Reading Time: 3 minutes

In writing the first couple of chapters for my new book project on the Exodus, I was doing some reading of Raymond Brown again, the masterful Catholic exegete who wrote the superb The Birth of the Messiah. I was reminded of the over the belief theological manipulation that we see evident in the Gospel of Matthew in terms of scouring the Old Testament for validation for Jesus. As I have written already (very roughly and unedited, of course):

Jesus is the fulfilment of Mosaic prophecy, embodying this most important of biblical figures. Furthermore, as Karen Armstrong, former Catholic sister and religious commentator, observed in The Bible: The Biography:[1]

Matthew was, therefore, especially anxious to show that Christianity was not only in harmony with Jewish tradition but was its culmination. Almost every single event in Jesus’s life had happened ’to fulfil the Scriptures.’ Like Ishmael, Samson and Isaac, his birth was announced by an angel. His 40 days of temptation in the desert paralleled the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness; Isaiah had foretold his miracles. And – most importantly – Jesus was a great Torah teacher. Proclaimed the new law of the messianic age from a mountaintop – like Moses – and insisted that he had not come to abolish but to complete the Law and the prophets.

The great Catholic exegete, Raymond Brown, in his masterpiece The Birth of the Messiah, was all too aware of the parallels between Moses and Jesus.[2] As he observes:[3]

As for the patriarch Joseph and infant Moses motifs…, these enabled Matthew to connect Jesus, son of God, son of Abraham, and son of David, with one great episode in Israelite history to which the genealogy had failed to call attention, namely, the Egyptian bondage and the Exodus. It was perfectly fitting that the child named after Joshua who was to save his people from their sins should echo in his origins the historic deliverance of Israel from Egypt.

Jesus ties together all of these Torah threads in a neat theological – certainly for Matthew. Herod is the new Pharaoh, and his slaughter of the innocents is the new death of the Israelite sons. In fact, Raymond Brown sets out a whole raft of parallels between Matthew’s birth narrative and the events of Exodus, a list that is enlarged when one considers Jewish mid erratic tradition about the infancy of Moses as well.[4] Brown states:[5]

…the parallelism between Jesus and Moses is deeply rooted in early Christian thought and is particularly prominent in Matthew’s picture of Jesus’ ministry, as we saw in § 2. Matthew’s appreciation of this parallelism explains why he has chosen an infancy narrative which fills out the parallelism more perfectly. Just as there is an infancy narrative of Moses in the Book of Exodus showing God’s hand in his career even before he began his ministry of redeeming Israel from Egypt and of mediating a covenant between God and His people, so Matthew has given us an infancy narrative of Jesus before he begins his ministry of redemption and of the new covenant….

Indeed, the parallels between the Moses legend and the pre-Matthean Jesus infancy narratives may have been more obvious than we can now perceive. [My emphasis]

I can’t tell you how much I revere the work of Raymond Brown, but I am also constantly surprised by his admission of the mythical nature of the biblical texts and their contents. Here, for example, he fully admits to the Moses infancy narrative being legend, whilst also admitting that Matthew chose an infancy narrative. That is to say that Matthew was not recounting an infancy narrative but was constructing one to fit in with the pre-existing legend for symbolic and theological purposes.

If this doesn’t illustrate one of the finest exegetical minds admitting legendary embellishment and implying a fundamental lack of historical accuracy, then I don’t know what does.

[1] Armstrong (2007), p. 71.

[2] See his analysis of the structure, language, content, themes and so on, Brown (1977), p. 106-08, 112-16, 162-63, amongst others.

[3] Ibid., p. 163.

[4] See Brown (1977), p. 113 for a table that sets these out. See also Appendix VIII, p. 557-63.

[5] Ibid, p. 112-13, 115.

I wonder what other Catholics think about this. Not that I have anyone in mind…

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A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...