Pharaoh & the NT’s birth narratives:

arguably not the most seasonal of threads, but then we’ve had a bit of snow in the UK today.

And let’s face it, it’s been a strange year all round.
Raymond Brown has written a 750-page monograph on Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives. That’s about 8,500 tweets’ worth.

On pp. 34–37, Brown says the two birth narratives are largely ahistorical.
Matthew would have mentioned Luke’s census if it had taken place, Brown says,

and Luke would have mentioned the massacre of the infants.

Let’s see if we think Brown’s right.
As I’ve tried to show elsewhere, Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives are predicated on a common core of events:

🔹 both narratives open with a description of a couple who are engaged to be married, namely Mary and Joseph,

🔹 both identify Joseph as a man of Davidic descent,
🔹 both have Mary conceive by the agency of the Holy Spirit, and

🔹 both have Jesus born in Bethlehem and subsequently raised in Nazareth.
Nevertheless, Matthew and Luke’s narratives differ in some important respects.

Whereas Matthew tells us about Herod, the wise men, the massacre of Bethlehem’s infants, and Joseph’s flight to Egypt,...
...Luke tells us about a different set of events altogether—events which involve Caesar, the shepherds, Jesus’ presentation at the Temple, and Jesus’ early years in Nazareth.
Matthew and Luke’s narratives thus frame Jesus’ early years against quite different backdrops,

which has led many commentators to question the historicity of Matthew and Luke’s narratives (e.g., Brown).
If Luke was a competent historian, wouldn’t he have been aware of the massacre of Bethlehem’s infants?

And, if he *was* aware of it, why didn’t he mention it?
Why does Luke instead have the family head back to Nazareth, with no mention of Joseph’s flight to Egypt?

And why, if Luke’s narrative is reliable, doesn’t Matthew mention Caesar’s decree and/or the shepherds?
Is it credible to think Matthew was aware of the events recorded in Luke’s narrative and yet declined to mention them (and vice-versa in Luke’s case)?

It depends how and why we think the Gospels were composed.
If we think the Gospel-writers simply tried to find out as much information as they could about Jesus and write it all down (in a ‘gospel’), then Matthew’s failure to mention certain events does seem quite problematic (as does Luke’s).
Very few people, however, think that’s what the Gospel-writers did, and for good reason.

(Are we supposed to imagine John was unaware of the things he doesn’t mention in his Gospel, e.g., Jesus’ temptations, parables, exorcisms, institution of the Lord’s supper?)
Like all authors, Matthew and Luke wrote with specific purposes in mind.

Each man wanted to tell Jesus’ story in his own way—to highlight particular themes of Jesus’ ministry, to emphasise particular parallels between Jesus’ ministry and OT history, and so on.
And if we pay attention to the way in which each man went about his task, it will help us understand his selection (and non-selection) of material.
So, what are the specific purposes of Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives?

We’ll start with Matthew’s. Its main distinctives can be summarised as follows.
Spelt out more fully:

🔹 While Luke tells us about Caesar and the census, Matthew tells us about Herod and the massacre of the infants.

🔹 While Luke tells us about the shepherds, Matthew tells us about the (star-struck) wise men and their gifts.
🔹 And, while Luke has Jesus at the Temple and/or Nazareth, Matthew has Jesus’ family flee to Egypt.

Why has Matthew chosen to tell us about these events in particular (rather than those described by Luke)? What’s their common theme/connection?
The answer, I submit, is as follows. They are all distinctly *exodus-shaped* events, which portray Jesus’ birth as a sign of an exodus to come.

Consider some of the relevant parallels:
🔹 Both stories open with Israel ruled by a foreign overlord (in one case an Egyptian, in the other an Edomite).

🔹 Both revolve around the birth of a child who’s destined to deliver his people.

🔹 In both cases, the overlord views the child as a threat (cp. Exod. 1.9–10).
🔹 Both stories have the overlord massacre Israel’s infants in an attempt to secure his position.

🔹 In both stories, God’s deliverer flees to a foreign land, where he holes out until his enemies have passed away (cp. Matt. 2.20 w. Exod. 4.19).
🔹 In both stories, God outwits (ἐμπαίζω) his enemies (cp. Matt. 2.16 w. Exod. 10.2),

🔹 And, in both stories, God’s people are made rich by the Gentiles (cp. Egypt’s wealth w. the wise men’s gifts).
These parallels are no coincidence.

Indeed, in 2.15, Matthew explains the significance of Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt by means of the citation of Hosea 11.1: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’.
Just as God began a redemptive work in Moses’ day when he called Israel forth from Egypt, so in Joseph’s day God will again call his Son forth from Egypt and begin an even greater redemptive work.
Matthew’s allusions to the exodus, however, aren’t simply a vague anticipation of better things to come. They outline an *inverted* exodus story.

Everything is the wrong way round.

The murderous king isn’t an Egyptian Pharaoh, but a ‘king of the Jews’;
the land in which God’s son is imperilled isn’t Egypt, but Israel;

and the land where the son is accepted isn’t Israel, but Egypt.

Why? Because Jesus’ exodus won’t simply be a rerun of the original; it will be a different kind of exodus.
The line of division between God’s people and God’s enemies won’t be drawn on the basis of nationality (Israel vs. Egypt: 8.11–12, 10.34–39), but on the basis of obedience (12.46–50).

And, on the night of the Passover to come, God’s firstborn Son won’t escape death.

That Matthew’s allusions to the exodus are intentional is confirmed by their echoes in Matthew’s genealogy.

Consider, for a start, the notion of a foreign ruler who massacres a host of infants in Israel.
Matthew’s genealogy also draws our attention to such a ruler, which it does by means of a conspicuous lacuna in its king list.
Suppose I tell you I spent last Christmas with my mum, my brothers, and my sisters.

While my statement is ostensibly about my mum, brothers, and sisters, it draws most attention (somewhat paradoxically) to my dad, since it makes you wonder why I haven’t mentioned him.
Matthew’s genealogy works in a similar way.

After Jehoram-aka-Joram, the next king mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy is Jehoram’s great-great-grandson (Azariah-aka-Uzziah).

Matthew thus neglects to mention three Judahite kings: Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah.

Part of the answer, I submit, is to draw our attention to a notable sequence of events which took place in their days.

The accession of Ahaziah was a notable event in and of itself, since Ahaziah was the son of Jehoram and Athaliah,
and Athaliah was a daughter of the recently-cursed Ahab (2 Kgs. 8.16–18, 25–26).

Ahaziah thus represented an unwelcome injection of foreign blood (and behaviour) into David’s line (cp. 2 Chr. 21.13 w. the refs. to Ahab’s influence in 22.1–6).
And, a year later, an even more notable event took place:

Ahaziah died without any sons old enough to succeed him,

at which point Athaliah sought to slay all the potential heirs to the throne and claim it for herself.
Mercifully, however, Ahaziah’s sister managed to spare Ahaziah’s youngest son, Joash, and hide him away (protected by a Gentile guard) until he was old enough to reign (cp. 2 Chr. 22–23).

Consider, then, the situation.
We have a foreign ruler in charge of Israel (i.e., an illegitimate ‘king of the Jews’),

a newborn child who’s a threat to the ruler’s authority,

an attempt to extinguish the ‘line of promise’,

and a member of royal family who’s hidden the child in a foreign environment.
Ring any bells? It should do. It’s another exodus event.
Matthew’s king list thus fulfils two important functions.

First, it underscores the unity of theme of Matthew’s narrative.

And, second, it underscores the threat posed by Jesus.
Jesus is a legitimate heir to the throne of David, born in the right place at the right time (2.3–6), which is why Herod has to eliminate him.
———— THE GENTILES ————

A final exodus-like feature of Matthew’s genealogy can be identified in its allusions to the riches of the Gentiles.

Its fourteen-fold periodicity highlights four individuals—Abraham, David, Jechoniah, and Jesus—,
...all of whom receive considerable help and riches from Gentile rulers/nations.

Abraham emerges from Egypt not only unscathed, but enriched by the land’s silver and gold (Gen. 12.10–13.2).
David finds (temporary) refuge among the Philistines and is given silver and gold by Gentile kings (2 Sam. 8.10) (as is his son, Solomon).

Jechoniah is shown special favour by the king of Babylon (2 Kgs. 25.27–30), as is his son (Zerubbabel),...
...who emerges from Babylon with silver and gold (Ezra 1–2).

And, as we’ve seen, Jesus himself is preserved in a Gentile land and made rich by gifts from foreign lands (cp. Exod. 3.22, 11.2, 12.35).

In sum, then, Matthew’s birth narrative is a careful and sophisticated composition, tied together by a clear unity of theme.

That doesn’t, of course, make Matthew’s narrative historical,
but it may help to explain Matthew’s selection of material.

In the view of many commentators, Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives can’t both be historically accurate because Matthew shows no awareness of Luke’s census or Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem (e.g., Brown 1993:36).
How, then, do such commentators think Matthew’s narrative *should* have been written?

Well, suppose we rewrite it so it reads as follows.
Matthew’s narrative is now more consistent with Luke’s, right?

By the same token, however, it’s far less lucid.

As we’ve seen, Matthew’s genealogy is crafted in such a way as to anticipate the encounter between Herod and Jesus,
and Matthew’s citation of Hosea explicitly frames their encounter in light of the exodus.

As a result, Matthew isn’t interested in *Caesar’s* involvement in the matter.

Caesar didn’t occupy the throne of David,

nor did he see Jesus as a threat,
nor did he cause Jesus to flee to a foreign land (but just the opposite).

Information about Caesar would only dilute and confuse Matthew’s narrative.

And, as we’ll now see, the same can be said of Luke’s (mutatis mutandis).
———— LUKE ————

Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives portray Jesus in notably different ways.

For Matthew, Jesus is a Davidic king, who’s a threat to Israel’s rulers from the moment of his birth.

For Luke, however, Jesus is man of more humble origins.
Jesus is no threat to Caesar (as yet) and is more closely associated with the Temple and priesthood than with the throne.
Spelt out more fully:

🔹 Whereas Matthew’s Gospel opens with an announcement of Jesus’ status as the long-awaited son of David (1.1), Luke’s opens with a story about the struggles of a little-known priestly couple and their duties at the Temple.
🔹 Whereas Matthew’s genealogy is headed up by two of the best known figures in Jewish history (Abraham and David) (1.1), Luke’s begins in obscurity...
...and works its way *upwards* to David and Abraham—a direction of travel elsewhere associated with priestly genealogies (cp. 1 Chr. 6 w. 1–9).
🔹 Whereas Matthew’s narrative begins in Bethlehem, Luke’s begins in the Judean hill-country and later relocates to Nazareth—a town of little significance in OT history (John 1.46).
🔹 Whereas Matthew’s Messiah is *born* king of the Jews (Matt. 2.2), Luke’s begins his ministry at the age of thirty (as all priests do).
🔹 Whereas Matthew’s birth narrative culminates in the declaration ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand!’ (3.1–2), Luke’s culminates in a description of Jesus’ worship at the Temple (and submission to his parents).
🔹 And, whereas Matthew has Jesus offered ‘the kingdoms of the world’ at the conclusion of his temptations, Luke has Jesus brought to the Temple, which is where his Gospel ultimately ends up.
Matthew and Luke thus present Jesus in different ways, though they do so for similar reasons.

Just as the distinctives of Matthew’s narrative are intended to frame it against a particular OT backdrop (the exodus), so too are those of Luke’s narrative.
Consider the picture Luke paints. We have a priestly couple who are unable to have children,

a misunderstood woman whose prayers are finally answered,

a psalm of joy sung by a jubilant woman,

a couple who go up to the house of God each year to worship,
and a young boy left at the Temple (albeit by mistake), where he astounds his seniors with his wisdom,

all set against the backdrop of two ungodly priests (Annas and Caiaphas) (3.2).
Why has Luke chosen to describe *these* states of affairs in particular? Are they tied together by a common theme?

They are indeed. They’re a recapitulation of *Samuel’s* birth narrative (1 Sam. 1–2).
For Luke, the birth of Jesus doesn’t signal the arrival of a Moses-like leader, but of a Samuel-like servant—a boy who poses no immediate threat to men like Herod,

but who will ultimately turn the world upside down by means of his life and doctrine.
Like Samuel, Jesus will be left at the Temple. From a tender age, his words will astound the wise. And he will grow in favour with God and man.

Yet, as time goes on, Jesus’ words will become more contentious (4.22–30).
Although they will convert the hearts of some in Israel, they will harden the hearts of others (most notably Jerusalem’s authorities), until, in the end, they will spell out the Temple’s judgment.
‘Not one stone will be left on top of another! Jerusalem will fall, the heavens will be shaken, and the Son of Man will come in power and great glory!’.
Like a depth charge, Jesus’ arrival in Israel will initially seem inconsequential, yet it will ultimately bring Jerusalem to its knees.

Equally important to note is Luke’s association of Jesus with the poor.

While Matthew has Joseph reside in a house, Luke has him lodge in a guestroom.

While Matthew has Jesus visited by wise men, Luke has him visited by (mere) shepherds.
And, while Matthew has Jesus given gold and precious spices, Luke has him taken to the Temple along with a poor man’s sacrifice (cp. Lev. 12.8).

These details are significant.

As far as Luke is concerned, the Gospel is for the poor and downtrodden (3.5–6, 4.18, 7.22, 14.11).
Jesus has come to inaugurate a Jubilee—a ‘year of favour’, a time when those who have lost their inheritance are given new hope (4.18–19)—,

which is precisely why Luke mentions Caesar’s Jubilee-like decree.

As we’ve noted, many commentators expect Matthew and Luke to refer to the events in one another’s narratives.

To see how reasonable such expectations are, let’s consider a test case.
Given Joseph’s flight to Egypt, how should the text of Luke 2.39 have been written?

Suppose we rewrite it as follows.
Luke’s narrative is now more consistent with Matthew’s, right?

By the same token, however, it’s far less lucid.

It also raises the question of *why* Mary and Joseph went to Egypt,...
...which requires Luke to tell us about the massacre in Bethlehem (as well as the wise men’s visit, since the massacre otherwise makes little sense).
Yet, as we’ve seen, Luke’s intention isn’t to introduce Jesus as a Moses-like deliverer born into royalty,

but as a humble Samuel-like servant, who grows up in obscurity.

As a result, Luke isn’t interested in Herod’s activities.
Luke is more interested in the understated aspects of Jesus’ infancy—in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, in the Temple rather than the palace, and in the shepherds out in the field rather than the shepherd-king of Micah 5.2 (cp. Matt. 2.5–6).

Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives are frequently said to be irreconcilable.

At first blush, it’s not hard to see why.
On closer inspection, however, Matthew and Luke’s narratives turn out not only to be reconcilable, but to dovetail very neatly, as I’ve sought to show in the thread below.

Meanwhile, their selection of material turns out not only to be explicable, but to reflect a clear unity of theme and an impressive level of sophistication, as I’ve sought to show in the present thread.
For Matthew, Jesus is a new Moses, who goes toe to toe with the world’s Herods,

while, for Luke, Jesus is a more subversive, Samuel-like figure—a man whose ministry simultaneously raises up the poor and downtrodden and undermines a corrupt regime.
Consequently, Matthew tells us about Herod, the wise men, and Egypt, while Luke tells us about the Jubilee, the shepherds, and the Temple,

and each narrative reflects a particular facet of Jesus’ incredible story and character.

P.S. For those who (for some reason) favour a single pdf over dozens of tweets:


• • •

Missing some Tweet in this thread? You can try to force a refresh

Keep Current with James Bejon

James Bejon Profile picture

Stay in touch and get notified when new unrolls are available from this author!

Read all threads

This Thread may be Removed Anytime!


Twitter may remove this content at anytime! Save it as PDF for later use!

Try unrolling a thread yourself!

how to unroll video
  1. Follow @ThreadReaderApp to mention us!

  2. From a Twitter thread mention us with a keyword "unroll"
@threadreaderapp unroll

Practice here first or read more on our help page!

More from @JamesBejon

23 Mar
THREAD: More on the Birth Narratives.

Each year, Nativity plays combine aspects of Matthew and Luke’s narratives into a single drama (or something like one).

The journey to Bethlehem, the shepherds, the wise men, a few camels for good measure (?):

so the list goes on.
No small number of scholars, however, see Matthew and Luke’s narratives as fundamentally at odds with each another.

‘Not only do they tell completely different stories about how Jesus was born’, @BartEhrman says, ‘some of their differences appear to be irreconcilable’.
So then, let’s see how different Matthew and Luke’s narratives really are.

Below are their main components, set out side by side (in what I take to be their implied chronological order).
Read 74 tweets
18 Mar

Matthew and Luke’s genealogies are often dismissed as irreconcilable.

Elsewhere, I’ve tried to show that they’re not.

Here, I’ll simply highlight some of their numerical and thematic harmonies,

which, I claim, have significant implications.
Matthew’s genealogy (1.1–17) exhibits at least a couple of non-trivial properties.

First, it’s patterned around the numbers 14 and 42.

And, second, it contains multiple allusions to the notion of a Jubilee.
Consider, for a start, how Matthew’s genealogy is patterned around the number 14:

🔹 It traces the fulfilment of YHWH’s promise to Abraham (‘I will make of you a great nation…’: Gen. 12.2), which has a gematrial value of 1,400.
Read 17 tweets
15 Mar

Boris Johnson now says he thinks he should’ve locked down sooner.

Yet, last March, his chief scientific adviser—Sir Patrick Vallance—claimed his decision was the right one.

So does the PM think he should’ve *ignored* his scientific adviser?…(cont’d below)
If so, does that make him a ‘science denier’?

And from whom should he now seek advice?

Last March, Vallance said that, while a four-month lockdown would temporarily suppress the spread of Covid, it would make it return all the more severely in the winter,
and he said that ‘all of the evidence from previous epidemics’ supported him.

Was he right?

Would the winter have been *worse* had we locked down earlier/harder?
Read 10 tweets
6 Mar

A dove,

a plant,

a voyage at sea,

a worm,

and a fish referred to both as a ‘dag’ (דג) and a ‘dagah’ (דגה)?

What do these things have in common?

For some suggestions, please join me on a somewhat experimental trip through the book of Jonah.
Prophets frequently embody aspects of their message.

Hosea marries a prostitute (and remains married to her) in order to depict his people’s unfaithfulness to God.

Ezekiel packs his bags and leaves Jerusalem in anticipation of the exile.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey as a (literal) embodiment of the arrival of God’s king.

And Jonah, I submit, enacts his message in a similar way.
Read 78 tweets
2 Mar

A brief skirmish into the strange and curious world of Covid statistics, in part for therapeutic reasons.

Please bear with me. I may be some time.
So, where are we with Covid in the UK as things stand?

Well, hospital referrals on the basis of Covid-like-symptoms are now about as low as they’ve ever been since things kicked off... Image
...as is the oft-discussed R number. Image
Read 44 tweets
25 Feb

Nations rise and nations fall, but some stories about the persecution of the Jewish people are curiously and uncomfortably circular.

Below, I’ll share a few thoughts on some of the relevant circles. Image
The book of Esther opens with a lavish description of Persia’s finery.

Multi-coloured fabrics,

an array of vessels from which to drink, each different from the other (כלים מכלים שונים),

and no laws or limits on the consumption of alcohol:
Persia rejoices in diversity and freedom.

Before too long, however, the Persians will become aware of a people-group who are different from the others—a people-group with different laws to those of others (דתיהם שנות מכל עם)—,
Read 55 tweets

Did Thread Reader help you today?

Support us! We are indie developers!

This site is made by just two indie developers on a laptop doing marketing, support and development! Read more about the story.

Become a Premium Member ($3/month or $30/year) and get exclusive features!

Become Premium

Too expensive? Make a small donation by buying us coffee ($5) or help with server cost ($10)

Donate via Paypal Become our Patreon

Thank you for your support!

Follow Us on Twitter!