Luke Chapter 2:39-52

Chapter Two concludes with yet another story that is unique to Luke. Apparently, all of these stories transmitted in the “oral tradition” managed to bypass both Mark and Matthew. Or, Luke created them. This is the only story of Jesus between his birth and his public ministry. Here is yet another instance of Luke feeling the need to sort of round out the character of his personnae by providing background, which then gives insights into who these people were.

This story involves another trip to Jerusalem. It’s virtually impossible to know whether Jesus and his family would have made such trips. All Jews tried to go to Jerusalem for Passover; perhaps the idea of a family traveling from Nazareth to Jerusalem was plausible enough on the surface. But then, by this point, is Luke even trying to be plausible to a Jewish audience?

39 Καὶ ὡς ἐτέλεσαν πάντα τὰ κατὰ τὸν νόμον κυρίου, ἐπέστρεψαν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν εἰς πόλιν ἑαυτῶν Ναζαρέθ.

40 Τὸ δὲ παιδίον ηὔξανεν καὶ ἐκραταιοῦτο πληρούμενον σοφίᾳ, καὶ χάρις θεοῦ ἦν ἐπ’αὐτό.

And as they finished all the matters according to the law of the lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. (40) The boy grew and strengthened and became filled by wisdom, and the favour of God was on him. 

First of all, this really should have been tacked onto the end of the previous section. At least, Verse 39 should have been. But I was trying to end that one ASAP, given the length.

As for content, there is no need to talk about Nazareth again. At the point by which Luke is writing, the tradition has been fixed, and Jesus was from Nazareth and the discussion was over. More interesting is how the author sort of breezily says they returned to their own city. After all, he contrived the whole story about everyone having to go to their home town. So maybe they traveled there, registered, and then returned. Of course, Mary had the baby, and they took a side trip to Jerusalem, but we are told that they finished their business in Jerusalem, but not that they had completed the whole registration process. That appears simply to have been forgotten.

And the Greek word “charis”, < χάρις >, does not mean “grace”*. Well, it does, but not in the Christian sense of the word. By the time the Vulgate was translated, the Latin word “gratia” was probably well on the way to our understanding of the word “grace”, but it simply did not mean that in Greek at the time Luke wrote. That would be an interesting investigation: to compare & contrast how the Greek patristic thinkers thought of “charis” vs. the way the Latin patristic thinkers thought of “gratia”. Were there differences? Did these differences cause problems? I don’t recall this being an issue. Why not? Because the concept of “charis” had been written about in Greek for a long enough time that it came to have some sense of the Latin word? That strikes me as an interesting question. 

*Yes, if you look it up in the Great Scott, “grace” is provided as a translation. But it is not the Christian concept of grace. 

39 Et ut perfecerunt omnia secundum legem Domini, reversi sunt in Galilaeam in civitatem suam Nazareth.

40 Puer autem crescebat et confortabatur plenus sapientia; et gratia Dei erat super illum.

41 Καὶ ἐπορεύοντο οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ κατ’ ἔτος εἰς Ἰερουσαλὴμ τῇ ἑορτῇ τοῦ πάσχα.

42 καὶ ὅτε ἐγένετο ἐτῶν δώδεκα, ἀναβαινόντων αὐτῶν κατὰ τὸ ἔθος τῆς ἑορτῆς  

43 καὶ τελειωσάντων τὰς ἡμέρας, ἐν τῷ ὑποστρέφειν αὐτοὺς ὑπέμεινεν Ἰησοῦς ὁ παῖς ἐν Ἰερουσαλήμ, καὶ οὐκ ἔγνωσαν οἱ γονεῖς αὐτοῦ.

44 νομίσαντεςδὲ αὐτὸν εἶναι ἐν τῇ συνοδίᾳ ἦλθον ἡμέρας ὁδὸν καὶ ἀνεζήτουν αὐτὸν ἐν τοῖς συγγενεῦσιν καὶ τοῖς γνωστοῖς,

45 καὶ μὴ εὑρόντες ὑπέστρεψαν εἰς Ἰερουσαλὴμ ἀναζητοῦντες αὐτόν.

46 καὶ ἐγένετο μετὰ ἡμέρας τρεῖς εὗρον αὐτὸν ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ καθεζόμενον ἐν μέσῳ τῶν διδασκάλων καὶ ἀκούοντα αὐτῶν καὶ ἐπερωτῶντα αὐτούς:

And his parents went away every year to Jerusalem on the feast of the Passover. (42) And when he was twelve years, they were making their trip according to custom of the festival. (43) And the days having been completed, in the their returning, the boy Jesus remained in Jerusalem, and his parent did not know of him. (44) Thinking him to be in the traveling group they went on the road for a day, and they sought him among their relatives and their acquaintances, (45) and not finding him they returned to Jerusalem seeking him. (46) And three days later they found him in the Temple seated in the midst of the teacher and listening to them and asking (questions) of them.

Of course, the first thing a modern-day parent thinks is “OMG! They LEFT him!”, which is followed by the impulse to run out and file charges against Mary and Joseph. Apparently, the parenting frame of mind was a bit more relaxed back then. Or, anyone hearing this would instantly understand that the story is not factually accurate; rather, it’s intended to convey a greater Truth. In a word, it’s a myth. As such, the audience would possibly not have given the way it happened much thought. Of course it’s not factually accurate. Get with the program already!

As an aside, I had the idea that they didn’t notice him missing until three days later. Misremembered that one.

Here we are told that Joseph and Mary went to Jerusalem every year. This is certainly not impossible; Nazareth is not that far from Jerusalem. Or again, does Luke even care? Is this of a piece with them not noticing? If he’s writing for pagans in Rome, they aren’t going to have a really clear idea of how long the trip was, whether it was possible, or practicable for the Holy Family to make the trip. Once again, that was simply not the point. The point is to show that Jesus was not just a country bumpkin, that he was connected in a real way to the centre of Jewish life. In fact, much of this chapter seems to be devoted to this theme. 

41 Et ibant parentes eius per omnes annos in Ierusalem in die festo Paschae.

42 Et cum factus esset annorum duodecim, ascendentibus illis secundum consuetudinem diei festi,

43 consummatisque diebus, cum redirent, remansit puer Iesus in Ierusalem, et non cognoverunt parentes eius.

44 Existimantes autem illum esse in comitatu, venerunt iter diei et requirebant eum inter cognatos et notos;

45 et non invenientes regressi sunt in Ierusalem requirentes eum.

47 ἐξίσταντο δὲ πάντες οἱ ἀκούοντες αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τῇ συνέσει καὶ ταῖς ἀποκρίσεσιν αὐτοῦ.

48 καὶ ἰδόντες αὐτὸν ἐξεπλάγησαν, καὶ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡμήτηρ αὐτοῦ, Τέκνον, τί ἐποίησας ἡμῖν οὕτως; ἰδοὺ ὁ πατήρ σου κἀγὼ ὀδυνώμενοι ἐζητοῦμέν σε.  

49 καὶ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτούς, Τί ὅτι ἐζητεῖτέ με; οὐκ ᾔδειτε ὅτι ἐν τοῖς τοῦ πατρός μου δεῖ εἶναί με;

All were astounded those hearing him in the comprehension of him. (48) And seeing him they were amazed, and said to him his mother, “Son, why did you do thus to us? Look, your father and I were worried sick looking for you”. (49) And he said to them, “Why did you seek me? Did you not know that among my those of my father it is necessary for me to be?”

I have to stop here for a moment. As the father of a seventeen and an eleven-year old, I can so hear the tone of voice Jesus used here. “What? How dense are you two? Jeez, get a clue already.” in the condescension of utter contempt. This is possibly the most human moment in the entire NT. And I broke my rule about literal translation with “worried sick”, but it just fits. And I’m not even sure if people say that any more. It was big, at least on TV, when I was a kid.   

46 Et factum est, post triduum invenerunt illum in templo sedentem in medio doctorum, audientem illos et interrogantem eos;

47 stupebant autem omnes, qui eum audiebant, super prudentia et responsis eius.

48 Et videntes eum admirati sunt, et dixit Mater eius ad illum: “Fili, quid fecisti nobis sic? Ecce pater tuus et ego dolentes quaerebamus te”.

49 Et ait ad illos: “Quid est quod me quaerebatis? Nesciebatis quia in his, quae Patris mei sunt, oportet me esse?”.

50 καὶ αὐτοὶ οὐ συνῆκαν τὸ ῥῆμα ὃ ἐλάλησεν αὐτοῖς.

51 καὶ κατέβη μετ’ αὐτῶν καὶ ἦλθεν εἰς Ναζαρέθ, καὶ ἦν ὑποτασσόμενος αὐτοῖς. καὶ ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ διετήρει πάντα τὰ ῥήματα ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτῆς.

52 Καὶ Ἰησοῦς προέκοπτεν [ἐν τῇ] σοφίᾳ καὶ ἡλικίᾳ καὶ χάριτι παρὰ θεῷ καὶ ἀνθρώποις.

And they did not understand the words he spoke to them. (51) And they went down and came to Nazareth and he was subjected to them, and his mother observed all his words in her heart. (52) And Jesus progressed [in] wisdom and age and favour from God and men.

50 Et ipsi non intellexerunt verbum, quod locutus est ad illos.

51 Et descendit cum eis et venit Nazareth et erat subditus illis. Et mater eius conservabat omnia verba in corde suo.

52 Et Iesus proficiebat sapientia et aetate et gratia apud Deum et homines.

Didn’t I say that his parents were dense? I mean, really? They don’t get it? The part they don’t get, of course, is the idea of the “things of my father” (not my father’s house. My father’s business would really work, too). Greek allows one to use just the demonstrative adjective without an actual noun, which the hearer supplies for herself. But it’s the ‘father’ part that they, apparently, don’t get. Again, this is probably not meant to be looked at too closely from an actual literal/practical perspective; it’s all so obviously allegory, or myth, that discussing it as if it were an actual event is really to miss the point. And something about the writing tells me that Luke had this tone in mind, that it was to be understood, as he wrote the words. This is not history. This is not biography. Any attempt to read it as such seriously distorts the message. Mark and Matthew did not have this same sort of tone, but we have to wonder if Luke–and most others–didn’t understand it in that manner? Did Mark and Matthew intend for their words to be taken as a literal description of an actual event? That is a serious judgement call, that should only be made after a really close reading of both texts. As such, it’s beyond me. I suspect that…I’m not actually sure what I expect about the other two evangelists that we’ve read. They definitely had a tone much more in ernest than Luke has, but I can’t say that means they expected to be taken literally.

The other possibility is that Luke expected his audience to be slightly more sophisticated, and slightly more literary than the people Mark and Matthew were addressing. This would allow Luke a bit more latitude in how he approached his subject. Not ironically, but with sort of a tacit understanding that, ‘yes, this is a myth. Don’t take it literally. Don’t pay attention to the actual details and setting. They aren’t the point here.’ The question then becomes whether my assessment of Luke as a novelist is affected by this. The answer is yes and no. When I say Luke is a novelist, I mean that he approaches his subject as a novelist would, and uses techniques that a novelist would: the Annunciation, the birth, the Circumcision, the episode here, all of them create a more fully human  character, especially in the case of Mary. But at the same time, he expects his audience to understand that these are just that, techniques, rather than the telling of a real event. In that, Luke would more accurately be said to be writing allegory, or maybe fables.

That isn’t said to raise eyebrows, but to drive home the point–much too frequently forgotten–that the gospels are not even biography, let alone history. As for the former, Plutarch is rightly famous for his lives; they are perhaps what a movie would call “based on a true story”. They are factual to a point, but there is also a high degree of moral instruction involved. A very high degree. And as I’ve mentioned–no doubt countless times–even the supposedly “scientific” historian Thucydides selected his material to convey a certain moral lesson; it is only by telling Truth that one can create a “possession for all time” as he describes his purpose. And I’ve been re-reading Tacitus’ Annales; for someone who claims to write “without flattery or anger”, he sure manages to do a hatchet job on Tiberius. Thus, given that even methodical historians had a different approach to facts than we do, trying to read the gospels as reliably factual is just missing the point. Luke had no illusions about what he was doing, and I would guess that he expected his audience to take much the same approach and share much the same attitude.

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 26, 2017, in Chapter 2, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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