Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Augustine, Harmony of the Evangelists.2.9-11: Harmonizing the Infancy Narratives



In this episode, we are looking at Book 2, chapter 9-11where Augustine addresses several points where some readers might see apparent contradictions in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke.

2.9: An explanation of the circumstance that Matthew states that Joseph’s reason for going into Galilee with the child Christ was his fear of Archelaus, who was reigning at that time in Jerusalem in place of his father, while Luke tells us that the reason for his going into Galilee was the fact that their city Nazareth was there.

This brief chapter continues the discussion concerning Archelaus which began in 2.8. Augustine harmonizes Matthew’s account of Joseph’s fear of going into Judea given the reign of Archelaus, the angelic warning, and the decision to go into Galilee (Matthew 2:22) with Luke’s account noting that Mary and Joseph were originally from Nazareth of Galilee.  He suggests that if there had not been fear of Archelaus, they might instead have settled in Jerusalem, where the temple was.

2.10: A statement of the reason why Luke tells us that His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover along with the boy; while Matthew intimates that their dread of Archelaus made them afraid to go there on their return from Egypt.

Augustine must have known of some critics who saw the mention of Archelaus in Matthew as somehow being at odds with Luke’s account on various levels including the mention of the family’s frequent trips to Jerusalem. Augustine notes that none of the Evangelists reveal how long Archelaus reigned. Thus, he  might have had only a short reign. If it was longer, the family might have gone up stealthily, without drawing notice to themselves. If this were the case, it only magnifies their piety and faithfulness, despite these threats. Objections to the harmony of Matthew and Luke are not insuperable.

2.11: An examination of the question as to how it was possible for them to go up, according to Luke’s statement, with Him to Jerusalem to the temple, when the days of the purification of the mother of Christ were accomplished, in order to perform the usual rites, if it is correctly recorded by Matthew, that Herod had already learned from the wise men that the child was born in whose stead, when he sought for Him, he slew so many children.

Augustine here tackles another perceived difficulty. How did the family of Jesus go to the temple in Jerusalem for purification if Herod was threatening his life? Augustine offers several explanations. One is that Herod would have been too busy with other royal affairs to notice their visit. Another is that he might not yet have been aware of the escape of the wise men. Only after this purification rite was done and they escaped to Egypt did it enter Herod’s mind to slay the innocents. Augustine even suggests Herod might have been prompted to perform this evil act after hearing the publicity relating to the words spoken by Simeon and Anna at the infant Christ’s visit to Jerusalem.


In these three short chapters Augustine suggests various reasonable explanations as to how the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke might be fit together into a unified and harmonious narrative. Armed with such explanations one need not worry about any apparent conflicts in the story but receive them as being in symphony with one another.


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