Gospel Infancy Narratives?

Gospel Infancy Narratives?

When one reads the four Gospels it is surprising that there is no infancy or childhood narrative in Mark or John. Although John does provide a creedal statement of Jesus’ origins in a hymn that portrays a timeless existence, a relationship to the Father, and an identity with God (01:01-05). Mark used the baptism scene to introduce Jesus and apparently knows nothing about his origins. He does not make a mention of Joseph!

Why? The Jesus story was centered on his death on the cross and the resurrection. The Good News began with Easter. The Christmas story developed much later. In other words, the Gospels developed backwards. This accounts for the fact that Mark, the earliest Gospel, gives no information on the birth of Jesus. The church did not formally celebrate Christmas until the fourth century (Rome A.D. 336).

The Differences in Accounts

The two accounts that we do have in Matthew and Luke are so different that it is clear they came from independent sources. Luke knows nothing of the Magi, the flight to Egypt, Herod’s massacre of the infants, or the return from

In turn Matthew knows nothing about the presentation of Jesus in the temple, Simeon, Anna, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, or the finding of Jesus in the temple. He knows nothing about the census, which was the reason Luke gives for Jesus being born in Bethlehem.

In the past the pious explanation was given that Matthew’s account came from Joseph and Luke’s version came from Mary. That raises the question, why would not the two have confided in each other?

Matthew has a genealogy in the infancy narrative whereas in Luke, it is located in the main body of the Gospel (03:23-38). They don’t agree on who Jesus’ grandfather was. In Matthew it is Jacob (01:16), whereas in Luke it is Heli (03:23-24).

Beyond these problems mentioned, the infancy tradition was never part of the kerygma (preaching) or the didache (teaching) of the early Church. The only mention Paul makes is that Jesus was born of a woman (Galatians 04:04). The examples of the preaching that we have in Acts and Paul’s letters make no mention of his birth or any miraculous happenings connected with it (02:23, 32; 03:14-15; 04:10; 10:39-40; 1 Corinthians 15:03-04). There are no echoes in the Gospel proper of any of the infancy events.

Therefore the material used was limited to the message of salvation that was being proclaimed and taught. This was the Good News!

Do the Gospels Agree at All?

They both write that Jesus’ birth took place during Herod the Great’s reign (Luke 01:05; Luke 02:01). Mary is with child and is engaged to Joseph but they have not cohabited as yet (Luke 01:27, 34; 02:05; Matthew 01:18). Joseph is of Davidic lineage (Luke 01:27; 02:04; Matthew 01:16, 20). An angel announces the coming birth (Luke 01:28-30; Matthew 01:20-21). Jesus sees himself to be a son of David (Luke 01:32; Matthew 01:01). The Holy Spirit brought about the conception (Luke 01:35; Matthew 01:18, 20), not through Joseph (Luke 01:34; Matthew 01:18-25). He is named Jesus by divine authority prior to birth (Luke 01:31; Matthew 01:21). The angel calls Jesus a “Savior” (Luke 02:11, Matthew 01:21). Jesus is born after the two begin their cohabitation (Luke 02:04-07; Matthew 01:24-25). Bethlehem is the birthplace (Luke 02:04-07; Matthew 02:01) and their home is in Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 02:39, 51; Matthew 02:22-23).

These facts indicate that there was a reliable tradition handed down to the latergenerations regarding the birth of Jesus. There is no evidence that either of the writers depended on the other.

The Apocryphal Gospels

Matthew and Luke say little about Jesus’ childhood. Mark and John say nothing.  The earliest theological interest was in Christ the teacher, his death and resurrection that brought about the redemption. Paul’s letters which are the earliest writings of the New Testament show that there was little interest in the biographical side of Jesus. There is no reference to any of Jesus’ parables, his miracles, or his travels.

However during the second century there was a growing curiosity in Jesus’ hidden life, especially his youth. When there is an absence of historic fact, folklore fills the gap. The two earliest Gospels of Jesus’ childhood was the Proto Evangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

The author of the first was supposedly James, “the brother of the Lord.” It deals with the birth and motherhood of Mary. It names her parents as Joachim and Anna.  Joseph is a widower with children when Mary became his wife which accounts for the “brothers of the Lord.” It emphasizes Mary’s virginity in giving birth.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (c. A.D. 150) describes miracles of the child Jesus which are totally out of character for the Jesus of the canonical Gospels. In fact, some are repulsive.

Why the Infancy Narratives?

In contrast to the apocryphal accounts the canonical Gospels were much more restrained. Their primary purpose was to present Christology.

Matthew centers on Jesus as son of David, Abraham and king. We have the virginal conception which is the sign of divine intervention. The magi and star reflect the universality of his mission. Jesus is the new Moses and lawgiver which is the theme of the main body of the Gospel. The order of Herod to execute all the male babies (02:16) parallels the order of the Pharaoh to do the same to the Hebrew male offspring (Exodus 01:16).

Luke presents Mary as the main character who had given herself to God. She is a model of faith for us. John the Baptist’s birth is tied to Jesus’ birth just as his ministry heralded the coming Messiah. The passion is foreshadowed in the prophecy to Mary that a sword would pierce her heart. It is clear that the Magnificat and Benedictus were early hymns used in the emerging Church. Luke was the fountainhead of growing Mariology.

Infancy Stories As History

Obviously the previous analysis makes it unlikely that either account is completely historical. However the third generation of followers of Jesus wanted to know more about their Master, his family, his ancestors, his birthplace. In their search of the Scripture they found passages that they believed gave the answer.

In Luke some followers of John the Baptist claimed that he was the one. However it is made clear that John acknowledged Jesus’ preeminence in the womb (01:41, 44).

In Matthew the story of Joseph the legal father of Jesus dreaming and then going to Egypt parallels Joseph the patriarch who dreamed dreams and went to Egypt.

Therefore as people of faith we will continue to celebrate Christmas as the angels once did and the multitudes who have gone on before us singing Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all on whom his favor rests.

"Gospel Infancy Narratives?" is one of the pamphlets on the biblical foundations of the Catholic Church written May 2008 to Nov 2010 by Deacon Paul Carlson of Minneapolis, Minnesota's St Lawrence Catholic Church / Newman Center, a Paulist Foundation. (St Lawrence is the Catholic Church of Southeast Minneapolis and is right in the heart of "Dinkytown USA".)

This blog post is a memorial serialization of those pamphlets written by Deacon Paul Carlson at the request of than Pastor/Director Fr John J. Behnke, who asked Deacon Paul to write brief answers to questions University students often encountered as Catholics.

At couple of weeks before Deacon Paul's death, he said: "If there are any financial gains made from the blog serialization of my pamphlets, please have the money given to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers, because what they do is so important." If you can, send memorials to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers at 1203 Fifth Street, S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414. 

Remember Deacon Paul Carlson in your prayers, as well as all the other souls of the faithful departed, who have died in the grace of Jesus Christ.

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