(The following re-written essay is based upon the unpublished writings of Dominic Hoffman, O.P., who died in 1998.)
Any discussion of the Infancy Narratives should begin by noting that there is a rather considerable number of important events or facts that both evangelists Matthew and Luke relate independently. Thus, (1) Joseph and Mary are espoused but not yet living together (Mt 1:18; Lk 1:27,34), (2) and Mary is a virgin (Mt 1:23; Lk 1:27,34); (3) Joseph is a descendant of David (Mt 1:16,20; Lk 1:27; 2:4), (4) and he is not the father of the child in the ordinary sense of the word (Mt 1:20,23,25; Lk 1:34), (5) because Jesus is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:18,20; Lk 1:35), (6) as was foretold by an angel (Mt 1:20-23; Lk 1:30-35), (7) who directs that the child — a boy — shall be called Jesus (Mt 1:21; Lk 1:31), (8) and He is also of the house of David (Mt 1:1; Lk 1:32). (9) Angels also foretell that He will be the savior (Mt 1:21; Lk 2:11); (10) He is born after Mary and Joseph take up common residence (Mt 1:24-25; Lk 2:5-6), (11) born in Bethlehem (Mt 2:11; Lk 2:47), (12) during the reign of Herod the Great (Mt 2:1; Lk 1:5). (13) The child is raised in Nazareth (Mt 2:23; Lk 2:39). Since there is no arguably direct dependence of either evangelist on the other except that Matthew’s Gospel may have already been known by oral tradition, this agreement in essentials indicates established facts.
Nevertheless, there are seven important omissions by either evangelist, (leaving aside the whole account concerning the birth of John the Baptist which Matthew chooses not to mention). (1) The announcements of the angel are separately made to Mary and Joseph after some time (Mt 1:20-23; Lk 1:30-35); (2) Mary lives in Nazareth while Joseph’s residence is not given, although it seems to be the same place as Mary’s (Mt 1:24; Lk 1:26); (3) Joseph’s doubt (Mt 1:19); (4) The Roman Census (Lk 2:1-5); (5) The visit of the Magi (Mt 2: 1-12); (6) The flight into Egypt (Mt 2:13-15); (7) The massacre of the Innocents (Mt 2:16-18).
There are also situations, even when there is an omission, in which one account implies the other, making them complementary to each other. (1) Mary’s three-month absence from Nazareth (Lk 1:56) gives external support for Joseph’s doubt. (2) Similarly Joseph’s doubt was of no particular importance to Luke’s Gentile readers, but the Jewish readers of Matthew would be impressed by the fact that a Jew was told to accept this child (1:19). When Joseph is told to take Mary into his house (Mt 1:20-21), Luke has already supplied the information that Mary also knows that the child is from the Holy Spirit (1:35). (4) The decision of Joseph to take up residence in Nazareth after being warned about Archelaus (Mt 2:22-23) is shown by Luke’s account (1:26) not to be a blind choice.
In other events, such as the coming of the Magi, Luke does not deny them, just as Matthew does not deny any of the events which Luke includes and he does not. And it is not at all difficult to fit them both together into one harmonious whole.
However we cannot help seeking the reason for two such accounts. The historical tradition and some scholarly evidence is that Matthew wrote before Luke. As such Theophilus, perhaps the friend or patron for whom Luke was writing, may have already known Matthew’s account, either from having read Matthew or from a widespread oral tradition. Luke in his prologue (1:1-4) writes that “Many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us.”
It will help us therefore if we look upon the two evangelists in the same light as we look upon John in respect to the other three. Namely, since John wrote later, he likely fills in or amplifies what the other three evangelists wrote, and we are grateful to have him do so because he is an independent witness. As with Matthew and Luke, we have here two accounts of the events surrounding the birth of Christ which give different incidents. We should also be grateful, for when the three synoptic evangelists give the same incidents, each often adds little to what the others have written.
Omissions, Additions in Luke
Although grateful, we would certainly be enriched if, instead of repeating, they had more often selected other incidents and teachings in the life of Christ. This need and freedom to choose is a much more reasonable solution for the differences in the Gospels than concluding that Matthew or Luke knew nothing about certain words or events to which the others were privileged. Yet, strangely, this good fortune is held by some scholars against the truth of the two accounts of the Infancy Narrative, even though there are no contradictions and no difficulties incapable of at least possible solutions.
Our immediate point here, however, is that Luke would see no reason to repeat what Matthew had already written in his own Infancy Narrative. Luke has done the same in later pages of his Gospel when he fails to mention important incidents recorded by Matthew and Mark. Some of these are: the omission of Jesus moving from Nazareth to Capernaum (Mt 4:13), the death of John the Baptist (Mt 14:6-12; Mk 6:21-29), the Syrophoenician woman (Mt 15:21-28; Mk 7:24-30), Jesus’ rebuke to Peter (Mt 16:22-23; Mk 8:32-33), divorce (Mt 19:3-9; Mk 10:1-12), the excellence of celibacy (Mt 19:10-12), and the cursing of the fig tree (Mt 21:18-22; Mk 11:12-14, 20-21). He likewise omits some of the parables recorded by the other two synoptics while adding others, such as the Good Samaritan. Luke adds the forcible rejection of Jesus in Nazareth, the raising of the widow’s son, and Jesus’ appearance before Herod Antipas on Good Friday morning. Moreover, without Luke’s Gospel we would know very little about Mary personally; she would have been a mere channel or instrument. Thus, for his friend Theophilus, he is an independent historian in the sense that he feels free to choose other events than those written about by the two evangelists who preceded him.
Furthermore the two evangelists were writing for different audiences and therefore made different selections from the many events of Jesus’ life. Matthew writes principally for the Jewish Christians and therefore emhasizes the fulfillment of prophecies. The Magi, as Gentiles coming to pay homage, are a fulfillment of many Messianic prophecies. Indeed their common naming as kings, something without foundation in the New Testament, comes from just such a prophecy (Ps 72/71:10-11). The ending of the visit also shows the rejection by the political leader of the Jewish people early in the life of Jesus, a foreshadowing of a later and definite rejection by their religious leaders that was also prophesied (Is 53:3).
Luke on the other hand selects for his narrative those events which favor the poor and lowly, and so he leaves out this whole incident consisting of extraordinary persons. He is anxious to show Jesus’ love for classes of people like the shepherds, the aged, and the widowed. Also, since Luke writes for Gentiles who are living in the midst of superstitions which undoubtedly still had a hold on some converted Christians, he wishes to avoid giving any respectability to astrologers, magicians and sorcerers, as the name “magi” usually indicated in those times, e.g., Simon the magician (Acts 8:9-24) and Bar-Jesus or Elymas the magician (Acts 13:6-12). Matthew would not find such great difficulty among the converted Jews, for astrology is condemned in the Old Testament (Is 47:12-15), as well as in rabbinical teachings from the time.
For both evangelists, however, the difference in the kind of events told in the Infancy Narrative comes from their sources. In both cases the original sources of the events may be the personal story by a participant.
Luke’s source reasonably is the mother of Jesus. She may have omitted Joseph’s doubts about her virginity because of her love for him and out of sensitivity to his memory. This is only probable however. We have already mentioned a valid reason for his not mentioning the Magi and it is obvious that in omitting them, he had also to omit what followed; therefore he closes the infancy with the brief summary in 2:39-40, as was his custom. We do not know why Matthew gives only Joseph’s side of these events, but in the humility of faith and of true scholarship we must accept the unknowns, and not see them as barriers to accepting two independent and greatly complementary accounts that do not contradict each other.
There is a practical point that also ought to be mentioned: the evangelists had to limit the length of their writing. There are several factors at play here. First, unlike speaking into an electronic recorder as modern writers do, composition was not an easy matter in the evangelists’ day. These men were probably not greatly blessed with leisure. Second, the size of the finished product had to be considered because reproduction was a highly expensive enterprise. Moreover, it had to be short enough to be portable on a scroll. The papyrus scroll of Luke’s Gospel, the longest of the four, is estimated at 31-32 ft (9-10 m), as compared with Matthew’s at 30 ft. (9 m), Mark’s at 19 ft. (5.8 m), and John’s at 23.5 ft. (7.1 m). For comparison, Plato’s Republic is approximately half the length of Luke’s Gospel. These considerations of skill, cost and length would urge each evangelists to select only those events he thought important for his audience.
The most fundamental question, however, is the purpose of the evangelists in writing about the Infancy at all. According to some scholars who do not accept the historicity of these narratives, the two evangelists added these accounts to the general outline as presented by Mark’s (or some earlier) Gospel. The argument is that this was done in order to bolster plausibility: the need to show that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and to demonstrate that he had a birth worthy of the Son of God, as would be expected both by the Jews and the Gentiles.
However, since this material had not been a part of the apostolic preaching (as recorded by the sketchy information from the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles) the only conclusion is that the evangelists exercised greater freedom of composition in the infancy narratives. This “greater freedom” — say certain critics — impelled Matthew and Luke to compose dramatizations of the belief in Jesus as Son of God and as the Messiah rather than to search out and relate purely factual events.
Yet it is baseless to argue that the two evangelists made up such stories to impress the Jews. The Jews’ strongest objection to Christ was that He claimed to be the Son of God, and this is why the Jewish leaders condemned Him to death. As for His being the Messiah, He did not conform to their idea of the Messiah — a Messiah they continued to expect even after Jesus, as we can see from Simon bar Kokhba, a false messiah of the revolt of A.D. 132-135. No amount of embellishing Jesus’ birth could change that expectation. If Jews were not converted by the plain fact of the Resurrection, they were not going to be converted by stories of angels appearing in private or to shepherds (whom the rabbis considered “sinners”) or in dreams.
The same truth applies also to the Gentiles. The stumbling blocks to Gentile belief was not a humble birth that somehow had to be painted over in bright colors. The obstacles were the cross, “a stumbling block to the Jews and a folly to the Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23), and the Resurrection, as Paul found out at Athens (Acts 17:32). To a large degree, the pagan world of that time had lost faith in its own myths. Therefore, fictitious stories of a miraculous birth and visits by angels, as well as mysterious foreign visitors, would not only have been unbelievable in themselves to the Gentiles, but all the more so when they were the prelude to a criminal’s death on a cross and a dead man’s alleged return to life by his own power. On the other hand, since the Resurrection was winning converts in large numbers, why complicate matters by introducing fabrications?
Furthermore the basic assumption of some critics — that no facts of Jesus’ birth were known to the early Christians — goes against human experience. The apostles and the other early missionaries did not merely preach to the people on important occasions, as those recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. They lived with the people, sometimes for years. The people in day-to-day discussions would have asked about Jesus’ early life. Also, the Jews would have wanted to know about the Davidic descent and a birth in Bethlehem of a man who was known to be a Nazarean. The answers would have been the same as the events of our two Gospels; for surely the answers were not even contradicted by the later fallacies found in a pseudo-Matthew and a pseudo-Luke, as the critics hold. There was no turmoil in the early Church about the Infancy Narratives as there clearly was in the attempt to impose the Mosaic Law on the Gentile Christians. We can therefore safely conclude that the facts of the Infancy were known well enough to be fully accepted when they were presented in writing.
We can see that the people were interested in the Infancy Narrative by the space that St. Luke gives to it: one verse more than what he wrote about the passion and death of Jesus, that is, one tenth of his whole Gospel.
It has become the fashion to say that we must not expect from those times the same accuracy in writing that we now expect from a highly motivated biographer or reporter. There is some truth in this, however such words as “truth,” “carefulness,” and “accuracy,” do not lose their meaning just because they were used 2,000 years ago, nor was the love for truth foreign to antiquity.
The purpose of the evangelists was principally centered around the person of Christ and His message, and they chose events and words which they considered important for that purpose. But the purpose must be distinguished from the means. For example, in a criminal trial the lawyer for the defense will try to free an innocent client: a good purpose. However, he can either use the truth skillfully to prove his client’s innocence (a good means) or he can introduce fabricated evidence (an unethical means).
Luke told his friend Theophilus that “having followed all things closely (or carefully)” he was writing this “orderly account” so that his friend may “know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed” (1:3-4). He would not, therefore, almost immediately add events and teachings which the Apostles had not preached. For such a deliberately produced and unfounded dramatization, he would be telling his friend a lie. But we cannot think that a man who suffered the hardships, as well as the company and confidence, of St. Paul would have a different idea of truth than that great Apostle had or than we have.
Other objections to the Infancy Narratives often seem to be made almost for the purpose of making objections. For instance there is the claimed inconsistency because in Matthew the angel speaks only to Joseph, while in Luke he speaks only to Mary. To satisfy these critics the angel may well have obliged them and spoken only to Joseph, let us say, and then Mary would have found herself pregnant without knowing why or how, and would have had to learn the reason from Joseph. But such was not the case.
Also the two angelic appearances are easily explained by applying God’s general plan to the situation. By Joseph’s marriage to Mary, even before they came to live under the same roof, he became the head of the family, and thus it was most fitting that he should also be informed. This then leaves Mary free to lead a normal life like the rest of us — thus also receiving greater credibility by the fact that she is not constantly having visions. Regarding the two ways in which the messages came (a vision and a dream), God was not dealing directly with Matthew and Luke, but with Mary and Joseph.
Another objection is that “certainly none of the apostolic preachers of the Jewish community who accompanied Jesus was present at His birth.” This is to assume that, contrary to the man (Luke) who lived in those times, there were no men or women living who were “eyewitnesses” (1:2). This limiting of acceptable witnesses to the “apostolic preachers” is inexplicably strange, when some witnesses in Bethlehem and Ein Karem would surely have survived, in addition to those who had not survived but had retold the events many times to their children and to others. And of course there is Mary herself. Enough of these people corroborating one another would exhibit the careful diligence that Luke implies in his prologue. Luke also says that “Mary kept these things to herself,” which may suggest that no one knew about some of them until some time later.
There really should be no reasonable doubt that the events took place as told by Luke. Events like the census, the apparition to the shepherds and the visit of the Magi, with the consequent slaughter of the children by Herod, could not be hidden and would be remembered by many people, even if the events did not possess the political importance to be recorded in “official” history. Later, many of the people of Jerusalem would reject Christ. As a result, no account that fabricated extraordinary persons and events would have gone uncontested (and rightly so). Such duplicity or credulousness would have caused the whole edifice of primitive Christianity to collapse.
Yet the fact is that none of the external elements of the Infancy Narrative as found in these two Gospels were specifically attacked by Jews of the apostolic period. This is important and argues for a general acceptance of the external facts as they were surely known in these early times. Here silence is a credible witness.
The accusations against the young Church, as we find them in the Acts of the Apostles, deal mostly with the breaking of the Law of Moses and disrespect for the Temple, as well as blasphemy. But besides these matters, which affected their own religious beliefs, the Jewish leaders had to make a direct reply to the claims of this new sect which was making substantial in-roads among their people. In regard to the resurrection of Jesus they had the story about the Apostles stealing the body of Jesus from the tomb (Mt 28:11-15). Why not also discredit Him by denying the stories about His origins? Thus: there had been no Roman census around the end of Herod’s reign; Jesus was not born in Bethlehem; there had been no Magi seeking him because of a star; he was not related to John the Baptist; there had been no slaughter of baby boys by Herod, and the family never went to Egypt but lived in Nazareth all their lives.
Yet there is no record that such allegations were made, and it would have been easy at the time to prove them if they were true. On the other hand the Jews could easily see the problem if they made allegations, knowing the facts to be true. For instance there is no conclusive evidence that they attempted to accuse Jesus of being illegitimate. Such a story surfaced in the late second century by a pagan Celsus, who doubtfully attributed it to an unmentioned Jew (See Origen, Contra Celsus 1.28,32,39). According to this, Joseph divorced Mary who then wandered about and had her child secretly. This (if it had been produced earlier) would easily have been disproved by the people of Nazareth and Bethlehem. Strangely, such a defense was imagined in an apocryphal book called The Acts of Pilate, which was composed in its first form about A.D. 350, although some version of a work by this name was known to Justin Martyr around 148 A.D (I Apol. 35,48). In this fabrication, devout Jews from Nazareth appeared at Jesus’ trial before Pilate to deny the allegation made by Annas and Caiaphas that Jesus was illegitimate, and apparently convinced Pilate (ibid. II:3,4). The Jews in the apostolic age could imagine the same outcome as this, and so they prudently avoided false public charges. Thus they failed to make any open accusation which would influence the people against Jesus as the Messiah: Davidic descent and born in Bethlehem. And thus by their silence they indirectly helped to prove the truth of the Infancy Narrative.
Finally, the objection is made that the Infancy Narrative is too full of the marvelous, as compared with the rest of the Gospels. In the first place the charge is false: for instance the many days when Jesus cured great numbers, not to speak of His Resurrection, as well as the three others recorded. As to the coming of the angels, these are meant by God to be extraordinary, and that is why they occur in the Infancy Narrative. It is, after all, the greatest event ever to happen. Should not God give it special emphasis? We celebrate birthdays in various special ways. Shall we deny God that privilege? TP
Father Cole, O.P., prior of St. Gertrude’s Priory in Cincinnati, Ohio, is adjunct professor of theology at Mt. St. Mary’s of the West Seminary.