Infancy Narratives

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Term applied to the accounts of the birth and early life of Jesus as given in Mt 1.12.23 and Lk 1.52.52.

Composition and Themes. Although infancy narratives open two of our gospels, biblical criticism assigns them last in the order of composition. The passion story was composed first, reflecting the community's effort to make sense of the crucifixion of their Messiah. Next were added accounts of Jesus' ministry, and only afterwards did the infancy accounts evolve, answering to human curiosity about Jesus' origins.

A comparison with Mark, which was composed first gospel of the four gospels, illustrates the theological significance of this compositional chronology. Mark's gospel, which lacks an infancy narrative, begins with Jesus' baptism. Although the holy spirit designates Jesus as the "beloved son" sent to preach a "baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins" (Mk 1.4, 11), it is not until the crucifixion that people unequivocally recognize and acknowledge Jesus' divine stature; a Gentile centurion announces "Truly this man was the son of God" (15.39).

By contrast, the infancy narratives take for granted Jesus' divine and Messianic stature. Matthew's geneaology titles Jesus "Messiah" (Mt 1.16); an angel announces to Joseph that Jesus will be a savior who embodies the divine presence (Mt 1.21, 23). The ensuing episodes amount to a gospel in miniature that epitomizes the evangelist's christology and anticipates Jesus' double-edged destiny. Gentiles will honor Jesus' divinity and status as Davidic Messiah, just as the magi, in the infancy narrative, worship him at birth. The religious leaders of his day will persecute him and plot his death, just as the Jewish ruler Herod does at the start of Jesus' life.

Luke's infancy account also announces Jesus' divinity and his saving role in history. Like Matthew, who represents Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament scripture and Jewish hopes, Luke highlights the continuity of the Christian gospel with Judaism. The literary design of Luke's account draws a parallel between John the Baptist's story and that of Jesus. John the Baptist may be viewed as a transitional figure between the story of Israel and the story of Jesus (R. Brown, H. Conzelmann's). Zechariah and Elizabeth (the parents of John the Baptist), and Anna and Simeon (prophetic models of Jewish piety), set the stage for the savior's arrival. Jesus' Davidic stature (Lk 1.32; 2:11), together with his destiny as one who will incur opposition (Lk 2.34), are equally clear. Distinctively Lukan themes appear in this narrative, particularly his accent on social justice and the vindication of the oppressed (see, e.g., the Magnificat Lk 1.4656).

Literary Relationship. Points of agreement between the two accounts must be balanced against their divergences in order to ascertain their literary relationship. The hypothesis that Matthew and Luke drew independently from oral tradition accounts better for the commonalities between the two accounts than does the hypothesis of direct dependence. The points of agreement include some of the principal characters, the Davidic descent and conception of Jesus by the holy spirit, the angelic annunication, Jesus' birthplace at Bethlehem and residence in Nazareth, and the dating of his birth to the reign of Herod the Great.

While both accounts are concerned with showing the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies in the Christ event, Matthew does so principally by explicit formulaic scriptural citations, which punctuate his infancy story five times (1.2223; 2.5b6, 15b, 1718, 23b), whereas Luke's weaves single words or phrases from the Old Testament into his sentences (e.g., Lk 1.35, where the Greek verb 'επισκιάζω (overshadow) is the same as that used in the Septuagint translation of Ex 40.35: "the cloud overshadowed it [the tent of meeting]." One may detect Luke's theological emphases by such linguistic clues.

The divergences between the two accounts are obvious, including differences beween their genealogies, and in overall plot and themes. Matthew 2, including the visit of the magi, the star, and Herod's plot, is not found in Luke, while most of Luke 12, including the birth of John the Baptist, the canticles, the shepherds, and the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, are not found in Matthew. These differences often remain obscure to popular audiences who are accustomed to seasonal adaptations and liturgical recreations of the Christmas story that harmonize the two accounts.

Matthew's Structure. A number of different proposals have been suggested for the structure of Matthew's account. K. Stendahl divides the story into four parts (1.117, 1825; 2.112, 1323), dealing respectively with the questions of who Jesus is, how he came to be, where he was born, and whence his destiny. Others organize the story with reference to three dreams of Joseph that occur 1.1825, 2.1315, and 2.1923. A structure that comprises a genealogy (1.117), followed by three episodes (1.1825; 2.112; 2.132) is presented here and focuses on Exodus themes in Matthew's account.

The genealogy shows Jesus' descent from Abraham and David and form a unit with the second episode, demonstrating that the promises of God to Abraham and David are fulfilled in Jesus, the Messiah. Although He is born of a virgin, Jesus belongs to the family of David, since Joseph is a "son of David" and (1.20) has accepted Mary, Jesus' mother, as his wife.

The second episode (2.112) shows that the Gentiles, represented by the magi, have sought out and done homage to the Messiah of Israel, whereas His own people (Herod, "all Jerusalem," the high priests, and the Scribes) have been disturbed by the news of His birth (2.3) and have either ignored or sought to kill Him (see magi).

Jesus the New Israel. A Jesus-Israel typology is the dominant theme of the following section (2.1323); Jesus is presented as the true Israel who goes down to Egypt like the ancient people of God and is brought out of Egypt in a new Exodus (2.15). The words of Jer 31.15 that are cited in Mt 2.18 belong to a context that deals with the

Exile and the return of Israel and Judah. Through the application of that text to Herod's slaughter of the children of Bethlehem, that massacre is seen not merely as an attempt to destroy the Messiah, but as the concomitant of the exile of Jesus, the new Israel. The midrashic account of the persecution of Jacob-Israel by Laban, because of which the patriarch was compelled ("by the word of God") to take refuge in Egypt, may have been influential in the formation of Matthew's narrative. That midrash, based on Dt 26.58, is found in the Passover haggadah, the liturgy for the eve of Passover, and probably dates from the second century b.c. Its use in Matthew suggests the Passover celebration of the Jewish Christians as the Sitz im Leben (life situation) of this episode. It is possible that the magi episode was originally not concerned with those that follow, and it may even be the conflation of two distinct stories, but in the arrangement of Matthew, the magi's inquiry (2.2) is the point of departure for the entire flight and massacre complex; consequently, the Jesus-Israel theme dominates the narrative as a whole, although it is not present in the first episode 1.1825.

Jesus the New Moses. A Jesus-Moses typology also can be discerned, although it is subordinate. The clearest indication is in Mt 2.20, where Herod's death is announced to Joseph in terms that are taken from Ex 4.19. There Moses is told to go back to Egypt "for all the men who sought your life are dead"; in Matthew, Joseph is told that "those who sought the child's life are dead." The plural in Matthew is explicable only because the verse is a free quotation of Ex 4.19. There are also similarities to midrashic stories about the birth of Moses. The two points of closest correspondence are (1) the dream in which Amram, Moses' father, is told what his unborn child's mission will be (cf. Mt 1.2021) and (2) the terror of the Egyptians at the prediction of Moses' birth (cf. Mt2.3). Although the rabbinic sources containing the Moses legend are relatively late, most of its elements are found in Josephus, which shows that the possible influence of the legend on Matthew cannot be excluded on chronological grounds.

Luke's Account. Luke's narrative draws a parallel between the infancy of John the Baptist and that of Jesus, in which are noted similarities such as Gabriel's announcement to Zachary and to Mary, Zachary's canticle and Mary's, and also striking contrasts, e.g. while the Baptist, like other great Biblical figures, is born of a previously sterile woman (e.g. Sarah, Hannah), Jesus is born to a virgin who conceives out of wedlock by the holy spirit. Luke's design illustrates his theology of salvation history whereby Jesus stands as a prophet at once continuous and discontinuous with the prophets of Israel.

Fulfillment of the Old Testament. In a different manner from Matthew, Luke presents the Christ-event as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. The Baptist is the new Elijah, the precursor of the day of the lord, who is to prepare the people for the coming of Yahweh (Lk 1.16; cf. Mal 3.1, 23); Jesus is the Messiah of Israel who will receive the throne of David his father (Lk 1.3233). By anticipation, the newborn child is announced as Lord and Messiah (2.11), although those titles belong to Jesus properly only when He is raised from the dead (Acts2.36). The prediction in Dn 9.2124 of the eschatological consecration of the "most holy" and that in Mal 3.1 of Yahweh's coming to the Temple have influenced Luke's narrative. The angel Gabriel, who appears in the Old Testament only in Dn 8.16 and 9.21, is the one who announces ("at the hour of the incense offering"; cf. Dn9.22) the conception of the Baptist and, later, that of Jesus (see gabriel, archangel).

Jesus' coming to the Temple, where He is acknowledged by Simeon as the "glory" of Israel, is the sign that the final age has been inaugurated; in Him the eschatological dwelling of God in the midst of His people is accomplished. Other Old Testament texts to which it has been suggested that Luke alludes are: So 3.1417 (Lk1.2833), 2 Sm 6.211, 16 (Lk 1.3944, 56), Ex 40.35 (Lk 1.35), and Mi 4.710; 5.15 (Luke ch. 2 passim ). The magnificat (Lk 1.4655) and the benedictus (1.6879) are filled with Old Testament citations and are the most striking examples of the so-called anthological composition that is common to the rest of the narrative. The annunciations to Zachary and Mary (see annuncia tion) correspond to the format of similar Old Testament announcements (cf. Gn ch. 1718; Jgs 6.1123); Mary's pondering and keeping "all these things" in her heart (Lk2.19, 51) has its parallel in Gn 37.11 and Dn 7.28. The presence of these Old Testament references may be questioned in particular cases. Some that have been suggested give the appearance of being too subtle to be probable, but in estimating the probability account must be taken both of Luke's allusive method of citation and of the fact that he does not use the Old Testament in the manner of a scientific exegete.

See Also: luke, gospel according to; matthew, gospel according to.

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[m. m. bourke/

m. stevenson]