This is HARDLY a comprehensive New Testament blog, though that is something I would like to do some day. But inasmuch as the LDS Gospel Doctrine course of study is New Testament this year, I wanted to at least have a venue where I could post some links, resources, excerpts from other things I have written, and, as the title suggest, "thoughts."

Friday, January 9, 2015

Infancy Narratives

This week we will be studying and discussing Matt 1 and Luke 1 in Sunday School, followed by Matt 2 and Luke 2 the next week. I would prefer to do all of Matthew's infancy narrative one week and then Luke's the next to avoid harmonizing. But since we will be putting the two accounts together in class, ideally we should have a clearer idea of what these "opening numbers" of those two gospels are. Here is an excerpt from Good Tidings of Great Joy, 141-42:

Fra Angelico, "Nativity," Wikmedia Commons

The Infancy Narratives and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke
            The narratives that Matthew and Luke composed to begin their Gospels constitute a distinct genre of writing. The two accounts share much in common with each other and gave rise to some later apocryphal imitations in the early centuries of Christianity. Though common in scholarship, the term “Infancy Narrative” is not exact, because most of Matthew 1 and all of Luke 1 describe events before Jesus’ birth, and Luke 2:41–52 relates a story from Jesus’ boyhood. They are sometimes called “Infancy Gospels,” though in many ways this term fits better for stand-alone, post-biblical works that elaborated and tried to fill in gaps in the story of Jesus’ nativity and boyhood as well as the background of Mary. Some of these apocryphal works include the Protoevangelium (literally, “before the gospel”) of James, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Dating from the mid second century to as late as the sixth, these extracanonical works cannot be relied upon for either historical or theological details about Jesus.[1]
            Certain factors suggest that the Infancy Narratives, though they appear first in the Gospels and serve as their introductions, were, in fact, written last. First, both Matthew and Luke could begin in chapter 3 with their accounts of the ministry of John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus as Mark’s Gospel does. Second, none of the details provided in the Infancy Narratives are referred to or even alluded to later in the Gospels. If the first two chapters of these Gospels had been lost at an early stage of their transmission, later readers would probably not even notice their absence. On the other hand, each of the Infancy Narratives supports the themes and imagery that characterize the rest of their Gospels, raising the possibility that Matthew and Luke had each conceived of their Gospels, and perhaps even drafted them, first before feeling the need to compose narratives that would treat the important question of who Jesus was and how he was born.[2]
            Possibly appended later to their Gospels, the Infancy Narratives are compositions that could nonetheless stand alone as self-contained stories. A mix of third-person narration of events, quoted discourse, and dramatic episodes, both of them consist of a series of stories that are carefully interwoven to both introduce how and why Jesus is the Son of God as well as establish patterns and symbols that support the larger Gospels. This has led one set of commentators to describe them as “overtures” that, like musical overtures, provide a foretaste of the motifs, themes, and movement of the larger work.[3] Thus, Matthew’s establishment of Jesus as “the Son of David” in his Infancy Narrative lays the groundwork for his depiction of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah later in the Gospel. Likewise, the image of Christ as a new Moses, as seen in Herod’s attempt to slay him and his returning from Egypt, anticipates Jesus’ role as the new lawgiver in the Sermon on the Mount. Further, the division of the body of Matthew’s Gospel into five parts, hearkening back to the five books of Moses, is anticipated by sets of five dreams and five formula quotations in the Infancy Narrative.[4]
            The christology of Luke’s Infancy Narrative, which emphasizes Jesus’ role as the Son of God and the Savior for all people, accords with the portrayal of Jesus in the rest of his Gospel, where Jesus is less exclusively a Jewish Messiah. The prominence of Elisabeth, Mary, and Anna in the Infancy Narrative establishes the precedent for Luke’s almost unique emphasis on women, who appear with much more frequency in his Gospel than they do in any of the others. Another emphasis in Luke is his concern for the poor and the marginalized, who are highlighted both in the Magnificat and in the appearance of shepherds at the manger rather than the wise, rich, and powerful. Likewise, the centrality of the Holy Spirit in the conceptions of John the Baptist and Jesus, as well as its role in inspiring Elisabeth, Zacharias, and Simeon, is an anticipation of the central role of the Spirit in the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts.[5] But above all, by emphasizing that Jesus is the Son of God, born to be the Savior, Luke’s Infancy Narrative is, like Matthew’s, “the essential Gospel story in miniature.”[6]
            The differences in theological focuses and themes of these two Gospels partly account for their significant differences, though it is apparent that Matthew and Luke also had very different sources for their stories. Whereas Luke either shared some of the same major sources as Matthew for the main part of his Gospel, or perhaps even had access to Matthew’s account, for his Infancy Narrative Luke followed a different set of traditions and had somewhat different aims. By treating major divisions of each Infancy Narrative in separate chapters and by generally avoiding any attempt to harmonize the two accounts in this book, I have tried to emphasize the uniqueness of each.
Matthew’s Infancy Narrative is considerably more concise, about half the length of Luke’s, and if one excerpts his genealogy, Luke’s account is almost four times as long. Matthew’s account gives a central role to Joseph, who, as a son of David himself, provides the legal connection to the royal inheritance. But perhaps more importantly, Joseph appears in Matthew’s account as a righteous Israelite, one who is “just” or in harmony with law, considerate to his espoused wife and protective of her and her child. A faithful man in the mode of Joseph in Egypt who allows himself to be guided by revelation, he both served as the called foster father and guardian of Jesus and as a model for fathers—and mothers—in every age. Jesus himself is presented as the rightful king, set against wicked kings, such as Herod and his son Archelaus, whose power is shown to be temporal and fleeting. In every scene, Jesus is seen as the fulfillment of prophecy, demonstrating who he was, how he came into the world, and where the important first events of his life took place.[7]
Luke’s longer account includes several dramatic scenes as a prelude to his later description of the Nativity. Overall, Luke’s narrative gives more background than does Matthew’s, and it includes careful comparisons and contrasts that are best seen in the developed characters—such as Zacharias and Mary—that serve as foils to one another. Luke’s focus on Mary is striking, leading some to suggest that she or a member of her family might actually have been one of Luke’s sources. However, the emphasis on Mary, and the relative exclusion of Joseph as an active character, emphasizes that Jesus is not, in fact Joseph’s son. Luke’s poetic use of canticles both echo Old Testament salvation themes and make his stories deeply personal. By consciously imitating the style of the Septuagint and through his use of characters reminiscent of Old Testament figures, Luke successfully connects the story of Jesus with the story of Israel, while at the time setting it on a wider, world stage and broadening Jesus’ role to all people. Above all, Luke emphasizes joy, the good news that the Savior of the world has been born.[8]
Still, substantive differences in the two accounts—particularly the fact that Luke seems unaware of the Wise Men, the malevolent actions of Herod, or the flight to Egypt—continue to lead some to doubt the historicity of these stories. Nevertheless, on all the most important points, the two stories agree: Jesus’ birth was long-prophesied, his mother was named Mary, and he was then conceived in a miraculous and divine way, born in the city of David, and recognized by those who were led to him by revelation. These are the very points confirmed by Book of Mormon prophecy.

[1] Kelly, Origins of Christmas, 38–49. For translations and commentaries on the Gospels of James and Thomas, see Ronald F. Hock, The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas (Santa Rosa: Calif.: Polebridge, 1995).
[2] Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 31–32, 48–49, 239–240; Vermes, Nativity, 147–48.
[3] Borg and Crossan, First Christmas, 38–39.
[4] Borg and Crossan, First Christmas, 41–46.
[5] Borg and Crossan, First Christmas, 46–52.
[6] Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 7.
[7] Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 50–54; Borg and Crossan, First Christmas, 4–10; Huntsman, “Glad Tidings of Great Joy,” 53–54.
[8] Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 250–53; Borg and Crossan, First Christmas, 10–21; Huntsman, “Glad Tidingsof Great Joy,” 54–56.

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