Luke Chapter 1:1-11

Having done a fair bit of research into Q since the last summary of Matthew was published, the conclusion I’ve arrived at is that the best way to contextualize Matthew is by way of comparison to Luke. My sense is that the Q people are still missing the forest for the trees; moreover, I believe a certain amount of this “missing” is willful, the result of a deliberate effort not to look at the Q hypothesis. While the effort is deliberate, it may not be wholly conscious; Mark Goodacre seems to be one of the leading proponents of the Mark without Q theory which believes, as I do, that Luke used Matthew, describes the Q proponents as a bit arrogant, and more than a bit miffed that there are these annoying people who still won’t accept Q. After all, it was settled a century ago! Er, wasn’t it?

No, it wasn’t settled. It was postulated and accepted and then just taken on faith. The Q people have so firmly entrenched the theory that it is somehow incumbent on the naysayers (myself included) to prove that Q did not exist. This is completely backwards. The burden of proof lies on those who believe to prove that the document existed. For the umpteenth time, there is absolutely no proof that such a document existed. None. There are no oblique references by later sources, no tradition of a sayings collection, nothing. That’s bad enough. Worse is that there is no argument for Q. The proponents of Q have never, ever, come up with anything resembling a cohesive or coherent case to show why it’s likely that Q existed. The entirety of their case rests on the premise, “if Luke knew Matthew, Luke would never have…” Largely Luke would never have messed with the “masterful” arrangement of the material presented in Matthew. And that is the whole case: an argument (being kind), that the way Luke arranged the Q material is simply…substandard, if not simply wrong, or bizarre, or “unscrambling the egg with a vengeance”. So let’s look at some of this.

Please note that some of this may be a bit of a rerun from the Introduction to Luke post. My apologies, but some of this is worth seeing in more textual context than we had in the Introduction.

1 Ἐπειδήπερ πολλοὶ ἐπεχείρησαν ἀνατάξασθαι διήγησιν περὶ τῶν πεπληροφορημένων ἐν ἡμῖν πραγμάτων,

2 καθὼς παρέδοσαν ἡμῖν οἱ ἀπ’ἀρχῆς αὐτόπται καὶ ὑπηρέται γενόμενοι τοῦ λόγου,

3 ἔδοξε κἀμοὶ παρηκολουθηκότι ἄνωθεν πᾶσιν ἀκριβῶς καθεξῆς σοι γράψαι, κράτιστε Θεόφιλε,

ἵνα ἐπιγνῷς περὶ ὧν κατηχήθης λόγων τὴν ἀσφάλειαν.

Inasmuch as many have attempted to order the narrative of the fulfillment in our affairs, accordingly those having been eyewitnesses and servants of the account handed (it–i.e., the account) over to us from the beginning, and it seemed to me to the one following all (of them) diligently afterwards to have written to you, most excellent Theophilos, so that you may come to know certainty about these accounts, having been instructed.

My translation is slightly different from what you may read elsewhere. First, it’s a bit less definitive on some of the ideas, but I believe that some of the ideas are a bit overconfidently expressed in other places. At least, I’m going to present the ambiguity to provide, I hope, some sense of the amount of interpretation present in other translations.

As an incidental, the word in V4 that is rendered as “instructed” is “katachesis”. Any child of the Roman Church should see the word “catechism”, and now perhaps better understand its root. Oddly–to my mind, anyway–the word does not get transliterated into Latin. Rather, it’s translated as “eruditis”.

Now to the substance. Anyone who’s read the historical accounts written in the Middle Ages will be familiar with this sort of introduction. Luke did not start this, but he popularized it among Christian historians of the monastic sort, so this has a long tail moving into the future. But the interesting thing is that Luke is placing himself in context by discussing the eyewitnesses of the events, and then the “servants” of the account. [What I have translated as “account” usually gets rendered as “word/words”; however, this is done, I believe, for consistency with John 1:1: in the beginning was the Word…] He is, in effect, saying that what he has written down is the account that was created at the beginning, and then entrusted to the “servants” of the account. This I would take as the others who have written the account. Who are these others? Interestingly, as I was checking commentaries on this, I found that the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges adamantly insists that this does not refer to other evangelists. That is, not even Mark, let alone Matthew. This, obviously, is an extremist position; just as obviously, I think, we have no need to take this position seriously.

So who are these “servants”? One of them has to be Mark. And I say “one of them” because the word is plural; Luke is attesting that there are multiple servants of the account. The plain sense understanding of this, at least to someone with historical training, is that Luke has read more than one account of the story of Jesus. Immediately we could understand this to mean Mark and Matthew, or Mark and Q. But the way this reads indicates, to me at least, that there were even more than two different sources available to Luke. And this should not surprise us. This, of course, leads to (but does not “beg”) the question of what these sources might be. Given this statement, it’s not inconceivable that one of them might, indeed, be a collection of Jesus’ sayings. Oddly, this is never suggested by the Q people, and I don’t quite understand why not. One of the sources very clearly carried some evidence of Paul or his activities. This is the first gospel written for which we can be certain that the evangelist had some knowledge of Paul. We do not know if Luke had available to him any of Paul’s letters; perhaps we can tell from the writing.

This is actually a crucial question, because it would give us great insight into Luke’s methods, purpose, and outlook. We commented in Galatians on the difference between the conversion story related by Paul with the much more famous version in Acts. At first glance, the two share little; however, if you squint your eyes a bit, I think that it’s possible to see Paul’s revelation from God as the basis for the flash of light from heaven and the voice of God/Jesus coming down from the sky. The version in Acts is, possibly, an over-dramatized version of what Paul himself described. If we can, or do, accept this connexion, then this may provide us a glimpse into the way Luke thought and wrote. In describing the Four Evangelists, I used to describe Mark as a journalist, Matthew as a rabbi (albeit converted), John as a theologian, and Luke as a novelist. The comparison of Acts to Hellenistic novels is old and widespread, so I’m hardly breaking new ground, but this approach is worth keeping in mind as we proceed through the text.

The whole question of who Theophilos was needn’t concern us overmuch. Stated bluntly, it really doesn’t matter. I see no reason not to believe that there was a Theophilos; there is no profit in making someone up. What is important is the statement of purpose. Luke wants to educate this other person, even if the “other person” is the audience in general. This hearkens back to what I said in the Introduction to Luke about why the evangelists wrote a second, third, and fourth gospel. They wrote because they had something they felt was important to say. And if you read between the lines a bit, there is an implicit implication that Luke needs to provide some additional information, explain a few things, or generally set the record straight. It is very tempting to use that first purpose of providing additional information as a point of departure to fly off on a tangent, but it would be pure speculation. Or would it? Let us remember that Luke adds a lot of new material, a lot of stories that have become central to Christianity, and via that to Western culture as a whole. We can talk about being a “good Samaritan” because of Luke’s story. So I don’t think it’s completely bonkers to suggest that this new material is part–a big part?–of the reason Luke decided he needed to retell the story again. Yes, we can say that this is due to source material that was lying hidden from the other evangelists, but the simplest, and most reasonable explanation for the new stories that Luke adds is that they arose from within Luke himself. 

1 Quoniam quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem, quae in nobis completae sunt, rerum,

2 sicut tradiderunt nobis, qui ab initio ipsi viderunt et ministri fuerunt verbi,

3 visum est et mihi, adsecuto a principio omnia, diligenter ex ordine tibi scribere, optime Theophile,

4 ut cognoscas eorum verborum, de quibus eruditus es, firmitatem.

5 Ἐγένετο ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου βασιλέως τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἱερεύς τις ὀνόματι Ζαχαρίας ἐξ ἐφημερίας Ἀβιά, καὶ γυνὴ αὐτῷ ἐκ τῶν θυγατέρων Ἀαρών, καὶ τὸ ὄνομα αὐτῆς Ἐλισάβετ.

It happened in those days of Herod ruling the Jews there was a priest to whom the name was Zacharias of the course of Abiah, and his wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. 

We need to pause a minute to consider the word << ἐφημερίας >>. This word is only found twice in the LXX, once here, and then nowhere else. It appears to be a compound of << epi-hemeras >> the literal meaning of which would most likely mean something like “upon the day”, which in standard usage would mean, more or less, “daily”. However, the two English words associated are “course” or “division”. And there is the sense of a connexion to religious ritual. My suspicion is that it originally referred to a round of ritual, say a week in length, in which the same priest performed the same ritual for the length of the given cycle. From there it came to have genealogical implications, because here it pretty clearly means that he was a descendant of Abiah, since we are then told of his wife Elisabeth’s lineage. Regardless, it’s rather an odd word, but here, at least, the context does help. And the Latin is interesting: “de vice”, the latter being the first part of “vice versa”. So at root there is the idea of change. This does point to a cycle of ritual performance, I believe. But Lewis and Short don’t give us any clue of any connexion to family lineage. Perhaps St Jerome knew something that Lewis and Short forgot?

5 Fuit in diebus Herodis regis Iudaeae sacerdos quidam nomine Zacharias de vice Abiae, et uxor illi de filiabus Aaron, et nomen eius Elisabeth.

6 ἦσαν δὲ δίκαιοι ἀμφότεροι ἐναντίον τοῦ θεοῦ, πορευόμενοι ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ἐντολαῖς καὶ δικαιώμασιν τοῦ κυρίου ἄμεμπτοι.

7 καὶ οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τέκνον, καθότι ἦν ἡ Ἐλισάβετ στεῖρα, καὶ ἀμφότεροι προβεβηκότες ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις αὐτῶν ἦσαν.

8 Ἐγένετο δὲ ἐν τῷ ἱερατεύειν αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ τάξει τῆς ἐφημερίας αὐτοῦ ἔναντι τοῦ θεοῦ,


They were both just people against God, following all the commandments and the decrees of the lord and blameless. (7) And there were to them no progeny, on account that Elisabeth was barren, and both well along their days (i.e., well-along in years). (8) He went in the temple in the arrangement of the daily cycle of him before God.

Here I think is where we can make out the sense of << ἐφημερίας >>. Basically, Verse 8 is saying that it was Zacharias’ turn to perform the daily ritual. I have the vague sense that the cycle of ritual was divided by priestly families or clans, with each clan being appointed to perform a given series of days. So, Zacharias was of the division of Abia, who performed the course of the ritual in a specified period of days.

6 Erant autem iusti ambo ante Deum, incedentes in omnibus mandatis et iustificationibus Domini, irreprehensibiles.

7 Et non erat illis filius, eo quod esset Elisabeth sterilis, et ambo processissent in diebus suis.

8 Factum est autem, cum sacerdotio fungeretur in ordine vicis suae ante Deum,

9 κατὰ τὸ ἔθος τῆς ἱερατείας ἔλαχε τοῦ θυμιᾶσαι εἰσελθὼν εἰς τὸν ναὸν τοῦ κυρίου,

10 καὶ πᾶν τὸ πλῆθος ἦν τοῦ λαοῦ προσευχόμενον ἔξω τῇ ὥρᾳ τοῦ θυμιάματος:

11 ὤφθη δὲ αὐτῷ ἄγγελος κυρίου ἑστὼς ἐκ δεξιῶν τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου τοῦ θυμιάματος.

According to the custom of the temple he was chosen by lot of the incense going in to the sanctuary of the lord. (10) And all the whole of the people prayed outside in the hour of the incense. (11) Was seen by him the herald of the lord outside on the right of the alter of the incense.

This is clear enough in Greek; the English maybe not so much. At least not the way I rendered it. I can say right off the bat that Luke’s vocabulary is much richer than either Mark’s or Matthew’s, and his prose feels a bit more sophisticated. Basically, it was Zacharias’ turn to go into the inner part of the temple and burn incense. When he got there, he found a herald of the lord. I’ve decided to stop translating this as “angel” because, once again, English has made a special word of a word that is not particularly special in Greek. In Xenophon, there are angels running back and forth between the Greeks and the Great King every few pages.

And I deliberately broke the story at the appearance of the angel. This is purely for dramatic purposes. Note how we have set this all up: they are childless and advanced in years, just like Abraham and Sarah. And now we get an angel. Novelist? I report, you decide.

9 secundum consuetudinem sacerdotii sorte exiit, ut incensum poneret ingressus in templum Domini;

10 et omnis multitudo erat populi orans foris hora incensi.

11 Apparuit autem illi angelus Domini stans a dextris altaris incensi;


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on January 18, 2017, in Chapter 1, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke' Gospel, Luke's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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