This Christmas, I stumbled over a verse, Luke 2:39, that I had never noticed before: “When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” Here’s the problem. According to Matthew 2:13-15, Mary and Joseph have to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod and in order to fulfill the prophecy, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Unless we make a ridiculously contrived interpretive choice to call fleeing to Egypt part of fulfilling “the law of the Lord” that Luke surprisingly doesn’t say anything explicit about, then this text is a real problem.
I really don’t want it to be false that Jesus went to Egypt, because then I can’t preach sermons about how somebody in Egypt decided to welcome an immigrant baby and his family. I’m content to just play along with the story and preach on the Bible one passage at a time, taking each passage at face value and asking God to speak through it. But is it okay to own up to the fact that we’re playing along? I’m okay with sweeping the contradictions under the carpet as long as I’m allowed to be honest that that’s what I’m doing as a pragmatic interpretive choice rather than pretending the text is inerrant.
I’ve never seen much value in trying to find the “historical Jesus” behind the text. So what if Jesus was actually a Pharisee? Or an itinerant cynic philosopher if you’re John Crossan? So what if he was originally an obscure disciple of John who rose up when his time came to be greater than his original mentor? I’m really not concerned with whether the Bible is absolutely historical or not. What it needs to be is “God-breathed and useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.” I believe that whatever it is, the Holy Spirit oversaw its composition and had a reason for compiling it exactly the way it is. Whatever is not historical is that way because God considered it more “useful for teaching” to tell an un-historical story.
Now I should qualify this. Some things about Jesus are non-negotiable for me. It doesn’t matter whether a virgin birth is biologically impossible. If Jesus was really just a regular human guy with two regular human parents, that presents a real crisis for the basic claims of Christian theology. Also if Jesus is who He says He is, then as the creator of the universe, He gets to cheat biology and miraculously heal people, just like a computer programmer who gives himself back-door access to a software application that the end-user doesn’t have. But again I am choosing to believe things not because of their plausibility, but as a pragmatic choice for the sake of my discipleship. If Jesus isn’t the incarnated creator of the universe, “God’s Word made flesh,” that would mean God’s identity is completely up for grabs, and I wouldn’t be able to live in a world where that were the case. That’s why no historical evidence, however airtight, could ever sway me from believing in Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection.
At the same time, I see a qualitative difference between believing in Jesus’ miracles and virgin birth and needing for every Bible story to be historical when many of them work fine as allegories and fables that God uses to teach His people. If an alien came down from space to eavesdrop on a 10th grade English class talking about Huckleberry Finn, nothing in the dialogue of the class would reveal that Huck and Jim were fictional characters rather than historical figures whose life events Mark Twain was faithfully reporting. That’s why I don’t conclude that just because Jesus uses Jonah in a sermon illustration, God must have invented a fish without stomach acid and an endless supply of intra-gastrointestinal oxygen, not to mention fresh water, in order to sustain a man for 72 hours in its belly. It’s perfectly reasonable for Jonah to be a fable that tells the truth about God and explores Israel’s ambivalence about God’s love for the Assyrians who had caused them so much suffering.
So does it really matter that Luke knows nothing of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents? Does it make a difference in our discipleship that Jesus’ family goes back to Nazareth after he’s presented in the temple in Luke and flees to Egypt in Matthew? Not really. I can preach about immigration when I’m in the lectionary year when Jesus goes to Egypt and I can preach about Jesus’ humanity if I’m in the lectionary year when Jesus “grows in wisdom and stature” back in Nazareth. The only thing that noticing this wrinkle in the text does is to throw a wrench in the inerrantist reading of scripture, which may be the Holy Spirit’s teaching purpose in allowing Luke to contradict Matthew.