Friday, January 1, 2010


Luke alone makes reference to the end of Jesus’ childhood in Luke 2:41-52. The role of this part of Luke’s narrative is transitional in at least two ways: (1) It provides a transition between Jesus’ infancy and ministry. (2) It describes a moment in his life when Jesus himself becomes conscious of who he is. Luke was quite comfortable with idea that even as a boy Jesus knew that he is God’s Son.

This latter element formed a significant part of many apocryphal gospels of the 2nd century CE in which he was appears as a child magician working miracles and speaking in the same mature language as during his ministry. It was common in other cultures to tell such stories of boyhood figures speaking and acting as men to anticipate their greatness. Most of these so-called gospels were regarded as heretical or of Gnostic origin and rejected by those who created the apostolic canon.

There was a time in liberal biblical studies when this passage was seen as evidence of Jesus’ human development and learning. At least two twentieth century novels and two Canadian church youth programs were based on this story. R.E. Brown rejects this point of view but does admit that Luke had no difficulty with Jesus growing physically as all human beings do, in social graces, as well as in wisdom and spiritual depth.

Brown also notes that this approach is contrary to the position adopted in John’s Gospel and later creeds of Jesus’ eternal pre-existence with God. Instead, Brown views the passage as illustrative of what Luke had said of Jesus in 2:40 and of John the Baptist in 1:80. They were ordinary human beings infused by the Holy Spirit.

The centre of the story, as Brown read it, “is not the boy’s intelligence but his reference to God as his Father in vs. 49.” The story is probably also from an earlier oral tradition that was unfamiliar with the story of the annunciation to Mary of the virginal conception. While Mary did play a significant role in rebuking Jesus for his absence, Joseph was also regarded as one of Jesus’ natural parents. They did not understand what Jesus was talking about when he gave what can be read as an impudent retort by a precocious youth.

No historical evidence can be drawn from the statement that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart.” This is merely a repetition of an earlier statement attributed to her in 2:19. Some scholars have made these sayings more significant. They see in the Greek word used (symballein = Eng. “Meditate upon, kept with concern, treasured”) a deeper sense of interpreting the meaning of specific events, often with divine assistance. That quality may have contributed to her later and more extreme veneration by the church.

If, as Brown and many other scholars believe, Luke composed this passage later than rest of the gospel as well as the birth narrative, it can be seen as reflecting certain aspects of Jesus’ adult ministry and his relationships with his family and disciples. (Cf. Luke 2:49; 9:45; 18:34; Mark 3:31-45; John 2:4.) As Brown notes, an appreciation of Jesus’ divine sonship came about only after the resurrection.

It is not uncommon for Christians to read this incident as Jesus’ bar mitzvah. Although there are a few earlier references to it in Jewish literature, that coming of age ceremony did not come into common use in Jewish families until the Middle Ages. To reiterate, the story does no more than provide a second conclusion to the birth narrative and a transition to Jesus’ adult ministry.

This final article brings to a conclusion what is by no means an original nor definitive discussion of the nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke. It may be used freely and with attribution to the blogger by anyone seriously interested in knowing more about these stories that continue to have such an impact during the Christmas season. Any comments may be posted to this blog or forwarded directly to the author.


Matthew’s story of the visit of the Magi reads more like a parable than history or a legend. As can be seen immediately, it is completely irreconcilable with Luke’s rendering the aftermath of the birth of Jesus. Yet, like Luke's narrative, this section of Matthew's narrative is highly dependent on an OT source. The message of the parable is to state unequivocally, if in a concealed manner, that Jesus is Lord for Gentiles as well as Jews. This claim was in contrast to the contemporary belief that the Roman emperors were the lords of all people. The earliest Christian creed simply stated, "Jesus is Lord."

R. E. Brown presented a strong case for an OT parallel in the story of Balaam and Balak in Numbers 22-24. While the details of that story are not relevant, the essential issues do lend force to Brown’s thesis: Balak, king of Moab, sent for Balak, a seer from the east near the Euphrates River, seeking his help is destroying the Israelites on their way through Moab to Canaan. Instead Balak saw the Israelites as blessed by God. Num. 24:17 has a significant reference to a star and a scepter rising out of Jacob.

Brown claimed that this led to a further conclusion that the flight of the Holy Family to and return from Egypt set up parallels with Joseph bringing his family to Egypt during a famine and Moses leading the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt. He also believed that Matthew created these incidents like three scenes in a drama from the earlier traditions of apostolic teaching. By searching and adapting elements of the Hebrew scriptures, those early teachers undergirded their gospel message that Jesus is the Messiah and Lord.

Without question Christian piety and imagination through the centuries have done much to embellish the visit of the Magi, Herod’s massacre of the children of Bethlehem and the flight of Jesus’ family to Egypt. Countless presentations of the conflated story have been made in drama, art, poetry and song. Portraying the story in a creche in public places as well as private homes has gone a long way to replace the cross as the most meaningful symbol of Christian faith.

In a secular age those symbols have also promoted strong debate about the appropriateness of such public displays of religious symbols. Music with its ability to cross cultural boundaries has done much to make the story known in renditions as far removed from each other as mediaeval miracle plays, Handel’s oratorio The Messiah, and popular songs such as We Three Kings of Orient Are.

In the 20th century the story has generated attempts to identify the star as a supernova, a comet or a triple conjunction of planets. Where the Magi came from, their respective names and the significance of their gifts generated many imaginative assumptions too. The best referent for the basic elements of the Magi story may be the prophetic vision of Israel’s return from exile in Isaiah 60:1-7. In that passage all nations acclaim the historic redemption of Israel by bringing their gifts from afar in praise of God.

Thus in his narrative of the Nativity Matthew made exceptional use of his knowledge of Hebrew scriptures to reinterpret God’s redemptive activity. His quotations from Micah 5:2 and Jeremiah 31:15 placed the story in Bethlehem in Judea. He also used historical references to two very cruel subordinate kings of the time, Herod the Great and his son, Archelaus. They had been appointed by the Romans to keep the Jews under control.


Unlike the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist in 1:59-66, which are a main feature of that narrative, the circumcision and naming of Jesus seems almost perfunctory. Actually it links the birth with section of the story about the purification of Mary and presentation of Jesus in the temple.

Some scholars also see a significance in calling attention to Jesus’ humanity and his Jewishness. As Paul wrote in Gal. 4:4, “He was born under the Law.” R. E. Brown believed that the true linkage was to the angelic command in 1:31, as the latter part of 2:21 indicates. In other words, Jesus’ parents were being obedient to God’s word. The next part of the story shows that they are also obedient to the Law.

While circumcision made the child a member of the sacred covenant, a ritual of purification was also required of his parents. Childbirth had rendered Mary impure according to the Law. (See Exod. 13:12,15.) However, there was no tradition for the purification of the father. His role was to provide for the appropriate sacrifice. (See Lev. 12:6-8.)

On the other hand, some doubt that both these rituals were still practiced extensively in the 1st century CE. Luke may either have got his facts wrong or created a situation for what was to follow. While the purification necessitated going to Jerusalem, the presentation of Jesus in the temple led to the encounter with the two prophets. Simeon and Anna. This reflects the story of Hannah and Elkanah who brought the child Samuel and left him with the aged priest Eli at the sanctuary of Shiloh as told in 1 Sam. 1:21-28.

It can be no accident that Luke made three separate references to the Law in 1:22-24 and then three references to the Spirit in vss. 25-27. This is surely Luke’s way of clarifying the continuity and discontinuity of the Jewish and Christian traditions. That was an important issue in Luke’s time when Jewish Christians were being expelled from their synagogues following the declarations of the Synod of Jamnia, ca. 85 CE.

The law and the prophets formed the major part of the Hebrew scriptures, embodied by Simeon and Anna. Pious representatives of the old tradition, they also looked for the long promised fulfillment of the messianic hope. Inspired by the Spirit, they saw their hopes realized in the infant Jesus. Equally significant was the fact that this happened in the temple precincts.

We have already seen that Simeon’s Song, also known as the Nunc Dimittis from the Latin of its first words, was probably not original to Luke’s narrative. Like the other canticles, it may have originated as a hymn of the earliest Jewish Christian community. It also draws extensively on OT references such as Gen. 46:30; Isa. 52:9-10; 49:6; 46:13; 40:5; Zech. 1:68; 2:10-11. All this introduces the Gentiles into Luke’s narrative in the same way as do the magi in Matthew.

Simeon also uttered a second, much more pessimistic prophecy directed toward Mary. This emphasis reflected a post-resurrection experience of the church which John wrote about in his passion narrative. Tradition held that Mary lived with John, son of Zebedee, in Ephesus late into the 1st century. A sense of judgment for Israel and all unbelievers also comes to the fore in anticipating the rejection of Jesus. Anna’s greeting and praise of the child provided a more fitting, hopeful ending than Simeon’s reference to a sword passing through Mary’s soul. He may have adapted this from Ezek. 14:17.

As we have seen with much of both nativity narratives, OT references seemed to guide Matthew and Luke in their composition of the story we tend to conflate.