Studying the Infancy Narratives

Bloch, "Birth of Christ"

Bloch, "Birth of Christ"

This Christmas Eve, most of us will at least read the “Christmas Story,” as found in Luke 2:1-20. As we approach the holiday, a few more diligent souls will read all of the Infancy Narratives, as found in Matt 1-2 AND Luke 1-2. Yet even when reading (as opposed to just remembering or “thinking” about) these familiar texts, the tendency will be to harmonize the two accounts, resulting in a hybrid vision of the birth of Jesus that accords nicely with the Christmas pageants that we will watch and the Nativity scenes that we have set up. But our Christmas creches—which confidently put three kings (as opposed to two or more magi or wise men) at the stable (not mentioned in Luke, although he does record a manger) along with shepherds and various animals under a star—are the result not only of jarring harmonization, but even some creative fabrication.

This harmonizing tendency is alive and well in the LDS community, perhaps as a result of Elder Talmages well-known and familiar Jesus the Christ, Elder McConkie’s The Mortal Messiah, and our Gospel Doctrine’s curriculum, each of which draws from all four gospels to produce and fill in a rough chronological account of our Lord’s mortal life and final salvific acts. This impulse is natural enough: after all Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection were historical events, so the four surviving, canonical accounts should represent those events accurately.

Yet the four gospels were written by four different evangelists with four different approaches, thematic interests, and even theological focuses.  They worked with some of the same source material to produce unique narratives, even when, as seems to be the case with Matthew and Luke, they were following another account (sc. Mark) for the basic outline.

There is a comparison here, I think, to Book of Mormon authors and especially its prophetic editors Mormon and Moroni, who selected events from their history to illustrate different theological points (I always insist that my Freshman Book of Mormon students approach that text as a sacred record, i.e. theological historiography, rather than post-nineteenth century scientific history, even though that was the way that nineteenth century LDS leaders tended to view it). The New Testament Evangelists did so likewise elected episodes from Jesus’ ministry, arranging them as part of larger literary schema (note, for instance, Mark who has a basically geographic or thematic organization rather than a chronological one, making a single visit to Jerusalem the culmination of Jesus’ life, no doubt at the expense of Jesus’ actual travels).

As a result, I find it most useful to study, and teach, the gospels separately, only admitting a composite approach when we get to the Passion and Resurrection Narratives, which is the only time all four texts converge upon and then follow a basic sequence of events (leading some scholars to propose the existence of a primitive passion narrative, whether oral or written, that the four evangelists employed). Studying the gospels separately allows us to see the literary and thematic intents of each author without spinning our wheels trying to prioritize accounts or harmonize them.

This, of course, applies to the Infancy Narratives, because the account of Matthew is strikingly different than that of Luke. True, the essential elements are the same: Jesus was born of Mary in Bethlehem under miraculous circumstances (as we will see with my final guest post, “A Book of Mormon Christmas,” these are the very details that Book of Mormon authors agree upon in their prophecies).

So tomorrow I plan to blog on the Matthean Infancy Narrative, followed by the Lucan account on Wednesday. The blog form compels a certain simplicity, so do not expect too much in this medium. For those who want to study along with me, I will note my basic survey lecture on the Infancy Narratives from my Rel A 211 class.  Mark, presumably the first gospel written, does not include any account of the divine conception and miraculous birth.  Rather his gospel begins with God declaring Jesus to be his son at the baptism (what is known as a low, “adoptionist” Christology).  This has led some to propose that when “Matthew’ and then “Luke” began composing their gospels they realized that Mark’s text did not adequately emphasize the divinity of Jesus, hence their inclusion of the Infancy Narratives.  The style of Matt 1-2 and Luke 1-2 is different enough from the rest of those gospels that some even suggest that they were composed after the rest of those gospels.  Regardless of the motivation, the inclusion of Infancy Narratives proved to be an important development in the gospel medium: Infancy Narratives at the beginning and Passion/Resurrection Narratives at the end provide important frames or pendants, answering the basic Christological questions of who  Jesus was (the literal son of God) and what he came to do (suffer, die, and rise again).

[No time to explore the “high” or “preexistence” Christology of John here, but if it is not poor form, I would point to a forthcoming article that I have coming out in Studies in the Bible and Antiquity, “And the Word Was Made Flesh: An LDS Exegesis of the Blood and Water Imagery in the Gospel of John,” where I propose that the Johannine equivalent of the Infancy story is not the Logos hymn of John 1:1-18 but rather the sign of the water turning to wine at Cana in John 2!]

For those who are interested in more in-depth treatments of the Infancy Narratives, I would point first to the late Raymond Brown’s magisterial The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday, 1993): 752 pages on just 2 chapters of Matthew and 2 chapters of Luke! Father Brown was an ordained Roman Catholic priest and a scholar, who served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature. I first came to know him from his 1608 page, 2 volume treatment of the passion narrative, The Death of the Messiah and subsequently by his Anchor Bible commentaries on John.

Brown DM 

As I was negotiating my change from Classics to Ancient Scripture, Father Brown served as a model of believing scholarship to me, a position newly filled in my view by Ben Witheringon, an evangelical scholar. Ben has not done a commentary on the Infancy Narratives per se, but pages 61–72 of his New Testament History: A Narrative Account (Baker, 2001) provide a good survey of the basic historical issues from a faithful perspective. For a more “secular” approach, see The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan (two scholars of Jesus Seminar fame [or infamy], but they are competent with the source materials and worth looking at).

Since NONE of us have time to read all 752 pages of Father Brown’ Birth of the Messiah before Thursday evening, I thought that I would also make you aware of a series of short, homiletic books that he issued, partially to help Catholic priests in their preaching during Advent, Christmastide, Holy Week, and Easter. These brief treatments incorporate much of the scholarly insight of the big volumes, distilling it down to manageable units and including more devotional material than he does in the scholarly treatments.  The titles are A Coming Christ in Advent: Essays on the Gospel Narratives Preparing for the Birth of Jesus : Matthew 1 and Luke 1, An Adult Christ at Christmas: Essays on the Three Biblical Christmas Stories, Matthew 2 and Luke 2, A Crucified Christ in Holy Week: Essays on the Four Gospel Passion Narratives, and A Risen Christ in Eastertime: Essays on the Gospel Narratives of the Resurrection.

20 comments for “Studying the Infancy Narratives

  1. Thanks for this post. I just started reading _The Birth of the Messiah_, and while I’m less interested in historicity than Brown is (or, at least, than he was in _The Death of the Messiah_–perhaps he doesn’t focus as much on it in this volume?), I am still enjoying his work immensely.

    And I’m so glad to find another Ben Witherington fan! I have a hard time loving (well, OK, I shouldn’t lie: I have a hard time even liking) Paul’s letters, but Witherington helps tremendously.

    I’m also pondering if it might be worthwhile/important/necessary to incorporate Mark’s and John’s decidedly non-Christmas-y introductions to Jesus into our Christmas observances . . . how hard would it be to work baptism and pre-existence motifs into a traditional nativity scene? ;)

  2. As always, Julie, you have made me clarify myself. Since reading your comment I have added a paragraph to my post on the reason why Matt and Luke included Infancy Narratives in the first place. This update noted the different starting places selected by Mark and John.

    My Christmas Season Book, which my family uses for each day in December, arranges Messianic passages chronologically, beginning with Enoch’s quotation of Adam. But you have made me think that perhaps it ought to start with the Logos Hymn of John 1:1-18. I do not think that I would use Mark, though, since his surviving text does not start until the onset of the ministry.

  3. I love Brown’s Birth of the Messiah. I agree he’s a terrific model of faithful scholarship.

  4. Out of a number of recommendations made by folks somewhere in the bloggernacle last year (or the year before), I read Geza Vermes book on the Nativity. I am not a New Testament scholar, but I enjoyed the book–it was readable and interesting. Unfortunately I have not retained a lot of it. My impression was that Vermes was skeptical about the historicity of some or much or most of the infancy narratives.

    My limited understanding is that there are a number of infancy stories that did not make it into the canon as well, leading me to suspect that perhaps in adding infancy narratives to Matthew and Luke, the authors/compilers chose available narratives for their teaching purposes primarily, and not necessarily because there was more evidence for their accuracy than the others.

    Do you think it is possible for a believing scholar to posit that some of the infancy narratives may not be true in the sense of having actually occurred the way described in the gospels? Or that, for example, the two genealogies in the NT are not necessarily any more accurate than some of the genealogies we see today that supposedly go back to Adam? Or by analogy, that stories (such as, in our day, the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and not lying about it) serve a purpose whether they actually occurred that way or not?

    I think some LDS treat some of the Old Testament stories as told for a teaching morality rather than for teaching precise history.

    Or is what I am describing akin to what you call “theological historiography” as distinct from post nineteenth century historiography?

  5. Eric,

    Now Im exited. Ill probably have more questions for you as you continue these posts but will definitely be interested in you take on Crossan and Borg’s argument that Mark and Luke were making direct comparisons and challenges to Rome: from the genealogy, the terms Son of God, Savior, etc, the similarity between the the Aeneid (including the star in the west), and so on. I personally dont find them, particularly Marcus Borg, as secular as some have argued perhaps just less literal than your average Christian. In lieu of focusing on history in the book you cite, they appear, imho, to be reading the stories as “theological historiography.” What did Mark mean, what was Luke trying to say, and of course context: what did this mean in first century palestine?

    btw, Ben Witherington has a pretty good blog that you can follow over at

  6. Thanks, Eric. Between sessions last conference, I briefly caught a glimpse on the TV of a church video with John Tanner talking about the discrepancies between Mark and Luke. Tanner seemed to be taking the position that “critics” of the Bible’s truth were the ones who made a big deal of the differences. Do you know more about that video? Did I interpret Tanner’s comments correctly? Like I said, I only caught about ten seconds of it, and the room was loud with people talking, so I really don’t know. I thought it was interesting that the church would be promoting a video that dealt with the differences, even if the video seemed defensive and almost apologetic.

  7. Thanks for this helpful summary and list of resources. You might be interested to hear that Allison focused on the Infancy Narratives on Sunday for her Gospel Doctrine lesson (which according to the manual was meant to be on The Proclamation on the Family — she was able to use the Narratives as a way to examine some select themes from the Proclamation) and in doing so she also made use of the Infancy Gospel of James to mention the legend of Joseph’s status as a widower with other sons and how he and his sons guarded the cave while Mary was in labor. She concluded the hybrid Christmas-Proclamation lesson (to my surprise — we had discussed the direction she wanted to go with it earlier and she hadn’t mentioned this) with a powerful reference to John’s genealogy of Jesus.

  8. Like some of the others who have commented I always admired Father Brown’s work. I am convinced that if James E. Talamge was writing Jesus the Christ today he would use Brown’s work as a major source. I hope someday we can develop LDS bilblcal scholars who can integrate the spiritual and the intellectal as well as Father Brown. From what I have seen of your Blog Eric, you are taking some important steps in that direction.

  9. John’ genealogy of Jesus?

    I am chary of almost every apocryphal gospel, even if they might preserve shreds of earlier traditions that might have real roots. They are all rather late compared to the canonical gospels. LDS students, a la Nibley, tend to be rather selective in their use of apocryphal and patristic sources, quoting and referencing things that seem to support LDS beliefs or positions and ignoring the greater majority of the text, which usually is clearly heterodox.

    Still, back to Allison’s deft turning of the assigned topic into something appropriate for Christmas, kudos to her. I have long thought that our Gospel Doctrine and RS/Priesthood manuals should have Christmas and Easter lessons in the back which would just be rotated in when it was appropriate. Can you imagine a JSmith lesson that was all about what he said about Jesus being the Son of God, etc.?

    Regarding David G and the Tanner quote . . . it was an excerpt from the Messiah Behold the Lamb series. If you had seen the whole thing you would have seen yours truly in an unconventional tan suit!

    I differ with John Tanner on this somewhat. I do not think that it is just “critics” who note the differences. Rather what we do with the differences is what separates us. More faithful scholarship looks for other reasons for the differences which do not compromise the basic truth of the story, whereas more doubtful critics often seem to suggest that the much of the story is suspect because of the differences.

    Will need to get back to Josh’s question about Borg and Crossan. Jesus Seminar folks tend to have a terrible impression of the Roman Empire and often import a post-colonial interpretation into an ancient setting. When it comes to Luke’s use of terms adopted by the imperial cult (Savior, God made manifest, etc.), I think it is more proper to look for Hellenistic precedents, which had been around much longer in that part of the world. But we will get back to that.

  10. By John’s genealogy of Jesus, I was merely referring to John’s ultra-abbreviated statement (in comparison to Matthew’s exhaustive geneaology) of Christ’s “genealogy” in John 1:1.

    As to the Infancy Gospel of James, it was just a flourish associated with some ideas she was exploring with regard to Joseph and his part in the “family” of Jesus.

  11. Eric,

    you may be right about their terrible impression. After all, God and Empire by Crossan is of course all about the evils of Rome. I figured you would be an appropriate person to ask since you were at least objective and fair when I had greek history whereas my Roman history professor thought Augustus was great.

    Let me add this to my question though. Even assuming Crossan and Borg have a post-colonial interpretation, I am curious what the average individual living in Nazareth, Galilee, and even Jerusalem thought of Rome. There is at least some evidence that they had strong feelings about Rome. In other words, maybe Matthew, Luke, etc had terrible impressions of Rome as well. I’ll wait til you get further along but am certainly interested in Hellenistic precedents and perhaps the even more interesting question about what Matthew and Luke were trying to say by referencing such precedents.

  12. If you read Brown’s work he emphasizes that the average Gaililean had very little contact with Rome. Gallile during Jesus’ time was ruled by Herod Antipas. There were no Roman soldiers stationed in Gallile during Jesus’s time. Often we project back the situation at the time of the Jewish Revolt in the late 60’s and early 70’s to Jesus’s time in the 20’s and 30’s. Brown quotes a Roman Historian of the era who said “During the time of Tibereas( the emperor during Jesus’s time) all was quiet.

  13. > In other words, maybe Matthew, Luke, etc had terrible impressions of Rome as well.

    It is an open question what the author of the Gospel of Matthew thought of Rome. Assuming that he was Matthew “the publican,” then as a Galilean he would have mixed views, although most of his experience with Rome would have been mediated through the Herodians (although there would be some bad memories of Pompey’s A.D. 63 invasion, etc.).

    But the author of Luke is the exact figure to focus on. Assuming that he was a Greek, possible from Macedonia or Greece but possibly even a Hellenized Syrian, his view of the Roman Empire would not have been as bad as Borg and Crossan lay out. The last “brutal” thing that Greeks had experienced was Sulla in the Mithridatic Wars, early in the Late Republic. Greeks were quickly accomodating themselves to the Roman system, which, to be fair, was a lot more moderate than previous empires had been. In fact, by the Flavian Period (A.D. 69-96) when Luke was probably written, and certainly by the High Empire (A.D. 96-180), many Greek cities, such as Ephesus, were consciously aping Roman customs and manners.

    Regarding Hellenistic precedents, Greek ruler cult had a much longer history in the Eastern Mediterranean than the recent Roman imperial cult, started in the East at the time of Augustus but not really up and going until the Flavian period and later. And the Greek terms that Borg and Crossan note, such as soter and euergetes, were already very familiar in the East before they started being applied to Roman emperors. My point is that it is possible to read Luke not as an anti-imperial reaction but rather as demonstrating that Jesus was a far better savior and benefactor than ANY human ruler, past or present.

    One should also use the evidence of Acts to judge the gospel. In Acts Rome and the empire are presented pretty positively.

    Sorry, last minute Christmas shopping with the children is calling!

  14. “Often we project back the situation at the time of the Jewish Revolt in the late 60’s and early 70’s to Jesus’s time in the 20’s and 30’s.”

    Exactly! The anti-Roman surge was largely a feature of the period after the Herodian restoration (Herod Agrippa I was king over all Judea A.D. 39-44). Galilee, Perea, the northeastern territories were not even part of the province of Judea at that time.

  15. john,

    In 4bc, Josephus, a Jewish historian (2.68 I believe), tells us that the town of Sepphoris was burnt to the ground and the population enslaved by Rome. This was as a result of a revolt against Rome led by a man named Judas. This was right next door to Nazareth, a few miles. So Im not sure we could say all was quiet, at least around the time of his birth. It would take little imagination to believe that the incident at Sepphoris was part of the collective and cultural memory of the people in Galilee. Again, a citation by a roman historian that things were quiet does not tell me what the people “thought” or perceived Rome as being.

  16. The Sepphoris incident is, in fact, the one that Borg and Crossan cite the most emphatically (as does Richard Horsely, who is the most ardently anti-Roman would-be historian I have ever heard speak). The problem is that the account is not well corroborated in other sources. to be fair, I would not expect Roman sources to make much of, let alone mention, what from there perspective was not a major military action. However, this is as much a historiographic question as it is a historical one. The reference that I have in front of me is Joseph. AJ 17.10.9 (#289). In Antiquities, as opposed to Wars, Josephus is harder on Rome. Written later, he was not trying to justify Rome as much as he was in Wars.

    I am not questioning that the sack of Sepphoris did not happen. The question is did it have a greater impact on people than previous sacks had (one only needs to read Greek history to see that the procedure of andrapodosis, killing all the men and selling the women and children in to slavery, was so routine that it was almost expected. Imperial powers actually scored a lot of points when they chose NOT to do this.

    And more to the point, the politics WITHIN Galilee were more complex than most people realize. Hellenized cities like Sepphoris and later Tiberias, were great rivals of each other and largely resented by the Aramaic-speaking peasantry that they exploited. It is not insignificant that the Gospels never mention Jesus’ going to Sepphoris, even though, as you point it out, it was within distant vision of the hill above Nazareth.

  17. Eric,

    thanks for the response and the various historical data. There you go messing up someone’s worldview with things like facts. You concluded by stating

    “My point is that it is possible to read Luke not as an anti-imperial reaction but rather as demonstrating that Jesus was a far better savior and benefactor than ANY human ruler, past or present.”

    and I think that is a very fair point and definitely part of luke’s intent if not his main objective. This of course still has the very interesting potential that Luke, being very conscious of terms like soter and euergetes and perhaps even ancient myths, new stars, etc, chose to write his account not as a modern historian would but as a theological/historical statement about Jesus. I dont think this means we can dismiss things as non factual because they dont fit a secular worldview but it certainly adds nuance.

    We do, however, have to address the question of why Luke includes the census decree by Augustus for which there is little historical evidence. Is it just a means of getting them to Bethlehem or does it have some additional purpose or meaning? NT Wright. a much more conservative historian that those in the Jesus Seminar, makes the argument that Luke is clearly thinking of Micah 5:2, “But you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, little among the clans of Judah—from you shall come forth the one who is to rule in Israel” and that if we read it in context we encounter verse 4 with a statement that at leas in his view suggests a contrast between the Kingdom Jesus will set up and those of the gentiles: “He [the coming King] shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of YHWH, in the majesty of the name of YHWH his God; and they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.” But the next verse goes on: “And he shall be the man of peace.”

    So while I think it a mistake to turn the gospels into some anti Roman polemic, I still believe that there is a case to be made that while the gospels are not anti-Rome per se, they are pro Kingdom of God (one of Jesus’ favorite terms), and that the description Jesus gives of that kingdom is in radical opposition to the kingdoms of the gentiles (as he calls them). Rome seems to me to be just an easy target or foil with God’s idea of kingdom. As you wrote, “one only needs to read Greek history to see that the procedure of andrapodosis, killing all the men and selling the women and children in to slavery, was so routine that it was almost expected. Imperial powers actually scored a lot of points when they chose NOT to do this.” It seems to me that at least one thing to consider is that the message of the gospels while religious first certainly address very real political issues of first century palestine including things like andrapodosis.

    I am certainly getting off the topic of the birth narratives so I apologize.

  18. If Rome’s concepts about the divinity of Roman emperors was preceded by Greek notions, certainly both were preceded, and influenced by, similar concepts in Egypt and Mesopotamia/Persia, especially following the Alexandrian empire that put Greeks on the thrones of Pharoah and Cyrus.

    For those who believe in the narratives about Enoch and Melchizedek in the JST (and Book of Moses), both Enoch and Melchizedek were kings who achieved apotheosis (along with their cities), and Moses himself was a leader who ascended to heaven, so there are plenty of precedents within early dispensations that appear to have been conscious of their role as “types” of the Messiah as “King of Kings” and “the mighty God”.

  19. Question for you scholarly lot: is there apocryphal or pseudepigraphal evidence that Elizabeth had an angelic vision/visitiation as well as Mary, Joseph, and Zechariah? It would seem to further the parallels between the two families, but a quick search has left me with nothin’. Thanks.

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