Summary Luke Chapter 2

This chapter includes the birth narrative, the story of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and Jesus’ adventure in Jerusalem at the age of twelve. The birth narrative is the more famous of the two, with most of the details that we think of as surrounding the birth of Jesus: the journey of Mary & Joseph to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, the manger, the shepherds who were sore afraid, and the heavenly host. The only details missing from the popular iconography of Christmas are the star and the Magoi; the Slaughter of the Innocents and the flight to Egypt do not play a large role in Christmas pageants around the country. In fact, we are told that all of Matthew’s themes are completely absent from Luke, so obviously Luke never read Matthew.

Or did he?

This bears repeating: thematically, Luke is very, very closely tied to the elements that Matthew added. To list them once again, Luke accepts the idea of a virgin giving birth, that the child conceived to the virgin was by way of the sacred breath, the announcement of this news came by angel-messenger, that Mary’s husband’s name was Joseph, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Even the timing of the birth is correlated to Matthew by putting the story of the birth of the Baptist in the reign of Herod, even though Jesus was born in the governorship of Quirinius. All of these details are found ony in Matthew. But it goes beyond even these details. Matthew is very keen to tell us that Jesus was the son of God, and that his birth was a world-historical event, heralded by a star. Well, Luke says that Jesus was the son of God, and that his birth was heralded by a heavenly host. And what is a star if not a different sort of heavenly host? Instead of magoi from the East, Luke gives us prophets in the Temple of Jerusalem. It is in this way that Luke conveys the prophecy of Jesus’ birth, but to the Jews rather than pagans. The shepherds in Luke fill the role of the Magoi in another way: in Matthew, people travel great distances, but the locals pretty much ignored the event. In Luke, both the locals (the shepherds) and the prophets (in Jerusalem) were aware of Jesus’ birth. So in both accounts it’s clear that the coming of Jesus was a world-historical event, presaged, foretold, and recognized and having been fulfilled.

In fact, if you tally up the different aspects of the story, pretty well all of them are found in Luke, but in altered form. But the alterations seem to dovetail very nicely and in complement, like a very well-crafted piece of furniture, with joints that are precise to the point of being invisible. What I am saying is that it feels, like Luke took the story of Matthew, digested the elements, took a step back, and then reconstituted these elements in a way that they carry the implication–and much of the fine detail–of Matthew and convey the message while providing an entirely different context for the different elements. The apparently complete lack of overlap between the two is more apparent than real, which, to my mind, signifies deliberate intent rather than creating an account that is wholly unaware of its predecessor. This is a very crucial point.

Much of the minimal argument that is put forth for Q rests on two things. The first is that Luke is completely unaware of places that Matthew added to Mark. Second is that Luke never, not once (well, except the “brood of vipers” thing from the Baptist) puts a story from Mark in the same context as Matthew does. Well, if Luke did follow Matthew in adding to, or changing Mark, that becomes Q material pretty much by definition; after all, Q is exactly that stuff that Matthew and Luke have that Mark doesn’t. So strike #1. As for #2, just by sheer dumb probability, Luke should have put at least one story from Mark in the same context that Matthew did. That this did not happen at all defies probability. If Luke’s choices were made completely independently of Matthew, there should be at least a couple of places where Luke used the same context as Matthew. The implication then becomes that, since he did not make the same placement, it’s because Luke chose not to make the same placement because he knew exactly where Matthew put the same stories. This fits in very nicely with what I’m saying about the nativity story, and Chapter 2 as a whole: Luke very nicely works around Matthew, he supplements and complements Matthew, but he also knows exactly where not to go. Matthew has pagan Magoi; Luke has Jewish prophecies. Matthew has a star; Luke has a multitude of the heavenly host. In each case, they announce the birth of Jesus. Luke’s placement, so far, has been very strategic.

There is one further aspect of this that needs to be mentioned. It has been pointed out numerous times that the story of Paul’s conversion that he provides in Galatians is very different from the more familiar version we find in Acts. The latter has the whole Road to Damascus immediacy and flamboyance. However, if you think about the experience being described, and think about what Paul says and take it allegorically, with a large dollop of drama added, the two descriptions are not dissimilar in their fundamentals. Yes, the outward appearance is very different, but the interior experience…maybe not so much. Both describe a revelation, a sudden and violent shift in perception; that one occurs while Paul is riding a horse and involves a blinding light, both of which are external events, or events perceived through the outward-facing senses, doesn’t change the inner experience. A sudden insight of life-changing proportions can certainly seem like a blinding flash of light; or, perhaps that’s a particularly effective way to describe the sensation to someone else.

Whether or not this is convincing or not will depend, I believe and to some extent, on whether one is willing to concede that a host of angels in the sky is another metaphor for the sudden appearance of a star. Both are miraculous; at least, the sudden appearance of a star would seem miraculous to someone unfamiliar with the concept of a supernova, which can cause a star to appear quite suddenly. And so the angels came and went. Suddenly. I believe there is a connexion, how each is a metaphor describing a celestial phenomenon meant to herald the occurrence of an event of great significance. If we notice that Luke does this on a consistent basis, then we have at least the potential for an argument that this is, indeed, what Luke was doing. And if he’s doing this, then he was bloody damn well aware of Matthew. And if Luke does this to Paul as well, then the case becomes stronger. In each case, I think, what Luke adds is the element of drama, in the sense of both stage direction and character development, but also heightened expectations and even dramatic tension. That is certainly true about Paul’s conversion.

So, in short, Chapter 2 is the backstory of Jesus. It’s about his birth in some detail, it adds episodes from Jesus’ early life. It also expands the role of Mary, something that I’ve been meaning to mention, but the time has not seemed ripe. Joseph remains a cipher; for whatever reasons, the cult of Joseph did not start to blossom until much later, to the point that he ended up the patron saint of Italy. But even then, he was not a truly popular figure who attracted tales and adventures. I suspect this is because he disappears so early in the story. He appears only in Chapter 1 of Matthew, and then only at the beginning. In Luke he makes it to Chapter 2, but that’s only after being wholly absent from Chapter 1. And it also occurs to me that Luke was very careful to tell his audience about the divine conception even before Joseph makes an appearance. Here is yet another way that Luke continues the story, retaining the character of Joseph, but also supplementing the story introduced by Matthew, smoothing out the rough edge of Joseph considering divorce. Matthew “corrected” the “problem” of Jesus having no father, leaving him open to charges of being illegitimate. Then Luke “corrects” the account of Matthew, eliminating completely the whole illegitimate thing. After all, Mary was pregnant when she was betrothed to/married to Joseph; the presumption was that the child had been fathered by another man, which was grounds for “putting her aside”. With Luke, that whole possibility of embarrassment is proactively eliminated by having the messenger Gabriel announce her impending conception before it happens. We do not know how the news was broken to Joseph, but that’s not really important; remember, Luke is not writing an account that he expects people to take seriously in all the details.

The point is, much is made of how different the birth stories are; why would Luke change Matthew? Answer: I’m not sure he did. He adds to Matthew, but nothing he says contradicts Matthew. He even retains most of Matthew’s additions to Mark: Joseph, virgin birth, annunciation by angels, reign of Herod, the birth heralded by celestial phenomena, Jesus’ identity understood by wise people, and probably a few other things that I’ve forgotten. Personally, I believe that I’m building a pretty decent case that Luke was very well aware of Matthew.

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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 March 4, 2017, in Chapter 2, General / Overview, Luke's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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