Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah.
Introduction, p. 25-41

(Detailed summary)


The infancy narratives are limited to two chapters each in Luke and Matthew, out of a total of 89 chapters in the gospels, but their importance is greater than their length. These accounts have shaped the doctrine of Jesus as truly God and truly man among many Christians, but the presence of many wonderful scenes has raised the question of their historicity, which critical scholarship has addressed.

The question must first be answered: how were the gospels composed? It is first the death and resurrection of Jesus that was preached, and therefore it is the account of the passion of Jesus that was composed first, to which were added later, for the needs of catechesis, collections of sayings, parables, and accounts of miracles. An example is the gospel of Mark, which begins with the baptism of Jesus and was composed around the year 67. It is only much later, probably out of curiosity, or for apologetic reasons in the face of Jews for whom Jesus could not be the messiah being from Nazareth, or for theological reasons in connection with the Old Testament, that the infancy narratives were composed. And it is because of their Christological value that these stories were integrated into the gospel accounts to serve as an introduction. This is the case of the gospels of Luke and Matthew composed around the year 80.

The infancy narratives are the result of a long Christological process. In fact, it was at the resurrection that it was discovered that God had made him Christ and Lord, this Jesus who met with so much opposition and led a life of itinerant preaching before being condemned. But later on, Christians became aware that this Christ and Lord was already Christ and Lord at his baptism and at the beginning of his ministry. This is the picture we have in Mark. And afterwards, Christian reflection came to the conclusion that if Jesus, from the beginning of his ministry, was Christ and Lord, he was certainly Christ and Lord from his conception. This is the picture we have in Luke and Matthew through their infancy narratives. Later, around the year 90, it is concluded that if Jesus is indeed the son of God, he was so long before his birth, in a pre-existing life. This is the picture John gives us.

But to carry back into the past an understanding of Jesus obtained only at the resurrection raises problems about the historicity of the stories that emerge. If Mary, Joseph, Herod, the Magi, and the shepherds know Jesus' identity from childhood, why is everyone unaware of this identity when Jesus begins his ministry? Thus, critical scholarship proceeded to a close analysis of the infancy narratives to uncover many contradictory details and concluded that it was impossible for both Luke's and Matthew's narratives to be historical, since they contradicted each other. In trying to understand what they meant by their narratives, it was discovered that they were in fact a rewriting of Old Testament narratives, that they were in a sense Christian "midrash", seeking to convey how the origins of Jesus fulfilled what had been foretold in the Old Testament. In short, they are a vehicle for the theology of the evangelist. And in this sense, they are as important as the passion narratives.

Scholarship and the Infancy Narrative

Two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke, begin with a narrative about the conception, birth and infancy of Jesus. Each devotes two chapters of unequal length to this, with Luke's chapters being much more extensive. Although they total only four of the 89 chapters in the gospels, their importance is greater than their length.

For Orthodox Christians, the infancy narratives helped shape their doctrine about Jesus as the son of God from his conception, while allowing them to visualize his humanity in his humble birth. Artists, storytellers, and poets have drawn heavily on them. On the other hand, stories such as the frequent appearance of angels, the virginal conception, the wonder star that leads the magi and the prodigious wisdom of the child Jesus have been the object of rationalist mockery. While the latter may reflect disbelief in the supernatural, it does reflect observations from critical scholarship on the problem of the historicity of infancy narratives.

It is therefore appropriate to begin this commentary with a simplified presentation of the development of scholarly understanding of infancy narratives. This journey through the past history of scholarship will force the reader to live the same experience in himself. Three stages can be distinguished: A) The realization that the infancy narratives diverge significantly from the rest of the gospels; B) The fact that the Luke and Matthew narratives diverge from each other creates a serious problem about their historical value; C) The perception that these narratives are primarily a vehicle for the theology and Christology of the evangelists relativizes the question of their historical value.

  1. The Infancy Narratives and the Rest of the Gospels

    To understand why the infancy narratives took so long to become part of the gospels, we must first answer the question: how did the gospels come about?

    1. The Formation of the Gospels

      The gospels were written beginning with the end, i.e., the death and resurrection of Jesus was preached first, for this was the most striking salvific action of God in Jesus (see, for example, Acts 2:23.32; 3:14-15; 4:10; 10:39-40; and 1 Cor 15:3-4). It was around this preaching that an account of Jesus' passion began to take shape. To support the faith of those who embraced the Christian faith, Christian preachers turned their attention to the actions and words of Jesus from the tradition about his ministry. This resulted in collections of sayings, parables and miracles that were later grouped together to form an account of Jesus' ministry. This grouping did not follow a chronological order, but a logical one, because none of the evangelists was an eyewitness to Jesus' ministry. The earliest example is the gospel according to Mark composed in the late 60s, say around 67, shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, a gospel that begins with the baptism and the beginning of his preaching and ends with the announcement of his resurrection after his death. Mark tells us nothing about the birth and youth of Jesus, and does not even name his father (Joseph). The same pattern is found in the fourth gospel which, after an introductory hymn, begins with John the Baptist's testimony about Jesus and ends with the appearances of the resurrected Jesus; John tells us nothing about the birth of Jesus and does not even give us the name of his mother (Mary).

      What guided the choice of narrative elements in the formation of the gospels? It was the need to make known the core message of salvation; biographical interest was far from being primary. It is therefore wrong to consider the gospels as "lives of Jesus" in the biographical sense.

      But then why were infancy narratives composed and why were they incorporated into the gospels? First, the reason for their composition.

      1. Curiosity certainly played a role in the composition of both canonical and apocryphal stories: people wanted to know the family, the ancestors and the birthplace of the master.

      2. There are also apologetic reasons that explain certain aspects of the stories. For example, it was necessary to respond to the Jewish argument that Jesus could not be the messiah because he was from Nazareth, or that he was an illegitimate child (hence the virginal conception).

      3. there are theological reasons why, for example in Matthew, the infancy narrative was modeled on the story of the patriarch Joseph with his dreams who goes to Egypt, as well as the story of the birth of Moses who is saved from the wicked Pharaoh. All of this helped to develop a Christian understanding of Jesus as the messiah who relives the story of his people.

      Second, why were these stories incorporated into the gospels of Matthew and Luke? It is likely that Matthew and Luke saw the Christological implications of these stories about the birth of Jesus that were already circulating, as well as the possibility of incorporating them into a composition of their own to convey a message about Jesus the son of God acting for the salvation of humanity. Therefore, it was only natural that these compositions should constitute an introduction to their gospel.

    2. The Development of Christology

      In the period before the composition of the gospels, the resurrection was the main moment of revelation and proclamation of Jesus' identity. It was at this moment that God made him Lord, messiah, and son of God (Acts 2:32,36; 5:31; 13:32-33; Rom 1:3-4; Phil 2:8-9). This resurrection was in contrast to the obscurity and limited nature of his ministry. Before his resurrection, even his disciples had no clear vision of his identity. But with time and the development of Christian thinking, it was deduced that this messiah and son of God discovered at the resurrection was already son of God during his ministry. It was at this time that a gospel like Mark's began to be written, around the year 67. Thus Mark shows his readers that Jesus was already the son of God at his baptism, but that his disciples never perceived this identity throughout his life, and that Jesus himself never clearly revealed it to his disciples; only after his death does a human witness reveal the mystery: "Truly this was the son of God" (Mk 15:39).

      The evolution of theological reflection will continue over time, so that, for example, for Matthew (around the year 80) it is during his ministry that the disciples will recognize the identity of Jesus (see Mt 14:33 on the confession of the disciples at the end of the account of the walk on the water). Then Matthew and Luke (around the same time) will push this recognition of Jesus' identity even further until the conception in Mary's womb: the same vocabulary is used as at the resurrection: the divine proclamation, the begetting as son of God, the role of the Holy Spirit. Later, with the fourth gospel (around the year 90), the recognition of his identity goes beyond his conception to a pre-existing life.

      In this context, we understand that the infancy narratives are part of a long Christological process, and that it is normal that they appeared so late. Once inserted into the gospels, they give them a biographical flavor: they begin with the conception and birth of Jesus, continue with his ministry, and end with his death and resurrection. However, their insertion poses a problem: if, according to the infancy narratives, Herod and all Jerusalem knew about the birth of the Messiah-king, why is no one thereafter aware of his marvelous origin and why are they surprised by his behavior (Mt 13:54-55), and why does Herod's son ignore everything about him (Mt 14:1-2)? If Jesus' identity was clearly revealed to his parents, why do the disciples not perceive it with the same clarity during his ministry, while his parents are still alive? Mary herself seems to be left out of Jesus' true family (Mt 12:46-50). If, according to Luke, John the Baptist was his cousin who recognized his identity even before he was born (Lk 1:41,44), why does he give no indication during his ministry of prior knowledge, and is even confused by his action (Lk 7:19)? In fact, all this shows that the narratives of Jesus' ministry were formed before the creation of the infancy narratives, and when the latter were inserted, little effort was made to harmonize everything and to streamline the gospel's narrative.

  2. B.The Infancy Narratives as History

    1. The Problem of Corroborating Witnesses

      The main content of the gospel material comes from the memory of those who accompanied him since his baptism and which has been transmitted in the form of a tradition. But how do we know what happened at Jesus' birth? The gospels as a whole show us that the people among whom Jesus was raised knew nothing about an extraordinary childhood. Some imagine that the tradition about the childhood comes from Jesus' parents. But Joseph never appears during Jesus' ministry and we can say with some certainty that he was already dead. As for Mary, she never appears near the disciples during Jesus' ministry. While it is not impossible that Mary is the source of the Lucan material of the infancy narrative, it is unlikely that she is the source of the Matthean material where she plays a secondary role to Joseph. In the second century it was believed that James, the brother of Jesus, could be a plausible source on the childhood of Jesus, but the work attributed to him, the Protevangelium of James, is highly legendary with inaccuracies, and is more folklore. In short, nothing is known about a tradition of infancy narratives that could be corroborated by witnesses.

    2. The Problem of Conflicting Details

      Thus, we are faced with three options when confronted with the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew: either their two narratives would be historical; or one would be historical and the other a freer composition; or both represent a non-historical dramatization. To make a decision, one must compare the two accounts to see if they confirm each other or contradict each other. For an agreement between the two narratives would confirm the existence of a common tradition that precedes the infancy narratives. The following is a list of eleven points shared by the two narratives.

      1. The parents of Jesus are Joseph and Mary who are legally engaged or married, without yet living together or having sexual relations (Mt 1: 18; Lk 1: 27.34)
      2. Joseph is of Davidic descent (Mt 1: 16.20; Lk 1: 27.32; 2: 4)
      3. An angel announces the upcoming birth of the child (Mt 1:20-23; Lk 1:30-35)
      4. Mary did not conceive the child through sexual intercourse with a husband (Mt 1:20,23,25; Lk 1:34)
      5. The conception is done by the Holy Spirit (Mt 1: 18.20; Lk 1: 35)
      6. The name of the child (Jesus) comes from a directive of the angel (Mt 1: 21; Lk 1: 31)
      7. The angel affirms that Jesus will be Savior (Mt 1:21; Lk 2:11)
      8. The birth of the child occurs after the parents have lived together (Mt 1:24-25; Lk 2:5-6)
      9. The birth takes place in Bethlehem (Mt 2:1; Lk 2:4-6)
      10. The birth is chronologically linked to the reign of Herod the Great (Mt 2:1; Lk 1:5)
      11. The child is raised in Nazareth (Mt 2:23; Lk 2:39)

      It is remarkable that the common points in Matthew are concentrated in one section (Mt 1:18 - 2:1). As for the rest, everything is different: his genealogy bears no resemblance to Luke's, his section Mt 2:2-22 has no parallel in Luke just as Luke's ch. 2 has no parallel in Matthew. Matthew focuses on events not mentioned in Luke, such as the star, the magi, Herod's plot against Jesus, the massacre of the children of Bethlehem and the flight into Egypt. If there was originally only one tradition, how could it be fragmented into two such different accounts? And if Matthew had Joseph as his source, why doesn't he mention the annunciation? And if Luke had Mary as his source, why doesn't he mention the arrival of the magi and the flight into Egypt?

      We must therefore recognize that we are faced with two accounts, not only different, but contrary to each other on many points of detail:

      • According to Lk 1:26; 2:39: Mary lives in Nazareth and it is the census of Augustus that explains a trip to Bethlehem where her child will be born; in Mt 2:11 there is no indication of a trip to Bethlehem, since Bethlehem seems to be their permanent residence. The only journey Matthew mentions is to Egypt.
      • Luke's statement (2:22.39) that the family returned peacefully to Nazareth soon after his birth is irreconcilable with Matthew's statement that the child was about two years old when the family left Bethlehem to go to Egypt and was even older when he returned to Nazareth.

      We must conclude, therefore, that of the three options mentioned above, we must eliminate the option that would consider the two narratives to be totally historical.

      Moreover, a close analysis of the narratives shows the impossibility that they are totally historical:

      • Matthew's account contains public events so extraordinary that they should have left traces in the Jewish annals or elsewhere in the New Testament: King Herod and all of Jerusalem being overwhelmed by the birth of the messiah in Bethlehem; a star moving through Jerusalem and stopping over a house in Bethlehem; the massacre of all the male children of Bethlehem
      • Luke's reference to a general census of the Roman Empire under Augustus that would affect all of Palestine before Herod's death is certainly erroneous, as is his understanding of the Jewish customs of presenting the child and purifying the mother (2:22-24).

      Today, it is better understood that certain scenes, not historically plausible, are in fact a rewriting of scenes from the Old Testament. Examples:

      • The story of the magi who saw the star of David rising in the East is an echo of the story of Balaam, a type of magi from the East who saw a star rising out of Jacob
      • Herod's search for the child Jesus and slaughter of the male children of Bethlehem is a reuse of the behavior of Pharaoh who wants to take the life of the child Moses and slaughters the male children of the Israelites
      • The account of Joseph, Jesus' father, who has dreams and goes to Egypt is a reuse of the account of the patriarch Joseph who does the same thing
      • In Luke, the description of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, is borrowed, sometimes almost word for word, from the Old Testament description of Abraham and Sarah

      It was at this point in the history of infancy narrative research that the term "midrash," a Hebrew term that describes a Jewish practice of interpreting the Old Testament by popularizing and expanding the biblical narratives, came into use. However, while the Jewish midrash seeks to make these ancient narratives intelligible, the infancy narratives seek rather to convey how Jesus' origins fulfill what was foretold in the Old Testament. And in both Matthew and Luke, the infancy narratives serve as a transition between the Old Testament and the gospels, and for the Church it allows for Christological preaching using the imagery of Israel.

  3. The Infancy Narratives as Vehicles of the Evangelist's Theology

    Biblical scholarship has now come to focus on what the gospel author intended to say and on the theological value of the infancy narratives. In the last twenty years, research has focused on the role of the stories within the final edition of the gospels: what message are the evangelists trying to convey to the church through these stories?

    Throughout this commentary, one leitmotif will recur: the infancy narratives make sense in their respective gospels. Regardless of their historical value or whether they are based on an earlier tradition, Matthew and Luke thought they were appropriate to introduce the mission and importance of Jesus. To give them less value than the rest of the gospel would be to betray the intention of the evangelists that the infancy narratives were the appropriate vehicle for conveying their message. But since they refer to material that was less fixed than the rest of the gospel, the evangelists allowed themselves more freedom in their compositional work. We are looking at masterpieces, for one will search in vain elsewhere in the gospels for such a succinct and imaginatively presented theology.