The Bible and Human Rights
John J. Collins, Ph.D.
Both infancy narratives build upon the memories of historical events and contain useful historical data. However, readers today should not assume that everything in the narratives is certain historical fact. Careful interpretation is needed. These slides discuss some of the issues involved. For instance, both Matthew and Luke date Jesus’ birth toward the end of the reign of King Herod the Great, who we know from various sources died in 4 B.C.E. Jesus was probably born a year or two before that year.
Luke, whose writing seems to take care to mention certain historical benchmarks, also situates Jesus’ birth shortly after a census decree from Rome, “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (2:1-2). However, we know that Quirinius was not appointed governor until 6 C.E., ten years after the death of Herod. Luke thus presents a ten-year discrepancy in the benchmarks he offers about the year of Jesus’ birth.
Luke’s ten-year gap may relate to his mention of a Roman census, which he attributes to an order from Caesar Augustus. While there is no evidence of such an empire-wide census, Quirinius did conduct an unprecedented local census shortly after his provincial appointment. This action sparked violent protests. There was also widespread rioting after Herod’s death ten years earlier.
Decades later, Luke may have confused memories of two separate violent episodes, one of which involved a census. Luke’s inaccurate overlap of the reigns of Herod and Quirinius reflects this conflation, but adds to the contrast of the Lucan Jesus being hailed as the bringer of peace in the troubled times of the so-called Peace of Augustus.
Turning to the other infancy narrative, Matthew tells of the mass murder of infant males by Herod. However, we have no evidence of such an event, which by its very nature would have been quite public and left many traces. Even the writer Flavius Josephus, who offers lists of Herod’s misdeeds, makes no mention this atrocity. The episode seems more driven by Matthew’s theological interest in relating Jesus’ story to that of Moses, rather than based on a historical occurrence.
On the other hand, the characters of Matthew’s magi may have been inspired by a historical memory. In 66 C.E., the new Armenian king came to Caesar Nero in Rome to have his kingship confirmed. He and his three companions were called magi and one account notes that they “did not return by the route followed in coming.” Matthew may have reworked this incident in order to assert narratively that Jesus is the real king of Jews and Gentiles alike. And unlike those who came from the East to defer to Nero, the Matthean magi come from the East to confirm the kingship of Jesus.
Many of the historical inaccuracies and plot contradictions between Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives can be explained if their work is understood as two theological narratives shaped by the evangelists’ resurrection faith and constructed upon some pieces of historical information.
Thus, both have traditions that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth.
These distinctions should not distract modern readers from giving priority to the common and distinct theological lessons being conveyed in the infancy narratives. Their religious messages are what inspire Christian faith today, not this or that historical factoid.
These slides summarize the important religious insights shared in common by both infancy accounts, despite the fact that they are expressed through different narratives. Both Matthew and Luke express post-resurrection faith in Jesus as God’s Son. This conviction is conveyed by attributing his conception to the creative power of the Holy Spirit, though in different ways. In Luke, Mary is told by an angel that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk 1:35), while in Matthew Joseph learns in a dream that “it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived” (Mt. 1:20). Both narratives insist that Jesus’ coming is in continuity with and the ultimate realization of Israel’s covenant with God. They repeatedly draw upon Israel’s scriptures to assert this.
Both proclaim that the infant’s birth is important for all humanity. The Matthean magi and perhaps his genealogy convey this, while Luke’s recurrent references to Jesus as the bringer of peace have global ramifications. Both narratives link the baby’s significance to his eventual death. Matthew constructs clear parallels between the magi episode and Jesus’ execution; the Lucan Simeon likewise alludes to Jesus as the bringer of division and judgment.
Finally, both narratives invite readers to become disciples of Jesus. For Luke, Mary is the paradigm of discipleship: she hears the word of God and does it. For Matthew, Joseph is a model of one who observes and interprets the Torah according to the definitive teaching of Jesus that Matthew’s Gospel will go on to present. For Christian faith, such perceptions of the inspired Gospel writers are of paramount importance in reading their words.
A key principle of Catholic biblical interpretation is that once scriptural texts have been encountered in their own historical and literary contexts, they must be actualized or brought to life in the Christian community of today. Here are a few ideas for further reflection on ways to actualize the infancy narratives today.
Every year the problem of the commercialization of Christmas recurs. While Christians appropriately celebrate the coming of the “Light of the world” (to use Johannine imagery) with lights and decorations, the full meaning of Jesus’ birth can too easily be overwhelmed by snowmen, reindeer, and an avalanche of advertisements. The study of the distinctive infancy narratives can help refocus our priorities.
As the opening chapters of two Gospels, each infancy narrative in its own way is an introduction to the significance of Jesus and an invitation to faith in him. How, then, can Christmas be celebrated so as to foster (re)commitment to discipleship?
Both infancy narratives declare that with the birth of Jesus the long-awaited hopes for God’s deliverance of Israel have begun to be realized. Such hopes resonate most powerfully in communities that are oppressed, but these texts challenge more fortunate communities to consider how they might be contributing to the suffering of others, either through action or inaction. The hopes that the world has for the Christ-child must be taken up by his disciples today.
In Lucan terms, do Christians today recognize “the manger of the Lord”? Do we appreciate how fully God identifies with the travails of the ordinary and the weak? In Matthean terms, do we see that the child who is Emmanuel, “God with us,” is the same who instructs his followers to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, and aid the sick (Mt. 26:31 ff)?
In many ways, both infancy narratives stress the Jewishness of Jesus. Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as embodying Israel’s story suggests that God’s covenantal life with Israel achieved an even deeper intimacy in Jesus. For Christians, he is the embodiment of living covenant with God perfectly. How might Christmas be a time for Christians to seek to draw closer to Jesus in his Jewish humanity?
Luke’s Zechariah sings that the birth of Jesus would free Israel from fear of Gentile assaults. Tragically, the growth of Gentile Christianity has not enabled Jews to serve God without fear. How might Christmas become be an occasion for Christians to recommit ourselves to respect and amity for the Jewish people and tradition?
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