LESSON 26: October 2007


By Msgr. John F. McCarthy

194. The origin of Matt 2:22-23. Father Raymond Brown learned from his form-critical research that the episodes in the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel are merely the results of Christian religious imagination: there really were no visiting magi, there was no slaughter of the innocents, and there was no flight of the Holy Family into Egypt or return from Egypt.3 Matthew concludes the chapter as follows: “But hearing that Archelaus reigned in Judea in place of Herod his father, he [Joseph] was afraid to go there, and, being warned in sleep, he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And coming he dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets that he would be called a Nazorean.” Where did Matthew get this information? According to Father Brown he composed it himself.4 In the course of chapter 2 Matthew had confidently recounted stories invented earlier by Christian dreamers, but here he came to a problem, because the other stories suppose that Jesus was born at Bethlehem, but it was commonly known that Jesus grew up in Nazareth. How did He get there? Matthew makes up the story that, after the Holy Family had arrived in Bethlehem, Joseph was warned in sleep to head for Galilee, and thus they arrived in Nazareth.

195. Techniques of form-critical analysis. Father Brown uses form-critical analysis to show that Matthew dreamed up this part of the story on his own. First of all, this passage is almost purely Matthean in vocabulary and style, as is evident from comparison with Matt 4:12-16, where he narrates the moving of Jesus from Nazareth to Capernaum. Secondly, this passage shows an internal tension inasmuch as Joseph is instructed first to go to Israel and afterwards to Galilee. Brown form-critically reasons: “If this story were a unity, why would there be two different dreams? Why did not the angel tell Joseph in the first dream to ‘go to the land of Galilee’? Thirdly, this passage is parallel to other material that needs to be considered.5

196. Response to these reasonings. It needs to be pointed out that the similarity of Matthean style in Matt 2:22-23 and Matt 4:12-16 proves nothing, because any historian writes according to his own style, and so one can expect to find Matthew’s style to appear time and again in his Gospel. Brown undertakes to show that Matthew simply made occasional editorial additions as he copied imaginary stories and reports that were already stereotyped in their wording and style, but his method involves circular reasoning. In his speculation about the origin of Matt 2:22-23, Brown, without acknowledgment, follows the thinking of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, the two principal founders of the form-criticism of the Gospels, both of them dedicated rationalists. Dibelius, with the subsequent concurrence of Bultmann6, reasoned back in 1919 that the original story underlying the episodes of Matthew 2 had to do with “the slaughter of the children,” and that the decision of Joseph to settle in Nazareth could not have been part of it, because “otherwise we should have to ask why the angel said nothing [in his appearance to Joseph in Egypt] of the renewed danger [from Archelaus].7 But it is known that in Sacred Scripture messages from God are often given gradually, and there is no real “internal tension” between the orders to Joseph first to “go the land of Israel,” and then to go to Galilee, because Galilee was in the land of Israel, and Bethlehem of Judea was on the way to Galilee.

197. Parallels to Old Testament events. Form-critical theory assumes that the early Christians took ideas and scenes from the Old Testament and shaped them into their own stories about Jesus. Brown believes that the origin of Matthew’s first two chapters is “a pre-Matthean narrative patterned on the infancy of Moses and built around angelic dream appearances to Joseph.”8 Brown thinks that the idea of the angelic dream-appearances to this Joseph may have been taken from the Old Testament narrative of the Patriarch Joseph, who was a “man of dreams” (cf. Gen 37:19), and that the stories of the Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt are derived from the description of Moses in the book of Exodus: at the time of the birth of Moses, the Pharaoh had given orders that all of the newborn male babies of the Hebrews were to be killed; and later the Lord said to Moses: “Go back to Egypt, for all of the men who were seeking your life are dead.9 However, it is to be noted that this form-critical reasoning is based upon an application of the primitive-society theory of Émil Durkheim made by Bultmann and Dibelius, according to which the first generations of Christians were for social and religious matters incapable of much rational thought or original ideas, and so they depended upon Old Testament stories to produce religious fantasies according to the needs of their group. There is no historical basis for this theory. Also, form-critics systematically ignore the parallelism between the Old and the New Testaments set up by the divine authorship of the Bible, which explains these parallels in a much more convincing manner.

198. Parallels with extra-biblical Jewish tradition. The Jewish historian Josephus relates a Midrash tradition according to which the Pharaoh had been marvelously forewarned at the time of the birth of Moses that a great “deliverer” of the Hebrews was about to be born and for this reason ordered the death of all newborn male Hebrew babies. And the father of Moses was also told in a dream that his son would escape this slaughter. The parallel with Matthew 1-2 is striking, and Brown believes that the angelic appearances to Joseph are products of a “dream motif” that was copied by Christians from the dream-appearances described in these midrashic stories about the life of Moses.10 There is another one in which an angel appeared to Miriam, the older sister of Moses, and told her that the child to be born to her parents would be the savior of his people, and Miriam is the Hebrew form of Mary.11

199. The weakness of this reasoning. Underlying Brown's conclusion that Matthew's Infancy Narrative was created imaginatively by Christians from parallel stories about Moses in the Jewish Midrash tradition there appears to be, among other things, an error of anachronism. Brown, to be sure, is aware that, according to the historical evidence, "most" of these Jewish stories cannot be dated prior to the 80s, the time when he supposes that Matthew’s Gospel was published, but he is unaware that all of these Jewish stories appear to have been fashioned after the time when the episodes in Matthew 1-2 could already have been in circulation. The curious fact is that Brown, while he likes to examine all of the historical possibilities behind an episode, completely overlooks the idea that the Jewish stories may have been created imaginatively from the parallel accounts now recorded in the Gospels. And this kind of oversight is typical of form-critics. As I indicated in a previous article12, the episodes in Matt 1-2 were known by the Virgin Mary from the time that they took place, and she could easily have recounted these events to Matthew the Apostle as early as the gatherings in the Upper Room before the first Pentecost or at any time thereafter. Josephus wrote down the Jewish stories about the birth of Moses around the year 90 A.D., which would be up to sixty years after the time when some Christians and also some non-Christian Jews could have known the episodes that Matthew has recorded. Brown goes along with Bultmann, Dibelius, and a host of other non-Catholic form-critical scholars, in believing that "no one of the four evangelists was an eyewitness of the ministry of Jesus," and that the Gospel of Matthew was composed by someone else in or near the 80s.13 Form-critics readily grant that a complex tradition of imaginative Christian stories could have developed in less than sixty years, but they take no account of the same possibility for the Jewish tradition that Brown is citing here. Yet some Jews had a motive for creating these stories. We know from the Acts of the Apostles that a heated debate between Christians and Jews over the facts about Jesus took place beginning from the time of the Resurrection of Jesus, and this debate could have motivated some creative persons to counteract the true accounts of the Infancy of Jesus with parallel stories about the birth of Moses. In fact, form-critics do assume that the stories in the Jewish Midrash tradition were invented, but their method prevents them from realistically considering the hypothesis that the Jewish stories were based upon the Christian tradition.

200. Overlooking rationalist and modernist presuppositions. Let us take a serious look at Brown's manner of reasoning. He begins from a theory of interpretation put together by rationalists who do not accept the possibility of any supernatural happenings in history and who, therefore, relegate all reports of such happenings to the realm of fantasy. He begins from a method elaborated by modernists which assumes in advance that what is reported in the New Testament is merely the imaginary product of a sub-rational religious instinct. Brown, as a Catholic exegete, does not profess the rationalism and the modernism from which form-criticism arose, but neither does he deal adequately with the way in which these false philosophies influence the method that he is using. His conclusion that the episodes recounted in Matthew's Infancy Narrative are imaginative adaptations of earlier Jewish stories is basically the same as the conclusion of Bultmann, Dibelius, and other rationalist scholars, and he admits that his conclusion follows from their method, but he assumes as a Catholic scholar that his method does not proceed from their rationalist presuppositions. Brown does present somewhat different evidence than they do for his similar conclusion. He bases his arguments more upon an error of anachronism, but the result is the same, because it is presupposed by the method. If one takes away the modernist presupposition that the Gospels are imaginative fabrications, and if one takes away the false sociological presupposition that the early Christians had an instinctive need to invent religious fantasies from earlier non-Christian stories, such as those of the pagans and of the Jews, then this whole approach of form-critical analysis falls to pieces.

201. True historians do not assume in advance what could have taken place and what could not have taken place, using rationalism as the basis of their judgments. Rather they use the instruments of their profession to determine what did take place, and, if what took place was miraculous, they accept it as miraculous. Catholic form-critics do not deny categorically that miracles could have taken place, but their method tempts them to deny miracles wherever Catholic dogma does not forbid, and always to retain a measure of doubt regarding the rest. True historians do not, like form-critics, deny that Jesus was born in Bethlehem on the basis of an unproved assumption that Jesus must have been born in Nazareth. When true historians read a sober account like that of Matthew's Gospel, they do not assume, using weak plausibilities to justify their assumption, that he made up events to smooth out his story; they need historical evidence which, in fact, is not there. A fundamental mistake that Catholic form-critics almost universally tend to make is that they do not attempt to show concretely and with respect to the particular passages that they are analyzing how their conclusions as Catholic form-critics do not carry with them the rationalist presuppositions of the method. If the first two chapters of Matthew are adjudged to present a complex of imaginative stories, what does this judgment do to Christian faith? How can a Catholic accept that these episodes regarding the early childhood of Jesus are imaginary, and that Christians could blithely fabricate such accounts as though they were true without being liars and deceivers? Catholic form-critics like Father Raymond Brown do not say that the composers of these stories were liars and deceivers, but neither do they squarely face the implications of their conclusions and provide adequate answers.

202. Questions for reflection:

a. How would acceptance of the Midrash theory of imaginary stories in Matthew 2 affect your understanding of this Gospel (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2651)?

b. How would the Midrash theory of imaginary stories in the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke affect you prayer, for instance, in reciting the Hail Mary and the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary (cf. CCC 2676)?

c. Do you think that angels really exist and sometimes have appeared to people (cf. CCC 328, 332, 559)?

d. Do you think that God Himself could actually be the principal Author of Matthew 2 (cf. CCC 105)?

e. Do you think that at least some events recounted in the Old Testament could have been modeled in advance upon events much later to take place in the life of Jesus (cf. CCC 1219, 1221-1222; 1544)?


1. Oblates of Wisdom Study Center, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, Missouri 63157. Email: jfm@rtforum.org

2. For a more detailed exposition of the material in this lesson, see J.F. McCarthy, “The Literal Sense of Matthew 1” in Living Tradition 86 (March 2000).

3. Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977).

4. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, p. 217.

5. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, pp. 105-107.

6. R. Bultmann, 1st German ed., 1921; English translation (from the 3rd German ed., 1958), The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford, 1963), p. 294, and supplementary note on p. 439.

7. M. Dibelius, German ed., 1919; English translation, From Tradition to Gospel (Cambridge, England, 1971), p. 129.

8. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, pp. 107-108.

9. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, pp. 112-113.

10. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, pp. 114-115.

11. Brown, Birth of the Messiah, p. 114, note 42, and p. 116, note 45.

12. See “Called by the Prophets a Nazorean,” in Living Tradition 84 (November 1999) no. 14.

13. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, p. 27. Again on page 45: “Most scholars today maintain that the Gospel [of Matthew] was written in Syria by an unknown Greek-speaking Jewish Christian, living in the 80s in a mixed community with converts of both Jewish and Gentile descent.”