Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Jesus' Childhood Outside The Infancy Narratives (Part 3): Matthew

Critics often isolate the infancy narrative chapters of Matthew and Luke from the remainder of the two gospels to a large extent. Supposedly, the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke leave little trace in the remainder of the two gospels or are even contradicted by what follows. So, it's important to note how the two gospel authors proceed after giving us their infancy material.

Just after Matthew's infancy account concludes, he refers to what happened later "in those days" (3:1). Not only does Matthew link the events of chapter three with the previous "those days" in which Jesus and his family lived in Nazareth (2:23), but he also implies that the previous events are likewise of a historical nature.

In 3:14, Matthew goes on to suggest that John the Baptist was already familiar with Jesus in some manner. While we can think of multiple ways in which such a familiarity could have arisen (e.g., Divine revelation to John around the time when Matthew 3 occurred), the most natural explanation in Matthew's context is what happened in chapters 1-2. John not only was expecting the Messiah before Jesus' public ministry began, but also already held a high view of Jesus in particular. Notice that what John says of Jesus in verse 14 has backward implications. John's comments make the most sense if the nature of Jesus' character described by John went back to Jesus' childhood. If Jesus had lived an ordinary sinful childhood prior to an exemplary adulthood, for example, then verse 14 would make less sense. And John's Messianic view of Jesus probably included common Messianic expectations related to childhood, such as Davidic ancestry and a Bethlehem birthplace. Thus, the idea that Matthew's infancy material leaves no trace in his account of Jesus' adult ministry, or that nobody already had a high view of Jesus when that ministry began, is contradicted by the chapter that immediately follows Matthew's infancy account.

Knox Chamblin comments:

The opening verse [of Matthew 3] links this chapter to the foregoing narrative chronologically ('In those days'), conceptually (Jesus was a Nazoraios, John a nazir), and geographically ('in the desert of Judea')….Ioudaia, (3:1), appeared in 2:1, 5, 22, and recurs in 3:5, 'all Judea.'…

It is probable that instruction received from his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth helped John to make this identification [in Matthew 3:14]. (Matthew, Vol. 1 [Great Britain: Mentor, 2010], 242, n. 2 on 242, 258)

While the revelation of Jesus' identity in his childhood in Matthew 1-2 offers the best explanation for John's high view of Jesus in 3:14 within the context of Matthew's gospel, Chamblin is correct to bring in the additional information we derive from Luke. Notice how the two gospels dovetail at this point. What Luke tells us about John's childhood makes John's comments in Matthew 3:14 more coherent.

Similarly, notice that Matthew has John "in the wilderness" (3:1). That's where Luke had placed him from an early age in his infancy account (Luke 1:80).

None of the gospels refer to John as a miracle worker, yet he quickly gets a large following (Matthew 3:5). If there were some miracles surrounding John's birth, as Luke narrates, then the ease with which John gains a following in his later years makes more sense. Once again, Matthew and Luke dovetail. What Luke says of John's background helps explain what we read about John in Matthew 3.

In chapter 4, Matthew applies Isaiah 9:1-2 to Jesus (4:15-16). That prophecy, in its larger context, is one of the great Christmas passages of the Old Testament, about a child born who is God incarnate and the Davidic Messiah (Isaiah 9:6-7). We're two chapters past Matthew's infancy account, yet Matthew is referring to Jesus' fulfillment of part of a Christmas prophecy, though now as an adult. As we'll see later, the apostle John also applies the Isaiah 9 prophecy to Jesus, in a way that affirms Jesus' fulfillment of it both as a child and as an adult. John's awareness of such an application of Isaiah 9, which he attributes to Jesus himself, makes it even more likely that Matthew would likewise think of Jesus fulfilling the passage both in infancy and in adulthood. Matthew is addressing Jesus' adulthood in Matthew 4, but there are backward implications for his childhood as well, both in Matthew's thinking and in Jesus' actions to fulfill the prophecy.

Even independently of what Matthew tells us in 4:12-16, Jesus' choice to live in Nazareth, then Capernaum suggests that he viewed himself as the figure of Isaiah 9 and was framing his public ministry around that identity. See here for more discussion of the subject.

The article just linked also discusses the significance of Matthew 5:14. The passage implies that Jesus viewed himself as the light of the world in a higher sense than the one in which his disciples were such a light. And that has implications for how he viewed Isaiah 9. See the article linked above for further details.

Like the other gospels, Matthew only narrates the calling of a minority of Jesus' disciples. It's possible that one or more of the disciples whose calling isn't narrated followed him, in part, because of the events of his childhood.

When the calling of a disciple is narrated, we often see him do something like walk away from his work as a fisherman when Jesus tells the disciple to follow him (e.g., 4:18-22). As we know from the other gospels, there's some significant background that Matthew is leaving out. What Matthew is narrating isn't the first encounter Jesus has had with these men. (Notice that Acts 1:21-22 has Jesus' disciples following him as early as the time of his baptism.) But that just pushes the question back a step. Why did the disciples have such an interest in Jesus in the first place? While we can't prove that their interest was due partly to the events of Jesus' childhood, we also can't dismiss that scenario. In a case like this, all we can say is that the door is wide open to that possibility. And if that door is so open, then the argument that nobody at the time knew of the purported events of Jesus' childhood is weakened.

The early interest people had in the adult ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus is made more coherent by the infancy narratives. We don't know what role the events of Jesus' childhood played in the early reception of John and Jesus as adults, but the potential for such a role should caution us against concluding that the alleged events of Jesus' childhood had no influence on his adult ministry.

Jesus' background in Nazareth, as mentioned in Matthew 2, is reaffirmed later (21:11).

His mother is referred to as Mary (13:55), as in the infancy narratives.

Jesus had siblings who are referred to with terminology normally used to describe biological brothers and sisters (13:55-56). That corroborates what we see in the infancy accounts, where the absence of children of Joseph from a former marriage suggests that there weren't any such children, and the phrase "her firstborn son" in Luke 2:7 suggests that Mary would have at least one son after Jesus.

Matthew's gospel refers to recognition of Jesus as a descendant of David in his adulthood (9:27, 15:22, 20:30-31, 21:9, 21:41-45). That's a continuation of a major theme of the infancy chapters (1:1, 1:6, 1:17, 1:20, 2:6).

And Davidic descent isn't the only issue here. Not all ancient Jews expected a Davidic Messiah or connected Davidic ancestry and a Bethlehem birthplace, but the two usually were accepted and connected with one another. Bethlehem was David's city, and the Bethlehem prophecy of Micah 5 alludes to Davidic themes (see Bruce Waltke, A Commentary On Micah [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007], 267-268, 272-273, 303). In 2:6, Matthew cites Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2 together, associating the Bethlehem prophecy with David. Similarly, the people speaking in John 7:42 expect the Messiah to both be a descendant of David and come from Bethlehem. The two are connected. Matthew and Luke affirm both Davidic descent and the Bethlehem birthplace (as do other New Testament authors, as we'll see later), and the same double affirmation is made by many Christians of the patristic era. I'm not aware of any early Christian source who affirms one while rejecting the other. Most likely, at least most of the individuals who affirm Jesus' Davidic ancestry in the context of accepting him as Messiah, in the gospels and elsewhere, also believed in his Bethlehem birthplace. Therefore, passages affirming his Davidic ancestry likely have that double significance. Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz claim that Jesus was born in Nazareth, yet they acknowledge the close connection between Davidic ancestry and a Bethlehem birthplace:

By contrast, the independent traditions Matt. 2 and Luke 2 report that Jesus was born in the city of David, in Bethlehem. In both cases the tradition is steeped in belief in the Davidic sonship of Jesus as the Messiah. (The Historical Jesus [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1998], 164-165)

W.D. Davies and Dale Allison make similar observations (Matthew 1-7 [New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010], 225-226, 253).

We should consider such links between one concept and another, like Davidic ancestry and a Bethlehem birthplace, in other contexts as well. For example, an author who applies one or more of Isaiah's non-Christmas Messianic prophecies to Jesus probably would have accepted the application of the Christmas prophecy of Isaiah 9 as well, which implies acceptance of the themes found there (e.g., Davidic ancestry). The claims made in the infancy narratives are often connected to one another in some way, and we should keep those connections in mind as we consider both Matthew and the rest of the early sources. And Jesus is one of those early sources we should consider. When he accepts affirmation of his Davidic ancestry or suggests that he's the fulfillment of Isaiah's Messianic prophecies, for example, what he's communicating about himself has implications along the lines of what I've described above.

1 comment:

  1. I've just added the following:

    Even independently of what Matthew tells us in 4:12-16, Jesus' choice to live in Nazareth, then Capernaum suggests that he viewed himself as the figure of Isaiah 9 and was framing his public ministry around that identity. See here for more discussion of the subject.

    The article just linked also discusses the significance of Matthew 5:14. The passage implies that Jesus viewed himself as the light of the world in a higher sense than the one in which his disciples were such a light. And that has implications for how he viewed Isaiah 9. See the article linked above for further details.

    ReplyDelete