Everyone thinks they know the Christmas story, but Raymond Brown’s commentary on the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke convinced me that actually I hardly know them at all. Brown unpacks layer upon layer to show that the Gospel writers had some very special things to say when they crafted these stories. In particular, Brown argues, they tell us “the essence of the Good News, namely, that God has made Himself present to us in the life of His Messiah who walked on this earth, so truly present that the birth of the Messiah was the birth of God’s Son.” The Birth of the Messiah is a breathtakingly erudite and sophisticated study that dedicates over 600 pages of tiny print to analyzing just four chapters of the Bible. It is a rare achievement when a book published in 1979 is still the recognized authority on the topic 36 years later.
Brown notes that the infancy narratives are unique in the Gospels because unlike the rest of the Gospels, Mary was the only eyewitness who could have told Matthew and Luke about these events. Moreover, it is doubtful how much Mary shaped the existing narratives. Why didn’t she tell Luke about fleeing to Egypt, for example, and why did people in Nazareth assume that Jesus was a nobody (Mark 6:3) if noblemen from the East has visited his village when he was a baby? Why do no other sources mention Herod’s mass murder of babies, and how come the star moves from east to west, stops over Jerusalem, and then moves south to Bethlehem without anyone else noticing that something weird was happening? Why are the genealogies in Matthew and Luke so different, including not just different grandfathers but also a different number of generations between patriarchs? Just as the Bible includes poetry, prophecy, metaphors, and genealogies alongside prose accounts of historical events, so too do the Gospels, Brown argues. The infancy narratives are so full of historical problems yet so perfect theologically, he suggests, that it makes more sense to read them as theological expositions on who Jesus was than as historical accounts of His birth. “Of course,” Brown notes, “Matthew could have written an impersonal summary of Israel’s history [to introduce Jesus’ ministry]; but he chose to make the preparation more intimate by having Jesus relive that history.”
Jesus relives the story of the people of God through His genealogies, reinterpreting the Old Testament through a Messianic lens. Matthew’s Gospel starts with the title: “The birth record of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham,” and this dual identity of Jesus – as the fulfillment of Davidic kingship and of the Abrahamic promises – forms the cornerstone of his Gospel message. Comparing this to Genesis 5 (“the record of the genesis of Adam”), Brown notes that “the genealogy in Genesis 5 leads from Adam to Noah, for the genealogy of Adam is a genealogy of his descendants, while the genealogy of Jesus is a genealogy of his ancestors. In Christian salvific history there can be no genealogy of Jesus’ descendants because history has reached its goal in Jesus.” Brown’s questions are usually more interesting than his answers, and during his analysis of Matthew’s genealogy, he asks why Matthew included the names of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, but not of any other women. Is it, as Jerome suggested, because all four were regarded as sinners whom Jesus came to save? Or perhaps, following Martin Luther, because “the women were regarded as foreigners and were included by Matthew to show that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was related by ancestry to the Gentiles”? We can never know for certain, but Brown prefers the idea that “(a) there is something extraordinary or irregular in their union with their partners …; [and] (b) the women showed initiative or played an important role in God’s plan and so came to be considered the instrument of God’s providence.” The third option means that these women reflected something of Mary’s attitude and prefigured her story.
The idea that Old Testament heroes reflected events leading up to Jesus’ birth is an important exegetical tool for Brown. He notes, for example, that the angel’s annunciation to Zechariah and Elizabeth is copied almost word for word from the angel’s message to Abraham and Sarah that they will have a son, and that the story of the Magi mirrors the story of Balaam, a wise man from the east, who came to bless Israel. Matthew’s account of Jesus birth follows the structure and vocabulary of Moses’ birth story, right down to the plots to kill all male babies, the deaths of the rulers, God’s command to return home, and the return of the whole family to Egypt/Israel. Matthew’s point is that Jesus will deliver God’s people from captivity just as Moses did, and the fact that Jesus’ name is a rendering of Joshua’s reminds us that He will also lead us into the Promised Land. Brown comments that Matthew’s “infancy narrative contains both the cross and the God-given triumph. Herod stalks the trail of the magi, a menacing reminder that, while the star of the newborn King has shone forth in purity and simplicity, there are those who will seek to blot out that light. If the infancy story is an attractive drama that catches the imagination, it also is a substantial proclamation of the coming of the kingdom and its possible rejection.”
Luke begins with John the Baptist – the last of the pre-Christian prophets – and then shows systematically that Jesus is superior to John in every way. Whereas John is “great before the Lord,” Jesus is “great” in and of Himself. John is “filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb,” but the Jesus is conceived through the Holy Spirit who “comes upon” His mother. John will “make ready for the Lord a prepared people,” while Jesus has come to rule over that people as Lord and king. The songs of Elizabeth and Mary are typical Jewish psalms praising God for saving His people, but Mary’s insistence that salvation has already taken place (“he has come to his people and redeemed them”) means that non-Christian Jews could never have sung this. As Brown writes, “the salvation that has come in Jesus of Nazareth is the definitive act by which God has kept His covenant with Israel, the ultimate manifestation of His mercy (covenant kindness) to His servant people. … Later in the Lucan Gospel, this same John the Baptist, who jumped prophetically in his mother’s womb at the first encounter with Jesus, will proclaim a broadening of the concept of the children of Abraham (3:8). The covenant mercy of God in Jesus will reach not only to all generations; it will reach all peoples.”
Jesus’ followers first realized that He was God when He rose from the dead, but by emphasizing the Virgin Birth, Matthew and Luke push their christological claims about Jesus’ divinity back to the moment of His conception (and John’s Gospel finds it at “the beginning”). “How will this be?” asks Mary in Luke 1:34. Paul tells us to answer to her question in Romans 1:3-4, writing that Jesus was “Born of the seed of David according to the flesh; designated Son of God in power according to the Holy Spirit as of resurrection from the Dead.” Notice how closely Gabriel’s answer to Mary reflects Paul’s christology: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and power from the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy – Son of God.” The angels reiterate Jesus’ identity when they announce His birth to the shepherds. Whereas Isaiah foretold that David’s heir would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Divine Hero, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” (Is 9:6), the angels add some specifically Christian titles: Savior, Messiah, and Lord (Luke 2:11). Brown notes that in both Matthew and Luke, “the infancy narrative is the place where the Old Testament and the Gospel most directly meet.” Despite their differences, both stories connect Jesus’ birth with the broad sweep of Jewish salvation history, and both emphasize that Mary gave birth to God Himself, thereby setting the scene for the rest of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. Finally, “as the Spirit is poured out on their representatives (Mary, Zechariah, Simeon), they burst into poetic praise of what God has done for His people; and thus the days of the infancy anticipate the outpouring of the Spirit of prophecy at Pentecost.” The Church greets the incarnation by being filled with the Holy Spirit and by recognizing Christ’s divinity as the fulfillment of God’s long-promised salvation.