The grotto of the Nativity, Bethlehem

One of the reasons I still believe Matthew and Luke shared at least one additional source beside Mark is the infancy stories. If the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre hypothesis is true, and Luke used Matthew and Mark, or if the Matthean posteriority hypothesis is true, and Matthew used Luke and Mark, I can’t quite believe either would have made quite such overwhelming changes to the other’s infancy narrative.

Yes, it’s possible to argue over each detail; Luke did not like Magi, Matthew wanted to stress the male public world of God’s action over the private female one in Luke, and so on. But the cumulative effect is not simply a major rewrite, but competing and irreconcilable narrative arcs. Why, if Luke had Matthew’s account as his source, would he want to begin in Nazareth, and find a historically implausible literary device to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem? Why, if Matthew had Luke’s version in front of him, would he labour to introduce Nazareth as an accidental surprise at the end of the infancy story?

It is quite true that they both change Mark, and certainly use their common traditions – the putative Q source – very differently at times. But nowhere else (if one used the other) do either make such radical changes to what they find: elsewhere the source is recognisable as the same basic story, saying or group of sayings. So I find it hard to credit either Luke using Matthew or Matthew using Luke, not only because of the infancy narratives, but certainly because they provide a strong counter-argument.

However, if one is not the source of the other, then the two stories do have just enough of a common backbone to make it implausible that either developed the narrative using only the Old Testament and their imagination. The common material includes:

  • Angelic announcement
  • Conception by a virgin
  • Conception through the Holy Spirit
  • The divine command to name the child Jesus
  • Birth at Bethlehem.

Other elements such as the names of Joseph and Mary, and the idea that Jesus comes from Nazareth might well have been included in this, but are also found elsewhere in the tradition.

If, as I do, anyone wants to maintain the independence of Matthew and Luke from each other, it would seem that it is necessary to posit an earlier tradition that both draw on in creating their accounts. Unlike many people, I don’t think we can have any real degree of clarity about Q as a reconstructed source, and whether almost every tradition Matthew and Luke share came from it – apart from this one in the eyes of every reconstruction I’ve ever encountered. Most people are far too definite about Q.

I’m not going to go there, but simply maintain that there are plausible grounds for thinking there’s a common tradition behind Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy narratives. It might be a narrative itself, or it might be found in what we might call a pre-creedal formulation such as

descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead

Rom 1:3–4

He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.

1 Tim 3:16

Guessing exactly what is an earlier quoted formula, and what a statement either authored or adapted by the writer, is not an exact art. Perhaps these were the sorts of semi-versified snippets articulated by the early Christian prophets about which we know so little. But I can imagine something similar lying behind the infancy narratives as we have them.

Named by angels,
conceived by the Spirit,
descended from David,
formed of a virgin,
born in Bethlehem.

Of course, we’ll never know, but it still seems likely to me that in either a short narrative or this kind of poetic form, there is a tradition about the virginal conception that predates both Matthew and Luke, and which they both draw on and adapt in different ways.

By Doug

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