§ 10. The origin of the Gospel account of Matthew’s infancy

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

by Neil Godfrey


§ 10.

The origin of the Gospel account of Matthew’s infancy.

First, let us dispel the false notion that can easily arise from a superficial understanding of our above interpretation.

Schneckenburger **) had already attempted to assert that the account of the Magi’s homage “had emerged from a gradual traditional transformation of the facts as reported by Luke, which was stamped with the seal of truth.” However, he failed to carry out this assertion in many respects. “What injustice,” Matthew might exclaim, “to deny me the belief that is so easily and baselessly given to my neighbor! And what does it mean, we continue, to say that the seal of truth is lacking in Matthew’s account compared to Luke’s? Is not Matthew’s account more manly and forceful, and now it should give way to the soft pastoral scene of Luke * ) and be surpassed by it? This is, as we will demonstrate again shortly, a very uncritical method to allow Matthew’s account to arise ‘through embellishing tradition’ and then to push the parallel interpretation so far that the counter-image in Luke’s narrative is shown for every single detail in Matthew’s account. Strauss was therefore right to call this “interpretation” of Matthew’s account from Luke’s a “strained” one **), but he certainly did not refute this interpretation, nor did he replace it with a better one, when, following the tradition hypothesis, he allows both accounts to develop independently in tradition and prefers the “derivation” of Matthew’s account “from Old Testament passages and Jewish opinions” to that strained interpretation. Furthermore, Strauss says that this derivation of one account from the other is even unlikely if Schneckenburger’s assumption that Luke’s account bears the stamp of historical truth is correct. “But every reason” for such a derivation “is lacking since we have two equally unhistorical narratives before us.” We must confess that we cannot find any reason in this statement why one narrative could not have received the germ and impetus for its development from the other.

**) Whoever the origin of the first canonical Gospel, pp. 69-72.

*) Schneckenburger, in fact, only had the account of the shepherds’ adoration in mind when he allowed Matthew’s account to arise from a traditional source in the aforementioned passage of his book.

**) L. J. l, 314.


According to our interpretation, the entire evangelical prehistory of Matthew has arisen from that of his predecessor. But what does “arisen” mean? Do we mean to say, or have we said, or is this interpretation necessarily linked to the view that Matthew has meticulously examined each detail of Luke’s account and then anxiously searched for a corresponding but different one? On the contrary, we have not only said but also demonstrated the opposite. Matthew was guided by his predecessor to that high point where the prospect of the heathen masses, illuminated by the light of the new revelation, and the sufferings of the Messiah were opened up, and his only task was to transform Simeon’s prophecy into a real story, the center of which was the messianic child. During this work, he was not so alone and deserted that he had to take everything on his shoulders and step by step ask himself whether he was still on historical ground, but as he was inspired by the idea that had seized him in the work of his predecessor, so the experiences of the community, their spread in the heathen world, their suffering and martyrdom gave him enough material for his work; thus he was drawn into the general process of religious perception, which believed its content to be necessary and secure only if it found it again in the life of its Lord; thus the once-formed collision, which lay in the arrival of the Magi, drew him into its tearing development; finally, the consequences of this collision seemed to him natural enough if they were also predetermined in the divine plan, as the prophecies of the Old Testament proved to him. Compared to these inspiring, driving, and tearing forces, it is very little to point to us a couple of Old Testament passages and Jewish opinions as sufficient reason for the emergence of such a rich and profound account as that of Matthew.


The proof that this account could not have developed in tradition is the same as the one we presented above for the literary elaboration of Luke’s prehistory and has its nerve in the line of infinite regress, which does not let us rest until we have arrived at the formative self-consciousness as the author of the account. We do not need to repeat the proof. Our explanation of the account has sufficiently demonstrated that the development of the collision from the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem to the settling of Jesus’ parents in Nazareth is strictly interconnected, that no detail could have arisen independently, and that everything individual only has its meaning and its origin in the idea of the whole, so that the whole, with its parts, emerged simultaneously and as the work of the author.


Apologetics sometimes have a rather peculiar approach to their arguments. At one moment, they provide evidence for the “historical credibility” of a narrative based on the fact that the evangelist does not mention an Old Testament passage whose fulfillment is claimed. If the prophecy is then cited, and the appearance arises that the narrative was only derived from it, the apologist is not daunted. They promptly point out that the meaning of the Old Testament passage was originally too different from the sense that an evangelist gives it, to have been the source of the narrative that the critic attributes to it. The fact must have already existed, before the evangelist could have been prompted to associate it with any Old Testament passage through some resonance or analogy. The prehistory of Matthew gives the apologist the opportunity to use both arguments.

Firstly, we could accuse the apologetics of being unfair. For the incongruence between a narrative and the Old Testament citation accompanying it, the apologist can only rely on if they admit that the suspicion that the narrative may have been formed from the Old Testament passage has greater apparent justification if both are in precise agreement. If they think so, then they have certainly won against most cases from the outset, since the Old Testament perspective and the Christian one are essentially different and can therefore never fully coincide. Or rather, they have only won against the earlier form of criticism, but not against criticism as such, which will continue to advance beyond their previous assumptions, where they shared the same assumptions as their opponents.


If the principle no longer holds that the evangelical views were spun out of the Old Testament passages, then the whole argument of apologetics has become mere chatter. Strauss indeed responds to the question why Matthew does not explicitly refer to Balaam’s oracle if the story of the Magi’s star arose from it: “Because he himself did not spin this story out of the Old Testament passage.” *) However, Matthew did not receive the story of the Magi’s star in this specific form from tradition, but rather he created it within the context of the idea from which his whole infancy narrative arose. So why does he not refer to Balaam’s oracle? Well, because he did not think of it, because the evangelical view was not spun out of the Old Testament passages, and when it coincides with Old Testament forms, it did not always need to be immediately aware of this agreement. But where does this coincidence come from, on which the appearance of chance might now fall? It comes from the fact that human nature is one, and religious views can also take similar forms in different circles due to the unity of the category. The natural element can never be dispensed with in religious views, and the impulse to create a natural or heavenly image for their essential content is inherent in them. Hence, the similarity in this case. It is possible that Matthew received the comparison of the Messiah’s arrival with the rising of a star from the sacred language of the community, but then it was not necessary for this image to be borrowed from the Old Testament, nor does the proposition that Matthew made the image into something completely different in any way become endangered by it.

*) L.J. I. 313


The Apologist asks further, where does it come from in the other case, that such a heterogeneous narrative was formed from an Old Testament passage that originally had a completely different meaning? How is this derivation of the narrative possible at all given the total difference between the two sides? Strauss *) responds to this question by saying that the failed combination came about because the evangelist “was given some narrative without the key that belonged to it,” and now the misfortune befell him, “that he sometimes even attempted false keys.” However, this explanation is already flawed in its assumption that Matthew composed his prehistory from individual narratives that were given to him. The Bethlehem child massacre presupposes the report of the Magi’s arrival in Jerusalem, and thus also their worship, and therefore could neither be composed as an independent narrative nor be the subject of a legend. And what interest could the legend of the holy child’s stay with his parents in Egypt have generated on its own and for so long – who knows how long? – in the tradition of the community, until it came to Matthew and led him to show off his interpretive skills precisely from their weakest side? So be more cautious with your reasoning, good Apologist, you do not gain any notice for your knowledge of history if you show that the evangelist brought such a distant Old Testament passage to one aspect of his narrative that it is clear that it could not have made him so inventive that he formed that aspect according to it. Namely, you realize where we are going and where we will end up? Those individual aspects of the narrative, such as the Bethlehem child massacre and the flight to Egypt, were neither received from tradition nor spun out of the Old Testament passage. Rather, they arose from the development of the assumed collision, and the Old Testament prophecy presented itself to him as such through even the most external allusion or connection.

*) L. J. I, 313.


If one still insists on asking, in the most candid wonder, how on earth it could have been possible for Matthew to create such a different narrative from Luke’s, we have already demonstrated that and we will have plenty of opportunities to show what transformations the accounts of Mark underwent in Luke’s writing, and what new forms Matthew created from the creations of his predecessors.

We have a completely different concern, which we do not want to hide. Luke has replaced some beautiful structures in place of the reports he found in Mark, and Matthew is even richer in new and happy compositions. But both have not brought their new forms into a perfect connection with each other or with what they retained from Mark. How much more successful would they have been in developing the prehistory! Luke creates a complete whole from the beginning, which he does not succeed in doing again in his gospel, and Matthew, who takes the seeds of his prehistory from Luke’s, is not disturbed by it at all, and he creates a cohesive new composition, which was not possible for him in the rest of his work to the same extent. So should they still be considered the authors of these prehistories? They are and remain so. Everything has its time: when they wrote, it was precisely the time when Christian self-awareness went further than at the time of Mark into its assumptions and tried to grasp and present them in the only form accessible to it, in the form of the prehistory of its Lord. For this edition, the time was a creative one, Luke and Matthew were seized by the power of a new urge for creation, and they gave in the most perfect form what their time demanded.



§ 9. The flight to Egypt and settlement in Nazareth

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

by Neil Godfrey


§ 9.

The flight to Egypt and settlement in Nazareth.

In his presentation of the prehistory, Luke incorporated the prophecy of the struggles which the Redeemer and, in him, the new principle would have to endure. Through the soul of Mary, who represents the community in a broader sense here, Simeon says a sword will pierce through her, for this one who was destined to be the light of the Gentiles and the glory of Israel, is set for a sign, which is opposed so that many hearts may be revealed.

Matthew also takes up this prophecy and, like the other one about the destiny of the Savior to be the light of the nations, works it into a prophetic fact with the same success that gives him a result he had not even calculated, in which the destinies of the community and its Lord are symbolically prefigured.


The collision develops from the wondrous event that the Gentiles offer their homage to the Messiah. In its essential sense, it must therefore be of general and comprehensive significance, even if the author uses Jewish names for the narrative. He could not do otherwise, as he is writing the story of the child born in Bethlehem, and could only depict dangers that were possible in the Jewish world of that time. His consciousness in which he created this story was involuntarily limited by this necessary limitation of the scene, and with good faith in the direction that his narrative takes from its starting point, he believes that he is describing real dangers that were imposed on the newborn by the Jewish world and its ruler of the time. On the other hand, his consciousness is involuntarily beyond these limitations again, as he portrays the struggles of the messianic child, which the community only experienced and experienced with such terrible seriousness when it was in conflict with the Gentile world and its rulers. In the child, the idea of the community, which passed through dangers and sufferings unscathed, is depicted, while the children of Bethlehem represent the individual sacrifices that fall when the idea itself triumphs over the attacks of the world. The Magi are the harbingers of Gentile-ism that submits to the new principle, while Herod represents in his person the secular power that could not reach the principle, the idea with its weapons, in its struggle with Christianity, although it could hit individual members of the community. Of course, the author did not separate both sides of his narrative, the Jewish scene and form and the general content, to which the community and its destiny in the struggle with the world empire also belonged, and did not make the messianic child as such and the community whose destiny it experienced into one being with reflective intentionality, and it was therefore inevitable that some inconveniences arose from the combination of such diverse elements. However, the fact that the collision and its development still combine into such a harmonious whole can be explained particularly by the fact that it begins with the homage of the Gentiles and that in Herod, whose person and house were regarded by the evangelist more as a foreign, external, and worldly power than as an element of the theocratic sphere of life, the hostile power of the world is juxtaposed as a counter-image.


Before we examine the account of the danger threatening the infant Jesus in detail, as far as it is necessary here, we hardly need to mention that in an apologetic sense there can no longer be any talk of a historical basis for it, if the assumption of the Magi’s arrival does not belong to real history. The fact that the characters in the story are under the immediate guidance of a necessity that either determines their decisions, as with the Magi and Joseph in their dreams, or leads Herod to both premature and inconsistent actions, as required by the development of the collision, but which are impossible in reality, also proves this ideal origin of the account.

When Herod learned from the scribes that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, he secretly summoned the Magi and asked them precisely about the time when the star had appeared. But why secretly? Why so precise? Why did he ask about a sign from which he could deduce the age of the child, since he instructed the Magi to bring him news if they found the child and he firmly believed that they would return to him? The age of the child could only be of interest to Herod when, deceived by the Magi, who, warned by a dream, did not return to him, he decided to kill all the children in Bethlehem and the surrounding area “who were two years old or younger.” He could only resort to this means when he could no longer learn from the Magi which child was so dangerous to him; and yet he had already asked about the more distant means, namely the sign, from which he could deduce up to what age he had to have the children killed (Matthew 2:16). If, at the arrival of the Magi, he had thought of such a remote means for carrying out his purpose, and thus of the possibility that they might deceive him and not return to him, he would have reached for the nearer means and assigned secret escorts to the foreigners who would have more safely and less conspicuously removed the dangerous child from their path. The answer of modern apologists, that tyrants are often struck with stupidity in their vague fear, as audacious as it may be, can only make an impression as long as one has only superficially and from afar considered Saint Matthew’s account. Just listen to the account, how clearly it emphasizes that Herod had already thought of the last desperate means with his question about the rising of the star. This Herod would have been struck with stupidity? Calvin knew the difficulty better, if he could find no other way to solve it than by assuming that God had made the tyrant helpless for a moment. *) You want to solve the difficulty if Calvin could not, even though he allowed God himself to participate? In fact, it cannot be solved apologetically, for he who knows how to get advice even for the remotest possibility cannot be said to be helpless. And if God really deprived the tyrant of his reason to such an extent that he did not think of giving the Magi escorts, would he not have had to go so far as to prevent him from coming up with the clever idea of asking about the rising of the star?

*) Non dubium est, quin Deus mentem ejus perculerit inusitato metu, ut consilio destitutus menteque alienatus ad tempus torperet. Nihil enim facilius erat, quam officii praetextu unum ex aulicis comitem subordare, qui tota inspecta mox rediret.


The matter is immediately resolved once we consider the only force that has been at work here, the pragmatism of the writer. Actually, Herod should not even have asked so cunningly about the time when the star appeared, because he believed he was sure to be informed by the Magi about the child on their return journey through Jerusalem. However, the writer knows beforehand that they will be warned in a dream and take another way back, and based on the insight he has, which he only reveals secretly to Herod, he lets him act and use the only opportunity when he speaks to the Magi to find out when the star appeared. But he had to have Herod ask about it because he already had in mind the bloodshed in Bethlehem and had to send the tyrant the information he needed to deduce at what age he should get rid of the children if he wanted to eliminate the one dreadful child among them.

It is striking that the Evangelist does not allow the Magi to return to Herod. There was no more danger to fear, because immediately after their departure, Joseph received a command in a dream to flee with the child and his mother to Egypt. The fate of the children of Bethlehem would have remained the same. Nevertheless, a correct instinct prevented the Evangelist from sending the Magi back to Herod with the news of where they had found the Savior. In general, Weisse correctly indicated the idea that guided the Evangelist secretly, when he said *) that “the same religious consciousness of the heathen world, which, guided by the spirit of truth, submits to Christianity, is abandoned by that spirit to the secular power that has risen from the heathen world, an involuntary impulse to persecute Christianity.” But the matter can be more precisely formulated as follows: in its enmity towards the community, the secular power does not know where to strike the principle and life of the community, and while the idea is impervious to its attacks, in blind fury, it can only reach individuals who suffer for the principle with its weapons.

*): ev. Gesch. I, 224.


The murdered children of Bethlehem are considered by our evangelist as martyrs or, to express our own understanding more precisely, as prototypes of martyrs, and he ensured that they did not perish without being mourned. He says that their suffering fulfills the prophecy of Jeremiah (31:15), which speaks of Rachel weeping bitterly for her children and refusing to be comforted. Certainly, we would completely misunderstand the evangelist’s perspective if we were to assume that the prophetic passage refers only to the anguish of mothers whose children were taken by Herod. These children are no longer just those who belong to this or that household in Bethlehem, but are martyrs of the suffering community, or rather the part of the community that was sacrificed. Now it is clear who Rachel is. She is the community that weeps over the suffering of her members. This is also the original meaning of those words in the scripture of Jeremiah: they refer to the deportation of the people into captivity. Rachel, the matriarch, stands at Rama, in the territory of her son Benjamin, where the procession of captives must pass by, mourning the misfortune of her kin. For the evangelist, the fact that Rachel was buried near Bethlehem leads him to the prophet’s statement, and Rachel’s grief is now the mourning of the community that has lost its children in the children of Bethlehem. It does not surprise us that the evangelist makes the community lament, even though the community did not yet exist at the time, since he also makes martyrs suffer when it was not yet possible.


The view of the evangelist becomes even more clear to us when we remember that we speak of a community in three senses. Firstly, as it appears in individual members, secondly as it is the substantive unity, figuratively speaking, the mother of these individuals, and finally, as it summarizes itself in its personal principle. All three meanings must have also been present in the early Christian view, as soon as it attempted to present itself in the form of history, to be made into independent figures, and from this, the diversity and richness of figures arose, even in the limited framework of this prehistory. At the point especially where the idea of suffering emerges, we can expect this threefold representation and representation of the community, and Luke has even carried it out in a surprising way in the fleeting moment where suffering is only mentioned. We say again, not with conscious intent, but instinctively following the power of that differentiation; just as we don’t always pay attention when we speak of the community, that we are speaking of it in this or that sense. When Simeon says, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,” he does not only mean that Jesus would suffer in his personal historical appearance, but he also thinks of the struggles and sufferings that the community will have to endure. Mary, through whose soul a sword will go, is not only the sorrowful mother of the Savior, who would witness his suffering and crucifixion, but she also represents the community in that sense, in which she is the substance of the individual members and seems to look down sympathetically on the struggles of her own in maternal empathy.

Matthew has only separated and shaped this more clearly because he set the individual historical events in motion. The worldly power wants to carry out its hostile plans, but it cannot find the personal principle, it can only reach the individual, inherently weak members of the community and, by the death of these, hurt the community, which maintains itself as a substantive unity above the struggle of appearance, for a moment.


The flight of Joseph with the child to Egypt seems significant to the Evangelist, and he sees in it the fulfillment of the prophetic word in Hosea 11:1, where Jehovah speaks of his son whom he called out of Egypt. Although this passage speaks of the past, of the liberation of the people from Egypt and only of the people as such, the Evangelist focuses his attention only on the fact that Jehovah speaks of his son, and therefore concludes that this son can only be Jesus.

After the death of Herod, Joseph receives instruction from an angel in a dream to return to the land of Israel. He obeys but fears when he hears that Archelaus reigns over Judea, and in another dream, he is instructed to go to Galilee, where he settles in Nazareth. The Evangelist says that this happened so that the word of the prophets, “he shall be called a Nazarene,” would be fulfilled. In Jesus growing up in Nazareth and leaving from there when he began his public ministry, he sees a sign of the lowliness of the Messiah in his historical appearance. He recalls that Isaiah (11:1) compares the Messiah, who comes from humble circumstances, to a weak branch that grows from the stump of a cut-down tree. He sees this as a literal reference to the Messiah’s emergence from a small town in a remote province away from the capital, and he speaks in the plural of the prophecy of the prophets because he finds the idea of the Messiah’s lowly appearance in other prophecies besides those of Isaiah.

The latter reflection of the Evangelist clearly proves that he also has in mind and wants to depict the struggle and contradiction between the higher destiny of the messianic child and the fate that drives him into obscurity during these wanderings. The material for this portrayal was initially given to him to the extent that it was established according to the report of Mark that Nazareth was considered to be the hometown of Jesus and that the Lord came from this remote and otherwise unknown city when he began his public ministry (Mark 6:1, 1:9). Additionally, there is the note of the third synoptist that the holy family returned with the child to Nazareth from the scene of those wonders which had glorified the birth and first days of the messianic child (Luke 2:39). Luke lets this return journey go as quickly as possible – immediately after the mother of the child had followed the legal requirements (Luke 2:22-24) – and does so without any concern: he still feels the power of the positive statements in the Gospel of Mark and now has to hurry to bring the child back to where he is at home according to his informant. However, Matthew is already accustomed to considering Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah, so it is possible for him, if he wants to report on the birth of the Lord, to simply assume this city as the location. With his reflective style, it is not surprising that he emphasizes the contrast between the cradle of kings and a corner of Galilee, but he will also seek to convey and understand it as a divine fate. It is now the jealousy and enmity of worldly power that drives the royal child away from the homeland of his ancestors, forever away from it, and finally forces him to grow up in the obscurity of Nazareth. Matthew had based his entire presentation on this struggle, so the wanderings of the persecuted child are the natural consequences of this unfortunate collision, but the consequences that are foreseen by God, prophesied by the prophets, and under the guidance of a higher necessity.


Why, however, does Joseph not receive the instruction to go to Galilee and settle in Nazareth immediately at the beginning, when Herod seeks the child’s life in Bethlehem? It was not yet possible at that time, because Herod also ruled over that province and could still track down the child. So, abroad, into foreign lands, until the danger is over! But to which country? To the nearest one, to Egypt, where the people whose fortunes parallel those of the Messiah have also lived in hiding until they could take possession of their inheritance, which God had destined for them.

The richness of the form of thought we are dealing with here often gives the appearance of excess when the idea, already expressed in one event, is expressed anew in an analogous event. After the death of the tyrant, the child does not yet find peace. Although Joseph hears from the angel that those who were seeking the child’s life are no more and leaves Egypt to settle in Judaea, the homeland of the messianic child, a new danger threatens, and the child must bid farewell to its cradle forever and seek a new home in a foreign land.

However, we must not regard such repetitions as mere superfluity. The sunny view is involuntarily driven to such duplications in order to increase the seriousness of the collision or to allow it to emerge fully in its fateful power. Usually – and this is what happened here – the repetition takes the form of compressing the collision and its development into a narrower space by the fact that the demonic spirit of persecution still works over the grave of the departed enemy.

These wanderings and sufferings of the messianic child only acquire their true meaning when we do not forget that the child’s fate itself represents the arrangements that gave the church the recognition of the Gentiles and protected it through suffering and persecution. It is the same here. Herod remains the representative of worldly power, from which the church is forced to found and expand its kingdom in quiet and seclusion.*) This general idea will be more specifically developed the second time the pressure of worldly power is renewed, and when the church is displaced from the seat and center of worldly glory, the opposite point to which it flees will be of greater significance. The child that represents the church is led from Judaea to Nazareth, and its fate of being relegated to the lowly corners of a little-regarded province is now the image of the church’s fate, which, despised by worldly glory, gathered its followers among the lowly and humble. **)

*) Compare Weisse, ev. Gesch. I, 226.

**) For the followers of Christ were already called Nazarenes very early, before the time when Matthew wrote (ναζωραιοι Acts 24:5).


Even more so! Nazareth, Galilee, the circle of the Gentiles, as it was called by the Jews, and Judah now stand opposed to each other. The hostile power that threatens the child and, in it, the community and drives it away into the distance, is no longer just the secular power, but now acts as the old Jewish essence, which fears its downfall and, in order to save itself, expels the new principle from its homeland and forces it to settle in the Gentile world.

One would think that the apologist would never again think to connect the Gospel accounts of Luke and Matthew in an external context, if it is shown to him how both arose. Their true connection is solely grounded in the fact that the seeds of the later account were already contained in the former and developed into the shape of the later view through their inner power, which certainly also had to be expressed through richer experiences.


If by chance the other connection were present, that both stories fit together with their individual dates, it would be only by chance and would be absolutely indifferent to us, since both circles of thought each form a particular world, and the later one, even if it takes its central idea from the earlier one, gives its movement a direction that takes no account of the rotation of the first circle. There is not even an accidental external connection possible: on the contrary, the most extraordinary differences must occur, which, however, will not disturb or even occupy us any more than the mechanical harmony, if it were possible, would be of importance to us.

Nevertheless, we will hardly be able to entertain the excessive hope that the apologist will refrain from harmonizing the two stories, because they are and remain real history to him. They must remain so to him because he would be despondent if he did not see in them not only individual, in themselves random events, but a thoughtful creation of the religious spirit. We will therefore do him the last favor and relieve him of the burden of his harmonistic work by showing him how the external contradictions of the two stories arose.

Luke has Joseph and Mary return to Nazareth immediately after they had fulfilled everything that the law required of a woman after childbirth, that is, forty days after the birth of the child. Immediately! He not only does not know of the detour through Egypt, which must have already taken a lot of time, and the longer stay of the child in this country until the death of Herod, but he excludes this delay. In this case, he would proceed so exclusively if one wanted to force a historical cycle into his report with harmonistic tenacity, which only his successor has developed. But why did Matthew not heed the barrier that Luke actually set for the later historian with his chronological note about the return of the holy family to Nazareth? Because he did not surround the birth of Jesus from all sides with a multitude of miraculous events like his predecessor, and therefore could not conclude the prehistory so early; because the one incident he cites, the arrival of the Magi, was the cause of a series of collisions whose far-reaching development had to give way to that barrier; and finally, because in this time of creative thought, a chronological note was not yet as rigid as it has become for the sober apologist. But let us speak more cautiously! Only sometimes or depending on his interest, the apologist remains stubbornly on a single note. This time he has precisely the interest of adding the surplus he finds in Matthew to Luke’s narrative. But if he suddenly exceeds or pushes beyond the barrier of that chronological note, why should it not be possible or allowed for Matthew, since his view was just driven by the first force of an interest, whose development required a larger scope?


It is actually unnecessary to ask where to insert the homage of the Magi in Luke’s narrative. Luke knows nothing of these foreigners because he is unaware of the unfortunate consequences of their arrival; he does not need them, as in his version, the shepherds and Simeon give homage to the child, which the Magi give according to Matthew’s account. Finally, he excludes any thought of these foreigners, for if the Magi had arrived before the presentation of the child in the temple and a divine messenger had commanded Joseph to flee to Egypt, could the parents have brought the threatened child so freely and openly to Jerusalem? After the presentation in the temple, the parents bring the child – and again, to emphasize, without delay – to their home in Galilee, to Nazareth. Therefore, the Magi could not have given homage to the child in Bethlehem afterward. These are difficulties that the apologist will never be able to overcome, but they do not exist for Matthew, as the homages given to the messianic child by Luke are summarized by him into one homage by the Magi, thus placing them ideally, and making it impossible for him to raise any chronological concerns. Luke has made the recognitions given to the messianic child follow each other step by step, culminating in the praise of Simeon, so that there is no room for another, new homage in his narrative. Matthew, on the other hand, has given the homage of the Magi such far-reaching significance that his account does not need any other.


We have already shown how the differences between the two accounts of the origins of Jesus’ parents’ residence came about. According to Luke, Jesus’ parents were settled in Nazareth, and the census, a random occurrence, leads Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born. The fact that the census was announced at that specific time, and that Mary had to stay in Bethlehem for the birth, is not considered by the evangelist to be coincidental; rather, he sees in this arrangement the influence of a higher necessity, which wanted the Messiah, as the Son of David, to be born in the cradle of his lineage. However, Matthew presents this necessity as an immediate divine will, by weaving the well-known prophecy of Micah into his account. He no longer needs the historical circumstance of the census, and so naturally, Jesus’ parents are from Bethlehem from the beginning. This also allows him to portray the return to Nazareth, which, according to Luke, was just a return home, not as something that is self-explanatory, but rather as a significant achievement that could only be brought about by a series of historical events and the necessity of fulfilling a divine oracle.


Will the apologist perhaps say again that the contradiction is only apparent and that this appearance arises because Matthew considers the matter only from a different point of view and in connection with the prophecies of the Old Testament? This would only be an illusion if Matthew portrays Joseph’s intention to settle in Judea, namely in Bethlehem, after his return from Egypt, as so serious that Joseph still entertains it even when he sees that the new ruler in Judea is no less to be feared than Herod, that Joseph is without advice in this embarrassment and does not even remotely consider staying in Galilee, in Nazareth, where Archelaus has no power, his homeland and a safe refuge, in short – that Joseph is only directed to Galilee and Nazareth through an angelic message? The contradiction is as harsh as it can be.

He who wants to save everything in danger may lose everything.

But will the apologist perhaps bring something or much to safety if he shows some resignation and, like Neander, pretends not to consider everything in the reports as sound and healthy? No! The apologist cannot give up anything from the letter, he only says *) “gaps” must be in the reports and these gaps must now pay for all contradictions! Everything, everything, even if separated by gaps, should remain! However, whoever calls reports that are true works of art in their own way “gappy” should at least indicate these gaps in themselves and in their internal construction.

*) L.J. Chr. p. 33

We have done our duty by showing how each of the two accounts is a complete whole in itself, in which each, even the smallest, element is connected with the other in internal connections, and all together with the spirit that animates them form a creation that requires no completion and rejects the most benevolent offer to supplement it as superfluous and at least intrusive. Finally, if Neander thinks that the contradiction of these narratives disappears when one considers them “as such, which were distinguished and collected independently of one another,” *) we have already made the attempt to consider them as such impossible in advance, as we have shown how the gospel prehistory of Matthew arose from that of Luke and how mother and daughter had to have very different features despite all similarities and equal beauty.

*) L. J. Ch. p. 33.


The result is: the prehistory of Matthew has its seeds in that of Luke and has been developed from these seeds into its distinctive form. There may still be objections, but we will answer them.




§ 3. The Supernatural Conception of Jesus

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

by Neil Godfrey


§ 3.

The Supernatural Conception of Jesus.

Although Mark does not yet know that the father of Jesus is called Joseph – this naming occurs in later times – he only knows the name of the mother, but since he also mentions brothers and sisters of the Lord (Chapter 6, verse 3), he assumes that Jesus is the son of Mary in the same way as his siblings. He was begotten in marriage, and would the first evangelist have remained silent about the miracle of the supernatural conception if he had known anything about it?

With such an assured datum, we only need to examine how the view we find in the scriptures of Luke and Matthew originated. Strauss famously attempted to base this genesis on the Jewish “time concept”. Part of the specific cause for developing this view was the title “Son of God” that had already become customary for the Messiah. The natural inclination to take this title of the Messiah in an ever more literal sense was reinforced by Psalm 2:7 and the translation of the Septuagint of Isaiah 7:14. “Then the concepts of the son of God and son of the virgin were mixed up in such a way that divine activity was substituted for human-paternal activity *).” The apologist cannot claim that it is impossible to explain the origin of such a view “from the Jewish standpoint”, as he does not like to express himself so decisively and is aware that even his statements, when examined closely, cannot endure. So he prefers to express his reservations about whether that explanation is “so easy” to achieve, as the critic seems to assume. “If we consider the Jewish monotheism that placed an impassable gulf between God and the world, especially as it prevailed in Palestine, the respect for marriage peculiar to this standpoint, the local interpretation of the idea of the Messiah as an ordinary man not distinguished by anything supernatural who was to be equipped with divine power only at his solemn consecration for the messianic office, then the creation of the myth of the virgin birth of the Messiah was certainly far removed from such a standpoint.“ *) Indeed! The matter would be almost settled with that, but only almost, and the critic would be almost irretrievably trapped if, as we see here with both the critic and the apologist, he had to confine himself to the narrow limits of Palestine and the local “time concepts”. But it does not have to, nor may it. His case would not be completely lost even if he had to limit himself to the Jewish view; because with that it must still give the apologist cause for concern by pointing out to him how God could have dared to perform such an extraordinary miracle, which would have contradicted all the ideas of the Jewish people so strongly and whose inner significance a people that had been guided and taught by him for two millennia would have been completely unable to comprehend. However, in reality, he would have an absolute right to assert that Jewish monotheism not only consisted of the separation of God and the world, but in its development – see the psalms and prophets – it had constantly striven to eliminate the difference in the concept of unity. Could the view of the divinely-begotten personality of the Messiah not be the completion of a work that had kept the Jewish spirit busy for so long?

*) Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Volume I, pp. 233-234. [p. 142 in the English translation]

*) L. J. Chr. p. 10. [p. 14 in the English translation]


Yes, it was this fulfillment, but as such, it did not originate from Jewish consciousness; it was not the result that directly stemmed from Jewish temporal conceptions, but it came purely and solely from the life of the Christian community, which from its inner depth grasped the idea and used the preparations for it in the Old Testament for its presentation. The community would never have been able to form the view we find in Luke and Matthew if they had not experienced the content they found in it as their inner experience, namely if they had not grasped the unity of the divine and the human as their essence. The Hebrew people, in the desert struggles of its lust, which dragged it into the natural service, and its stubbornness, never reached the point of thinking of itself as a real community and, figuratively speaking, as the dwelling of the divine spirit. Hence it can also be explained that its highest conceptions of the Messiah – these objective representations of its inner experiences, hopes, and postulates – in spite of all its efforts to overcome the essential opposition, never brought about a complete unity of the separated. The thought and feeling of this unity became possible for the Christian community precisely because it completed the opposition and no longer opposed the universality of the divine with the defiance and obstinacy of the human, but allowed the human to appear altogether as sinful, thereby making the opposition itself appear unjustified, void, and as having been abolished.


From this dialectic of opposition, it is immediately apparent in what way the community had to regard itself as a divine race and as the unity of the deepest difference. To understand itself as the result of the historical development of self-consciousness was impossible, for the human appeared to be powerless, as all power resides only in God; nor could it imagine itself as a work in which divine and human acts are combined, for the human remains sinful until it is accepted by God’s grace alone and transformed into the vessel of his historical manifestation – in its self-conception, therefore, it is a work set by God without human intervention. However, according to the nature of the religious spirit, the step towards the individual is immediately taken, or rather, this view cannot even be formed and maintained purely for itself, but must always immediately appear in an individual form. Thus, the community confirms its certainty of the unity of the divine and the human in the view of the person of its founder and finally expresses the doctrine that this unity is only set by God in the view of the birth of Jesus. When this expression is complete and Jesus is considered the God-begotten son of the virgin, the creative plasticity of religious consciousness has completed its work, and the inner nature of self-consciousness, which is established with the Christian principle, now stands outside as the history of the birth of Jesus.


This enormous work of imagination could not have been produced by Jewish concepts of time, nor by individual conceptions from the Old Testament. It could only originate from the idea that animated the community and stimulated its artistic instinct, or more precisely, it could only be inspired by it. For the execution of the work, it also required various external materials that were related to that idea and acted as external stimuli, which were finally assimilated by the higher idea. These stimuli included not only the Old Testament ideas of the Anointed One, whom Jehovah testifies to, and of the Son of the Virgin, but also the pagan ideas of the heroes who are begotten by the gods. We must even assert *) that it was only through the spread of Christianity in the pagan world and through the contact and fusion with its views that the tremendous boldness became possible, which was necessary to hold the divine origin in the way that Luke and Matthew report it, as possible and certain.

*) Also Weisse (ev. Gesch. I, 174-175) agrees.

The view that “sexual intercourse is sinful” is completely foreign to the origin of this view and did not contribute in the slightest to it. Here, a much more general and comprehensive thought was entertained about human weakness and sinfulness, namely in the sense that the human could not effect the abolition of the essential contradiction. Therefore, it is essentially inconsistent that the maternal contribution to the generation of Jesus should still remain. But this inconsistency was unavoidable if the religious view did not want to leave the ground of reality entirely or abolish the last remnants of natural law. On the other hand, the woman was necessary for the formation of the idea in question since the human could not be portrayed as altogether unfree and inactive, and the religious consciousness always falls into the contradiction that it attributes all power and freedom to the divine and, at the same time, must still acknowledge certain of these magnificent attributes to humans. Namely, the receptivity, which, correctly understood, is all power and freedom, even if only within itself or in a state of rest and hiddenness, is still left to the human side. Thus, the virgin of that view is only the individual objectification of the woman of thought or the category of femininity, namely receptivity, which presupposes divine revelation. Even though the old cannot produce the new principle from itself, and the new must be set by its own power or, rather, by an immediate divine act, it must still happen on the ground of the old, which then appears in the individual elaboration of this view as feminine and, in its unmixed purity, as virgin.


The general categories of self-consciousness and their individual embodiment are still unencumbered in the original view, their unity also remained undisturbed for unbiased faith and remains no less unchallenged when understood and explained by criticism. However, apologetics are to be lamented when they tear apart that bond, lose the thought, and drag the individual down into the most meager empiricism. “The intimate longing of female Israel for the Messiah child,” says Lange *), “has finally taken shape in the purest, virgin appearance of Israelite femininity.” The attempt to grasp this longing, which in the original view is basically the general expectation of salvation in the people of Israel and in the world as a whole, in such an empirical way that it comes down to the notion that women or virgins have felt a longing for the Messiah child, this attempt is either to be called frivolous or foolish.

*) ibid p. 68


With the usual and seemingly immortal prejudice that sees the higher position of the Christian principle threatened when Jewish and pagan elements are shown to have been incorporated into it, we believe we have sufficiently answered them: we not only say, like those accusers, but we also demonstrate that the Christian principle stands infinitely above those elements and could not have been generated by them. Of course, they understand the matter in such a way that the content of the Christian consciousness and the pagan view are also infinitely different because the latter is only human fiction, while the former is a “divine fact.” However, we are confident that we can leave the high significance of the Christian principle intact without having to denigrate pagan views as mere fiction. Universal religious categories also worked in paganism because, like all religions, it is an essential process of self-consciousness; in it, too, the spirit was disturbed by its internal opposition and sought certainty of peace and reconciliation in its views. But is not the difference between paganism and the Christian principle still fully preserved when it is understood as a difference within self-consciousness? Is this not only the rational, true difference when it is transplanted into the one world of self-consciousness?

The pagan view of the sons of the gods grasped the essential opposition of self-consciousness and its dissolution only superficially because both sides still clung to naturalness, because even the general aspect of the divine was still thought of in the form of particular powers, and thus the opposition was impure and its dissolution was easy and painless. The god who still carries natural pathos in himself, who is a particular subject among others, cannot be infinitely alienated from the finite spirit and will easily be moved to become familiar with it again when peace was once disturbed; in fact, it may not even seem very noticeable when both sides mix in their naturalness. However, only one difference remains in self-consciousness when the Christian principle has stripped the general power of the spirit of all naturalness and all the greater difficulty in overcoming the contradiction that has become infinite. When the Christian community attempted to understand the annulment of this opposition in the view of the generation of Jesus, it had to use a pagan element and even had to use it essentially, but at the same time, it fundamentally changed it and gave it a new meaning by presupposing the deepest opposition.


However, this difference will never prove that the evangelical account contains the fact that was only dimly perceived in the “fantasy images” of paganism. Even if one, like Neander, urgently points out the “characteristic difference” that “in the representations of the Gospels only the effect of the divine omnipotence in the conception is indicated as a purely creative one, not mediated by natural causality as is usually the case, while in those mythical conceptions the divine causality coordinates with natural causes, the divine is brought down into the realm of natural phenomena, and the appearance of the divine is explained physically” *) — even if one cites this difference a thousand times, it always comes down to the difference within consciousness, that in paganism the divine confronts the human as something special, as one of its own, while in Christian consciousness, the divine as purely universal is separated from the human as the empirically particular. Therefore, that special thing can immediately enter into the natural relations of finitude and live through them as its own nature. For the Christian view, this assumption is impossible, and it cannot construct the relationship of the divine to the finite in the individual naturally. It is content with the simple idea of omnipotence.

*) E.J. Ch. p. 15-16.


Therefore, the Christian conception must necessarily fall into a contradiction. Jesus is the God-begotten, yet the category of begetting cannot be taken seriously. It would be very violent against it to deny one side of the contradiction, as Neander does, instead of explaining it. The “usual way of thinking among the Jews,” which Neander refers to, cannot cause us any concern here since we are dealing with a Christian gospel in which the child of the virgin is called the Son of the Most High and Son of God because the power of the Most High will overshadow the virgin. In this representation, there is nothing to be found except the contradiction that the expression Son of God is grasped physically and yet not again, and the reflection on the physical and sensual is turned away because the divine is presented as the begetter in its pure generality. There is nothing here but the unthinkable contradiction of the miracle, which can only be maintained in the view that does not ask for the transmissions but cannot withstand reason, which asks for the rational law and is not at home in indeterminacy. The pagan representations of the origin of the God-begotten have not yet entered into this indeterminacy and have not taken on the form of the miracle because the divine appears as a particular personality; but as soon as the divine is presented in its universality, it works miraculously and in a way that the loss of the view remains a mystery. But what kind of conclusion would it be if the greater indeterminacy that the matter has for the view were to prove the historical truth all the more?


We finally ask about that persistent belief which would only recognize a pagan element as a basis in biblical views if it were still shown as such in the Bible. Now, just as it is impossible in the living organism to show the assimilated food in its previous form, it is even more impossible in the spiritual realm of perception. The same applies to the Old Testament elements: they have been processed into the superior idea, placed under its influence, and thus it has become impossible for them to emerge in their former independence. In Luke’s plastic representation, there is not even a reminder that the miraculous conception of the Son of the Virgin fulfills an old prophecy. It was only later in Matthew, for whom this perception had already become a finished work and a subject of reflection, that this reminder of the Old Testament assumption was added to his work (Matt. 1:22-23).

If the only difference between the Old and New Testaments were that in the latter, the prophecy is fulfilled as if it were immediately repeated in its fulfillment, only in the form of empirical appearance, then this difference would be only superficial. Its true conception is only gained when it is placed into the self-consciousness and recognized as a difference in the historical development of the same. As the pagan perception is also essentially changed in the perception of the Christian community, so is the prophetic idea. This development creates the only difference between Jewish and Christian. The prophetic representation of the Messiah still presupposes that the person of the Messiah has already been given independently before the spirit of Jehovah is communicated to him or the collisions whose resolution is demanded by the Messiah are limited to the political sphere and even then, they are still perceived in this external form, where Isaiah rises to the perception of the Son of the Virgin. The Christian self-consciousness, however, has placed all the assumptions of its world of appearance into its universality, and therefore, when it perceives itself in the person of the Messiah, it must perceive the manner in which this personality is posited as purely divine. The power of the Most High forms the person of the Redeemer, and it does so not only to resolve a political collision but also to resolve the essential contradiction of the spiritual world.


There are clear indications in the Holy Scripture that demonstrate that the belief in the supernatural conception of Jesus only developed later. For example, the fact that Jesus did not use the miracle of his birth to refute the disbelief and accusation of his descent from Joseph must be very dangerous for the apologist and can only be temporarily neutralized. Because if we assume that *) Jesus “could only appeal to the immediate impression of his presence, the testimony of the divine in his entire appearance and activity,” that is the principle that only Mark knows because he knows nothing about the miracle of birth, and that is consistent with the layout and all its assumptions in the scripture of the second synoptics. The first and third synoptics make Jesus behave according to the same principle, but only because they are dependent on the scripture of Mark, so they could not even imagine that Jesus could have presented his descent from Joseph as only apparent. However, in addition to this dependence on Mark, those two synoptics were also guided by immediate tact, which allowed them to forget this dreadful miracle in the reality of Jesus’ life and person, as it would have stood out too unnaturally.

*) as Neander in L. J. Ch. p. 13.


The silence of the Apostle Paul about the miracle of the conception of Jesus is very dangerous for the apologist. If, as Neander says*, it only proves that this miracle “did not have the same significance for the consciousness of the apostle as the fact of the suffering and resurrection,” what idea should we have of the Gentile apostle? He should have considered that miracle only as something isolated and, if he knew about it, would he not immediately have realized that it would have taken away the desire of the Gentiles to reject the preaching of Christ as foolishness in one stroke? Afterwards **), Neander says more cautiously, “it may well be that Paul referred to Jesus as the Son of God who came from heaven, when he depicted him as the sinless one in the flesh, in which sin previously reigned, held together with his doctrine of the propagation of sinfulness from Adam, thus the supernatural conception of Jesus was already implied in its coherence”. Indeed! The later developed view was already implied in the first circle of Christian consciousness, but only in itself.

*) L. J. Ch. p. 13.

**) Ibid. p. 14.

The final proof of the later origin of the view of the supernatural birth of Jesus lies in the mention of the Savior’s siblings. Luke only lets the reader of his scripture know later (8:19) that Jesus had brothers, but Matthew, in his reflective way, draws the reader’s attention to the fact that Jesus was not the only child of Mary from the very beginning, he was only the firstborn, and Joseph had not recognized his wife until she had given birth to the God-begotten. We need not say another word about the fact that the evangelist means that afterwards Joseph, as is inherent in the nature of the marital relationship, cohabited with Mary. Neander still fights against the superstition which wanted to impose the opposite meaning on the scriptural words. “From the standpoint of Joseph’s and Mary’s religious way of thinking, we are by no means entitled to find anything questionable in the fact that Jesus had brothers and sisters; this also agrees well with the Christian perspective on the sanctification of marriage” *). But as soon as we no longer need to argue about how Matthew wanted to understand that remark, the matter takes a completely different turn. Matthew suggests that after the birth of Jesus, Joseph entered into his rights as a husband. However, if Mary truly gave birth to the divine son, it should have caused Joseph to feel horror at the miraculous and awe at the one who had been touched directly by the power of the Most High, and therefore he would not have had sexual relations with her. Matthew and Luke combine in their Gospels two moments that are mutually exclusive. Neander himself must admit this, thus abandoning this aspect of the idea of marriage and presenting the objection, if not casting it onto Joseph’s feelings, at least as one that the evangelists would have had to feel if they had first developed the idea of the supernatural generation of Jesus. “If the legend of the supernatural conception of Jesus,” he thinks, “had arisen in a mythical way, then from the same standpoint from which such a myth was formed, the acceptance of later-born children of Mary would have been found offensive.” No! The evangelists were still too unrestricted in the creative sphere of the worldview they developed to take offense at the assumption of Jesus’ siblings. They could not, because the news of siblings was already reliable and had been written down in a Gospel that they used, wrote down, and also in a point that was actually impossible according to their view of the generation of Jesus. However, they could not do otherwise, they had to write it down on this point as well, because at least the narrative where Jesus’ siblings appear (Mark 3:31-35) could not be passed over, and the positive letter that testified that there were siblings of Jesus had already gained too much power for them.

*) Ibid. p. 34.

**) Ibid



§ 1 The lineage of Jesus from David.

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

by Neil Godfrey


First section.

The birth and childhood of Jesus.

§ 1.

The lineage of Jesus from David.

After the recent founders of biblical criticism unsuccessfully attempted to answer the question of why Mark says nothing about the birth and childhood of Jesus, and nothing even about his Davidic lineage, by assuming that the reason for this “omission” can be found in the subjective purpose of the evangelist and in the desires of his readers*, we can now, based on the latest advancements in criticism, dare to express the objective reason for that supposed omission at the beginning of our treatise.

*) Saunier, on the sources of the Gospel of Mark. 1825. p. 32–36.

One considered the fact that Mark says nothing about the birth of Jesus an “omission” because either, from the older orthodox standpoint, what the other two Synoptics relate about the birth and childhood of Jesus was considered historical and generally known, thus something that the second Synoptic could not have overlooked; or because one assumed that Mark had before him the writings of Luke and Matthew, from which he drew his own Gospel, and thus could only have omitted the Gospel of the childhood of the Redeemer for particular reasons. However, if he omitted it because it was well-known, he should not have written anything at all; for if the wondrous birth of the Lord with all its circumstances and its immediate consequences was so well-known to the Church at the time when Mark wrote that it did not need to be mentioned, then the public ministry of Jesus would have been equally well-known, and the same reason that made the representation of the prehistory, which had to be unknown by its very nature, superfluous, would have made the report of the public activities of Jesus appear as an unnecessary work. The assumption that only for Jewish readers could the genealogy and the account of the wondrous birth of Jesus have had significance, but for Gentile Christians, the same thing that had a high value for Jews would have been even more offensive – this assumption is contradicted by the fact that, in this case, a writer who knew his readers and wanted to tailor his work to their tastes would have been very wrong to be reserved and sparing. According to their earlier view, in which they were accustomed to genealogies of their gods and heroes, as well as to accounts of the wondrous birth of great men, Gentile writings, on the contrary, would have been very interested in learning about the genealogy of the Savior and the greatest wonders that accompanied his conception, birth, and early childhood would not have been anything surprising to them. That even the spirit of the Hellenistic Judaism brought forth the idea of the wondrous conception of the Messiah, which lay hidden in Judaism, and that only in the idea of the God-begotten did Hellenism and Judaism reconcile themselves and find a balance between their opposing religious principles, we will not even mention here. In the end, in desperation, one finally says that Mark “only wanted to portray the public life of Jesus”, i.e. one forgets that it was precisely the question of why he gave his work this limited scope that was under consideration, and one proves that under the usual assumptions the question is unanswerable and then resorts to that presumption of despair which thinks that the question “why?” is best answered by saying “because that’s just the way it is”.


Against this presumption, as stated, the profound investigations that the recent past has given us the right to reverse the situation from the outset, namely to restore it to its correct position. Mark did not abbreviate the presentation of the gospel history in the sense that he did not include an essential part of it that lived in the community’s memory, nor did he leave out anything in the sense that he only partially used the writings of his predecessors. He could not omit anything from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew because he did not know them, because they did not exist before the time he attempted to present the gospel history, and he could only report nothing about Jesus’ Davidic descent and miraculous birth because the community knew nothing about it or – to put it more cautiously – because the beliefs of this view were not yet fully developed in the community’s consciousness, and they had not yet received that creative impulse that would enable them to develop into an artistic and literary image that we only find in the writings of the other two synoptics.

We could assert this, but we do not want to; we will prove it. By starting with the genealogies, we will demonstrate that, according to the design of his writing, Mark did not conceive of Jesus’ Davidic descent in the sense that his two successors did, and that he could not have done so yet, and we will complete the proof by showing how the genealogical accounts of the first and third gospels arose.

Anyone who claims that a writer has given an abbreviated version of another’s work and that he has taken a part of its organism, thus not only shortening it but also omitting it, is obliged to prove that the shorter writing suffers from a recognizable deficiency. For if what has been omitted is an essential part of the original whole – and we shall not consider the news of Jesus’ Davidic descent to be unimportant – it will not have stood atomistically on its own but will have served its first position in explaining the whole, and some details will be incomprehensible if what explains and motivates them has been left out. A deficiency of this kind is not in the slightest caused by the absence of the genealogy in the writing of Mark. For while in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is called the Son of David so often that it is unmistakable how the Evangelist is dominated by the view of his Davidic descent *) and the writer, in the beginning of his work (Matthew 1), designates the Lord as the Son of David not without reason, Mark only once, namely, when the blind man in Jericho calls the Lord the Son of David (Mark 10:47). If one were to insist that Mark had provided an extract from Matthew’s writing, one would have to say that he had worked very meticulously, namely by so changing all the passages that presuppose the genealogy that the omitted presupposition is no longer missed.

*) Matthew 9:27, 12:23, 13:22, 20:31, 21:9.


However, the matter is not only that the supposed omission in Mark’s writing is carried out so consistently that all the contradictions that could possibly, indeed very easily, have been caused by it are avoided, but this deficiency immediately turns into an extraordinary advantage, and the first gospel now falls into an irreconcilable contradiction.

In both cases when Jesus is called Son of David in the first gospel (9:27, 20:31), and also when he is called Son of David by the Canaanite woman (15:22), the circumstance proves that the evangelist, in this exclamation, wants to recognize the Lord not only in the empirical-genealogical sense as Son of David but also as the Messiah, in the expectation of a wonderful healing. Similarly, the crowd, having just witnessed a remarkable miracle, speculated that Jesus might be the Son of David, namely the Messiah (Matthew 12:23). And so, to leave no doubt about the evangelist’s view, the crowd, when it solemnly accompanies the expected Messiah to the capital, must finally shout “Hosanna to the Son of David” (21:9). Yet when Jesus asked his disciples shortly before leaving Galilee what the people thought of him, they had nothing to say about some who believed him to be the Son of David, the Messiah (Matthew 16:14).


Mark has kept himself free from this contradiction. Even according to his account, the disciples, when the Lord asked them about the people’s opinion at the end of his career (8:28), did not know of any popular party *) that recognized him as the Messiah. But, according to his account, it is also true that Jesus was never before seen by the people as the Messiah or Son of David. Would one dare to claim that Mark, when he used the first gospel, happened to achieve or, through sensible reflection, managed to avoid falling into that contradiction? Or is it not rather undeniable that the first evangelist has inserted foreign elements into a work whose structure was entirely different, whose focal point (Matth. 16:14) he left intact and which acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah only gradually and, indeed, only shortly before the time of suffering in the inner circle of his disciples? That he has also placed the later emerging conception of Jesus as the Son of David in the foreground throughout his report, thus causing that confusion?

*) As for the demonic beings who “know” Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 1:24, 34, 3:11), but whom no one would call a popular party, we will discuss their significance later.


One could indeed call this a contradiction, that in the second Gospel, after the disciples had just acknowledged that no one in the crowd believed their master to be the Messiah, Jesus is suddenly called the Son of David by the blind man in Jericho on the way to Jerusalem and by the people who greet him upon his entry into Jerusalem. However, this contradiction – and it really is one – is not caused by something preceding that statement of the disciples, but follows it, and with what was previously reported about Jesus’ position in the crowd, this statement remains in harmony. How can it be reconciled that Jesus, as long as he was in Galilee, was never recognized as the Messiah and now, upon his entry into the capital city, the people greet him as the Promised One? This question will only occupy us later; for now, we are content with the insight that the repeated recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of David during his stay in Galilee in the report of Matthew is a later addition to an older, completely different type, that this type is preserved purely in the work of Mark, and we add only the observation that in the latter work, the blind man from Jericho with his faithful call is advanced by the writer’s pragmatism as a precursor to the enthusiastic crowd that receives the Lord in Jerusalem. Finally, the Lord should be received by a faithful crowd: thus it was fitting that a precursor of the ripening faith should meet him beforehand.

The only time where Mark knows of the faithful greeting of Jesus as the Son of David, he does not consider that Jesus might be the Son of David in any other sense than being the Messiah and bearer of the grace promised to David. The blind man sitting by the road in Jericho hears that Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 10:47) is passing by with the escort of the crowd and immediately calls on him for help as the Son of David. But is it so self-evident that a man who makes the impression of the Messiah and is otherwise only known to be from Nazareth could be a son of David in the genealogical sense? Could a writer who has reported nothing in this regard except that Nazareth is Jesus’ hometown want to be understood that the only time he includes that greeting, especially when he introduces Jesus as a Nazarene in the same breath, one should think of a bodily descent of Jesus from David? No! For in this case, he would at least do it like Matthew and only say that the blind man heard “Jesus” coming down the road (Matthew 20:30). Furthermore, if Mark knew of a Davidic descent of Jesus, he would certainly not let the people in Jerusalem refer to David as their common father (Mark 11:10) upon Jesus’ entry, he would not let the people greet the Kingdom of his father David, which had now appeared in the one who comes in the name of the Lord. He would thus not only bring Jesus into connection with David in the way that the kingdom of the king, who in the spiritual sense is the father of the whole people, would come in him. He would do it again as Matthew did, who lets Jesus enter Jerusalem as the Son of David.


Mark has explicitly excluded any idea of a physical descent of Jesus from David. The question of how the scribes say that Christ is the son of David, and the proof that this assumption is burdened with an insoluble difficulty (Mark 12:35), may have been raised by Jesus himself or formed later, but that makes no difference. In any case, the question and answer emerged from a context in which the demand that the Messiah must be the son of David and the fact that no one knew anything about Jesus that led to the assumption of such a descent faced each other and that demand in its strict interpretation should be rejected as unfounded. If Jesus raised the question, he was not a physical descendant of David; if it was formed later, no one at the time thought that Jesus could be the son of David in a physical sense. One must not understand the nature of religious consciousness badly and assume that the community enjoyed the difficulty that their belief in Jesus’ Davidic descent faced. The religious consciousness does not like to search for contradictions that it itself carries with it and deliberately present them in their harshness; it rather seeks to mediate them in some way, whether successful or not.


Matthew has preserved that question of Jesus in his scripture, but in contradiction to his other predictions. According to him, it should be missing, while its true context is only found in the scripture of Mark. When Matthew took up the question, he was determined by a type to which the genealogy of Jesus that he added and the assumption of Jesus’ Davidic descent were entirely foreign.

Now, if it has become serious in Matthew’s scripture with the assumption of Jesus’ Davidic lineage — and that must be called serious when Jesus is introduced at the beginning of this scripture as the son of David and Abraham and the correctness of this naming is proven by a genealogy — then Matthew falls into a new contradiction, a fate that he shares with Luke. Like Luke, he shares a family register that proves Jesus as the son of David, he also leads the line that connects Jesus with David through Joseph, and both report that Joseph was by no means the father of the Messiah, that Mary rather received the mystery of the divine child in a supernatural way. However, both evangelists also had the consciousness as soon as they came to the critical point that they combined conflicting elements and now try to eliminate the contradiction as far as possible, or rather to obscure it, as they both still want to maintain both hostile elements. They are certainly dominated by both elements, but at the same time not in the same way, and it is easy to indicate which of the two has the upper hand in their consciousness over the other: it is the one that develops freely for itself, which tolerates no disturbing intervention by the other in its representation, which, on the contrary, as soon as it comes into contact with the other, restricts it or — for us who take the study seriously and are no longer satisfied with Docetism — destroys it. So Matthew says (1:16) when he wants to move from Joseph to Jesus in the family register, no longer, as he expressed until then when moving from father to son, that Joseph “begat” Jesus and as the father of the promised one connects him with the house of David, but he only calls him the husband of Mary, from whom Jesus, who is called Christ, was born. In Luke, the contradiction becomes even more glaring when the genealogy begins with the words: Jesus “was,” “as he was supposed,” the son of Joseph (Luk. 3:23). That he really was and that he was only considered so according to a false popular opinion, both stand here side by side, i.e. one determination nullifies the other. Originally, however, no one in the Christian community could attach any value to a genealogy, if it already existed, or put one together to prove Jesus’ Davidic descent. No one could even remotely think of leading the lineage that connected the anointed one with David through Joseph, unless it was the general conviction that he was Jesus’ real father. Originally, therefore, the genealogy must have been designed to legitimize Jesus, the real son of Joseph, as a Davidic descendant, and only a later interest, which arose with the view of the supernatural generation of the Messiah, could change the design of the genealogy.


There are still ruthless heroes who dare to attribute to Luke the intention of giving the genealogy of Mary, according to the investigations of modern criticism*. Against the attacks of the apologists, Matthew seemed too secure, as he introduces the transition to Joseph with the words “Jacob fathered Joseph,” thus introducing Joseph as a true son, not just as the son-in-law of Jacob, and moreover, although this could escape the apologetics, allowing the angel of the Lord in the first dream in which he appeared to Joseph to address him as the son of David. It was already unfair if the apologetics thought that Luke introduced Joseph less directly into the genealogical register, but a gospel like the third that explicitly says only of Joseph that he was of the house and lineage of David (Luke 2:4), which says nothing more of Mary than that she was a relative of the priestly woman Elizabeth (c. 1, 36.), thus leaving the impression that she belonged to the lineage of Aaron**), a gospel that is so suspicious of appearance as if it wanted to insert the Messiah into a family in which the kingly and priestly lineages had united – such a gospel could not have the slightest intention of giving the genealogy of Mary if it traces the lineage of Jesus through Joseph to David.

*) For example, Lange, on the historical character of the canonical Gospels, 1836, p. 56. We will see the nature of this type of heresy develop further.

**) Elizabeth is “of the daughters of Aaron,” according to Luke 1:5. One must be very surprised if Neander (L. J. Ch. p. 17 [p. 19 in translation]) cites this fact to avoid the dangerous consequences of that note, such as the relationship of the two women, and holds it possible that Elizabeth too could have been descended from the tribe of Judah!”

It is certain, therefore, that after the time when Mark wrote, the ideal view borrowed from the prophets and transferred to Jesus that the Messiah was the son of David, was transformed in thought also into the actual empirical descent of Jesus from David and gained so much power in the Christian community that it still asserted itself in its transformation into a historical note when the origin of the personality of Jesus was explained quite differently. The form of the view we find in Mark only linked to the Old Testament promises in an ideal way to present the inner connection of the Appeared with the earlier revelation of the divine plan, but gradually the thought also made its way into the empirical expansion of history and now tried to build a bridge in this history that connected the present of salvation with the past*).

*) If one asks whether a conception that was generally widespread among the Jews played a role in this process, one should not look for the answer in Bertholdt’s Christology or similar books that claim to teach us so precisely about the Messianic dogma of the Jews at the time of Jesus. This phantom of uncritical scholarship, which has long frightened and misled both wise and foolish, is nothing more than a phantom. Doesn’t it say in the Bible that Jesus asked (Mark 12:35), “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?” Is there not proof in this question that the opinion did indeed prevail among the Jewish scribes that the Messiah must be physically descended from David? Not at all! The question: πως λεγουσιν οι γραμματεις [=what do the scribes say?] is a product of pragmatism, just like the question of the disciples in Mark 9:11, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” (ὅτι λεγουσιν οι γραμματεις). Jesus was the first to make the observation that Elijah, of whom the prophet speaks, had already appeared in John the Baptist, and the question of the disciples was only asked to introduce this explanation by Jesus. Just as the scribes are only put on the pedestal of messianic dogmatics by the pragmatism of the historian, they also owe their teaching position in Mark 12:35 to the same. Although it could be argued that if one were asked “How do the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?” the matter would be quite different, because the polemic against the demand that Jesus, as the Messiah, had to be the son of David, can only make sense and could only arise if it was indeed a Jewish view that the Messiah had to be descended from David. Jesus or the community, depending on how the origin of that question is explained, must have really struggled with a difficulty that arose from the conflict between his non-Davidic descent and the Jewish demand that the Messiah must be a descendant of David. However, the early historical existence of this Jewish demand is not as necessary as it seems. The literal agreement of Jesus’ question and the disciples’: “how do the scribes say,” the certainty that the question of the disciples regarding the teaching of the scribes about the coming of Elijah belongs purely and solely to the pragmatism of the writer, also makes Jesus’ question about the scribes’ idea of the Davidic lineage of the Messiah strongly suspicious of being of later origin. But at least the struggle and polemic against the demand that the Messiah must descend from David remains. Where is this demand at home, when was it established? We may now say: not during Jesus’ lifetime. Even Mark himself knows nothing about the people demanding that the Messiah must be a descendant of David. Jesus is not greeted as the Son of David at his entry into Jerusalem, but how could Mark have downplayed this idea so much in his writing if it had already disappeared by the time he wrote his Gospel? A glance at the Gospel of Matthew teaches us rather how this idea, once it had arisen, became important even for a writer with completely different presuppositions. Mark therefore wrote at a time when the ideal vision of the prophets from the branch of David onto Jesus was first transferred and indeed as an ideal. This vision of the prophets was only now woven into the image of the Messiah: how could Jesus fight against an idea that had not even received meaning in its ideal germ at his time, let alone become a positive dogma? But who now formulated the demand whose illegitimacy the Lord demonstrates in the Gospel of Mark? None other than Mark himself. He still had the consciousness of the ideal meaning of the combination, which he had perhaps achieved independently, without knowing that it had already been made by others, and he now uses a psalm passage that was already generally regarded as a prophecy of the Messiah to prove that the designation of Jesus as the Son of David should only be understood as ideal.


The seriousness had become mercilessly strict when Luke and Matthew wrote their writings. The husband of Mary – Mark does not yet know that his name is Joseph – has become a son of David and as such inherits the same title for his son who was to elevate him to that high significance that he has in the prophecies of the Old Testament. Luke and Matthew cannot do otherwise: they must convey the genealogies, they must, although they must fundamentally change their position with regard to Jesus, still stay with them and lead the genealogy through Joseph. Finally, they must draw the ultimate consequence and let Jesus be born in Bethlehem, so that all attributes of the promised Davidic can be fulfilled in him. Luke, who thus proves himself to be the earlier, must still use the Davidic descent of Joseph and place a later census in an earlier time. He must therefore use the strongest means to lead Joseph and his pregnant wife to Bethlehem and to have the Davidic born in the cradle of his lineage. He has saved his successor Matthew a lot of trouble and made it possible for him to assume Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace (2:1) without further ado and to prove the necessity that the Messiah had to be born in this place only from the prophecy of Micah. What contradictions! Luke and Matthew are not only captivated by the idea of Jesus’ Davidic descent, but they also work it out further by drawing the prophetic geography into it at the same time as they report the birth of the divine begotten, who should have been infinitely beyond the ceremonial of the Jewish household through his infinite worth. They prove that the genealogical work had long been done in the community before them and the result of it had become almighty. The two synoptics were trapped and the only help that remained for them was to slightly bend the genealogies where they passed from Joseph to Jesus or to reduce them to a mere illusion, as Luke did. But how could they still, although the Davidic descent of Jesus had become something purely dogmatic in essence, connect this view with the opposite view of Jesus’ divine generation in their consciousness? It is better to ask the church how it could accept the Davidic descent of its founder for eighteen centuries and thus tolerate the same contradiction into which Luke and Matthew had already fallen for such a long time. The answer lies in the power of the positive and the habit that arises from it. The acceptance of Jesus’ Davidic descent was given to Luke and Matthew, it was even genealogically proven, it remained because of its positive nature, even after the nerve of the proof was cut, it remained because in it the idea of a connection of the Christian community with its historical presuppositions was contained. It also remained in the church because the representative mind does not know how to recognize the presuppositions of its principle in the whole realm of the spirit of history, but must adhere to the leash of a genealogical line. It remained with its contradiction and spurred the spirits for eighteen centuries to unhappy attempts at solutions until criticism came to explain the emergence of the contradiction through an insight into the letter and the nature of religious consciousness, thus to solve it and to deserve the accusation of irreligious blasphemy as thanks.


Despite the prospect of being paid with ingratitude, let us bring the question to a close and turn to the investigation of who is responsible for the genealogies. Were they perhaps composed by Luke and Matthew themselves? Luke did not compile the one he provided, he found it. The reason? A historian who builds a part of his narrative purely from his own perspective will undoubtedly be able to give the clearest account of the purpose of this product, he will know where it belongs, namely in the context from which it has emerged with irresistible necessity, in short, he will not force it into an environment whose coherence he thereby destroys most violently. Luke is already beyond the part of his historical work where a genealogy would have its place, he has already depicted the public ministry of John the Baptist, and he finally describes the baptism of Jesus with its miracle, and here, when he notes that Jesus was about thirty years old at his appearance and “supposedly” the son of Joseph, he inserts the genealogy with a participle and tears the following account of the temptation out of the internal coherence that connects it with the account of the baptism. Luke has not yet been able to overcome the genealogy and properly incorporate it into his work: he found it and the view that originally underlay it, as Matthäus did in his work, so far as it has a parallel with the Gospel of Mark, has not yet been fully processed. He just like Mark only lets the blind man of Jericho greet Jesus as the son of David and even retains the remark from Mark (Luk. 18:37.) that the blind man heard that Jesus of Nazareth was coming down the road.


The conclusion that the genealogy found by Luke is truly an authentic relic of Jewish antiquity would be premature. If Luke did not compose it, could someone else have put it together before him? Once one engages in talk of historical credibility in this case, one would have to prove beforehand – which is impossible – that the family tree of a collateral branch of the Davidic House was maintained for a thousand years under all the storms of history and then one would not have to fear comparison with the family tree provided by Matthew. Luke, like Matthew, gives the family tree of Joseph, both want to be right, only one can be right, but if one is not accepted as a credible witness, where does the other get his privilege from? If one falls – and one at least must fall – then the other also falls. But one only needs to look at Luke’s genealogy a little more closely than usual to see how anxiously and meagerly the names are thrown together, which is usually the case with such an intended work. How often does the name Matthat and Mattathias appear? How suspicious it is when the table (Luk. 3:25.) lists Amos, Nahum, and how one must wonder that not even some of the prophets come, especially when one sees how the names of four sons of Jacob follow one another in vs. 29, 30.


There are tortured hypotheses that try to explain why Luke and Matthew, although the former traces the line of David through a collateral line and the latter through the royal line, still roughly coincide in the mention of Zerubbabel and Salathiel in their respective genealogies. We no longer need these hypotheses, even if they were less strained, because it is so clear that the genealogy in Luke is a free creation, and it can be easily shown where Zerubbabel and Salathiel suddenly appear. The unknown land through which the thousand-year train of such strange and meaningless names passes would have been too barren and desert-like, and the reader who was to accompany that train would have had too little orientation or rest if there had not been a signpost or oasis. Names with historical resonance had to appear at the right time, so that the reader would learn that he had now advanced to the time of the Babylonian exile. This necessity for a pointer, a resting point was indeed so urgent, the author was so unconditionally compelled to obey, that he did not think of the difficulty of how Salathiel could be made a father and Zerubbabel a son, both of whom were completely unknown.

Matthew handles the matter more skillfully – we will come to know him as a thoughtful, often ingenious composer – but he also had the advantage of being accustomed to seeing the genealogy as a component of the gospel through the writing of Luke. He places the genealogy where it belongs – at the beginning of his work. But which genealogy? One that was handed down to him? Or one that he created himself? In many respects, the spirit and the thoughtful reflection of the first synoptist cannot be denied.


The genealogy has been reduced from its formless extension, in which it was traced back to God the Father of Adam by Luke, and brought back to narrower limits, namely, only traced back to Abraham, fitting the viewpoint of Matthew, who, with particular preference, relates the old covenant to the new, so that his genealogical interest will not extend beyond the patriarch and father of the covenant people. In the introduction to the genealogy, Jesus the Anointed is immediately referred to as the son of David and Abraham, indicating that the promises made to Abraham and David, and tied to their descendants, have found their bearer. Only a writer who always shows a thoughtful engagement with the Old Testament will mention the women in the genealogy, who seemed to have something outstanding: Tamar gave herself up out of zeal for the preservation of the holy family, Rahab was the first of the Canaanite people who acknowledged Jehovah during the entry of the Hebrews into Canaan *), as Ruth became the mother of the Davidic line through a special book of the Old Testament, and Bathsheba finally enabled the family that was to count the Messiah among its members to ascend to the throne by opposing Adonia’s claims. It is certainly only the evangelist’s observation that the genealogy is divided into three equal sections (Matth. 1:17.), each bounded by the most important epoch-making people and events of history. Each of the three sections counts fourteen members, the first extending from Abraham to David – who, as the son of Jesse, is still drawn into the first period. David, as Solomon’s father, begins the second section, and Josiah closes it as the fourteenth, but not as a son, as David closed the first series, but as the begotten one, as Josiah’s son is not counted in the second series, but as the father of Salathiel, he begins the third period, and from him on until Jesus there are again fourteen members. The transition from the second series to the third is thus made by the author differently than from the first to the second series, but he had to do it in order to obtain three times the same number of members, and he could do it without difficulty by setting the time of the exile to Babylon as the intermediate link for the second and third series. In this intermediate interval, he could let Josiah close the second series as the father of Jechoniah without counting the son, and set Jechoniah as the father of Salathiel at the head of the third series *). Now that so much, indeed all that is essential and the tendency, is set by the author’s reflection, should we not dare to address the fact that the whole genealogy is the writer’s work? He, the evangelist, considered it more appropriate for the Messiah to be a member of the ruling line of the Davidic house. He had discovered that there were fourteen members from Abraham to David**), drawn to this doubling of the number seven, which he found meaningful, and inwardly preoccupied, he went through the series of the kings of Judah in memory, and an error of his memory made it possible for him to find only fourteen members again from David to the last significant king, Josiah. But once the same rhythm had been found twice, it was self-evident that the chosen and divinely guided lineage in the final period up to the Messiah also had exactly fourteen members, and the names of these were soon written down, with at least so much certainty that the father of a Joseph (verse 16) was named Jacob. Jacob, indeed. Yes, it is so: the author did not even think about the note in Chronicles about the descendants of Serubabel (1 Chronicles 3), and so the remarkable result arose that Luke and Matthew, each in their own way, gave Serubabel a lineage of descendants of which the Chronicles had no knowledge at all.

*) But when Matthew makes Salmon her husband, he follows, if not his own reflection, at most a Jewish view, of which the OT still knows nothing.

*) Chrysostom at least touched on the right thing when he said δie μετοικεσία tese εν τάξει γενεάς

**) Namely, in the way that the Old Testament and, after it, the genealogy in the third Gospel count the generations. One cannot even say that the Chronicles, when they enumerate the same generations (1 Chronicles 2:4-12), do so with the consciousness that certain generations are skipped. Even in the first mention of this genealogy (Ruth 4:18-22), the manner in which the connection of the individual members is formed on the closest basis, rather proves that the genealogist wanted to give the complete family tree. The authors of these late books believed that they were giving as many generations as the time, for whose length they did not carry out critical investigations, required approximately and for the highest necessity. Therefore, Matthew also believed in good faith to give the complete genealogy for a time that has seen far more than fourteen generations.


Matthäus had to assume, as soon as he reflected that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, and was close to discovering that there were also fourteen generations to be counted from David to the fall of the monarchy, that the sacred history in its course had an inner, secret rhythm, and that the propagation and history of the chosen family had to occur in a certain order and regularity. Both supported each other: the assumption made the corresponding discovery possible and proved its correctness, just as the discovery confirmed the assumption. Gfrörer thinks *) that the evangelist had in mind “how the people moved from Egypt to Canaan in forty-two camps,” and concluded that “the Logos-Messiah descended from the fatherland of spirits, the highest heaven, in forty-two incarnations to the earth.” However, Matthew knows nothing about a pre-existence of the Messiah as Logos, and since he does not even draw the sum of the three lines of descent, he cannot mean that this is precisely what is remarkable. He only thinks that a specific law regulated the development of the Davidic family and, in fact, so structured it that the goal determined in the divine plan, the birth of the Messiah, predetermined the course of history. In other words, the order and wisdom of history spreading out in a wealth of historical figures and struggles has been condensed into a simple but regularly interrupted line according to the evangelical view.

*) The Sacred Legend II, 8.


How innocent is this view compared to the exaggerated sentimentality of modern apologetics, which goes wild over the “miraculous” and “constructional” aspects of the two genealogies and in heated enthusiasm believes that the thread that emerged from the tangle of so many families “to hold on to the link that was destined to continue the line was the hope that the Messiah would be born in the lineage of Abraham and David *).” Now, even if Jesus had truly been of Davidic descent, the thread that led from the past to him could easily have been derived from the success if it went through the ruling line. But if not only the ruling line should have the honor of leading to the Messiah, if a side line should share this glory with it, and if that hope should determine the side thread immediately at the first branching off from the ruling line, how could it choose among so many sons of David?

*) Olshausen, Biblical Commentary, vol. 1, p. 47.

Finally, this view falls into the error of veneration of saints if it can only imagine the incarnation of Christ as a prepared fact by assuming **), “that a holy vein of higher life flowed through the entire series of the Lord’s ancestors.” “The Virgin, it is said in this sense, who was chosen to be the mother of the Messiah, could not suddenly be born into the sinful lineage; she was, although not without sin, the purest of the people of that time, and that she was so was her grace election, her origin from the holiest family of mankind.” Of course, the apologist who discovers this “holy vein” in history must stick to the innocent names in Luke’s genealogy and force him, against his will, to include the pedigree of Mary. But we already know what these names have to do with, and we only need to drive the apologetic trick of denying the assumptions of Christian self-awareness in all of history and limiting it to the “holiest family” to its consequences, to the infinite regress, to bring it to an end. The “holiest family of mankind” must also have had its “preparation,” i.e., it too can or must emerge from the holiest family, this, too, and so on, until we finally come to sin, which became the original sin of all mankind. So where is the holy original family here?

**) Ibid., pp. 43-44.


The latest apologetics seem to follow Luther’s advice *) and do not want to specify how “the relationship between the two genealogies of Christ to each other may be explained.” However, if they still believe they can claim that “in any case, the descent of Christ from the Davidic line was considered something undisputed from the beginning”‘ *) and we ask with reference to Mark who claimed it, they will remain silent **). Because after a predecessor like Mark, Luke and Matthew, whose authority is precisely at issue, should not be considered as authority?

*) Calvin also says: “If anyone is tempted by excessive curiosity, I prefer the sobriety and modesty of Paul’s admonition to frivolous and futile arguments. The passage in Titus 3:9 is well-known, where we are warned not to argue too anxiously about genealogies.” By the way, Calvin has not been very faithful to his own statement. He rightly opposes the interpretation that takes one of the genealogies to be that of Mary and reduces Matthew’s genealogy to a mere illusion. Consequently, does such behavior belong less to frivolous arguments? Anyone interested in such nibili argutias should see Calvin’s commentary on the fourth Gospel, 1667, p. 22.

*) Neander, The Life of Jesus Christ. 1837. p. 17.

**) If the assertion that something was considered an undisputed truth at a certain time is to be more than a mere assertion, then it requires nothing less than proof that 1) this thing is mentioned in a context where it is clear that a note on something universally unrecognized is being given, and 2) those who had an interest in not recognizing that thing nevertheless mention it in their writings and do not deny it. How can something be presented as undisputed if no one asserted it and thus no one could deny it? The only Paul who could be mentioned here has no intention of giving a historical note when he says (Romans 1:3) that the Son of God was born of the seed of David according to the flesh; he only wants to indicate the connection of this revelation of the Son of God with the past, and he himself indicates where he got the form for the representation of this connection. He got it from the ideal world of the Old Testament view (Romans 15:12).


So, violence! If historical evidence is not enough, then apply the power of an a priori proof. One could claim that it was part of Jesus’ upbringing to actually be descended from the house of David because the immediate family feeling, this feeling immediately intertwined with the personality, must have served to provide the natural basis for his messianic self-consciousness. However, history often mocks such limited connections, and the higher a spirit is, the less it is tied to the world it is meant to influence by such a narrowly defined starting point, and the less it needs such a natural connection with the idea of its task. Finally, one could try the extreme and boldly assert that the divine self-consciousness was itself chained to the idea that the beginning of the new community had to come from the Davidic lineage, and this connection between the divine thought and the prophetic idea determined the emergence of the Redeemer from the house of David. However, before we climb to this highest level of transcendence, on which the spirit would have to be beside itself, we note that the establishment of the new community was the abolition of the economy of the Old Testament, that the emergence of the new principle could not happen without negative dialectics against the Old, and that it was not one of the lesser moments of this dialectic when the first self-consciousness of the new principle emerged in a personality born on the extreme fringe of the old world. Let the apologist remember the irony of the dialectical principle which he so often opposes to the demand of worldly and even legalistic pride, when he praises that God has chosen the weak and despised.





From Humble Beginnings: A Tale of Two Divinities — Jesus and Apollo

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

by Neil Godfrey

Apollo with bow and lyre. National Gallery of Art

Have you heard it declared that no-one would make up a story about Jesus coming from such a nothing-back-of-the-woods place as Nazareth? No, no, the argument goes — if anyone were to make up a story about Jesus they would have impressed their readers by having him hail from some place of renown.

I don’t recall off-hand what led me into reading an obscure French work from 1927 about Pythagoras, but that work in turn led me to once again pick up the Homeric Hymns of all things. This time a light flashed above my head: I found myself confusing the goddess Leto with Mary urgently looking for a place to give birth to her child and finding nowhere … except a humble stable! And Nazareth — how could a messiah possibly come from Nazareth?

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. — John 1:46

Now before you roll your eyes a second time let me explain. I am NOT saying that the story of Jesus’s humble origins are a direct, intertextual creation inspired or shaped by the Homeric Hymn to Apollo. What I am saying is that the idea of a great divinity having a very humble earthly beginning was a motif, a trope, a concept, an idea that was part of the cache of ancient Greco-Roman culture. (A quick persusal of some chapters in The Reception of the Homeric Hymns did persuade me, though, that the hymns were certainly part of the collective knowledge of literate persons in the first and second centuries of this era.)

Let’s have a look at the passage of interest in Hymn 3, to Apollo, as translated by Michael Crudden.

The hymns begins with a picture of all gods on Olympus rising up in awe when the great Apollo enters, all except for his father and mother, Zeus and Leto.

According to Greek mythology, Apollo was born on this tiny island in the Cyclades archipelago. Apollo’s sanctuary attracted pilgrims from all over Greece and Delos was a prosperous trading port. (Unesco)

Next, Leto is called the blessed one for having given birth to such a mighty son. Apollo is called a “joy for mortals”. The poet ponders where to begin his tale and decides to sing of the time of Apollo’s birth on the island of Delos.

The time came for Leto to give birth and we read of her traveling a great distance to find the appropriate place, at least a welcoming one. She traversed populous Crete, and the countryside of Athens, and Aigina’s isle . . . .

And, famed for its ships, Euboia; Aigai, Eiresiai too,
And, near to the sea, Peparethos; Athos the Thracian height,
And the topmost peaks of Pelion; Samos the Thracian isle,
And the shadowy mountains of Ida; Skyros, Phokaia too,
The precipitous mount of Autokane; Imbros the firm-founded isle,
And mist-enshrouded Lemnos; holy Lesbos—the seat
Of Makar, Aiolos’ son—and Khios that lies in the sea,
Sleekest of isles; rugged Mimas, and Korykos’ topmost peaks;
Dazzling Klaros too, and sheer Aisagea mount;
Samos with plentiful waters, precipitous Mykale’s peaks;
Miletos, Kos—the city where dwell the Meropes folk —
Precipitous Knidos too, and Karpathos swept by the wind;
Naxos, and also Paros, and rocky Rhenaia too

Over so great a distance in labour with him who shoots
From afar [Apollo was an archer] went Leto, seeking whether amongst these lands
There was any that would be willing to furnish her son with a home.

But there was no room at the inn….

But they trembled much in fear, and not one dared, despite
Her rich soil, to welcome Phoibos [a name for Apollo], until queenly Leto set foot
Upon Delos

The rich and famous chose not to welcome Leto and her son-to-be.

Delos https://www.greece-is.com/rise-fall-delos-visible-island/

Leto plaintively asked Delos….

and, questioning her, gave voice to winged words:
‘Delos, would you be willing to be the seat of my son,
Of Phoibos Apollo, and furnish him with a rich shrine on your ground?’

But how did Delos compare with all the above that Leto had just passed through? Leto said to Delos,

you’ll not, I think, abound in cattle or flocks, nor will you bear corn or grow an abundance of trees.

And Delos knew it well enough and said in reply:

‘Most glorious Leto, daughter of mighty Koios, I would
With pleasure welcome the birth of the lord who shoots from afar,
For in truth in men’s ears I am of dreadfully grim repute,
But in this way might gain great honour.

Delos’s inferiority complex over her stony, barren appearance got the upper hand, though, so she poured out her fear:

. . . . this dreadful fear
Pervades my mind and heart, that, when [Apollo] first sees the Sun’s light,
Holding the isle in dishonour—since stony indeed is my ground—
He may with his feet overturn me and thrust me under the sea.
There always great waves without ceasing over my head will break,
While he will reach some land that is pleasing to him . . .
. . . But the many-footed beasts
And black seals will make their lairs upon me, homes that will be
Secure for lack of people.

Fear not, Leto reassured Delos. First, with the promise that Delos would become the most famed central sanctuary in all of the Greek world and beyond:

. . . But if you possess a shrine
Of Apollo who works from afar, all humans, assembling here,
Will bring you their hecatombs: vast beyond telling the steam of fat

Will always be shooting upward, and those who possess you you’ll feed
From a foreigner’s hand, since there is no richness beneath your soil.’

And finally with an oath declared that Delos would have honour above all other isles.

‘Now let the Earth know this, and also broad Heaven above,
And the down-dripping water of Styx, which is the blessed gods’
Greatest and most dread oath: here Phoibos will always have

His fragrant altar and precinct, and will honour you above all.’

Isodore Levy, author of that book on the influence of the legend of Pythagoras in the Greek and Jewish worlds, was drawing quite different links with the gospels, between Apollo and Jesus. But they can wait for another post. I found the above of most interest for now. Never again will I allow anyone to get away with trying to say that Jesus really did have to come from Nazareth because no-one would make up a story about a god-man (or a figure near enough) coming from some place of no reputation.

Crudden, Michael. The Homeric Hymns. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.


Where Did the Stories of Joseph and Mary Come From?

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by Neil Godfrey

From Wallpaper Flare

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke contain best-known birth narratives of Jesus but they have mystified many inquiring minds who wonder how they can be so totally different from each other. They are so different that many scholars cannot accept that Luke had ever read Matthew’s account: they had to be derived ultimately (and independently) from some remote common source.

Here’s what they do have in common (from a list by Raymond Brown in The Birth of the Messiah):

1. The parents are called Mary and Joseph, are engaged or married, but do not yet live together at the time of Jesus’ conception;
2. Joseph is a descendant of David;
3. an angel announces the future birth of Jesus, although this announcement is addressed to Joseph in Matthew, but to Mary in Luke;
4. Mary had the child without intercourse with Joseph;
5. conception takes place through the work of the Holy Spirit;
6. the angel prescribes that the child should be called Jesus;
7. an angel declares that Jesus will be the Saviour:
8. the child is born after the parents start living together;
9. the birth takes place in Bethlehem:
10. it is temporally connected to the realm of Herod the Great;
11. the child grows up in Nazareth.

Yet the two stories are quite simply incompatible. In Matthew the infant Jesus is taken to Egypt to escape the “massacre of the innocents” after Herod learned from the magi of the birth of a “future king”; in Luke there is no threat to Jesus’ life, shepherds worship the newborn, he is presented at the Temple, and so forth. (I happen to think it quite possible that Luke did know Matthew’s birth narrative but that is ultimately irrelevant to the main point of this post.)

Though these two canonical stories are the best known they are not the only early Christian narratives of Jesus’ birth. We also have the Infancy Gospel of James. Here we read that Mary gave birth in a cave and a midwife confirms Mary’s virginity immediately after the birth. Jesus’ step-brother James is presented as the narrator of that account. Then there’s the Ascension of Isaiah where we read that Jesus simply appears (without any angelic warnings to either parent) as if by magic in front of Mary who is in her house, and Mary’s belly is restored to normal and she appears to be left wondering “what happened?”

Further, there are other writings from as early as the second century that mention other details not found in any of our narratives that are believed to have been prophesied about the birth of Jesus. So in the Acts of Peter we read Peter declaring all sorts of proofs to Simon Magus that Jesus’ birth was surely prophesied in many ways in the Scriptures and other now-lost writings:

XXIV. But Peter said: Anathema upon thy words against (or in) Christ! Presumest thou to speak thus, whereas

the prophet saith of him: Who shall declare his generation? [or, His family, who will tell it?] — [Isa. 53:8]

And another prophet saith: And we saw him and he had no beauty nor comeliness. — [Isa. 53:2]

And: In the last times shall a child be born of the Holy Ghost: his mother knoweth not a man, neither doth any man say that he is his father. — [?]

And again he saith: She hath brought forth and not brought forth. — [From the apocryphal Ezekiel (lost)]

And again: Is it a small thing for you to weary men (lit. Is it a small thing that ye make a contest for men) — [?]

[And again:] Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb. — [Isa. 7:13f]

And another prophet saith, honouring the Father: Neither did we hear her voice, neither did a midwife come in. — [From the Ascension of Isaiah, xi. 14]

Another prophet saith: Born not of the womb of a woman, but from a heavenly place came he down. — [?]

And: A stone was cut out without hands, and smote all the kingdoms. — [Dan. 2:34]

And: The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner; and he calleth him a stone elect, precious. — [Ps. 118:22]

And again a prophet saith concerning him: And behold, I saw one like the Son of man coming upon a cloud. — [Dan. 7:13]

Similar details are found listed in Justin’s writings. In his Dialogue with Trypho Justin writes that Mary is from the house of David (76); he further declares that Jesus has “no human generation (Trypho 32; First Apology 51); that he is not descended from human seed (Trypho, 63, 68); that Jesus was born in a cave near the village of Bethlehem (Trypho 78); that Jesus’ birth fulfilled a prophecy to take the power of Damascus and spoils of Samaria (Trypho 78); and that Jesus escaped all notice of others until he was an adult (First Apology 35).

Such lists of “fulfilled prophecies” do not derive from narratives. They have all the appearance of being found independently, as some form of “testimonia”. Readers had been pondering scriptures and divining what they had to say about how the heavenly messiah was to make his appearance in the world of humankind. From this pool of testimonies, presumably crafted by prophets of some sort, different scribes took raw material to create their narratives. Each of these narratives had its own theological theme. Thus, the Infancy Gospel of James was focused on demonstrating that “history proved” the sacred and eternal virginity of Mary; the Ascension of Isaiah took those elements that it could use to demonstrate that Jesus was not contaminated by flesh even though coming as flesh or in the appearance of it; Matthew sought to represent Jesus as a second Moses who brought out of Egypt a “mixed multitude” of Israelites and gentiles; Luke, to show Jesus began his career with the Jews alone, “to the Jew first“.

Such is the viewpoint of Enrico Norelli. The above is his thesis on how we have come to have such widely diverging nativity stories of Jesus. Quite likely, but I also think that certain authors — especially “Luke” — were themselves creative enough to find scriptural “prophecies” as needed for their respective narratives.

Norelli asks about the names of Mary and Joseph after lengthy discussions about the apparent creation of the “testimonia” listed above. He can’t see those details being found in scriptural fulfilment so suspects they probably were historically grounded as the names of the real parents of Jesus.

I find that reasoning problematic: every detail is taken from “fulfilled prophecy” except the names of two parents? Other scholars have indeed found the names of Mary and Joseph in “prophecy”:

(The meaning of Mary’s name is further mentioned in The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels: Personifications of Jews and Gentiles)

Many of Enrico Norelli’s journal articles and book chapters are available on academia.edu


Norelli, Enrico. 2012. “Wie Sind Die Erzählungen Über Maria Und Josef in Mt 1-2 Und Lk 1-2 Entstanden? M. Navarro Puerto; M. Perroni (Ed.), Evangelien. Erzählungen Und Geschichte. Deutsche Ausgabe Hrsg. von I. Fischer Und A. Taschl-Erber (Die Bibel Und Die Frauen. Eine Exegetisch-Kulturgeschichtliche Enzyklopädie. Neues Testament 2,1), Stuttgart, Kohlhammer. https://www.academia.edu/4092799/Wie_sind_die_Erz%C3%A4hlungen_%C3%BCber_Maria_und_Josef_in_Mt_1-2_und_Lk_1-2_entstanden.

———. 2010. “La Letteratura Apocrifa Sul Transito Di Maria E Il Problema Delle Sue Origini Accessed June 14, 2020a. https://www.academia.edu/5261203/La_letteratura_apocrifa_sul_transito_di_Maria_e_il_problema_delle_sue_origini.

———. 2011. “Les Plus Anciennes Traditions Sur La Naissance De Jésus Et Leur Rapport Avec Les Testimonia C. Clivaz [et alii] (ed.), Infancy Gospels. Stories and Identities (WUNT), Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck. Accessed June 14, 2020b. https://www.academia.edu/37751916/Les_plus_anciennes_traditions_sur_la_naissance_de_J%C3%A9sus_et_leur_rapport_avec_les_testimonia.



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

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by Neil Godfrey

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


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

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


The Myth of Embarrassment over a Humble Hometown Like Nazareth

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

Continue reading “Review, part 5 (Litwa on) Jesus’ Genealogy and Divine Conception”


Questioning the apologetic argument for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

Continue reading “Questioning the apologetic argument for Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem”


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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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.

Continue reading “Harmonizing the the Gospel Birth Narratives Raises A Problem”


A Christmas Thought

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by Neil Godfrey


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


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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