The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles make up a two-volume work which scholars call Luke–Acts. The author is not named in either volume. It had once been credited to Luke, “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14), and a close associate of Paul the Apostle. A significant group of contemporary scholars, however, suggest that the author is anonymous. As the noted Catholic biblical scholar, and my friend,  Raymond F. Collins observes: “The physician-friend thesis is based on a mention in Col 4:14, but few scholars believe that Paul wrote Colossians.” In addition there are many contradictions between Acts and the authentic Pauline letters.

Last week we saw that Matthew had a keen interest in the Hebrew-Christian community. Luke however is more focused on the broader gentile Christian community. Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3:23-38)  goes back not just to Abraham, the father of the Hebrew tradition, but to Adam, the father of humanity. Unique to Luke is John the Baptist’s birth story, the census and travel to Bethlehem, the birth in a manger, an angelic annunciation to shepherds, and a story from Jesus’ boyhood.

Luke’s preface is addressed to “Theophilus.” The name means “Lover of God.” It could mean any Christian although most interpreters consider it a reference to a specific Christian convert and Luke’s literary patron.

Biblical scholars date the composition of Luke-Acts to around 80–90 CE, although some suggest as late as 90–110 CE. There is textual evidence that Luke–Acts was still being revised well into the 2nd century CE.

Luke’s Infancy Narrative is found in chapters 1 & 2, and the author begins his story with the aging and childless Zechariah and Elizabeth. An angel of the Lord announces to Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will have a son. The promised son will be John the Baptizer. 

Elizabeth is described as a “relative” of Mary the mother of Jesus, in Luke 1:36. There is no mention of a family relationship between her son John and Jesus in the other Gospels. Biblical scholar,  Raymond E. Brown, described it as “of dubious historicity.” 

There are many similarities between Luke’s story of the birth of John the Baptizer and the account, in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) of the birth of Samuel (11th century BCE). Cleary Luke’s account of the annunciation and the birth of Jesus are modeled as well on that of Samuel. After Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had a religious experience, praying for a child, she became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel, to the great delight of her husband Elkanah. Hannah’s exultant hymn of thanksgiving resembles in several points Mary’s later Magnificat. (Samuel, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, played a key role in the transition from the period of the Hebrew biblical judges to the institution of a kingdom under Saul, and again in the transition from Saul to King David.)

In Luke’s Infancy Narrative, after the angelic announcement about Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel then announces the virgin birth of Jesus for Mary, a young girl from Nazareth, engaged to Joseph, a descendent of David. The pregnant Mary then goes to Judea to visit Elizabeth, her pregnant relative. The child in Elizabeth’s womb (John) leaps for joy at the presence of the unborn Jesus. Luke wants his readers to understand that, right from the start, Jesus was superior to John. 

Some scholars maintain that John the Baptizer belonged to the Essenes, a semi-ascetic Hebrew sect that expected a messiah and practiced ritual baptism. Most  biblical scholars agree that Jesus was an early follower of John and that John baptized Jesus. Several New Testament accounts report that some of Jesus’ early followers had also previously been followers of John the itinerant preacher. 

While visiting Elizabeth, Mary sings God’s praises for lifting up the lowly and sending the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-55) This prayer-song is frequently called the Magnificat, based on its first word in Latin. It echoes several biblical passages, but the most pronounced allusions are to the Song of Hannah, from the Books of Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures (1 Samuel 2:1–10).

Mary’s Magnificat, recorded only in Luke’s Gospel, is one of four hymns, from a collection of early Hebrew-Christian canticles: Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1:67–79), the angels’ Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Luke 2:13–14), and Simeon’s Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:28–32). 

After Mary’s return to Nazareth, John is born. His father Zechariah then praises God with the words of the Benedictus.

According to Luke, a census was called for throughout the Roman Empire. It meant that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary had to go to Bethlehem, since Joseph was of the “house of David.” When they got there, there was “no room for them in the inn,” and so Jesus was born and put in the stable’s manger. (Some people really don’t know that a manger is a feeding trough for animals. The English word comes from the Old French word mangier — meaning “to eat” — from the Latin mandere, meaning “to chew.”) 

There are major difficulties in accepting Luke’s Roman census account, however. First it could not have happened in the days of King Herod, who had died in 4 BCE. Luke refers to a worldwide census under Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius wasn’t appointed as the governor of Syria until 6 CE. Herod had already been dead for ten years. In addition, according to the annals of ancient Roman history, no such census ever took place. There was no single census of the entire Roman Empire under Augustus. And no Roman census ever required people to travel from their own homes to those of distant ancestors. A census of Judea, therefore, would not have affected Joseph and his family, living in Galilee. 

Luke clearly followed the models of historical narrative which were current in his day. He needed an explanation for bringing Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, in order to have Jesus born there. Let’s call the journey to Bethlehem an example of Luke’s creative historical imagination.

In Luke, we have no Wise Men, as we saw in Matthew, but angels appear to lowly shepherds, telling them to go visit the baby Jesus. The angels then sing out the famous words of the Gloria: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will toward all people.”

Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth. Then forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to complete Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth. Mary and Joseph simply followed the regulations in Leviticus 12:1-8. The holy family then returned to their home in Nazareth. (Notice that Luke makes no mention of a trip to Egypt.)

Luke’s Infancy Narrative concludes with a story of the twelve-year-old Jesus. While on a trip to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph lose Jesus. Then they later find him in the temple astounding the teachers there with his understanding. 

Today of course – more than two thousand years later – we too are astounded and encouraged not just by his understanding but by his vision and his spirit that truly animates us and gives us hope for today and tomorrow.

Luke’s Gospel climaxes with the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (24:13–35). Luke’s Jesus is on a journey with us.

  • Jack

PS    Well…a number of friends have asked me if Jesus was really born in Bethlehem. Perhaps I should not write this so close to Christmas, but I have always liked the observation of the Catholic biblical scholar, and expert on the historical Jesus, John Meier. He is the author of the five volume series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Meier has often stressed that Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem should be understood as a “theological affirmation put into the form of an apparently historical narrative.” In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

19 thoughts on “Luke’s Infancy Narrative

  1. Thanks again Jack, I love reading your posts and pondering on the various different interpretations of all sorts of scripture passages, story arcs and naratives, as well as the ‘laws’ and rules that come in and out of favour over the centuries and millennia depending on the intended audience, the emphasis wanted by the writer, as well as the cultural and historical environment they inhabit at the time.

    I always think of my Dad who found such things so difficult, he needed certainty, and found listening to different theological views and historical perspectives disturbing and disrupting. He would say “It’s destroying my faith in the Catholic Church” but I would say to him “faith is about the Holy Sprit, not about man-made rules and institutions”.

    (PS those rules are, sadly, almost entirely made by men and a very few women 😉 ! )

  2. Thank you again for your time and effort to share with us your scholarship and those of other biblical experts. It is so important that we learn the context and worldview of the scriptures. So many others have twisted and interpreted them for their own devices. You always provide us with the necessary knowledge to counter the errors. MUCH APPRECIATED!!

  3. Dr. Jack, your service to this ethereal/virtual community of believers is a blessing for us. Please continue.

    Your comment about the manger, the etymology of the word, is also a hermeneutic on the Word, I think. The sound of ruminants with their faces and mouths and whiskered lips in the barn mangers is one of my earliest memories, from the farm in Michigan. In the back of my mind, I hear horse teeth grinding, and smell large steamy cattle bodies munching by turns in the same wooden trough, with its edges rounded over from their front teeth and lips nipping up grain, alfalfa and beet tops, blinking their huge eyes as they satisfy their inner rumbling dreams. This memory is fodder for understanding our Accompanist, Emmanuel, for whom we have a taste, an appetite, thanks be to God– and so is your exegesis, your exquisite rumination on the twists and turns of scripture.

    You remind us that tricksters have been at work, like Hermes, shaping our cultural expectations, over-turning and recasting the course of our thinking so that wisdom evolves from within, rather than arriving with a thump at the gate, like an Amazon package. So it is, I think, with this Jesus of Nazareth, and the faith He maintains in the spirit of humanity. From His beginning among us, in His kenosis, He emptied himself into the manger of our wide old world so that we can feed on Him as the Word– to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the beauty, goodness, truth and integral implications of Creation out of love.

    Your commentaries make sense because we are made that way, it is “becoming” to us, fitting, as humans. In other words, what I ingest becomes me, not only in molecules (especially around the waist-line at holidays!), but also in morality, intention, and the universal internal conversation that is “becoming” to me as an individual, and to each of my family and friends. It seems we are good enough, as one species among billions, for God to dwell among us, and to remain, to sustain, and to endure our questing, just as He did in the Temple story as a pre-teen. In a sense, out of the manger He evolves to “viaticum,” our food along The Way.

    This Christmas 2021 is still not free of Corona, and who knows what the Omega variant will do to us, once we survive Omicron. In fact, the churches where I have hitherto been interim or substitute accompanist at the organ are still scant of parishioners in the flesh. The Glorias and hymns I played during Pentecost season this year were in fact a spiritual musical accompaniment, like a “spiritual communion,” recorded on video and broadcast into teeny hand-held glass screens or laptops in the hands of so many who, in their hearts at home, believe they believe, hungry for nourishment of the soul. There is room at these inns, in these churches, but the consensus today is one of caution, even fear, that confines individuals to their own “devices,” remotely, at home, not traveling to their places of spiritual origin.

    I declined several subbing requests from tired organists this year, in order to remain with family and guests in my home, hosting at my “inn.” But I miss the hearty breath of song and the vibration of bodies jostling in the nave of a church, the fleshy-now of so much appetite for the Incarnate One, not unlike those faithful and trusting beasts at the manger in the barn. {I don’t mean that the congregation are cattle, please! …but only that people are trusting, faithful and full of the dignified breath of life, the same breath the flows through a real pipe organ.] The Lucan writer must have known something of the barn itself, to paint for us such an image of Him, the One barn-born among the Holy Family that included the beasts of the fields, not to mention our extended families too.

    All the very best to you and yours at this change of seasons where the Light of the wide old world shines, no doubt.

  4. Thank you, Jack, for your series this year on the birth narratives of Jesus. Your linking Jesus’ story back to the story of Samuel and his parents is not only informative but it warms my heart. It reminds me of the on-going presence and workings of God amongst us on this earth. Like Hannah, as we pray fervently that the Son be born in us, we can go about our lives, “dejected no longer,” reassured that God will work that desire in us.

  5. Dear Jack,
    Thank you for ‘another” version of the coming of our Savior. Your factual explanation does nothing but enhance the reality that, regardless of the specific details, God’s arrival will soon be (and has been) celebrated among us. As one of your readers commented, the narratives simply satisfy the needs of the time and people. We thank you for the clarification and the reminder that God loves us and is among us…. very reassuring!
    May you, Joske, Brian and all of your loved ones have a wonderful celebration together!
    Frank and Jeanine

  6. It has been many years since I read Ray Brown’s book on the infancy narratives but I recall that he dismissed the problem of different stories by saying that these are like beautiful Christmas cards, full of inaccuracies and imagination – such as white faces, blond hair and blue eyes – but rich in ways that make the nativity of Jesus an event in true human life enlivened by the presence of the Divine. Have a blessed Christmas, John.

  7. Jack, thanks as always for your focus on getting the history separate from the imagery. I would like to hear your view on why Luke or whoever wrote that whole infancy account chose to describe the birth the way he did. Years ago when I was active in teaching in seminary, I think I read someone’s description in that the author was in a way synthesizing much of the life of Jesus, at least to crucifixion in the form of this account of the child being born without a home, in the midst of poverty and being acknowledged by the angelic figures. Any thoughts or comments? Advent peace, Louie

  8. Hi, Jack,

    We have been enjoying your blog (down here in Melbourne, Australia), especially the infancy articles, and we wonder if you are aware of the suggestion that maybe the wrong Bethlehem is being referred to.

    There is one in Galilee as well, apparently a short and feasible donkey ride from Nazareth for a pregnant Mary. It was written up in an NPR article.

    See link:

    Wikipedia also has an article about it:

    Judges 12:8-10 refers to this: “8 After him, Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel. 9 He had thirty sons. And he gave away thirty daughters in marriage, and brought in thirty daughters from elsewhere for his sons. He judged Israel seven years. 10 Then Ibzan died and was buried at Bethlehem.”

Leave a Reply