2016-06-30
The gospel we call Luke came into the life of the Christian community between 85 and 95 C.E.; or 55 to 65 years after Jesus' earthly life came to an end. Luke's birth story is not history. It is not a literal account of what happened when Jesus was born. It is rather Luke's attempt to capture the essence of who he thinks Jesus is, namely, the one through whom God can be met.

The author, identified in the tradition as Luke the Physician, appears to have been a gentile convert to Judaism who then became a Christian. Luke clearly had the gospel of Mark in front of him as he wrote. He also seems to have had a second source, which some call Q (for Quelle, which means "source" in German). Other scholars, though a minority, suggest that instead Luke had Matthew as his second source. At least we know that Luke employed the Virgin Birth tradition, which Matthew had introduced. (Never, however, does Luke quote the text from Isaiah on which Matthew built his virgin story. Perhaps the problems to which I have previously referred (see Part One of this series of articles) were already known to him). But Luke does develop the story in his own unique way.

Luke opens his story not with the birth of Jesus but with the birth of John the Baptist. He clearly knows the tradition that the Baptist's role was that of preparing the way for Jesus. As a fact of history, it seems obvious that Jesus began his public career as a member of the John the Baptist movement. The scriptures are clear that Jesus was not only baptized by John but also that he did not emerge as a leader in his own right until John the Baptist had been arrested and perhaps even executed.

There are bits of biblical evidence that some competition existed between the followers of Jesus and the followers of John in the earliest years of the Christian movement. By the time the gospels were written (70-100 C.E.), John had been incorporated into the Christian story but in the secondary role of the forerunner, the one "who prepared the way for the Lord." John was even said to have validated Jesus' claim to superiority in his reticence to baptize Jesus, suggesting that he, John, had a need to be baptized by Jesus. So Luke began his gospel by telling a story that suggested that even in the births of these two figures, the pre-eminence of Jesus had been established.

By the time Luke wrote, the birth of Jesus was some 90 years in the past, the birth of John the Baptist still longer ago. In Luke's world, there was no place to go to verify historical facts like names. There were no birth records, no newspaper stories, and, by this time, no eyewitnesses. In Luke's community of dispersed Jews and gentile converts, there would have been no knowledge of or interest in the parents of John the Baptist. He was for them a minor figure in Judea. So when Luke decided to interpret the life of John the Baptist solely in terms of his relationship with Jesus, he had a clear field to let his literary imagination run free. He did not have to be bothered with history.

He therefore chose names for John's parents that added greatly to the significance of the story he was determined to tell. He also created the character of John the Baptist by lifting content directly out of the Hebrew scriptures. For Luke, John's identity was best seen not as the new Elijah, but as the nameless voice from the book of Malachi whose task it was to prepare the way for the coming of "the day of the Lord."

In a part of the Hebrew Scriptures called "The Book of the Twelve," Malachi was listed as the last of the Jewish prophets. Malachi's immediate predecessor in those Jewish Scriptures was Zechariah. So Luke used Zechariah as the name of John's father, the Baptist's immediate predecessor. (That choice required an explanation, which Luke added to his story, of why the name John was chosen when none of Zechariah's kinsmen bore that name.)

The choice of the name Zechariah also helped Luke to assert how deeply the book of Zechariah had shaped the early Christian message. Zechariah 9:9-11 gives the embryonic story of the Palm Sunday procession, and elsewhere the book contains a story about the shepherd king of Israel, who was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver by those who bought and sold animals in the Temple. All of these themes show up in the Jesus story. In Zechariah is also found the familiar verse, used by Jesus in almost all the gospels, about the shepherd being struck and the sheep being scattered. So the choice of the name of Zechariah opened a rich vein that Luke could mine as he told his story.

Luke identified the mother of John the Baptist as a member of the priestly family of Aaron and gave her the name Elizabeth. This name, Elisheba in Hebrew, appears only once in the Jewish scriptures. There she is the wife of Aaron and thus the sister-in-law of both Moses and Miriam (which is, of course, the Hebrew spelling of Mary). Playing on that theme, Luke suggests that since Mary and Elizabeth are sisters-in-law, John and Jesus are perhaps cousins.

As Luke's story develops, other themes from the Jewish scriptures dance across his stage. Elizabeth and Zechariah are like Abraham and Sarah, too old to conceive a child. But again God overcomes that barrier. Zechariah's vision in the Temple, his speaking with the angel, and his being struck mute echo a similar story in the book of Daniel.

But the major thrust of these stories is Luke's assertion that as wondrous as John the Baptist's story is, he pales beside Jesus of Nazareth. For John to be born to aged parents was a wonder but not near so great a wonder as a Virgin Birth. When John is born, the neighbors gather to rejoice. When Jesus is born, the heavenly hosts rejoice. When Zechariah doubts, he is punished with muteness. When Mary doubts, she is assured by the angel. John, while still in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, salutes Jesus, still in Mary's womb. A salute from one fetus to another is hardly the stuff of actual history.

Then Luke tells the story of Jesus' birth. He emphasizes two symbols, mentioning one three times, the other twice. First, this special child is to be found in a manger. Second, the Christ is to be wrapped in swaddling cloths.

In Isaiah Chapter 1, the prophet bemoans the fact that while even the donkey knows from whose manger he eats, Israel is not faithful to its God. But for the holy child to be found in the manger at birth suggests that this child will recall the people of Israel to the God who is the source of their life.

In the Wisdom of Solomon, Israel's greatest and most opulent king observes that when he was born, he was carefully swaddled, for that is the only way a king can come to his people. To have Jesus come to his people in swaddling cloths is Luke's way of announcing Jesus' kingship.

There is no star in Luke. He replaces it with the light of an angel and the greater light of the heavenly host. But the purpose is the same. The birth of Jesus is announced from the sky, for beyond the sky is the place from which God reigns. Jesus is the sign of God's presence coming out of heaven to redeem the sinful world.

There are no wise men in this gospel. Rather, humble shepherds attend the newborn. Luke's treatment of Simon Magus in the book of Acts indicates that he did not care for magi. And he had little use for royalty--humble shepherds were more to his taste. The shepherds also allowed him to play on the theme of Bethlehem being the birthplace of David, the Shepherd King. Armed only with the clues of manger and swaddling clothes, these shepherds went to seek the Christ child and to worship him. God and human life had come together in Jesus.

Luke has one other feature that is unique to him: His characters regularly break into song. When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, she sings the "Magnificat": "My soul doth magnify the Lord." This song is modeled after a song Hannah sang in the Hebrew scriptures when Samuel was born. Zechariah, who is struck mute when he is told of the promise of the birth of John, later has that muteness lifted. Immediately, he breaks into a song called the "Benedictus"--"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel." When the angels announce the birth of Jesus, they form a heavenly chorus singing what today we call the "Gloria in Excelsis"--"Glory to God in the highest." Finally, when Luke tells the story of Jesus being presented in the Temple at 40 days, the old priest Simeon breaks into the song known as the "Nunc Dimittus": "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace." It is almost as though Luke has turned his pageant into an operetta. Perhaps what he did was to place into the beginning of his gospel a Christmas play to which he added a musical score.

Luke closes his birth story with the account of Jesus visiting the Temple when he is 12 years old and claiming his "father's house" as his own. This is patterned after a story of Samuel, and it presages the adult Jesus claiming the Temple as his father's house the week before his crucifixion.

Luke's gospel is a beautiful story filled with meaning, deeply steeped in the Jewish storytelling tradition. To see it as myth or parable is to enter it in a new way. It is a religious story not unlike the secular story of Santa Claus. Both stories were created to capture a truth that human words cannot fully contain. But if either story is literalized, and one pretends that this mythology is real history, disillusionment is inevitable. That is the fate of Santa when one reaches the age of 6 or 7. That will be the fate of the birth narratives in the maturity of our emerging consciousness.

I will conclude this analysis of the birth narratives of the New Testament in the final column of this series.


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