The Christmas Stories 5
5. THE BIRTH STORIES IN LUKE:
JESUS AND COUSIN JOHN
At first we might think that Luke’s birth stories are approximately as long as Matthew’s, each having two chapters. In fact Luke has much more. Matthew has forty-eight verses in all. Luke has one hundred and thirty-two! If we add the genealogy of 3:23-28, he has more than three times as much as Matthew.
Luke’s account falls into two main parts. In 1:5-56 he describes the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth (5-25) and the announcement of Jesus’ birth (26-38), followed by the account of the meeting of the two mothers (39-56). In 1:57 to 2:52 he describes the birth, circumcision and manifestation of John (1:57-80), the birth, circumcision and manifestation of Jesus (2:1-40), and finally the episode with the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple (2:41-52). Luke includes the genealogy after Jesus’ baptism (3:23-38).
As we look over the Lukan accounts we notice poetic or hymnic sections. The best known are described by their first word in the Latin translation of the Bible. They are: the Magnificat, Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s greeting (1:47-55); the Benedictus, Zechariah’s prophecy at the circumcision and naming of John (1:68-79), the Gloria in Excelsis, which takes the words of the angel’s praise in 2:14 as its first lines, and the Nunc Dimittis, the parting words of Simeon the prophet (2:29-32). The angel’s announcement to Zechariah about John’s birth (1:14-17) and to Mary about Jesus’ birth (1:30-33, 35) are also written in poetic style. Nowhere else in Luke do we find such a predominance of this kind of material.
John and Jesus
More than a third of the Lukan birth stories concerns John the Baptist. Closer examination shows that Luke parallels the stories of Jesus with the stories of John. In telling the story of how the angel announced the births of John and Jesus, Luke follows the same pattern. Both accounts introduce the parents, noting lack of children, in the one case because of barrenness (1:, in the other because Mary is not yet married (1:5-7; 2:26-27).
(5) It happened in the days of Herod the king that there was a certain priest of the division of Abijah. His name was Zechariah. He was married to a woman of Aaronic descent called Elizabeth. (6) They were both righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. (7) And they had no child because Elizabeth was unable to conceive and both were getting on in years.
(26) And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth (27) to a young woman promised in marriage to a man called Joseph, of the house of David. And the young woman’s name was Mary.
|The parallel continues: an angel appears to Zechariah, who is troubled by the appearance. The angel encourages him not to be afraid, promising him that his wife will bear a son. He instructs him to give the baby the name John and promises that he will be great before the Lord (1:11-15). Similarly an angel appears to Mary, who is troubled at the appearance. The angel encourages her not to be afraid, promising her that she will bear a son. He instructs her to give the baby the name Jesus and promises that he will be great (1:28- 33).|
he was carrying out his priestly duties before God. It was his division’s
turn. (9) Following the established practice he had been chosen by lot to go
into the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense. (10) And all the crowd of people
were praying outside at the time for the incense offering.
(11) Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right hand side of the altar of incense. (12) And Zechariah was terrified at the sight and overcome with fear. (13) But the angel said to him,
“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you will call him John.
(14) And he will bring joy and gladness to you and many will rejoice at his coming. (15) For he shall be great before the Lord,
(28) Going inside, the angel
said to her, "Greetings, blessed one, the Lord be with you!"
The parallels seem to assume that readers will know the meaning of the two names. John means “The Lord is gracious” and Jesus is generally understood to have meant: “The Lord saves”.
What follows in these passages also runs parallel in each. Zechariah asks how he is to know and receives assurance about the mission of the angel, but also a rebuke and punishment which serves as a sign: his own muteness. He becomes mute and returns home (1:18-23). In the other account Mary asks how the promise is to be realised and receives the assurance that the Holy Spirit will come upon her. The angel gives her a sign: Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Mary rejoices and the angel goes away (1:34-38).
Zechariah said to the angel, “How am I to know this? I am an old man
and my wife is getting on in years”.
(19) In response the angel said to him, “I am Gabriel who stands in the presence of God and I was sent to speak to you and give you this good news. (20) So now you’ll live in silence and be unable to speak until the day these things happen, because you didn’t believe my words! They’ll come true in their own good time”.
(34) Mary said to the angel, "How
will this be, because I am not sleeping with a man?’"
The two stories meet as Mary visits Elizabeth (1:39-56) and Mary returns home.
Looked at from another angle, this episode might also be seen as running parallel to the John story. There, too, Zechariah experiences the promised sign and returns home. The birth of John and the rejoicing at his birth are recorded very briefly (1:57-58), whereas Luke offers much more concerning the birth of Jesus and the rejoicing that accompanied it (2:1-20).
Elizabeth’s pregnancy had run its full term she gave birth to a son.
(58) And her neighbours and friends heard that the Lord had been generous in taking pity on her and joined her in her happiness.
of Jesus (2:1-20)
(6) And while they were there, her pregnancy had run full term (7) and she gave birth to her first-born son, wrapped him in strips of linen cloth and tucked him up in an eating trough, because there was no room for them in the overnight shelter.
|The parallel pattern is more evident when we return to the accounts of the circumcision and public presentation of both. John is circumcised and named (1:59-64). The neighbours respond to the event, especially to Zechariah’s recovery of speech (1:65-66). Zechariah prophesies (the Benedictus, 68-79) and Luke notes how the child grew. Jesus, too, is circumcised and named (2:21). Simeon and Anna respond to the child’s presence in the temple, Simeon prophesying (the Nunc Dimittis), and Luke notes again how the child grew (2:25-40).|
And when it came to the eighth day, they went to circumcise the child
and were going to name him after his father Zechariah. (60) And his mother
responded to this by saying: “No. Rather, he’s going to be called John.”
(61) And they said to her, “No one in the family has that name.” (62) And they communicated with his father by sign language to find out what he wanted it called. (63) He asked for something to write on and then wrote: “His name is John.” And they were all amazed.
(64) All at once his ability to speak was restored and his power of language returned and he began to speak and praise God.
(80) And the child grew and became strong in spirit and was in the outback until the time for him to be shown publicly to Israel.
(21) And when eight days had elapsed and the day came for him to be circumcised,
they also named him: Jesus,
following the name given him by the angel before his conception.
(40) And the child grew and became strong, being filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.
The parallels are clearly intended by Luke, so that we are right to ask what he meant to convey by this device. The effect is to underline for us the way John and Jesus belong together. Yet Luke is equally saying that they belong together not as equals, but with Jesus being John’s superior. Jesus’ birth is not the product of the opening of a barren womb as John’s; it is the work of the Holy Spirit. Zechariah’s response to the angel’s announcement is a request for a sign arising from disbelief, whereas Mary, believing, just wants to know how. John’s parents are “upright”; Mary is “favoured”. John is hailed as someone who shall be great before the Lord, a prophet of the Most High; Jesus is hailed as the Messiah and Lord, the Son of the Most High.
Behind the stories
While the impressive parallels reflect Luke’s intention of both honouring John and yet putting him in his place beneath Jesus, the existence of the parallels may provide a clue for the way Luke has created his birth stories. It is very likely that he had access to traditions about John’s birth and deliberately told the stories of Jesus in a way that paralleled these and superseded them. Probably his source for the traditions about John the Baptist came from the followers of John. And perhaps it was the existence of followers of John the Baptist as rivals to the church which prompted his careful handling of John the Baptist in relation to Jesus.
In shaping the birth narratives in this way Luke also used hymns which probably have a Jewish Christian origin. Apart from a few lines, which are easily removed without disturbing the rest of the hymn, they appear unrelated to the context. Their formulation is heavily dependent upon the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Some have suggested that they might even have their origin earlier amongst Jewish movements seeking the liberation of Palestine from the Romans. Possibly the Magnificat and the Benedictus had been originally used in the John the Baptist community, with the Magnificat used as a song of Elizabeth.
Luke also had a core of traditions about Jesus. To these belong the account of the miraculous conception, birth at Bethlehem and the home in Nazareth. The story of the appearance of the angels to the shepherds was also probably part of Luke’s source and possibly the birth in the Bethlehem manger. The census motif may derive from Luke himself. A fuller appreciation of Luke’s sources and his own contribution will become clearer when we have examined each passage in more detail.
(5) It happened in the days of Herod the king that there
was a certain priest of the division of Abijah. His name was Zechariah. He
was married to a woman of Aaronic descent called Elizabeth. (6) They were
both righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the
commandments and ordinances of the Lord. (7) And they had no child because
Elizabeth was unable to conceive and both were getting on in years.
4 B.C.E. or 6 C.E.
In 1:5-25 Luke begins the birth story of John the Baptist. The dating in the reign of Herod the Great is particularly interesting because it agrees with Matthew’s account and with the dating presupposed in Luke 3:1, 23, but conflicts with what Luke says in 2:l-2. There he speaks of a world-wide census under Augustus while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is the same census referred to in Acts 5:37. Reliable records show that Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6 C.E.. and that a census of some kind would have taken place then, when Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, was deposed, and Judea came directly under Roman administration. Some have suggested Quirinius might have been governor of Syria twice, but there is no evidence for this.
There was also no world-wide census, except one of Roman citizens, but not at this time, and there was no known census conducted in this area by Roman authorities in 4 B.C.E. Judea was not under direct Roman administration until 6 C.E. Both in Luke 2. and in Acts 5:36 Luke has confused two dates. Perhaps the fact that both 4 B.C.E. (the death of Herod the Great) and 6 C.E. (the deposing of his son) were occasions for riot, and that both riots involved a certain Judas of Galilee led to Luke’s or his source’s confusion.
This misinformation also affects the way we understand the story of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It rests on the assumption that the census was the reason why Jesus was born not at home in Nazareth, but in Bethlehem. But no such census and no such census requirements are known for the time. The practicalities of people needing to return to their place of birth would be difficult in the extreme. At some distance from the events in space and time, this must have seemed a plausible explanation, given the assumption that Mary and Joseph originally came from Nazareth. Matthew knows nothing of it and, indeed, assumes they were living in Bethlehem at the time of the birth.
Luke may have been unaware of the conflict in his sources. The weight of evidence supports his statement in 1:5 as the more accurate and so puts the birth of Jesus somewhere in the last years of Herod the Great who died in 4 B.C.E. In 3:23 Luke says Jesus was about thirty years of age when he was baptised by John and in 3:1 he indicates that John’s ministry began in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius. That is variously put at 27, 28 or 29 C.E., depending on how the starting point is decided. This would put Jesus’ birth at between 3 and 1 B.C. and the flexibility in “about thirty” could easily take us back to before 4 B.C.E. The present system of dating which measures time from the birth of Jesus was developed in the sixth century and, all things considered, was not very far out in its calculations.
The promise of John
The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth has strong echoes of the stories of Hannah, mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 1-2) and of Abraham and Sarah, especially of Sarah’s barrenness through old age (Genesis 16:1; 18:1; Luke 1:7). These parallels extend to the pattern of announcement in the promise by the angel Gabriel to Zechariah, a pattern we noted above in discussing Matthew 1:18-25. Here a fuller pattern is present, which also has parallels in the Old Testament (e.g. Genesis 16:11; 17:19). The individual being addressed poses a question to which the angel generally responds with a sign.
By using familiar biblical models in the story, Luke is doing a number of things for his readers. He is saying that this, too, is sacred history. God is at work, here, too. It amounts almost to Luke saying that he is writing scripture. This is also reflected in his style as he writes the story, because it mirrors the style of the Greek Old Testament, unlike his style elsewhere, for instance, in Acts.
But Luke is also making strong connections between the people of the birth stories of John and Jesus and the faithful people of old. In this way he affirms the link between the old and the new. What is happening here is part of God’s continuing work with his people. Luke has a strong sense of our belonging to the people of God of all ages. The same concern for underlining continuity led him to write a second book after the Gospel, Acts, and to show there how God’s work continued through to his own generation.
Alongside the idea of continuity is the conviction that what has happened has fulfilled the Old Testament and brought it to its climax. Luke does not express this as directly as Matthew with his recurring scripture quotations, but it is there nevertheless in repeated patterns, in scriptural style and language and in numerous allusions to Old Testament dreams and hopes.
In the second part of his announcement to Zechariah, the angel says that John will go out in the spirit and power of Elijah. Elsewhere in his Gospel Luke has played down the picture of John as Elijah, omitting it where his sources include it (e.g. Mark 9:11-13). In his account of John’s preaching he has added that John specifically denied he was the Messiah (3:15-16). He does not go so far as John’s Gospel and have John deny he was Elijah (1:21). Rather he allows the tradition to be asserted, but then puts John in his place.
The words of the angel probably belong originally to the Baptist community tradition. They see John in terms of Malachi 3:1 and 4:5 which promise that Elijah will come again before God, the Lord, acts to redeem his people (1:17). The climax of history is a time of rejoicing and a time of the Spirit. With John this time of rejoicing and the Spirit is at hand and he is identified with Elijah.
Christian interpreters of John identified the coming of Jesus as God’s redeeming act and so saw John as Jesus’ forerunner. He went before “the Lord”, the Lord Jesus! Luke would have interpreted the angel’s words in this way. But for Luke, John is nevertheless highly thought of and is given the role of preaching repentance and preparing the people. He also fulfils scriptural prediction, though not as the climax of God’s plan, but as the final prophetic witness to the Christ to come.
The birth of John
Originally the account of John’s birth and circumcision in 1:57-80 probably followed directly on the report of Elizabeth’s becoming pregnant in 1:25. It tells of the miraculous restoration of Zechariah’s ability to speak and is dominated by the Benedictus, his prophecy (1:68-79). We would expect Zechariah’s prophecy to follow immediately on the miracle after 1:64, where the text reads:
All at once his ability to speak was restored and his power of language returned and he began to speak and praise God.
Instead we wait until 1:67 where Zechariah is introduced anew. Probably 1:67-79 was originally a separate tradition which Luke has edited and attached to the story at this point.
Like other hymns it has only a very loose connection to the context until we come to 1:76, where the child is directly addressed:
(76) And you,
child, shall be called prophet of the Highest. For you shall go on before
him to prepare his ways,
Luke would understand this as referring to John as Jesus’ forerunner. But these verses sit awkwardly in their context. Up to this point the hymn has been praising God for deliverance. God has remembered his covenant and raised up a Davidic Messiah. This will mean freedom from Israel’s enemies, freedom to worship God. The verses which follow also use messianic language, describing the Messiah as a rising star who will shine in the darkness and bring people to the way of peace.
Taken literally they best reflect the traditional hope for a Messiah who would liberate Judea from the Romans. Perhaps their origin is with such groups. If so, it is likely that Jewish Christians before Luke had used the hymn of Jesus. There is no evidence that John’s followers thought of him in Davidic messianic terms. Luke will have given the hymn to Zechariah and inserted the direct reference to John into the text.
In doing so, Luke is concerned to show the important preliminary role John plays, but primarily to affirm that Jesus is the hoped for Christ. He will lead people to the way of peace. It may not be in the way the earliest users of the hymn had thought. Jesus will not be the triumphant military leader, freeing Israel from its enemies. But it will be in a way that takes seriously the plight of those who cry for liberation and long for freedom to worship God. The hymn’s conclusion finds its echo in the declaration of the angels at Jesus’ birth, that he means “Peace”.