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No. 130 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program July 2007

Critique of a Form-Critical Reading of Matthew One

Jean Daniélou, The Infancy Narratives,
translated by Rosemary Sheed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968) -
(original edition: Les Évangiles de l’Enfance (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1967)

Reviewed by John F. McCarthy

1. The neo-patristic approach to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture does not ignore existing form-critical interpretations of the same; it reads them critically. In undertaking a neo-patristic interpretation of the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, I have chosen to begin with a critique of Jean Daniélou’s widely circulated analysis, because it is typical of Catholic form-critical renditions and it serves to illustrate the difference between the two approaches. Matthew 1 has two basic parts: the Matthaean genealogy and the angelic appearance to Joseph. In Daniélou’s view, the announcement by the angel to Joseph in Matt 1:21 “was not intended to inform him that Mary had conceived virginally – that he already knew,” but that he should assume legal paternity for Jesus (p. 40). Daniélou finds that these two parts thus present a perfect historical parallelism and a perfect theological parallelism. Historically, they narrate that Joseph, by his adoption of Jesus, made Him a legal member of the family of David, and that Joseph was persuaded to adopt Jesus, even though he felt unworthy to become the step-father of the Messiah. The problem of the chapter, according to Daniélou, must be to explain how Jesus could be of the family of David, even though He was not actually Joseph’s son, and so Joseph’s adoption of Jesus in spite of the Virginal Conception “is in fact the point of the account” (p. 41). Daniélou had been convinced by Xavier Léon-Dufour (Études d’Évangile, p. 79) that Jesus was not the son of David through Mary, seeing that “we have no proof that Mary was descended from David, despite all the many efforts of well-intentioned critics” (p. 16). (See a reply to this statement below, no. 11). And then Daniélou says that he is indebted to Anton Vögtle for the observation that also theologically Matthew presents a parallelism between the creation of Adam and the Incarnation of the divine Word as follows: the first part of the chapter shows Jesus as having come at the end of the Old Testament to inaugurate a new humanity, while the second part shows how the genesis of the new Adam is the work of the Holy Spirit (pp. 12-13).

2. Daniélou makes a methodological distinction between “what is historical fact” in the Gospel text and “those elements whose purpose is to interpret the significance of these facts” (p. 7). To show that events in the life of Jesus had a divine content, he says, the New Testament writers used literary forms such as “the midrash, which recalled the lives of the major Old Testament figures, the pesher, which showed the events of the present as a fulfillment of past prophecies, and the apocalypse, which showed them as pre-existing in God’s eternal design” (p. 8). In comparing the annunciation to Joseph in Matt 1:18-25 with the annunciation to Mary in Luke 1:26-38, he says, we must distinguish between the historical fact of the revelation given to Mary and the way in which the evangelist presents it in terms of Mary’s faith, which faith is also one of the most basic elements in the account. And, he adds, there are in the account “certain features borrowed from earlier biblical stories” (pp. 23-24).

3. The scene of the annunciation to Mary, the author points out, seems in general most likely to be a midrash of Isaiah 9, dating back to the early Christian community. “That certainly is what Bultmann seems to prove” (p. 34). Midrashim are amplifications of historical fact in which acts of God are presented in the guise of extraordinary phenomena. Among the fictitious elements in Luke’s story of the annunciation to Mary, Daniélou notes the following (pp. 33-37):

a) The appearance of an angel (always an invention and here largely taken from the Book of Daniel);

b) “Hail, full of grace … (borrowed from an Old Testament passage, such as Zeph 3:14-17 or Dan 9:21-27, and here put onto the lips of an angel);

c) Fear not, Mary … (probably borrowed from Dan 9:23 and presented here as words of an angel, but based on the actual revelation to Mary);

d) “He will be great and will be called the Son of the most High” (invented by Luke);

e) “and the Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father …” (a midrash invented on the basis especially of Isaiah 9:6-7);

f) “The Holy Spirit will come upon you” (a midrash derived perhaps from Gen 1:2 and Isaiah 32:15 to depict the Christian belief that this child was the new Adam and his birth was the beginning of the new creation);

g) “and the power of the most High will overshadow you” (a midrash based on Exodus 40:32-36 and adapted here to show the belief that Yahweh was present in the child);

h) “and therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (a title placed here on the lips of the angel by Christian circles of Luke’s time to express their belief in the divinity of Christ).

4. Daniélou observes, once again, that the point of the episode in Matthew 1 is not to tell of a Virginal Conception. Truly, he allows, in verse 23, Matthew does cite the prophecy in Isa 7:14: “Behold, a virgin shall be with child...” – but, he adds, Matthew’s words are just an adaptation of the original statement, which referred to the birth of Hezekiah and not to a Virginal Conception at all. The opening words of the passage are “Hear then, O house of David,” showing that the purpose of the prophecy was simply to foretell the birth of someone from the house of David. So, he reasons, this quote in Matthew is a free manipulation of an Old Testament text by early Jewish Christians who felt it was their right to project onto the Old Testament affirmations of the New Testament (pp. 47-52). (Let me interject that, while the birth of Hezekiah may have some secondary relation to the text, it was not a “sign.”) It is Daniélou’s studied opinion that Joseph, being a “just man,” when he found that Mary was with child before they had come together, in his great esteem for her holiness, realized spontaneously that this had to be a Virginal Conception through the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. p. 40).1 Matthew, he says, adorns this realization by placing appropriate words on the lips of a fictitious angel. And “You shall call his name Jesus” is then Matthew’s expression of the fact that Joseph did legally adopt Jesus, while the words “for he shall save his people from their sins,” are Matthew’s theological reflection on the meaning of the name Jesus (p. 47).

5. Did then Mary in historical fact virginally conceive the Messiah, and, if so, how could we know that it happened? Daniélou accepts as a fact of nature what is only an unproven assumption of rationalist form-critics, namely, that angelic appearances are a fictional genre, because angels do not exist. And this assumption is contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church 328, 333). Earlier Daniélou had published a book on angels in the writings of the Fathers,2 but in this book he simply presented statements of the Fathers without ever addressing the question of whether the objects of their belief were real or not. Revealingly, in his Introduction to this earlier work, Daniélou remarks: “There came a time, however, when … the attention of churchmen was centered elsewhere and a lively interest in the world of created spirits was no longer either possible or necessary. Thus, much of what the Fathers treated with special attention later theological developments have bypassed.”3 And in his Infancy Narratives it is painfully evident that the Angel Gabriel is for him of little theological interest. He defends the belief that the idea of the Virginal Conception of Jesus is based upon historical fact, but the form-critical method that he uses obscures and nullifies the point that he is making, because the method presupposes fiction where he would like to discover fact. Daniélou maintains that the Virginal Conception “was accepted from the first as incontestable fact,” because otherwise the whole episode of the annunciation to Joseph in Matthew 1 would lose its point, namely, “how Jesus can be a descendant of David despite the virgin birth. ... Nor,” he adds, “is there any reason to doubt that the episode rests on a historical basis” (p. 41).

6. But in keeping with what Daniélou has eliminated in the angelic appearances in Matthew 1 and Luke 1, there is great reason to doubt whether the Virginal Conception ever took place. The form-critical method comes from a rationalistic and naturalistic tradition which excludes in principle any supernatural happening, and it is on this principle that the angelic appearances have been relegated to the sphere of fiction. It is certainly difficult to imagine how the revelation of the Virginal Conception and the Incarnation could have occurred, if it did not take place as described in Matthew and Luke. Daniélou avers that the early Christians believed in it, but, for the founders of form-criticism, such as Hermann Gunkel and Rudolf Bultmann, Christian belief is just the imaginary product of a primitive and preconcepual believing community. Hence, when Daniélou uses the form-critical method to analyze these passages of the Gospels, the burden of proof is on him to show that the Virginal Conception really and historically took place, and even more so, the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God. But Daniélou does not attempt to do so. As any realistic thinker will admit, if the angelic appearances in the accounts are imaginary, if all the words were invented and placed on the lips of an imaginary angel, if the prophecy in Isaiah was twisted to fit a belief, and if all of this is to be considered an honest and legitimate means of expressing Christian faith, then there was nothing to prevent Christian believers from inventing the Virginal Conception as well. As a believing Catholic, Daniélou accepts the dogma of the Incarnation, but, as a teacher, he is forced to depend on the solid and pre-form-critical faith of his Catholic readership to accept the historicity of these two physical facts in spite of the damage that he is doing here to the evidence. There is something seriously missing in this kind of scholarship.

7. If, as Daniélou avers, Rudolf Bultmann has “proved” that the scene of the Annunciation to Mary in Luke is a midrash of Isaiah 9, he has also “proved” that the idea of the Virginal Conception is a Hellenistic fantasy that was added later to an originally Palestinian report, according to which an angel simply promised to Joseph that his son would be the Messiah. Again, according to Bultmann, the Annunciation to Mary in Luke is a Hellenistic elaboration of an older story which had it that an angel appeared to Mary and simply told her that she would be the mother of the Messiah. By using Bultmann as an authority and then not attempting to refute Bultmann’s denial of the historical truth of the Virginal Conception and the Incarnation, Daniélou loses his argument that either of these ever really took place. It is a pity that Catholic form-critics have spent so much time adapting Bultmann’s methods to their scholarship and so little time refuting the obvious fallacies in his reasoning.4

8. The idea of the impossibility of miracles and the consequent impossibility of any objectively real miraculous accounts is a naturalistic presupposition of Bultmann’s form-critical method. Also presupposed is the idea, following along the lines of Émil Durkheim’s theory of the basic difference between primitive societies and modern societies, that the early Christian community was a primitive society whose instinctive faith-responses and stories were always dependent upon ideas already traditional in their milieu. Hence, Bultmann looked for ideas existing in their Old Testament tradition as sources for the unoriginal stories that they would have gone on to elaborate and adapt to their new faith. Now, this presupposition is not in keeping with good historical theory, because true and valid historical method takes the facts as it finds them, miraculous events included, if they come along, without presuming to determine in advance on a naturalistic basis what the facts could or could not have been. And the idea that the early Christians were intellectually incapable of originating their own stories and could not even distinguish clearly between the real and the imaginary is contrary to historical fact. Not only does an unbiased reading of the biblical text show the constant presence of a distinction between fact and fancy, but this can also be shown from sources outside of the Scriptures. And authentic Christian faith is a faith whose objects are historical facts.

9. Since facts are the bedrock of real meaning, historical science validly distinguishes between the basic chronology of an account and the historical explanation that accompanies it. Because biblical history is an inspired object of faith, it is necessary for faith seeking understanding to presume the historical truth of a Scriptural account unless the sacred writer explicitly or implicitly indicates that it is not his intention to express historical truth. Doubts do arise when apparent contradictions are encountered, and these do need to be resolved, but by correct logical and historical analysis. The midrash-theory of Gospel interpretation excludes in advance the intention of the Gospel writers to record the historical facts in the accounts that they give, and it turns historiographic art into fictional fantasy. It assumes a novelistic approach of the Gospel writers without first having analyzed on the level of historical science whether this novelistic approach is scientifically justified and without assessing (especially on the part of Catholic scholars) the damage that such an approach will do to their faith and ours. An important distinction ignored by Daniélou and by all form-critics is the difference between the finis operis and the finis operantis of a work produced. The finis operis is the purpose of the work, while the finis operantis is the purpose of the worker. The finis operis of St. Matthew and St. Luke was to record the historical facts that took place. The finis operantis of the same was to instruct the faith of believers. God the Holy Spirit was fully capable of presenting through the inspired writers deep patterns of meaning embedded in a series of true historical facts in order to convey the truths that He wished to communicate.5

10. Two crucial historical facts narrated by Matthew and Luke in the annunciations to Joseph and to Mary are the assuming of a human nature by the Word of God to form the God-Man and his Virginal Conception as the mode of this divine intervention. They are real concrete happenings integrated into the process of universal history and known as such in the retrospective consciousness of man. While Daniélou seeks to retain these two events, his method obstructs him from doing so. He does not save the fact, because he includes it within an allegedly fictitious story, and he does not save the content, because he reduces the historical content of the episodes to the merely human event of Joseph’s having legally adopted Jesus. The real content of the revelation to Mary was that she was historically to become the Mother of God Incarnate, Who would also be the Messiah, and it was also revealed to Mary that this incarnation would take place by way of the historical event of a virginal conception. Mary experienced the Virginal Conception to be historically true. Joseph came to know of the Virginal Conception through his belief in the message of an angel.

11. Daniélou claims that Jesus was not a descendant of David through Mary, for the reason that Mary was not a descendant of David (p. 16), but there are powerful arguments to the contrary. St. Jerome affirms that Mary was a close relative of Joseph, and, therefore, a member of the tribe of Judah and of the family of David.6 This testimony is reinforced by St. Ambrose, Tertullian, St. John Chrysostom, and St. John Damascene.7 The Fathers of the Church almost unanimously defend the Davidic descent of Mary, and the same conclusion is in keeping with contemporary research.8

12. A problem that lurks in this discussion is how a character in a dream can be regarded as a witness to an extraordinary historical event. If Joseph was a “just man” only in the form-critical sense of being a naïve observer of the Mosaic Law, he could easily have allowed his credulity to convince himself that his dream of hearing an angel speak gave the explanation of Mary’s pregnancy. Such hypotheses have been advanced by the enemies of Christianity since the earliest years. Now, obviously a mere dream is a fictional mode of knowledge, but Matthew’s account of the revelation to Joseph means that, amidst the quiet induced by natural sleep, an angel really spoke to the objectivity of Joseph’s intellect, which was not itself asleep, and addressed his words to Joseph’s understanding in such a manner that their meaning was impressed upon it. The comprehension and acceptance of these words by Joseph embodied an act of Christian faith in this objective historical reality.

13. Joseph’s legal adoption of Jesus in Matthew 1 is not, as Daniélou maintains, “the point of the account” (p. 41). Although it is an element in the account, a more careful reading of the chapter will bring out that, in the genealogy, Matthew uses over and over again the verb egennēsen (“begot”) to indicate and stress the carnal passage of the male seed from Abraham to David to Joseph, but not from Joseph to Jesus. The second part of the chapter then explains why the male seed of Abraham and of David did not pass from Joseph to Jesus. The explanation given by Matthew is that Mary had conceived of the power of the Holy Spirit (1:18) and without the intervention of any male seed, because she had virginally conceived (1:23).

14. The background of this miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit is given in the prophecy taken from Isaiah 1:14: “Behold a virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is ‘God with us.’” The point of this proof from prophecy and why Matthew quotes the word virgin from the Septuagint translation is better understood in the wider context of the quotation. King Ahaz was an evildoer in the eyes of the Lord, as had been several of his predecessors, all descendants of the royal seed of David. So the Lord said to Ahaz: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God, from the depths below or the heights above.” And Ahaz would not ask for a sign. So the Lord said through Isaiah: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel” (Isa 7:10-14). The point of this episode with King Ahaz is that God would perform a miracle (“a sign”) according to which a virgin would conceive without the use of male seed, and the implication is that the Messiah, the great “seed” of the house of David, would not be conceived from the male seed of these evil kings of the house of David. And this miraculous conception would embody an even greater miracle and the greatest of all miracles: the combination of the heights above with the depths below in the hypostatic union of the divine Word of God with a human nature in Jesus of Nazareth. So in this surprising way was the promise of God to David fulfilled, where it is written: “The Lord has sworn truth to David, and he will not make it void: of the fruit of thy womb I will set upon thy throne” (Ps 131 [132]:11 [cf. the neo-Vulgate version]). It turned out for this prophesy that David’s womb was Mary’s womb. Again it was prophesied: “I have made a covenant with my elect: I have sworn to David my servant: thy seed will I confirm forever. And I will build up thy throne unto generation and generation” (Ps 88 [89]:4-5). Again it turned out, as Matthew’s inspired text reports, the seed of David confirmed was not the male seed as such passed down from king to king, but the womb of Mary, a female descendant of David. Hence, Daniélou’s reading that Jesus was made a descendant of David only by the fiction of legal adoption does not do justice to the text of Matthew. And the inspired word of St. Paul also tells us that legal adoption was not the only way in which Jesus was a descendant of David, where it speaks of what God had promised “by his prophets in the holy Scriptures concerning his Son, who was made to him of the seed of David according to the flesh (Rom 1:2-3).

15. To summarize and conclude this discussion. Matthew 1 presents historical chronology, historical explanation, and theological explanation. The facts contained in the historical chronology include, not only the legal adoption of Jesus by Joseph when he took Mary and Jesus into his home, but also the facts that the male seed of David did not generate the Savior of the World, that Mary conceived Him virginally by the power of the Holy Spirit, that God became man in this conception, that Joseph was troubled by the pregnancy of Mary, that he came to know of the Virginal Conception through the message of an angel, and that he believed this message, that Joseph and Mary named the child Jesus, and that both Mary and Joseph adored Jesus as Emmanuel, the God-Man. In the historical explanation of the chapter are included, among other things, the judgment of God against the male seed of the house of David because of the evil of these men and the providential encouragement to Joseph to become the foster-father of Jesus. All of these constitute the finis operis of the account. The theological explanation embodies the finis operantis of the account. Daniélou sees in the chapter a parallelism between the creation of Adam and the Incarnation of the divine Word of God, in that Jesus comes at the end of the Old Testament to inaugurate a new humanity generated by the work of the Holy Spirit (no. 1 above). But Daniélou shows no frame of reference for this observation, and form-criticism will never find one. Neither Adam nor the new humanity is mentioned in this chapter, but the Fathers of the Church have provided the proper frame of reference for finding them in the method of the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture. The contrast between Adam and Jesus, between the old humanity and the new, as observed in this chapter, fits under the category of the allegorical sense of Sacred Scripture, and specifically here, under the Christological sense.

16. The prophecy in Isa 7:14 was addressed to the house of David, but David was just a prefigurement of Jesus, and Jesus came to establish his Church as the new and eternal house of David. Who first called Jesus “Emmanuel”? The original text of Isa 7:14 says that “she” will call Him Emmanuel, while the citation of this prophecy in Matthew 1:23 says that “they” will call Him Emmanuel, but the theological meaning of this citation is that all true believers in the new house of David will call Him Emmanuel, because they will all adore Him as the God-Man. Mary believed and she adored Him. Joseph believed and he adored Him, and thereby he also became an adopted child of God and a member of the new house of David. But there is much more than this to the theological meaning of Matthew 1, as comes to light under the analysis of the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture. The names in the genealogy all refer allegorically to Jesus and they all, or at least many, have also a tropological meaning, as is brought out in the notes taken from the lectures of St. Thomas Aquinas on this Gospel.9 Contemporary research according to the neo-patristic method can do much to increase and refine the deep insights of earlier Catholic commentators on the Gospel of Matthew and on the other Gospels, as well as to correct the many confusions that form-criticism has brought to the understanding of the same.


1 Jerome and Origen thought that Joseph wanted to “put Mary away quietly” because he had read Isa 7:14 and he now felt unworthy to cohabit with her sanctity and divinely instilled pregnancy. But this is a minor opinion. Augustine, Chrysostom, Rabanus Maurus, and others say that Joseph feared that Mary had sinned and wanted to deal with the situation in as kind a manner as possible, and this is the more obvious reading of the text. See Aquinas, Super Evangelium S. Matthaei Lectura, at Matt 1:19.

2 J. Daniélou, Eng. translation, The Angels and Their Mission (Westminster, MD: Newman, 1957).

3 Daniélou, The Angels, p. ix.

4 Cf. R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (English translation, Oxford: Blackwell, 1963), pp. 291-292, 295-296.

5 Daniélou published a book about history, titled Essai sur le Mystère de l'Histoire (Editions du Seuil – Eng. trans., The Lord of History. Reflections on the Inner Meanintg of History (New York: Longmans Green, 1958). But in his reflections on the “inner meaning of history,” he shows a lack of prior reflection on the nature of history as a science. He treats such questions as “Sacred and Profane History,” “A Biblical Interpretation of Modern History,” and “The Development of History” in the absence of precise definitions of such important analytical elements of the science of history as historical fact, historical meaning, and historical method.

6 St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew (in Latin), at Matt 1:18, in PL, vol. 26, col. 24.

7 See H. Didon, Jésus Christ (Paris, 1891), p. 416.

8 See Jacques Masson, Jésus, Fils de David dans les Généalogies de Saint Matieu et di Saint Luc (Paris: Téqui, 1982). This is the publication of a doctoral thesis presented at the University of St. Thomas in Rome in 1979. The massive and painstaking research that Masson here presents on the two genealogies of Jesus, carried out according to the methods of modern genealogical inquiry, so expands the data and is so carefully put together that it should be considered essential for any further development of the discussion. Masson’s research concludes that Mary was a descendant of King David. See also J.F. McCarthy, “New Light on the Genealogies of Jesus,” in Living Tradition 11 (May 1987).

9 Aquinas, Super Evangelium S. Matthaei Lectura, chapter 1.

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