A Response To Jason Engwer's Review (Published At Triablogue) Of Jonathan Pearce's Book On The Infancy Narratives Of Jesus In The Gospels Of Matthew And Luke

The Infancy Narratives Of Jesus In The Gospels Of Matthew And Luke

Hi Jason, I read your review of Jonathan Pearceʼs book on The Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. That is a fine response from the inerrantist or near inerrantist perspective. But not a lot of historians are inerrantists when it comes to the stories found in ancient documents, especially documents composed by members of a religion seeking converts.

And none of your responses are necessarily inerrant, nor could one prove they were divinely inspired. So just because you have come up with some responses to questions that the text itself makes people ask, because they are pretty apparent and will remain always in those texts (click here for examples) does not mean the debate ends there.

There are several ways to view the infancy stories (stories that only appear in two out of four NT gospels, not in Paul, nor in the ostensibly earliest Gospel, Mark). Among the different ways to view the stories there are…

  1. Attempts to totally harmonize them. Though in a court of law when stories do not match, if a lawyer responded with possible ways to try and harmonize every discrepancy between such stories and between such stories and other sources, claiming that the people telling such stories were inerrant/inspired, who would take such a scenario seriously?

  2. Stressing what points both stories share. Not an inerrantist approach but seeking commonalities between stories. This is a reasonable method, but in the case of comparing Gospel stories we are dealing with ancient documents rather than first person flesh and blood witnesses who can be cross examined. So we have to begin by asking where such stories came from in the first place. From oral sources? And how can we trace possible changes in the story during the oral period of transmission? How many people were telling such stories, exchanging them, before the document was composed? And how many separate stories from how many people might have been combined to form the ones in Matthew and/or Luke? Itʼs also possible that conscious or unconscious exaggerations could have been involved, as well as spiritual insight being concretizing in story form (midrash), as well as new interpretations of OT passages being used to color or even generate aspects of a story (pesher). In the case of the Gospels we have only the written product, we donʼt know what went on before the writing or even during it.

    But judging by the Gospel of Matthew it appears like the author was taking Deuteronomy 18:15-18 (“I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee [Moses]…”) even more seriously than Mark had, especially by adding a nativity story that involved the following parallels between Jesus and Moses:

    • Just as Pharaoh (the King of Egypt ca. 1300 BC) killed all the male babies of the Hebrews, and only Moses was saved (Exod 1:22-2:10), so also Herod (the King of Israel at the birth of Jesus) killed all the male babies in Bethlehem, and only Jesus was saved (Matt 2:13-18).

    • When Mosesʼ life was in danger he fled from Egypt to Israel, but returned to Egypt after many years (Exod 2:15; 7:6-7); when Jesusʼ life was in danger, his parents took the reverse itinerary: from Israel to Egypt and years later returned to Israel (Matt 2:13-21). And that was not merely a reverse itinerary, but it also enabled the author to fit in another parallel between Jesus and Moses: Just as the Old Testament Joseph went to Egypt to free/save his people, the father of Jesus, also named Joseph, went to Egypt to keep Jesus safe, so that Jesus could “come out of Egypt” like Moses had with his people. In both cases this led to peopleʼs freedom/salvation, as depicted by the authors of both the Moses and the Jesus story.

    • Also interesting, we do not read in earlier works like the Pauline letters or the Gospel of Mark the name of Jesusʼ father. The Gospel of Mark only mentions a “Joseph” who buried Jesus. So the name of Jesusʼ father first appears in the Gospel of Matthew, a Gospel soaked in parallels to Moses and the Exodus story. The Gospel of Matthew even says that Josephʼs father was Jacob (Heli in Lukeʼs Gospel) just as the Old Testament Josephʼs father was Jacob, again pointing to a possibly exaggerated emphasis found in the Gospel of Matthew more than all the rest, that the life of Jesus paralleled that of Moses.

    • Also only in Matthew is Jesus depicted delivering a long sermon “on the mount.” Just as Moses goes up to a mountain to receive the Law (incl. the Ten Commandments) from God (Exod 19:3), so also Jesus goes up to a mountain to give a new Law (incl. the Nine Beatitudes) to the people (Matt 5:1).

    • Just as Moses was thought to have written the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Gen, Exod, Lev, Num, Deut), so also the teaching of Jesus is contained in five speeches or extended “discourses” in Matthew (ch. 5–7, 10, 13, 18, 23–25).

    • The Matthean Jesus also explicitly upholds the law of Moses, rather than abolishing it (5:17-20; 22:35-40; etc.)

    • See R. H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art. Gundry is an Evangelical who was voted out of the Evangelical Theological Society for suggesting that the nativity stories in Matthew were inspired midrash rather than inerrant history, but who was later invited back to speak at ETS events. Gundry has composed interesting works of theology and biblical studies besides his commentary. Also see, Dale C. Allison, Jr., The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), more on that below in the ADDITIONAL INFORMATION section.

      But getting back to the topic at hand, which is “How does one view Matthewʼs nativity story?” If itʼs true that Matthew was attempting to write a Gospel that specifically emphasized parallels between Jesus and Moses (emphasizing such parallels to a greater extent than the author of Mark, Luke or John did), then it is interesting that the six parallels above are found first in Matthew, or only in Matthew, including major elements of such parallels being found in Matthewʼs nativity story. Are those elements historical? How could one be certain they were when it appears to be this particular Gospel authorʼs intent precisely to demonstrate such parallels?

  3. Granted that one can find points of overlap between the Matthean and Lukan nativity stories, one cannot help but notice that Matthew and Luke also diverge most from each other in exactly those places where neither could follow the Markan outline, which was precisely in their nativity and post-resurrection sightings stories, both of which Mark lacked. How much historical memory remains in the nativity stories and post-resurrection-sighting stories if those are among the stories that diverge the most between Matthew and Luke? Doesnʼt that recognition raise questions?

  4. One might add that the stories at both the beginning and the end of Matthewʼs Gospel have raised eyebrows even among conservative Evangelicals like Gundry and Licona. Licona pointed out that there are good historical critical reasons to doubt the historicity of the tale found only in Matthew of the “raising of many saints.”

  5. The biblical scholar Mark Goodacre suggests that perhaps the Gospel stories grew over time in a linear fashion with Mark being the earliest, then Matthew, and then Luke which contains re-edits and new material in its retelling of both the nativity and post-resurrection sightings. Goodacre suggests reasons why the Lukan author might have decided not to go with the Mathean “magi” and the “child slaughter” story and “trip to Egypt,” and also why the Lukan author might have decided not to go with the first post-resurrection sighting being in Galilee as Matthew stated. Goodacre discusses such things in his works and in his wonderful free podcast, NTPod.


Additional Information

  • Mark Goodacreʼs NTPod shows dealing with the birth narratives.

  • The Case Against Q website

  • Professor Philip A. Harland and his podcast, Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean, Podcast 2.4: Matthewʼs portrait of Jesus - New Moses (part 1)

  • Dale C. Allison, Jr. supports the idea of Jesus as a Moses figure in his book The New Moses: A Matthean Typology, asserting that Matthew uses special words and even particular grammatical patterns found in Mosesʼ books, including a narrative structure that is reflective of Exodus. Of course, as Allison points out, most great figures in Jewish history were compared to Moses at some point and in some way, but Matthew seems to do it at great length. In addition to the above examples, Allison cites the narratives of Jesusʼ birth and infancy, his temptation by Satan, his transfiguration and the appointment of his successor as places in the Gospel where the similarities between the two emerge. An example of a place where he feels a direct parallel to Moses is the infancy story, where Jesus narrowly escapes death from a madman ruler named Herod (Matt. 2:12-16), just as Moses also barely escaped imminent death himself when Pharoh ordered all Hebrew children to be killed (Ex. 1:22 - 2:3).

    Detractors have pointed out that many of Matthewʼs references to Moses have in fact come from Mark and Q, but details and changes to these texts made by Matthew are indicative of his intentions. While the Sermon on the Mount is clearly from Q (as it is a set of sayings, most of which also appear in Luke), Lukeʼs version is the Sermon on the Plain. Itʼs a small change that Matthew has made, but a telling one that he has made it on a mountain, in order to parallel the aforementioned story of Moses bringing the Commandments down from the mountain (Ex. 34:29). [Though if Goodacre is right and there is no Q that would also explain how a Christian pro-Torah author of the Gospel of Matthew came to put together sermons that loosely paralleled teachings of Moses.]
    (Source).


Jesus as Moses and More

Another Device Employed by the Author of Matthew to Portray Jesus as Israel

Jesus as Israel: The Typological Structure of Matthewʼs Gospel by Peter J. Leithart

Matthew, in contrast to the other synoptics, gathers Jesusʼ teaching into large “blocks” of teaching… That this was a deliberate device [employed by the author of the Gospel of Matthew] is evident from the repetition of the concluding (or “transitional”) formula (7:28-29; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1-2). Repetition as a structuring device is common in the Old Testament,15 and given Matthewʼs evident immersion in the Hebrew Scriptures it is entirely plausible that he would have borrowed this literary device, just as he cites Old Testament texts as prophetic types of Jesus. That Matthew employed this formula five times to mark off five sections of teaching also provides evidence that Matthew intended the structure of his gospel to underscore his theme that Jesus is the fulfillment of Torah (and of all the Scriptures).16 The value of Baconʼs five-discourse structure is most evident when integrated with Matthewʼs typological hermeneutic, as examined in Dale Allisonʼs richly detailed, deeply researched, and theoretically sophisticated study, The New Moses. Allisonʼs book is not only stimulating, but utterly compelling. Typology is clearly central to Matthewʼs presentation of Jesus…

Allison finds allusions to various passages in Deuteronomy in the closing section of the Sermon on the Mount,21 suggests that the “transitional formula” first used in 7:28-29 echoes Deut 31:1, 24; 32:45,22 and notes verbal and conceptual links between Matt 9:35-38 and Num 27:15-17 (“sheep without a shepherd”) that point to connections between Jesusʼ commissioning of the twelve and Mosesʼ commissioning of Joshua (Matt 10:1-3 with Num 27:18).23 Matthew 10:1-3 in fact conflates Num 27:18 with Num 13:1. From the latter it borrows “sending” (αποστελον in both the LXX and Matthew), while from the former it borrows conferral of authority (LXX: δοξα; Matthew: εξουσια). The twelve disciples-made-apostles are “spies” who see that the land can be conquered despite Satanʼs presence and mastery; they are also “Joshuas” in their authority and faithfulness.

These hints suggest the possibility that the “Pentateuchal” section of Matthewʼs gospel concludes somewhere near chapter 10, and from that point we move from a Moses/Exodus typology into a Joshua/conquest typology. Given the fact that Joshua is himself typologically compared to Moses,24 it is not surprising that traces of Mosaic typology continue into chapter 10, but these traces become faint because Matthew has brought another typology to the forefront and allowed the Mosaic typology to recede to the background.25 As Matthewʼs story moves on, he makes similar transitions at various points, moving sequentially through the history of Israel with the five discourses, and the surrounding narrative, marking out major periods of Israelʼs history.26 This suggestion may not mark an epochal advance in Matthean studies, but it accounts more fully for the structure of Matthew than any alternative proposals yet made.27

The early chapters of Matthew provide prima facie evidence of the plausibility of this scheme. First, the sequence of events in Matthew 1-7 closely mimics the sequence of the Pentateuch. Matthew begins his gospel with an overt quotation from the LXX of Genesis: He is writing the βιβλοσ γενεσεωσ of Jesus, just as Genesis records the βιβλοσ γενεσεωσ of heaven and earth (Gen 2:4) and of Adam (5:1). Matthew follows with a genealogy, like the numerous genealogies of Genesis (4:16-26; 5:1-32; 10:1-32; 11:10-32; 36:1-43),28 recounts a miraculous birth (cf. Isaac, Jacob) to a dreamer named Joseph.29 Israel has become an Egypt, her king the child-slaying Herod, and Jesus has to escape “by night” (cf. Exod 12:30) to safety, an event that Matthew sees as a fulfillment of a passage from Hosea that speaks of the exodus (Matt 2:15; Hos. 11:1). After his watercrossing in baptism (3:13-17), He is tempted in the wilderness for forty days, where He quotes from passages referring to Israelʼs forty-year sojourn (4:1-11). Ascending a mountain, He instructs His disciples in the righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5-7), laying before Israel the choice between life and prosperity, death and disaster, a choice between maintaining their “house” and seeing it dismantled by a rising “river” (cf. Isa 8).30

Schematically, the opening chapters of Matthew follow the first two Books of Moses as follows:

  • 1:1: Book of genesis = Gen 2:4; 5:1

  • 1:1-17: son of Abraham = Gen 12-26

  • 1:18-25: Joseph the dreamer = Gen 37

  • 2:1-12: Magi = Nations to Egypt for Joseph; promise to Abe

  • 2:13-15: Herod kills children = Exod 1-2: Pharaoh kills children

  • 2:14: Jesus rescued, flees = Exod 2: Moses rescued, flees

  • 2:19-23: Jesus returns to Israel = Exod 3-4: Moses returns to Egypt

  • 3:1-12: John announces judgment = Exod 5-12: Moses/Aaron bring judgment

  • 3:13-17: Jesus passes through waters = Exod 16: exodus

  • 4:1-11: temptation in wilderness = Exod 17-19: travel to Sinai

  • 4:18-22: Jesus calls disciples = Exod 18: Moses appoints rulers chs. 5-7 Sinai and the giving of Torah

Much of this is old hat, and so self-evident that even scholars who resist typological interpretation have a hard time ignoring it. What is often missed, however, is what this implies about the logic of Matthewʼs typology. Though there are certainly “Mosaic” dimensions to the typology throughout these chapters, the typological thread that provides the continuity is overwhelmingly Jesus-as-Israel.31 Matthew 1:1-17 does not mention Moses, and its allusions to Genesis draw on the pre-Mosaic history of the people. Jesus is “son of Abraham” (1:1), who is the father of Israel (Rom. 4:1) and not the father of Moses. Though Allison is probably right to discern some hints of Mosaic typology in Matthewʼs birth narrative, the emphasis on Josephʼs role keeps the later chapters of Genesis firmly in mind. Mosaic typology becomes stronger in chapter 2, but even here Jesus is as much Israel as Moses — He does not lead a people out of Egypt-Israel, but is an infant taken, like the surviving firstborn sons of Israel, out of the land.32 All Israel is baptized in the sea (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-4), and all Israel is tempted in the wilderness. When He teaches from the mountain, He is surely a Mosaic figure, but He is also much more, for He does not deliver words from Yahweh but speaks with an apparently underived authority (7:29).

Not only does Matthew repeatedly treat Jesus as the embodiment of the nation, but the sequence of Matthewʼs narrative is following the order of Old Testament history quite exactly. A few pericopes, to be sure, have are more loosely connected to this typological sequence (e.g., Johnʼs ministry, 3:1-13), but all the sections that are evidently typological are arranged in the same order they are found in the Old Testament. Matthew 1-7 is the most obviously typological section of his gospel, and if in this section Matthew follows a Jesus-as-Israel typology that is, in its general outlines, chronologically arranged, it is plausible that he would continue that typology straight through.

For Footnotes & More, See

Jesus as Israel: The Typological Structure of Matthewʼs Gospel
Peter J. Leithart


Bishop Spong discusses how Matthew divided his work into 5 books “in a deliberate attempt to model the form of the 5 books of the Jewish Torah,” thus employing “the rabbinical device of numbers in his teaching,” which is seen elsewhere in Matthew as well:

  • 3 temptations (Matt. 4)
  • 3 examples of righteousness (Matt. 6:1-18)
  • 3 prohibitions (6:19; 7:6)
  • 3 injunctions (7:7-20)
  • 3 healings together (8:1-15)
  • 3 miracles demonstrating the authority of Jesus (8:23; 9:8)
  • 3 restorations (9:18-24)
  • 3 ‘fear nots’ (10:26, 28, 31)
  • 3 types of persons unworthy of Jesus (10:37, 38)
  • 3 sayings about little ones (18:6, 10, 14)
  • 3 questions in the Passion Narrative (22:15-40)
  • 3 prayers in Gethsemane (26:36-46)
  • 3 denials of Peter (26:57-75)
  • 3 questions of Pilate (27:15-26)
  • 7 woes (23:13)
  • 7 demons could repossess an exorcised man (12:43-45)
  • Asked a 70 times 7 fold pardon (18:21-22)
  • referred to 7 brethren (22:25)
  • 7 loaves (15:34)
  • 7 baskets of fragments (15:37)

Spong adds that zeal appears to have overwhelmed the rationality of the author of the Gospel of Matthew:

[I]n Matthewʼs eagerness to fashion his story to his Jewish audience, he violated the meaning of his Hebrew text time after time. The enigmatic text in Isa. 11:1, for instance, that referred to a branch out of Jesse could hardly be used to undergird the fact that Jesus went to live in Nazareth, yet that appears to be the way Matthew used it… The details of the crucifixion and burial were not predicted by Psalm 22 so much as they were deliberately shaped by that psalm. The servant passage of Isaiah, the son of man passages of Ezekiel and Daniel, the triumphant passage from Zechariah, the shepherd and Bethlehem passage from Micah all became vital and valuable tools for understanding and interpreting Jesus in the Jewish context. In each instance Matthew altered the original meanings of these texts to suit his own needs. His zeal overwhelmed his rationality. (p. 164)

A greater than Moses …

Thus, explains Spong, Moses, Solomon, the Temple and Jonah became models of the story, also.

If Jews believed Moses had been the greatest religious leader in history, then Jesus must be portrayed as one greater than Moses. This was the guide to the narrating of the Sermon on the Mount.

If Jews believed Solomon had been the wisest man in history, then Jesusʼ wisdom needed to be greater than Solomonʼs. (Matt. 12:42)

If the Temple was believed to have been the place where God made his divine presence known to mankind, then Jesus had to be portrayed in terms of the Temple. One greater than the Temple had come. (Matt. 12:6)

If Jonah stood in Jewish folklore as one who had died and come to life again through the innards of a fish, then the story of Jesus who entered death and conquered it must be told in terms of Jonah. One greater than Jonah had come. (Matt. 12:41)


Thus concludes some of the evidence that the Gospel of Matthew might be the product of greater creativity than conservative Evangelicals are wont to admit.

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