Revelation and Purpose: The Infancy Narratives

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“God, who has no History because He is eternal, desired to make History by walking alongside His people…He decided to become one of us, and as one of us, to walk with us through Jesus.”
Pope Francis (Sept. 24, 2013, Catholic News Agency)

In this quote, Pope Francis looks at the historicity of the gospels from the perspective of one’s personal “encounter with the living God”. Fr. Joseph  Fitzmyer also addresses historicity, in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, not to argue for their exclusion but to look deeper into their meaning. While finding their basis for these narratives in tradition after Mark, both Matthew and Luke share agreement on twelve points. This, as Fitzmyer notes, “prevents one from writing off the infancy narratives as mere fabrications out of whole cloth”[1]. Extending this metaphor further, we look as to what can be learned from their weaving of this material that speaks to who Jesus is, how he is to be understood and what this also reveals about God.
If we turn to the genealogy of Jesus, for example, we notice that Matthew places his at the start of his gospel, beginning with Abraham and culminating in Jesus. Here Matthew is setting the stage for Jesus as the fulfillment of OT prophesy, a part of the history of Israel and yet the promise of God doing something new and wonderful in humanity [2]. Luke, places his genealogy not even in the infancy narrative (1:5-2:52), but just prior to the start of Jesus’ ministry following his baptism (3:23-38). This reveals that who Jesus is, particularly in Luke, is indelibly tied to the message and ministry that he has come to proclaim. Luke begins not with Abraham but with Jesus, going all the way back to Adam, illustrating that Jesus came not just for the Jewish people, but for “all humanity” [3].

By starting at creation, Luke also seems to highlight Jesus as God’s son, a new beginning for humanity to understand God’s profound love in a very intimate way.
This is reinforced in Luke’s parallelism of the proclamations of births, circumcisions, and growth of Jesus and John, with Jesus always being greater. [4] These accounts of John present in the Gospel of Luke are absent in Matthew’s Gospel. However, by adding Elizabeth’s miraculous ability to conceive along with Mary’s virgin conception, Luke provides another instance of God’s divine intervention [5]. For, God has reached into our history and made possible the impossible, in order that we come to know just who God is!

Yet, Fitzmyer is correct that looking at the absence of agreement between Matthew and Luke, puts the historicity of these narratives secondary to their “theological and Christological meaning” [6]. As L.T. Johnson notes in the volume on Luke, “from Jesus to David (where no biblical texts can guide either author), they only share five names” [7]. Still, each in their own way seeks to meaningfully engage the questions that arose of Jesus with significant understanding, and are not simply accepted as “historical accounts” [8] Thus, we behold that Luke’s orderly sequence and “historical perspective…is first of all salvation history”.[9]

Peace,

Signature


[1] Fitzmyer S.J., Joseph. A Christological Catechism: New Testament Answers,  Paulist Press; Rev Exp Su edition. November 1, 1993., p.31.

[2] Brown, Raymond. An Introduction to the New Testament. The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. Yale University Press. October 13, 1997. p. 175.

[3] Brown, p. 236.

[4] Fitzmyer, p.29.

[5] Fitzmyer, p. 30.

[6] Fitzmyer, p. 31.

[7] Johnson, Luke Timothy. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke.  Michael Glazier; August 1, 2006. p.71.

[8] Fitzmyer, p. 81.

[9] Catholic Study Bible, p. 1433.

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