Deciphering the Big Book

The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke

by Raymond E. Brown
Doubleday, 594 pp., $12.50

A Palpable God: Thirty Stories Translated from the Bible with an Essay on the Origins and Life of Narrative

by Reynolds Price
Atheneum, 195 pp., $8.95

There are vast libraries of Biblical scholarship, and they are in the present age expanding at least as fast as ever before; but it does not appear that they are much frequented by the general reader. If he is a nonbeliever he is likely to think it none of his business; if a believer he tends to leave all this to his pastors and to buy and read books which obscure the interesting issues with a smokescreen of institutional piety, or, at best, attenuate and vulgarize them.

This is unfortunate, for it means that secular intellectuals are only vaguely aware of the achievements of a scholarly tradition which has, over two arduous centuries of inquiry, established criteria of exact research and bold speculation not often matched in the humanities, whose practitioners are likely to assume in priests and ministers an intellectual docility deriving from the nature of their commitment to a religion. This is presumably different from one’s own commitment to a professional discipline, which need not be the consequence of some prior doctrinal preference, and is less obviously associated with a pious social role. There is the additional difficulty that the learned clergy are learned in their own way, and speak their own language, so that it isn’t always easy for the otherwise-learned laity to know exactly what they are talking about.

So it comes about that while a student of the nineteenth century may be quite willing to agree that German Biblical criticism was one of the greatest achievements of that age, and a matter of some importance for our own, he is unlikely to pay much attention to the continuation of the tradition. It may be true that the greatest days are over, for we can never again have the sense that this kind of scholarly inquiry is undermining the foundations of a culture as well as those of a traditional faith. It may also be true that subsequent criticism has been affected by a desire to save the faith; for much of it benefits by a more sophisticated hermeneutics designed to permit the prosecution of “scientific” research without disturbing belief in the ultimate truth and even, in some extremely refined sense, the historicity of the Gospels. Yet the achievements of this later scholarship remain worthy of the consideration of all secular historians and critics.

Much of the finest work has been German and Protestant, and it is in Germany that the subtler philosophical accommodations have been made. Catholic scholars worked under severe inhibitions deriving from the interpretative authority of the institution and the impossibility of challenging dogma. A simple instance of the cramping effect on scholarship is the fact that until twenty or so years ago it was impermissible for a Catholic to argue from the position that Mark was prior to, and an important source of, Matthew—a position available to others for a century. (It is now under attack; few theories in this field can be said to have won permanent and universal assent.) Vatican II was a great relief; and Raymond Brown, an American priest of immense learning and application, more than once registers his delight at being able to work with this new liberty.

Yet, like his magisterial and enormous commentary on John’s Gospel,1 his new book, a commentary on the Infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, has been submitted to ecclesiastical authority and bears the nihil obstat and imprimatur of his ecclesiastical superiors (still in Latin, whether or not Milton was right to say that English would not provide “servile letters enow to spell such a dictatory presumption”). But if it would be wrong to ignore, it would be equally wrong to exaggerate the degree of restriction implied by this deference. The Catholic scholar is doubtless more sharply aware of the nature of his freedom, since it is institutionally defined, than his ecumenical partners in the Anchor project. Yet, though he must face them more directly, his problems are substantially the same as theirs. What is most striking about this huge new book is its awareness of what is implied by its choices and decisions, and its determination to treat these implications exhaustively and lucidly.

I can’t hope, in this review, to attend to much of the detailed argument—only to give an idea of the undertaking and discuss a few examples. The four Gospels contain two Infancy narratives, in Matthew and Luke. Mark begins with the Baptism of Jesus, and John leaps back over the childhood to the pre-existence of Christ as Logos. Though lazily consolidated in the popular mind, the narratives of Matthew and Luke differ widely and are often incompatible. Matthew has the Magi, Luke the shepherds; in Matthew the Annunciation is made to Joseph, in Luke to Mary. Luke alone has the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem (for an improbable census) and the birth in the manger. It is he who works in all the material about the conception, birth, circumcision, and naming of John the Baptist, the purification of Mary, the characters Simeon and Anna, and the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple. Each of the two has an elaborate genealogy, but their versions disagree widely in detail. Matthew’s starts with Abraham, Luke’s with God and Adam; they differ about the identity of Jesus’ grandparents, and in other ways hardly worth mentioning. A more serious difficulty is that Mark apparently knows nothing at all of these matters, and even represents Mary as hostile to Jesus when he visits his home town in the course of his ministry. A related, and celebrated, problem is the virginal conception of Jesus, proclaimed by Matthew and accepted by Luke, but no concern of Mark’s or indeed of Paul’s.

The obvious answer to these problems is that it would be absurd to think either Matthew or Luke is offering a factual report; these narratives are fictions, though of a rather unusual kind. But in this form it is not an answer generally acceptable to people who study the matter in detail. Brown is willing to say that the problem of the historicity of the accounts is “somewhat relativized” by the perception that they are “primarily vehicles of the evangelists’ theology and christology” (this is a solution which, in essentials, is as old as Herder), but he repudiates the expression “fictions” with some indignation.

Yet the explanations he offers are at bottom perfectly consistent with the bolder way of putting the point, and one can only lament that the word “fiction” has associations with lying or fraud. Certainly there is no need to suspect anything of that kind. What can be agreed is that these narratives of the birth and infancy of Jesus were written after the central parts of the Gospel dealing with the ministry (which in turn were originally written after the Passion narratives) when later curiosity came to demand some information about the pre-Baptism years. They would be made consistent with the later material, and with contemporary theological and apologetic needs. Placing the birth in Bethlehem, not Nazareth, answers Jewish skepticism about a Galilean Messiah, and the virgin conception may (perhaps) answer Jewish allegations of the illegitimacy of Jesus. More important, the recognition that Jesus was the son of God, originally associated with the Resurrection, was quite naturally pushed back first to his baptism (as in Mark) and then to his conception and birth—and finally, in John, to his pre-existence.

Matthew and Luke usually depended on Mark, but he was no help to them as they composed these narratives. Whether they had other sources, oral or written, is a question minutely pondered in this book. Brown has little time for the more naïve answers (for example that Luke’s information about the Annunciation derived directly from Mary) but he does not altogether give up history, and there are long discussions of Jewish marriage customs and other relevant, and sometimes saving, considerations. But he is also keen to define the literary structures of the narratives; both are very literary, and especially Luke’s, for it is he who elaborates the parallels between Elizabeth and Mary, and he who inserts the canticles later known as the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis, etc., which are based on Jewish hymns.

And this is the real question: how did they come to make up these stories? It is obvious to all that they contain what Brown calls “historicized theologoumena,” which I, not he, would gloss as “fictions inserted into a history-like record on a later consideration of what ought properly to have occurred.” The documents are not histories in the ordinary sense, for they are records of speculations entertained three-quarters of a century after the events they purport to describe.

Yet even this polysyllabic euphemism is, at some points, too dangerous. Consider the virginal conception. Brown admits that in quoting Isaiah from the Greek text (“Behold, a parthenos shall conceive”) Matthew established Mary’s virginity against the original Hebrew sense (alma, translated by parthenos, has no connotation of virginity). And he carefully surveys all the arguments on this famous point, silly as some of them are. He rightly adds that if, having done this, Matthew (and Luke) nevertheless regarded the virginal conception as somehow historical, we need to guess how they contrived to do so. The answer is, as I’ve suggested, that by hindsight one could see the need of pushing back the idea of the divinity of Jesus to his conception. Apart from that, nothing seems very clear. The Christian version does not closely resemble any other myth of virgin birth, nor was it especially likely to impress the Jews. And in any case one can’t simply treat it as something Matthew made up; that would be inconsistent with the teaching of the Church. Giving up the virgin birth might be bad for people; and “one must make a judgment about the extent to which the creedal affirmation is inextricably attached to the biological presupposition,” and remember that a miracle is a miracle.

Here it is dogma that restricts the handling of the theological fictions; but the same kind of inhibition is detectable in Brown’s handling of the whole matter of midrash, which is probably the most effective clue to what Matthew and Luke are doing. Briefly, midrash was the general description of methods used by Jewish commentators in the revision of ancient texts to accommodate them to changed understandings of the Law, or altered social presumptions and needs. In one form it consisted in rewriting existing narratives, or making narrative insertions, a sort of aggiornamento of the old text. It is now widely accepted that free narrative invention founded on an Old Testament text is the mode of a good deal of the writing in the Gospels. Brown looks with his usual care at this theory, which is more complicated than I have said, and points out, quite correctly, that the purpose of the Infancy narratives is not that of midrash in the strict sense; for it is not the narrative interpretation of old texts that is in question but the use of old texts in the construction of new ones. However he does allow that in developing motifs from Old Testament stories for their own purposes the evangelists may be said to exhibit the style of midrash.

This is very important. “The same kind of mind that would compose a midrash to make Scripture understandable composed the birth stories to make [the] christological insight [that Jesus was the Son of God] understandable.” And Brown rests on a compromise, allowing something to history and something to midrash. For example, Luke’s manager comes from the (Greek) Isaiah: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey knows the manager of its lord; but Israel has not known me….” The other elements in the story have similar explanations; the canticles are adapted versions of scriptural poems—for example Mary’s (or as some think, Elizabeth’s) Magnificat is developed from Hannah’s in 1 Samuel. Matthew worked in the same way, though producing a different story.

If one thinks of these as only one or two out of a great number of examples, it becomes plain that these stories stand in a unique relation to other stories—scattered episodes in the Old Testament. Some are typological in character: that is, they constitute a direct fulfillment, and a very unexpected one, of Old Testament promises which may not even look like promises, being perfectly selfsufficient (save to the special interpretative eye) in their original contexts. It is all the more remarkable that a good deal of the Passion narrative is similarly constructed; for Matthew and, perhaps especially, Luke allow a note of fantasy in the Infancy narratives, but the Passion narratives are celebrated for their quite extraordinary realism, which, as Erich Auerbach claimed in Mimesis, is unparalleled in the literature of the ancient world.

Brown’s admirable caution prevents him from saying anything as bold as that. For an audacious (though equally learned) application of the midrash theory to the narratives, and indeed to the whole of Matthew, one may look to the British scholar M.D. Goulder,2 who takes up the now familiar position that Matthew was a scribe learned in midrash, but develops it in a new way, arguing that virtually the whole of Matthew is a midrash on Mark, and Luke a midrash on Mark and Matthew.

He thus disposes, at a stroke, of all the complex rival hypotheses concerning the material that is in Matthew and/or Luke but not in Mark. Goulder is willing, for example, to maintain that the virginal conception is pure midrash, an explanation of Isaiah’s parthenos; 3 his only worry is whether so well educated a Jew as Matthew evidently was could have seriously entertained the notion. (He concludes that an earlier Judaism than that which recorded its hostility to Christianity might conceivably have done so; after Jesus no Jew was likely to claim that the Messiah’s conception would be virginal.) And with a bow to the Brownian view that the Church is unlikely to have been wrong, for so long, on such an issue, he consigns the whole story to midrash.

So, too, with the Annunciation to Joseph, which came about in this way. Joseph, in Genesis, is a dreamer. Matthew’s Joseph dreams. What the angel says to him comes from the story of Abraham and Isaac (“Sarah thy wife shall bear a son, and thou shalt call his name Isaac”). Matthew then moves on from the Torah to the Prophets, and so Isaiah’s parthenos comes in, prompted by the echo: “and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel.” These developments were very desirable theologically, for virginal conception emphasizes the divine paternity of Jesus. But they entailed more narrative. To make sense of what the angel had to say, Joseph must be betrothed but not married to Mary (Brown works out the Jewish law and custom relating to such premarital relations.) The Slaughter of the Innocents is developed from the story of Pharaoh’s order to kill the Hebrew boys, especially Moses, who fled to avoid destruction and returned when those who sought his life were dead, the new story matching the old almost to the letter, but lacking any contact with historical fact; and from the story of Esau. As for Luke, he worked up the material in his own more elaborate, more cultivated way, but at bottom he was carrying out the same kind of exercise.4

Brown has not this panache; he mills everything very fine. What he calls “the backwards process of Gospel formation” is only the beginning of a longer tradition of interpretation, whereby the Church inserted its authentic theological insights into the original story. It will now permit these processes to become the subject of disinterested inquiry, and this book is just such an inquiry—into every fact and speculation that could conceivably be relevant. The result is tolerant but conservative. Readers not much concerned with historicity or church doctrine may think the whole process a little overelaborate. Yet the more we know about these narratives the better we shall understand narrative in general. I mentioned Auerbach’s all too brief treatment of Gospel realism, in which he found that contemporary generic and rhetorical conventions were significantly suspended; here began that sermo humilis which, after many transformations, would be the language of the novel.5

Auerbach saw that the use of this new realist style was accompanied—at first sight rather curiously—by the nonrealist practice of figura, which presupposes that

an occurrence on earth signifies not only itself but at the same time another, which it predicts or confirms, without prejudice to the power of its concrete reality here and now. The connection between occurrences is not regarded as primarily a chronological or causal development but as a oneness within the divine plan, of which all occurrences are parts and reflections.

Such relations, which he calls “figural,” are more often spoken of as “typological.” Auerbach’s main interest was in later typologies, but he knew that the evangelists used a form of figura based on Jewish scripture, and briefly characterized their method as one of “revisional interpretation.” A consequence of the method is that the Old Testament progressively loses its authority as history and law, becoming instead a repertory of promises and anticipations.

It would have been interesting to have his views on the kind of “revisional interpretation” Matthew was going in for when he narrated the birth of Jesus Christ with ample reference to the patriarchs and the Exodus, so as to represent the child as the New Israel; having him “called out of Egypt” (Hosea’s “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt called my son”) involved the writing of a bit of realistic narrative. Figura and sermo humilis coexist from the beginning, as Auerbach knew; yet he seems to have thought that modern realism had lost, or utterly transformed, the habit of figura.6 It may be, however, that every narrative is related to another in a fashion best illustrated by midrash. As one counter-realism follows another (the nouveau roman, the ultra-modern “text” with its inescapable intertextualities) we may see them all as attempts to break the midrashic habit, with its peculiar presumption of an occult historical plot which establishes a strict relevance between widely disparate moments of time and bits of story. Certainly the study of the composition of the Infancy and Passion narratives should interest all students of fiction.7

Reynolds Price has had thoughts of this kind. His thirty translations of passages from Old and New Testaments are researches into the origin of narrative as well as brilliant exercises in translation. In an impressive introductory essay he solves the problem of historical reference in a novelist’s way—“they bear their validation in their narrative bones…they are plainly not deceitful, and I plainly call them true.” The translations are meant to convey the formidable simplicity and directness of Hebrew and Greek “realisms.” Often they are very forceful, but however surprising (as when John’s risen Jesus calls out to the disciples as they fish, “Boys, anything to eat?”) they are quite literal.

The most ambitious exercise is a translation of Mark in its entirety. For most people this is the cardinal Gospel, and if one wants to see how curiously its power derives from its bald rough Greek, Price’s translation is probably the best there is, and I would recommend it to anybody who is puzzled by the proposition that Mark, who cobbled sentences and episodes together with such apparent awkwardness, is a great writer—the superior, perhaps, of the rabbinical Matthew and the more graceful storyteller Luke. I doubt if Price can expect total assent to all his translator’s solutions, but they are all reached in the right spirit of reverent audacity. I hope he will take on the whole New Testament.

If he does so he will have at some points to involve himself in textual questions. The problems are, of course, enormous, arising from manuscript transmission over vast periods of time, in traditions which were early diversified. A standard work on the subject is Bruce M. Metzger’s The Text of the New Testament.8 Erasmus, in the edition which was for centuries the received text of the New Testament, relied mostly on two inferior manuscripts, and here and there, lacking a Greek text, himself translated the Vulgate into Greek. This poor makeshift was the basis of the Authorized Version. Now some thousands of manuscripts are known, and practically all have been collated (the computer vastly increased the speed of the operation) and, as Metzger remarked in his conclusion, it is possible to know what can be known, and also what cannot be known, about the original texts.

He has now, in The Early Versions of the New Testament, turned to the study of early versions other than Greek, systematically surveying manuscripts in Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopic, Arabic, Latin, Gothic, Slavonic. To each section an expert in the appropriate languages adds a postscript explaining the limitations of these languages in representing the original Greek. The Syriac and Latin are the most important. All that remains of the Old Latin is a few imperfect manuscripts, but the Vulgate, which has some textual and immense ecclesiastical authority, is represented by 10,000, so that Metzger has to withhold a checklist.

The subject is dauntingly vast, and there is a learned argument at practically every point along the way. Once again the outsider is struck with something close to awe at the meticulous industry of the Biblical scholars, and his reaction may well be to let them get on with it, since there seems to be no easy way in. But the material they are entrusted with is of importance even to the most secular mind; and however illequipped we may feel, we must get some sense of it, and not allow it to become an institutional preserve. These books, in their different ways, will help us to do so.


Jesus and Adam December 7, 1978

  1. 1

    The Anchor Bible, 1,208 pp. in two volumes (Doubleday, 1970).

  2. 2

    Midrash and Lection in Matthew (Alec R. Allenson, Inc., 1974).

  3. 3

    We may see the midrashic process continuing in later years; the virginity of Mary became “perpetual”; she herself was immaculately conceived; and so on.

  4. 4

    See John Drury, Tradition and Design in Luke’s Gospel (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1976). Among other things, Drury reminds us that midrash survives, for instance, in Christmas cards. The apocryphal Protevangelium of James (ca. AD 150) had already conflated Matthew and Luke, and the popular tradition still has magi and shepherds, Herod and the chorus of angels, all mixed together.

  5. 5

    Auerbach’s pages on Peter’s denial (Mimesis, chapter 2) contrast Mark’s serious treatment of “common people” with passages in Petronius Arbiter and Tacitus in which such people can only be represented under the constraint of stylistic and rhetorical norms directly related to the class structure of the society. The passage, for all its brevity, is central to the whole of Auerbach’s work, for he will argue that future realism depends on this Christian radicalization of the representation of reality. The later history of the Christian “humble style” he traced in the remarkable essay on sermo humilis (in Literary Language and its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, translated by Ralph Manheim, 1965).

  6. 6

    Auerbach himself seems to have doubted whether the twenty specimen passages, chosen from almost three thousand years of writing, were columns stout enough to support the weight of his argument in Mimesis. And there are signs of collapse, notably in the final chapter, where his entire discussion of twentieth-century realism rests on a few pages of To the Lighthouse. He finds that the book’s record of “random moments,” mediated by no single consciousness, implies an expansion in the practice of registering reality; and this expansion imitates “an economic and cultural leveling process.” We are making progress toward “a common life of mankind on earth.” But this is to ignore much of Virginia Woolf’s book, which insistently offers, as a key to its own reading, the painting of Lily Briscoe, which is anything but “random.” It requires a wholesale reduction or transformation of the casually or randomly human (for example, where a photograph would have shown a mother and son, the picture offers only a wedge of color). The order of the painting, consummated by the celebrated single brushstroke on the last page of the novel, is the order of a modern figura, a “oneness within the divine plan” with another word substituted for “divine.” It is curious that Auerbach should have chosen, as an occasion to celebrate demotic randomness, a text which continually affirms figural rigor as well as recording multiplicity and contingency; and which represents the artist’s vision as intensely privileged precisely in its access to that “oneness” which is the ground of figura.

  7. 7

    They should also read Hans W. Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (Yale University Press, 1974, reprinted 1977). Frei’s earlier work, The Identity of Jesus Christ (Fortress Press, 1975, substantially published as articles in 1967), studies the Gospels as belonging to the class of “history-like” narratives which cannot be distinguished from their subject matter: “there is no gap between the representation and what is represented by it.” This is not equivalent to saying that such narratives are, or claim to be, accurate reports of historical facts, and to think so is to make a category mistake.

    The history of this mistake, which had vast consequences for Biblical criticism and hermeneutics, is the subject of Frei’s longer book, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. The meaning of Biblical narratives is not the occurrences they report, neither is it the historical situation in which they were written; as for any other realistic narrative, it is what they say as stories. The theological book, The Identity of Jesus Christ, tries to use this position for exegesis; in the historical work Frei traces the breakup of the traditionally firm connection between the narratives and their historical reference which began in the seventeenth century and grew palpable and worrying in the eighteenth.

    In describing the history of the hermeneutic bridges built between history and the history-like, Frei takes an unusual course through the history of scholarship up to Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Strauss, with glimpses beyond. The attempt to restore narrative to a position of logical independence makes him a sort of modern Spinoza; for Spinoza, long before the post-Kantian hermeneutic refinements became available, could directly state that when we are at work on a passage of Scripture our concern is not with its truth but with its meaning (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus).

  8. 8

    Oxford University Press, 1964; second edition, 1968.