You can’t go home again if you’ve never been there

The other day I ran across a charming example of how very hard it is for people to read what is in front of them. It was in something called the New American Bible, produced by the Catholic Biblical Association of America. The editors have supplied brief introductions to each book, and these seem pretty respectable, acknowledging that the gospels were written by different people with different perspectives, in different contexts, each using various sources.

They also supply little headings within the books, and it was one of these that caught my attention. In the Gospel According to Matthew, the Holy Family flees to Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacre. The next section is headed, “The Return to Nazareth.”

Do you see the problem? I don’t expect you to, because you haven’t just been reading Matthew, but it’s pretty surprising that the editors of the gospel don’t. The problem is that in Matthew, Joseph and Mary are not from Nazareth, have probably never been there. Matt introduces us to Joseph and Mary without saying anything about where they live, and tells the story of the virgin birth. Then the three guys visit Herod and mention that the new king is being born in Bethlehem. That’s wehre they find the baby Jesus, in a house (nothing about a manger, nothing about a census, no vacancy at the inn, etc.). Any normal reader would assume J and M are from Bethlehem.

But it’s made quite unambiguous when they return from Egypt. If they were from Nazareth, there would be no need for an explanation of why they went from Egypt to Nazareth; if any were offered, it would be that they went there because that’s where they came from. Instead, Matthew gives us an elaborate rationale for why they didn’t just return to Bethlehem, which for him is the obvious choice.   You see, Herod is dead now, but the new rule in Judea, Archilaus, doesn’t seem very nice either, and J & M are afraid that Judea is still not safe. Thus they resort to Galilee, and specifically a town called Nazareth. (In his obsession with prophecy, Matt seems to think that they chose the town so that their child could fulfill a prediction about being called a Nazarean.)

The “return to Nazareth” heading represents an intrusion from a different story in a different book, namely Luke. Matthew and Luke, who knew nothing about each other, faced the same dilemma, that they wanted Jesus to be from Bethlehem, the city of King David and the ideal birthplace for a Messiah, but on the other hand, the one thing everybody knew about Jesus was that he was from Nazareth, which was nowhere near Bethlehem. They knew Mark’s gospel, but he has nothing to say about Jesus’ birth, so each evangelist came up with his won clever solution to the problem: Matthew simply had the Holy Fam move to Nazareth after the massacre and exile stories (which allowed him to connect Jesus with Moses), while Luke had them leave home for the census and then return (he gets to include the appealing manger bit and the shepherds). They’re both good stories, but to see just how contradictory they are, consider that Luke’s Holy Family goes from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, showing off their baby at the Temple in Herod’s capital city. Not really what you’d do if you were on the run from Herod.

The editors of the NAB, like the rest of us, grew up with a Nativity narrative that is a rather bizarre gemisch of the two stories, with Matthew’s three guys showing up at Luke’s manger. At some point, probably in grad school, they learned the grownup version, but sometimes the prejudices of a lifetime can jump up and bite you.

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