The Infancy Narrations

Anthony Zimmerman
February 23, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

We ask how the evangelist Matthew learned what he narrates about Christ's infancy. One possibility pops into the mind: Did Mary speak to the disciples while all were together awaiting the events of Pentecost? "All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers... The company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty" (Acts 1:15ff).

All had faith now that Jesus was not only man, but also God. Was the time perhaps opportune to ask Mary about His human origins? Did they gather around her, and did she then inform them: "The generation of Christ was in this wise." And did Matthew, the one who was quick with the writing plume as a tax collector, then write it down?

The solution appears too neat. We have no evidence whatsoever that Mary addressed the early Church while all were waiting in the upper room for the coming of the Holy Spirit. But several indications point to a source which can hardly be any other than Mary herself. Matthew writes, in regard to Mary and Joseph: "Before they lived together, she was found with child through the power of the Holy Spirit" (1:18). Again: "He had no relations with her at any time before she bore a son, whom he named Jesus" (1:25). The way Matthew writes this, he assumes that he knows that he is not telling something that the Christians don't already know. Rather, this is already common knowledge to the Christian community. And from whom did the community learn it? It could be none other, we must believe, than from Mary herself. Who else could speak about their intimate relationship? No one. When did she reveal it? Perhaps in the Upper Room before Pentecost.

Luke likewise provides precious bits of information that could have come, ultimately, from none other than Mary herself. He writes that "Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). How can anyone know what she is pondering in her hear, except Mary herself? What was she pondering? She was pondering all that the shepherds had just related to her:

And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!" ... But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:10-14; 19).

Mary was learning the greatness of her Son from what the shepherds told her. The shepherds were real people, they had heard and seen the angels, and the glory of the Lord that shone round about them. They had gone in search of a child lying in a manger. Since Luke writes that Mary kept pondering "these things" in her heart, therefore they are wondrous history upon which we, too, can ponder in our hearts together with Mary.

Similarly we read in Luke 2:50 that she and Joseph did not understand the import of the answer that Jesus gave them after they found Him in the temple: "And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them." That information must also have come from no other source than Mary herself. For me, then, Christmas is true history.

Matthew and Luke could have picked up fragments of information from the people of the hill country around Ain Karim, who had witnessed the unusual birth of John the Baptist, and who heard Zachary's prophesy, the "Benedictus." As Luke writes: "And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea" (Luke 1: 65). Luke might also have pieced together more information by going to Bethlehem to interview people who had heard the good news of the birth of Jesus from the shepherds: For the shepherds: "made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child (Luke 2:17). The Magi's search for the new born King of the Jews had also become a notorious event much talked about in Jerusalem. Some of the witnesses may have been around when Matthew wrote his Gospel. Some may even have become disciples. Finally, the "brothers" of Jesus were among the disciples in the Upper Room awaiting Pentecost, and may have eagerly narrated what they knew.

The towns folks back at Nazareth had sharp eyes, certainly, and remembered the events of the betrothal and marriage of Mary and Joseph. Mary had conceived before Joseph had taken her into her house. The formalities had already been completed, but it was a Jewish custom to wait with the consummation of the marriage until the husband took the bride into his home. Mary was found to be with child before that time - a sure bit of gossip among the townsfolk. Intercourse was not exactly forbidden but the custom was rather to wait. The townsfolk would believe that the pregnancy resulted from intercourse, which was cause for gossip. Joseph knew better, of course, but he was not talking. Because Joseph took her to his house, he thereby let it be known publicly that this is his child. What else could the citizens of Nazareth think? Luke might have learned some of this from the "brothers" of Jesus who were perhaps eager to talk.

Neither of the evangelists, Matthew or Luke, reveal what Mary and Joseph communicated with each other at their espousals. The real marriage took place at the espousals, before the Annunciation, before Joseph took her into his house. Mary asked the Angel Gabriel how she could conceive a child, since she did not know man. That can only mean that she had taken a vow of virginity, for else she would not have asked.

We must suppose that Mary spoke with Joseph about that before they married. And how did Joseph react? I think that the Holy Spirit must have prepared Joseph for this. I think he was overjoyed to hear from Mary that she must remain a virgin. "That's exactly what I want also. We will live in perfect chastity as husband and wife." He was overjoyed to find such a compatible partner, who would give all to God, and to each other.

And that is why Joseph is such a fine patron for all priests and religious brothers. We give our all to God, to serve the Church, as Mary and Joseph gave their all to God, and devoted themselves wholly to the education of Jesus whose mission is the forgiveness of the sins of the people. The Holy Spirit gave the gift of consecrated chastity to Joseph and to Mary before they made their marriage vows, so I believe. Living together, as married folk customarily lived in Israel, provided them with a perfect cover to practice their consecrated celibacy without disturbance from others. Priests and religious make public vows and thereby gain freedom to devote themselves entirely to companionship with God and to the service of the Church. But back to our subject about the sources of information for the Infancy Narratives.

Some of the Nazareth villagers went to Bethlehem for the registration at the same time as Mary and Joseph - since the so-called "brothers" of Jesus would also be of David's line. But Mary and Joseph didn't come back with them to Nazareth. A few years later they finally returned from this rather puzzling and long absence from home. Where had they been? Egypt! Perhaps the story of the visit by the Magi and of Herod's slaughter of the babies in and around Bethlehem also became part of the gossip being sifted at Nazareth.

The villagers also noted that Mary and Joseph had only this one child. That would not have put them into the more influential circles of the villagers, for large families were a kind of measure for the Jews of God's blessings. They may have noted that, oddly, Mary and Joseph were not at all grieving about this lack of more children. The neighbors must have loved them, though, as friendly and good citizens and as God-fearing people. Village folk are wont to re-hash rumors and clues to make things fit together. Maybe Matthew and Luke could have heard something here and something there, The Holy Spirit then inspired them to write down what God wished to appear in the Gospel, basic historical facts enshrined in and embellished with sacred interpretation.

Perhaps Mary kept an eye on the developing catechesis and was pleased that truths leading to salvation were enshrined there correctly and beautifully. She could have corrected any false reports in the early preaching of the Good News, had she noticed any mistakes that needed correction. The fact that the narratives are actually written in the Gospels probably indicate that Mary knew about them, at least in the primitive preaching, and recognized them to be divinely inspired throughout.

For me, Luke's narrative is factual history that Mary actually lived with. Maybe the jury is still out, however, about the historicity of the story of the Magi. I was once at a parish where a young priest declared that the Matthew's narrative about the Magi was theological symbolism, teachings inspired by God via story-telling, to emphasize the fact that Jesus is God, and that He is the Savior of the gentiles as well as of the Jews. The rabbis sometimes taught divine truths by means of stories. The story of the Magi is a typical Haggadah, said this young priest just out of the seminary as he preached from the pulpit on that Feast of the Epiphany. A Haggadah is a story made up of biblical materials to teach a theological truth. After Mass a man came into the sacristy thoroughly enraged. He scolded the young priest roundly. At coffee time in the rectory I felt sorry for him.

The people want to hear the message of the Gospel, not attend an Exegesis class, I said. The message nourishes our faith, whether the narrative is historically factual, or wether it is a symbolical Haggadah in form as some Exegetes teach. What is written in these Infancy narratives is what the Holy Spirit wanted to be written there, for our information and edification.

I told the young priest that the message is beautiful just as it is written and is much beloved and celebrated by the Church. The narratives bring joy and hope for salvation to people all over the world over and over again each year at Christmas and at the Feast of the Epiphany. Learned treatises by professors of Exegesis notwithstanding, at Mass we all want to listen to the message as God inspired the sacred the authors to write it. Exegesis about form criticism has its place in the class room rather than on the pulpit.

Now a word about a possible chronology of events. According to Luke, Jesus was placed into a manger after His birth, because their was no room in the travelers' lodgings. But that is not where the Magi found Him. They entered a "house." The rush of the census had passed and better quarters were available. Perhaps, too, Joseph might have felt that Bethlehem should be their lasting home, because of the prophecy that the Messiah was to be born there. But that is mere speculation. The Magi must have arrived after the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the temple, which took place forty days after His birth. When Herod inquired about the time when the Magi sighted the star, he took careful note. He ordered the soldiers to kill every boy in the area two years old and under. Was Jesus a year or two old when the Magi arrived? It seems possible.

Luke writes nothing about the Magi and a flight into Egypt. He gives the impression that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth directly from Bethlehem: "And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth" (Luke 2:39). Even so, Luke's Gospel does not negate the flight into Egypt. It merely remains silent about it. The two Evangelists embodied separate traditions and each had its own and divinely guided agenda.

We have a few historical dates, but none that can be tagged to a date of the coming of the Magi. Herod died in 4 BC, which tells us that the Magi visited Jesus before that. Jesus returned from Egypt after Herod died, but while Archelaus was in power. Archelaus was deposed in 6 AD, ten years later. The Holy Family returned from Egypt and settled in Nazareth shortly after 4 BC, and certainly before 6 AD. How old was Jesus when the Holy Family left Egypt and settled in Nazareth? Maybe old enough to have picked up some Greek language ability, besides His native Aramaic, while a refugee in Egypt. And maybe He was already able to walk to Nazareth with a boyish step even more sprightly than that of His parents.

Let us read passages of the sacred narratives again. They are works of literary art, they are rays of light that beam down to us from heaven. Matthew's story is deceptively simple, with not one superfluous word to dilute the underlying message written by the hand of God:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus (Mt 1:18-25).

And the elegance of Luke is such that one cannot change a single word without marring its beauty:

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.

And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!" When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us" (Luke 2:4-14).