Conflation and the gospels

Birth of Jesus in a Kabyle Catholic book

Image via Wikipedia

In studying the Infancy Narratives, I am stunned by the power of the imagination. Most all Christians have vivid images of baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, sheep and shepherds, kings and camels, star and angels. But none of these are true to the gospels, as we are now learning. Oh, I understood that St. Francis back in the 13th century had something to do with development of the crèche tradition. But conflation—the melding of varying stories into one—must go back much further than that. Take the star and the wise men from Matthew, the angels, shepherds, and manger from Luke, and you have one compelling story.

The readings and questions for this lesson keep confounding me. Mary and Joseph may have lived in Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus? Surely not. The wise men may have visited Jesus as a toddler rather than an infant? Surely not. My confusion brings home the importance of what Gene has stressed: We must study each gospel as an independent unit.

It also brings to mind several other instances of conflation involving the New Testament: The women and men at the foot of the cross. Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the woman with the alabaster jar. The passion story itself. Frankly, I was unsettled the first time I realized how much the gospels varied in telling the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. But then I realized the power of having four traditions all telling the same basic story. Gives the word awesome a whole different meaning.


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