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.

1 comment:

  1. This article shakes the tradition about the birth of Jesus.: