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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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1. The period of infancy, properly speaking, may be taken as lying between the birth of a child and its being weaned; and Hebrew children were usually weaned at two years of age or thereabouts. Quite a number of terms are used in Heb. to describe childhood and youth at various stages; and in this earliest period before a child has become a gâmúl (נָּמוּל ‘weaned’), there are three different terms that may be applied to him. The infant is יֶלֶר (f. יַלְדָּה), the (new) (cf. ‘bairn,’ ‘barn’), יוֹנֵק (the suckling), and עוֹלֵל (or עוּל), also indicating dependence for nourishment. In NT, apart from the general use of ταῖς or παιδίον, the terms used are (l) βρεφος (applying to the unborn child as well [Luke 1:41]), and (2) νήτιος. The aspect of infancy connoted by νήτιος, as contrasted with the Heb. terms, is inability to speak (= Lat. ). In Matthew 21:16, in the quotation from Psalms 8:3, LXX Septuagint, the Greek translators use νήπιος as = עוֹלֵל, and the ptcp. θηλάζων as = יוֹנֵק. With the exception of Luke 18:15, βρἓφος occurs in the Gospels only in Lk.’s account of the birth of Christ; and νήπιος, in addition to Matthew 21:16, only in a figurative use in Matthew 11:25 = Luke 10:21.

2. All that the Gospels have to tell concerning the infancy of Jesus is found in Luke 2 and Matthew 2. Excluding the story of the Birth, we have the following series of events:—the Circumcision, the Presentation, the Visit of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt, the Slaughter of the Innocents, the Return and Settlement at Nazareth. The insuperable difficulties in the way of weaving these narratives into a coherent and harmonious whole are now generally recognized. Harmonists have not been able to agree even as to the time-order in which the events should be placed. (Andrews, in his Life of Our Lord, p. 91 f., conveniently shows the diversity that has obtained). If it were a matter of supreme importance to settle such order, Wieseler’s view (Chron. Synopsis, i. ch. iii.) seems the most reasonable, arranging as follows:—Circumcision, Presentation (or Purification of Mary), Visit of the Magi, Flight into Egypt and Slaughter of the Innocents, Return to Nazareth. So far, however, as the narrative in Matthew 2 is concerned, it is evidently unrelated to Lk.’s account of the infancy of Jesus; it stands as a story by itself, detached from its own context; the opening (τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος, κ.τ.λ.) is quite indefinite as a time-expression, and anything like chronological interest is at a minimum.

The accounts of the Infancy comprise: (a) normal features—the Circumcision, the Presentation (= Purification of Mary and Redemption of the Firstborn); and (b) peculiar features—the Visit of the Magi and connected incidents.

As for (a), it is noticeable that we have these particulars given in Lk. alone. The rites appointed to be performed on the birth of a Hebrew boy, a firstborn, were duly carried out. The Circumcision took place, on the eighth day (Luke 2:21), i.e. at the time prescribed by ancient law and usage (Leviticus 12:3). Again, after the proper interval (Leviticus 12:4) the Purification of Mary with all due rites took place at the Temple (Luke 2:22).

The αὐτῶν (‘their purification’) cannot without strain be made to refer to any but both Joseph and Mary who brought the child to Jerusalem (see also Luke 2:33). This, as well as the interpretation making αὑτῶν refer to mother and child (see, e.g., rendering of the Twentieth Cent. NT), is in conflict with the ritual law (Leviticus 12); and the reading followed by Authorized Version (‘her purification’), which has practically no MS authority, is an evident correction to remove the discrepancy.

The offering brought was that prescribed for persons in humble circumstances (Leviticus 12:8), though the regulation is so quoted in Luke 2:24 that this does not explicitly appear. The Presentation of the infant Jesus involved at the same time the ancient ceremony of the Redemption of the firstborn son, as the reference to Exodus 13:2; Exodus 13:15 shows. In our Lord’s day a rabbinical regulation had added to the Mosaic rule the condition that the child thus presented and redeemed should be free from physical defect and blemish.

In the Pentateuch this devotion of the male firstborn of both man and beast to Jahweh, carrying with it the necessity of redemption in the case of sons, is traced as to its institution to the smiting of the firstborn in Egypt at the Exodus (Exodus 13:15, Numbers 3:13). There can be little doubt, however, that there is an affinity between this Hebrew custom and the sacrifice of firstlings amongst the Arabs, and that they have a common source in ideas of taboo as associated with the firstborn—ideas belonging to a remote Semitic antiquity (see W. R. Smith, RS [Note: S Religion of the Semites.] 2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] p. 462 ff.).

Yet in connexion with these ordinary incidents of infancy among the Jews we have touches of the unusual, though the forecast of a great destiny thus indicated is not per se an incredible feature of the dawn of such a life. At the Circumcision the name Jesus was given, we are told (Luke 2:21), in accordance with an angelic intimation to Mary prior to conception (Luke 1:31), a matter in which, it may be noted, a marked contrast with the representation in Matthew 1:18-25 appears. At the Presentation the part played by Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38) forms an unwonted accompaniment of the ceremonies of the occasion, and wonderfully breaks in upon the even recital of customary proceedings (cf. vv. 24, 39). The close parallel, however, which exists here with the story of John the Baptist’s birth cannot be overlooked. Cf. Luke 1:13; Luke 1:59-63; Luke 1:31; Luke 2:21; also Luke 1:65-79 and Luke 2:27-38. The character of the narratives as a whole, and especially as regards such elements as these, saggests that we have thus conveyed to us ‘the traditional Jewish-Christian views of Jesus,’ and argues a special Jewish-Christian (Palestinian) source (see Moffatt, Historical NT, p. 651 ff.).

(b) The more peculiar features are furnished by the narrative in Matthew 2. It is quite unnecessary to give an outline of the stories themselves; but some notice must be taken of the considerable problems to which they give rise. Did they form from the very first an integral part of Mt.’s Gospel? Considerations of style and general structure favour the probability of their being from another hand than that which furnished the main body of the Gospel. The stories are not therefore to be rejected as without historic basis; nor are we to cast them aside on the arbitrary ground of intrinsic incredibility. But we cannot ignore the striking features of the narrative that raise the question as to what the nature of the narrative precisely is. Consider, e.g., the use made of dream-warnings (Matthew 2:12-13; Matthew 2:19; Matthew 2:22); the peculiarities in the leading of the ‘star’ (seen first in the East, then lost sight of—else they had not gone to Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem—only to reappear and go before them to Bethlehem, moving in the heavens, and at last stopping ‘over where the young child was’); the symbolic character of the threefold offering (Matthew 2:11); and, lastly, the dominant interest in the element of prophetic fulfilment, making each turn in the story answer to some passage from the prophets (Matthew 2:6; Matthew 2:15; Matthew 2:17; Matthew 2:23), the correspondence in some cases being but remote and obscure. We at once characterize as legendary such embroidery of the story of the Magi as makes them ‘three kings of Orient,’ gives them names, and elaborates their after history, and such features as the ox and the ass incessantly adoring the Child (Gosp. of pseudo-Mt.); but is the story as it stands in Mt. absolutely free from elements of the same order? The narrative is so naïve, e.g., that it seems superfluous and beside the mark to venture seriously on calculations to prove that some astronomical phenomenon, such as a conjunction of planets, really explains what is said of the star.

The story of the Massacre of the Innocents cannot be said to be inherently improbable. Herod was not the man to hesitate at such a measure if occasion arose for it. Absence of confirmatory references in history also goes for little when all the circumstances are considered. Macrobius (Saturn. ii. 4), writing in the 5th cent., states that Augustus, hearing that some baby boys of less than two years of age had been put to death at Herod’s command, and that the king’s own child was amongst those killed, said ‘Melius est Herodis porcum esse quam filium.’ This looks like a reference; but how strange, if it were so, that the Mt. narrative should fail to notice such a notable circumstance! It is a curious passage, but evidently all its interest is in the Emperor’s bon mot, playing on the Gr. terms for ‘pig’ (ὗς) and ‘son’ (υἱάς). It has often been pointed out that the number of little ones slain must have been comparatively small (Edersheim says ‘probably 20 at most,’ i. 214), in correction of later exaggerations (perhaps helped by the vivid language of Matthew 2:18); but this does not destroy the pathetic element in such an association with the infancy of our Lord in Christian tradition. But, all things considered, though it is plausible to suggest that we have here a designed Messianic parallel to the deliverance of the infant Moses, the parallel is not so close as to suggest pure invention, and it is difficult to imagine all substratum of fact to be wanting.

Suggestions, also, which see in the ‘Repose in Egypt,’ as it used to be called, only a typical indication of Jesus as the vine of Israel ‘brought out of Egypt’ (art. ‘Gospels’ in Encyc. Bibl. ii. 1780), are not wholly convincing and satisfactory. At the same time, as regards the whole narrative in Matthew 2, we must be content to say that the state of our knowledge affords no solution of the difficulties to which it gives rise when compared with the representations of Lk., especially, e.g., in the implication that Joseph and Mary were continuously resident at Bethlehem probably until Jesus was nearly two years old, and that they went to Nazareth to live only after their return from Egypt.

3. The sources of the Infancy narratives remain a subject of debate. Speaking of the Mt. document in particular, Sanday says ‘we are in the dark’ (art. ‘Jesus Christ’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ii. 644). Resch’s well-known attempt to establish an original Hebrew ‘Childhood-Gospel,’ having as parts of its contents both the Lk. and Mt. stories, has failed to carry conviction. An important problem, however, is presented by a comparison of these narratives with the conspicuous features of certain of the Apocryphal Gospels, particularly the Protevangelium of James, the Gospel according to Thomas, and the Arabic Gospel of the Childhood. It may be said that it is just at such a point as this that the apocryphal writings come most noticeably into contact with our Canonical Gospels, as also it is in the ministry and teaching of Jesus that they depart most widely from them. A superabundance of fantastic elements in these Christian Apocrypha is at once revealed on the most superficial comparison: still there are elements in common, and here and there points of close contact. In the Gospel of the Childhood, e.g., we have the story of the Magi woven into the narrative, and Matthew 2:1 is almost literally paralleled, as also the adoration and offering of the threefold gift (see H. Sike’s edition of 1697, with Lat. translation p. 17), though at the same time the most curious divergences appear. It is most improbable that our narratives were directly borrowed from any of these apocryphal works and finally incorporated in the Canonical Gospels. It seems also unlikely that our Gospels were used specifically in the production of any of the Apocrypha, and that out of our Gospels the narratives in Matthew 1:2 and Luke 1:2 were simply taken for expansion into the extraordinary congeries of marvels of which these extra-canonical writings mostly consist. Why may not canonical and apocryphal accounts have alike originated in a common early tradition, though they have flowed so far apart? It is well to remember that those who promulgated and those who received most of the Apocryphal Gospels sincerely believed themselves to be Christians. Pseudo-Matthew indeed openly professes to be actuated by the love of Christ in writing his wonder-crowded account of the infancy and boyhood of our Lord. Our narratives, however, are characterized by a wonderful simplicity and restraint when compared with such accounts as his; they proclaim themselves so much nearer what the facts must have been. But one source of apocryphal developments appears to have been the deep-seated fondness of Jews for haggâdôth (see Donehoo, The Apocryphal and Legendary Life of Christ, p. xix); and one great feature of such haggâdôth was the interest shown in connecting OT prophecies with fulfilments. The question suggests itself whether haggadic elements may not even have found their way into our brief canonical narratives. If it be so, it cannot detract from the supreme value of the portraiture of Christ in the Gospels. G. H. Box (in ZNTW [Note: NTW Zeitschrift für die Neutest. Wissen. schaft.] , 1905, p. 80 ff.) suggests that Matthew 1:2 are to be regarded as a midrâsh, which means much the same thing, though otherwise expressed. The historical basis, that is to say, is treated in subservience to edification and the expression of a Messianic faith. See also artt. Babe, Childhood.

Literature.—Lives of Christ; Supplemental section of Sanday’s art. ‘Jesus Christ’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible; Ramsay, Was Christ born at Bethlehem?; Resch, ‘Das Kindheits-evangelium’ (TU [Note: U Texte und Untersuehungen.] iv. Heft 3, 1897); Gore, Dissertations, p. 12 ff.

J. S. Clemens.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Infancy'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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