In a 1977 book, R.E.Brown, a leading Catholic Markan priority scholar, denied the historicity of the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. Edith Black has shown that the exegetical principles used by Brown, according to which he denies this historicity are in sharp conflict with the norms laid down by the Catholic Church ((EB)).
Fr. Brown attracted a large following, but he had not examined the narratives with an open mind. He was committed to the theory of Markan priority, with its acceptance of late composition by anonymous non-Apostolic authors, personally out of touch with each other, writing creative theological treatises rather than history.
From this presupposition and therefore narrow perspective, Brown presumed that the only way the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke could possibly be historical, was if their authors had both copied an earlier tradition.
As the infancy narratives did not repeat the same stories, he concluded that such an earlier document could not have existed, and therefore the first chapters of these Gospels were not historical ((RBM 34-36)). From this understanding he found many alleged problems. Some of his ‘problems’ have gained wide circulation. Yet when Markan Priority is rejected, the ‘problems’ disappear.
For example, he said that secular historians did not corroborate the massacre and census stories. But is there a need for corroboration? It is unscientific prejudice to accept the evidence of all sorts of ancient historians provided they were not a Christian. Unbiased modern historians accept the accounts of ancient historians as being correct unless there is strong contrary evidence. In this case contrary evidence does not exist. At the opening of his Gospel, Luke claimed to be giving an account of historical events, so had to be very careful. He knew many anti-Christians would try to find errors in his writing.
Bethlehem was a small community, with the number of males under two years not more than twenty ((RL 372)). According to Josephus, the main Jewish historian of the period, Herod carried out large massacres of his own family, his officers and the general population. They were on such a scale that a non-Christian historian would have passed over the killing of twenty children without comment ((RL 372)).
When discussing scholars, who claimed to be demythologising the New Testament, an editor asked an interesting question. “Do these scholars ever stop to weigh up the psychological state of mind they imply in the evangelists of the New Testament? Herod may have been a depraved beast, but it would be a monstrous crime to frame even Herod with a murderous outrage he did not commit. Do ‘scholars’ like these know anything about the love of God as an experience? ((FM March 1991, page 6)).
Quirinius (Cyrinius) did not become governor of Syria until 10 AD so, at first sight, there appears to be a genuine problem here. It is true that other historians do not report the taking of a census at the time of Christ’s birth, but they are also unable to say that it did not occur.
Our knowledge of the administrative background of the period is very fragmentary. A Roman census did not take place at the same time in all parts of the empire, and could be carried out spread over many years. As Luke mentions ‘the first enrolment’, he was presuming Theophilus knew of at least one later one. If Luke was so ignorant of the history of the period, would he have left himself open to criticism, by attempting such precision?
We lack details of the early career of Quirinius. Some modern historians think he was given charge of some affairs in the Middle East before being promoted to the position of governor of Syria in 10 AD ((RL 328)). So he could have been overseeing a census of the small town of Bethlehem at an earlier date.
A census was usually held so as to have a basis for taxation. It was very important for those owning land to inform their children, who would inherit. The census would have been a subject of general knowledge and discussion for many years amongst villagers. Many of Luke’s contemporaries would have been aware of the census through such family histories.
Luke was writing at a time when records of the census would still have been available in both Jerusalem and Rome. Yet there is no sign of the Roman, Pagan, Jewish and heretical enemies of Christianity challenging the statement of Luke.
Justin Martyr addressed a letter to Emperor Antoninus Pius who reigned from 138 –161. After telling of the registration of the Holy Family in the census, he adds that details can be found in the official Roman archives ((JMA 1: 34)). About 200 AD Tertullian, in his ‘Adversum Marcionem’, writes:
‘There is historical proof that at this very time a census had been taken in Judaea by Sentius Saturninus, which might have satisfied their enquiry respecting the family and descent of Christ’ ((TE Book 4: 19,10)).
So at this time there was historic proof of the census available. Sentius Saturninus was the pagan priest appointed by Augustus to head the planning of the worldwide census.
Some critics claim that Mary would not have travelled to Bethlehem, as it was a duty for the head of the household alone. But if the names of Mary and Jesus were not included in the census, Tertullian’s appeal that his enemies looked in the records would have been pointless.
Other critics have asserted that the Romans did not require a return to one’s hometown to be registered. But we read in the K. C. Hanson collection of Ancient Documents:
Gaius Vibius Maximus, the Prefect of Egypt, declares:
‘The census by household having begun, it is essential that all those who are away from their nomes be summoned to return to their own hearths so that they may perform the customary business of registration…’ ((KCH)).
This was in 104 AD and only 250 kilometres from Palestine.
nomes = An Egyptian administrative district.
It is true that Matthew writes of a stable at Bethlehem, while Luke reports that the wise men went into a house. But once the crowds had gone home after the census, Bethlehem would not have been crowded. The family could have moved into a house during the two years prior to the arrival of the wise men.
Let us look at the wider aspects of these narratives. The first two chapters of Matthew and Luke provide essentially the same information: Mary and Joseph are legally engaged; Joseph is Davidic in descent; Mary conceives by the Holy Spirit while remaining a virgin; an angel says the child is to be named ‘Jesus’, meaning ‘Saviour’.
Matthew then provides some less-essential details. It was Joseph who was told of the child’s name, the place of birth was Bethlehem, the family had then fled to Egypt, Herod had carried out a massacre, and Jesus had grown up in Nazareth. Matthew was writing his Lectionary primarily for Jews in Palestine and we can see him contrasting the violent rejection of the Messias by a Jewish king, with the wise Gentiles seeking the Will of God.
Luke repeats the same essential information, which could be said to be ‘doctrinal’,
but not the less-essential details already made known by Matthew. Matthew had stated that Jesus was born in Bethlehem,
but had grown up in
A precise date would not have been required by Matthew’s audience in
According to tradition, Mary, following the death of Jesus, lived at Ephesus in
The call of John the Baptist for repentance persisted for a generation or so after his murder. Many of his followers came to accept Jesus, but others claimed John was equal to, or even greater than Jesus. In telling of the visit of Gabriel to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the birth of John the Baptist, Luke was providing powerful facts to support the Christian argument that John was doing no more than preparing the way for Jesus.
Markans sometimes claim the infancy narratives are composed in the midrash form of Hebrew popular legend based on the reuse of Scriptures. Yet there is not a trace of midrash in the early life of the church. What some claim is Midrash would often be better described as typology.