Inclusion and Omission
Matthew and Luke begin with stories about the Birth of Christ. Luke adds a story about the beginning of John the Baptist's life. In contrast, Mark and John omit mention of the childhoods of Christ and the Baptist. Why did Matthew and Luke include these stories? Why did Mark and John omit them?
On the question of omission, the answer cannot be merely that Mark and John did not have the material. John wrote last and had knowledge of the other Gospels. Mark wrote after Matthew and had a copy of Matthew to draw upon. And they all knew that Christ was born. They each probably could have obtained some information from more than one source about the Birth and childhood of Christ and of John the Baptist. So why did only half of them tell us about the early days of Christ's life? The answer is found partly in the ages of the Gospel writers.
Matthew was a tax collector, an important job, at least from the Roman perspective. Such a job would not be given to a young man. Age and experience were important to that society and to the difficult job of collecting tax money for an occupying power. Such a position would not be given to a young man in his 20's. Matthew must have been at least in his 30's, more likely mid-30's, or perhaps in his 40's or early 50's. Since Jesus was about 30 when He began His Ministry, Matthew was at least a few years older than Jesus. And if Matthew was in his forties, he would be about 10 or 15 years older than Christ. This age difference affected Matthew's decision to include the Birth story.
The Birth of Jesus Christ, the massacre of the Holy Innocents, and the eventual death of Herod the great, all occurred during Matthew's lifetime. Matthew could have been anywhere from a young child to a teenager, when Jesus was born. Matthew remembered living in Israel during the reign of Herod the great. He may have heard about the massacre of the Holy Innocents. He may have lived in or near the area where the massacre occurred. When the leader of a country orders infants to be killed, the people talk about and remember such an event. Even the children would have heard about it. Matthew would have remembered this event and it would have made a strong impression on him, a child hearing about the mass murder of children.
Matthew wrote in detail about the events of Christ's Birth for several reasons. It happened in Judea, where Matthew grew up. It happened during Matthew's lifetime. It happened in Judea, where Matthew's intended audience lived. Matthew remembered what it was like to live during that time period, during Herod's reign. Matthew had a strong memory of children being killed by Herod, when Herod tried to kill the Christ-Child. And he knew that others in his intended audience also remembered. How could he not write about it?
On the other hand, Mark was a child during Christ's Ministry. Christ's Birth occurred well outside of Mark's lifetime. Mark had no memories of Herod the great and, at least as a child, did not hear much about the massacre of the Holy Innocents. Even if he knew about the massacre, it was to him more of an historical event, since he did not live during Herod's tyrannical reign. Also, Mark was writing for the Christians of Rome, most of whom did not grow up where the events of Christ's Birth occurred. The event of the massacre of the Holy Innocents did not occur in their homeland, to the children of their extended family. Mark has a copy of Matthew, but he omits the massacre story because they do not strike a chord with him or his audience.
But why didn't Mark write about the Birth of Jesus Christ? Wouldn't this story be of consequence to Mark and his audience? Mark was writing after Matthew, so he knew that Matthew had already written the story of Christ's Birth. Mark was significantly younger than Matthew, and Mark was living in Rome, away from most of his extended family. Mark had fewer persons he could use as sources for the events of that time period. By contrast, Matthew was older; he knew persons who lived at the time of Christ's Birth. Matthew was writing in Judea, where those events occurred, so he likely had more than one person he could consult about the events of that time. Writers have a saying: “Write what you know.” Matthew wrote about the Birth of Christ because he (and his sources) had knowledge of that event. Mark did not write about the Birth of Christ because the event was beyond the reach of his memory and his sources. He had nothing new to add to the story.
Why does Luke write about the Childhood of Christ? He omits the story of the massacre of the Holy Innocents. Luke was aware that Matthew had already told this story. Unlike Mark though, Luke did have some additional information about the Childhood of Christ. Matthew adds the story about the Holy Innocents because the event had a great effect on him and his audience. Luke adds the stories about the origins of John the Baptist and Christ's humanity because he had that material and it was of interest to his audience.
First, Luke tells us about Zechariah and Elizabeth, about the annunciation to Zechariah and the conception of John the Baptist, and how Elizabeth hid her pregnancy for several months. Then Luke tells us about the virgin conception of Christ, the visitation of the two women who were with child, Mary and Elizabeth, the Birth of John the Baptist, the Birth of Christ, His presentation in the Temple, and about the 12th Passover after Christ's Birth, when He was found in the Temple on the third day. So much detailed information is given, which is not found elsewhere, that Luke must have had a reliable and compelling source for these stories. That is why Luke wrote these stories in his Gospel, because he had a great deal of detailed information and because it was from a reliable and compelling source.
What are the possible sources for this information? The annunciation to Zechariah in the Temple was only witnessed by Zechariah and the angel Gabriel (Lk 1:11-20). The conception of John the Baptist by Zechariah and Elizabeth was, at first, known only to those two, since she kept her pregnancy hidden (Lk 1:24-25). Even after others knew that Elizabeth had conceived, only Zechariah and herself would have known that the conception occurred after Zechariah returned from his service in the Temple. It is unlikely, given the religious, cultural, and social environment of that time and place, that either of them would have spoken openly to others about the circumstances of conception, especially Zechariah since he was mute from the time of the annunciation to the time of the circumcision (Lk 1:20-22, 59-64). Thus, only Zechariah and Elizabeth knew of this set of events and there are few persons to whom they would have spoken about such personal matters.
But Zechariah and Elizabeth were both “advanced in years” (Lk 1:7). And, according to Anne Catherine Emmerich, each died years before John the Baptist began his ministry. [Conte, Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary, ebook, p. 93.] Luke could not have received his information about these events from either of them. Yet they must have been the original sources for the things about themselves which, at first, only they knew.
The Annunciation to Mary of the Incarnation and virgin conception of Jesus Christ was, at first, known only to the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel. Mary is certainly the original source for information about this event. The story of the visitation could have originated with Mary or Elizabeth. Zechariah and Joseph are not specifically mentioned in the story of the visitation. Zechariah and Elizabeth died before John the Baptist began his ministry. They are not mentioned in the Gospels beyond John's childhood. They were each advanced in age when John was conceived (Luke 1:7). Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich states that Zechariah and Elizabeth each died during John's childhood (Emmerich, The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, p. 329-331). Saint Joseph died at a later date, but it was before the start of Christ's Ministry (Emmerich, The Life of Jesus Christ and Biblical Revelations, Vol. 1, p. 330, 341).
Thus, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Joseph, each died well before Saint Luke even thought about writing down the events of Christ's Ministry. Luke wrote many years after Christ ascended to Heaven. And so it is unlikely that Saint Luke received such information directly from any of these three. Zechariah and Elizabeth must have passed on their knowledge of these events to someone else.
The Virgin Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months, during the last trimester of Elizabeth's pregnancy (Lk 1:36, 56). Zechariah was undoubtedly there during that time as he could not leave his pregnant wife, who also was advanced in years, alone for long (even with Mary to assist her). Zechariah was a Jewish priest, therefore he could read and write Hebrew and at least some Aramaic. The Virgin Mary was raised and taught as one of the virgins serving in the Temple of Jerusalem, so she also could read and write Hebrew. Elizabeth may also have been literate. She was the wife of a Jewish priest. In Israel during that time period, the priests were the teachers among the people. They were among the best educated. They knew and taught numerous subjects in addition to religion (Lk 2:46-47). If Elizabeth was not literate from childhood, then she at least would have been taught to read and write by her husband, who had the role of priest/teacher among the people.
Zechariah would have wanted to communicate his experience in the Temple to his wife. Though he was mute from the time of his service in the Temple to the day of John's circumcision, he could have written down these events on a writing tablet (just as he wrote John's name on such a table, Lk 1:63). Both Elizabeth and Mary could have learned of the events at the annunciation to Zechariah in this way. Elizabeth learned of these events first; later she shared this knowledge with Mary. Zechariah may also have written directly for Mary, during the months she was in his house. According to Anne Catherine Emmerich, Mary left Zechariah and Elizabeth's home after John's birth, but before his circumcision. [Conte, Important Dates in the Lives of Jesus and Mary, ebook, p. 83.] Thus Mary left before Zechariah started speaking again. She could have learned of the annunciation to Zechariah from him by writing or from him through Elizabeth by writing. It is possible, but less likely, that she could have been informed by the angel Gabriel (perhaps he said more to her than has been recounted by Luke) or by Zechariah or Elizabeth at a later date.
In writing his Gospel, Luke relied on Mark's Gospel and also, to some extent, on Matthew's Gospel. But Luke also had the Blessed Virgin Mary as a source for the Childhood stories. Mary stayed with Zechariah and Elizabeth and so she knew the details of that story. And only Mary would know about the angel Gabriel's visit at the Annunciation.
The Story of John the Baptist's Birth
The Virgin Mary was not present for the circumcision of John the Baptist and the related events. Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich states that Mary left the home of Zechariah for her journey back to Nazareth after the birth of John the Baptist but before the circumcision (Emmerich, The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, p. 163). This timing makes sense in the religious and social context of that time. Elizabeth would benefit most from Mary's assistance during the last trimester of pregnancy. And birth itself, at that time, was difficult and even somewhat dangerous for the mother. But after the birth, Mary would have much less to do. The mother and child were generally kept away from relatives and visitors (cf. Lev 12:1-3). This rule protected the health of the mother and child from possible infection by so many people who would want to visit on the occasion of a birth into their extended family. It also allowed for appropriate bonding between mother and child. Mary was wise to leave at that time.
Mary was almost certainly Luke's source (either directly or through intermediaries) for the events related to Zechariah and Elizabeth up to the time of John's birth. However, the event of John's circumcision and naming were not witnessed directly by Mary. She may have learned of this event from Elizabeth at a later time. Having spent three months together preparing for John's birth, they would have been well acquainted and would likely have communicated or visited with one another repeatedly later on. Now Luke could possibly have learned the details of this event from other persons. But the most likely source of this additional material is the Virgin Mary. Since Mary was the source of the details of the Annunciation to Zechariah and the Annunciation about the Incarnation of Christ, if anyone knew of the events of John's naming, Mary would also have known and would have also communicated this to Luke. The end result of this situation is that the Virgin Mary is the only likely source for the stories surrounding the Annunciation to Zechariah, the Annunciation about the Incarnation, the Visitation, and the naming of John the Baptist.
An ancient tradition in the Church tells us that Saint Luke painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary. In other words, he had met her in person and spent some time with her. Now, it is possible that the Virgin Mary conveyed her knowledge of these events to Saint Luke through an intermediary, or even that such knowledge was handed down through a number of intermediaries. But the tradition of Luke painting a portrait implies that they met in person, and not merely briefly. Therefore, at least some, if not all, of the information did not need to be conveyed by intermediaries. Mary could, and probably did, speak to Luke directly.
The Virgin Mary, guided by God's grace and providence, passed these stories on to Luke (or to someone who eventually passed these on to Luke). Luke traveled much, so, again, he probably met Mary in person. Either way, Luke received these stories from Mary (directly or indirectly).
The Gospel writer John did not include the infancy narratives in his Gospel. One factor is that John knew that Matthew and Luke had already written about the birth of John the Baptist and the Birth of Christ. Another factor is that John was asked to write the Gospel partly in order to refute certain heresies of his time. He had a particular purpose which did not include re-telling the stories surrounding the early life of Christ and of the Baptist. These factors influenced his decision not to include the infancy narratives in his Gospel.
A third factor is that John was the youngest of the Apostles, and among the Evangelists, closer to the age of Mark than to Matthew or Luke. John was born many years after the events described in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. John also wrote very many years after those events occurred. The generation that would have remembered these events was long past. And his audience in Asia (western Turkey) did not have many persons who were formerly Hebraic Jews (like Matthew's audience). John and his audience were not focused on the events of that time period.
A fourth factor is that John's Gospel, more so than the Synoptics, is much more a work of abstract theology than it is a concrete narrative of events. Instead of beginning with another narrative of Christ's early life, John begins with an abstract narrative of Christ's beginning as the Eternal Word of God.
Even so, concerning John's Gospel as well as the Synoptics, we must always consider that Sacred Scripture is written by God through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It was God Himself who decided not to include the infancy narratives in John and Luke, but to include them in Matthew and Mark. God's wisdom is beyond our finite understanding.
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
December 25, 2005