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"Chapter 12: Genre of Infancy Gospels"


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What is the genre of the Infancy Gospels (chapters 1 and 2 of Matthew and Luke)? Many scholars in recent times have been inclined-to say that it is midrash, a rather loose Hebrew genre which investigates hidden meanings and attempts to apply them to new situations. If the Infancy Gospels are midrash, many things in the narratives-the star, the Magi-may not really be historical.1

R. E. Brown (The Birth of the Messiah, Doubleday, 1977) seems to think that no one has fully identified the genre of the Infancy Gospels. He speaks of these chapters as theological introductions built on few facts. Luke, Brown thinks, built up a few scant bits of information by making his account parallel to Old Testament incidents (pp. 37-38, 557-562).

Brown sees evidence of unhistorical character in several things. In the Gospel of St. Matthew (2:11), unlike that of Luke, Brown notes that "Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem of Judea, and have their home there" (p. 124). "Matthew," writes Brown, "does not tell us precisely where in Bethlehem Jesus was born, but verse 11 [of chapter 2 of Matthew] suggests the birthplace was the house where Mary (and Joseph) lived. The Lucan version ... wherein Mary and Joseph were visitors to Bethlehem without a place to stay... led to the subsequent Christian tradition that Jesus was born in a cave" (p. 166).

Brown also thinks that the census mentioned by St. Luke could not be historical (pp. 547-555). He says that "a journey to Egypt is quite irreconcilable with Luke's account of an orderly and uneventful return from Bethlehem to Nazareth shortly after the birth of the child" (p. 225). Brown also notes that "the angel speaks to Joseph in Matthew. while he speaks to Mary in Luke" (p. 35).

Brown's objections are very easily answered. In Matthew 2:11, we find the wise men "going into the house [where] they saw the child with Mary his mother." Mary and Joseph did come to Bethlehem for the registration. Not finding a suitable place for the birth of the child, they took refuge in a cave. But the Magi need not have arrived at once. The fact that Herod ordered a slaughter of children two years of age and under suggests there was some lapse of time. In that interval came the Presentation in the Temple and a return to Bethlehem. Although they did not intend to settle there permanently, Joseph would obviously have found a house there instead of going back to the cave. It was in that house that the Magi found them.

The Greek apographe is broader than the English census. It could mean a different kind of enrollment. A new study The Birth of Christ Recalculated, E. L. Martin (2nd ed. FBR Publications, Pasadena, 1980), concludes that it really was a registration to profess allegiance to Augustus, in preparation for his receiving the great title Pater Patriae ("Father of His Country") in 2 B.C. A restudy of astronomical data and of an old inscription, the Lapis Tiburtinus, leads to the conclusion that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem in September of 3 B.C., probably on September 11. Martin's work, which has received good reviews, readily solves the problems of the census. It, incidentally, also solves a number of previously unsolvable problems of the secular history of the time. (The ancient historian Josephus, in his Antiquities, places the death of Herod just after a lunar eclipse. But there had been several in the years we are concerned with.)

The journey to Egypt presents no problem either. Luke 2:39 is just a summary account with no indication at all of time. Scholars in other places (for example, in the Jerome Biblical Commentary 11, p. 229, on the problem of the relation of the Council of Jerusalem to statements by St. Paul) are quite willing to consider the possibility that Luke had telescoped two council meetings into one account.

Finally, Brown's worry over the fact that, in Matthew, the angel speaks to Joseph, while in Luke, he speaks to Mary is surprisingly inane. In Luke, the angel first brought the message to Mary, asking her consent. She, in humility, told no one, not even Joseph. So an angel had to be sent later to inform him.

On the contrary, there are strong reasons for believing in the factual character of the Infancy Gospels. St. Luke in his opening verses tells us that "many others have undertaken to draw up accounts" about Jesus. It is clear that Luke has consulted these other accounts and intends to be very careful. Would Luke, right after such a declaration of intent, immediately turn to so highly fanciful a genre as Brown thinks he does? John L. McKenzie, in general a friend of Brown's, in his review of The Birth of the Messiah, said: "One wonders how a gentile convert (or a gentile proselyte) could have acquired so quickly the mastery of the Greek Old Testament shown in the use of the Old Testament in Luke's infancy narratives. If Luke the physician had been able to study medicine with such success, he would have discovered a cure for cancer.... Luke must have had a source for his Old Testament texts and allusions; and as it is hard to think of such a collection of texts without a narrative for them to illustrate, a pre-Lucan infancy narrative is suggested, I beg to submit."2

Further evidence of Luke's great care for accuracy appears in an article, "Did St. Luke imitate the Septuagint?"3 Luke's Greek shows more Semitic influence (Hebrew or Aramic) than does the Greek of those New Testament writers who really were Semites. The strongest instance is in his use of apodotic kai, that is, inserting and to start the main clause. For example, Luke 5:1 says, "And it happened when the crowd pressed on Him to hear the word of God, and He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret." (Emphasis added. My translation-standard versions avoid reproducing Semitisms.) The word and is out of place in English. It was also out of place in normal Greek, and even in normal Aramaic. But Hebrew in the Old Testament commonly used it in certain situations (apodotic wau = and). Now the usual view has been that Luke resorted to such Semitisms to give his writing biblical flavor by imitating the Greek of the Septuagint (the old Greek version of the Old Testament). It would be much as if we were to inject thee, thou, etc., to lend our own writing a biblical flavor. But a statistical study shows Luke was not imitating the Septuagint, for an actual count of examples of apodotic kai in Luke shows that he used it only twenty to twenty-five percent of the times where he would have if he had been imitating the Septuagint, which almost always reproduces it when the Hebrew has the apodotic wau. Imagine the absurdity of someone today trying to give his work a biblical flavor by using thee and thou but using such expressions only about a quarter of the time! So Luke had a different reason. If we believe his claim to have used sources, he could have found documents in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Since Aramaic does not normally have the apodotic wau, the source of Luke's structure must be that he used Hebrew documents and translated them with extreme, really excessive care. The same phenomenon appears in some old Latin versions of Scripture made from Greek. These translations import Greek structures into Latin' and we know that this was done out of concern for complete accuracy. So Luke did use documents, used them with extreme care.

Vatican II, in its Constitution on Divine Revelation, taught: "Holy Mother the Church firmly and most constantly has held and does hold that the four Gospels we mentioned, whose historicity it unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand down what Jesus the Son of God, living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation.... The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting certain things out of many things handed down orally or in writing, making a synthesis of certain things, or explaining them with attention to the state of the churches, and retaining the form of proclamation, in such a way always that they communicated true and sincere things about Jesus to us" (par. 19). This statement of Vatican II makes no exception for the Infancy Gospels, thus they too are to be considered historical.4

Vatican II's Constitution on the Church, following up on this statement, treats the chief events of the Infancy Gospels as fully factual: "This union of the Mother with the Son in the work of salvation is evident from the time of the virginal conception of Christ even to His death. In the first place, it is evident when Mary, arising in haste to visit Elizabeth, is greeted by her as blessed because of her faith ... [it is evident] at His birth, when the Mother of God joyfully showed her first-born Son-who did not diminish, but consecrated her virginal integrity-to the shepherds and the Magi" (par. 57). Note how unqualifiedly Vatican II speaks of even the shepherds and the Magi, though shortly before in paragraph 55, it had very carefully hedged its language by writing, "cf. Gen. 3:15 and cf. Is. 7:14," to avoid saying flatly that the human authors understood the words as Messianic, even though the Church "in the light of later and full revelation" sees more (par. 55).

In paragraph 56, Vatican II goes into much detail, and with great care, on the Annunciation: "The Father of mercies willed that the acceptance by the planned-for Mother should precede the Incarnation, so that thus, just as a woman contributed to death, so also a woman should contribute to life. Being adorned with the splendors of altogether singular holiness from the first instant of her conception, the Virgin of Nazareth, by command of God, is hailed by the angel of the Annunciation as 'full of grace' (cf. Lk. 1:28), and she responds to the heavenly messenger: 'I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word' (Lk. 1:38). And so Mary, the daughter of Adam, by consenting to the divine word, became the Mother of Jesus, and embracing the salvific will of God with full heart, held back by no sin, totally dedicated herself as the handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son."

The special precision employed by the Council appears again in the fact that it used cf. with Luke 1:28 but not with 1:38. In the former, the Council did, as we just saw, use the words "full of grace" for Luke 1:28, as it is in the Vulgate translation. The cr. seems to mean the Council did not wish to guarantee that translation-which is defensible yet debatable-while definitely making its own the thought that she was full of grace, whether that conclusion be derived from Luke I :28 or from other sources. In contrast, there is no cf. with Luke 1:38, which the Council accepts as fully true. Plainly, the Council treats the scene as fully historical, even in detail.

Pope Paul VI spoke strongly on the historicity of the Infancy Gospels (allocution of December 28, 1966, Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, IV, pp. 678-679, Vatican Press, 1966). He complained that some "try to diminish the historical value of the Gospels themselves, especially those that refer to the birth of Jesus and His infancy. We mention this devaluation briefly so that you may know how to defend with study and faith the consoling certainty that these pages are not inventions of people's fancy, but that they speak the truth. 'The Apostles,' writes one who understands these things, Cardinal Bea, 'had a true historical interest. We do not mean a historical interest in the sense of Greek and Roman historiography, that is, of a logically and chronologically arranged account that is an end in itself, but of a concern with past events as such and an intention to report and faithfully hand down things done and said in the past.' A confirmation of this is the very concept of 'witness,' 'testimony,' 'testify,' which in varied forms appears more than 150 times in the New Testament. The authority of the Council has not pronounced differently on this: 'The Sacred Authors wrote ... always in such a way that they reported on Jesus with sincerity and truth' (Constitution on Divine Revelation, par. 19)."

Nor is there any problem of accepting the account of Matthew 2:4-6 that King Herod could ask the Jewish scholars where Christ was to be born and get the correct answer. Micah 5:1-3 is entirely clear on that point. Further, there are Targums, ancient Jewish Aramaic translations plus commentary on the Old Testament. The date of these is debated. A reasonable conjecture in general would place them within a century before or after Christ. Regardless of the date, they are ancient and do show what the Jews could understand of the prophecies without the benefit of the hindsight of seeing them fulfilled in Christ, whom they did not accept. Samson H. Levey has gathered numerous texts recognized by the Jews as Messianic (The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 1974). Among others is Genesis 49: 10: "The scepter shall not pass from Judah, nor the mace from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs" (Jerusalem Bible). The Targum Neofiti is clearer: "Kings shall not be lacking from the house of Judah ... until the time at which King Messiah will come." Yes, there were Babylonian and Persian overlords earlier, but there was at least some kind of ruler from Judah up to Herod, in whose time Jesus was born.

The Virgin Mary, who of course would know these too, understood more fully, being full of grace. The words of the angel that her Son would "rule over the house of Jacob forever" would tell any Jew that the Son was the Messiah, for the Messiah was expected to live forever. When we add that He would be conceived by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit-language reminiscent of the words used to describe the Divine Presence filling the ancient tabernacle in the desert (Exodus 40:34-35)-and that "for this reason" (Greek dio, in Luke 1:35) He would be called "Son of God," it was not hard to see that the Son was not called that in the way any Jew could be so called, but in a strictly unique sense: the son produced by the Divine Presence.

Finally, we need not labor to reconcile the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. We know today that genealogies were a special genre in ancient times, and did not necessarily give actual physical descent. They could stand for other things.5 Artificiality is evident in the genealogy in Matthew. Verse 1:17 tells us we have sets of fourteen generations each in his list. The reason: the Hebrews used the alphabetic characters for numbers also. The word David could be read as fourteen.


1 A. Wright, The Literary Genre Midrash (Staten Island: Alba House, 1967).
2 National Catholic Reporter (December 2, 1977), p. 10.
3 W. Most, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 15 (July 1982), pp. 30-41.
4 The full force of these words appears from the history of the debates at the Council on the passage cited. See Beda Rigaux, "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: The New Testament," Vorgrimler, op. cit. pp. 252-261, especially 256-261.
5 Cf. Robert R. Wilson, "Between 'Azel' and 'Azel': Interpreting the Biblical Genealogies," Biblical Archaeologist 42.1 (Winter 1979), pp. 11-22.

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