Luke’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined

The nativity of Jesus is such a beloved tale, it’s hard to read it critically without feeling a twinge of guilt, as though I am betraying something sacred and magical in my desire to see where the story comes from and how it’s put together. And yet, it’s not the text itself I defy by scrutinizing the Bible, so much as the myth our culture has created in place of what the text actually says.

When I wrote about Matthew’s nativity story a year ago, I tried to emphasize that, despite its reverence for the Bible, Christianity shows remarkable disregard for the actual details as written. Whether we admit it or not, it is clear from our actions that we understand the Christmas story as a malleable, adaptable legend and not as a fixed historical event.

Purely by coincidence, the nearby preschool my two boys attend here in Japan is a Christian institution, and their annual Christmas recital always includes a nativity play, acted out by the oldest class. This year’s performance was a blend of the stories found in Matthew and Luke, with elements freely modified or omitted as the director saw fit. King Herod — played by my six-year-old, who wore a golden crown obviously modeled after the British crown jewels, Anglican cross included (what a wonderful anachronism!) — heard about the messiah’s birth before the magi ever arrived. No slaughter of innocents was shown, and the family of Jesus had no need to flee to Egypt. The angels sang, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Of course, the Bible tells no story resembling this or any other church nativity play I’ve ever seen. Matthew’s story of the star, the magi, and the flight to Egypt is entirely different from Luke’s tale, which I’m looking at in detail today. Once again, I am indebted to the writings of David Friedrich Strauss — one of the first Protestant theologians to read the Gospels critically — and the renowned Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown. Continue reading “Luke’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined”

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The Development of the Lord’s Prayer

It’s time for another look at the Synoptic Problem. This time I’m interested in a very well-known piece of text called the Lord’s Prayer or Pater Noster, which is how it begins in the liturgical Latin version.

Recitation of the Lord’s Prayer from the King James Bible was a daily ritual at my childhood school, so it is something I know by heart like perhaps the majority of Christians over the past two thousand years. It is precisely this familiarity that makes the textual development of the prayer difficult to analyze, since scribes had a strong tendency to correct the version in front of them with the version they knew from memory. Thus, the version we find in Luke 11 of the late Greek Textus Receptus — and in English versions that are based on this text, like the King James — is nearly identical to that found in Matthew 6. But it was not always so. Continue reading “The Development of the Lord’s Prayer”

Is John out of Order? The Strange Geography and Chronology of the Fourth Gospel

German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, in his famous and still widely cited commentary on John, wrote many decades ago:

The thesis has been represented, occasionally even in very early times but strongly from the beginning of this century, that the original order of the text [of John] has been disturbed, through an interchange of leaves or by some other means. …it must be presumed that the present order of our Gospel is not derived from the author. …It is not enough to reckon with a simple exchange of the pages of a loose codex, for the sections that appear to demand a change of position are of unequal length. The assumption lies closest to hand that the Gospel of John was edited from the author’s literary remains on the basis of separate manuscript pages, left without order. In any case, the present form of our Gospel is due to the work of a redactor. (pp. 11–12)

Bulfmann’s observations on the incongruities of the Gospel have been made and expanded on by many biblical scholars since then. Some agree that the Gospel seems to be out of sequence, as though an early manuscript were dropped and the pages put back in the wrong order. Others have proposed complicated source theories or stages of redaction, whether by the same author or an authorial community. Still others have simply ignored the problem altogether.

Regardless of which (if any) of these hypotheses is correct, the passages in John that have prompted this debate are worth having a look at. Continue reading “Is John out of Order? The Strange Geography and Chronology of the Fourth Gospel”

Has the Q Source Been Under Our Noses All Along? Luke, Matthew, and the Didache

In this article, we delve further yet into the murky depths of the Synoptic Problem, and a new actor appears on the stage: an ancient work known as the Didache, or The Teaching of the Apostles. (The name is usually pronounced “did-a-key”.) This was an ancient document that contained both ethical teachings and instructions for conducting church, and it may well date as early as the first century. Strangely, its relevance to the Synoptic Problem has been mostly overlooked until recently. Continue reading “Has the Q Source Been Under Our Noses All Along? Luke, Matthew, and the Didache”

Melchizedek: King, Priest, Time Lord

“The ring of the King,” said Ransom, “is on Arthur’s finger where he sits in the land of Abhalljin, beyond the seas of Lur in Perelandra. For Arthur did not die; but Our Lord took him to be in the body till the end, with Enoch and Elias and Moses and Melchisedec the King. Melchisedec is he in whose hall the steep-stoned ring sparkles on the forefinger of the Pendragon.” — C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe.” — Doctor Who, “The Family of Blood”

I still remember my astonishment many years ago, reading Hebrews for the first time and coming across this character named Melchizedek who was apparently an eternal and immortal being, without parents and without beginning or end. This was one of those places in the Bible where the line between religion and fantasy seemed to blur.

When I read Genesis 14 — one of only two places in the Old Testament where the immortal referent of Hebrews is mentioned — I get a sense of a character who doesn’t quite belong to the world around him; an enigmatic priest serving El Elyon, the god whom Abram equates with Yahweh, and who is also king of a city that seems to be Jerusalem but not quite. He always struck me as someone like the Tom Bombadil character of The Lord of the Rings, a powerful but reclusive wizard who disappears from the narrative once the main characters move on. More lately, he reminds me of Doctor Who, a character who seems human but whose influence extends across time and space.

Somehow, this obscure character insinuated himself right into the heart of primitive Christian theology — as well as several parallel trends in Jewish and Gnostic thought, as we shall soon see. Whether an eternal cosmic being or merely a folkloric character, Melchizedek is more important to the development of Jewish messianism and Christianity than many people may realize. Continue reading “Melchizedek: King, Priest, Time Lord”

Jesus and the Beelzebul Controversy: A Devilish Synoptic Puzzle

Lately, I can’t stop thinking about the Synoptic Problem. This is my third article on the subject, so if you’re not sure what the Synoptic Problem is, I suggest that you first check out an earlier post I wrote on it.

In my second article on the subject, I looked at the Parable of the Talents/Minas, which is found in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. Under the standard two-source theory, the source of such material is a hypothetical document called Q. According to noted Q skeptic Mark Goodacre, Luke copied that parable and other double tradition passages from Matthew. My own analysis suggests a third solution supported by a small but increasing number of scholars: that Matthew copied Luke — to be precise, an earlier version of Luke we can call proto-Luke. We’ll call this view “Matthean Posteriority” for convenience.¹  Continue reading “Jesus and the Beelzebul Controversy: A Devilish Synoptic Puzzle”

Crime and Punishment in Sodom and Gomorrah

In many religious circles, Sodom and Gomorrah have become watchwords for the moral panic many people feel in connection with the perceived corruption and depravity of society. The metaphor is invoked particularly by those who oppose the increasing acceptance of homosexuality, and it is not hard to see why. The story of Sodom in Genesis 19 is a vivid tale of fire-and-brimstone destruction, and same-sex attraction is frequently thought to be the main crime for which its denizens are punished. Understandably, then, this biblical passage has become a target for Christians on both side of the debate who need the Bible to express either condemnation or silence on the matter. If the biblical story of Sodom is an infallible morality tale, then interpreting it correctly is of utmost importance. Continue reading “Crime and Punishment in Sodom and Gomorrah”

Did Luke Know and Use Matthew? The Parable of the Talents/Pounds as a Test Case

I recently wrote an article on the Synoptic Problem and how editorial fatigue — consistency errors made by one writer who is copying another — is a key type of evidence showing that both Matthew and Luke were based on Mark. If you don’t know what the Synoptic Problem is, you should go read that article before this one.

In addition to the material Matthew and Luke copied from Mark, we often find material shared in common between Matthew and Luke that is absent from Mark. This content is known as the Double Tradition, and it presents us with a puzzle. Regardless of its pre-Gospel origin (e.g. church teaching, oral tradition about Jesus, or other texts), it shows a direct literary relationship between Matthew and Luke, as indicated by identical wording and other close parallels.

Did Luke get this material from Matthew? Did Matthew get it from Luke? Both possibilities seem unlikely for a number of reasons; for one, Matthew and Luke differ drastically on key stories not found in Mark, like Jesus’ nativity and the resurrection appearances. If, for example, the author of Luke knew Matthew, why did he completely reject great story material like the adoration of the Magi and the flight to Egypt? Why provide a genealogy completely different from Matthew’s? And so on. Continue reading “Did Luke Know and Use Matthew? The Parable of the Talents/Pounds as a Test Case”

Matthew’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined

Another Christmas has come and gone, and it is a time of year when one Bible story stands out above all else—the nativity of Jesus. Despite the deep reverence Christians have for this story, many (perhaps most) are aware at some level that the ubiquitous scene with the shepherds, the three magi, the star and the stable full of animals is an idealized fairytale version. As a mythologized tradition, it exists in numerous cultural variations—those from Naples may include taverns and merchants, for example, while Catalan nativity scenes always include a character who is defecating (!), called the “Caganer”. The Bible itself tells two separate tales of Jesus’ birth (one in Matthew and one in Luke), and neither of them presents an account that resembles the modern nativity portrayal. Nor, for that matter, can the two accounts be merged into a single, consistent narrative without altering or omitting numerous critical details. Then again, few people care really look that closely at the biblical texts and their background. The crèche, though not faithful to any biblical story or historical reality, is a powerful vignette full of symbolic elements that combine to create a sense of mystery and awe. In many ways, it has superseded the Gospels as the canonical representation of Jesus’ birth in the minds of believers. Continue reading “Matthew’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined”