Since we are entering Christmas season, thought I would share some of what they say regarding Matthew’s record of Jesus’ Birth.
Greek handbooks called progymnasmata provided exercises in which students were taught to organize their remarks praising a subject around a series of conventional topics. It is amazing the degree to which Matthew’s birth story follows these school instructions.
For example, Hermogenes instructs his students to being with the subject’s origin and birth. They are to speak of “race, as the Greek, a city, as Athens, a family as the Alcmaeonidae.” Matthew did that with his genealogy.
Next, they are told to describe “what marvelous things befall at birth, as dreams or signs of the like.” Matthew does this too. There are dreams (1:20; 2:12, 13, 19), astronomical phenomena (2:2, 10), angelic appearances (1:20) and even attending astrologers with wonderful gifts (2:1, 11). Quintilian also tells rhetorical students to note things that happened prior to the birth such as prophecies “foretelling future greatness.” Matthew provides these as well (1:23; 2:6)
According to the progymnasmata of Menander Rhetor, one of the first things the writer of a piece in praise of someone should do is praise the city from which the subject comes because honor is ascribed to those born in an honorable city. To pull this one off, however, Matthew had to resort to some deft literary gymnastics. When he quotes the prophet Micah regarding Bethlehem, he turns Micah’s meaning around completely. Micah had called Bethlehem “one of the little clans of Judah.” (5:1). [sic – it should be 5.2 ed.] In Matthew that becomes:
And You, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
For from you shall come a ruler
Who will govern my people Israel.
In this way Matthew tells of a Jesus who comes from a royal city, has royal ancestors, and is to be a ruler of Israel. (some citations omitted) pg. 27-28
This explains a great deal to one of the problems I have always struggled with regarding the Synoptic Problem. As we know, the Gospel of Mark does not record the birth or childhood of Jesus. He appears on the scene at the very beginning of his ministry, and we are given one year in the life of Jesus, ending with his apparent resurrection.
Along comes Matthew who uses Mark, but introduces a lengthy birth narrative. Luke, also using Mark, also provides a lengthy birth narrative. The problem is how much they contradict, yet where they strangely agree. They contradict as to the year of Jesus birth, the reason for being in Bethlehem, the Magi compared to the shepherds, the angles appearing to Joseph as compared to Mary, the genealogies, the trip to Egypt, and the yearly sojourns to Jerusalem. Those contradictions have been discussed at length in numerous accounts.
The interesting aspect (to me) though is where Matthew and Luke agree. They both agree on a virgin birth, on a birth in Bethlehem but a childhood in Nazareth, on angelic appearances, and both feel a genealogy is necessary. How is it, if each was completely independently making up the birth narrative, they happened to agree on these factors? If they were each using a common source, was it only a bare-bones account that included virgin birth, angels, Bethlehem and Nazareth? But why the divergent genealogy?
And if Luke was using Matthew, why would he modify Matthew’s story so much?
This has always puzzled me, and up ‘till now I listed as one of those things I didn’t know, and if pressed would have speculated as to a bare-bones account they each used.
However, if Matthew was using a Greek method of introducing an individual, and Luke recognized it as being fictional history within that Greek method, he easily could choose to disregard it. Luke could have had Matthew in front of him, and been rejecting Matthew’s use of Greek form!
Simply put, Luke was correcting Matthew’s embellishment of Jesus’ birth by providing a different form of establishing honor.
Fun thoughts to puzzle upon during this Christmas Season….