In some ways the narratives of Jesus’ birth and infancy are the last frontiers to be crossed in the critical approach to the Gospels. For some, the stories of Jesus’ birth are given dubious historical value. For others, the popular character of these narratives—the exotic magi, birth star, angelic messengers, and so on—renders them as legends unworthy to be a vehicle of the pure Gospel message. Still others deem them simple Christian folklore devoid of any real theology—only written for romantics or the naïve. Yet each Christmas, Christian clergy and the people to whom they minister must continue to face them. According to Raymond Brown, introductory materials on the New Testament in general and the Gospels in particular gives the infancy narratives short shrift, disproportionate to their role in Christian theology, art, and poetic imagination. Perhaps the most visible sign of this neglect is the absence of a major modern commentary which treats the two infancy narratives together. It was from this felt need that efforts for a new commentary were undertaken. In The Birth of the Messiah, Raymond Brown is interested in the role the infancy narratives played in the early Christian understanding of Jesus. By treating the two narratives together in the same volume, Brown points out their common tendencies and emphases. By giving them two distinct treatments, however, he also shows how each fits within the theological framework of its respective Gospel, and thus offers us reasons for the differences between the infancy narratives. The Birth of the Messiah, Brown contends that the infancy narratives are, indeed, worthy vehicles of the Gospel messages. In fact, they contain the Gospel message in miniature. On a deeper level, this commentary reflects the instinct recognizing the infancy narratives as the essence of the Good News—namely, that God has made himself present to us in the life of the Messiah who walked the earth.
“It is the central contention of this volume that the infancy narratives are worthy vehicles of the Gospel message; indeed, each is the essential Gospel story in miniature.” (Page 7)
“Methodologically, it is imperative to ask oneself: What would I learn about Jesus’ birth if I possessed only Matthew’s Gospel.” (Page 45)
“Most scholars today maintain that the Gospel was written in Syria by an unknown Greek-speaking Jewish Christian, living in the 80s in a mixed community with converts of both Jewish and Gentile descent. This is the theory presupposed in my discussion of the Matthean infancy narrative.” (Page 45)
“In a pre-Gospel period, as attested by Paul and the sermons in Acts, the resurrection was the chief moment associated with the divine proclamation of the identity of Jesus.14 When God raised Jesus from the dead and/or elevated Jesus to His right hand, God made or proclaimed him Lord, Messiah, and Son of God.” (Pages 29–30)
“My own opinion is that such references reflect a Christian use of Matthew in an apologetic against magic rather than a true exegesis of Matthew. There is not the slightest hint of conversion or of false practice in Matthew’s description of the magi; they are wholly admirable. They represent the best of pagan lore and religious perceptivity which has come to seek Jesus through revelation in nature. In Philo’s Vita Moysis (I l; ##276–77), the pagan magus Balaam receives from the God of Israel an authentic prophetic spirit; so too the Matthean magi receive a further revelation from the Jewish Scriptures.” (Page 168)