Saturday, December 27, 2014

Are Matthew and Luke completely independent narratives?

UPDATE: check out the exchange between Tony Burke and me in the comments.

This post is mainly a reminder for me to come back and investigate a question more fully (since part of what I envision this blog being for is to kick around ideas that I might want to write about). If it sparks other people to think about the issue, so much the better. 

Reason #1 that the infancy narratives aren't historical had to do with the stories of Matthew and Luke being completely different. Although they are indeed extremely different, there are, as we will eventually see in the WINAH series (Why the Infancy Narratives Aren't Historical), there are a number of intriguing agreements between the two, both in terms of content and form. How should we account for these?

I'm finally reading Jane Schaberg's daring and brilliant book, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives. The preface to the 20th anniversary edition, by the way, is a stunning and awful depiction of the harassment she experienced in response to publishing a book claiming that the historical Jesus was conceived outside of marriage, with someone other than Joseph as the father, as a result of Mary either being raped or seduced. I hope to publish a more complete review of the book on this blog in the future. But last night, the portion I read got me thinking again about the question of whether Matthew and Luke truly created their infancy narratives separately and independently of each other. More scattered thoughts below the jump.
Conventional wisdom, which is what I reproduced in reason #1 of WINAH, says that Matthew and Luke produced their infancy narratives completely independently of one another. That is, Matthew didn't know Luke was writing, and Luke didn't know Matthew was writing. And to some extent, this is a reasonable conclusion based on the substantial differences between the narratives. But, and I'm curious to research this in more detail, one very big potential reason for saying that they're independent is because that's what the Two Source Hypothesis requires. So how often are exegetes influenced, even unconsciously, by this theory, and expect to find it validated in the infancy narratives?

I'm a pretty big advocate of the Two Source Hypothesis, since it seems to do a very good job of accounting for the different ways Matthew and Luke change the text of Mark, plus their substantial agreements that suggest the use of an additional source like Q. But the infancy narratives are, to my knowledge, usually not discussed in any great detail in treatments of the Synoptic Problem. And they are a very interesting case of something that Matthew and Luke both have that is very different in terms of specific content but very similar in terms of formal characteristics. Several possible questions might emerge from this observation:
  • How likely is it (and this is not a rhetorical question) that Matthew and Luke each decided on their own to compose accounts of Jesus' birth? After all, that seems like what they did with their resurrection narratives.
  • But with their resurrection narratives, how much of that material did they create out of whole cloth, versus receiving it in written or oral form that they then put their own redactional tweaks on? And the same question could be asked (and has been asked) for the infancy narratives.
  • Is there a way that the two key theses of the Two Source Hypothesis (that is, Matthew and Luke's independent use of Mark and their independent use of the Q source) could be correct, and yet have one of the infancy narratives depend upon the other? I'm thinking mainly in terms of Proto-Luke here.
  • Has the concern not to be accused of uncritically harmonizing the infancy narratives steered some exegetes away from proposing that one is dependent upon the other, or that they're both dependent upon some sort of Ur-Infancy-Narrative?


  1. I think that if all we had of Luke and Matthew were the infancy narratives, we would be hard-pressed to argue for dependence. But do they have shared traditions? Here is the bare minimum of what they agree on:
    1. Birth in Bethlehem.
    2. Birth under Herod the Great.
    3. Names of the parents (Mary and Joseph).
    4. Angelic annunciation.
    5. Virgin birth based on Isaiah.
    Now, as I see it, some of this shared tradition (birth in Bethlehem, virgin birth) could derive from common use of testimonia (excerpts from Hebrew Scripture used by Christians to demonstrate Jesus was the Messiah). As it happens both writers use this tradition in very different ways, which makes sense if they were independently interpreting it. The angelic annunciation (to Joseph in Matt, to Mary in Luke) looks like the common use of a biblical motif in special birth stories. And birth under Herod the Great would be assumed if both authors considered Jesus to be around 30 when he died.

    What does that leave us? The names of the parents. And Mary is taken over from Mark. So we have Joseph. That's it. But where did they get his name from?

  2. I should introduce my interlocutor before responding, since he's kind of a big deal. Tony Burke is one of the world's foremost experts on the Christian Apocrypha, alongside He teaches at York University in Canada, and runs his own fantastic blog ( Tony and I are partners in crime on a variety of projects, including More Christian Apocrypha, a new anthology of apocryphal Christian writings.

    As for Tony's thoughtful comments on my very speculative post, here are my reactions:

    1) The notion that the shared traditions come from testimonia is intriguing. To be clear, this is a suggestion that has been tossed around for quite some time. But although clear evidence exists that both Jews and Christians compiled collections of "proof texts," my impression is that the use of such texts to demonstrate Jesus' Davidic origin and birth at Bethlehem is still extremely hypothetical. But Enrico Norelli has written recently on the question of testimonia as they relate to the infancy narratives, so I need to take a look at his arguments and evidence.

    2) One shared tradition that Tony did not mention is the agreement that Jesus was conceived prior to his parents being married--put another way (though probably an increasingly offensive way in society today), he was illegitimate. I'd be interested to hear what Tony thinks of this commonality.

    3) Yes, where indeed did they get the name Joseph? Mark doesn't give the name of Joseph's father anywhere. And Matthew and Luke don't mention it outside of their infancy narratives. But curiously, it shows up twice in John! Jesus is called the "son of Joseph" at John 1:45 and 6:42. So where did John get it from? Although a good number of scholars regard John as being dependent upon the Synoptics--which would explain how John knows that Joseph is Jesus' father--I have always found this conclusion very dubious. Moreover, if he knows a tradition about Jesus being born in Bethlehem, he sure doesn't let on to this in John 7:42.

    4) Overall, I think there are at least three studies that need to be done on this topic: a) a history of scholarship on the relationship between Matthew and Luke's infancy narratives; b) a fresh examination of the testimonia hypothesis as it pertains to the infancy narratives; c) a study of the "historical Joseph," or at least an investigation of how widespread knowledge of him was in early Christian circles (with a particular interest in how John knows about him).

  3. On no. 2: I think you need the "conceived before marriage" if you want a virgin birth. This seems to be the proof for the assertion--i.e., Joseph has never slept with Mary before so it must be a divine birth. So, I can see how both authors could have arrived at this independently of one another.

    On no. 3: oops, forgot about John.

    On no. 4: I wrote a paper on the use of the infancy narratives in solutions to the Synoptic Problem (i.e., how do the Griesbach, Oxford, and 2SH scholars work with this material?). I never reworked it for publication. Spoiler: the Griesbach and Oxford people rarely discuss the infancy narratives.