Reading the Christmas Stories: What is biblical criticism? Part 3

Hopefully you have all done what I suggested last time and made notes on both of the nativity stories. Below are my notes (sorry for the bad formatting, WordPress for some reason does not allow arbitrary css styles on html elements, so I just gave up and let wordpress format it as it saw fit).

Matthew Luke
Herod is king Jesus born in Bethlehem Wise men show up Decree from Caesar Augustus for registration Quirinius is governor of Syria All are to go to their own towns to be registered
Wise men ask Herod where new born king of the Jews is Wise men have observed star Herod is frightened Joseph goes from Nazareth to Bethlehem, because he was descended from David Joseph goes with Mary who is expecting a child Gives birth to firstborn son in Bethlehem
Herod calls together chief priests and scribes Herod inquires were the Messiah is to be born Priests and scribes answer Bethlehem, and quote Micah 5:2 Mary wraps him in bands of cloth and lays child in a manger There is no room for them at the end Shephards are watching their flocks nearby, at night
Herod secretly calls wise men to ask when star appeared Herod sends wise men to Bethlehem and asks them to return Wise men follow star to place where the child is. Angel appears to shepherds Angel calms shepherds, announces the birth of Messiah Angel tells shephers how to recognize the child (laying in a manger)
Star stops and the wise men are overwhelmed with joy Wise men find child with Mary Wise men give him (child) gold, frankincense, and myrrh Suddenly, multitude of heavenly host appear Hosts sing “Glory to God in the highest…” Angels leave, shepherds decide to go and visit Bethlehem
Dream warns wise men to not return to Herod, so they do not Angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in dream Joseph told to go to Egypt with mother and child, so he does (fulfills prophecy) Shepherds find Mary, Joseph, and baby lying in a manger Shepherds publish what was told them by the angels All who hear what the shepherds say are amazed
Herod is infuriated that he was tricked by wise men Slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem (fulfills prophecy) Herod dies Mary “treasured these words and pondered them in her heart” Shepherds return, glorifying and praising God
Joseph is told to return to Israel in a dream Joseph, with child and mother, return to Israel Joseph is afraid to return to Judea because Archelaus is ruling
In a drean Joseph is told to go to Galilee Joseph and family settle in Nazareth “He will be called a Nazorean” (fulfills prophecy)

In making these notes I hope that you can see just how different the two stories are. If you didn’t see it don’t feel bad. I once taught a class where we did this as an activity and I asked, “How similar are these two stories?” The class answered that they were pretty similar, which is dead wrong. The only thing that the stories agree on are the names of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus and that he was born in Bethlehem. Beyond that they share nothing. The class thought that the stories were similar because they had become so accustomed to hearing the harmonized version of the Christmas stories. They thought it was inconceivable that they would be so different. This is why biblical criticism tends to ignore tradition, in many cases it obscures meaning. If you only read the Christmas story in the traditional harmonized way, you lose many opportunities for analysis and understanding.

In doing a literary analysis I will focus on five things: setting, characterization, journey motifs, reveletory motifs, and intertextuality with the Old Testament. I will compare and contrast Matthew and Luke. Because they are so starkly different, this should help in figuring out just what kind of stories Matthew and Luke are telling, and more importantly, what they intend to do with their respective gospels.

Matthew sets the gospel in Judea. The temporal context is the reign of Herod, the king of the Jews. The wise men come looking for the new king of the Jews. Joseph and Mary are living the Bethlehem, the city of David. It’s pretty clear that Matthew wants to emphasize a Jewish setting for the birth of Jesus. Matthew will continue this theme for the rest of his gospel, and it is for this reason that for a long time Matthew was considered to be the most Jewish of the gospels. In reality, Matthew’s gospel is not the most Jewish, it’s just the most rabbinically Jewish. Since most people today equate rabbinic Judaism with Judaism itself, this is an understandable mistake. The bottom line is that Matthew is setting the stage for a Jesus that is in conversation with formative rabbinical Judaism.

Luke by contrast starts with Augustus, then mentions Quirinius (in Syria), then places Joseph and Mary in Galilee. This gives us a clue that Luke’s gospel may me more gentile centric. Calling a gospel more Jewish or more gentile is relative, don’t think in terms of absolutes, rather think in terms of degrees here. Also, note that Luke’s gospel starts with a decree from Rome. Luke’s second volume (the book of Acts) will end with a decree to Rome. Broadly speaking Acts will be a mirror image of Luke, and I think this is deliberate on Luke’s part.

The characterization differences in the two accounts are stark. Matthew focuses on royalty: Herod, the magi, and Joseph. Mary and Jesus are almost just along for the ride in Matthew’s account. Why is this? Matthew wants to show that Jesus really is the king of the Jews. He moves in royal circles, is sought after by other royalty, is feared by rival kings, descends from a royal line, and is born in a royal place (this city of David). Matthew wants readers to think of Jesus as king and read the gospels with that in mind.

Luke focuses much more on the lower classes and on women. Mary is mentioned much more often in Luke and is much more involved in the story. In fact, Mary is clearly the heroine of Luke’s account since it is she, not Joseph, who “treasured these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Also, it is shepherds, lower class peasants, who receive the divine anunciation and visit Jesus. Luke will continue to be much more interested than Matthew in women and in the lower classes throughout his gosepel.

Journeys are used differently in the two accounts. The journey that Matthew has Jesus family make is to Egypt and back. The reason for the journey is to escape a slaughter of children. It’s obvious that Matthew sees the salvation that Jesus brings as comparable to the salvation that Moses brought to the Israelites in the book of Exodus. The journey becomes a way of relating Jesus back to Torah and establishing connections between Jesus and the heroes of Torah.

For Luke the journey is from Nazareth to Jerusalem (close enough, besides Jesus ends up there a week later for circumcision). For Luke this serves two purposes. First, Luke likes foreshadowing a lot, and this foreshadows Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. Second, journeys from and to Jerusalem are a plot device that Luke will use over and over again. Count how many journeys there are from and to Jerusalem in Luke and Acts. Also, journeys in general are Luke’s way of driving the action forward. This may have something to do with Greek romances of the time. Journeys were heavily used as plot devices in these literary works, so Luke may be using a literary device that his readers would have been familiar with and even expected.

In Matthew all revelation is through dreams. Also, notice that you have another Joseph, who dreams, and whose dreams save his family. Again, Matthew is telling the readers to connect Jesus with Torah and its heroes. Luke by contrast has vivid angelic visitations. Why is this? I think that Luke wants to portray the birth of Jesus as a prophetic call. The calls of Isaiah (Isaiah 6), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1), and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1) all involve heavenly visions with lots of detail. The call had already been made to Mary in Luke 1, and is now being reemphasized in Luke 2. That the call is made to a woman and to lower class peasants is also a tie in back to prophetic books such as Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea. They were concerned with the poor, the downtrodden, and with social justice. It is only fitting that Luke has salvation declared to the poor and the downtrodden. In effect Luke is saying that the hope of social justice in those Old Testament books are fulfilled in Jesus. It’s no accident that Luke will continue this theme throughout his gospel. For example, only Luke has the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. I am not suggesting that Matthew neglects themes of social justice, Matthew 5-7 and 25 negate that assertion, but that Luke makes it more front and center.

Finally, the differences in intertexutality with the Old Testament are very stark. Matthew’s cites Old Testament prophecies all of the time. In chapter 2 alone, he refers to the Old Testament four times, in verses 6, 15, 18, and 23 (unfortunately the final one, “He will be called a Nazorean” is not known anymore). Matthew clearly wants to show Jesus as fulfillment of prophecy. Again, he also uses these citations to associate Jesus with the heroes of the Torah. In verse 15, “Out of Egypt I have called by son” explicity compares Jesus to Moses. Luke doesn’t directly cite the Old Testament in the birth narrative. This may be for two reasons. First, Luke may be writing for a gentile audience who would not know Torah as well as a Jew would. Second, Luke may be emphasizing not that Jesus is fulfillment of prophecy, but that he is the prophet.

As I have done this analysis it seems to me that the birth narratives are the lens through which Matthew and Luke want the reader to reader their gospels. It’s clear that for Matthew Jesus is king of the Jews, fulfillment of prophecy, and to be compared to the heroes of Torah. For Luke, Jesus is a prophet who cares about social justice, especially for the lower classes. By seeing the birth narratives differently, one can read the gospels differently. By paying attention to different motifs and plot devices one becomes a more intelligent reader of the gospels. The differences provide insights, which harmonization obscures. Each evangelist has different insights into the life of Jesus and it is the wise reader who pays attention to these different insights.

2 Replies to “Reading the Christmas Stories: What is biblical criticism? Part 3”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *