Saturday Series: Advent/Christmas Studies

For these next three weeks of the Advent and Christmas season, through January 6 (Epiphany), the Saturday Series on this site will take the form of regular (daily) studies on the Infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Matt 1-2; Luke 1-2). These studies will be posted in tandem with the current series of daily notes on the “Christ hymn” in the Prologue of John (Jn 1:1-18).

My purpose in the weekly Saturday Series has been to introduce readers to the principles and methods of Biblical Criticism. These are illustrated inductively, through a careful study of particular Scripture passages. We have looked at a number of select passages in the Old and New Testament Scriptures alike. I hope that these have served to demonstrate the importance of an honest and objective (i.e., critical) analysis. Even if one does not always agree with the critical theories and approaches adopted by scholars, there is nearly always value in exploring them.

The particular approach I have taken in these studies, as often as possible, has been to look at the passage through the ‘lens’ of specific areas of Biblical Criticism. These can be defined according to four basic categories:

    • Textual Criticism—analysis of the text itself, examining various readings in the different manuscripts and textual witnesses, with the primary goal of determining the most likely original reading.
    • Source Criticism—analysis of any possible sources (written or other) the author/editor may have used in composing the work; sometimes this relates to the specific passage, but can also refer to the book (or division of the book) as a whole.
    • Historical Criticism—a three-fold analysis, as appropriate, regarding (1) the historical background of the passage (including where, when, and how it was written), (2) the use/influence of various historical traditions, and (3) the historical reliability/accuracy of the text (the content of the work) as we have it.
    • Literary Criticism—analysis of the passage as (part of) a written, literary work; this can cover a wide range of aspects, some of which may or may not apply, depending on the nature of the written work:
      • Form/Genre analysis—examining the distinct shape, structure, and style of a passage, in terms of an established literary type (poem, letter, parable, sermon/speech, etc)
      • Rhetorical analysis—study of the manner in which the author attempts to persuade, exhort, etc, his audience
      • Composition analysis—how the work was composed in terms of its textual units, covering inclusion of source material, editing and adapting traditional material, passages entirely original to the author, and so forth.
        [Other areas may be cited, but these three effectively summarize the main sub-categories.]

As a way of integrating these critical approaches, and demonstrating them in action, I will usually embark on a relatively detailed exegetical analysis (commentary) of the passage, utilizing what is often called the “grammatical-historical” method. The scope of a study will not always allow for a full or exhaustive exegesis; in many cases, a more selective treatment, focusing on specific, representative verses or phrases must suffice.

On the Infancy Narratives

In terms of New Testament Criticism, the Gospels hold a special place, due to their distinctive character as narrative works, with a peculiar combination of original and traditional material. And, within the Gospels, the Infancy narratives (in Matthew and Luke) are particularly distinctive, providing an especially rich field for critical study. The reasons for this can be summarized with the following points of note:

    • The Infancy narratives contain material, traditions, and points of emphasis which are scarcely to be found elsewhere in the (Synoptic) Gospels. Their prominence in the Infancy narratives thus requires explanation.
    • The Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, each in their own way, draw heavily upon Old Testament narrative traditions, in a concentrated manner that far surpasses anything one sees elsewhere in the Gospels.
    • The narratives of Matthew and Luke share certain common points of basic information, but otherwise contain much detail that is unique (and which can be quite difficult to harmonize).
    • In various ways, the Infancy narratives serve an important literary purpose in relation to the rest of the Gospel, establishing certain themes and points of emphasis, etc, that will color the distinctively Matthean and Lukan Gospel narratives.

Perhaps nowhere in the Gospels (except perhaps in certain aspects of the Discourses in the Gospel of John) do we find such critical tension regarding the relationship between (a) the original contribution of the author, and (b) the use of traditional source-material. In the main Synoptic narrative, the traditional source-material clearly dominates, especially within the “triple-tradition” (i.e., material shared by all three Gospels). By contrast, in the Infancy narratives, there is evidence for a much greater contribution by the author. As noted above, apart from a few basic points of information, none of the specific detail in Matthew can be found in Luke (and vice versa).

The daily studies will begin with the Lukan narrative, and the opening episode in 1:5-25.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *