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.


Although some question the hypothesis, many scholars now presume that Luke was a Greek-speaking Gentile Christian writing for other Gentiles that likely was an outgrowth of Paul’s ministry. It was a probably written during the 80s, or about a generation later that Paul. After the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE, the focus of religious history had moved from Jerusalem to Rome. Like the rest of the Gospel, the infancy narrative reflects this transformation.

In 1:1-4 Luke sets his version of the story within unique context. He wrote for a particular person identified only by a possibly assumed name: Theophilus (Eng. = God-lover). No one knows who this person really was and some suspect he may have been a figment of Luke’s imagination.

Immediately thereafter Luke attempts to date his narrative. The problem is that if the two births subsequently described occurred during the reign of Herod the Great, they had to happen before that brutal despot died in 4 BCE. Further historical references in 2:1-3 complicate the date and render it virtually useless.

Most scholars now place the date in a range between 7 and 4 BCE. The year 1 AD/CE was fixed as the Jesus’ birth year only in the 6th century CE by a monk, Dionysius Exiguus (470-540 CE). However inaccurate he may have been, Luke was trying to place Jesus in an historical context to show that he was a real person, which some still doubt.

Historical references dealt with, Luke went on to present the birth of John the Baptizer to Zechariah, a priest descended from Aaron, brother of Abraham, and his wife, Anna, as the prelude to the announcement of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit. This extended prelude (1:5-25) is typical of similar births of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 18:1-19), and of Samuel to Elkanah and Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-28). In each of those instances, God had intervened to give children to barren women.

Raymond E. Brown believed that this part of the narrative came about by Luke drawing on the annunciation of the birth of Jesus as a pattern for the earlier birth of John as the forerunner preparing the way for the Messiah. John and Jesus were contemporaries, both known as charismatic preachers “each proclaiming the imminence of God’s eschatological action and each dying a martyr’s death.” After John’s earlier death, there may have been an attempt to recruit some of John’s disciples (cf. Acts 19:3). This may have failed to some extent, but John’s role in preceding and preparing the way for Jesus did not diminish as all four Gospels witness.

Thus by Christian interpretation John became the one whom the prophet Malachi had described as “Elijah” who would herald the coming of the Messiah. (Mal. 3:1; 4:5) At this point in Luke’s Gospel history, scripture and theology coalesce in a carefully constructed narrative. Well into the 20th century, a Gnostic sect, called the Mandeans and claiming to be John’s disciples, still existed in modern Iraq.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Has any other passage in Matthew’s Nativity narratives raised so many questions? But what was Matthew really trying to do in 1:18-25?
Raymond E. Brown gives a succinct answer: He was proclaiming that Jesus is God’s Son and the promised Messiah of David’s line, begotten not by Joseph but by the Holy Spirit.
Geza Vermes adds that whatever else the words of the passage may say, “they certainly describe a child conceived in a way different from the normal and convey that the person to be born will be very specially connected with God.”
In the lst century Jewish tradition marriage was a two step process as vs. 18 reveals: 1) Betrothal, when at 12-13, a young woman became her husband’s wife, but still lived in her parents’ home. Any infringement of this relationship was considered adultery. 2) After a community ceremony, the couple lived together in the husband’s home.
Sexual customs varied in different places. In Judea, some sexual relations were not frowned on. In Galilee, premarital relationships were more strict. Matthew’s tone reflected the Galilean culture, but the subsequent birth states that they lived in Bethlehem, in Judea.
The role of the Holy Spirit was not to be the male element in a sexual act, but the divine agent in an unusual conception. The lead actor in Matthew’s narrative was Joseph. With the greatest of kindness he was unwilling to enforce his right of charging Mary with adultery. According to the law, the penalty was death by stoning. (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). He learned of God’s plan from an angel in a dream (vs. 20). This shifted his attitude to a more merciful compromise which did not detract from his upright character. Mary’s conception “by the Holy Spirit” was a matter of reverence and awe rather than strict legalism.
Dreams and angels have a significant place in scripture as the means by which God’s will and purpose are revealed. Joseph is to become the legal if not the natural father of God’s Son. The child is to be named Jesus, the Greek translation of the Hebrew phrase for “YHWH saves.” (Pronounced with vowels as “Yahweh.”)
Matthew then quoted, mistakenly as we now know, from Isaiah 7:14. Originally, that referred to a child to be born to King Ahaz of Judea (735-715 BCE). In the 8th century BCE that was a time of considerable religious and political chaos, not unlike the 1st century CE. Matthew’s intent was purely Christological. His reference to this passage showed that as the birth of Davidic Messiah and son of God was not a miracle but a fulfillment of God’s plan made known in prophecy as then interpreted.
Accordingly to Brown, the divinely arranged conception supported rather than destroyed the concept of human genealogical descent. Matthew‘s explanation also gave Jews and Gentiles in Matthew’s audience an irrefutable argument against Jewish accusations late in the 1st century CE that Jesus was a mamzer, illegimate.