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.
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.