The Birth of the Messiah

The Birth of the Messiah

by Raymond E. Brown

The truth behind the Gospel accounts of the Nativity, updated to include the latest research--a classic by a renowned scholar, hailed as "masterly" and "definitive" in the original edition. "From the Hardcover edition."

What People Think about "The Birth of the Messiah"

"Surely," he wrote me, "you've read the CLASSIC The Birth of the Messiah." I hadn't. "The Birth of the Messiah" was originally published in 1977, a then-rare bit of critical Biblical scholarship from a Roman Catholic scholar. Also, Brown, like so many Biblical scholars, has written a book FOR Biblical scholars.

Having become increasingly interested in biblical studies during seminary, I used the class as an occasion to do something original, namely an exhaustive concordance of all number references (except the number "one") in all the Hebrew and Christian canons as well as in the epigraphal and pseudepigraphal fringes of both. Having consistently stuck to primary sources throughout my biblical studies at the expense of the secondary commentaries because I wanted to form my own opinions without being prejudiced by "the experts", Brown's defense felt like a vindication and, of course, a recognition of the enormous amount of work I'd done. In reading The Birth of the Messiah one can see why he respected thoroughness, his own work being, they say, "definitive." However, while nearly exhaustive so far as the Judeo-Christian traditions are concerned, this book may be faulted on being weak on the relevant pagan traditions and for being rather dry.

In my view, this is an incredibly well-written and orderly exegesis of the birth narratives found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. More plausible is the suggestion that the story of Jesus birth in Bethlehem was intended as a response to a Judaism skeptical about a Messiah who came from Galilee (John:41-42,52). If Herod and all Jerusalem knew of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem (Matt 2:3), and indeed Herod slaughtered the children of a whole town in the course of looking for Jesus (2:16), why is it that later in the ministry no one seems to know of Jesus marvelous origins (13:54-55), and Herods son recalls nothing about him (14:1-2)? If it was made clear through an angelic message to the parents of Jesus who Jesus was (the Davidic Messiah, the Son of God), why is it so difficult for his disciples to discover this later on, even though Mary was alive at the time of the ministry? (32) Brown states that Commentators of times past have harmonized these different details into a consecutive narrative, so that the ordinary Christian is often not even aware of a difficulty when Lucan shepherds and Matthean magi fraternize in the Christmas crib scene. The Gospel proper never refers back to the special information supplied by the infancy narrative, e.g., to a birth at Bethlehem, to a major stir caused by that birth when the magi came to Jerusalem, or even to the virginal conception. The Ubi (Where) of Jesus birth, at Bethlehem, underlines his identity as son of David. There was divine intervention in several other births he lists (e.g., in overcoming the sterility of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel), but Matthew does not mention the women involved because there was nothing scandalous about their union. If that charge were already in circulation when Matthew was writing, his narrative could be read as an effective response to it, even as the peculiarly Matthean narrative of the guard at the tomb (27:62-66; 28:11-15) constituted an effective response to the Jewish charge that Jesus disciples had stolen his body from the tomb. Then he could have had the angel of the Lord appear and begin his message with Joseph, son of David, hasten to take Mary your wife into your home. (Basically, the setting in Luke is exactly like the one I have just presented, with the exception that the angel appears to Mary.) However, as Matthews account now stands, it means that Jesus will necessarily be born early after the parents come to live togethertoo early to escape notice and gossip. (114) Brown sites: 1)The warning to Pharaoh that there would be a Hebrew born that would threaten the kingdom 2)The forewarning to Pharaoh came from one of his sacred scribes, similar to the pre-Matthean story 3)Other stories not that the forewarning came to Pharaoh from a dream interpreted by his magi, with the obvious parallels 4)Pharaoh was startled as well as the Egyptians, with parallel language regarding Herod and all Jerusalem in the gospels 5)Pharaohs plan to massacre the children was thwarted through Gods intervention in a dream to Mosess mother, paralleling Jesus. Although Luke 2 also has Jesus born at Bethlehem, there is no mention of an intervention by Herod, of the coming of the magi, of a massacre, or of a flight to Egypt.

S., has authored a commentary on the infancy narratives of Jesus found in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. After translating the Scriptural verses on the infancy (First for the Gospel of Matthew, then Luke), Brown provides notes on the various textual critiques and alternate translations, historical backgrounds, and other fields of exegesis. It also serves Matthews purpose to connect Jesus to some Old Testament leaders with similar stories (such as Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, and Elijah). Omitting them underscores Lukes presentation of Jesus as a true son of God. Uzziah was the regnal name of King Azariah, which was bound to create confusion to textual copiers. This, Brown explains, leads to Matthews purpose, to show Jesus to the Jews as the long expected Davidic Messiah. At this point, Luke leads into his lineage and concentrates on the child as a son of God. His audience consists of believers of less Judaic background than that of Matthew; therefore, Luke writes of a more universal Savior. The child is Son of God, since Luke traces the lineage back to Adam (Luke 3:25). No royal descent is favored, since it is not via Davids son Solomon through which Luke traces Jesus descent. Lukes purpose here, as Brown explains, underlies the differences in lineage of Luke and Matthew. This underscores Lukes purpose: that Jesus was descended from both God and Man. In an appendix, Brown deals with the genealogical discrepancy of the father of Joseph. Matthew lists the man as Jacob and Luke lists him as Eli (Brown p 503-4). Brown concludes that Luke has authored for us a composite story setting the birth in combined political decline of the accession of Archelaus with the governorship of Quirinius ten years later.

He ignores or underestimates much of the patristic evidence supporting more conservative conclusions. A lot of evidence supporting the historicity of the Biblical accounts is ignored or underestimated by Brown.

I found Brown to revisit and rely on such analysis too often, and too heavily, in his interpretations of the texts, and this leaves him far too open to criticism on many of his conclusions.

Everyone thinks they know the Christmas story, but Raymond Browns commentary on the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke convinced me that actually I hardly know them at all.

Brown presents a thorough study of the birth narratives from a moderate viewpoint.

A solid commentary on the Birth Narratives in the Gospels (Matt and Luke).