Friday, January 1, 2010


Luke alone makes reference to the end of Jesus’ childhood in Luke 2:41-52. The role of this part of Luke’s narrative is transitional in at least two ways: (1) It provides a transition between Jesus’ infancy and ministry. (2) It describes a moment in his life when Jesus himself becomes conscious of who he is. Luke was quite comfortable with idea that even as a boy Jesus knew that he is God’s Son.

This latter element formed a significant part of many apocryphal gospels of the 2nd century CE in which he was appears as a child magician working miracles and speaking in the same mature language as during his ministry. It was common in other cultures to tell such stories of boyhood figures speaking and acting as men to anticipate their greatness. Most of these so-called gospels were regarded as heretical or of Gnostic origin and rejected by those who created the apostolic canon.

There was a time in liberal biblical studies when this passage was seen as evidence of Jesus’ human development and learning. At least two twentieth century novels and two Canadian church youth programs were based on this story. R.E. Brown rejects this point of view but does admit that Luke had no difficulty with Jesus growing physically as all human beings do, in social graces, as well as in wisdom and spiritual depth.

Brown also notes that this approach is contrary to the position adopted in John’s Gospel and later creeds of Jesus’ eternal pre-existence with God. Instead, Brown views the passage as illustrative of what Luke had said of Jesus in 2:40 and of John the Baptist in 1:80. They were ordinary human beings infused by the Holy Spirit.

The centre of the story, as Brown read it, “is not the boy’s intelligence but his reference to God as his Father in vs. 49.” The story is probably also from an earlier oral tradition that was unfamiliar with the story of the annunciation to Mary of the virginal conception. While Mary did play a significant role in rebuking Jesus for his absence, Joseph was also regarded as one of Jesus’ natural parents. They did not understand what Jesus was talking about when he gave what can be read as an impudent retort by a precocious youth.

No historical evidence can be drawn from the statement that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart.” This is merely a repetition of an earlier statement attributed to her in 2:19. Some scholars have made these sayings more significant. They see in the Greek word used (symballein = Eng. “Meditate upon, kept with concern, treasured”) a deeper sense of interpreting the meaning of specific events, often with divine assistance. That quality may have contributed to her later and more extreme veneration by the church.

If, as Brown and many other scholars believe, Luke composed this passage later than rest of the gospel as well as the birth narrative, it can be seen as reflecting certain aspects of Jesus’ adult ministry and his relationships with his family and disciples. (Cf. Luke 2:49; 9:45; 18:34; Mark 3:31-45; John 2:4.) As Brown notes, an appreciation of Jesus’ divine sonship came about only after the resurrection.

It is not uncommon for Christians to read this incident as Jesus’ bar mitzvah. Although there are a few earlier references to it in Jewish literature, that coming of age ceremony did not come into common use in Jewish families until the Middle Ages. To reiterate, the story does no more than provide a second conclusion to the birth narrative and a transition to Jesus’ adult ministry.

This final article brings to a conclusion what is by no means an original nor definitive discussion of the nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke. It may be used freely and with attribution to the blogger by anyone seriously interested in knowing more about these stories that continue to have such an impact during the Christmas season. Any comments may be posted to this blog or forwarded directly to the author.


Matthew’s story of the visit of the Magi reads more like a parable than history or a legend. As can be seen immediately, it is completely irreconcilable with Luke’s rendering the aftermath of the birth of Jesus. Yet, like Luke's narrative, this section of Matthew's narrative is highly dependent on an OT source. The message of the parable is to state unequivocally, if in a concealed manner, that Jesus is Lord for Gentiles as well as Jews. This claim was in contrast to the contemporary belief that the Roman emperors were the lords of all people. The earliest Christian creed simply stated, "Jesus is Lord."

R. E. Brown presented a strong case for an OT parallel in the story of Balaam and Balak in Numbers 22-24. While the details of that story are not relevant, the essential issues do lend force to Brown’s thesis: Balak, king of Moab, sent for Balak, a seer from the east near the Euphrates River, seeking his help is destroying the Israelites on their way through Moab to Canaan. Instead Balak saw the Israelites as blessed by God. Num. 24:17 has a significant reference to a star and a scepter rising out of Jacob.

Brown claimed that this led to a further conclusion that the flight of the Holy Family to and return from Egypt set up parallels with Joseph bringing his family to Egypt during a famine and Moses leading the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt. He also believed that Matthew created these incidents like three scenes in a drama from the earlier traditions of apostolic teaching. By searching and adapting elements of the Hebrew scriptures, those early teachers undergirded their gospel message that Jesus is the Messiah and Lord.

Without question Christian piety and imagination through the centuries have done much to embellish the visit of the Magi, Herod’s massacre of the children of Bethlehem and the flight of Jesus’ family to Egypt. Countless presentations of the conflated story have been made in drama, art, poetry and song. Portraying the story in a creche in public places as well as private homes has gone a long way to replace the cross as the most meaningful symbol of Christian faith.

In a secular age those symbols have also promoted strong debate about the appropriateness of such public displays of religious symbols. Music with its ability to cross cultural boundaries has done much to make the story known in renditions as far removed from each other as mediaeval miracle plays, Handel’s oratorio The Messiah, and popular songs such as We Three Kings of Orient Are.

In the 20th century the story has generated attempts to identify the star as a supernova, a comet or a triple conjunction of planets. Where the Magi came from, their respective names and the significance of their gifts generated many imaginative assumptions too. The best referent for the basic elements of the Magi story may be the prophetic vision of Israel’s return from exile in Isaiah 60:1-7. In that passage all nations acclaim the historic redemption of Israel by bringing their gifts from afar in praise of God.

Thus in his narrative of the Nativity Matthew made exceptional use of his knowledge of Hebrew scriptures to reinterpret God’s redemptive activity. His quotations from Micah 5:2 and Jeremiah 31:15 placed the story in Bethlehem in Judea. He also used historical references to two very cruel subordinate kings of the time, Herod the Great and his son, Archelaus. They had been appointed by the Romans to keep the Jews under control.


Unlike the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist in 1:59-66, which are a main feature of that narrative, the circumcision and naming of Jesus seems almost perfunctory. Actually it links the birth with section of the story about the purification of Mary and presentation of Jesus in the temple.

Some scholars also see a significance in calling attention to Jesus’ humanity and his Jewishness. As Paul wrote in Gal. 4:4, “He was born under the Law.” R. E. Brown believed that the true linkage was to the angelic command in 1:31, as the latter part of 2:21 indicates. In other words, Jesus’ parents were being obedient to God’s word. The next part of the story shows that they are also obedient to the Law.

While circumcision made the child a member of the sacred covenant, a ritual of purification was also required of his parents. Childbirth had rendered Mary impure according to the Law. (See Exod. 13:12,15.) However, there was no tradition for the purification of the father. His role was to provide for the appropriate sacrifice. (See Lev. 12:6-8.)

On the other hand, some doubt that both these rituals were still practiced extensively in the 1st century CE. Luke may either have got his facts wrong or created a situation for what was to follow. While the purification necessitated going to Jerusalem, the presentation of Jesus in the temple led to the encounter with the two prophets. Simeon and Anna. This reflects the story of Hannah and Elkanah who brought the child Samuel and left him with the aged priest Eli at the sanctuary of Shiloh as told in 1 Sam. 1:21-28.

It can be no accident that Luke made three separate references to the Law in 1:22-24 and then three references to the Spirit in vss. 25-27. This is surely Luke’s way of clarifying the continuity and discontinuity of the Jewish and Christian traditions. That was an important issue in Luke’s time when Jewish Christians were being expelled from their synagogues following the declarations of the Synod of Jamnia, ca. 85 CE.

The law and the prophets formed the major part of the Hebrew scriptures, embodied by Simeon and Anna. Pious representatives of the old tradition, they also looked for the long promised fulfillment of the messianic hope. Inspired by the Spirit, they saw their hopes realized in the infant Jesus. Equally significant was the fact that this happened in the temple precincts.

We have already seen that Simeon’s Song, also known as the Nunc Dimittis from the Latin of its first words, was probably not original to Luke’s narrative. Like the other canticles, it may have originated as a hymn of the earliest Jewish Christian community. It also draws extensively on OT references such as Gen. 46:30; Isa. 52:9-10; 49:6; 46:13; 40:5; Zech. 1:68; 2:10-11. All this introduces the Gentiles into Luke’s narrative in the same way as do the magi in Matthew.

Simeon also uttered a second, much more pessimistic prophecy directed toward Mary. This emphasis reflected a post-resurrection experience of the church which John wrote about in his passion narrative. Tradition held that Mary lived with John, son of Zebedee, in Ephesus late into the 1st century. A sense of judgment for Israel and all unbelievers also comes to the fore in anticipating the rejection of Jesus. Anna’s greeting and praise of the child provided a more fitting, hopeful ending than Simeon’s reference to a sword passing through Mary’s soul. He may have adapted this from Ezek. 14:17.

As we have seen with much of both nativity narratives, OT references seemed to guide Matthew and Luke in their composition of the story we tend to conflate.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


We now know that Luke created some historical anomalies in his narrative of Jesus’ birth. Octavian, given the title of Augustus by the Roman Senate in 27 BCE, reigned as sole emperor from 31 BCE to 14 CE. As best we know too, Jesus was born prior to 4 BCE, during the last years of Herod the Great, King of Judea. Herod’s eldest son Archelaus was the puppet king of Judea, from 4 BCE to 6 CE when he was deposed. There is no record of any registration or census for taxation purposes being taken prior to 6-7 CE when Judea was restructured as part of the province of Syria by Roman governor Quirinius.

We must conclude that Luke got his dates wrong or deliberately rewrote history to fit his theological purpose. The idea of Mary, close to delivering her child, traveling 75-80 miles on foot is simply not credible to us today. Nor by donkey as often shown in religious art. There is no donkey in Luke's story, but there is a messianic reference in Zechariah 9:6 quoted at the time of Jesus' entry into Jeruslem prior to his crucifixion. Artist's may have adapted this to his birth as well. As for the census, an early 1st century CE version of Psalm 87:6 in Greek provides a clue to Luke’s rendition of the setting. It read, “In the census of the people, this one will be born.” Luke may well have known a messianic interpretation of this text from the early Christian tradition.

Contrary to a literal reading of the Lukan narrative, this is both exegesis (what the original text said) and eisegesis (reading theological interpretation into the text). More of this approach is found in the next passage, 2:8-14. Why do the shepherds play such an important part in the story? In those times, Jews regarded shepherds as dishonest thieves outside the Law. The connection was with David, the shepherd boy from Bethlehem who became Israel’s greatest king and a descendant of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (cf. Matt. 2:5-6; John 7:42; Micah 5:1-2; Gen. 35:19-21). The Messiah was to be a descendant of David.

We hear the same theme in the words spoken by the angel to the shepherds (2:11) and again in the shepherds’ excited decision to go to Bethlehem and see if it was all true (2:15). The angelic messengers, the glory of the Lord that shone around them and their song of praise symbolized the theological reality that the birth was a holy event in which God played the primary creative role.

Why would Luke have written that Jesus would be "laid in a manger?" In those times, the dwellings of humble folk included and attached room or mere shelter where animals could be sheltered during inclement weather. One scholar has proposed that the words "for there was no place for them in the inn" should read "there was no place for them in the guest room." Sleeping with animals in the shelter adjoining the house would not have been out of the question.

The curiosity of the shepherds, their public announcement of the child they found in the manger and the amazed reaction of all who heard it, were a foretaste, not only of the response of outcasts to Jesus’ own ministry, but also of the response to the proclamation of the gospel in the decades of the apostolic era. When Luke wrote his narrative of Jesus’ birth, he knew this tradition of how outcasts like the Gentiles had responded. And he had already written both the main part of his gospel and The Acts of the Apostles.

The conclusion of the birth narrative in 2:19-20 provided a transition to the next phase of the holy event. Some romanticists have fastened on Mary “treasuring” and “pondering the words in her heart” as evidence that she may have been the source for Luke’s information. More likely are several similar quotations in the Hebrew scriptures (cf. Sirach 39:1-3; Proverbs 3:1; Psalm 119:11. Luke also wrote of Mary being praiseworthy in 11:27-28. By the time he wrote near the end of the 1st century CE, Mary was already a greatly revered person in the Christian community.


Like the narratives of the angelic annunciations, the birth of John and Jesus, are obviously told in parallel. The two prominent Roman Catholic scholars, Brown and Fitzmyer, both believed that Luke did not include these stories in his original gospel. They were added later as parallel narratives for two reasons: Luke’s purpose was to show that John was the prophetic forerunner of the Messiah, as described in Luke 3:1-22. Secondly, he sought to indicate the supremacy of Jesus over John.

A large part of the story of John’s birth concerned an apparent conflict over the name of the child. Included in it is the fulfillment of the angel’s announcement to and apparent punishment of Zechariah for his disbelief of what the angel told him. (1:18-20) Unclear is how Elizabeth learned that the angel’s instructions the child’s name would be John.

A solution to that puzzle lies in Zechariah’s actions at the time of the child’s circumcision. When neighbours and relatives protested that the child would be named after his father and Elizabeth insisted he be named John against their objections,
Zechariah gestured for a writing tablet and confirmed that the child would be called John. Banal though the suggestion may be, Elizabeth could have learned before that incident of Zechariah’s intention in the same way. On the other hand, Brown held that Luke probably intended his audience to believe that Elizabeth’s assertion was “a spontaneous and marvelous confirmation of God’s plan.”

Luke also featured the element of fear in both the annunciation to Mary and the birth of John to Elizabeth(1:12-13; 65). Mary also received reassurance lest she fear during her encounter with Gabriel (1:30). Old Testament authors made frequent reference to “the fear of the Lord.” In most instances, this meant a deep awareness of some holy moment or reverence in the event of awesome divine intervention. Luke obviously had something similar in mind (1:66).

We have already noted that the Benedictus or Zechariah’s song of blessing (1:67-79), like the Magnificat (1:46-55), the Gloria (2:13-14) and the Nunc Dimittis (2:29-32) were likely additions to the narrative in the final rendition of the infancy narratives. That they were hymns of early Christian communities based on Jewish antecedents is entirely plausible.

Similar examples exist in certain martial psalms and the important document from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Zechariah’s psalm has a sense of something already accomplished about it rather than of expectation. This would be natural in a Christian context. Brown detected some correspondence with apostolic sermons in Acts with “the atmosphere of prophecy uttered by one filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Again 1:80 we have a parallel to the ending to the narrative of Jesus’ birth. Unlike his younger kin, John did not develop good social relations. He became an isolate living in the wilderness. In later Christian centuries, numerous monastics adopted similar behaviour designed to enhance holiness. Such separation for the world is still practiced in many Christian communities.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


To whom would Mary turn in her perplexity? Naturally she would visit her kinswoman to find out if what the angel has said to her was true.

But that creates another problem in Luke’s narrative. Would a young women, even at an early stage of pregnancy, walk all the way from Galilee to the hill country of Judea, not far from Jerusalem, where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived? Zechariah was one of the minor priests who served in the temple preparing and offering sacrifices for the assembled congregation. (1:8-9) Mary would have had to travel a distance of up to 75 miles - a week's journey. Did she go alone? This tells us that the story is a theological narrative designed for a special purpose and never intended to be literally interpreted.

Vs. 41 has the most natural feature of the story: As Mary arrived in Elizabeth’s home and greeted her kinswoman, the baby kicked in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth interpreted it as the work of the Holy Spirit (vs. 42) and uttered what has become part of the rosary prayer of countless generations of Roman Catholic believers. Vs. 43 contains Elizabeth’s confession of faith akin to that of the early Church in its formative years: Jesus is Lord.

The question arises as to which of the two women, Mary or Elizabeth, is more suited to have actually uttered the canticle in vss. 46-55. Several quite old and mainly Latin manuscripts have Elizabeth as the spokeswoman. The canticle has been known as “The Magnificat” since the 5th century when Jerome translated the Gospels into Latin.

Brown came the most obvious if unprovable conclusion about the four canticles of Luke 1-2, i.e. (The Magnificat, the Benedictus (1:67-69), the Excelsis (2:13-14)and the Nunc Dimittis (2:28-32). He suggests that these “were all composed in a non-Lucan circle and originally praised the salvific action of God without any precise reference to the events that Luke was narrating in the infancy narrative.”

Brown went on to say with numerous other scholars, that they probably have their closest parallel in the Jewish hymns and psalms of the period from 200 BCE to 70 CE. Many of these hymns represented a martial point of view reflecting times of persecution and despair. Those were, after all, very disturbed times when the Jewish people often suffered great hardship from their own oppressive leaders as much as from overlords.

However, these scholars also point to a clear meassage in these hymns of salvation accomplished and fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham. Concomitant social justice and economic prosperity had been a part of Israel's hope since the time of the great prophets many centuries earlier. Rooted as they were in the Hebrew scriptures, these canticles would have been characteristic of Jewish Christian communities out of which they may have arisen.

It can be seen quite readily that the basis for Mary’s praise is to be found in Hannah’s song at the birth of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Several other Old Testament prophets and psalmists also used similar language in their praise of God’s activity in saving Israel. (Cf. Hab. 3:18; Gen. 29:32, 30:13; Zep. 3:17; Ps. 111:9; 103:17 Ezek. 21:31; Ps. 107:9; 98:3; Micah 7:20; 2 Sam. 22:51.)

A brief sentence (vs. 56) completed Luke's story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. She remained for three months and then returned to her home. But the text does not say that she was present for the birth of John the Baptist. It is unlikely that such a minor detail would have made any difference in Luke’s story other than make it more literally believable. Our interest should be on the theological message the story conveys, not its literal details.

Monday, December 7, 2009


The Annunciation to Mary in Luke (1:26-38) is sandwiched between two episodes about John the Baptist. In no way does this diminish its importance. Instead it marks the difference between the two births. The angelic annunciation gives special emphasis to the superiority of Mary’s child. Furthermore, it locates the visionary experience unquestionably in Nazareth in Galilee. That has implications for the rest of Luke’s narrative.

According to the customs of the time, Mary could have been a prepubescent child bride, engaged but not yet married, when she had this life-changing experience. (Geza Vermes gives an excellent discourse on this possibilty, pp. 78-81, in his The Nativity: History and Legend. Penguin Books, 2006). This would explain her perplexity at the words of the angel Gabriel. Mary does not understand because she does not yet share her husband’s bed and board. According to the customs of the times, while betrothed a girl still lived with her parents but was bound to her future husband for life. If she engaged in sexual activity, she could charged with adultery. After the appropriate marriage ceremony at some later date, perhaps as long as a year, she would go to live in her husband's home. Only then would a sexual union take place.

In introducing the Archangel Gabriel,Luke had tapped into much more ancient folklore of the Middle East. In the post-exilic period, Persian angelology dominated much of the development of angels in late Hebrew writing. Appearing first in Hebrew scriptures only in the early 2nd century CE Daniel (8:16 and 9:21-22 as a man) he was much more than a divine messenger. He came to give wisdom and understanding in a particularly holy situation. His power an authority increased exponentially in pseudographical literature. In Enoch 1 and 2 for instance, he sat at the left hand of God and was set over all other powers.

Gabriel’s response to Mary's anxiety about her virginity re-assured her that the Holy Spirit would play a part in her pregnancy and she would bear a holy child. To show that this would be possible, Gabriel informed her that her elderly, barren cousin Elizabeth was already six months pregnant.

The details of the annunciation reveal some unusual characteristics. Contrary to Matthew, Luke does not state unequivocally that Mary and Joseph abstained from sexual relations prior to the conception of their child. Matthew puts it circumspectly, "before they lived together." So from Luke’s perspective, the conception of Jesus could have been similar to that of John the Baptist and other accounts in the Hebrew scriptures involving normal sexual intercourse between spouses.

The angelic message extended beyond the announcement of a divinely favoured conception. The child Mary would bear was to be named Jesus, a contemporary form of Joshua, which meant “God (Yahweh) saves.” In other words, he was to have a divinely mandated redemptive mission. More than that, he would be the “Son of the Most High” (i.e. God) and heir to his ancestor David’s throne.

Brown stated that the future role of Jesus described by Gabriel had a parallel in the promise of the prophet Nathan to David in 2 Samuel 7:8-16. He called Luke’s rendering “a free interpretation” of the earlier passage. He further pointed out that the idea of a Davidic Messiah may have already existed in the Hebrew tradition. It can be found in references such as Psalms 2:7 and 89:30 as well as in Isaiah 9:5-6 and some texts discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

All this illustrates why scholars generally believe that the birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke are theological rather than historical in character. More evidence of this is found in Luke 1:35 with distinctive messianic reference to Isaiah 11:1-2 and 4:2-3. It is worth noting that in the gospel narratives, the power of God’s creative Spirit comes to the child’s mother, Mary, not to the king, as in David’s case.

Most scholars believe that this interpretation, designated as “Christology,” may have existed in Christian tradition even before Paul wrote of it in Romans 1:3-4. Brown described it as “backward development,” thereby associating Mary’s conception of Jesus’ by the Holy Spirit with the narratives of Jesus’ resurrection and baptism (Luke 3:15-16, 21-22). It also helps to explain why the Nativity narratives came so late in the literature of the Apostolic Age. Theology always follows religious experience, not vice versa. Only long reflection on the true nature of that special person, Jesus of Nazareth, led the Church of the late 1st century CE to create these narratives of how he may have been born as both the Son of God and a human being.