I’m pleased to give this Platinum Guest Post by Dennis Folds, a highly informed and informative assessment of the relationship between the infancy stories of Matthew and Luke. A lot has been said about these stories over the years, but Dennis has an intriguing perspective that I don’t recall seeing before. Terrific! Read it and see what you think. And send some comments/questions for Dennis.
Do you have a post to send along for Platinum members? It does not need to be highly informed, erudite, researched: just something you’ve been thinking about that you would like to share with other Platinum members, anything related to the many issues we deal with on the blog. The queue is virtually empty now, so send your post along!
For now: here’s Dennis.
The Synoptic Problem is the framework in which scholars debate about the commonalities among the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. A lot of material is in all three, more material is common to two of the three, and the remainder is found in only one. Very little is found only in Mark, but both Matthew and Luke have significant content not found in the other two gospels. The drastically different nativity stories in Matthew and Luke are often cited as examples.
Perhaps the most common Synoptic Problem position nowadays is the Two Document Hypothesis, which holds that Mark and a long-lost document called Q were two primary sources that Matthew and Luke used, independently, as they wrote their gospels. A major competitor is the Farrer hypothesis, which posits that Mark wrote first, Matthew used Mark, then Luke used both Matthew and Mark as he wrote. In this post I’ll argue in favor of the Farrer hypothesis. I’ll argue that Luke’s nativity story is directly a rewrite of Matthew’s, in which he altered it significantly, making it a much better story. Mary and Joseph become much more appealing characters, at least to the Gentile world.
I gather from Luke’s introduction that he was familiar with “many” other attempts to write an orderly account, but he thought he could do better. Much better. Throughout Luke we find triple tradition material (i.e., Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and double tradition material (Matthew and Luke, but not Mark), in which Luke improves the stories both in narrative and in appeal to the non-Jewish world. Moreover, much of the material that is only found in Luke is exceptionally well-written narrative. For example, the parables found only in Luke tend to be lengthy, with a well-developed plot, and a complex message. The big three are only found in Luke: Prodigal Son, Good Samaritan, and Rich Man and Lazarus.
Before I address his rewrite of the nativity story, I’ll point out the most significant rewrite in his gospel: the crucifixion story. The crucifixion story as told by Luke is the only one in which Jesus behaves in a noble manner. In Mark, he suffers and dies, and just utters one thing, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is an anguished cry, perhaps of defeat. Matthew makes some modifications but retains just the one saying on the cross. In contrast, Luke has Jesus take time while being led to the cross to comfort the grieving women along the way. He prays, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” as he is being nailed to the cross. In both Mark and Matthew, the two thieves on either side of Jesus mock and taunt him, but in Luke, one of them says something to the effect that Jesus probably didn’t deserve to be put to death. Jesus then has a forgiving interchange with him, and promises that, “This day, you will be with me in paradise.” So, in Luke, Jesus behaves as a great man should in the face of death. There is no anguished cry of defeat. He is noble and gracious.
Now for the nativity story: Matthew launches into “now the birth of Jesus happened this way:” and proceeds to narrate a few events, peppered with claims of how those events fulfilled Jewish prophecies. When we read those actual prophecies, none of Matthew’s claims are straightforward readings of the prophecies. If an interested reader goes back and looks at those prophecies, it seems that Matthew really stretches to make them fit the events surrounding Jesus’s birth. Maybe, to the Jewish audience, these hidden meanings are treasured. But to the broader readership, they are unconvincing. Luke leaves all that stuff out. But he takes Matthew’s events and turns them into a well-written, integrated story.
- Matthew says that Joseph was engaged to Mary, and before they came together, she was found to be of child “of the Holy Spirit.” Wow! This is something that never happened before. How could that happen? How did that happen? So, Luke writes the story of how that happened. It started with the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and telling her what was going to happen. Mary questions how it could be, and Gabriel explains how it will be. The Holy Spirit is going to “overshadow” her and cause her to become present. In a way, it is a very sexual image (though not prurient). And Mary agrees to it.
- In Matthew, Joseph is inclined to divorce Mary but does not, after a dream. He marries her and somehow they are in Bethlehem when the child is born. To Luke, Joseph’s abandoned thought of divorcing Mary adds nothing to the story, so he drops it. But how did they get to Bethlehem when everyone knew they were from Nazareth? Luke’s story of how that happened became, perhaps, the most widely read story in history. He invented a census in which everyone was required to go to their “own city” and register for the property tax. (He did not say people went to the cities of their ancestors, but to their own city.) He explains that Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to register, because, by inference, he had property there. In describing this census of the “whole world” he refers to the census taken by Quirinius, about 10 years later, which led to widespread revolt. But in Luke’s story, Joseph is a compliant subject of Rome, doing what the emperor ordered. So that’s how Joseph, with his pregnant fiancé, came to be in Bethlehem. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
- In Matthew, Jesus’s birth is heralded by the appearance of a star, the significance of which was perceived only by a few magi from Persia. At first, the best they can do is come to Jerusalem and ask around. Somehow, they get audience with Herod the Great, who brings in some consultants, who tell them the child would be born in Bethlehem. The star reappears somehow and leads them to the house where the child is found. They bring grand gifts for him, then leave and skedaddle out of town, telling no one what they had found. What a dumb story! Luke rewrites it. First, in the ancient world, the fixed stars were widely thought to be divine beings of some sort, angels you might say, who took their journey across the night sky. The five visible planets were associated with gods. (In Revelation, when there is war in heaven between Satan’s angels and Michael’s angels, when Michael prevails, a third of the stars fall from the sky.) In Luke’s telling, Matthew’s star of Bethlehem becomes the angel of the Lord, who appears to some shepherds near where the child is born. And in plain Aramaic, the angel told the shepherds what had happened, and how to find the child. The angel was then joined by a big group of other angels/stars, the heavenly host, singing praises. No consultants needed. The shepherds go and find the child just as the angel said, and they went away and told everybody. This is a much better story. And it also transforms the special visitors who see the child from esoteric Persian magi to common shepherds. The child is born in an humble setting, laid in a manger, and visited by shepherds. This is a great improvement.
- Matthew has Joseph take Mary and the baby and flee to Egypt. Luke has Joseph take Mary and the baby straight into Jerusalem to do everything the Jewish law required. Not only were Joseph and Mary compliant Roman subjects, they were also compliant adherents to the Jewish religion. These were good folks, nothing to fear here.
- Rather than validate the specialness of the birth of Jesus with obscure interpretations of Jewish prophecies, as Matthew did, Luke has the birth validated by two Spirit-filled elders there in the temple, both of whom were awaiting the appearance of this special child. Both Simeon and Anna recognize the child as the Lord’s chosen one, and proclaimed that recognition to everyone around.
Luke isn’t trying to write “history” in the documentary sense. He is writing the story of a man of faith, a man of prayer, a Spirit-led man who was obedient to the very end, even in a tragic death. He was vindicated when God raised him from the dead. The other attempts to tell his story were inadequate, so Luke improved on them. In modern terms, Luke wasn’t trying to write a documentary of the life of Jesus of Nazareth; he was writing the screenplay for a blockbuster movie. He writes word-for-word dialog between angels and humans. He gives us a quick scene of Jesus at age 12, asking questions in the Temple and impressing the scribes there. Luke’s Jesus can read and write, and teaches his disciples what the scriptures mean.
Luke was not a graduate student writing his thesis, being careful to not go beyond “sources” he trusted nor “traditions” to which he had access. Rather, he was a skilled writer who, in fact, wrote the greatest story ever told.