Jesus of Nazareth
The world has never been the same since the birth of one man, Jesus of Nazareth. Very little is known of Jesus’ earlier family existence, particularly of his parents, Mary and Joseph. Interestingly, only two of the four canonical Gospels recount Jesus’ family origins before he began his teachings. The Gospel of Mark, believed by scholars to be the first Gospel to be written, commences at Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, when Jesus was an adult. Although John begins his Gospel by describing how the eternal Word transforms itself into flesh on earth, he does not delve into Jesus’ childhood or infancy.
Therefore, if one wishes to read narratives regarding Jesus’ birth from the New Testament, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are the only places one can turn to. When asked about the birth of Jesus, most people recall the coming of the magi who are guided by a star and bear gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus. Others remember shepherds inspired by angels to go and pay homage to their newborn king. While both replications are correct, one may be surprised to learn that they are not contained in both Gospels. Luke’s account does mention any magi following a star; likewise, Matthew makes no reference to shepherds.
Although these are only minor differences, many more do exist and create major problems for scholars trying to reconcile these contrasts. The narrative stories of Jesus’ birth may be somewhat different, yet, they do not necessarily contradict each other. This essay endeavors to illustrate a few of the similarities and differences of each evangelist’s infancy narrative by exploring the antecedents and setting of Jesus’ birth. From the four canonical Gospels, very little is known concerning Mary, the mother of Jesus, aside from the fact that she is pure and free from sin.
If one is interested in learning about her past, one must turn to the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of James. This Gospel begins by explaining Mary’s birth to Anna and Joachim in their old age. Anna becomes pregnant after she prays to God and dedicates Mary to the service of God in the temple. Afterwards, she is pledged to Joseph at the age of twelve by her guardian, Zechariah. The author of the Gospel says that she remains completely pure of heart and free from sin. Thereafter, the angelic annunciation takes place and the narrative continues similar to that of Matthew and Luke, with a few “exaggerations” along the way.
Her chastity is confirmed by the “Ordeal of Jealousy” prescribed in the Book of Numbers. Scholars believe this Gospel was written roughly around the fourth or fifth decade of the second century and its purpose was to confirm Mary’s purity and virginity, as many Christians have placed great importance on this belief. Although the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke do not agree on a few issues, both are in agreement that Jesus was born of a virgin. “The most difficult problem posed by the infancy Gospels is that of the virginal conception.
What is at issue in the case of angels, the star and dreams is merely the mode of communication. This is an area where the subtle dialectic of the relationships between the sign and the reality leaves room for a large range of hypotheses. “1 Moreover, Raymond E. Brown suggests that “the virginal conception was a well-known religious symbol for divine origins. Some scholars have supported this contention by pointing to stories of virginal conceptions in pagan or world religions; others have found instances of virginal conception in the traditions of Judaism. 2 The virginal conception is lacking in the Gospel of John, as the author focuses on a different theological approach based on a profound doctrine of pre-existence.
Furthermore, the virginal conception is also lacking in the Pauline writings. In Galatians, Paul writes: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, under the law” (Gal 4:4). It may have been appropriate in this passage to have written “born under a virgin,” however, Paul’s Christology does not parallel that of Matthew and Luke’s. All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel'” (Mt 1:22-23). The main argument skeptics use against Mary’s virginal conception lies within this passage. The author of the Gospel of Matthew persistently shows how Jesus is a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy; the previous quotation is fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. Matthew quotes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Jewish bible, which he also prefers when quoting other prophecies as well.
The Greek version reads, “A virgin (parthenos) shall conceive and bear a son” whereas the original Hebrew version reads, “A young woman (almah) shall conceive and bear a son” (Isa 7:14). Thus, the Septuagint is a mistranslation and there is no way of knowing if Matthew was aware of this or not. Skeptics believe that Matthew has based his entire narrative on this mistranslation and is therefore false; however, responses regarding this issue have been made. Firstly, a Hebrew copyist may have thought that his version was a mistake to him, as a virgin cannot conceive a child.
Thus, the copyist may have changed the word from parthenos to almah as it would make more sense. Moreover, the author of the Gospel of Matthew may have depended on his own translation from Hebrew into Greek. Lastly, it is of equal importance to note that Luke also mentions the virginal conception and the author of the Gospel does not show any signs of having borrowed the idea from Isaiah at all. Furthermore, there are no indications that Luke coincided with Matthew when each author was writing his own account, thus, Luke could not have borrowed the idea from Matthew.
Therefore, the two narrative accounts only provide reasonable textual proof of the virginal conception and also provide evidence that the early church was not in agreement on a consistent position regarding the issue. Matthew and Luke tracing Jesus’ Davidic ancestry through Joseph and not Mary acts as confirmation. Both infancy narratives in the New Testament attempt to trace Jesus’ ancestry; Matthew claims the lineage dates back to Abraham, whereas Luke believes his descent is rooted even earlier, to the age of Adam.
Here, the evangelists are trying to prove “the importance of the genealogy… hich is to claim the royal descent of Jesus through Joseph who is in any case the legal father. “3 By accomplishing this, the authors make Joseph an important figure and “present Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of David and the Son of Abraham, the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations. “4 It has been known for some time that the two genealogies composed by Matthew and Luke are not uniform with each other; they diverge at Solomon and Zerubbabel and do not converge until Joseph, the legal father of Jesus. Scholars are interested in both genealogies because their inaccuracies have been used to argue against Matthew and Luke’s credibility.
One of the main arguments skeptics ponder is why Matthew and Luke do not agree upon who Joseph’s father was, albeit Jacob or Eli. Many writers theorize that the difference may have occurred because Matthew may have traced the lineage through Joseph, while Luke composed his genealogy through Mary. Further references in Luke aid in proving this theory to be correct. “Jesus… was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi… ” (Lk 3:23-24). Other versions may read as follows: “was supposedly the son of Joseph” (Lk 3:23). Even Raymond E.
Brown, a well-known religious scholar, theorizes “that Luke may have utilized a family genealogy of Joseph instead of the post-monarchical genealogy used by Matthew. This would account for the complete difference between Luke and Matthew on Jesus’ post-Davidic lineage. “5 Some Christian scholars believe genealogy has no true merit because Jesus’ conception was by the Holy Spirit. Contrary to this belief, “Brown suggests that Jesus’ Davidic descent is one of the few historically accurate facts in the Infancy Narratives, although it too has been theologically developed. 6 Successful or not, the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke independently tried to prove Jesus’ descent back to King David in order to fulfil Jewish messianic prophecy. At the same time, both evangelists tried to place importance not only on Mary, but on Joseph, Jesus’ legal father, as well.
The evangelists were faced with a problem when composing infancy narratives about Jesus, specifically, about his birthplace. It was known that Jesus was from Nazareth, however, an Old Testament prophecy indicated that the coming Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, Judah. But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel” (Micah 5:2). The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke both agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, yet, the reason for this occurrence is unique to each author. In the Lukan version, Mary and Joseph are required to leave their hometown (which readers presume to be Nazareth) and depart to Bethlehem, in order to register for a worldwide census ordered by Caesar Augustus.
To emphasize their temporary stay in Bethlehem, Mary gives birth to Jesus in a manger because Joseph could not find room at the inn. The family travels to Jerusalem where they dedicate Jesus at the Temple and, after a month, return back to Nazareth. Historically speaking, however, this does not allow enough time for the Matthean Magi to pay homage to the newborn king. Instead, Luke writes of shepherds, enlightened by angels, visiting the child. Nor is there any mention of an escape to Egypt to escape the “slaughter of the innocents” imposed by Herod. In the Matthean version, Mary and Joseph already reside in Bethlehem.
This is confirmed by the visit of the Magi to their “house”, which suggests a sort of permanent dwelling. After the visit, the family flees to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Joseph is made aware that it is safe to return to his hometown by an angelic dream. Nevertheless, Joseph decides to relocate in the town of Nazareth (in Galilee) instead, as he learns that the ruler of Judea is Herod’s son, Archelaus, a ruler who is even worse. It is surprising to find that in Mark’s Gospel, the word ‘Bethlehem’ is no where to be found; as stated earlier, his account begins with Jesus’ baptism as an adult.
John’s Gospel makes only a single reference to the birthplace of Jesus and it is to deny a Bethlehemic birth. “Others said, ‘This is the Messiah. ‘ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived? ‘” (Jn 7:41). These findings help fuel the arguments of skeptics who hold that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, but was born in the town of where he grew up: Nazareth. Traditionally, in biblical writings and other works as well, one was usually identified in three different ways.
Firstly, one could be named after one’s ancestors, usually one’s father, i. e. , Jesus, son of Joseph. Secondly, one could be named after their profession, as in Joseph, the carpenter. Lastly, one could be named after their birthplace, i. e. , Saul of Tarsus, Simon of Sirene. In the New Testament, Jesus is known as the son of David, based on his genealogy and is called a carpenter, which is probable as being his earlier profession, based on his father. Moreover, his most popular title used by all four Gospels in the canon was Jesus of Nazareth, which skeptics claim as being his birthplace.
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that Jesus is never called ‘Jesus of Bethlehem’. Christian scholars argue against this statement by quoting the last verse of the second chapter of Matthew. “There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean'” (Mt 2:23). Matthew quotes from ‘The Rule of Emmanuel’ from the prophet of Isaiah to support his claim. “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Isa 11:1).
The etymology of Nazareth is ‘neser’, which means “a shoot”. “Jewish Christians developed from the technical Hebrew term neser = ‘Branch’ = Messiah and adjective nasorai = ‘Messianic One’, and applied this to Jesus. “7 Skeptics merely state that the prophecy that Matthew uses is too loosely based and does not hold true. In the narrative according to Matthew, readers become aware of a shocking and bloody incident known as “the slaughter of the innocents”. People had flooded the town of Bethlehem due to a worldwide census that was taking place and everyone was trying to claim descent from King David.
The astrologers of the time had made Herod aware that the year of the birth of the Messiah was at hand. Although Herod did not really believe in any astrologer’s forethought, the mere thought of a revolt against his empire would have caused him great suspicion and anxiety. Thus, to protect himself and his empire, he ordered the murder of all children two years and younger in Bethlehem. “Herod… sent and killed all the children two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Mt 2:16).
Those who are shocked at the fact that Herod would order such a slaughter might take heed in knowing that the event may have never occurred. A few arguments against the historicity of the “slaughter of the innocents” have been proposed. Firstly, Luke’s narrative fails to mention one word concerning Herod and the Magi and thus deems Matthew’s account to be unhistorical. Luke dedicates his work to Theophilus, who is believed to be a governor of a Roman province. Furthermore, he tries to persuade his readers (believed to be the Romans) that the Christian movement has been non-violent and altruistic.
When Luke accompanies Paul on his travel to Rome, he probably learned that Christianity was in danger of being declared as treasonable. Therefore, it is easy to see why Luke would have kept any knowledge of Herod or any pagan astrologers to himself and did not include them in his infancy narrative. The second, and most popular argument, declares that there is no mention of the “slaughter of the innocents” in any other texts outside of Matthew’s narrative, including Josephus’ Antiquities, which categorically mentions most of Herod’s heinous crimes.
Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote a 20-volume history of the Jews from their early beginnings up until Nero’s reign. He devoted many chapters of his history to Herod and recorded each of his crimes. However, historians who find the “slaughter of the innocents” to be fictional, find it surprising that there is no mention of its occurrence in Antiquities, especially since Josephus was very anti-Herod. The only logical argument that is presented is that Josephus believed that the crime was so heinous that he was disgusted to even mention the atrocity in his writings.
The differences between the infancy narratives recorded by the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are numerous, however, they never explicitly contradict each other. “The events narrated differ through almost 99% of the text. In the 132 verses of Luke 1-2 and the 47 of Matthew 1-2 the details they have in common occupy the space of about a single verse. The episodes are entirely different. “8 Matthew’s account depicts the visitation by the magi bearing gifts, the slaughter of the innocents by Herod and the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt.
Luke’s narrative includes the angelic pronouncement to Mary, a worldwide census and a visitation from nearby shepherds. One possible reason for the differences could be that birth records of individuals were considered unimportant. Jesus and family were aware of his lineage and birthplace and, at the time, would have sufficed. The details of the birth could have been gathered by unreliable sources that could explain why some major details are included and some are not. Another possibility, and the most logical, is that Matthew and Luke composed their accounts of Jesus’ life with specific audiences in mind.
Matthew’s Gospel was probably written for a Jewish audience and explains the constant fulfillment of prophecy. Thus, Herod, the magi and flight into Egypt were included to help persuade his readers that Jesus was the expected Messiah. Luke wrote his biography of Jesus to a poor and neglected group of people and may explain the inclusion of shepherds, instead of pagan astrologers. The last probability parallels the first; the details of Jesus’ birth may have been completely unknown.
Scholars claim that their accounts were written approximately thirty or forty years after his death. Anyone claiming to have any historical information about Jesus would be minimal or nil. The spread of Christianity may have become more popular than expected and followers were curious of roots. Thus, Matthew and Luke may have concocted their own, independent infancy narratives to suffice. It is amazing that the birth of one man could change the lives of many, although the events surrounding his birth are still being deliberated today.
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