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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Birth of Christ

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BIRTH OF CHRIST

i. St. Luke’s account.

1. Jewish element and colouring.

2. Objections taken to the contents of Luke 1, 2.

3. Probable sources of St. Luke’s information.

4. Bethlehem as our Lord’s birthplace.

5. The census of Quirinius.

ii. St. Matthew’s account.

1. Use of OT prophecy.

2. Relation to Jewish legal requirements.

3. Sobriety and delicacy of the narrative

4. Objections taken to the contents of Matthew 1, 2.

iii. Apocryphal accounts.

iv. Convergent traditions and the main facts.

Literature.

i. St. Luke’s account.

1. Jewish element and colouring.—The two accounts of our Lord’s birth in the Gospels carry us at once into the very heart of Jewish home life. In the fuller account of the two, that of St. Luke, the evidence of this Jewish element has been materially strengthened by recent literature and discussion. No one, e.g., can read the early Canticles in St. Luke’s Gospel without noticing their intensely Jewish character. This was amply shown by Ryle and James in their edition of the Psalms of Solomon (see esp. pp. xci, xcii), a work which may fairly be placed some half century or so before our Lord’s Advent. In the same manner Chase has illustrated many points of contact between these Canticles and the language of the Eighteen Prayers of the synagogue.* [Note: ‘ The Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church’ (TS i. 3, p. 147 ff.).] More recently Sanday has emphasized the same argument, more especially in relation to the Benedictus, in which he finds quite a piling up of expressions characteristic of the old popular Messianic expectation; the first five or six verses are quite sufficient to mark this essentially pre-Christian character (Critical Questions, p. 133; see also Nebe, Die Kindheitsgeschichte unseres Herrn Jesu Christi nach Matthäus und Lukas ausgelegt, 1893, p. 166 ff.; and even Gunkel, Zum religionsgeschichtlichen Verstandniss des NT, 1903, p. 67). [Note: Harnack, in his Reden und Aufsâtze, i. p. 307 ff. (1904), maintains that while St. Luke has undoubtedly used a Jewish-Christian document in chs. 1 and 2, he has also introduced touches acceptable to a Greek, and that one word, in common use to-day, was wanting in the original Christian phraseology, the word ‘Saviour.’ According to Harnack, we owe this word to St. Luke, a word so often used by the Greeks to designate their gods, and thus it found its way into Luke 2:11. St. Paul scarcely knew it; but shortly after his time, when we come to St. Luke, it is otherwise. It is further argued that we look for the word in vain in St. Mark or St. Matthew. But, to say nothing of its use by St. John, ct. John 4:42 and 1 John 4:14, St. Matthew (Matthew 1:21) emphasizes the meaning of the word Jesus, ‘for it is he that shall save (σώσει) his people from their sins’; and St. Paul in his first recorded missionary address speaks of ‘a Saviour Jesus’ (σωτὴρ Ἰησοῦς), and connects His coming with the remission of sins (Acts 13:24; Acts 13:38). Cf. Philippians 3:20 and Acts 5:31, an admittedly early source); also Ps-Sol 10:9, 16:5.]

This question of the composition of the Canticles in St. Luke is a very important one, because it is constantly assumed that they were the invention of the author of the Third Gospel. But in this case we have to assume that the Greek Luke, or some unknown writer, was able to transfer himself in thought to a time when Jewish national hopes, which were shattered by the ate of the capital, were still vividly cherished in Jewish circles, and that he was able to express those hopes in the popular language current at the date of our Lord’s birth with a marked absence of any later Christian conceptions. [Note: Zahn well remarks: ‘Passages like Luke 1-2, which in their narrative portions and the psalms introduced can be compared for poetical grace and genuinely Israelitish spirit only with the most beautiful portions of the Books of Samuel, could not have been composed by a Greek like St. Luke’ (Einleitung, ii. p. 404). The whole passage should he consulted. On the minute account of the ritual in the Temple (Luke 2:22 ff.), and its significance as pointing to an early date for the narrative, see Sanday (l.c. p. 135), and the Church Quarterly Review, Oct. 1904, p. 194. The whole point of St. Luke’s full acquaintance with the legal ritual is well brought out by B. Weiss (Leben Jesu, i. p. 237).]

And yet with all this Jewish colouring there is in these Canticles a depth and a charm which have appealed to men everywhere throughout the Christian centuries. No one recognized the Jewish element in these early chapters of St. Luke more frankly than M. Renan; but he could also write of the Magnificat, Gloria in Excelsis, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis: ‘Never were sweeter songs invented to put to sleep the sorrows of poor humanity, (Les Évangiles, p. 278).

2. Objections taken to the contents of Luke 1, 2.—The extravagant assertion must, of course, not be forgotten, that we owe these opening chapters of St. Luke, or at least some of their details, to the influence of other great Eastern religions. A discussion of this assertion may more properly be referred to the art. Virgin Birth.§ [Note: See, however, amongst the most recent writers, A. Jeremias, Babylonisches im NT, pp. 48, 49, and his able criticism.] But a word may here be said upon the most recent attempt to trace this alleged influence, in Indische Einflüsse auf evangelische Erzählungen, by G. A. van den Burgh van Eysinga 1904. On p. 22 ff. a whole series of alleged parallels is quoted between the coming of the aged Simeon into the Temple and the coming of the sage Asita into the Palace to do homage to the infant Buddha. While the writer is constrained (p. 23) to admit that the whole of the story of Simeon is told in a strongly Hebraistic style, he maintains that it is not said that the original motive of the incident is also of Hebrew origin. But in this connexion it is very significant that, while a supposed parallel is alleged between every verse which tells of Simeon (Luke 2:25-32) and the story of Asita, there is one verse (v. 26) for which no parallel is adduced; and it is difficult to see that any other than a motive of Hebrew origin could inspire such words as these: ‘and it had been revealed unto him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.’ The contrast is rightly marked between the pious resignation of Simeon and the wail of Asita over his departure amid the ruins of old age and death. But what could be more absurd than to find a parallel (p. 22) between Asita taking his path across the sky by the way of the wind, and the statement of St. Luke that Simeon came ἐν τῷ πνεύματι into the Temple?

From a somewhat different point of view these Jewish conceptions are noteworthy. In Luke 1:32 we read: ‘He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.’ Here again we have language closely resembling that of the Psalms of Solomon, e.g. Luke 17:4; Luke 17:8; Luke 17:23, full of Jewish thought and expectation, expressing the hopes of the times at which it purports to be written, but scarcely such as would have been invented by a Christian composer.* [Note: ‘ The phraseology of the suspected Luke 1:34-35 is unmistakably Hebraistic’ (G. H. Box in ZNTW, 1905, Heft 1, p. 92).] But we are asked to believe that into the midst of this Jewish language some Christian writer wished to introduce a statement of our Lord’s virgin birth, and that he did so by the interpolation of the next two verses, Luke 1:34-35. As a matter of fact, there is no valid ground for regarding these two verses as interpolated. They are retained by the most distinguished editors of the NT both in England and Germany, e.g. WH [Note: H Westcott and Hort’s text.] , Blass, Nestle; even Gunkel can see no reason for their excision (Zum religionsgeschichtlichen Verständniss des NT, 1903, p. 66).

There are one or two points connected with this alleged interpolation which we may notice without encroaching upon the art. Virgin Birth.

(a) We are struck with the extraordinary reserve and brevity of the statement, a reserve which characterizes the whole story in Luke 1, Luke 2. These two verses (1:34. 35) contain, we are told, the only reference to the virgin birth. Let us suppose for a moment that this is so; and if so we cannot but contrast the language with that of the Protevangelium Jacobi, with its fantastic and prurient details, or even with that portion of the Ascension of Isaiah, viz. the Vision of Isaiah, which carries us back, according to Charles, within the lines of the first Christian century (Ascen. Is. p. xxii ff.).

(b) Let us suppose that these two verses are no longer to find a place in the story, what then? It has been urged with truth that the whole of St. Luke’s narrative is impregnated with the underlying idea that when Christ was born His mother was a virgin, and that it is impossible to omit this element without destroying the whole (Church Quarterly Review, July 1904, p. 383).

‘The Christian belief,’ writes Professor V. Rose of Fribourg, ‘is manifest from the whole trend of the Gospel of the Infancy. Mary it is who, contrary to all Hebrew use, appears alone upon the scene. While Zacharias receives the celestial promise of the birth of a son, while he himself hymns the opening of the Messianic era and the destiny of John, Joseph plays not the smallest part in the mystery of Jesus. Mary is entirely in the foreground: to her the angel addresses himself; the prophecy of Zechariah has to do with her; she speaks to the child found in the Temple; Joseph says nothing; he keeps in the background. His position in the family is that of guardian, the supporter of Mary, the protector of Jesus’ (Studies in the Gospels, 1903, p. 72).

(c) If the interpolator of these two verses in question had done his work so ‘clearly and effectively’ as Schmiedel maintains, it is surely surprising that he should have allowed any of those passages in the original document to stand which could refer in any way to Joseph’s parentage. These references, e.g. Luke 2:27-33; Luke 2:41; Luke 2:43; Luke 2:48, would have seriously impaired both the clearness and effectiveness of his work. But suppose, on the other hand, that the whole story comes to us from one who was well acquainted with all the facts of the case, we can then understand why he could allow the passages about Joseph to stand; in common estimation our Lord passed for the son of Joseph; probably in the register of births He was thus described; and from a social point of view it was necessary, as we shall see, that this should be so.

3. Probable sources of St. Luke’s information.—St. Luke’s account gives us not only a picture of Jewish home life, but it also reveals the workings of a Jewish mother’s heart; it gives us with unmistakable clearness, and yet with the utmost delicacy and reserve, information which could scarcely have come from any one in the first instance but a woman (this is admirably shown by Ramsay in the second chapter of Was Christ born at Bethlehem?). Whether this information reached St. Luke through a written document or whether it came to him orally, we cannot say, and from the present point of view it does not matter. For the impression which is derived from his account is twofold,—not only that it is of Palestinian origin, but also that it is derived from Mary the mother of the Lord, or from those who were closely acquainted with her.* [Note: See the remarks of Wright, Synopsis of the Gospels in Greek2, p. 292; Dalman, Die Worte Jesu, i. 31. Recent attempts have been made to ascribe the Magnificat to Elisabeth, and the arguments for and against this view will be found in PRE3 vol. xii. [1903], p. 72 f. But in spite of all that has been urged by Harnack (Sitzungsb. d. König. Preuss. Akad. der Wissensch. zu. Berlin, xxvii. 1900), it is difficult to believe that the words ‘the lowliness of his handmaiden,’ are not most naturally connected with the words of Mary to the angel, ‘Behold, the handmaid of the Lord’ (Luke 1:48), and that the words ‘shall call me blessed’ are not best referred to the words spoken by Elisabeth to Mary (Luke 2:42; Luke 2:45). On the proposal to find in the words of Mary, ‘all generations shall call me blessed,’ an imitation of the words of Leah in Genesis 30:13, see Nebe, Die Kindheitsgeschichte, p. 136, Plummer, St. Luke, ad loc., also Jacquier, Histoire de NT, ii. 504 (1905). The contrast far exceeds any comparison, as these writers show. The combination in Mary of the deepest humility with a firm consciousness of her own high calling and future renown is very striking. See, further, Burn, Niceta of Remesiana, 1205, p. cliii ff.]

It has been lately suggested, with much force and learning, that the information derived in the first place from the Virgin herself may have reached St. Luke through Joanna (Sanday, Critical Questions, p. 157). Evidently St. Luke had some special source of information connected with the court of the Herods, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, appears no fewer than four times upon the stage of the Gospel history. She accompanies our Lord amongst the other women in Galilee; she was one of the group of women who had witnessed the Crucifixion, and who afterwards went to the grave on the morning of the first Easter Day; and it may be safely inferred that she was one of the women in the upper room after the Ascension. We can scarcely doubt that she and the Virgin Mother were often in each other’s company. It may, of course, be alleged that St. Luke’s news about the Herods may have reached him through other channels, and that there is no proof that he was personally acquainted with Joanna.

If credit be allowed to the Acts of the Apostles, it would seem that St. Luke himself, as also St. Paul, may well have come into personal contact with one or more members of the Holy Family. We read, for instance, in Acts 21:18, in one of the ‘We’ sections of that book: ‘And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present.’ How much St. Luke may have learnt from St. James the Lord’s brother, it is, of course, presumptuous to say; but he may at least have learnt something during his stay in Jerusalem as to the place and the circumstances connected with our Lord’s birth. We cannot forget the Evangelist’s claim to have traced the course of all things accurately from the first (Luke 1:2), and he would scarcely have neglected the opportunities of information which were open to him in Jerusalem and afterwards in Caesarea.

4. Bethlehem as our Lord’s birthplace.—The intercourse just referred to would at least have saved St. Luke from the gross geographical blunder which he has been accused of making at the outset of his history, the blunder of confusing Bethlehem-Judah with another Bethlehem in Galilee (see, in relation to this alleged blunder, Knowling, Our Lord’s Virgin Birth and the Criticism of To-day, pp. 6–13). But the recently published remarks of Sanday may well be remembered in this connexion (Sacred Sites of the Gospels, p. 25):—

‘There are two Bethlehems, the second in Galilee, about seven miles west of Nazareth, and it has recently been suggested in the Encyc. Biblica that the Galilean Bethlehem was the true scene of the Nativity. There would be real advantages if Bethlehem could be thought of as near to Nazareth. But to obtain this result we have to go entirely behind our Gospels. Both St. Matthew and St. Luke are express in placing the birth of Christ at Bethlehem of Judaea. And as their narratives are wholly independent of each other, and differ in most other respects, it is clear that we have on this point a convergence of two distinct traditions.’

Professor Usener, indeed, fastens upon the passage John 7:41 f., and sees in it the hidden path by which Bethlehem found its way into the Gospel tradition (Encyc. Bibl. iii. 3347). But there is no reason for supposing that the writer of the Fourth Gospel was himself unaware of our Lord’s birth at Bethlehem, because he expresses the popular expectation of the ignorant multitude. If the Gospel was written at the late date demanded by advanced critics, his ignorance of such a belief would be altogether unaccountable. Quite apart from our Gospels, Charles would refer the remarkable passage in the Ascension of Isaiah 11:2-16 to a very early date, deriving it from the archetype which he carries back to the close of the 1st cent. (Introd. pp. xxii–xlv); and from a comparison of Isaiah 11:2 and Isaiah 11:12 it can scarcely be doubted that Bethlehem-Judah was meant throughout the narrative as the scene of our Lord’s birth. But if the writer of the Fourth Gospel was St. John, it is a most arbitrary procedure to see in this passage (John 7:41 f.) any proof that the place of the Nativity was unknown to him. Are we to suppose that St. John was also ignorant of our Lord‘s descent from David?* [Note: On the descent of Jesus from David see especially Dalman, Die Worte Jesu, i. 263; also Charles, Ascension of Isaiah, p. 95. For the meaning of John 7:41 f. see, further, Salmon, Introduction to the NT5, p. 277.] an inference which might equally seem to follow from the passage before us, unless we remember that the Evangelist is presupposing that his readers would be well aware of the true descent of Jesus and the actual place of His birth (see this point admirably put by Ramsay, Was Christ born at Bethlehem? p. 96).

Nor does the fact that our Lord was popularly known as Jesus of Nazareth in any way interfere with the truth that He was born at Bethlehem. It has, indeed, not unfrequently happened that a man has been associated with, or even named after, a town where his youth and early manhood have been passed, rather than after the actual place of his birth, in which his parents may have sojourned for a while (B. Weiss, Leben Jesu4 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , i. 227). It will, of course, be said that prophecy pointed to our Lord’s birth at Bethlehem, and that St. Matthew (Matthew 2:6) distinctly quotes Micah’s words in this connexion. But was the prophecy fulfilled? On the one hand, we are asked to believe that St. Luke starts his narrative not only with a geographical, but also with a grave historical blunder, and that he confuses an enrolment of Herod with the subsequent enrolment, some ten years later, of Acts 5:37. On the other hand, it is urged that St. Luke’s accuracy, so well attested in other respects, would have saved him from making an initial and needless error, and that the least consideration would have prevented him from connecting such an event as an enrolment of the people with the birth of the Messiah at Bethlehem, unless it was true. Undoubtedly both OT prediction and Rabbinic teaching pointed to Bethlehem, yet the prophecy was fulfilled according to the Gospel story by the introduction of a set of circumstances which were strangely alien to Jewish national thought and prestige: ‘a counting of the people, or census, and that census taken at the bidding of a heathen emperor, and executed by one so universally hated as Herod, would represent the ne plus ultra of all that was most repugnant to Jewish feeling’ (Edersheim, Jesus the Messiah, i. 181). At any rate, we know quite enough of Jewish susceptibilities and of Jewish fanaticism in the 1st cent. of our era to be sure that a ruler like Herod, and in his position, would naturally guard against any undue exasperation of Jewish national and religious feeling. If it is urged that the story of the Nativity was bound in any case to bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the city of David, it would have been easier and more significant to have adopted the theory of Strauss, to the effect that the parents were led to go to Bethlehem by the appearance of an angel, especially when we remember that the frequent introduction of angelic visitors is described as one of the special characteristics of the writings of St. Luke.

5. The census of Quirinius.—It is one of the great merits of Professor Ramsay’s theory, that it not only claims credibility for the enrolment of Luke 2:2 as an historical event, but that it also combines with that claim a due recognition of Jewish national prejudices. The word for ‘enrolment’ (ἀπογραφή), or its plural, was the word for the periodic enrolments which beyond all doubt were made in Egypt, probably initiated by Augustus. These enrolments were numberings of the people according to households, and had nothing to do with the valuation for purposes of taxation. But H. Holtzmann urges in objection that Egypt is not Syria (Hand-Commentar zum NT, 1901, p. 316). On the other hand, however, it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that such enrolments would take place in other parts of the empire,* [Note: Percy Gardner (art. ‘Quirinius’ in Encyc. Bibl. iv. 3 ff.) admits that ‘one or two definite, though not conclusive pieces of evidence seem to indicate that this periodical census was not confined to Egypt, but was, in some cases at all events, extended to Syria.’] especially under a ruler so systematic as Augustus; and this probability Ramsay has not forgotten to illustrate. Moreover, as the same writer urges, we have to take into account the delicate and difficult position of Herod, who was obliged, on the one hand, to carry out the Imperial policy, whilst, on the other hand, he was called upon to rule over a fanatical people full of stubborn pride and inherent suspicious. What under such circumstances would be more likely than that Herod would endeavour to give a tribal and family character to the enrolment, in fact, to conduct it on national lines which would harmonize as far as was possible with Jewish sentiment.* [Note: On this practical method of thus avoiding any outrage upon Jewish national feeling, see, further, B. Weiss, Leben, Jesu4, i. 231. Turner (art. ‘Chronology’ in Hastings’ DB i. 404) also points out that Herod may well have been mindful of the susceptibilities of the Jews, and so, in avoiding the scandal caused by the later census (Acts 5:37), avoided also the notice of history.] Here probably lies the true distinction between the first enrolment, which was one of a series, and the enrolment (Acts 5:37) which was conducted after the Roman fashion, and became the cause not only of indignation, but of rebellion. Here, too, we have the probable explanation as to why Joseph and the Virgin Mother left their home at Nazareth for Bethlehem. If the enrolment had been taken on Roman lines, there would have been no motive for the journey, since in that case only a recognition of existing political and social facts would have been involved; but in the present instance the Roman method was judiciously modified by the introduction of a numbering not only by households, but by tribes. There is, then, no confusion between this enrolment of Herod’s and the subsequent enrolment of 6–7 a.d.,—a confusion that would involve a blunder of some ten years,—as Schmiedel and Pfleiderer maintain; but, on the contrary, a careful distinction is drawn between them.

Moreover, since the publication of his first book on the subject, Ramsay has collected fresh details to support his thesis. [Note: Zockler (art. ‘Jesus Christus’ in PRE3) speaks of Ramsay’s theory in terms of approval; Chase speaks of the same theory as having advanced many stages the probability that St. Luke’s reference to the enrolment under Quiriniua is historical (Supernatural Element in our Lord’s earthly Life, p. 21); while Kenyon (art. ‘Papyri’ in Hastings’ DB, Ext. Vol. 356) speaks of the light which the discovery of the census-records in Egypt has thrown upon the chronology of the NT, although, as he adds, Professor Ramsay’s is the only attempt to work out the problem in detail.] The year, for instance, which he claims for the first periodic census seems to demand an interval of some two years between it and the earliest date for the Birth of our Lord. This somewhat lengthy interval, which has been urged against the theory, may perhaps be accounted for by the situation of affairs in Palestine, which presented at the time considerable difficulty and anxiety. But a fair and contemporary analogy, so far as length of time is concerned, may be found in another part of the Roman Empire, and in a much simpler operation than that of a census. The kingdom of Paphlagonia was incorporated in the Roman province Galatia; but although the taking of the oath of allegiance was, as compared with a census, a matter which required little preparation and instruction of officials, yet nearly, or perhaps more than, two years elapsed before the oath was actually administered (Expositor, Nov. 1901, p. 321 ff.).

One of the most acute and prominent opponents of St. Luke’s accuracy in regard to the question before us is Professor Schürer, who in GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] (vol. i. [1901] pp. 508–543) deals seriatim with the difficulties which, in his opinion, St. Luke’s statement involves.

(1) Schürer, first of all, points out that history knows nothing of a general census of the empire in the time of Augustus But, as Ramsay rightly says, the contrary assertion stands on a very different level of probability from that which it occupied before the Egyptian discovery. And if there is evidence that the periods of the Egyptian enrolments were frequently coincident with the holding of a census in other parts of the empire, we come very near to St. Luke’s statement, that Augustus laid down a general principle of taking a census of the whole Roman world.

(2) It is maintained by Schürer that if St. Luke describes Joseph as travelling to Bethlehem because he was of the house and lineage of David, this presupposes that the lists for the census were prepared according to descent and families, which was by no means the Roman method. But Ramsay’s whole contention is that the ‘enrolment’ in question was conducted not according to Roman, but according to Jewish, methods.

‘It is urged,’ says Schürer, ‘that in this census an accommodation was made to Jewish customs and prejudice.’ But he argues that although this was often the case under the Empire, yet in this instance such a method would have been too burdensome and inconvenient; and, further, that it is very questionable whether such an ‘enrolment’ according to tribes and families was practicable, since in many cases it was no longer possible to trace the link of connexion with some particular tribe or family. But with regard to the former of these points, it is quite consistent with Ramsay’s theory that the ‘enrolment’ should have taken a considerable time, and with regard to the second point we are fortunately able to quote Dalman as to the accuracy with which family registers were kept among the Jews. He points out that the title ‘Son of David’ would not have been ascribed to Jesus if it had been believed that He did not satisfy the genealogical conditions implied by the name. The Book of Chronicles, which gives (1 Chronicles 17) the promise of 2 Samuel 7, revived afresh the idea of the royal destiny of the family of David, and thereby contributed to the preservation of the household traditions of descendants of David. Dalman adds, ‘Where, in addition to proud recollections, national hopes of the greatest moment were bound up with a particular lineage, those belonging to it would be as unlikely to forget their origin as, in our own day, for instance, the numerous descendants of Mohammad, or the peasant families of Norway who are descended from ancient kings.’ And he adds, ‘Hence it results that no serious doubts need be offered to the idea of a trustworthy tradition of Davidic descent in the family of Joseph’ (Die Worte Jesu, i. p. 266).

(3) But Schürer has by no means come to the end of his arguments. The decisive proof against a census in the time of Herod is this, that Josephus characterizes the census of Acts 5:37 as something entirely new and unheard of, and that it became on that account the cause of indignation and rebellion.* [Note: BJ ii. viii. 1, vii. viii. 1.] But admitting these statements of Josephus, what then? Simply this, that his language is amply justified with reference to the passage mentioned, viz. Acts 5:37. The year a.d. 7, as Josephus has it, did mark a new departure; the taxing then made was made after the Roman fashion; it was wholly removed in its method and in its consequences from the earlier enrolment under Herod. It is therefore evident that whilst Josephus might well refer to the revolt under Judas of Galilee as the result of this taxation, there was no reason why he should refer to the enrolment of some ten to fourteen years earlier with which no rebellious excitement was connected.

(4) In his latest edition Schürer is very severe with regard to Ramsay’s theory that Quirinius was associated with Quintilius Varus, the latter being the regular governor of Syria for its internal administration, while the former administered the military resources of the province. This, according to Ramsay, would bring Quirinius to Syria b.c. 7–6, and the ‘enrolment’ of Paleatine took place at the same time. St. Luke does not say that Quirinius was governor; he uses a vague word with regard to him, a word which might mean that the ‘enrolment’ was made while Quirinius was acting as leader (ἡγεμών) in Syria; and it seems quite possible that St. Luke should speak of Quiriniua in this way, since he was holding the delegated ἠγεμονία of the Emperor in his command of the armies of Syria. But Schürer presaes his point, and makes much of the unlikelihood that St. Luke would date his census not from the ordinary governor, but from one who had nothing to do with the taking of the census. Yet it must be remembered that there are undoubtedly examples of frequent temporary associations of duties in Roman administration, and it is quite possible that Quirinius may have been concerned in the census, as Plummer suggests (art. ‘Quirinius’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iv. 183). [Note: In this connexion Plummer points out that Justin Martyr refers to Quiriniua at the time of the Nativity by a word equivalent to one holding the office of procurator, and not by a word signifying legatus, as Quirinius afterwards became in a.d. 6. The only other place in which St. Luke uses the word employed in the phrase ‘when Quirinius was governor of Syria’ refers to a procurator (Luke 3:1), and this fact adds weight to the supposition that, while at the time of the enrolment Varus was actually legatus, Quirinius may have held some such command as that indicated above. H. Holtzmann (Hdcom., 1901, i. p. 317) dismisses Ramsay’s proposed explanation somewhat contemptuously; but he has nothing to say with regard to the analogous cases of a temporary division of duties in Roman administration, or to those quoted by R. S. Bour, who is essentially in agreement with Ramsay in the proposed solution.] Moreover, it may be fairly urged, as it is in fact by Ramsay, that Quirinius ruled for a shorter time than Varus, and that as he controlled the foreign relations of the province he furnished the best means of dating (Was Christ born at Bethlehem? p. 246; sec also p. 105). But if we once admit that St. Luke’s words do not involve the belief that Quirinius was the actual governor of Syria, the view that Quirinius may have been sent as an extraordinary legate to Syria, and as such had undertaken the administration of the census, is well worthy of consideration. This view is mentioned by Schürer (l.c. p. 540), although only to be rejected. But Ramsay (p. 248) points out that if this supposition is accepted, it may be observed that Quirinius as the commissioner for Syria and Palestine would be a delegate exercising the emperor’s authority, and might rightly be said ἡγεμονεύειν τῆς Συριας. At all events this view offends against no method of Roman procedure (as Schürer apparently allows), and it may fairly be said to be quite compatible with the language which St. Luke employs.

When we consider the many difficulties which surround this vexata quaestio, it is somewhat surprising that Professor Schürer should affirm that all possible means of escape from the conclusion are closed, the conclusion being that St. Luke’s statement conflicts with the facts of history (l.c. p. 542). Having arrived at this very dogmatic result, he points out that anyone who cannot attribute such an error to Luke should bear in mind that the Evangelist is not free from the perpetration of other blunders. He confuses, e.g., the Theudas in Acts 5:36, the Theudas who rises up before Judas of Galilee, with the Theudas who lived some forty years later. But Schürer must be well aware that many able critics do not accept this further summary assertion on his part of St. Luke’s ignorance, and that his own learned countryman Dr. F. Blass passes the sensible judgment in his Commentary on Acts 5:37, that St. Luke’s accuracy in other respects should prevent us from attributing to him here such a grave error as is sometimes alleged. Moreover, it should be remembered that it is precisely in points connected with the administration of the Roman provinces that St. Luke’s accuracy has been so repeatedly proved. Consider as a single instance the manner in which in the Acts he is able not merely to distinguish between Imperial and Senatorial provinces, but also to note accurately the particular period during which a certain province was under one or the other kind of rule. Or if we turn to the Gospel, we recall how a keen controversy has raged around the statement in Luke 3:1 with regard to Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene. Here, too, St. Luke has been accused of manifest inaccuracy. But, to say nothing of the recent discovery of two inscriptions which have been fairly cited in support of St. Luke’s correctness, it may be observed that Schmiedel reluctantly allows (art. ‘Lysanias’ in Encyc. Bibl. iii. 2842) that it cannot possibly be shown, or even assumed, that St. Luke is here mistaken, while Schürer entertains no such hesitation, and frankly states that ‘the Evangelist Luke is thoroughly correct when he assumes that in the fifteenth year of Tiberius there was a Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene’ (l.c. p. 719). And yet within a few lines of this evidence of correctness we are asked to believe that the same Evangelist was guilty of a gratuitous and stupid blunder in relation to the enrolment under Quirinius.

ii. St. Matthew’s account.

1. Use of OT prophecy.—While St. Luke narrates the events which lead to the Birth at Bethlehem without making any definite reference to OT prophecy, it is noticeable that St. Matthew (Matthew 2:6) quotes definitely the prophecy of Micah (Micah 5:2) with reference to the home of David: ‘And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah, art in nowise least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come forth a governor, which shall be shepherd of my people Israel.’ The prophecy was undoubtedly regarded as Messianic (Zahn, Das Evangelium des Matthäus, 1903, p. 94; Schürer, l.c. ii. 527–530).

The difference in the wording of Matthew 2:6 and Micah 5:2 is easily accounted for, if we bear in mind that the Evangelist reproduces the prophecy in the manner popular at the time, i.e. he quotes some Targum on the passage, or, as Edersheim puts it, Micah 5:2 is rendered targumically, and this would fairly cover the variations in the two renderings (Jesus the Messiah, i. p. 206; cf. also Delitzsch, Messianische Weissagungen 2, p. 129). But if Schürer is correct in seeing in the prophecy of Micah words which might easily be understood to mean that the Messiah’s goings forth had been from of old, from everlasting, i.e. to signify the Messiah’s pre-existence, yet it cannot be said that Jewish theology pointed to a birth such as that recorded by St. Matthew.

It is no wonder that Zahn (l.c. p. 83) should characterize as altogether fantastic the attempt to derive the stories of St. Matthew and St. Luke from the Rabbinic exegesis of Isaiah 7:14, when there is no reason to assume that the prophet’s words were taken at the time of our Lord’s birth to refer to the Messiah at all (see also Weber, Jüdische Theologie2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , pp. 354, 357; and von Orelli, art. ‘Messias’ in PRE [Note: RE Real-Encyklopädie fur protest. Theologic und Kirche.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , 1902, and esp. Dalman, Die Worte Jesu, i. 226). But this is a subject for which reference may be made to art. Virgin Birth.

2. Relation to Jewish legal requirements.—St. Matthew’s account, which with every due concession may fairly be regarded as dating in its present form within the limits of the 1st cent., demands our attention for further reasons. It is remarkable, for example, how strictly it adheres to Jewish legality, and yet at the same time how delicately the feelings and thoughts of Joseph are portrayed (cf. G. H. Box, l.c. p. 82).

With regard to the first point, it may he noted that ‘after the betrothal the bride was under the same restrictions as a wife. If unfaithful, she ranked and was punished as an adulteress (Deuteronomy 22:23 f.); and, on the other hand, the bridegroom, if he wished to break the contract, had the same privileges, and had also to observe the same formalities, as in the case of divorce. The situation is illustrated in the history of Joseph and Mary, who were on the footing of betrothal’ (art. ‘Marriage’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iii.; cf. also Nebe, Kindheitsgeschichte, pp. 199, 200, and Zahn, l.c. p. 71). In this connexion one may also refer to another passage in Dalman with reference to the descent of Jesus: ‘A case such as that of Jesus,’ he writes, ‘was, of course, not anticipated by the Law; but if no other human fatherhood was alleged, then the child must have been regarded as bestowed by God upon the house of Joseph; for a betrothed woman, according to Jewish law, already occupied the same status as a wife’ (Die Worte Jesu, i. p. 263). See Betrothal.

If we bear this in mind, we can see how easy it is to interpret the reading of the Sinaitic-Syriac palimpsest, of which so much has been made, in Luke 2:5 ‘he and Mary his wife, that they might be enrolled.’ All that the words show, if we allow that they are the correct reading, is that Mary was under the full legal protection of Joseph: ‘unless, indeed, our Lord had passed in common estimation as the son of Joseph,’ it has been well pointed out that it is difficult to see how Joseph, according to Matthew 1:19, could have gratified his wish ‘not to expose’ Mary. And so again ‘Joseph was without doubt the foster-father of our Lord; and if any register of births was kept in the Temple or elsewhere, he would probably be there described as the actual father. Such he was from a social point of view, and it was therefore no wilful suppression of the truth when the most blessed amongst women said to her Son, “Thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing” (Mrs. Lewis in the Expos. Times, 1900, 1901, where illustrations from Eastern social customs may be also found). Cf. W. C. Allen, Interpreter, Feb. 1905, p. 113.

3. Sobriety and delicacy of the narrative.—If we turn again to what we may call the inwardness of St. Matthew’s story, we can scarcely fail to be struck with its singular sobriety and reserve. We hear nothing of any anger or reproach on the part of Joseph against his betrothed, although as ‘a righteous man’ he feels that only one course is open to him. But with this decision other considerations were evidently still contending,—considerations the very existence of which bore testimony to the purity and fidelity of Mary. The words of the angel (Matthew 1:20) say nothing of the appeasement of indignation, they speak rather of the befitting conquest of hesitation and doubt: ‘fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife,’ i.e. to take unto thee one who had and still bas a claim to that honoured and cherished name. No wonder that Dean Plumptre could write that the glimpse given us into the character of Joseph is one of singular tenderness and beauty (see Ellicott’s Commentary, in loco). If any one will read this delicate and beautiful description and place it side by side with that given us in the Protevangelium Jacobi, where, e.g., both Joseph and the priest bitterly reproach Mary, and a whole, series of prurient details is given, he will again become painfully aware of the gulf which separates the Canonical from the Apocryphal Gospels.

4. Objections taken to the contents of Matthew 1, 2.—St. Matthew’s record, no less than that of St. Luke, has been the object of vehement and relentless attack. It is asserted, for instance, by Usener that in the whole Birth and Childhood story of St. Matthew a pagan substratum can be traced (art. ‘Nativity’ in Encyc. Bibl. iii. 3352, and also to the same effect ZNTW [Note: NTW Zeitschrift für die Neutest. Wissen. schaft.] , 1903, p. 21). Thus we are asked to find the origin of the story of the Magi worshipping at the cradle of the infant Jesus in the visit paid by the Parthian king Tiridates with magi in his train to do homage in Rome to the emperor Nero. But the magi of the Parthian king were evidently, like many other magi of the East, claimants to the possession of secret and magical arts, and there is nothing strange in the fact that they are found among the retinue of a Parthian king. But what actual points of resemblance exist between this visit to Nero and the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem it is difficult to see. One crucial contrast, at any rate, has been rightly emphasized. Tiridates came to Nero, not of his own accord, but because his only choice was to do homage to Nero or to lose his crown. Here there is no comparison with, but rather an obvious and essential contrast to, the Wise Men of St. Matthew, who came with joy and gladness to worship the Babe of Bethlehem.

Soltau, who also supports the same origin for St. Matthew’s story, adduces the parallels which in his opinion may be fitly drawn between the visit of the Parthian king to Rome and the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem (Die Geburtsgeschichte Jesu Christi, 1902, p. 37). As might be expected, he makes much of the fact that Tiridates is said to have knelt and worshipped Nero just as the Wise Men fell down to worship Jesus. But the only other verbal parallel which he is able to adduce is this: Tiridates, according to Dio Cassius (lxiii. 2 ff.), did not return by the way which he came; beneath the quotation of this statement Soltau writes as a parallel the words of St. Matthew: ‘and they departed into their own country another way’ (Matthew 2:12). A strong case scarcely stands in need of such parallels as these.* [Note: Sea also the recent criticisms of A. Jeremias, Babylonisches im NT, 1905, p. 55.]

But an attempt is often made to trace St. Matthew’s story to Jewish sources, and reference is made to the words and expectations of the prophets. And no doubt it is easy to affirm that such a passage as Isaiah 61:1 ff. might have contributed to the formation of the legend of the adoration of the Magi. But the Evangelist, who loves to quote prophecies apposite in any degree to the events connected with our Lord’s birth, makes no reference to this passage of Isaiah which Christian thought has so often associated with the Epiphany. As a matter of fact, it would seem that the prophecy referred primarily, not to the Messiah, but to the city of Jerusalem and to the day of its latter glory.

No doubt the Evangelist does definitely connect at least two Old Testament prophecies with the visit of the Magi and the events immediately subsequent to it. But the question may be fairly asked, Which is more probable, that the flight into Egypt actually took place, or that the Jewish Evangelist, or some later hand, introduced the incident as the fulfilment of an OT prophecy which had primarily no definite or obvious connexion, to say the least of it, with the Messiah? [Note: On the exact words of Hosea 11:1, quoted by St. Matthew from the Hebrew, see Zahn, Evangelium des Matthaus, p. 103; and also Delitzsch, Messianische Weissagungen2, 1899, p. 105.] Or, again, if some such event as the Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem actually occurred, we can understand that a Jewish Evangelist could find in that event, and in the mourning of the mothers of Israel, a further fulfilment of Jeremiah’s words (Jeremiah 31:15). But there is no obvious reason why he should have hit upon and introduced such words unless some event had happened at Bethlehem which recalled to his mind the picture which the prophet had drawn, and the scene once enacted within a few miles of the city of David.

Other explanations are, of course, forthcoming. ‘Why,’ asks Usener, ‘is Egypt selected as the place of refuge?’ and one answer is that mythological ideas may have had their unconscious influence; it is to Egypt that the Olympian gods take their flight when attacked by the giant Typhon! (art ‘Nativity’ in Ency. Bibl. iii. 3351; and ZNTW [Note: NTW Zeitschrift für die Neutest. Wissen. schaft.] p. 217). [Note: Indications are not wanting that this constant and somewhat reckless appeal to supposed pagan soalogies is being overdone; see, e.g., Farnell’s remarks in the Hibbert Journal, July 1904, p. 827.] In any consideration of such statements it is well to remember first of all that, whatever date we assign to St. Matthew,§ [Note: In art. ‘Gospels’ in Encyc. Bibl. ii. 1893, mention is made of the Syriac writing attributed to Eusebius, and it is maintained that, according to this document, the story of the Magi, committed to writing in the interior of Persia, was, in a.d. 119, in the episcopate of Xystus of Rome, made search for, discovered, and written in Greek. But Zahn (Einleitung, ii. p. 266) points out that this statement at least shows that by the date named the year of the coming of the Magi was discussed not only in Rome, but in various places. He further argues, with good reason, from the same statement of the pseudo-Eusebius, that the narrative of Matthew 2 had already been incorporated in the Gospel before a.d. 119. See, further, Ch. Quart. Rev. July 1904, p. 389. In this connexion it may be noted that it is difficult to see why the statement of St. Ignatius, exaggerated as it is, should not be taken to refer to the star of the Magi (Ephes. 19:2, 3). On the significance of this early reference to the Gospel narrative in St. Ignatius, see Headlsm, Criticism of the NT, p. 166 (St. Margaret’s Lectures). In his recent Commentary on St. Matthew’s Gospel, Wellhausen begins with 3:1, which is certainly a short and easy method of dealing with the two earlier chapters.] we are dealing with an historic period of the world’s history, and that the writer at least claims to place his events in relation to historical data. Nothing was more natural than that Egypt should be chosen as the place of refuge; it was nigh at hand, the communication by caravan was very frequent; in earlier days Jeroboam had fled thither from Solomon (1 Kings 11:40), and it was to Tabpanhes that Johanan, the son of Kareah, and his companions had gooe to save themselves out of the hands of the Chaldeans (Jeremiah 43:7).

Nothing was more in accordance with the character of Herod than the deed of bloodshed ascribed to him, and modern days supply many proofs of the unscrupulous manner in which a jealous and suspicious potentate has not hesitated to rid himself of anyone likely to render his tenure of sovereignty insecure (see, e.g., amongst recent writers Kreyher, Dic jungfräuliche Geburt des Herrn, 1904, p. 83).* [Note: See, further, art. Magi. It may, however, be here noted that Ramsay remarks on Macrobius, Sat. ii. 4, that it is not probable that Macrobius (a pagan, about a.d. 400) was indebted to a Christian writer for his information, and that therefore the story of the Massacre of the Infants was recorded in some pagan source (Was Christ born at Bethlehem? pp. 219, 220). Zockler also refers to Macrobius as affording a testimony from a non-biblical source to the truth of the Massacre at Bethlehem (art. ‘Jesus Christus’ in PRE3). On the silence of Josephus see, further, Zahn, Evangelium des Matthäus, p. 109; and Edersheim, The Temple at the Time of Jesus Christ, p. 35 f.]

On the other hand, it is very improbable that the Evangelist would have invented a story in which the birth of the Messiah was made to bring bitter sorrow into so many Jewish homes. [Note: Zahn, Evangelium des Matthaus, p. 109. See, too, the same reference for the improbability of supposing that the story in St. Matthew was derived from the rescue of Moses (Exodus 1:15; Exodus 2:10; Jos. Ant. ii. ix. 2); and cf. art. Magi.]

Nothing, again, was more likely than that Joseph should withdraw into Galilee after the return from Egypt, since we have evidence that Archelaus very soon after his accession gave proof of the same cruel and crafty behaviour as had characterized his father (Josephus BJ ii. vi. 2). [Note: ‘ There is a noticeable difference between St. Matthew’s references to the political situation in Palestine and St. Luke’s. St. Luke speaks with the air of painstaking investigation; St. Matthew, with that of easy familiarity, all the more noteworthy that the frequent and somewhat complicated succession of rulers would have made error easy.’ This important point is noted by Burton in his Introduction to the Gospels (Chicago), 1904, p. 4.]

In the next place, it is well to remember that there is at all events one instance of a prophecy cited in this part of the Gospel of St. Matthew the fulfilment of which is beyond doubt, if we can be said to know anything at all of the historical Jesus (Matthew 2:23). And yet no one with any discernment could possibly maintain that our Lord’s residence and bringing up in Nazareth were introduced for the sake of finding a fulfilment for a prophecy which it is so difficult to trace to any one source in OT literature. But if in this case it is certain that the prophecy could not have created the fact, why in the case of the other prophecies cited should their alleged fulfilment be credited to the extravagant imagination of the Evangelist, and to that alone?§ [Note: See some excellent remarks of Bruce in the Expositor’s Greek Testament, i. p. 78.]

iii. Apocryphal accounts.—It is of the greatest significance that just in that portion of our Lord’s life concerning which the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke are most silent, the Apocryphal Gospels are most effusive.* [Note: For a useful classification of the most important of the Apocryphal Gospels, and a list of those which claim to fill up the gaps in our knowledge of the Infancy and Childhood of Jesus, see art. ‘Apocryphal Gospels’ in Hastings’ DB, Ext. Vol. p. 422.

In the same volume (art. ‘Papyri,’ p. 352) it is of interest to note that Kenyon in commenting upon the later Egyptian papyri remarks that one document written about the end of the 1st cent. has been held to show certain resemblances to the narrative of the Nativity of our Lord, but that the resemblance is, in truth, very slight and unessential.]

Here was an opportunity for them to occupy a vacant space, and they lost no endeavour in trying to fill it. Both in the details of the Nativity and in the events just referred to as subsequent to it, we find ample proofs of this. Thus Elisabeth is fearful that in accordance with the commands of Herod her son John may be slain. And when she can find no place of concealment, she begs a mountain to receive mother and child, and instantly the mountain is cleft to receive her; and a light shines round about, for an angel of the Lord is watching for her preservation. And upon this there follows a tragic scene of the murder of Zacharias, who is slain for his refusal to betray his son. As the Holy Family pass through Egypt, the marvellous accompanies them at every step. In these apocryphal stories, lions, dragons, and panthers adore the infant Jesus; a palm tree bends at His word that His Mother may eat the fruit; in one day the travellers accomplish a journey


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Birth of Christ'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/b/birth-of-christ.html. 1906-1918.

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Sunday, August 25th, 2019
the Week of Proper 16 / Ordinary 21
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