The Christmas Stories 6
6. THE BIRTH STORIES IN LUKE: THE PROMISE OF JESUS
Hope dominates the stories of John and in the preparation for Jesus’ birth the same promise of hope resounds. We hear it most clearly in the famous song of Mary.
Luke has adopted earlier hymnic material in the story of Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth, just as he had in Zechariah’s acclamation of praise at John’s naming. The Magnificat (1:45-55) is specifically related to Mary only in 1:48 “he has had regard for the lowliness of his handmaid. For, look, from now on all generations shall call me blessed”.
The second part of the statement is the only piece of the Magnificat which speaks of the future. It refers unmistakably to Mary. The first sentence refers to Mary, too, although many see here a clue that the hymn originally came from sources associated with John the Baptist and was used for Elizabeth. Her lowliness or humiliation was her barrenness. Mary’s lowliness is not so apparent. Some have suggested the hymn had its place originally after 1:42 and that Luke has transferred it to Mary.
Even so, without 1:48 the hymn has specific reference neither to Mary nor to Elizabeth and is best seen as another example of an originally independent hymn being taken up within a story. This had already been a common practice in Old Testament literature. This hymn is modelled on the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), whose story had already been reflected in the account of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Its structure is similar to hymns of praise of its time and recalls the patterns used in Psalms 33, 47, 48 and elsewhere. It offers praise in the first person (“I”), gives the grounds for praise using the third person (“he”) by describing what God has done, and ends with an ascription of praise using the first person plural (“we”).
But notwithstanding its origin, Luke uses it because it proclaims an important message about the salvation to come through the son of Mary. It describes what God has done in a way that suggests he will do it again. It shows how God has dispersed the arrogant, deposed the powerful and lifted up the poor. He has expelled the rich and fed the hungry.
What Jesus’ mother says here, Jesus himself echoes, as he reads Isaiah 61:1 in the synagogue at Nazareth. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him because he has been anointed to proclaim good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed (Luke 4:16-20). Similarly he will promise: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that mourn, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be filled” (Luke 6:21-22). And in his ministry Luke will show Jesus reaching out to the outcasts and marginalised of his society. The Magnificat is a manifesto of what God has done and what fulfilment in his kingdom will mean.
A similar concern with the downtrodden and powerless is present here as we found behind the Benedictus. There is also a similar sense of continuity as God acts to fulfil his promises and to exercise his covenant faithfulness in every generation. Luke’s own special emphasis on solidarity with the poor and the despised of society shows his belief that this agenda remains central in the continuing story of the people of God to his own day and in every age.
By including such hymns as the Magnificat and the Benedictus Luke helps us to understand what he means by Jesus’ messiahship and raises our expectation for the story of Jesus to follow. From the beginning he portrays Jesus as the long awaited Messiah. His messiahship is one that is in tune with the cries of the downtrodden and oppressed. It is good news for the poor.
But it does not follow the expected pattern. Those who expected a Davidic king of the Jews who would harass the Romans and finally liberate Palestine would be disappointed. But nor was he one who turned away from the realities of oppression and advocated a spirituality concerned only with life in heaven. Messiah he was and liberator he was. But, for Luke, his revolution would be one of engagement and non-violence.
The promise to Mary
Outside of the poetic material Luke tells the story of Mary and Joseph very simply and builds the story in parallel to the John story. In both sets of stories Luke shows the hand of God at work, above all through the angelic interventions. These were probably already part of Luke’s source about John and may have been in his source about Jesus. Matthew also has an angelic announcement.
Beyond the common features shared with Matthew, Luke’s version of the announcement concentrates on the picture of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. It draws upon 2 Samuel 7, the promise of the messianic king on David’s throne. Jesus will be “Son of the Most High”, just as of old the king in Israel was addressed as God’s son (Psalm 2:7). This is a consistent emphasis and reappears in the Benedictus as we have seen.
Luke has also introduced angelic interventions later to underline the involvement of God in the development of the Gentile mission in Acts. There, such interventions lead to the meeting of Paul and Ananias (Acts 9) and Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10). In the birth stories Luke has used the angelic announcement to Mary to bring her and Elizabeth together.
Throughout the story Luke is concerned to underline God’s initiative. He is also highlighting the appropriate human response. Mary is a model of submission and obedience. Luke does not offer us the kind of information which we might expect in the light of later reverence for Mary. He says nothing of a particular prayer life or purity, of a continuing virginity or an assumption into heaven. She is simply the surprised young woman willing to follow a uniquely overwhelming call. She believes the angel’s promise and seeks out Elizabeth.
At Mary’s greeting John, inside Elizabeth, jumps for joy, a human touch, but, for Luke, also a divine sign. Jesus’ significance is acknowledged again. The divine involvement continues as Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit. This in turn qualifies her to make the authoritative utterance which follows. Mary is blessed and Jesus, her child, is Elizabeth’s master and, by implication, John’s as well:
Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. How can it be that my Lord’s mother should come to me?
Continuing disciples of John the Baptist are being given a very clear message here by Luke. Because Jesus is Elizabeth’s master and Lord, he is also theirs and they should acknowledge him. This recalls the way John’s Gospel holds up the example of John’s disciples who show model behaviour in leaving John and following Jesus.
The miraculous conception
The major evidence for divine involvement in Luke’s story is the miraculous conception of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Luke’s account agrees with the data in Matthew: Mary and Joseph have not yet proceeded to the second stage of marriage. Mary is still a virgin. She is not having intercourse with Joseph. And Joseph is a descendant of David. The differences are in the location: here Nazareth; there, apparently, Bethlehem; and the angel addresses Mary here rather than Joseph. Has a male-oriented tradition replaced Mary by Joseph in the way Matthew’s church tells the story?
Mary’s response to the angel’s promise is to ask: “How will this be, because I am not sleeping with a man?” Her question underlines her virginity. The angel’s answer explains how: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you and the power of the Highest will overshadow you.” This is not the language which would imply that the Spirit played the male role in “coming upon” Mary, although ancient legends spoke of angels mating with women and giving birth to giants. It could mean no more than that the Spirit of God would enable Mary to conceive (by natural means).
But here it doubtless means something in between. A miracle of conception will occur. The product of this miraculous process will, because of the process, be called “Son of God”. Like Matthew, Luke does not have the view that Jesus pre-existed as Son of God and then became flesh. Rather this is the moment of his creation by sheer miracle. Luke tells us no more.
Both Matthew and Luke seem to have drawn the report of Mary’s miraculous conception from their sources. There is no firm evidence that one used the other or that either created the idea without traditional support. The formulations common to both in the angels’ birth announcement rest on a common Old Testament pattern.
Mary will bear a son and he shall be named Jesus. This recalls Isaiah 7:14 where Isaiah speaks of the virgin conceiving, bearing a son and calling his name “Emmanuel”. Many have therefore reckoned with both Matthew and Luke knowing of the use of the Isaiah prophecy in relation to Jesus’ birth. But this becomes less likely when we recognise that the set pattern in announcements of births included formulations like the one in Isaiah 7:14.
It is possible that both knew of the use of this verse in their traditions. It may have influenced the story. It may even be the source at some point of the belief in Mary’s virginity behind both Gospels. If so, the fact that the Isaiah text has ‘virgin’ only in the Greek translation would mean that this element came into the story in the Greek-speaking Christian community, which became the dominant one.
The so-called Ebionite Christian Church of the second century, consisting of Jewish Christians and not using the Greek Old Testament, was noted for its disbelief in the virginal conception. It could be that they represent the earliest view of the Aramaic speaking church. It could also be, however, that they represent a special development of ideas that offers us no help in recovering earlier views.
The absence of New Testament evidence for the virginal conception outside of Matthew and Luke is much more interesting. Paul mentions Jesus’ birth in Galatians 4:4. Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the Law”. “Born of a woman” is a common expression for referring to human beings and has no allusion to the special nature of Jesus’ birth. Romans 1:3 mentions Jesus’ descent from the Davidic line, but nothing about virginal conception.
Mark has no birth stories. In 6:3 Jesus is referred to as the son of Mary. This could be a reflection of the unique nature of the motherhood. It could equally mean that Joseph had died. Some manuscripts of John’s Gospel treat 1:13 as if it refers to Jesus’ special birth, “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a male, but of God”. The overwhelming weight of manuscript evidence is, however, against this. John 6:42 speaks of Jesus as son of Joseph and Mary. John 7:27 and 41-42. hint at Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but nothing is said about the particular nature of the birth. When the Jews say they are not illegitimate (8:41), it is even possible to read this as reflecting Jewish propaganda that Jesus was illegitimate. Later Jewish tradition asserted that Mary was the victim of rape by a Roman soldier. While such propaganda was designed to evoke shame, we might see this as doing the opposite. God uses an abused woman as a source of strength for the world. It is doubtful, however, that the tradition has a factual basis.
John’s Gospel has a special place for Mary in the church, reflected by Jesus’ giving of Mary into the care of the “beloved disciple” at the foot of the cross (19:26-27). But in the Gospel Jesus’ relationship with her is distant (2:3-4) and with his brothers strained (7:1-9). His brothers are unbelievers. An even more striking failure to understand Jesus on the part of the family is present in Mark. Mark 3:21 and 31-35 show Mary and the family fearing Jesus is mad and trying to rescue him.
Faced with this kind of data within the New Testament itself, we might argue that the virginal conception was something presupposed and therefore went unmentioned. Mary was, after all, human and perhaps thought Jesus was making mistakes which might lead him away from his calling. The same explanations could be offered for the absence of references to the virginal conception in the rest of Matthew and of Luke’s two volumes.
The great difficulty with this kind of solution is that it asks us to believe that such a remarkable event would not have featured in the church’s preaching to the extent of leaving some trace in the rest of the New Testament. This strains credibility. We would also have to believe that it had made insufficient impact on Mary and her family for them not to distance themselves from him. A common explanation that Mary kept the events secret, releasing them only in limited circles later, raises more problems than it solves. Where she is especially treasured (in John), the stories appear to be unknown.
To grapple with mechanisms of preserving the historicity of the virginal conception may be, however, to miss the point. Whatever may have actually happened, we must not overlook the role of miraculous births in the ancient world as a means of saying something about people’s lives. We have already noted this tendency in relation to birth stories as a whole. It is also true in regard to the specific element of the involvement of the divine in conception.
Legends of gods impregnating women and producing super people are widespread. They exist about Buddha, Krishna, the son of Zoroaster, Pharaohs, Apollonius of Tyana, Alexander the Great and many others, including a number of figures of Greek mythology. The Hellenistic world of early Christianity was quite familiar with the motif. But mostly such accounts are crudely physical and bare little similarity to the restrained language of the Gospel accounts.
The closest parallels lie in the Old Testament and in Jewish stories of divine intervention in making conception possible. The stories of Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth are to some extent models for the story of Mary. In each case conception was miraculous and brought about through divine intervention. The difference is in the absence of Joseph’s involvement. It lies in the virginity. The closest we come to this in Jewish literature is in Philo’s allegorical writings which suggest Sarah’s conception of Isaac came directly through the Spirit.
Perhaps various motifs have combined. It would have been very likely that Jesus’ birth and conception would be seen not just as the normal miracle of conception, but as one planned in a special way. Here there would be links with familiar Old Testament stories of special conception miracles. Besides this there could have been reports of something unusual in the marriage of Mary and Joseph. Or did this come later in reaction against the virginal conception?
The text about the virgin in Isaiah 7:14 may well have introduced the virgin motif. To tell the story that way would say clearly in the language of the time that people should see that God was involved here. Later generations reshaped the story and pictured the Spirit as playing more directly the male role of impregnation. This brought the story more into line with Hellenistic legends of the time.
We also need to appreciate that people understood human reproduction differently from what we now know occurs. They believed that the male planted the seed in the woman’s womb, like sowing seed in a garden, which then germinated inside the woman. They did not understand how a woman actually carries an egg which male semen then fertilises. On their model God provided the seed and Mary provided the seed bed, but God was the source of the baby, Mary only the nurturer. People who want to retain belief in the miraculous conception today usually see the miracle differently from the ancients.
However the story of the virginal conception evolved, it functioned as a way of expressing the gospel in language that people understood: in the man Jesus, God meets us. Later the virginal conception might be seen almost as a crude explanation for the presence of God in Jesus. He is a hybrid, both divine and human. But beyond the various explanations, the reality which faith sought to explain and expound was the “Godness” of Jesus. Whether the explanations spoke of the incarnation of the pre-existent Son of God, or of the virginal conception and miraculous creation of the Son of God, or of the unique anointing of Jesus with the Spirit, the fundamental message remains the same.
Because the model of the pre-existent Son of God becoming flesh became the dominant one, the story of the virginal conception never carried the same weight. It has been allowed to remain confined to its setting, the birth stories and their elaboration. And when we meet it there, we are in the best position to understand it and enjoy the greater miracle to which it points and which it celebrates: God meeting us in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
In chapter 1 Luke has been concerned to prepare his readers for the Gospel which follows. One overwhelming impression is that God was involved in the conception of both John the Baptist and Jesus. In one, God chose a simple priestly family for his purpose. In the other, he chose a young woman and through sheer miracle made possible the birth of Christ, the Son of God and saviour of the world.
In neither situation are the people concerned of high rank or achievement. They are faithful, obedient Israelites open to be involved in God’s continuing initiatives with his people. These are people of worship and people open to the Spirit. The language and allusions underline fulfilment of scripture and continuity with God’s people of old. The hymns of praise illustrate a life of worship which looks forward to God’s action in the future.
Luke’s Gospel of salvation is not escapism from historical reality, from the past or the future. It identifies God’s activity in the change of unjust structures and relationships. It hails a Messiah who liberates people from sin and leads them into the way of peace.
The excitement and expectation of chapter 1 carries into chapter 2 where Luke, having set the stage, describes the momentous occasion of Jesus’ birth and surrounds it with the scenery of worship and promise.