Infancy Narratives

Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts

Lecture: Infancy Narratives

I. Opening Remarks

At last we come to the life of Christ. We begin with the infancy or birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. This is a great opportunity for the student to test themselves as to their knowledge of what is in the Bible and what is not. It would be a useful Christmas exercise for church groups as well. For example, what about that well known Christmas Carol, Three Kings of Orient are? Except, the only Gospel to describe the arrival of visitors from afar to worship the Christ child is the Gospel of Matthew in chapter 2:1-12. It describes these visitors as Magi, a cross between what today we would call astrologer and an astronomer rather than kings. If by orient, one thinks of China or the Pacific rim, then these are not Orientals but probably from either Arabia or Persia and while there may well have been three of them, even that information goes beyond what the Bible explicitly tells us and has been inferred from the fact that these Magi from the east bring gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh. But only if we assume there was one visitor per gift, do we come up with the exact number three. More to the point, what then do Matthew and Luke include and why do they include it, especially, because, apart from the most basic of events and location and characters, most of what they include differs. Slide seven of NT511week6HJCrponInf.ppt entitled ‘Quis et Unde’ and answers the question of who and where, takes its cue from a famous article of a generation ago by C. Srendall, many years Dean of Harvard Divinity school and then Bishop of Stockholm in a Swedish Lutheran church.

II. Who is Jesus

Quis et Unde is Latin for ‘who and where’ and it comes from a portion of the title of Srendall’s article, cited in the textbook, which persuasively argues that it is the identity of Jesus and key geographical locations associated with his early years that account for the choice of material included in Matthew chapter one and two. Thus, in Matthew 1:1, we are told that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and the Son of David; hence, his messianic and Israelite pedigrees qualify him for this role of liberator. But he is also the Son of Abraham, not only father of the Jewish nation but of all the nations of the world which were to be blessed. Both of these themes will be prominent as Matthew’s Gospel unfolds. Both are hinted at or explicitly present in the genealogy that occupies in Matthew 1:2-17 showing Jesus’ ancestry beginning already with Abraham and also going through David but surprisingly including only five mother’s names, each of whom was either a gentile or as in case of Mary, the mother of Jesus, someone who lived under the shroud of suspicion of an illegitimate birth. The remaining part of chapter one, as Matthew’s prose narrative begins, describes Jesus as Emanuel, meaning God with us, thus rounding out the who column in the slide,

III. Where is Jesus

Chapter two, on the other hand, organizes material around the location of Bethlehem, Egypt, Rama and Nazareth as Matthew turns to the ‘where’ of Jesus’ birth and origins. The complimentary way of understanding the choice of material included in Matthew chapters one and two appears in the next slide as the Old Testament ties in with Matthew 1:1-17 explicit as every line of the genealogy gives way to a series of five fulfillment quotations, of what appears to be specific passages of the Old Testament, one for each of the kerygapi presented in the previous chart. Thus 1:18-25 is all about how a virgin shall conceive and bear a child. 2:1-12 shows how the prophecy of birth in Bethlehem was fulfilled. 2:13-15 focuses on Hosea 11:1 with its declaration, ‘out of Egypt, I have called by Son.’ 2:16 and following, Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more and the final paragraph of Matthew 2 concludes with a reference to the fulfillment of the prophecy, ‘he will be called a Nazarene.’

IV. Old Testament Quotations as Examples of Different Hermeneutic Devices

We scarcely have time in this short course to analyze every reference to the Old Testament in the Gospels and Acts, not even every reference to fulfilled prophecies. But these initial five in the Gospel of Matthew are a very representative sample of a broad cross section of approaches that continue to recur throughout the Gospels and Acts. In Isaiah 7:14, ‘a young woman shall conceive and bear a child.’ As we continue to read, ‘before he is old enough to know the difference between good and evil, the two kings from the north who were dreaded by the nation of Israel, because of their threat on the borders of that land, will be no more,’ because the Arameans have been conquered by the Assyrians, which was still further to the north. And an even greater threat is now looming near the borders of Israel. The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament from approximately 200 BC; a Greek word that has a narrower semantic range than the Hebrew word used in Isaiah, that more strictly means, a virgin, used in translating this prophecy suggesting that, at least one small strand of pre-Christian Judaism did not believe that the prophecy had not been entirely fulfilled yet. And clearly Matthew with his application of the text with the Christ child agrees with that interpretation. Some writers speak of this as double fulfillment; others talk about prophetic fore-shortening.

The prophecy that says the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem is as close to direct prediction fulfillment, one time and once only as one will find in the Gospels; because one could scarcely plan one’s own birth place. ‘Out of Egypt, I have called my son,’ on the other hand comes from a text that is not an Old Testament passage using a future verb at all, but instead it is looking backwards to the collective Son of God, namely Israel being called out of Egypt at the time of Exodus. Here, we have pure typology or analogical fulfillment. The believing Jewish mindset, looking back on the complete picture of the Christ event cannot help but be struck by the coincidence of when God established his covenant at Sinai with his people under the leadership of Moses. It was right after they had been rescued and thus called out of Egypt and now as Christian Jews believe that the New Covenant had been inaugurated through Jesus, the Messiah. What a ‘coincidence’ that he too had be called out of Egypt because he and his family had to flee there to avoid the massacre of innocent children by Herod the Great. This is not the direct prediction fulfillment of Micah 5:2 of being born in Bethlehem, but for the Jewish mindset of believing in one God of the Universe who was sovereign and who worked frequently through patterns and recognizable cycles of behavior, it could have proved equally as persuasive as the original text of Hebrew Scripture.

When we come to ‘Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more’; we arguable have an example of what could be called a double typology. Here, we have a quotation from Jeramiah chapter 31 in which the mothers in Israel are bemoaning the loss of many of their sons to exile at the time of the Babylonian exile. But instead of describing them prosaically, Jeramiah refers to Rachel weeping for her children, personifying them in terms of the beloved wife of Jacob who gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin, but who as a symbol for the patriarchal and we might add matriarchal period of that day figuratively saw all the sons of Jacob seemingly lost in Egypt. Though Jacob, long after Rachel’s death would in fact in his old age to be reunited with them. Thus, Jeramiah already uses a figurative appropriation of Rachel to describe a similar event centuries later in Israelites history and Matthew again applies it to the mother’s in Bethlehem weeping for the children that Herod had slaughtered.

Finally, we come to an intriguing passage in Matthew 2:23, ‘he will be called a Nazarene;’ intriguing, because there is no such Old Testament passage. And yet, it would appear that Matthew is trying to tell us that something is different in this case because instead of referring to a text spoken by a prophet for giving us the name of the prophet. We read, ‘so was fulfilled what was said to the prophets,’ in the plural, a unique reference in the Gospels and Acts to fulfillment through the prophets in the plural. This would suggest that Matthew recognizes that this isn’t a single text but a larger prophetic theme represented more than one text or perhaps not represented unambiguously in any given text but instead, a composite of various prophetic passages. But what seems to be involved if Nazareth as a city does not even appear on the pages of the Old Testament. Some have suggested that this is a reference to Jesus as a Nazirite but in fact, Nazirites were ascetics of which Jesus was not. There is no etymological link between the Nazirite and the town of Nazareth. Others have wondered if a Nazarene is a figure of speech for someone from a very small out of the way town as Nazareth. Much like today, we might call someone a hick or back woodsman which certain fits the statement in John, ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Or perhaps most probable for Matthew, in light of Jesus’ rabbinic genealogy at the beginning of Matthew 1 to 2, is a play on words using the identical consonants as in the Hebrew term, ne-ver (pronounced more like ‘negfare’), meaning a prince, found in a number of texts, including Isaiah 11:1 to denote the pedigree of the coming Messiah.

V. The Infancy Narratives: Luke

When we turn to the Gospel of Luke, the passages selected for inclusion are to a large degree quite different. Here, we see interspersed and interwoven among the accounts of the conception and birth of Jesus, parallel to accounts of the conception and birth of John the Baptist. It is because the destinies of these two individuals as adults were similar intertwined. Thus after Luke’s prologue, discussed when we first introduced source, form and redaction criticism in Luke 1:1-4. We have the birth of John the Baptist predicted in 1:5-25 followed by the birth of Jesus predicted in 1:26-38 with a large number of similarities that Luke seems to go out of his way to call attention to such passages, including the arrival of an angel to a prediction in both instances. A statement of a very specific striking promise, description of the nature of the child and a response by the parent to be, to whom the angel appears with enquiries that express a measure of astonishment and or disbelief. Then the lives of the two newly conceived children, introspect as the two mothers visit in 1:39-56 with Elizabeth lapsing into what reads like hymnic praise of Mary, calling her uniquely blessed, calling her the mother of her Lord, suggesting that the child that she has conceived will be far greater even as the miracle of virginal conception is far greater than simply the normal conception to a woman who was previously barren.

In 1:58-80 the focus returns to John the Baptist and to his actual birth. And in 2:1-40 to the birth of Jesus; this time a far longer segment of text matching what was hinted in the previous passages, it is the differences rather than the similarities that dominate the two births. It was summed up, perhaps in the titles applied to them, John to be a prophet and the one who comes in the spirit and power of Elijah as shown in Luke 1:17. But Jesus, particularly as found in 2:11 in the cluster of Christological titles, ‘today is born to you in the city of David, a Savior who is the Christ that is the Messiah and Lord.’ This strong exalted perspective of the newly born Christ child is the final episode in Luke 1 to 2. Jumping ahead to his teaching in the Temple at age twelve, focusing on his special learning and insight nevertheless concludes, perhaps somewhat surprisingly for those of us overly familiar with the story yet to come in Luke 2:52 with the statement that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humanity. It is to say that he grew intellectually, physically, spiritually and socially like any other human child.

VI. Two Great Reversals

If we then bring the results of our examination of Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives together, it’s interesting that it discloses what may be described as great reversals. In Matthew 2:1-12 we are struck by the fact that it is these magi, these pagan astrologers who are led by a sign in the heavens, the stars they study, to find the location of the young Jesus and be drawn to true worship of Yahweh, God of Israel, now disclosed in Jesus of Nazareth. Whereas, the Jewish leaders, Herod the Great, an alleged convert to Judaism and what Matthew describes as all Jerusalem. But, this was indeed the city of the Jewish religious and political leaders who were potential terrified. Matthew chapter 2, the NIV uses the language, ‘disturbed’ in verse 3, but this is arguably too weak a translation. Why such fear, the answer is that none of these leaders were the legitimate leaders of the people and in terms of obedience to the law and if, indeed, a true descendant of David who was to be the Messiah, was born, their illegitimacy could be exposed. Luke, nevertheless, stresses that it is Jesus who appears to be born illegitimate. Unless, one accepts this story of a virgin birth, the only recourse to understanding what happened with Joseph, Mary and Jesus, is to assume that Mary had her son by someone other than Joseph. This would have made Jesus a bastard. Luke sees this in a paradoxical way as a blessing for Jesus coming in the lowest of manners, born in a manger, a cattle trough; to parents who at that time were so poor that they had to use the sacrifices of birds and grain rather than livestock as prescribed by the laws of Leviticus. Several of the hymnic like outburst of praise by characters in Luke 1 to 2 stress that the coming ministry of this Messianic child would be the one to bring down the powerful from their thrones and of elevating the status of those who were second class citizens of the day, whatever the reason for their ostracism or stigmatism may have been.

VII. The Johannine Prologue

Finally, we turn briefly to the Gospel of John, which doesn’t contain an infancy or birth narrative parse, but in the prologue when we introduced the Gospel of John, goes all the way back to the beginning, consciously echoing the language of Genesis of 1:1 to describe the ‘Word’ who was both God and who became fully incarnate by becoming flesh. One possible outline for this prologue of John is as a relatively detailed chiasm or inverse parallel structure. Verses 1-5 introduces us to the Word, the Greek word which being logos, a term found only in John and one which had a significant religious and philosophical background in both Judaism and Greco-Roman culture. Common to these backgrounds was the notice of God or gods who were in communications and self-expression with humanity. The Word is said to not only be God and to have been with God from the beginning but to have been active in creation and in revealing himself to humanity. Abruptly in verses 6-8, John turns to a man sent from God by the name of John. This would have to be John the Baptist, who was merely a witness or testimony to this Word which is also called the Light. Possibly, the emphasis needed in John’s community in and around Ephesus at the end of the first century because of a sect or group of people who were tempted to raise John the Baptist more highly if not worship him as Messiah. In the mid second century such a sect was said to have existed in this area. And Acts 19 discloses followers of John the Baptist, though we don’t know exactly what they were making of him already in Ephesus in the middle of the 1st century.

Equally abruptly then, the prologue in John, turns back to Jesus, the true Light who was coming into the world and to a largely negative response to that light, he was not recognized by the world. He came to his own, presumably a reference to Israel, since he had already revealed himself to the world at large in this passage. And even his own did not receive him but by way of contrast, there were some who did and verses 12-13 talked about all who did receive him, i.e. who believed in his name, receiving the right to become Children of God, not biologically but spiritually. Then it would appear that John’s prologue back-tracked because we have a reference to the ‘Logos’, only this time, following up on the proper response, a reference who did, in fact response positively, namely the disciples whom the Apostle John is representing. ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us and we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth.’ Then as abruptly as the first time the prologue returns to talking about John the Baptist in verse 15, as John writes, John testifies concerning him, he cries out, saying, ‘this is he whom I said, he who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me,’ again focusing on the role of testimony, on Jesus’ superiority to John. Finally in verses 16-18, the writer of the prologue returns to focus on the Logos but in an inverse sequence focuses on his blessings for humanity. One blessing after another, the recreation that comes through Jesus Christ, following the Law being given to Moses and then combining where the prologue started with a high affirmation of the quality of God the Father and the one and only Son who in the most reliable manuscripts is called, God, the one and only.

If this outline is on target, it suggests that the climax of the chiasm, the most important statements to which readers need to respond to, comes at the climactic center of receiving Jesus, a very fitting theological center. The next most important material comes in the framing sections of the affirmation of the full deity of the Logos and if we add to that the fact that it is often just after the climactic center where a key turning point in the theology of a chiasm occurs, we have the third and other most prominent theological portion of this prologue, namely the incarnation of the Logos in 1:14. Why the disjointed nature, why the repetition, particularly the two different references to John, each appearing somewhat abruptly, is better explained on this model of an inverse parallel structure than on more linear models of which we might be more accustomed. At any rate, a beautiful and majestic opening to the Gospel and introduction into the life of Christ.