Luke Chapter 2:1-20

Here we begin Chapter 2. There is a lot of text here; it’s the entire Nativity story. I tried finding a place to break it, but that destroyed the continuity too much, so I left it intact. But, because it’s so familiar, there may not be much to say about it. Or, the comment will come on chunks at a time, as it did with much of Chapter 1.

1Ἐγένετο δὲ ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις ἐξῆλθεν δόγμα παρὰ Καίσαρος Αὐγούστου ἀπογράφεσθαι πᾶσαν τὴν οἰκουμένην.

αὕτη ἀπογραφὴ πρώτη ἐγένετο ἡγεμονεύοντος τῆς Συρίας Κυρηνίου.

3 καὶ ἐπορεύοντο πάντες ἀπογράφεσθαι, ἕκαστος εἰς τὴν ἑαυτοῦ πόλιν.

4 Ἀνέβη δὲ καὶ Ἰωσὴφ ἀπὸ τῆς Γαλιλαίας ἐκ πόλεως Ναζαρὲθ εἰς τὴν Ἰουδαίαν εἰς πόλιν Δαυὶδ ἥτις καλεῖται Βηθλέεμ, διὰ τὸ εἶναι αὐτὸν ἐξ οἴκου καὶ πατριᾶς Δαυίδ,

5 ἀπογράψασθαι σὺν Μαριὰμ τῇ ἐμνηστευμένῃ αὐτῷ, οὔσῃ ἐγκύῳ.

It occurred in those days there came a thing having been written from Caesar Augustus that all the inhabited world to be recorded. (2) This first thing having been written came in the governorship of Syria of Quirinius. (3) And everyone went out to be recorded, each to his own city. (4) And Joseph went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David which was called Bethlehem, because he was from the house and lineage of David, (5) to be recorded with Mariam, to whom he was married, she being pregnant.

This section is sort of a ‘fun facts to know and tell’ sort of thing. First, there was a Quirinius, and he was governor of Syria. The problem, as most everyone knows, is that his governorship did not overlap with the reign of Herod the Great. The latter died in 4 BCE, and Quirinius didn’t become governor until several years after that. So, right off the bat we have Matthew and Luke giving conflicting evidence. How can this be? Doesn’t this indicate that Luke didn’t use Matthew, since the former got this wrong? This one is actually pretty easy to explain. Assuming that Matthew wrote in the East, he would be more likely to be aware of Herod’s reign; Luke, OTOH, was probably writing in Rome, where Herod was a nonentity, so using a Roman official would be more meaningful to a western audience. Bottom line is that there was no general consensus on when Jesus was born; from the distance of seventy years, the discrepancy in dates between the two gospels would scarcely have been noticed.

The second point is that the idea of having people return to their home cities for a census count is preposterous. It’s even more preposterous to have them return to the home of an ancestor dead for nearly a millennium. The disruption to commerce and life would have been much too great, and would have served so little purpose as to make the idea of commanding such a thing seem nonsensical. The Romans took a census for the tax records; there is no reason to have people wandering hither and thither when they could be taxed just as–or more–efficiently and effectively where they were living when the census was announced. So, just as Matthew comes up with a gross fabrication with the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents, so Luke comes up with his own whopper of having everyone returning to their home town to get registered. And note that the text seems to indicate that Joseph was born in Bethlehem, not that he was going there because his long-ago ancestor had hailed from Bethlehem, which is how I had always heard it presented. The point of all of this is to drive home that Joseph, and so Jesus, was of the house of David. More on that later.

The most important things in these five verses, however, are: Joseph, Bethlehem, and Mary being pregnant. Those are all from Matthew. Jesus’ father is not named in Mark. Nor does Mark say anything about Bethlehem. And notice how Mary is pregnant here, at the outset of the story, just as she was in Matthew. And both Joseph and Bethlehem, like the conception by a virgin, only occur in Matthew and Luke, and only in conjunction with the Nativity story, and only in the first few chapters of these two gospels, and none of this is said to be in Q. So where did Luke get all of this? None of it is in the larger tradition, it occurs nowhere else, and yet we are to believe that Luke got this from…where, exactly? The ambient air? That is pretty much what the Q people would argue, that it was from the amorphous, undefined, and undefinable “oral tradition”. Now, it is completely possible that it was part of the oral tradition. But which one? Which one carried it from Antioch, where Matthew supposedly wrote, to Rome, where Luke supposedly wrote. Yes, it could happen, but it requires a chain of events that is complex, even if it’s not impossible. The much, very much simpler explanation is that Luke got these things from Matthew. One of the big (ahem) “arguments” against Luke using Matthew is that Luke is totally unaware of Matthew’s additions to Mark. Well, that’s convenient. The stuff that Matthew adds to Mark that Luke also adds is ascribed to Q.  And things like the themes we have here are simply ignored in the debate about Q; instead, we get blather about the placement of Mark’s pericopae, which is doubly ridiculous. First and foremost, it ignore chunks of text, and secondly it completely ignores the actual historical development of the legend. This latter aspect is what we see here in the birth narrative: Luke embellishing Matthew’s bare-bones account of the birth of Jesus.

1 Factum est autem, in diebus il lis exiit edictum a Caesare Au gusto, ut describeretur universus orbis.

2 Haec descriptio prima facta est praeside Syriae Quirino.

3 Et ibant omnes, ut profiterentur, singuli in suam civitatem.

4 Ascendit autem et Ioseph a Galilaea de civitate Nazareth in Iudaeam in civitatem David, quae vocatur Bethlehem, eo quod esset de domo et familia David,

5 ut profiteretur cum Maria desponsata sibi, uxore praegnante.

ἐγένετο δὲ ἐν τῷ εἶναι αὐτοὺς ἐκεῖ ἐπλήσθησαν αἱ ἡμέραι τοῦ τεκεῖν αὐτήν,

καὶ ἔτεκεν τὸν υἱὸν αὐτῆς τὸν πρωτότοκον: καὶ ἐσπαργάνωσεν αὐτὸν καὶ ἀνέκλινεν αὐτὸν ἐν φάτνῃ, διότι οὐκ ἦν αὐτοῖς τόπος ἐν τῷ καταλύματι.

It became in their being there the days were fulfilled of her giving birth, (7) and she gave birth to her firstborn son, and she swaddled him and laid him in a manger because there was not for them a place in the lodging.

It has always struck me as odd that Luke sort of tosses this off, that Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger (French, manger, to eat; took me the longest time to figure that out. And then there’s the Italian mangia, mangia!) because there was no room in the inn. Maybe it’s too many years of Christmas pageants, watching the hard-hearted innkeepers sternly telling the couple NO! and turning them away. Really, this detail is so off-hand that it’s tempting to see it as an interpolation. But, it is repeated in the narrative shortly ahead, and is obviously integral to the story. So it seems it’s not the manger that the problem, but the explanation for it that is glossed over. For the life of me, I can’t figure out exactly why this would be.

And note that “swaddled” is a verb here. She swaddled him, she did not wrap him in swaddling clothes.

6 Factum est autem, cum essent ibi, impleti sunt dies, ut pareret,

7 et peperit filium suum primogenitum; et pannis eum involvit et reclinavit eum in praesepio, quia non erat eis locus in deversorio.

8 Καὶ ποιμένες ἦσαν ἐν τῇ χώρᾳ τῇ αὐτῇ ἀγραυλοῦντες καὶ φυλάσσοντες φυλακὰς τῆς νυκτὸς ἐπὶ τὴν ποίμνην αὐτῶν.

καὶ ἄγγελος κυρίου ἐπέστη αὐτοῖς καὶ δόξα κυρίου περιέλαμψεν αὐτούς, καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν.

10 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ ἄγγελος, Μὴ φοβεῖσθε, ἰδοὺ γὰρ εὐαγγελίζομαι ὑμῖν χαρὰν μεγάλην ἥτις ἔσται παντὶ τῷ λαῷ,

11 ὅτι ἐτέχθη ὑμῖν σήμερον σωτὴρ ὅς ἐστιν Χριστὸς κύριος ἐν πόλει Δαυίδ:

12 καὶ τοῦτο ὑμῖν τὸ σημεῖον, εὑρήσετε βρέφος ἐσπαργανωμένον καὶ κείμενον ἐν φάτνῃ.

13 καὶ ἐξαίφνης ἐγένετο σὺν τῷ ἀγγέλῳ πλῆθος στρατιᾶς οὐρανίου αἰνούντων τὸν θεὸν καὶ λεγόντων,

14 Δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας.

And shepherds were in that area abiding in the fields and guarding the night guard on their flock. (9) And the messenger of the lord stood upon them and the glory of the lord shone around them and they feared a great fear. (10) And said to them the messenger, “Do not fear, for behold, I announce good news to you a great joy which is to all the people. (11) And this day to you the saviour, who is the anointed one, the lord in the city of David. (12) And this is to you a sign, you will find a newborn having been swaddled and laid in a manger.” (13) And suddenly there was with the messenger a full army of the sky praising God, saying (14) “Glory in the highest (reaches, places) to God and upon earth peace to good-willed people”.

First, it is my great sorrow that I was not able to post this on Christmas Eve. in 2014 I posted Linus reciting the scene from the KJV, complete with “sore afraid”; it would have been nice to have done the same with this section. 

Unfortunately, from Linus we have to get a little dirt under our fingernails with the Greek. As above, the babe has been swaddled; not wrapped in swaddling clothes. And “I announce good news” is a single word, a verb. “Stood upon”, of course, is overly literal. But the aspect of standing, I think, matters to our image of this scene. The Greek says that the messenger, essentially, was standing on the ground, rather than floating in the air as is usually depicted. And the heavenly host, the “army of the sky” because we forget that “host” means army, is not necessarily in the sky, either. They could have been standing with the first, which is, more or less, what the Greek says. But there’s literal and then there’s poetic, so do with this what you will. After all, what Linus did for this scene far transcends any literal reading of this text. And it’s not “glory to God in the highest”, which means that “highest” modifies God; it does not. “Highest” is plural, so it can’t modify God. Hence I added the reaches/places, which is totally an interpretation on my part, but we have to assume a plural noun in there, because there simply is not one in the text. Nor is there one in Latin. So we’ve been making assumptions about this for going on six hundred years. Finally, good-willed “people” vs. “men”. The Greek is ‘anthropos’, which in a technical sense means “man”. But it doesn’t mean a man; for example, when the husband is referred to as the wife’s man, the word used is ‘aner/andros’, and at least almost never ‘anthropos’. This is the “man” when we talk about “man is a rational animal”. So there is a sense of “human, not necessarily gender-specific” in there. And “good-willed” is an adjective. And second finally, the word I rendered as “new born” is the same word, “brephos”, used to describe the foetus in Elisabeth’s womb. It generally means “baby in utero”, but it can mean “new born” (or “newborn”) as well.

Oops, almost forgot; there is a third “finally”. The “great joy to the people” uses a certain word for “people”. At root, it’s “men”, usually specifically soldiers. But it also means “a people”, as in an ethnic or linguistic division. For example, the Dorian People, meaning the Greeks who spoke the Dorian–as opposed to the Aeolian or Ionian–dialect of Greek. The Spartans were Dorians. So this is not a generic word for “everybody”; it really says “all of the people”. This would/could be thought of as the people of Israel, for example

To get off the grammar for a moment, I’ve heard it said that shepherd would not be out with their flock in December. I don’t know that, but there is no hint of the time of year aside from that. If it’s true, then here’s another bit of proof that December 25 was, indeed, chosen deliberately to supplant the Saturnalia and/or the Feast of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun. Which makes sense. Much of our “Christmas” decor is derived from pagan solstice festivals, much of it Nordic: the evergreen tree, the Yule (log), mistletoe and holly, the lights. Not all of it, of course, but a lot of it.

8 Et pastores erant in regione eadem vigilantes et custodientes vigilias noctis supra gregem suum.

9 Et angelus Domini stetit iuxta illos, et claritas Domini circumfulsit illos, et timuerunt timore magno.

10 Et dixit illis angelus: “ Nolite timere; ecce enim evangelizo vobis gaudium magnum, quod erit omni populo,

11 quia natus est vobis hodie Salvator, qui est Christus Dominus, in civitate David.

12 Et hoc vobis signum: invenietis infantem pannis involutum et positum in praesepio ”.

13 Et subito facta est cum angelo multitudo militiae caelestis laudantium Deum et dicentium:

14 “ Gloria in altissimis Deo, /et super terram pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis ”.

15 Καὶ ἐγένετο ὡς ἀπῆλθον ἀπ’ αὐτῶν εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν οἱ ἄγγελοι, οἱ ποιμένες ἐλάλουν πρὸς ἀλλήλους, Διέλθωμεν δὴ ἕως Βηθλέεμ καὶ ἴδωμεν τὸ ῥῆμα τοῦτο τὸ γεγονὸς ὃ ὁ κύριος ἐγνώρισεν ἡμῖν.

16 καὶ ἦλθαν σπεύσαντες καὶ ἀνεῦραν τήν τε Μαριὰμ καὶ τὸνἸωσὴφ καὶ τὸ βρέφος κείμενον ἐν τῇ φάτνῃ:

17 ἰδόντες δὲ ἐγνώρισαν περὶ τοῦ ῥήματος τοῦ λαληθέντος αὐτοῖς περὶ τοῦ παιδίου τούτου.

18 καὶ πάντες οἱ ἀκούσαντες ἐθαύμασαν περὶ τῶν λαληθέντων ὑπὸ τῶν ποιμένων πρὸς αὐτούς:

19 ἡ δὲ Μαριὰμ πάντα συνετήρει τὰ ῥήματα ταῦτα συμβάλλουσα ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτῆς.

20 καὶ ὑπέστρεψαν οἱ ποιμένες δοξάζοντες καὶ αἰνοῦντες τὸν θεὸν ἐπὶ πᾶσιν οἷς ἤκουσαν καὶ εἶδονκαθὼς ἐλαλήθη πρὸς αὐτούς.

And it happened as they went from them to the sky the messengers, the shepherds spoke to each other, “Let us go indeed to Bethlehem and we will see this having become having been said which the lord has made known to us”. (16) And they went hurrying and they found Mary and Joseph and the newborn lying in the manger. (17) Seeing they were made aware about the things having been spoken of the speaking to them about this child. (18) And all those hearing marveled about the things having been said by the shepherds towards them (i.e., those hearing) (19) Mary observed all these things having been said (and) she stored them up in her heart. (20) 

We were talking about whether the angels were on the ground or in the air. Whichever it was, they returned to the sky, which I think is the proper translation for “ouranos” in this instance. Of course, it’s always translated as “heaven”, although with a lower-case ‘h’. Normally in English, the lower-case ‘h’ is plural, ‘the heavens’, which is the neutral synonym for ‘sky’, but it’s difficult to be sure what was on the minds of the translators when they rendered this the way they did. I just think that anything like “Heaven” with pearly gates is rather anachronistic at this point, but I can’t say that with a great deal of certainty. At this point I don’t know whether Luke is a singular heaven guy like Mark, or a plural-heavens guy like Matthew. We shall see. But the question of heaven/sky/Heaven makes the Pater Noster a bit problematic, doesn’t it?

And here is where the manger comes back, for the second time since we first saw it. This repetition makes it really difficult to suggest that the first one was an interpolation. It’s obviously not, but an integral part of the text. So that makes the whole of Verse 7 seem a bit awkward. But there it is.

The most important part of this section, I think, is the bit about Mary. Mark named her; Matthew told us she conceived through the sacred breath, but neither of them really say anything about her. Luke, OTOH, seems to take a real interest in Mary. We’ve already had the Annunciation, her visit to Elisabeth, the Magnificat, and now in this section the actual giving birth, swaddling Jesus, culminating with this bit about storing things in her heart. Joseph, meanwhile, has already faded into the background. It’s interesting to note how his character pretty much failed to develop at all; but then, he only appears–via a cameo mention of his name–in two of the four gospels. John will include at least one more story about Mary, at the wedding feast in Cana; there may be others that escape me at the moment. These sorts of anecdotes are what nudges me to call Luke a novelist; he’s concerned to humanize Mary, or to make her a real person, a mother, a new mother with her firstborn who was a son. It’s been a journey for her and here she is at the culmination with Jesus’ birth. Of course, it’s not the culmination, but she doesn’t know that. But it is the finale of the part of her life when the messenger of the lord suddenly appeared from nowhere to tell her she’s going to conceive through the sacred breath. That’s got to be a bit of a head scratcher; and now it’s happened, and she is taking a moment to reflect. Is that a human thing to do, or what?

So why, the Q people ask, are none of the details of the Nativity story found in Matthew not in Luke? Where are the Magoi? Luke, you see, was very Gentile-friendly, so the recognition of the child by other pagans woulda/shoulda been something that Luke picked up on and ran with. Really? Luke should have? According to whom? See, there’s the problem with the Q “argument”: it depends on the ability to interpret the mind of Luke so we can tell why he did what he did, such as demolishing the “masterful organization” of the Q material found in Matthew. Yes, the stories are different, and there is very little apparent overlap. What most Q people don’t consider often enough, or fully enough, is that Luke was not in the least interested in copying out Matthew. Rather, Luke set out to write a brand-new gospel, one with it’s own points and point-of-view. I’m sure I’ve said that, and no doubt I will say it again because it really bears repeating. You write a new gospel because you’ve got something new to say. There is nothing contradictory in the two accounts, aside from the fact that Herod the Great and the governorship of Quirinius did not overlap in time; however, that’s a factual mistake, and those happen. So if we think of the accounts as complementary, where is the problem? Now, in truth, that’s not a terribly compelling explanation of why the two accounts have almost no details in common; but what is compelling, I think, is that Luke repeats Joseph–who appears nowhere else–the visitations by angels, and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

My apologies, that last bit was something of a tangent and a rant. The point is that Luke has an interest in Mary that is not shared elsewhere. It will continune in the next stroy, but it’s something to watch beyond that.

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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 February 12, 2017, in Chapter 2, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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