The Christmas Story (I). Introduction.

[Part 2 is here.]
[You can find the whole series here.]

This begins a series of posts on Jesus’ birth, and how the New Testament tells that story. The Twelve Days of Christmas, New Testament style. Your December bedtime reading fodder. No guarantee of twelve installments, however. See you every evening for the next 12? days.

The canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John make up about 40% of the New Testament. That 40% amounts to about ninety chapters. Of those ~ninety, four discuss the birth and childhood of Jesus. This is a tiny section of the New Testament, but it has had an enormous effect on human culture and of course, Mormonism is a subset of that culture. Whatever one thinks about the commercialization of Christmas, it cannot be denied that Christmas and the Christmas story stand at the center of much of religious consciousness.

For all the cumulative media attention to the characters in the birth story of Jesus, there is very little information about them, yet a huge fraction of Christian religious art, music, and drama derives from those four strange chapters. Nearly anyone you ask knows something from these four chapters in the New Testament. You can read all of Mark, and never discover the name of Jesus’ legal father and the Gospel of John never mentions the name of Jesus’ mother. Outside of those four chapters, two from Luke, two from Matthew, there is nothing about birth at Bethlehem and all the buildup for it, like the birth of John the Baptist, etc. The only thing Paul ever says is something to the effect that Jesus was born of a woman and under the Law. He was a human Jew. Paul offers nothing else about Jesus’ birth.[1]

Matthew and Luke. They didn't work together. Matthias Stom -1635

Matthew and Luke. They didn’t work together. Matthias Stom -1635


In the rest of Matthew and Luke you have concatenated vignettes of Jesus. Parables, healings, sermons, but no real sequence of development, not much character narrative. You can easily shuffle these vignettes around and it doesn’t much effect what’s going on, and in fact the Evangelists do this. That said, the Gospel’s are, or can be classed as, narrative, with characteristic styles and only the occasional breaking of the fourth wall. The stories create tension in us as we read and listen, because the Evangelists, the story tellers, know the end game, and they mostly do not let us in on how aspects of the story play out in advance, even though they warn us how the story will turn out. There is still suspense, even when we’ve read many times.

But the two story lines about Jesus’ birth and childhood, one from Matthew, one from Luke, are genuine uninterrupted narratives, they form cohesive (though not with each other) scripts. The rest of the New Testament doesn’t really care about these narratives, Paul doesn’t care about them. Perhaps he didn’t even know them. What purpose do they serve (and there’s a kind of paradox here)?

Something similar happens with Moses. His career as leader of Israel really doesn’t need a childhood story attached to it, but that story shows how God prepared things for the great events of the exodus. And people undoubtedly wanted to know: how did this all begin? Was the greatness anticipated? What was the protological foundation? We want such a thing to exist. Mormons never seem to tire of hearing about Joseph Smith’s childhood operation (though why we don’t repeat the story of his journey to New York is odd I think) and we draw all sorts of conclusions from it. So one expects an anticipatory narrative of Jesus, and we are not disappointed in that. But probably that’s not just a result of curiosity. Otherwise one might expect more stuff about Jesus’ boyhood. We only get one or two stories in the canon about that. This is also odd I think, and apparently so did a lot of other people because in the centuries after Jesus, stories of that missing time do appear.

Aside from curiosity, these stories have something important to say about the gospel. They identify Jesus. Matthew and Luke tell their birth stories because they have something important to say about the ministry, suffering, and death of Christ. The stories serve as a bridge between what God did for Israel through the life of Jesus, and what he did for Israel in the the Law and the Prophets. The logic of Matthew and Luke probably stems from their reading of Mark. Mark was probably produced around 60AD, maybe in Rome, Matthew in the 70s, Luke perhaps in the 80s or 90s (some date it as late as 150—John, 90s-100AD or so–there is a manuscript fragment of John dating from about 135AD). Luke and Matthew read Mark and find that Mark begins with the baptism of Jesus. There is a lot of material in Mark, presentation that they don’t care for, so they smooth that out, but they still feel the need of a prologue.

Luke and Matthew deploy the infancy of Jesus to retell the gospel story as a part of, a continuation of, the Old Testament (Patriarchs, Kings). This largely results from a need to explain Jesus to gentiles. Jesus was not the first manifestation of God working among human beings. That work formed a kind of consistent story from the beginning. The God who Jesus called Father, was also the God of Abraham (the Old Testament identity of Jesus is a complex thing I’ll avoid here).

The Lukan and Mathean birth stories have a somewhat checkered history among twentieth-century scholars. They are sometimes written off as inconsistent with the rest of the gospel theology.[2]

This illustrates the disconnection between the infancy stories and the rest of their respective Gospels. Both Evangelists seem to have access to some very vivid stories surrounding Jesus, particularly Matthew, a star proclaims the birth, some gentiles, Magi, coming from the East, a wicked King who tries to murder Jesus and kills babies.[3] In Luke, we get some sense of the audience for his narrative, imitating Roman Imperial style, he seems to steal text from the monuments to Ceasar Augustus.[4]

Next time: A closer look at Matthew.

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[1] I’m exaggerating a bit. Paul obviously knows some of the tradition about Jesus’ birth, and reveals it purposely in his letter to the Romans. More on that when I get to Luke at some point. And John knows about Bethlehem (John 7:41ff).

[2] For example see, Hans Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke (Fortress, 1982), introduction. Conzelmann says the birth story in Luke does not fit his reconstruction of Luke’s theology, so he ignores it. That said, it’s probably not ignored based on historical criticism.

[3] It’s almost the same with Matthew’s reports of the events at the end of Jesus’ life. There are close analogues with the birth and death stories in terms of events and antagonists. At the end of Matthew, there is plenty of blood in the story, earthquakes, the dead rise, signs in heaven, on earth, under the earth. These are all very memorable things, and no doubt that was part of the point for Matthew. It’s only in the birth and death narratives where you find the title, King of the Jews.

[4] See Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Anchor, 1999), 416, 665. I will use Brown’s work in what follows as well as his Introduction to the New Testament. The latter has important uses for Latter-day Saints in my opinion. I’ll cite some other items as I go along too. Brown’s work doesn’t appeal to newer narrative criticism much. That work sees the Gospel of Mark as a more unified piece than earlier text critics did. However, one must not get the impression that there is uniform agreement in scholarship on these subjects. There’s a lot done, a lot to do, and a lot left to rethink.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I love Christmas posts! Looking forward to this series.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, WVS. This is really great.

  3. Thanks, guys.

  4. I’ve listened to a couple of the Great Courses about various NT topics. One is The Making of the NT Canon by Bart Ehrmann. He explains about the gospels as follows: Ancient biographies focused less on names and dates than modern ones, and they give no sense of formative influences on a person or on the psychological development of his or her
    character.

    I think I recall in the lecture that he states that before Freud and modern psychology no one though that your life as a child (formative influences) was important (unless you did quite noteworthy things as a child). It was only with modern psychology that bios started to include childhood stories and the accompanying attempts to draw conclusions from those events (as we do with JSJs childhood leg operation). Anciently, people did not attempt to analyze your childhood to gain insight into you, hence, no childhood stories in ancient biographies.

    I’d never thought of it in that before but that does make sense.

  5. Interesting point on Freud, David.