Search This Blog

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Harmonizing the Birth Narratives of the Gospels

Last night in our eschatology study, we briefly considered the existence of supposed contradictions in the Bible.  This morning I found two very good articles explaining how to understand and deal with these “contradictions” – you can find them here and here.
After class, a particular difficulty was brought to my attention and I offered to look into it before next Wednesday.  Having taken a look at it today, I decided to share it with all of you. 
The issue is what seems to be not necessarily a contradiction but a difficulty harmonizing elements of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.  Matthew 2 depicts the wise men searching for Jesus by coming to Jerusalem and inquiring, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?  For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  Herod learned from the chief priests that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, so Herod sent the wise men there and instructed them to report to him after they found the child (Matt 2:3-8).  The wise men found the child, offered him gifts, and departed.  Then in 2:13 we read,
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod.
Vv19-23 tell us that when Herod died, an angel instructed Joseph in a dream to take the child back to Israel, and so Joseph, Mary, and Jesus went home to Nazareth. 
However, Luke’s (2:22-40) account depicts Mary and Joseph taking the baby to Jerusalem to be presented at the temple, where Jesus was seen by Simeon and Anna.  Then v39 reads, And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 
The fairly obvious question is, how does the trip to Egypt fit into the narrative timeline of Luke?  Luke makes it sound like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned to Nazareth fairly shortly after His birth, but Matthew describes a lengthy time in Egypt prior to going back to Nazareth.  How do we deal with this?
First, we must remember that the Gospel writers used different episodes in the life of Christ to make a certain theological point to their respective audiences. None of them set out to write an exhaustive account of every major event in the life of Christ.  Consider last night’s Republican Presidential debate.  If I wanted to make a summary video to convince people that the candidates hate each other, I would choose very specific clips to make that point.  I might even put those clips in a non-chronological order that shows an escalation in the intensity of their interactions, so that by the end of the video viewers would say, “Wow.  They really hate each other.”  Someone else could make a summary video to persuade people that Planned Parenthood should be completely defunded.  That person would likely selectively choose clips that highlight the candidates who spoke out stridently against Planned Parenthood while leaving out clips of candidates who did not.  These two videos would be very different but both accurate depictions of aspects of the debate.  Neither one would show everything that happened.  Neither one would necessarily show things in the exact chronological order in which they happened. 
The Gospel writers did the same thing.  So it should not surprise us to find one writer including a detail or story not mentioned by another writer.  It should also not surprise us to find them presenting stories in different orders.  They each had a certain theological point to make and they chose and arranged material to make those points.  We must keep this in mind and not read the Gospels as if they are items from a newspaper or history book, as if they were merely conveying raw facts.  The Gospels are theological books.  They do present events that are historical, that is, they really happened, but the Gospels are not merely history books.  Each was designed to make a point.  So all of the events presented in Matthew and Luke actually took place.  They all fit together in some way. 
Second, in these narratives from early in Jesus’ life, there are clues to help us determine the timeline.  First, in Luke 2:22 we read, “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…”  This would have taken place 40 days after Jesus’ birth, since Lev 12:3-4 required circumcision on the eighth day (cf Luke 2:21) after which the mother was to continue in her impurity for 33 days.  So these events took place in Jesus’ early infancy.
Matthew on the other hand contains evidence that the events of Matt 2 took place a bit later.  In 2:16, he writes: Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.  According to the wise men, based upon the timing of the appearance of the star (2:2), Jesus could have been born up to two years prior to Herod’s killing all the boys in Bethlehem and Joseph’s fleeing with Mary and Jesus to Egypt.  Also, if the star appeared when Christ was born and the wise men began traveling as soon as possible, it would have taken weeks to arrive at the earliest.  (For example, if coming from Babylon and traveling at a normal pace, it would have taken at least 40 days.)  All of this means that the events of Matthew 2 most likely took place later than the events of Luke 2. 
Third, we must note that when Matthew writes, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem…”, we should not understand him to necessarily mean “immediately after Jesus was born in Bethlehem.”  Likewise when Luke writes, “And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord…”, we should not read into it, “immediately after performing everything according to the Law of the Lord…”  Rather, we should take both to mean some time after or at some point after.   This is absolutely necessary because both Gospel writers are leaving out certain stories and including others.  This means that there will necessarily be gaps of time, sometimes large ones, between recorded events.  In the vast majority of cases, they do not explicitly reference or mention these gaps, or give us a time frame between events, such as “now four months and 3 days later, this happened…”  If they did explicitly point out all the gaps of time, the Gospels would be terribly cumbersome to read and their respective theological points would be obscured. 
With these things in mind, there could be any number of ways to harmonize these two accounts.  I’m going to present just one:
Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-3).  While they were there, Jesus was born (Matt 2:1; Luke 2:6-7).  An angel declared His birth to the shepherds who then went to visit Him (Luke 2:8-20).  On the eighth day, Jesus was circumcised (Luke 2:21).  They remained in Bethlehem for 40 days, after which they traveled to Jerusalem in accordance with the Law (Luke 2:22-38, cf Lev 12:3-4).  At some point after this they returned to Bethlehem. (Neither Gospel mentions this because it does not serve their respective points.)  While they were in Bethlehem, the wise men who were following the star arrived in Jerusalem, inquired about the child, and then followed the star to where Jesus was (Matt 2:1-12).   Some time after the wise men left, Joseph was told in a dream to take Jesus to Egypt to avoid the danger from Herod (Matt 2:13-15).  Herod had all boys two years and under killed in Bethlehem (Matt 2:16-18).  After Herod’s death, Joseph was told by an angel to return Jesus and Mary to Israel (Matt 2:19-22), where they settled in Nazareth (Matt 2:23; Luke 2:39).  
All other difficulties in the Gospels can be harmonized in a similar fashion.  We simply need to pay close attention to their contexts and time references, and remember that they are not intended to be read like exhaustive accounts, but theological books written to make a particular point.

No comments: