Friday, November 30, 2012

Matthew, Luke, and Advent

With the approach of advent, I felt inspired to make a book for my niece that would tell the nativity story. One of my interests this year has been in typography, and I decided that I should try laying out my first small book.

Of the four evangelists, only Matthew and Luke describe Jesus's birth. At first glance, my project seemed to be simple. I would take Matthew chapters one and two and Luke chapters one and two, and arrange them into one story.

I set some ground rules for myself. I decided that I would only interleave Matthew and Luke; I would not do any rearranging. That is, I would not put something from Matthew 2 ahead of something from Matthew 1, for example. I would also try to work section by section, keeping intact each author's work as much as possible. I finally resolved not to delete any verses, if at all possible.

If you have tried this exercise yourself, you may agree with me that all goes well until after Jesus is born. The birth of John the Baptist is announced to Zechariah in Jerusalem (Luke 1.5-22). He returns to his home in the hill country of Judea and his wife, Elizabeth, becomes pregnant (Luke 1.23-25).

Meanwhile, the birth of Jesus is announced to Mary in Nazareth (Luke 1.26-38). That moves Mary to visit Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1.39-55). At the end of her visit, Mary returns to Nazareth (Luke 1.56). After Mary leaves, Elizabeth gives birth to John the Baptist (Luke 1.57-80).

Meanwhile, back in Nazareth, Joseph is planning to put Mary away, but an angel comes to him in a dream and tells him not to (Matt. 1.18-25). Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus is born there (Luke 2.1-7). Angels appear to shepherds in the surrounding countryside, who come to the stable to see Jesus in the manger (Luke 2.8-20). A week later, the baby is named Jesus (Luke 2.21).

So far, so good. Now here it gets complicated. Luke has the Holy Family travel to Jerusalem to be dedicated in the temple (Luke 2.22-38). After that, Luke has the Holy Family travel to Nazareth (Luke 2.39-40).

However, Matthew has the wise men coming from the East, stopping in Jerusalem to ask King Herod for directions, and worshiping Jesus in Bethlehem (Matt. 2.1-12). Matthew then has the Holy Family escape to Egypt to avoid Herod's massacre of the baby boys in Bethlehem (Matt. 2.13-18). After Herod's death, the Holy Family resettles in Nazareth (Matt. 2.19-22).

So, how do we get all of these events in one time line? Did the Holy Family go to Jerusalem, then come back to Bethlehem so that the wise men could find them? There are two problems with this scenario.

First, Luke says that the Holy Family went to Nazareth after Jerusalem. This could be explained away by reasoning that the Holy Family did end up in Nazareth after all of this, but first they went some places that Luke did not bother to record. The more significant problem is that there is no reason for the Holy Family to keep shuttling back and forth to Bethlehem. Aside from being his ancestral place of origin, Joseph has no connection to Bethlehem. He just went there to file his census paperwork. Once he leaves Bethlehem, there's no reason for him to return, especially considering how difficult travel was in first century Israel.

As a lawyer, if I know one thing, it is that the answer to most problems is to do more research. In this case, I consulted several harmonies of the gospel. Most scholars use the arrangement that I just described. Apparently they do not see a problem with it. I don't know; maybe Joseph had some unstated reason to go back to Bethlehem.

The other alternative is that the Holy Family stayed in Bethlehem, and did not leave until after the wise men's visit. Then the Holy Family would have had to go to Jerusalem after the wise men left. Again, there are two problems with that alternative.

First, Matthew has Joseph leaving for Egypt because Herod is going to kill baby boys in Bethlehem. Did he stop off in Jerusalem on his way to Egypt? It's not like Jerusalem is between Bethlehem and Egypt. That leads to the second, more serious problem. Would the Holy Family have been able to travel to Jerusalem and dedicate the Messiah in the Temple -- loudly prophesied by both Simeon and Anna -- after the wise men had been through Jerusalem, stirring the whole town up about the new king?

Although I am not totally satisfied with this alternative, and although it does not seem to be the majority position, this is the alternative that I put into my book. The other alternative seemed to have too much traveling and backtracking in it to make sense to me.

The more that I puzzled over this, the more it seemed to me that Mark and John had taken the more sensible course, and just avoided talking about the baby Jesus altogether.

Lucky for me, I have a great friend who is going through divinity school at Wake Forest University. I showed her my draft and explained her problem. "The thing is," she told me, "each author was writing with a different audience in mind. They were each making a different point. Matthew's point was the Jesus was the Messiah, the fulfillment of prophecy. Luke's point was the Jesus was the Savior of the Gentiles as well as Jews. So you really can't blend the two together." I agree with her that is absolutely true, but that answer did not really satisfy me.

I am in many ways a conventional, unimaginative Christian. I think that the Bible is either true or it isn't. I think that either Jesus existed -- and did what the Bible says he did -- or he didn't. This thinking is about a hundred years out of date.

Scholars such as John Dominic Crossan believe that they can decide that this part of the Bible is true, and this part of the Bible is not. Scholars of that type would not be troubled by this problem. They would conclude that either Jesus was not dedicated in the Temple, or there were no wise men, or perhaps that both stories are just folk tales.

The problem with that is that I get to pick the parts that support my views, and ignore the parts that don't, and so do you. Then the Bible does not work to bind us together, which is something that I think it should. Crossan would probably counter that you don't just get to pick and choose, that the decision process has to be determined by some kind of objective criteria, but I don't know how realistic that is.

In a similar way, there are some Christians who believe that Jesus didn't really exist in a factual way. To them, Jesus is the embodiment of an ideal, and the point of the gospels is not to describe a person who existed and who did actual things, but to describe a way of experiencing God. Those believers do not need to reconcile the Jesus of Matthew with the Jesus of Luke. They may be right, but that is not an answer that satisfies me at all.

For such a seemingly simple task, this project certainly brought up some serious, probably insoluble questions about the nature of faith. Obviously, I have not solved those, although I continue to wrestle with them. I can point to some more modest lessons learned, however.

I did not need to do any rearranging of the evangelists' work. Matthew and Luke both recount their stories in the order that makes chronological sense within themselves. I did not even need to do much interspersing. Each evangelist carries large chunks of the narrative at a time. Some deletion was regrettably necessary, but only in the case of redundancy. For example, both Matthew and Luke recount that the baby was named Jesus, and a coherent narrative only needs that stated once.

What do you think about the issues that I had? How would you solve the problem of harmonizing Matthew and Luke?

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