If you were an adult Catholic reader in the 1970’s engaged in college or adult Bible studies, you would have been confronted with considerable scholarly disagreement over the nature and meaning of the “Christmas narratives,” those Biblical accounts of Jesus’ conception, birth, and early childhood. These are biblical texts that “everybody knows” and perhaps as a result the challenges of these accounts are easily overlooked.
For starters, two evangelists—Mark and John—have no Christmas accounts at all. Since there is general agreement today that Mark’s is the oldest of the Gospels, and John’s the most revered over history, the absence of any infancy narratives in these books is significant. For it raises the questions of why two evangelists did include narratives of Christ’s infancy, and what were their sources. In addition, the two Gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke differ from each other in significant ways. In Matthew’s Gospel, Mary is mute, and all the important divine dealings are laid out to Joseph; Luke, as we know from the “Hail Mary,” reverses the order. Which one has it right?
On April 21, 1964, in De historica evangeliorum veritate [On the question of the historical truth of the Bible] the Vatican ruled that biblical scholars can safely depend upon the historical nature of the life of Jesus as presented in sacred scripture, citing the kernel or core of this account as the material in Acts 10: 36-41, which is believed to reflect the earliest apostolic preaching after the Resurrection; the first written Gospel was still at least forty years in the future. This directive from the Pontifical Biblical Commission was not generally known to the public, but in Christian academia the omission of the Infancy Narratives in the Acts account led scholars to wonder if the Vatican was hedging its bets on the historical accuracy of the Gospel infancy narratives. So, a petition was sent to the Biblical Commission for a clarification, and in the tradition of the American court system, the Vatican demurred hearing the question. [The above cited document is only available in Latin.]
The Vatican, or any responsible churchman or biblical scholar for that matter, was certainly not denying that Jesus was “born of a woman” as St. Paul would put it. What was at question was the historical basis for details in Matthew and Luke. This nuance was lost on many people as Scripture study became popularized and parish study groups after Vatican II were faced with some of the hard truths of scholarship, specifically that the Catholic faith tradition is not literalist or fundamentalist where the Bible is concerned. Rather, the Bible must be approached from a “big picture” perspective that combines history, culture, linguistics, and the inspired minds of authors who express the Spirit in imaginative and artistic ways. Most of the Bible itself is set in Jewish culture and idiom.
There are many Catholics who are uncomfortable with this kind of talk. Scripture becomes more elusive and requires more homework than previously thought. Lifelong expressions of faith acquired in childhood seem more clouded or confused, or even watered down, when serious bible study and preaching is attempted. The late Father Stephen Brown, O.F.M., a member of my order and a gifted Biblical scholar, told me once that he found adult parish bible workshops challenging. “People approach bible scholars like Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday: “They have taken the Lord away from me and I do not know where they have laid him.” [On a lighter note, two elderly Irish women attended a bible talk where the scholar liberally peppered his talk with the word “Yahweh,” the sacred Jewish name for God. As they left the talk, one woman said that she didn’t understand much of it, “but he said some lovely things about Galway.”]
The catechesis we employ in our churches and homes regarding the Infancy Narratives is “harmonization,” which is the way the Church approached all the Gospels centuries ago. Harmonization is the process of taking all the available data and working it into one narrative. Your nativity sets at home are harmonizations: there are little statues of the three kings and camels [described only in Matthew] standing in a stable with farm animals [described only in Luke]. Please don’t start dismantling your beloved sacramental of the Christmas liturgical season in the name of theological correctness. On this subject I side with the philosopher Blaise Pascal that “the heart has reasons that reason knowns nothing about.”
But we still have the question of two distinct accounts and their significance. To get to the root of biblical detail, scholarship in the mid-twentieth century had developed multiple tools for scriptural analysis [or criticism, a technical term.] The major insight of the last century was the understanding that each evangelist had his own Christological theology or understanding of the meaning of the Christ, and that the selection of words, phrases, and entire episodes were made in the light of the Gospel writer’s understanding of Jesus of Nazareth. In short, while some aspects of the Christmas stories are not literally accurate, they serve a greater service in understanding what the evangelists Luke and Matthew were attempting to teach.
In 1977 [revised 1999] the Catholic American scholar Father Raymond Brown produced The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library). This was and remains the definitive study of the two Christmas narratives. Alas, this work was not published until I was long out of seminary—I read it later during a Christmas assignment in 1977 hearing confessions six hours a day. I had read other works of Father Brown, however, and I was familiar with his methodology, which combines personal faith, rigorous academic excellence, and sensitivity to the needs of the preacher and the hearer.
Brown put great faith in the general historical truth of the Gospels. His fidelity to the text was disciplined. By the same token, he was suspicious of reading more into texts than was actually there, a discipline that brought him significant troubles with conservatives when he argued that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth cannot be proved by the Bible per se. The first biography of Father Brown just appeared in September of this year and describes his many struggles with both the progressives and the conservatives of his time.
While he put much trust in historical study, Father Brown also employed “redaction criticism,” by which he compared how different biblical authors treated the same subject; their points of separation as useful as their agreements. In approaching the infancy narratives, Father Brown looked closely at Matthew, who begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Christ, tracing his bloodline back to Abraham, the Father of Israel and the Jewish people. In this deeply Jewish atmosphere Matthew portrays Joseph [the Jewish father of the family] as the recipient of divine communication about the nature of Mary’s child. Only Matthew describes the visit of the Three Wise Men, a story that owes much to Isaiah 60: 1-6; one can argue that the inclusion of the Magi in the Gospel is a definition of Jesus’ identity as Messiah. It is he who will restore Jerusalem to its religious glory as the light to all the nations, the “city on the hill.”
Later in Matthew’s narrative Joseph is later warned by divine message that King Herod is seeking to kill the child. Here Matthew is setting the stage for the real-life events of Jesus’ adult ministry when Jewish leaders seek to kill him and ultimately did. What Matthew has done in his infancy narrative is to provide a template of the public ministry of Jesus described in Acts 10, described earlier. Matthew’s immediate audience is a Christian community made up largely of Jewish converts. When persecution of Christians began in earnest, these converts sought the safety and identity of the religion of their past. Matthew labors to convince them that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the new Moses, and that there is no going home again in the Thomas Wolfe sense.
By now you have guessed that Luke has a different window on the essence of Jesus and his work that profoundly impacts his Christmas narrative, but alas, I am running out of time and space. If you are looking for a short synopsis, easy to digest, of Father Brown’s Christmas scholarship, I recommend An Adult Christ at Christmas: Essays on the Three Biblical Christmas Stories - Matthew 2 and Luke 2  by Father Brown available on Amazon Prime. The hardcover Birth of the Messiah runs to about 750 pages and would probably explode your Christmas stocking—but probably not your mind.