Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Before you put those Magi in the Nativity Play

I am currently reading “Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels” by Malina & Rohrbaugh and highly recommend it. Amazon Link It provides insights into the Social setting of First Century Judea, and its impact on how we understand the Gospels.

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….


  1. Ah. I've always wondered why scholars hypothesized that Matthew & Luke both referenced a common source (Q, right?) other than Mark. That they had some elements in common outside but other elements differing -- all outside Mark -- would suggest that hypothesis.

    Your hypothesis also seems quite live.

  2. The Barefoot Bum,

    The interplay between Matthew, Mark and Luke is perplexing. Scholarly consensus is that the coincidences are too high to be merely repetition of oral tradition. There must be some literary dependence (i.e. one author taking his/her story from a written copy of another author.) A good example is the parenthetical notation of “let the reader understand” in Matt. 24:15 and Mark 13:14. How could oral tradition place a parenthetical statement at the same place as well as both use the term “reader” rather than “hearer” if it was oral?

    Of course the question remains as to who used whom. The most common theory is of Markan Priority—that Mark was written first and Matthew as well as Luke used written copies of Mark. However, there are numerous instances where Matthew and Luke both have almost identical statements which are not included in Mark. The Sermon on the Mount of Matthew as compared to the Sermon on the Plain in Luke is a good example of this.

    Therefore, scholars hypothesized Matthew and Luke also used another literary source, called “Q” in creating their Gospels. Matthew used Mark and “Q” to create his Gospel. Luke used Mark and “Q” to create his—and Mark used…well…just Mark.

    But recently scholars have started to be disenchanted with “Q.” Occam’s Razor (basically, although there are other reasons as well.) It may be sufficient to recognize Luke used Matthew as a source, with Mark, and therefore “Q” is no longer necessary. The largest question would be why Luke would modify Matthew? A primary example often used is—why would Luke break up the Sermon on the Mount when writing his Gospel?

    One of the impediments has traditionally been, we tend to treat the authors as writing as we would write—not as to how they would write. (The best illustration of this you will run into is the claim Acts of the Apostles MUST have been written prior to Paul’s death, because if Paul had died, the author would have included it. The concern, as you can see, is that just because WE might have included it, does not mean the author of Acts necessarily would. We need to study how THAT author writes, and what HIS motivation would be—not what we would do.)

    If Luke recognized Matthew’s use of Greek story-telling and rejected it, this could explain why the differences between Luke and Matthew, even though Luke used Matthew as a source. Just as you may copy my writing, but correct grammatical errors, misspellings, and perhaps facts you believe are incorrect.

    Here’s a question I have not seen addressed to any extent, but baffles me—did the authors of the Gospels intend their Gospel to supplement or supplant their source? Did the author of Matthew expect his gospel to be the one everyone used, and the Gospel of Mark fall off into obscurity? Or did s/he intend it to be used in conjunction with the Gospel of Mark?

  3. Of course, all of this analysis presumes naturalism: The idea that we must apply universals supported by observation; we can't just posit differing laws of physics (such as time travel) to explain some feature of the text.

    It's interesting that when one attempts to apply supernaturalism (or merely paranormalism) i.e. that the natural laws of physics (even at the very abstract level of natural human behavior), you end up with a more confused story: An omniscient god inconsistent on trivial details, an omnipotent god unable to defeat iron chariots.