JMC : Witness of the Gospels / by A.S. Barnes

5. The Birth Narrative

I have left to the last the one which is in some respects the most important of all the special sources employed by St Luke, and which logically ought, perhaps, to have been given the first position -- the short account, namely, of the birth and early years of our Blessed Lord, which makes up the first two chapters of St Luke's Gospel. I did this for two reasons: first, because its own intrinsic interest is such that it makes a good conclusion to the investigations we are just now trying to make; and secondly, because in so doing we are very probably following out historical precedent, since there is some reason to suppose that these first chapters were, in point of fact, added after the whole of the rest of the Gospel had been composed.


There can be no Christian who does not cherish a quite exceptional love and affection for this particular portion of St Luke's Gospel. It is from these two chapters, and from them alone, that we learn the details of the coming of the Angel to the Blessed Virgin at Nazareth with the great news that she had been selected to become the Mother of God, and so to be the means whereby the Saviour should be born who should save His people from their sins. Here only, again, do we find the story of the birth of St John the Baptist, the circumstances of the Birth at Bethlehem, and the few scanty details which are all that we are allowed to know about the childhood of Jesus and His early years. Lastly, it is in these two chapters that we find the Hymns; the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis; which have taken so strong a hold upon the Christian imagination and form so important a part of the daily worship of the Church. The question whence it was that St Luke obtained this information is one which for importance and interest can yield to no other of the problems presented by the Gospels.

Reasons for supposing this to be an independent "Source"

In the first place, we may, I think, put it down as quite certain that St Luke did not collect all this from merely oral tradition and then write it down in words of his own. That, of course, is a perfectly conceivable way for information to have come to him, and it is by no means impossible that some details of the Gospel have no other origin, but it cannot for a moment be admitted as a probable, or even as a possible, explanation of the origin of these two chapters. The reason is twofold. St Luke was, according to all tradition, a Gentile, the only one of the New Testament writers who was not of Jewish birth. He was a convert to Christianity, but whether he was previously a proselyte of Judaism is not certainly known. His native language was probably Greek, which he writes with so much ease and purity; but at the same time he must have possessed a good working knowledge of Hebrew, or rather of Aramaic, the dialect of Hebrew current at that time in Palestine, for he seems to have availed himself of documents written in that dialect. Still, his mode of thought and his way of expressing himself would have remained Greek and not Hebrew, with Western affinities and not wholly Oriental, differing from other and more purely Oriental writers in a way which would be easily recognised, whenever he was setting down his own thoughts or writing freely a composition of his own. But these first two chapters of his Gospel show no sign whatever of even the smallest admixture of Greek thought. On the contrary, they are, perhaps, the most definitely Jewish portion of the Gospels, or, for the matter of that, of the whole New Testament.

Jewish Poetry

This is particularly true of the poetical compositions which form so marked a feature of these two chapters. They are entirely Jewish both in their form, which preserves the parallelism distinctive of Hebrew poetry, and also in their thought. It is quite inconceivable that they should be the composition of any but one of purely Jewish birth and bringing up, and what is true of these poems is in a lesser degree true of the rest of the chapters. We may conclude, therefore, with practical certainty, that here again we have to do with a document which was not originally composed by the author of the Gospel, but was incorporated by him with the rest of his work, and was very probably translated by him for that purpose. As I have already said, there exists evidence which seems to show that this incorporation took place after the rest of the Gospel had been compiled, and, indeed, after it had become widely known in this incomplete form. This evidence I shall deal with presently; just now I am only concerned with the deductions which have been drawn from it.

Example of Unscientific Criticism

It has been seriously put forward that the fact that this document was only added to the Gospel in a second edition, so to speak, is of itself enough to prove that it was of later date than the rest of the Gospel, and, therefore, so far, of less authenticity. This is a good example of the unscientific criticism of which I was speaking in an earlier part of my lecture. Of course, in reality, as will be clear to anyone who gives the matter a moment's consideration, there is not the smallest ground for any inference of the kind. The question which of these two documents thus incorporated together to form our present Gospel is the older is one which can be decided, if at all, only by a careful examination and comparison of the documents themselves and not by any such a priori methods. We must therefore, if we would know the truth, now apply ourselves to make such an examination.

The Author a Jew

The author of these two chapters was not only, as has already been said, a Jew by birth and education, but was possessed of an intimate knowledge of the Temple services and ritual. He speaks of the whole round of Temple observances as being still in full force, and does not give a hint that all this was, and had been for many years, a thing of the past, with no probability of its resuscitation. Precisely the same argument which is used to show that St Luke's Gospel cannot, as a whole, be earlier than some years after the fall of Jerusalem, avails also to prove, when it is turned the other way, that these first two chapters must have been originally composed at a much earlier period, and that they cannot possibly be assigned to any date later than the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. We are led, too, to the same conclusion by the fact that it was written in Aramaic; if at least that is a fair deduction from the many Hebraisms, both in thought and language, which it contains; for this dialect was not in use to any great extent after the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion. over the world of those who spoke it.

And a Woman

We have now arrived, then, at certain conclusions which narrow to a very considerable extent the limits within which we are to look for the author of this document. We know that it was written in Hebrew, that it was written by one who was of Jewish birth, and that its date cannot be later that A.D. 70, and may very probably be considerably earlier. Now there comes in another indication which narrows the field still more. Professor Ramsay in his well-known book, "Was Christ born at Bethlehem?" points Out that the whole of these two chapters are marked by a singular delicacy and tenderness of feeling, and he draws the conclusion that this information must have come to St Luke through a woman, since the whole is told so much from the mother's point of view.

If we turn now to the document itself, and try to discover from its own pages what it may have to tell us about its author and the source from which its statements are derived, we shall realise at once that the ultimate authority, if the document has any value at all, can be no other than the Virgin Mother herself. No other ear heard the words of the Angel at the Annunciation, nor could any other living witness, so many years after the death of our Lord, have supplied the details of the Visitation or of the Birth at Bethlehem. Moreover, the narrative actually claims, in so many words, that it is founded upon her testimony. What else can be the meaning of the statement, three times repeated with slight variations, that "Mary kept all these sayings and pondered them in her heart"? Professor Ramsay is surely right when he says of this that he who wrote thus believed himself to have the testimony of the Virgin Mother for that which he was recording.

Our next question will be as to the way in which this information, ultimately resting as it does on our Lady's authority, was preserved for later generations of Christians by coming into the possession of St Luke. The theory of an actual meeting between the Evangelist and our Lady, supported though it is by the portraits of her that are traditionally by his hand, is one that presents considerable difficulty, although it cannot be said to be altogether beyond the bounds of possibility. We have no knowledge of any visit to Palestine on the part of St Luke at any earlier period than about A.D. 57, and it is scarcely possible that at that comparatively late period the Blessed Virgin can still have been alive. All tradition at any rate is against her having lived so long. And, besides, the indications seem to show that it was in written form, and not orally, that St Luke obtained this material.

Summing up the evidence before us, we find that this story of the birth of Christ was most probably written down in Hebrew, not originally in Greek; some years before A.D. 70; by a woman of Jewish birth and upbringing; and further, that owing to the intimate nature of the information it contains it must ultimately have been derived immediately from the Mother herself.

Why not Our Lady?

Obviously the simplest way in which these conditions can be satisfied is by the supposition that our Lady herself committed her knowledge to writing -- whether by dictation or by autograph is a matter which is of no consequence -- and that the manuscript came later into the hands of St Luke, and was by him translated into Greek, and prefixed to his Gospel. Any other supposition either does violence to some of the evidence or else introduces unnecessary complication into the process.

I need not stop now to point out how enormously this story of the birth and early years of Christ gains in value and interest if we can, without doing any violence to the results of scientific criticism, but rather by loyally following out the indications which criticism affords, consider that we have it straight from the lips or pen of her who was chosen to be the instrument through whom He was to come into the world, and whose special charge it was to watch over His helpless Infancy. There will be no one who will not feel that the critics have done him real service, by making it possible to believe that these two most beautiful chapters enshrine the actual words and thoughts of her whom all generations of mankind, through so many hundreds of years, have learned to designate pre-eminently Blessed.

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