Infancy Narrative Commentaries
The tutorial segment on “The Three Stages of Gospel Development” noted that the most important “stage” for Christian faith is the time of the Gospel writers. This is because it is there that the Evangelists’ inspired insights into the meaning of Jesus Christ can be discerned. Today’s cultural preference for historically verifiable information can sometimes lead Christians to forget that when we read the Gospels we are not reading “history” – in the modern sense. We can forget to look for the religious meaning of what we read.
This principle is perhaps most important in regard to the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Though they do contain some historical data, these chapters are especially driven by theological interests. “Stage 3” perspectives – the writers’ concerns, insights, and issues – predominate in their infancy stories and both narratives summarize and introduce the distinctive theological themes of each Evangelist.
Hearing the distinctive voices of Matthew and Luke is made more difficult by the blending of their two accounts in our Christmas observances. Their unique insights can easily be obscured in a combined story – often seen in Christmas crèches – in which, for example, Matthean magi find Jesus in the Lucan manger.
Here are some major differences in the two narratives’ storylines; their theological commonalities will be discussed later:
In Luke’s narrative, Mary and Joseph are Galileans who travel to Bethlehem of Judah because of a Roman census. The newborn Jesus is placed in a manger. They return home to Nazareth afterwards, seemingly stopping at the Temple in Jerusalem on their way. In Matthew, Joseph and Mary are introduced as natives of Bethlehem, where they reside in a house. After fleeing to Egypt to escape the murderous designs of Herod the Great, they relocate to Galilee.
The Evangelist Luke repeatedly compares Jesus with John the Baptizer, who is not mentioned at all in Matthew’s infancy account. In Matthew’s narrative, Jesus’ birth is detected by foreign priests, the magi; in Luke it is lowly Jewish shepherds who first learn the news.
In Matthew’s narrative, King Herod in Jerusalem hunts throughout the region for the infant Jesus to kill him. In Luke’s narrative, the child is publicly proclaimed in the very heart of Jerusalem by Simeon and Anna. Luke portrays Jesus’ family observantly going to Jerusalem, but in Matthew they avoid the city.
In Matthew’s narrative the spotlight shines on Joseph. It is he who receives divine guidance in a series of dreams. In Luke’s account it is Mary who shines, portrayed as the one who hears and keeps God’s word. Luke’s narrative includes a number of unique “songs” or “canticles,” whereas Matthew offers a series of distinctive “fulfillment passages” that relate Jesus to Israel’s history. Matthew starts his infancy narrative with a genealogy of Jesus from Abraham down to Joseph and Mary. Luke’s genealogy is presented at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and runs backward from Joseph to Adam. Having been introduced to the distinctive aspects of their narratives, please continue with the separate commentaries on Matthew and Luke to explore the religious messages that each conveys.
Study each image before proceeding through its section.
The Gospel of Matthew
These commentaries discuss the unique literary features and religious insights of Matthew's account of Jesus' birth. Special attention is paid to the structure of the Matthean narrative, the prominence of Joseph, and the journey of the magi.
This Gospel was apparently written in the mid-80s. The traditional point of origin is Antioch in Syria, although some favor nearby Damascus or Galilee. It was plainly written by a Jewish scribe who is very extremely familiar with Israel’s Scriptures. The author may see himself as the “scribe trained for the kingdom of Heaven . . . who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” [13:52]
The author writes in a very Jewish church, both demographically and in self-understanding. There are Gentile members, but they are expected to obey Torah norms [22:11-14], possibly including circumcision. Writing in a predominantly Jewish community of believers in Jesus as Lord, the Evangelist is competing with other leaders for influence in Judaism in the power-vacuum left by the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. It is crucial to note that Matthew’s church is one strand of first-century Judaism. Matthew considers himself to be Jewish, indeed to be more authentically Jewish than other Jewish groups, because he follows the Torah as authoritatively taught by Jesus. Other post-70 Jews interpret the Torah according to different norms, particularly the Pharisees, whose traditions greatly contributed to the birth of rabbinic Judaism. Matthew is thus in competition for the heart and soul of Judaism with local Pharisees (hence, their intensely negative portrayal in Matthew’s Gospel). The core of the debate is who interprets the Torah correctly.
Therefore, the Matthean Jesus “comes not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it” [5:17]. Those who advocate the negation of the least of the Torah's rules are least in God's Kingdom [5:19]. (This may be aimed at Christians like Mark, whose Gentile context led him to show Jesus nullifying kosher laws [Mk 7:19].)
This Gospel is organized for instructional purposes. It contains five sermons of Jesus [5:1 through 7:29; 10:1-42; 13:1-52; 18:1-35; and 23:1 through 25:46], that recall the five books of the Torah. In the first of these, the “Sermon on Mount” (which in Luke 6:17ff occurs on a level place), Jesus, like a new Moses, presents his definitive teaching about the Torah. The sermon contains six “hypertheses” in which Jesus declares “you have heard it said of old . . . but I say to you . . .” [5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43] in which, with one exception, Jesus takes a principle found in the Torah and further intensifies it in the same direction.
Jesus is seen by Matthew as the embodiment of all preceding Jewish history. For example, the infancy narrative contains a genealogy [1:1-17] featuring four notable women [1:3,5,6]; a number of “fulfillment” passages that relate Jesus to prophetic texts [1:22-23; 2:5-6,14-15, 17-18, 23]; and allusions to famous Hebrews of the past (e.g., Joseph, who like his biblical forebear, receives dream-messages [1:20; 2:13, 1, 22]; and Moses, who like Jesus, was rescued as an infant from a murderous king [2:16- 18].) Jesus’ ministry begins with three temptations in the desert that correspond to the experiences of Israel in the desert after the Exodus. But where Israel son of God failed, Jesus Son of God succeeds [compare Ex. 16:1-3; 17:1-2, 7; 32:1-4 with Mt. 4:3-10].
All of this leads to the conclusion that Matthew thinks of Jesus as sort of a Living Torah. Hence the icon for this Gospel is a Torah scroll. The Matthean Jesus is apparently the personification of the Wisdom of God, who in Israel’s Scriptures was with God at the creation, took up her abode in Israel, dwelt in the Temple, and was enshrined in the Torah. She, like the Matthean Jesus, is the one whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light, and who gives comfort to those who come to her [Compare Mt. 11:19, 28-30 with Sirach 6:18-37; 24:19-24; 51:23-27]. She is also one who is typically rejected by the mortals to whom she appeals.
As the Living Wisdom of God, Jesus’ teachings must be observed. Those who just cry “Lord, Lord!” will not enter the Kingdom, but only those who do the Father's will [7:21; see also 25:31ff]. The Matthean church is to put the Torah of Jesus into practice, with a particular emphasis on reconciliation and forgiveness [5:23-24; 18:23ff], using extreme measures only as a last resort [18:15-17]. The Gospel fittingly concludes with a final emphasis on Jesus as Teacher: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” [28:9-10]
The main christological idea in Matthew is that Jesus is the definitive teacher of the Torah because he himself personifies it. His instructions on love and forgiveness must be put into practice in the Church. Authentic discipleship is thus defined by doing what Jesus commands.
1 An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The structure of Matthew’s infancy narrative can be outlined in these four sections:
A Genealogy of Jesus in 3 groups of 14 generations (1:1-17)
The annunciation to Joseph in an angelic dream message that Jesus was conceived through the Holy Spirit (1:18-25)
The homage of the magi to the newborn “king of the Jews” (2:1-12)
The escape from Herod the Great and resettlement in Nazareth (2:13-23)
Included in Matthew’s narrative are five “fulfillment passages” (1:22-23; 2:5-6; 2:15; 2:17-18; 2:23), which establish that Jesus is rooted in Israel’s story.
Matthew’s Gospel commences with a genealogy of Jesus, “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1). Jesus is introduced as heir of God’s promises to Abraham and of the royal heritage of David. The genealogy is arranged in 3 groups of 14 generations:
Group one begins with Abraham (who was promised the Land) and ends with David (who ruled over a united Land);
Group two take us from David to the Babylonian captivity (during which the Land was lost);
Group three spans the Babylonian Exile to Jesus (who, for Matthew, climaxes and epitomizes Israel’s story)
The genealogy includes five women, which is very unusual. Matthew must have chosen to mention these five individuals for a specific reason.
Tamar was Judah’s widowed daughter-in-law. Judah had neglected to marry her to his youngest son when he came of age. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and shamed Judah into fulfilling his duties toward her. One of the twin sons from their union was an ancestor of David.
Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute who lived in Jericho. She assisted Joshua’s spies in scouting out the city’s defenses.
Ruth was a Moabite widow of an Israelite man. She threw herself at the feet of his kinsman, Boaz, to induce him to marry her to produce a son to the memory of her deceased husband. This son was to be the grandfather of King David.
Bathsheba was the wife of David’s loyal soldier, Uriah, the Hittite. Her adultery with David prompted him to arrange Uriah’s death. Her second son by David, Solomon, became king after him.
Mary, a virgin of Bethlehem is found to be pregnant before her marriage to Joseph is consummated.
All five women have out-of-the-ordinary experiences that serve to advance God’s designs: the rise of an important clan of Judah, the conquest of Jericho, the birth of David’s grandfather, the birth of Solomon, and the birth of Jesus.
As a secondary theme, the four women from Israel’s past may be Gentiles. Rahab is a Canaanite and Tamar is likely one, too. Ruth is a Moabite, and Bathsheba may be a Hittite like her husband Uriah. If so, these women may reflect Matthew’s belief that the birth of Jesus is also important for the Gentile nations.
Since the genealogy recalls that several of Jesus’ male ancestors had atypical or questionable origins, Matthew is likely asserting that the birth of Jesus is part of a pattern. God’s uses human foibles to advance divine intentions. For Matthew, Jesus is the culmination of God’s plans.
In Matthew’s infancy narrative, Joseph is the primary character. Like his namesake in Genesis chapter 37, he receives messages in dreams and must make decisions based on these messages. (In Luke, it is Mary who receives a divine message and must choose.)
Recalling the scandalous doings associated with some of the women noted in Matthew’s genealogy, Mary is found to be pregnant before her marriage to Joseph has been consummated. Matthew assures his readers that she is with child through the Holy Spirit, thus reiterating the divine providence implied in the genealogy.
Joseph, presented by Matthew as “a just man,” will not subject Mary to a public inquiry to determine whether her pregnancy was from consensual or coerced intercourse, as discussed in Deuteronomy chapter 22. Instead, he decides to terminate the marriage quietly.
Joseph’s decision here models the sophisticated observance of the Torah that Matthew desires of all the members of his strongly Jewish church. They are to observe “the smallest part of a letter” of the Torah (Mt. 5:17-19) as authoritatively taught by the Matthean Jesus, but with mercy as the preeminent principle of application.
An angel tells Joseph in a dream that the pregnancy is through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Joseph is instructed to name the child Jesus. Importantly, such a naming has significance in law. It makes Joseph the legal father of Jesus, thus affirming the Davidic descent so important in Matthew’s genealogy.
The dream message parallels an episode in Josephus’ Antiquities where Moses’ father is told in a dream that his son soon to be born would save the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. A Jesus/Moses pairing will be a recurring motif in Matthew’s Gospel.
Matthew cites the Greek Septuagint version of Isaiah 7:14 to identify the child to be born to a virgin as Emmanuel (“God is with us”). This saying forms a “book-end” or inclusio with the closing words of Matthew’s Gospel. The resurrected Jesus says, “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (28:20). For Matthew God’s promise always to be with his people has achieved its ultimate realization both in the birth of Jesus and in the presence of the resurrected Jesus in the church.
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’
"New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved."
Matthew tells of Jesus’ birth with regular references to figures from Israel’s history, such as Moses and Joseph. The magi “from the east” who see a star rising recalls the oracle about the coming of David in Numbers chapter 24.
The infancy narrative also makes numerous links to the passion narrative at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. The title, “King of the Jews,” for instance, which was bestowed upon Herod by the Romans when they appointed him monarch in 39 b.c.e. appears in Matthew’s gospel only in reference to Jesus’ birth and to his crucifixion. The Gentile magi, who were Mesopotamian religious leaders, learn of the birth of the “King of the Jews” by observing a rising star, an unusual natural phenomenon. At Jesus’ death, the Gentile Roman executioners see another unusual natural event, an earthquake, and conclude that the crucified “King of the Jews” is God’s Son. In Jerusalem, the magi encounter a ruler (Herod), and the chief priests and cribes; at the end of the Gospel Jesus in Jerusalem will encounter a ruler (Pontius Pilate), the chief priests, and scribes.
The magi eventually find Jesus in “the house”. This shows that Matthew understands Joseph and Mary originally to have been residents of Bethlehem, not Nazareth. Joseph, descendant of David, resides in a house there. The magi offer gifts of tribute: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, all of which have funereal overtones. They are items that can be used at the burial of a king. In this episode, then, Matthew conveys that the significance of the child who has been born will become clear at the time of his death. That death will be important for the Gentile nations as well as for Israel.
The flight from Herod’s wrath down to Egypt recalls the story from the Book of Genesis of Joseph’s narrow escape from the murderous designs of most of his brothers. Jesus’ return from up “out of Egypt” recalls Moses leading Israel back again. Like his namesake in the book of Genesis, Joseph continues to benefit from divine guidance given in his dreams. Herod’s command to slay all male children under two years of age parallels the commands of Pharaoh to kill all newborn Hebrew males in Exodus chapter 1.
All this adds to the impression that Matthew’s story of Jesus is meant to embody and recapitulate Israel’s history. Joseph decides not to return home to Bethlehem, fearing Herod’s son Archelaus, but instead settles in Galilee.
Matthew’s infancy narrative includes five “fulfillment passages” that quote and sometimes identify verses from Israel’s scriptures. They concern:
|1:22-23||the birth of Emmanuel|
|2:5-6||the coming of a shepherd from Bethlehem|
|2:15||God’s son being called up out of Egypt|
|2:17-18||Rachel’s lamentation for her children|
|2:23||One who shall be called a Nazorean|
Matthew applies these passages to Jesus in order to explain why Jesus is important for Israel’s story.
It is crucial to appreciate that the Matthean fulfillment passages are not simply the accomplishment of predictions from the distant past. They are far more sophisticated than that. This is illustrated by examining the third fulfillment passage.
In Mt 2:15, the evangelist applies the words of the prophet Hosea to the situation of Jesus: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew here is citing Hosea 11:1-4 in which the prophet, speaking for God, laments that Israel, God’s son, keeps turning to the worship of false gods. Note that when Hosea speaks of Egypt, he is looking into the past when God’s son, Israel, was brought out of Egypt during the Exodus. The prophet is not predicting a future coming out of Egypt by a son of God, but recalling Israel’s experience in the past. Matthew, of course, knows that Hosea was speaking about Israel’s exodus from Egypt.
In applying Hosea’s prophetic words to Jesus, then, Matthew is not claiming that an ancient prediction is being realized. Instead he is arguing that Israel’s experiences with God are recapitulated in Jesus. The patterns of the past are repeated. For Matthew, Jesus embodies Israel’s story. In the words of the Pontifical Biblical Commission: “It would be wrong to consider the prophecies of the Old Testament as some kind of photographic anticipations of future events. All the texts … had an immediate import and meaning for their contemporaries before attaining a fuller meaning for future hearers. The messiahship of Jesus has a meaning that is new and original.” The newness and originality of the Church’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus prompts Matthew to present Jesus’ birth as a microcosm of Israel’s history.
This same re-echoing of Israel’s past experiences is at work in the other fulfillment passages:
Mt. 1:22-23 cites Isaiah 7 - The prophet Isaiah around 735 b.c.e. declares that before a pregnant girl's son is about 7 years old, the foes of King Ahaz of Judah will be devastated. When this occurs, the king will acknowledge that indeed "God is with us.“ For Matthew, people in his time will also realize that in Jesus “God is with us.”
Mt. 2:5-6 cites Micah 5 - Although an 8th century prophet, portions of the book of Micah seem to be post-Exilic [after 539 BCE]. Here, Micah refers to the Babylonian attack upon Jerusalem. He promises that although the people shall suffer for a time, legitimate rule will be restored by one who shares David's origins, even if not of his direct descent. This suggests that no heir is living or available in the prophet’s time. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem enables Matthew to link his coming to Micah’s hopes for Israel’s restoration.
Mt. 2:17-18 cites Jeremiah 31 - In the face of destruction by the Babylonians, the prophet Jeremiah declares that the past destruction of Israel is not the end of God's story with the Chosen People. The exiles will return and be restored. Matthew sees this pattern repeated in the the weeping over those slain by Herod. Sorrow will give way to the restoration to be brought by Jesus, just as the Exiles had been restored in the past.
Mt. 2:23’s “He will be called a Nazorean,” matches no exact text in Israel’s scriptures. Some have suggested a word-play on Judges 13:5: "for lo, you shall conceive and bear a son [Samson]. No razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines’ hand.” A wordplay here would be typical of the way scriptures were interpreted in the 1st-century. It confirms that Matthew is creatively focusing the story of Israel’s past onto the person of Jesus.
Matthew’s fulfillment passages provide an excellent example of how the scriptures of ancient Israel were being read in the earliest churches. The Jewish believers in the Crucified-and-Raised One read their scriptures with new eyes. By interpreting those texts through the lens of their resurrection faith in Jesus, new meanings and applications developed that had not arisen before.
The theological perspectives of Matthew’s infancy narrative can be summarized as follows: through the opening genealogy, allusions to biblical persons and events, and the explicit fulfillment passages, Matthew’s infancy narrative announces that Jesus’ birth is the climax of God’s long story with Israel.
In addition, Jesus is presented as epitomizing all of Israel’s history. This is further shown in the later temptations of Jesus in the desert in Matthew chapter 4 in which Jesus, Son of God passes tests that Israel, son of God, failed during its desert wanderings. For Matthew, therefore, Jesus is the perfect Jew; he perfectly fulfills the Torah’s commands. Matthew expects all believers to do God’s will by observing the Torah according to what Jesus has commanded. And finally, Matthew’s infancy narrative conveys that the true significance of the newborn child will be seen at his death, a death which will affect all of humanity.
The Gospel of Luke
These commentaries discuss the unique literary features and religious insights of Luke's account of Jesus' birth. Special attention is paid to the parallels drawn between Jesus and John the Baptist, the prominence of Mary, and the distinctive canticles woven into the Lucan narrative.
This Gospel appears to have been written about the same time as Matthew’s, although later revisions are always possible. It seems that neither writer was aware of the other’s work. The text probably originated around the Aegean Sea or in Asia Minor. The Gospel is the first part of a two-volume work which also includes the Acts of the Apostles.
Luke apparently has two related interests. To non-Christians in the Roman Empire, he wishes to portray the Church as “a philosophically enlightened, politically harmless, socially benevolent, and philanthropic fellowship.” He presents Christianity as a religion for Jews and Gentiles worthy of legal recognition by the Roman Empire. Luke offsets the embarrassing fact that the Church’s founder had been executed for sedition by a Roman prefect by having Pilate declare Jesus innocent three times [23:4, 14, 22]. Furthermore, in Luke, the centurion at the foot of the cross (unlike in Mark and Matthew) exclaims, “Surely, this man was innocent.” [23:47] It is also not an accident that almost every Roman character in Luke-Acts is portrayed favorably.
To members of the church, Luke has a second goal. Because in his time and place the church’s proclamation to Jews is failing, but succeeding in terms of Gentiles, some are apparently wondering if God had been faithful to the promises to the people of Israel that they would be blessed. If blessing through Christ was now shifting onto Gentiles, what did that say about divine promises to Jews? Or was the church a heretical deviation from Judaism as some were charging? Luke’s reply is to stress that the church began, as God so willed, among pious, law-abiding Jews (including Jesus!) and that Jewish-Christians form the irreplaceable Jewish heart of an increasingly Gentile church. Through them comes “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to [the] people Israel.” [2:32]
Luke’s portrait of Jesus relates to these purposes. For Luke, Jesus is the bringer of authentic peace, of spiritual and physical wholeness, and of healing and reconciliation. Therefore, the icon for this Gospel is a dove of peace. At the Lucan Jesus’ birth, angelic messengers proclaim “Good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day . . . a Savior! . . . Peace on earth among those whom God favors!” [2:10-11, 14] These words echo monument inscriptions which praised Augustus Caesar as “god” and “savior,” the bringer of the Roman Peace, whose birth “marks the beginning of good news, through him, for the world.” Luke is hereby claiming that Jesus completes more fully the work of Augustus. He is the one who brings true peace in the world. Similarly, the Lucan John the Baptist is described as one who will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” [2:14]
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is surrounded by an aura of healing and reconciliation that affects all who come into contact with him. This Lucan trait can be seen in several unique passages in his Passion Narrative. It is only in Luke that Jesus heals the servant’s ear that was severed during the scuffle at Jesus’ arrest [22:51]. Only in Luke do Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate become unlikely fast friends after being in Jesus’ presence [23:12]. Jesus prays for forgiveness for his crucifiers only in Luke’s Gospel [23:34]. And only in Luke does one of those crucified with Jesus express faith in him [23:39-43].
There is also a Lucan theme that sees Jesus as the Ultimate Prophet who is fated to die in Jerusalem as prophets before him.
Connected with this Christology is Luke's concern for those marginalized in first-century society. The poor, the oppressed, the diseased, and women all receive special attention in this Gospel. Christians are expected to address the physical needs of people, particularly the disadvantaged, and see to it that none go hungry or without shelter. The rich are shown in Luke as finding it especially difficult to detach themselves from their possessions, although those few who do so are praised [e.g., Acts 4:32-37].
The main christological perspective in Luke is that Jesus is the one who brings shalom, that is, peace, healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and wholeness. He brings God’s promises of blessings for the world through Israel to fulfillment. Authentic discipleship is defined by promoting the well-being of all, especially the marginalized, and by fostering peace and unity.
Luke Timothy Johnson, Luke [Sacra Pagina] (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 9.
5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ 18Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ 19The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
46 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
56 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Luke’s infancy narrative is structured in terms of parallel presentations of the origins of Jesus and John the Baptizer. This comparison actually represents what could be called a “step parallelism” since Jesus is always depicted as superior to the Baptizer. Thus, John is hailed as “Prophet of the Most High,” while Jesus is announced to be “Son of the Most High.” The narrative’s paired scenes are the announcements and signs given about the births of John the Baptizer and Jesus, and matching scenes about their births and namings. Other scenes stand alone: Mary visiting her kinswoman Elizabeth and the encounter in the Temple with Simeon and Anna. Within these scenes three songs or canticles appear: The Magnificat (from my soul “magnifies”) sung by Mary, the Benedictus (“Blessed be”) sung by Zechariah, and the Nunc Dimitiis (“Now dismiss”) sung by Simeon in the Temple.
The infancy narrative proper is followed by a scene of Jesus in the Temple at age twelve, by the scene of Jesus’ baptism by John, and then by a genealogy. Luke’s genealogy is different from Matthew’s not only in terms of the individuals named (there are no women mentioned, for example), but it also runs in the reverse direction from Joseph all the way back to Adam.
Luke stresses that the birth of Jesus takes place among the pious people of Israel. Thus, the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are introduced as “righteous,” “observing all the commandments blamelessly.” Luke seldom uses “fulfillment passages” as Matthew does. Instead, his narrative echoes episodes from Israel’s scriptures. And so, like Abraham and Sarah before them, Zechariah and Elizabeth are an aged, infertile couple.
Again reminiscent of Abraham, Zechariah encounters an angelic messenger who announces that his wife will become pregnant. The angel describes the child, to be named John, in language filled with scriptural allusions:
Recalling the announcements of the births of Samson and Samuel, the boy will “drink neither wine nor strong drink”
He will be like Elijah of old and, as depicted by the prophet Malachi, will “turn the hearts of fathers toward their children” before the great and terrible day of the Lord.
The messenger who speaks to Zechariah, Gabriel, is named in Daniel chapter 9 as the angel to proclaim the coming of an anointed leader.
Thus, Luke portrays the birth of John as heralding the climax of Israel’s story. Zechariah seems doubtful. As a sign of Gabriel’s truthfulness, he is rendered unable to speak until the child’s birth.
The scene then shifts to Nazareth in the Galilee where a wedded virgin is also visited by Gabriel. “Wedded virgin” refers to the custom of that time for parents to sign a marriage contract for their children shortly after puberty. But the young woman continued to live with her parents until the young man had established himself. Only then did the couple live together and consummate the marriage.
Mary is called God’s “favored one” because she will give birth to a son, who will be named Jesus. The child is to be conceived by the creative power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who was present at the world’s creation. Jesus is referred to in terms surpassing those used of the Baptizer: he will be called “Son of the Most High God” and will rule from the throne of David – recalling the prophet Nathan’s words to David in Second Samuel.
Although Mary questions Gabriel about the predicted pregnancy, she is not given a punitive sign like Zechariah. Apparently she is not disbelieving, but only puzzled. Like Zechariah, she is given a sign. She is told that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant since “nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary assents to the angel’s words. This is the beginning of Luke’s depiction of Mary as the model disciple. She “hears God’s word and keeps it” (Lk 11:28).
In a scene that links the announcements of the births to the births themselves, Mary visits her kinswoman Elizabeth. She discovers that the sign given by Gabriel about Elizabeth’s pregnancy is indeed correct. Luke is the only New Testament author who establishes a blood relationship between Jesus and the Baptizer. This probably relates to his interest in comparing the two figures, with Jesus always emerging as preeminent. Elizabeth addresses Mary as the “mother of my Lord” (Lk 1:43) and blesses her as one who believed what God told her (Lk 1:45). This continues Luke’s presentation of Mary as worthy of admiration, not so much because she was Jesus’ mother, but because she models discipleship. Mary answers with the first of Luke’s “canticles,” the Magnificat, which draws heavily upon the song of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel.
Many biblical researchers think that Luke’s canticles are adaptations of psalms developed by early Jewish believers in Jesus Crucified and Raised. These “Jews in Christ” used standard methods of knitting together biblical phrases into their lyrics. They revered Jesus as the one who fulfills their hopes for the rescue of Israel, especially in Davidic terms. The songs may also reflect the situation of the anawim, or “poor ones” in Israel, who in their weakness rely on God alone. Luke may have taken such early Jesus-songs, adapted them, and wove them into his story of Jesus’ birth.
In the Magnificat, Mary begins by describing herself as one “of low estate,” a “handmaiden,” just as earlier to Gabriel she had called herself the handmaid of the Lord. So, too, Hannah had prayed for God to “look with pity on the low estate of your handmaid.” For Luke, Mary symbolizes the lowly ones whom God rescues. She then rejoices in the reversals that the Lord brings upon the poor and rich. This also parallels Hannah’s song, but in addition anticipates the beatitudes and woes that the Lucan Jesus will utter in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke chapter 6. The Magnificat also anticipates the words of the Lucan Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue about bringing glad tidings to the poor and oppressed.
Importantly, all of these divine deeds that Mary praises are seen to be in accord with God’s covenant with Abraham. Only the phrase “all generations will call me blessed” explicitly applies to Mary. The other words of the Magnificat represent the hopes and dreams of Israel’s poor. The Magnificat thus emphasizes God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel and the Lucan Mary’s role as the model of discipleship.
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ 61They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ 62Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68 ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The second pair of parallel scenes in Luke’s narrative depicts the births and namings of the Baptizer and Jesus. The sign given to Zechariah that he would be unable to speak until John’s birth comes to pass. With the child’s birth, Zechariah breaks into the second canticle, the Benedictus. Although Zechariah proclaims this song of praise to God at the birth of his son, John, his words are almost entirely about Jesus. The exception is Lk 2:76-77, which subordinates John to Jesus as the one “to prepare his ways.” The puzzling fact that this song about Jesus is expressed in the past tense (even though Jesus’ birth has not yet been narrated) can be understood by thinking of its authors as Jews in the earliest church. They saw their post-resurrectional faith in Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s scriptural promises to Israel.
In the Benedictus, Zechariah first speaks about Jesus in Davidic terms as the one who rescues Israel from the Gentile nations. Then he refers to Jesus in Abrahamic terms as the one who brings the blessing of peace to the nations. The Benedictus, therefore, expresses both an early Jewish christology and Luke’s belief that Jesus is the bringer of peace between Israel and the Gentile nations. As the narration proceeds to the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem is described as “the city of David,” even though elsewhere in the Bible that title is used only of Jerusalem. Luke is likely drawing upon Micah chapter 5, which looks for the birth of a shepherd-king like David. Luke twice refers to “swaddling cloths,” the placing of the child in a manger four times, and portrays shepherds as first to learn of the birth. Luke’s Jesus is clearly to be found among Israel’s lowly.
The sign of the child found in the “manger” relates to Isaiah 1:3: “An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand.” Luke here introduces one of the recurrent themes of his Gospel. He asks if Israel will understand the manger of the Lord now present. He wonders if Israel will see that Jesus is the realization of God’s biblical promises. It is very noteworthy that the angels’ proclamation of Jesus’ birth are actually paraphrases of monumental tributes to the birthday of Augustus Caesar, the bringer of the Roman Peace: Luke is subtly indicating that the true bringer of peace to the world is not the emperor. It is the baby in the manger. Mary keeps these things in her heart. Once again, she is seen to be a disciple who, as will be mentioned later in the Gospel, “embraces the word with a generous and good heart.” Luke ends the birth scene by noting Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day. This reiterates his emphasis that Jesus and his family are Torah-observant, pious Jews and that the church is in continuity with the people and traditions of Israel.
As with previous scenes, the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple recalls Samuel and his presentation to the priest Eli by his mother Hannah. She had declared, “As long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the Lord.” In mentioning “their purification”, Luke seems to have confused the Jewish rituals of the purification of the new mother and the dedication of the firstborn male to God. In any case, he repeatedly stresses to his readers that Mary and Joseph do everything “according to the Law of Moses.”
Two prophetic figures, Simeon and Anna now appear. They correspond to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Elkanah and Hannah, parents of Samuel. By their words, Luke depicts the Torah and the prophets testifying to Jesus in the Temple. Simeon utters two prophecies in the Nunc Dimittis that speak of the child’s destiny for the world and for Israel. Simeon’s first prophecy weaves several themes from Isaiah into a declaration that the child is important for the whole world.
Simeon’s second prophecy is addressed to Mary. He speaks of the child as bringing a crisis of decision upon the people of Israel, causing some to rise and some to fall. Some will see his significance and some will oppose him. As a daughter of Israel, Mary, too, will know this “sword of decision.” The phrase about a sword piercing her heart is not referring to Mary witnessing Jesus’ crucifixion since she is not present at his execution in Luke’s Gospel. Rather, Mary will struggle with the decisions that confront all of Israel. She, too, will face “the sword of decision.”
This scene, then, asserts that the child is destined to fulfill God’s promise that all the nations will benefit from the light that will shine from Israel. In Luke’s view, however, Israel will be divided into belief and unbelief because of the child. It is likely that Luke 2:40 was the end of Luke’s infancy narrative in an early form of the Gospel. The following separate episode of Jesus in the Temple at age 12 seems to have been added as the Gospel achieved its final form.
There are many allusions to biblical figures: Samuel, Samson, Elijah, David, Abraham, Isaiah
Jesus’ family observes both the Torah and Roman laws
Luke sees Jesus’ coming as a time of decision for God’s people. He will cause the rise and fall of many in Israel. For Luke, Jesus is the bringer of peace between Israel and the Gentile nations and for peace among the nations. Jesus is born amid the lowly of Israel, reflecting Luke’s concern for the poor and for those who can rely only on God. Luke portrays Mary as the first disciple and the model of discipleship. She hears the word of God and keeps it.