Summary Luke Chapter 1-Update
The very large bulk of this chapter is dedicated to the story of John the Baptist. Or, rather, it’s given over to his rather miraculous origins. As such, calling this the Chapter of John the Baptist is not much of a stretch. Yes, we also have the story of the Annunciation, which became a major event on the Catholic calendar, but that is really sort of shoe-horned in amongst the tale of John’s parents and his parentage. This attention to John should tell us a lot about what the early church thought about Jesus’ precursor.
There have been countless times when I have encountered protestations that the early church was embarrassed by the connexion of Jesus to the Baptist. This chapter should drive a stake through the heart of that idea; indeed, this chapter should have driven that stake centuries ago. Time and again I have pointed out that one does not expand the attention given to a character that is supposed to be an embarrassment. Mark introduces John; there, if one is not paying attention, one could consider John is decidedly a second-, or even third-tier character. He appears, we are told a bit about him, he baptises Jesus, he gets executed. But think about that; given that Mark is not a terribly long gospel, the amount of space given to John is not inconsequential. So, even in Mark, we have the sense that John is someone important. Worse, from the Christian standpoint, is that Jesus seeks out John, and the John is the one performing the ritual baptism on Jesus, putting the Jesus in a decidedly inferior position. This is the source of the embarrassment.
If we accept that early, or proto-Christians found this embarrassing, we should expect that Matthew would take steps to downplay, or even omit entirely, the episode of the baptism. On the contrary, Matthew increases John’s role by giving him dialogue. More, this dialogue is supposedly part of Q, which supposedly means this dialogue was deemed important enough to be included in what is suppose to be a collection of Jesus’ teachings. More, it was included in Christian lore from a very early time in the development of the belief system. So, on one hand, John was embarrassing, but his teaching was included in sayings of Jesus; the two of those don’t quite match, do they? This is, yet another, indication that Q is not to be taken seriously; the definition of what Q is supposed to be changes to fit the circumstances the Q people wish to explain. John’s “brood of vipers” speech is found in Matthew and (spoiler alert!) Luke, but not Mark. Ergo, by definition, it had to have been part of Q or the tidy package of Q’s contents begins to unravel a bit. If there is material in Matthew and Luke that is not in Mark, but it’s not part of Q, then that opens the door to questions about what else in Matthew and Luke but not Mark (M&LbnM) might not be part of Q? And if we start picking out such pieces, the raison d’être for Q starts to come apart.
So, if Q is eliminated–as it should have been a century ago–and yet Matthew gave John dialogue that was not in Mark, then we are faced with the situation where Matthew is focusing even more on a personage about whom he’s supposed to be embarrassed. But wait, there’s more. Luke then follows up with expanding John’s story even more. The result of this expansion is the bulk of this chapter. This enlargement of John’s character fits very nicely into the way that legends grow. A name is remembered–or invented–in the first layer of the story. As time passes, the name attracts stories. I keep going back to the Arthur legend, but it is such a good example of the process. First we get Launcelot. Then Guinevere (or the other way around). Then we get their adulterous affair. Then Launcelot has a bastard son. Then that bastard son is given a name, and eventually Galahad becomes one of the knights who find the Grail. And so on. So, in the early layer, we get John. Matthew kinda sorta gives John some lines, the sort of thing that he thinks John woulda shoulda coulda said. Then Luke comes along and gives John a lineage. And not only is John not swept under the rug, he’s made into a kinsman of Jesus! They are first cousins!
Really, though, what Luke has done is to complete the domestication of John. The embarrassment of John was that Jesus began by seeking him out for baptism, putting Jesus in the subordinate role; it wasn’t John per se. Matthew, rather half-heartedly, attempts to solve the problem by having John demur upon Jesus’ request for baptism, John saying that it is he who should be baptised by Jesus. Very nice, but not enough for Luke. The new interpretation that Luke provides is brilliant, because it both elevates John while subordinating him even further. For when Mary goes to visit, even in utero John recognises that he is in the presence of the divine lord. His mother states that she is truly blessed to be visited by the mother of her lord. Zacharias provides a prophesy that is sort of a greatest hits from the HS, a compilation of prophecies that could be applied to Jesus, but all of them emphasizing John’s role as the precursor and herald of the mightier Jesus. It is Jesus who is the one everyone has been waiting for. John has been sent to make straight Jesus’ path. All of this emphasizes and re-emphasizes that it is John, not Jesus, who plays the subordinate role.
Even so, Luke subordinates John while raising him to nearly divine heights himself. John’s conception is modeled after that of Isaac, and no one with even a cursory knowledge of Hebrew myth would–could–miss this. John is conceived by a barren woman who is past the age of child-bearing, just as Sarah was before Elisabeth. In other words, John was important enough to the cosmic scheme that God himself intervened in order to make sure that John is conceived. And beyond that, he sent a messenger to tell Zacharias, just as the angels came to visit Abram, and his descendant Joseph. All in all, this indicates that John has a most important role to play in the unfolding of the divine plan; the subtle genius of Luke is that, by making John so important, he double-underscores the even greater significance of Jesus. After all, if God went to all this trouble about John, and John is just the herald, then well boy howdy Jesus must really be important. So Luke’s tale provides a double-whammy, kills two birds with one stone, and all those other two-for-one clichés. This is quite an accomplishment.
When discussing the messenger, Gabriel, sent to Zacharias, we mentioned the parallel to Matthew. He, too, had an angel reveal to Joseph the identity and the provenance of the child in Mary’s womb. This messenger returns, this time with a name. This is the first time in the NT that an angel is named. Michael appeared in Daniel, which would be the first canonical naming of an angel. It is interesting to note that 1 Enoch mentions Gabriel and six others; the date of 1 Enoch is the source of much speculation; most often it seems like it’s put in either of the first centuries, whether before or during the Common Era. This makes it possible, or even likely, that Luke got the name from 1 Enoch, if not directly, then indirectly because this angelology was in circulation in the time that Luke was writing. Did Matthew not name his angel because he wasn’t aware of 1 Enoch, or that angels were being given names? That strikes me as a very interesting question, one that could have some bearing on the date of 1 Enoch, pushing it later, rather than earlier. The other aspect of this is where did Matthew and Luke write? If Matthew wrote in Antioch, and Luke wrote in Rome, how is it that Luke (seemingly) knew about Enoch but Matthew didn’t? The point of all of this is that, once again, Luke is expanding on a theme introduced by Matthew. He doesn’t repeat Matthew, but he takes the basic concept, uses it, and enlarges the story.
Along with that, of course, is the idea of the virgin birth. As mentioned, this theme is found only in Matthew and Luke. It wasn’t part of the overall tradition, because it doesn’t show up anywhere else. Nor is it considered part of Q, largely because there is no single point of contact between the two gospels. And yet, there it is, along with the messenger of God and (spoiler alert!) Bethlehem. But we’ll get to that shortly.
It would be remiss not to say something about the Annunciation. Except I have no idea what to say about it. It’s another way that Luke expands on Matthew, although the announcement comes to Mary, and not to Joseph. This may be significant. But enough for now. On to Chapter Two.
Update: A possible explanation for the Annunciation has just occurred to me. Recall that, in Matthew, Joseph was not aware of the conception of Jesus by the sacred breath. The messenger had to come and tell Joseph so that he wouldn’t divorce Mary for carrying the child of another man. This way, that bit of awkwardness is eliminated; we all know going in that Jesus was of divine origin, and so Joseph has no need to contemplate divorce.
Posted on February 8, 2017, in Chapter 1, General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Luke's Gospel, Summary and tagged Bible commentary, Bible scholarship, biblical scholarship, commenting, gospel commentary, john the baptist, koine Greek, Luke's Gospel, mark's gospel, Matthew's gospel, New Testament, New Testament Greek, NT Greek, religion, St Luke, St Mark, St Matthew, St Paul, theology. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.