Chapter2: The Infancy Narrative in Luke

The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels
by William Hamilton

Chapter2: The Infancy Narrative in Luke

1. Prologue, 1:1-4

Introductions like this one are very common in writings of this tune, and this ought to be taken as introducing both this gospel and the book of the Acts. If Theophilus was a Gentile intellectual who had heard of Christianity, but who was not yet convinced, some of Luke's special emphases have a special relevance. The questions that such a man might ask are just the questions that concern Luke: Why did the Jews reject Jesus? If Judaism is discredited, why not Christianity as well?

2. The birth stories, 1:5-2:40, with a brief story about Jesus at the age of twelve, 2:41-52

If Theophilus was struggling between faith and doubt, the tension between faith and doubt in this section becomes especially interesting. Note the doubt of Zechariah in 1:18 and of Mary in 1:34. Already Luke creates an atmosphere of mystery: just who is this child?

a. the annunciation to Mary, 1:26-38

Notice that the miraculous character of the birth is directly stressed only in verse 34; apart from this the angel could be referring to a child born in the normal way. Belief in the miraculous conception (virgin birth as it is usually called) is derived from this story, and from Matthew 1:18-25 (see page 18). We have already noted the relevant factors in a decision on this matter. Luke clearly affirms it here, though he has not shaped all of his material consistently with that belief. (See Luke 2:48, and the genealogy which traces Jesus' lineage through Joseph.) It is important to point out that the belief was used in the early church as a way of affirming Jesus' full humanity; "born of a virgin" in the Apostles' Creed has the force of "really born of a woman," in opposition to heretics who denied that Jesus was truly human. The belief is defended on other theological grounds today: that it points to the fact that God's gift of himself to man is wholly grace, without human initiative. This of course is deeply true, whether one uses the story to emphasize it or not.

 b. Mary visits Elizabeth, 1:39-56

Hearing of Elizabeth's similar good fortune, Mary journeys to visit her. In Luke 1:41-42, Elizabeth's unborn son is said to be aware of the reality of the unborn Messiah, and this awareness is transferred to Elizabeth herself. Mary's "Magnificat," beginning with verse 46, is a hymn, probably used in the early church, praising the mighty acts of God. It has been called the most revolutionary document in the world. It certainly must be cited to those who are sure that all religion is an opiate for the people.

 c. the birth of John the Baptist, 1:57-SO

Any birth, but especially the birth of a son, was an occasion for great rejoicing. The name is given, and Zechariah is released from his punishment (1:20). His song, known as the "Benedictus," is a hymn of praise to God for the birth of his son, the forerunner of the Messiah and the new age of forgiveness and peace. This hymn seems partly Luke's own composition, partly the reflection of many Old Testament passages.

 d. Jesus' birth, 2:1-20

Matthew had assumed that Joseph and Mary had their regular residence in Bethlehem. Luke locates their home in Nazareth, but brings them to Bethlehem, a journey of eighty miles, for the census. The question, however, of the actual birthplace of Jesus is historically interesting, but has no religious significance.

Luke tries to date the event with precision. Caesar Augustus ruled from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. We know that beginning in A.D. 20, censuses (for the purposes of levying taxes and registration for military service, in general; but the Jews were exempt from military service, and so we can assume that the former purpose alone applies here) were held every fourteen years until about A.D. 270. Therefore, if the fourteen-year cycle was in operation at this time, we can estimate the date of Jesus' birth to be about 8 B.C. There is one problem to this date; Quirinius did not become the actual governor of Syria until A.D. 6, but we do know that he held an official post in the area between 10 and 7 b.c., and so the date of 8 b.c. can perhaps stand.

"Betrothed" in Luke 2:5 may originally have read "wife," and have been later altered to fit in with 1:27. A manger is a place where animals feed, and it can mean either the barn itself or the actual feeding trough.

The narrative of the shepherds is full of interest. That sheep were grazing gives us the only clue we have for the actual season of the birth. In the third century, some parts of the church celebrated Christmas on January 6, but during the following century the date was settled on December 25, the traditional date of a pagan festival of rebirth. But sheep were kept in the field between the months of April and November, and apart from this we re~ly have very little evidence on which to base an accurate dating. Shepherds were ordinarily outside the Jewish law, and considered quite an unrespectable class.

The heavenly hosts arc the angels surrounding the throne of God. This entire section should indeed be treasured, but as the poetry, not the prose, of faith. If the birth was actually accompanied by such supernatural signs, it would be difficult to explain the later skepticism toward Jesus on the part of his family (see Mark 3:21, 31-32. and Luke 2:50).

 e. Circumcision and presentation in the temple, 2:21-40

Two separate Jewish rites are described, though not carefully distinguished: the circumcision of the infant and the purification of the mother. This whole passage stresses the intimate connection between Judaism and Christianity. "The consolation of Israel" in Luke 2:25 refers to fullfilment of the messianic hopes. Note the surprise of the parents at Simeon's prediction. This suggests that this material comes from a tradition that did not know either the virgin birth or the angel's announcement. Or, perhaps, the surprise may be that the Messiah is to save all people, Gentile and Jew.

f. Jesus at the age of twelve, 2:41-52

Luke's concern in this familiar story may be to stress Jesus' early interest in religious questions. But the real clue lies in verses 49-51, where a tension between his obedience to his (heavenly) Father and his parents is suggested. Jesus' response to his parents is not fully understood by them, but he obeys, and returns home. With this passage a basic tension in the entire gospel is set up: that between Sonship and suffering. Jesus here is both the son of his parents, and God's unique Son. Luke is more interested in this theological tension than in the details of the boyhood, and this is perhaps the reason that this is the only material we have on Jesus' youth.