Friday, December 10, 2010

Why not to Harmonize the Birth Narratives

Over the last couple of days I have posted some inconsistencies in the birth narratives.  Often when one comes across these inconsistencies the first reaction is to try and harmonize them, that is, make them fit.  Besides taking lots of time and stretching logic to the breaking point, harmonizing becomes a smoke screen, blinding the reader from what the narrative is trying to say. 

For example, in the birth narratives, I pointed out the different ways in which Matthew and Luke explained Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and his subsequent move to Nazareth.  In summary, Luke has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth, going to Bethlehem to register for the census, giving birth to Jesus, and then returning home to Nazareth.  Matthew, on the other hand, has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem, giving birth to Jesus, fleeing the wrath of Herod to Egypt, and then returning to Israel but heeding an angel's warning, they return to Nazareth, not Bethlehem.  If one tries to harmonize these narratives, they, imho, do a lot of legwork for not much payoff.

Harmonizing keeps one from asking the really interesting questions, with great payoff.  Instead of harmonizing, why not ask the following question: why did the author tell the story this way instead of another? 

Let's look at Matthew's version.  Why did he tell of Herod's murderous rampage against all male children under 2 years old?  Why did he drive Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt?  Where have we heard of a king putting to death all of the male children under 2 years old before?  Yes, Pharoah and Moses.  Where have we heard of a guy named Joseph before who has dreams and goes to Egypt?  Matthew is deliberately echoing the stories of the Patriarchs, specifically the story of Moses.  For Matthew, Jesus is the second Moses.  Jesus, like Moses is saved from a murderous king.  Jesus like Moses resides in Egypt before his journey to the promised land.  Jesus, like Moses, gives the Law.  Well, not exactly gives, he fulfills the law (Mt. 5:17). Commentators for some time have seen the structure of Matthew as revolving around five discourses (5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23-25), at the end of which the narrator says, "when Jesus had finished saying these things."  Five discourses, five books of Moses.

The same type of type of payoff comes from asking the same question of Luke's narrative.  Why did he include the census of Quirinius?  Was it just to get Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem?  No, it was much more.  There is a theological point here.  Luke's narrative, which I take to include Acts as well, has a great theological point that what came out of this small village in Nazareth would have worldwide repercussions.  This Galilean peasant would literally turn the world upside down, he would shake the very foundations of the Roman Empire.  So, here in the birth narrative, we already see Luke setting his narrative on the worldwide scene.  Augustus Caesar orders a census to "register the whole world."  (Luke 2:1)  Rome, personified in Augustus, orders a census that, unwittingly to Augustus, moves the Messiah right into place in Bethlehem to be born.  That Jesus will live and die, but his followers will bear witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  And that is where Luke's narrative ends, with Paul, at the center of the world, Rome, proclaiming the good news freely.

The birth narratives set the stage for what is to come in the gospels.  Both Matthew and Luke have slightly different theological aims, slightly different perspectives from which they approach the story of Jesus and they tell the birth of Jesus in order to highlight those aims and perspectives.  Yet, if we concern ourselves with harmonizations, we never get to these questions and perhaps miss part of what Luke and Matthew were trying to tell us.

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