are not one series of miraculous events after another, as we find in the gospels.

Magical guiding stars

Litwa finds ancient stories of guiding stars to be more useful explanations for the star of Bethlehem that led the magi to Jesus than the various extant attempts to identify astronomical observations of that period. Again, Litwa is not arguing for direct “mimesis” but a more general influence of stories and concepts that were “in the air” throughout the Mediterranean cultural world.

We read of ancient sources that speak of magi interpreting dreams of astral bodies in ways that spoke of rulership; of the historian Pompeius Trogus writing of an unusual star appearing at the birth of Mithridates, the king of Pontus who would challenge Rome, and again at his ascension to the throne. What I found of most interest in Litwa’s discussion is not his thoughts on “long-haired stars” or comets but his references to stars that were said to point to very specific places on earth — as per the star being said to stand over the house where the infant Jesus was to be found.

  • A sword-shaped star hung over Jerusalem just prior to its fall to the Romans (Josephus)
  • The Torch of Timoleon, a fiery “star” that led the fleet the Corinthian general Timoleon before falling down to mark the exact part of Italy to be beached (Plutarch)
  • The scholar Varro interpreted Virgil’s poetic account of the goddess Venus guiding Aeneas to Italy as Aeneas being led by the planet Venus (Servius)

(Source-author links are to the relevant passages describing the events.)

Many ancient people believed in omens and yes, they found their way into “history” books. Omens were even more integral to mythical stories and other forms of fiction. That point raises questions about the strength of Litwa’s attempt to explain why the gospels were believed to be historical by certain readers but not all.

Chapter 8

Jesus is part of a crowd of famous infants in danger

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The Myth of Embarrassment over a Humble Hometown Like Nazareth

It has become a mantra in almost any book that raises the question: Why did the evangelists insist Jesus was from Nazareth unless it happened to be an undeniable historical fact known to all? The mantric response: Because no-one would make up such a datum; no-one would make up the notion that the great and saving Jesus came from such a tin-pot village. The criterion of embarrassment screams against the very idea.

I have never jumped on board with that response because I have never encountered any evidence that demonstrates why it would be too embarrassing for anyone to imagine that the Lord who taught the overturning of the social order so that the last would be first and the first last, who taught that God will exalt the humble and bring low the mighty, — that it would be too embarrassing for anyone to write down for posterity such a detail unless it were historically true and widely known.

I have always considered that response to be ad hoc. It is a speculative opinion but nothing more — pending evidence to buttress its presuppositions.

Then yesterday I read in the work of an ancient historian about the humble birthplace of a Roman emperor, the humble birthplace of a man who was decreed to be a god. The detail is presumably factual. The historian said it was well-known so there was no point trying to hide it. But there’s a catch, a catch that overturns the premise of the above ad hoc and almost universal explanation among scholars for the reason the evangelists might not have fabricated Nazareth as the hometown of Jesus. Here is the passage from the Roman historian Suetonius:

[The Roman emperor] Vespasian was born in a little village in the Sabine land just beyond Reate, known as Falacrina. [Deified Vespasian, 2]

Was this historical record an embarrassment to Vespasian? It seems not, since

even when he was emperor, he would frequently visit his childhood home, where the house was kept just as it had been so that he would not miss the sight of any familiar object. And he so cherished the memory of his grandmother that on religious and festival days he would insist on drinking from a small silver cup which had belonged to her. [Deified Vespasian, 2]

But wait, there is more:

In other matters he was from the very beginning of his principate [emperorship] right up until his death unassuming and tolerant, never attempting to cover up his modest background and sometimes even flaunting it. Indeed, when some people attempted to trace the origins of the Flavian family back to the founders of Reate and a companion of Hercules, whose tomb stood by the Salarian Way,* he actually laughed at them. [Deified Vespasian, 12]

Humble beginnings of a person who rose to high status could well be interpreted as evidence of special divine favour.

Even the great Augustus, the one emperor Suetonius took the most seriously as a divinity, is noted for his humble place of birth. Not the slightest hint of embarrassment is evinced in Suetonius’s reporting of it:

Augustus was born a little before sunrise eight days before the Kalends of October in the consulship of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius, at the Ox Heads in the Palatine district, on the spot where he now has a shrine, established shortly after he died. For, according to senate records, one Gaius Laetorius, a young man of patrician family, in an attempt to mitigate a penalty for adultery, which he claimed was too severe for one of his age and family, also drew to the attention of the senators the fact that he was the possessor and, as it were, guardian of the spot which the Deified Augustus first touched at his birth, and sought pardon for the sake of what he termed his own particular god. It was then decreed that this part of the house should be consecrated.  To this day his nursery is displayed in what was his grandfather’s country home near Velitrae. The room is very modest, like a pantry. [Deified Augustus, 5-6]

Suetonius introduces the above passage after having portrayed other indicators of Augustus’s humble early years and even detailing accusations of Augustus’s enemies about his origins:

In the first four chapters the biographer has compiled an account of the Octavii and the Atii, the gentes of Augustus’ natural parents, which sets out the comparative humbleness of his origins: the princeps’ own claim that his paternal line was an old equestrian family is juxtaposed with the claims of M. Antonius that it was tainted with the servile and banausic – a great-grandfather who was an ex-slave and a grandfather who was a money dealer. As to the maternal line, against the claims of senatorial imagines, Antonius alleges a potentially non-white ancestor and more of the banausic – a great-grandfather of African origin who moved into the baking business after running a perfume shop. This section of the life ends with an extract from a letter written by Cassius of Parma, assassin of Caesar and notorious victim of Augustan revenge, which combines both strands of Antonius’ attack and adds a sexual dimension:

. . . . Your mother’s meal came from the roughest bakery in Aricia; a money changer from Nerulum pawed her with his hands stained from filthy pennies. [Deified Augustus, 4.2]

Although Augustus’ ancestry was not the obvious stuff of gods, the next chapter, which begins the Life of Augustus proper, marks a transfer of focus: . . . .

[See the Suetonius passage above: Augustus was born a little before sunrise . . . .]

It begins by recording that Augustus (Suetonius deliberately uses the anachronistic name) was bom in a modest part of Rome, but then qualifies that by ubi nunc habet sacrarium, which begins a series of references to his divinity. (Wardle, 323-24)

Now we may accept the above accounts as likely historically true, but the point is our historian betrays not a hint of embarrassment. The tone suggests that there is nothing inappropriate about one destined to become a god should be born in humble or obscure circumstances.

I know, I know, there are a dozen spin-off questions relating to the above post. But I have chosen to focus on just one point.


Suetonius. 2008. Lives of the Caesars. Translated by Catharine Edwards. Reissue edition. Oxford etc.: OUP Oxford.

Wardle, D. 2012. “Suetonius on Augustus as God and Man.” The Classical Quarterly 62 (1): 307–26.


Review, part 5 (Litwa on) Jesus’ Genealogy and Divine Conception

My earlier posts on M. David Litwa’s How the Gospels Became History were not my favourites. Negatives about assumptions and methods tended to predominate. But I would not want that tone to deflect readers from the many positives and points of interest in the book. Chapter four discusses Jesus’ genealogies in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the context of genealogies in ancient literature and culture more generally; chapter five looks at Jesus’ divine parentage in the same contexts. Litwa offers a treasure chest of citations for further informed reading to flesh out many of his points. In this post I only follow up a tiny handful.

Litwa refers to a work of Plato that mocked as sheer vanity and ignorance the claims of those who prided themselves in being able to trace their family tree back many generations to someone great like Heracles. But Litwa follows this up by evidence that many of the hoi polloi failed to heed Plato’s admonition. The historian Polybius, for example, made it clear that many readers indeed did love to read about lineages that demonstrated a prominent origin of a heroic protagonist. I have followed up the citations Litwa offers quote both views here:

Plato in Theatetus:

And when people sing the praises of lineage and say someone is of noble birth, because he can show seven wealthy ancestors, he thinks that such praises betray an altogether dull and narrow vision on the part of those who utter them; because of lack of education they cannot keep their eyes fixed upon the whole and are unable to calculate that every man has had countless thousands of ancestors and progenitors, among whom have been in any instance rich and poor, kings and slaves, barbarians and Greeks. And when people pride themselves on a list of twenty-five ancestors and trace their pedigree back to Heracles, the son of Amphitryon, the pettiness of their ideas seems absurd to him; he laughs at them because they cannot free their silly minds of vanity by calculating that Amphitryon’s twenty-fifth ancestor was such as fortune happened to make him, and the fiftieth for that matter. In all these cases the philosopher is derided by the common herd, partly because he seems to be contemptuous, partly because he is ignorant of common things and is always in perplexity.

The historian Polybius confesses he writes for a limited audience in Fragment 9:

For nearly all other writers, or at least most of them, by dealing with every branch of history, attract many kinds of people to the perusal of their works. The genealogical side appeals to those who are fond of a story, and the account of colonies, the foundation of cities, and their ties of kindred, such as we find, for instance, in Ephorus, attracts the curious and lovers of recondite longer, while the student of politics is interested in the doings of nations, cities, and monarchs. As I have confined my attention strictly to these last matters and as my whole work treats of nothing else, it is, as I say, adapted only to one sort of reader, and its perusal will have no attractions for the larger number. I have stated elsewhere at some length my reason for choosing to exclude other branches of history and chronicle actions alone, but there is no harm in briefly reminding my readers of it here in order to impress it on them.

Since genealogies, myths, the planting of colonies, the foundations of cities and their ties of kinship have been recounted by many writers and in many different styles, an author who undertakes at the present day to deal with these matters must either represent the work of others as being his own, a most disgraceful proceeding, or if he refuses to do this, must manifestly toil to no purpose, being constrained to avow that the matters on which he writes and to which he devotes his attention have been adequately narrated and handed down to posterity by previous authors.

You can get a taste of Roman mythical genealogical work from around the era of the gospels at a Classical Texts Library: Hyginus, Fabulae: and another by (Pseudo-)Apollodous on the same site.

But then Litwa reminds us that a post-Pauline letter condemned particular interest in genealogical lines:

Pay no attention to mythoi and endless genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4)

Elite males spent a great deal of time and money “discovering” and advertising their noble ancestors.15

15. The ability of a genealogy to express male (productive) power is highlighted by the presence of a penis with testicles etched onto a genealogical inscription found at Dodona (in western Greece). In this inscription, a certain Agathon of Zacynthus recorded the link of proxeny between himself and the community of Molossians on Epirus through the mythic ancestress Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess. See further P. M. Fraser, “Agathon and Kassandra (IG IX.12 4.1750),” Journal of Hellenic Studies 123 (2003): 26-40

(pp. 79, 241)

Litwa does not draw attention to the point, but this passage, although post-Pauline, must surely have been penned before our canonical forms of the gospels of Matthew and Luke found wide acceptance. He does, however, point out the close association of myths and genealogies in both this pastoral epistle and in the words of Polybius (quoted above). Good reason underlay the association. Genealogies were very often social constructs (with various tweaks and outright fabrications) to make political points. Litwa explains:

Genealogies show that the line between mythos and historiography is often quite thin. About 100 BCE, the grammarian Asclepiades of Myrlea divided the historical part of grammar into three categories: the true, the seemingly true, and the false. There is only one kind of false history, said Asclepiades, and that is genealogy. It is genealogy that he expressly called “mythic history” (muthike historia). In his system, genealogies were even less true than the stories presented in comedy and mime. (p. 79)

Litwa discusses other historians (Herodotus, Livy, Josephus) and literati (Aristophanes, Hyginus, Cicero) who mocked lofty genealogical claims. Nonetheless, they carried serious import, too, as when the kings of Sparta established their right to rule by tracing their families back to Heracles himself. The Spartans were not alone in such “legitimizing” genealogical claims. Alexander claimed descent from the last native Pharaoh of Egypt, the family of Julius Caesar claimed descent from Aeneas of Troy, and therefore also from the goddess Venus, and so forth. The Roman emperor Galba claimed descent from Jupiter. Another emperor better known to many of us, Vespasian, was well known to have had relatively humble origins and accordingly mocked certain flatterers who attempted to assign a lineage back to Heracles.

What of that “little problem” in the gospels that trace Jesus’ genealogy through to Joseph who was not, according to the story, the literal father of Jesus? No problem, Litwa points out:

Yet when we compare other mythic genealogies, these kinds of hitches did not seem bothersome to the ancients. The Greek biographer Plutarch, for instance, fleshed out the genealogy of Alexander the Great. Plutarch recorded the common tradition that Alexander, through his father, Philip, was a descendant of the god Heracles. One would think that this impressive genealogy would be ruined by the fact that, according to widespread perception—and Plutarch’s own report—Philip was not Alexander’s biological father. Plutarch himself narrated that Zeus impregnated Alexander’s mother, Olympias; and Olympias supposedly acknowledged this point directly to the adult Alexander.

Yet these conflicting reports did not seem to impose cognitive dissonance. A concept of dual paternity was possible. As most people in the ancient world knew (and perhaps believed on some level), Alexander’s real father was the high God Zeus, though he was also the “son of Philip.” (p. 84)

Litwa suggests that the evangelists responsible for the genealogies of Jesus in our Gospels of Matthew and Luke were creating a “mythic historiography” that had a strong appeal to certain readers and served to exalt the status of Jesus in a way comparable to the myths or legends associated with other potentates.

And yet the point of a genealogy is to show that an author was at least trying– despite innacuracies — to use the tropes of historiography. (p. 79)

Divine Conception

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Questioning the apologetic argument for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem

Let’s assume, as is commonly argued within mainstream biblical scholarship, that there was a very small town of Nazareth in Galilee at the supposed time of Jesus’ birth and let’s assume that the reason Jesus was called “Jesus of Nazareth” was because he grew up in Nazareth, and that the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are awkwardly contorted to have Jesus of Nazareth somehow also born in Bethlehem because all the Judeans of the day knew and expected that that’s where the Messiah was to be born. The concocted narratives of Jesus being born in Bethlehem are even pulled out as evidence for the very existence of Jesus since the evangelists were oh so embarrassed that he came from Nazareth in reality.

After reading some sections of Richard A. Horsley‘s The Liberation of Christmas: the Infancy Narratives in Social Context, I think we have some problems that seem so obvious in hindsight that I have to pinch myself for not noticing them before. Our attention will be primarily on Matthew’s birth narrative rather than Luke’s in this post.

Part of Horsley’s discussion begins on page six and seven:

Recognition of Matthew’s distinctive use of “formula quotations” (“this was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet… ”) led to the claim that Matthew 2 (which contains several such quotations) “is dominated by geographical names,” which are “what is really important to him.”21 The purpose of Matthew in Chapter 2 was apologetic: how did Jesus the messiah come from Nazareth in Galilee and not from Bethlehem, the village of David, as it said in Scripture, according to the questioning in John 7:41-42.22

21. K. Stendahl, “Quis et Unde? An Analysis of Mt 1-2,” in Judentum, Urchristentum, Kirche (Festschrift J. Jeremias; ed. W. Eltester; Berlin: Topelmann, 1964; reprinted in Interpretation of Matthew [ed. G. N. Stanton; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983], 56-66), 97. Stendahl’s article is important and influential and is followed with further refinement by Brown (BM, chaps. 1 and 5).

22. Stendahl, “Quis et Unde?” 98; Brown, BM, 179-80.

That’s the common understanding. Now Horsley begins to notice some problems with it:

However, the claim that the geographical names, even as emphasized by the formula quotations, dominate Matthew 2 seems highly questionable. What dominates the narrative is clearly the conflict between the newborn king of the Jews and the reigning king, Herod. The threatened Herod figures directly or indirectly at every point in the narrative except the actual visit of the Magi in verses 9—11 and the naming in verse 23.23 Moreover, the notion that Matthew is pursuing an apologetic purpose is derived not from Matthew but only from the dispute in John 7.

23. As Stendahl himself points out, the text mentions “Herod’s name 9 times, and at all points of progress in the account” (“Quis et Unde?” 99).

Yes, of course. The only reason we know there was supposed to be a problem with Jesus not really being born in Bethlehem are the narrative dialogue in one of the latest canonical gospels. We do not find supporting evidence in any earlier or independent records.

From the lack of textual evidence, we are increasingly aware that at the time of Jesus there were almost certainly no standard or widely acknowledged “Jewish expectations about the Messiah” such as birth in Bethlehem, about which Matthew or other followers of Jesus of Nazareth would supposedly have been embarrassed.24 Just because the followers of Jesus early on applied to their “messiah” phrases from psalms that stemmed originally from the established Davidic royal theology (esp. Pss. 2 and 110) does not mean that they were defensively oriented toward some hypothetical established view of the proper pedigree of the messiah. Indeed, the royal Herodian and aristocratic priestly families that dominated Jewish Palestinian society would hardly have been entertaining messianic expectations, which could only have been threatening to their own position. Precisely that is the principal point of Matthew 2! The popularly acclaimed “kings” among the Jewish people who were active around the time of Jesus’ birth surely did not have Davidic pedigrees.25 There is little in the Gospel of Matthew itself or in the Palestinian Jewish milieu out of which the traditions he used emerged to suggest an apologetic motive. The typical early Christian concern to interpret Jesus according to fulfillment of biblical promise and prophecy (and prototype) would appear to be the operative motive in Matthew’s use of the formula quotations to embellish the significance of the events narrated in chapter 2.

24. Cf. Brown, BM, 180; but Brown himself points out in Appendix 3 that expectation of the messiah’s birth at Bethlehem is not attested “until considerably later in Jewish writings.”

25. For a sketch of these popular Jewish kings and their movements, see R. A. Horsley and J. S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs (Minneapolis: Winston- Seabury, 1985), chap. 3.

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Once more (final time) on Gospel Nativity Harmonization. Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem today . . . .

What a slew of Christmas themed posts have bedecked Vridar this year. I feel a bit bad and wonder if I should apologize. It’s not my usual form. But no, there’s one more, another follow up to the two posts we’ve had here on the question of harmonizing Matthew’s birth narrative with its magi and flight into Egypt with Luke’s shepherds and babe in a manger scenario.

This one is another collation of web discussions or debates on the question: Can the Christmas Stories be Reconciled?

Meanwhile, I seem to have read very little about the current activities among the present day inhabitants of Bethlehem and its refugee camp. Christmas seems to be that wonderful time when we turn our backs on everyday reality and lose ourselves in hopes for happy memories of another time. Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem . . . .

A Palestinian dressed as Santa Claus stands in front of Israeli troops during a protest in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Awad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY – RC17AECC9740

 

 

Harmonizing the the Gospel Birth Narratives Raises A Problem

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.

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A Christmas Thought

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http://www.snorgtees.com/t-shirts/abstinence-99-99-effective

From http://www.snorgtees.com/t-shirts/abstinence-99-99-effective

The Star of Bethlehem — the “common-sense view”

Edward Burne-Jones Star of Bethlehem detail
Edward Burne-Jones Star of Bethlehem detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is an interesting excerpt from Early Christianity and Ancient Astrology by Tim Hegedus. (I learned of the book through fortuitous serendipity via astrotheology supporters who describe the book as “a good one”, though their view appears to be based on the cover description alone. It doesn’t do anything to support astrotheology. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I agree it is an interesting book. I had a chance to catch up with it at the University of Queensland library yesterday.)

[The Magi] ask for “the newborn king of the Jews” whose star they have seen “at its rising” (ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ) (v. 2, cf. v. 9). (This translation is preferable to “in the east” of older versions [so KJV and RSV], which would be properly ἐν [ταῖς] ἀνατολαῖς.)

The statement of the Magi is not a reference to a time of day, but rather is calendrical (cf. the phrase “the time of the star’s appearing” [τὸν χρόνον τοῦ φαινομένου ἀστέρος] in 2.7): “rising” means the star’s heliacal rising, i.e. the first time in the year that it was visible rising ahead of the sun before dawn. The usual technical term for this was έχιτολῇ but ἀνατολῇ could be used for the heliacal rising as well; the latter seems to be the case in Matt 2.2.

According to the narrative, the heliacal “rising” of the star held significance for the Magi as an astrological omen. It was this more ancient form of astrology, rather than horoscopic astrology, in which the Magi were engaged.

A recent study by Michael Molnar argues that the most likely horoscope in which professional astrologers such as the Magi would have been interested was the appearance of the Sun, Moon, Jupiter and Saturn (all regal signs) in Aries on April 17, 6 B.C.E. However, Molnar’s conclusions are overly sophisticated: there is no need to interpret the Matthean text in terms of technical or sophisticated astrology such as that of Ptolemy and Firmicus Maternus. Rather, the star of Matthew 2.1-12 derives from the widespread belief (found already in Plato) that all people have a “natal star” which appears at their birth and passes away with them, a belief according to the elder Pliny was commonly held among the general population. read more »

Response (2): the Bethlehem-Nazareth fallacies

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nazareth_COA.png

Continued from Responding to standard arguments for Jesus’ historicity (1)

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(ii) he was from Nazareth

. . . . Not only is the fact that he was from Nazareth a feature of all versions of the stories but Nazareth itself appears, with Jesus being scorned and rejected there. This was clearly a problem for the gospel writers, because the Jewish expectation was that the Messiah was going to come from Bethlehem. So the writers of Matthew and Luke both tell stories to “explain” how a man who was known to be and who was depicted as being from Nazareth could actually have been born in Bethlehem. The problem is (i) their stories are riddled with historical problems that show they are inventions and (ii) they don’t just totally contradict each other, they are set ten years apart and are mutually exclusive.

Again, this all makes perfect sense if he did exist and he was from Nazareth. They would need to “explain” how someone from a tiny, insignificant village in Galilee could actually have fulfilled the prophecy about Bethlehem. But it makes no sense at all if he was an invention or myth. If that is the case, why is Nazareth in the story at all? The only logical explanation is that it’s there because that is where he was from.

Coached witnesses are not multiple witnesses

Also featuring in “all versions of the stories” is the ability of Jesus to produce 12 baskets of food scraps after feeding 5000 with a few fish and loaves; and a resurrected person leaving a tomb. So we can see the relevance of a “fact” appearing in all four gospels. Even though scholars are very aware of at least Matthew and Luke being dependent on Mark as a source, and some also believe John to be derivative from Mark, too, they are not beyond the tendentious assertion that this or that detail is found in “all four witnesses”.

(But there is in fact reason to doubt that Nazareth does appear in all gospels, at least in their original versions. Nazareth is found in only one verse in Mark’s gospel. The Gospel of Matthew copies most of the text of the Gospel of Mark, sometimes adding new material to it. The author of Matthew’s gospel also copied Mark’s scene of Jesus coming to be baptized by John. However, the word “Nazareth” in Mark’s gospel does not appear in the copied verse of Matthew’s gospel. This suggests it was not there in the version of Mark’s gospel that was known to the author of Matthew’s.)

Self-testimony can never be enough

A narrative cannot testify to its own historicity. External controls are always needed. No-one can pick up a story and, without any idea of its context, decide if it is a true tale or not. The mere fact that a story has a coherent plot is no more a verification of its historicity than if it is told less coherently.

To accept as “true” any document or text on the basis of its self-testimony alone, without any reference to external context, is simply naive. Valid historical method does not work that way.

Awkward facts or circular reasoning?

It is said that Nazareth is one element in the gospel narrative that is “clearly awkward for the gospel writers”. I don’t see any awkwardness about its mention at all. It seems no more awkward than the mention of any other place: Capernaum, where Jesus preached; Bethany, where Jesus stayed by night while preaching in Jerusalem by day; Tyre, when he left Galilee altogether at one point. The awkwardness seems to be in the minds of modern readers who seem to be able to read the minds of the ancient authors and psychically see them somehow struggling over how to write about this particular place. Or maybe it is simply a matter of plain old circular reasoning: awkwardness in the narrative is presumed because we “know” in advance it was an awkward matter facing the authors.

I am sure most lay Christians would be surprised to learn that their beloved nativity stories had “problems” with these two places. They are anchors of a beautiful and dramatic simple story told and reenacted every Christmas.

The awkwardness is seen by the apparent “fact” that Nazareth does not fit the Jewish expectation that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem. There is simply no evidence that there ever was such an expectation. Yet there is evidence against it.  This “fact” is nothing more than a backward projection by later Christians.

The myth of the general Jewish messianic expectation

In my earlier post I cited discussions in Fitzmyer and Thompson (historians of the Messiah concept at this time) and noted their lack of support for the common assertion that Jews were generally expecting a Messiah at this time, least of all one from Bethlehem. Yes, I have read Horsley’s bandits etc. and the rest. We can cheat a bit and superimpose messianic notions on some of these, but not one has the slightest hint of a whisper about a “general expectation”, let alone a Bethlehem birth.

The narrative contradicts this common assumption

The author of Matthew’s gospel writes a narrative that contradicts the assumption that there was any such Jewish expectation. The wise men were not very wise or knowledgeable at all if they were not aware of what every Jew was supposed to have believed — that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. In Matthew’s narrative they have to go to the royal court to ask the King to consult the wisest of the wise to decipher and deliver this information. Not even the King of the Jews, Herod, knew of it.

And his Jewish attendants didn’t stop to tell him not to bother the priests, because everyone in town knew the answer to that one. Word got around that the magi were looking for a baby messiah and “all Jerusalem was troubled”. They didn’t all flock to Bethlehem, as would have been expected had they all expected that would be the place of the Messiah’s birth.

Herod had to ask his wise men to find the answer. It could hardly, then, be said to have been an expectation in the heart of every Jew.

Matt.2:1-4

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

Of course this has all the ring of a fairy story. But if we are to interpret this as some late development of a historical core, then we are reading how astrologers are unable to learn from general public knowledge about the place of the Messiah’s birth, and how they must resort to a special audience with the king. What’s more, we then read that that King had to shrug his shoulders and say he hadn’t a clue. He had to call in his wise men and pose the question to them.

The so-called prophecy in Micah that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem was invented by the author of Matthew’s gospel to fit his narrative. The original passage in Micah 5:2 certainly meant no such thing to its original Jewish audience. It refers, rather, to a clan or individual named Bethlehem, a son of Ephratha. (1 Chron 4:4). It is one of many similar prophecies about a future Davidic king coming from the tribe of Judah (c.f. 1 Sam.17:12).

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bethlehem_street_1880.jpg

So rather than being perplexed over how to reconcile apparent facts with beliefs, the author of Matthew’s gospel actually manufactured the “belief” that was supposed to have caused him so much difficulty!

The gospel of Matthew’s author himself was the one who twisted the meaning of a verse that originally referred to personal or clan names and forced it to mean, instead, the town of Bethlehem. He wanted from the beginning to create a Bethlehem story. He was not “forced into it” so that he then had somehow to struggle to reconcile it with his Nazareth account.

Literary contortions or routine visions and travels?

It is also usually claimed that the authors of Matthew and Luke go to contorted or contrived lengths in their narratives to find ways to get Jesus from a birth in Bethlehem to his hometown in Nazareth. Again, I find such a claim to be without any foundation at all. Both authors use the simple and easy techniques used throughout the Old Testament narratives. It was never a problem for God to get Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or the millions of the tribes of Israel in Sinai from one place to another. Tossing in visions, dreams, sending a plague or curse of some kind in one place, and offering a carrot somewhere else — all these techniques were familiar enough and are repeated routinely in the Matthew and Luke narratives that move Jesus from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Awkwardness again? Not at all.

If that is the case, why is Nazareth in the story at all? The only logical explanation is . . . .

read more »

Poor Joseph, God was a hard act to follow

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Never thought I’d see a church as progressive as St Matthews in Aukland, New Zealand.

Have a look at the Australian ABC news stories:

Mary and Joseph poster sparks unholy row

and

Church resurrects controversial billboard

but finally the inevitable . . .

Sexy God billboard removed

Luke’s Resurrection chapter: its ties to the Infancy stories, Acts and Marcion

Continuing notes from Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts . . . . Last post looked at Tyson’s arguments for the Infancy Narratives in the Gospel of Luke, this one at the final chapter with the Resurrection appearances.

Notes below that are in italics are my own additions and not, as far as I recalled at the time, from Tyson’s book.

Tyson argues that Luke 24 begins by relying on Mark’s gospel (although heavily re-written) before launching into new material. The new material has affinities with the Infancy Narratives, and contains signs that it was also written with Acts in mind, and that it was above all written as a response to Marcionism.

This is part of Tyson’s argument that Luke-Acts as we have know their canonical forms were written in the second century as a response to Marcionism. The author built on an “original Luke” that was known also to Marcion. read more »

Luke’s Infancy Narratives (Luke 1:5-2:52) as an integrated response to Marcionism

Broken links fixed — 25th November 2009

The Infancy Narratives of Luke, the first 2 chapters of this gospel, are well integrated into the larger narrative of the rest of Luke and Acts (Tannehill). But that does not preclude the possibility that they were added later to an original Luke, with the final redactor reworking that original gospel to thematically and theologically so that it formed a new whole, a new single work which included new material and added the Book of Acts as a second part to the narrative. Tyson fully embraces the narrative and thematic unity between the Infancy Narratives and the rest of the canonical form of the gospel, but he also sees reasons for believing that these opening chapters (along with other material and the Book of Acts) were added to a pre-canonical form of Luke in order to undermine the gospel of Marcion. Marcion’s gospel, he argues, was based on an “original Luke”. First Marcion edited this “original”, and then the canonical redactor did likewise, adding the first two chapters that we know today, in order to turn it into an anti-Marcionite document.

Tyson’s reasons (with reference to Streeter, Fitzmeyer, Raymond Brown, Cadbury, Conzelmann, Vincent Taylor, Knox, and his own earlier work on the Judaistic unity of the gospel), for believing that the Infancy Narratives of Luke were a later addition to the “original Luke” (which was also redacted) are summarized here:

Luke 3:1 is still an excellent beginning for a Gospel

  1. Luke 3:1-2 is a most suitable beginning. It is more precise in its chronological and geographical setting than Luke 1:5. Luke 3:1-2 places the drama on a world stage, without neglecting the parochial details. Carefully composed time setting details makes for an appropriate beginning of an historical or biographical account.
  2. Luke 1:5-2:52 appears to stand apart from everything else in the gospel.
  3. If Luke used Mark as a source it is not unlikely that he also began his gospel where Mark did.
  4. The genealogy in Luke 3:23-38 is appropriate only if Luke 3:1 is the beginning of the gospel. The genealogy only works (makes Jesus a son of David) if Joseph is his father, which conflicts with the birth narrative .
  5. John the Baptist is introduced in 3:1-2 as if for the first time.
  6. Requirements for apostleship in Acts 1:22 appear to designate the beginning of the gospel as the baptism of Jesus.
  7. Marcion’s gospel also began with the reference to the 15th year of Tiberius, although not to introduce John the Baptist but to designate the first earthly appearance of Jesus who came down to Capernaum (Luke 4:31).

Contrasts of narrative tone

  1. There is a profound sense that something new has begun at Luke 3:1. Luke 3:1 marks an abrupt change of time (from Herod to Tiberius) and marks a silent interval of some 18 years.
  2. Contrasting tones, including a contrast between infancy and adulthood, between miraculous births and wilderness preaching, between prophetic blessings and demonic temptations, between a time of good will and imprisonment.
  3. There is a sense of “abrupt change from a comfortable, idyllic, semimythical world to the cold cruel world of political social reality.” (p.94)

Different treatment of prominent characters

John the Baptist

Although there is some continuity between the treatment of John the Baptist in the Infancy Narrative and the remainder of the gospel (in both parts John is the preparer of the way for Jesus), there are also discontinuities.

There is a distinct contrast between the closeness of John the Baptist and Jesus in 1:5-2:52 and the distancing of these two in rest of gospel. This is in stark contrast to the first 2 chapters where the author has closely knit a narrative comparing the likenesses and differences between the two in a step by step sequence.

  1. Luke 16:16 can be read as assigning John to the age of Israel, and thus separated from age of Jesus.
  2. John and Jesus occupy different geographic areas after the Infancy Narratives.
  3. John completes his mission before the baptism of Jesus.
  4. John is imprisoned before Jesus begins his ministry.
  5. John does not even baptize Jesus in the main body of the gospel. The emphasis is on the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice from heaven, not the baptism of Jesus.

The Parents and Family of Jesus

  1. Joseph is mentioned five times in the Infancy Narratives but only twice thereafter.
  2. Mary is a lead character in the opening chapters. She is mentioned sixteen times in the Infancy Narratives but only once afterwards. In the early chapters she is treated with near veneration: she is given a great promise by the archangel Gabriel, and then the focus of Simeon’s dramatic prophecy, but then simply disappears except for one strange mention where Jesus rejects her in favour of his disciples.
  3. In that later mention the brothers of Jesus are also mentioned, which is again strange given there was no hint beforehand that they existed.
  4. The opening two chapters portray a very positive relationship between Jesus and his family, and a very positive picture of Jesus’ family itself. This contrasts sharply with the negative and rejectionist view of families in the remainder of the gospel. There, Jesus says he has come to create family division (12:53), that his disciples must hate their parents to follow him (14:26). Nor does this gospel, unlike those of Mark and Matthew, condemn the custom of Corban which allowed parents to be neglected if one made an offering to the Temple.
  5. The genealogy does not work given the Infancy Narrative opening of the gospel. The Infancy Narratives demand that the birth of Jesus be more miraculous than that of John. So to this end the focus has to be on Mary there more than Joseph. This early narrative also stresses Jesus being the Son of David. But later in the main body of the gospel the genealogy traces Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph. So the genealogy does not cohere with the Infancy Narrative and its portrayal of Jesus being the Son of David by Mary.

Linquistic Style Differences

  1. The Septuagintal style (and content) is found throughout Luke-Acts but is most prominent in the Infancy Narratives.
  2. Also the heavy Semitic flavour in the Infancy Narratives can be found throughout Luke-Acts, but is most pronounced in the first 2 chapters.
  3. The style of the Infancy Narratives serves to link Jesus to the Hebrew Scriptures. It transports the reader back to world of the ancient Hebrew writers and prophets.
  4. The characters’ lives are set against this background and governed by the values of the Hebrew Scriptures. The description of piety of the characters is idyllic.

Differences in Ideology

  1. The different ideologies of the family expressed in the Infancy Narratives and the body of the gospel has been discussed above.
  2. The treatment of Jews and Judaism in the Infancy Narratives is strikingly positive in contrast with rest of Luke-Acts.
  3. Chapters 1-2 function to connect Jesus and the Baptist to the world of the Hebrew prophets and ongoing Jewish piety and expectations. The tone is almost entirely one of hope and optimism.

The appropriateness of all the above as a reaction against Marcionism

  1. These opening chapters take the reader back 30 years before Jesus began his ministry, back to the reigns of Herod the Great and Caesar Augustus, as if to deny the Marcionite claim that Jesus’ first appearance was in the time of Tiberius (Luke 3:1).
  2. The Infancy Narratives emphasize that Jesus was born of a woman. He did not, as per Marcion, suddenly descend from heaven to Capernaum. For Marcion, a human birth for Jesus would have been degrading.
  3. Gabriel’s message seems chosen to offend Marcionites for its anatomical detail: to conceive in her womb, produce a son, leaping in her womb.
  4. Jesus is repeatedly called a baby or a child — as also is John.
  5. The language throughout emphasizes Jesus’ humanity, and proximity to family, and his similarities with John.
  6. Close relationship with John is conveyed through angelic announcements predicting their conception and births, the narratives about their births, their naming, the circumcision of both, the similar summary statements conclude narratives of both. Compare the author of Acts drawing similar narrative parallel units for the reader to compare Peter and Paul.
  7. The Infancy Narratives stress the relationship of Jesus to Israel, the prophetic anticipation of his coming, of Jesus being the fulfilment of Jewish expectation.
  8. The same chapters stress the relationship of Jesus to the Jewish people. He is of the House of David; David is Jesus’ father; he is born in City of David.
  9. The family of Jesus is faithful to Jewish practices — note the stories of the presentation of Jesus and Mary’s purification. They are pious Jews, observing Torah, supporting the Jerusalem Temple, practicing sacrifices, observing Jewish festivals.
  10. And Jesus incorporated these practices, being obedient to parents.
  11. Jesus’ Jewishness is especially stressed in the story of his circumcision. This vitally links him with Judaism. and would have been especially offensive to Marcionites.
  12. Pervasive influence of the Hebrew Scriptures is especially pronounced in the Infancy Narratives, in language, tone and content.
  13. Prominent use of Daniel and Malachi (Malachi is drawn on in the announcement of the birth of John; and in the appearances of Jesus in the Temple)
  14. Eight characters from the Hebrew bible are mentioned in the Infancy Narratives: Aaron, Abijah, Abraham, Asher, David, Elijah, Jacob, Moses.
  15. There are also references to the holy prophets predicting Jesus. (Marcion denied that Jesus was the fulfilment of the prophetic scriptures. He interpreted these literally, not allegorically, to refer to a conquering Messiah.)
  16. Quotations, allusions and models of narratives are closely based on the Septuagint Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. the presentation of Samuel was probably the model for the story of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple).

Tyson writes:

These considerations make it highly probable, in my judgment, that the Lukan birth narratives were added in reaction to the challenges of Marcionite Christianity.

If these two chapters were a part of the original Luke, it is very hard to understand why Marcion would have chosen such a gospel with such highly offensive chapters to edit to begin with. On the other hand,

it would be difficult to imagine a more directly anti-Marcionite narrative than what we have in Luke 1 :5- 2:52. (p.100)

Next — the postresurrection accounts (and the Preface) of Luke . . . .

Marcion – Synoptic Problem (4): birth narratives

Continuing from Marcion and the Synoptic Problem (3)

The argument for Q rests on the understanding that Luke did not know the gospel of Matthew. One of the reasons for this view is Luke’s “otherwise inexplicable” failure to draw on some of the most memorable of material unique to Matthew, such as Joseph planning to divorce Mary until the angel came to him in a dream, the story of the Magi following the star to visit Jesus at his birth, Herod’s massacre of the innocents and Jesus’ and his parents’ flight to Egypt.

Kloppenborg argues that much of the material special to Matthew, such as the focus on the gentile theme (e.g. the Magi) was begging for Luke to pick up had he known it. Others have responded that Luke was reserving the gentile mission of the time after Jesus (e.g. Luke edited Matthew’s story of the healing of the Roman centurion’s servant so that Jesus never made direct contact with the gentile (cf. Matt 8 and Luke 7). Goodacre adds that Luke had a dim view of the Magi class (cf. Acts 8).

I would add that we know from the book of Acts that for “Luke” the Jerusalem Temple was a central pillar in his narrative (see my earlier post looking at Tyson’s methodical analysis of Luke’s themes in Acts), and other posts I have put out recently look at reasons for seeing this as an anti-Marcionite motif (see my Tyson and Marcion archives). But I’m following Tyson here, in assuming our canonical Luke is a redaction of the earlier “Luke” that Marcion knew. If so, then we can understand Luke intended from the start to link Jesus with the Temple — right from his very birth and entrance into the world. Hence his dedication at the Temple at the time of his circumcision, and his follow-up as a boy a few years later.

Embedding Jesus in the Temple motif from the first made Matthew’s nativity story impossible. Matthew’s required Jerusalem to be the centre of the evil Herod who caused the exile of Jesus into Egypt. There was no room in the logic of Matthew’s narrative for Herod, the massacre of the infants, nor even the Magi. The Magi were in fact the narrative means by which Herod caused the exile of Jesus from the Temple area altogether. If Luke brought them into his narrative at all it would have been clear that his audience would be unable to free themselves of their Matthean role and make a mockery of any alternative theological spin Luke was trying to introduce. Best he replace these wealthy eastern aristocrats with a completely new vision of lowly local shepherds being visited not by an astrological sign but by an angelic choir. It was important for Luke to keep Jesus in the area so the Jewish Temple tradition could be shown to be integral to the coming of Jesus. To have him exiled from the area altogether by the king of Jerusalem would surely only play into the hands of those (such as Marcionites) who argued Jesus came quite apart from any special Jewish heritage of promise.

But it has also been pointed out (Farrer, Goulder, Goodacre) that points of contact between Luke’s and Matthew’s nativities do suggest some form of dependence despite the differences.

  • The idea of a nativity introduction to the gospel was not something an author took for granted as a natural enough place to start. Neither Mark nor John, nor Marcion, saw this as a fit beginning. So the question whether Luke picked up the idea from Matthew presents itself. And if so, one would presume some inkling of the nature of Matthew’s account.
  • Both speak of a virginal conception by the holy spirit
  • Both have the birth take place at Bethlehem
  • Both hit on the name of Joseph for Jesus’ father
  • Both share the same Greek words for “will give birth to a son and you (singular) shall call him Jesus.” (Matt. 1:21 and Luke 1:31). Matthew’s use of this sentence is addressed to Joseph, who as father does name his son Jesus. Luke uses it — inappropriately in the same singular form — as an address to Mary who will not be solely responsible for naming her son (compare Luke 1:13).

Klinghardt suggests that Luke did know Matthew, but chose to follow and modify Marcion’s gospel rather than Matthew’s at this point. I doubt that argument will satisfy those who argue for Q since clearly, given Marcion’s lack of a nativity scene, it is hard to imagine Luke’s mind not turning to Matthew’s. But I have given my reasons above for believing an anti-Marcionite redactor (Luke) would see Matthew’s story playing right into the hands of Marcionites.

But Klinghardt strengthens his case that Luke knew Matthew by elaborating on the logic of the Bethlehem setting in the two gospels. The Bethlehem setting makes perfect sense in Matthew’s gospel, especially since to Matthew it was the inevitable sign and proof of Jesus’ Davidic kingship. Although Matthew knows from Mark of Jesus’ association with Nazareth, he begins the gospel with Jesus’ parents living in Bethlehem. They are forced to flee and when it comes time to return the political situation is such that it is safest for them to settle in Nazareth. This all has a cogent narrative flow. Klinghardt sees Luke as being more “universalist” in his concept of Jesus (cf Luke 2:1-2; 3:1a), hence his downplaying of Matthew’s significance for Bethlehem.

K does not elaborate, but Luke’s forced and unnatural embrace of the Bethlehem scene might also be seen as evidence of Luke’s dependence on Matthew. Luke, attempting to adapt Matthew’s Bethlehem as the place of birth of Jesus to his more universalist theme, feels obliged to concoct a silly story of everyone being required by imperial edict to return to their places of birth for a special tax registration. Not to mention the necessary anachronism of his Quirinius timing, too. It is not hard to see that Luke is struggling to incorporate Matthew’s Bethlehem setting into his own tendentious narrative.

But back to Klinghardt’s point:

But, again, Goodacre’s explanation why Luke did not take over this material, is as hypothetical as Kloppenborg’s reply why Luke would have liked it, provided he had read Matthew. Both argue e silentio from Luke’s omissions and try to explain something which is not there.

For most of this material the answer might be much simpler: if Luke followed [Marcion], he did not find any of the [special Matthew] material . . . Since Luke did not “omit” it from his source, there is no need for a hypothetical explanation of his reasons for doing it this way: he simply followed the narrative frame of [Marcion]. (p.14)

But Klinghardt himself appears to be aware of the weakness of this argument — there was no Marcionite nativity “narrative frame” for Luke to “simply follow” in the first place. Hence he, too, must side with Goodacre and add his own arguments why Luke did indeed use and change Matthew at this point — to which I have added my own here.

A reason Luke might have rejected Matthew’s nativity story

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. read more »