Luke, Matthew, and Q: addendum to Summary Luke Chapter 1

In going back over the opening verses of Luke, something struck me that I hadn’t noticed the first time around. At the very beginning of Chapter 1, in Verse 5, which initiates the story after the introduction to Theophilos,, Luke places the story of Zacharias in historical context. “In the days of Herod, king of Judea” is how he starts. Later, of course, we are told that Jesus’ birth occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria. It has been noted that these two events, the days of King Herod and the days of Quirinius did not overlap. King Herod died in what we would deem 4 BCE, and Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 CE. More, we apparently know that a census of Judea was taken in the years 6/7 CE.

My point is this: given the ten-year gap between Herod and Quirinius, it is hard to reconcile the chronology of the birth of John and the birth of Jesus. Elisabeth is pregnant when Mary goes to visit. Given the flow of the story, we are led to assume that this pregnancy occurred not too long after Zacharias had his encounter with the angel. And we know that Mary was told of her coming pregnancy before she went to visit Elisabeth, the implication being that Mary’s pregnancy occurred with only a relatively short interval between the Annunciation and the conception. So we have the sense that Zacharias encountered the messenger of the lord in the days of Herod, that soon after Elisabeth conceived, that Mary got annunciated (that’s actually a word?) and then conceived, John was born and Jesus was born all in the period of perhaps two years. We are not given that time frame; there is nothing in the narrative to indicate how much time passed in between events, except we know that that something less than nine months elapsed between Mary’s visit and John’s birth because that is human physiology. We are not told, but nowhere do we get the sense that some ten years elapsed between Zacharias’ encounter and the announcement of the census. Yet, this is what would be necessary for the chronology to work, wherein Zacharias was told of his wife’s impending conception in the days of Herod and the birth of Jesus in the census of 6-7 CE.

It is also worth noting that we are told it was in the days of King Herod. This is important because, although there was a succession of Herods, and sometimes more than one at a time, the last King Herod was Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. The others bore the title of ethnarch, or tetrarch, or something such. I just wanted to make that very clear, since Jesus was sent to see Herod Antipater. He was, IIRC, a son or grandson of King Herod, but Antipater was a tetrarch, one of four men among whom what had once been King Herod’s kingdom was divided.

Why is this important? Because I believe it very clearly indicates that Luke read Matthew’s version of the birth narrative. It’s entirely possible that Luke was simply confused on dates for King Herod. Now, I’ve heard it said that Luke is concerned with moving the center of gravity of the Christian world to Rome, which is why he ends with Paul heading to Rome as a prisoner. More, he is, and has been considered a pagan, and I would suggest he’s writing primarily for pagans; as such, why bother with trying to set this in the time of a Jewish king who’d been dead for close to a hundred years? Yes, there are reasons why he might have done this; I just can’t think of any that really compelling. Yes, it could be a sop to Jewish sensibility, an attempt to be exotic, or something such. But really, it’s such a throwaway line, right at the beginning of the story, before the reader is even fully engaged. We have the references to Jerusalem coming up which should, or at least could, satisfy that by stressing the connexions of Jesus to Judaism and all of that.

To my mind, the best reason to include this is because it’s in Matthew. In this way, Luke creates another connexion between him and Matthew. This is important for Luke, I think, because Luke realizes that he’s telling a completely different birth story than what Matthew told. So to assuage the concerns of those in the audience familiar with Matthew, Luke plants these little hooks throughout his own narrative, all of them designed to feel familiar, to make his very different narrative feel familiar to those who had heard Matthew’s version. So Luke starts us off with Herod, the Herod that had played such a prominent role in Matthew. Then Luke adds the angels coming and going and announcing miraculous births, and keeps the action in Bethlehem, throws in Joseph for good measure, all capped off with the virgin birth.

Herod provides one more link between the two evangelists. Based on the list just given, we’re up to almost half-a-dozen such links. That seems like a pretty good chain of ideas. It’s way too many to be coincidence. And this deliberate skirting of Matthew’s narrative, all the while simultaneously making sure that there are echoes of Matthew throughout may show itself again, later in the gospel.

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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 18, 2017, in gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Luke's Gospel, Matthew's Gospel, Special topic, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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