Luke Chapter 3:1-14

From Chapter 2 we move on to Chapter 3, which is generally how the progression works. The first story is John the Baptist, leading up to his baptism of Jesus, which is followed by the temptations. All of these are in Mark; however, Matthew expands on John, and Luke has much the same expansion. But Luke did not follow Matthew; they both copied the nearly-identical passages from Q. Now, here’s the thing about that. If Luke is writing because he has things that need to be said, why does so closely replicate Matthew at so many points if he was using Matthew? That is a legitimate question, and one that I have an obligation to acknowledge and to answer. How well I respond to that question will help determine whether my insistence of Luke using Matthew, thereby relegating Q to the dustbin of history, carries any weight of conviction. Of course, we also have to ask the same question about why Matthew stuck so closely to Mark.


1 Ἐν ἔτει δὲ πεντεκαιδεκάτῳ τῆς ἡγεμονίας Τιβερίου Καίσαρος, ἡγεμονεύοντος Ποντίου Πιλάτου τῆς Ἰουδαίας, καὶ τετρααρχοῦντος τῆς Γαλιλαίας Ἡρῴδου, Φιλίππου δὲ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτοῦ τετρααρχοῦντος τῆς Ἰτουραίας καὶ Τραχωνίτιδος χώρας, καὶ Λυσανίου τῆς Ἀβιληνῆς τετρααρχοῦντος,

2 ἐπὶ ἀρχιερέως Αννα καὶ Καϊάφα, ἐγένετο ῥῆμα θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν Ζαχαρίου υἱὸν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, in the governorship of Judea of Pontius Pilate, and while Herod was tetrarching in Galilee, and Philipp his (Herod’s) brother was tetrarching in the territory of Ituraia and Trachontis, and Lysanias was tetrarching in Abilene, (2) in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God was upon John, son of Zacharias, in the desert.  

Luke is really pinning things down here in a very specific way. The fifteenth year of Tiberius would put us into the period 29/30 CE. This means that if Jesus was born in the governorship of Quirinius, he was only in his mid-twenties when these events took place. Now again, at the moment, we are talking about John and not Jesus. So this initial even could have occurred when Jesus was in his mid-twenties. It depends on whether time elapsed between the outset of the gospel and the baptism of Jesus. Now too, bear in mind that we do not exactly know how much older John was than Jesus. We know that Elisabeth was pregnant when Mary visited, but per the text Mary had not yet conceived. I think this detail frequently sort of gets lost in the shuffle of the story. Gabriel tells Mary that Elisabeth is in her sixth month of pregnancy, but we are not told that Mary had actually conceived yet. The way the story was told to me as a kid in Catholic school, Mary was already pregnant, so the two boys in utero sort of had a hoedown together when Mary visited. But the text does not say that. It’s interesting that, for all his precision here, Luke is decidedly–probably deliberately–vague about the time between the visitation (The Visitation, if you’re counting Joyful Mysteries) and the birth of Jesus. And just so, he is rather vague here.

Note that we have three tetrarchs named. That’s remarkable because the “tetra” part means “four”. The kingdom of of Herod the Great, the final King of the Jews had been broken into four parts. The lesser parts were doled out to Herod’s children and grandchildren–I believe this Herod, Antipas, was the grandson of Herod the Great. But he may have been a son. In any case, the fourth part was Judea, which was retained by Rome as the seat of the Roman governor for the area, although strictly speaking Pilate was the governor of Syria, to which Judea was appended. Annas and Caiaphas were the local collaborationist puppets of the Romans. While their authority was actually religious, the secular and the religious powers had been thoroughly mixed up since the time of the Maccabees a century before. So, while his title was high priest, Caiaphas had secular authority as well. He was charged with keeping the peace. The Romans found it useful to interpose a buffer of a puppet regime between themselves and the subject population for the first period after annexing a new territory. Thus Herod the Great was what is known as a “client king”; he retained the title of king, but only at the sufferance of the Romans. Really, the time for this intermediary rule had gone past, but the Romans maintained it to some degree here. I am honestly not sure why they retained this arrangement. In the grand scheme of the Empire, Judea was sort of an afterthought, so the rationale behind the arrangement is not well explained in our sources. Josephus’ account is very Judeo-centric, so I don’t know how far it is to be trusted. The point of all this is that Annas and Caiaphas did have limited secular power, largely because Pilate spent most of his time in Caesarea. So Pilate delegated the local policing to the Jewish religious authorities with the help of  a detachment of Roman soldiers who had considerable latitude to act independently to step in and quell any sort of disturbance. One thing that is important to realize is that there was not a lot of cooperation between the high priest and any of the tetrarchs. Indeed, that was largely the point of fragmenting the area like this: to prevent cooperation between the native parties. So the idea that the high priests in Jerusalem were in communication and/or collusion with Herod about Jesus–or anything else–really doesn’t hold much water.

1 Anno autem quinto decimo im perii Tiberii Caesaris, procu rante Pontio Pilato Iudaeam, tetrarcha autem Galilaeae Herode, Philippo autem fratre eius tetrarcha Ituraeae et Trachonitidis regionis, et Lysania Abilinae tetrarcha,

2 sub principe sacerdotum Anna et Caipha, factum est verbum Dei super Ioannem Zachariae filium in deserto.

3 καὶ ἦλθεν εἰς πᾶσαν [τὴν] περίχωρον τοῦ Ἰορδάνου κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν,

4 ὡς γέγραπται ἐν βίβλῳ λόγωνἨσαΐου τοῦ προφήτου, Φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ.

5 πᾶσα φάραγξ πληρωθήσεται καὶ πᾶν ὄρος καὶ βουνὸς ταπεινωθήσεται, καὶ ἔσται τὰ σκολιὰ εἰς εὐθείαν καὶ αἱ τραχεῖαι εἰς ὁδοὺς λείας:

6 καὶ ὄψεται πᾶσα σὰρξ τὸ σωτήριον τοῦ θεοῦ.

And he came to all the countryside surrounding of the Jordan (River) announcing dunking of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, (4) as is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “A voice shouting in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the lord, make straight the paths of him. (5) Every valley will be filled and every road and hill brought low and will be the crookedness to straight, and the rough to smooth roads. (6) And all flesh will see the salvation of God.

This excerpt of Isaiah is common to all three gospels. What is unique to Luke is the last verse about salvation of the flesh. This word, in this sort of context, is not really used by Mark & Matthew (2M). In fact, Luke only uses the word twice himself. in 2M, it occurs only in the apocalyptic prophecies of Jesus (Mk 13; Mt 24) combined with the idea of salvation. The one who does use this word frequently is Paul, but he doesn’t necessarily use it combined with salvation. So the salvation of the flesh shows up once in each of the Synoptics; 2M use it by saying it is good that the times of tribulation will be cut short, else no flesh would be saved. Luke uses it here.

But now we need to ask if what Luke is saying here is actually the same concept of saving the flesh, in the sense of saving a physical life. This is very difficult to assess, because there really is no explanation for this, no elaboration, nothing to give us any real sense of what John might mean.Two things strike me. First, the words of V6 are not in Isaiah; they have been added by Luke. The second thing is that it occurred to me that this might relate to whether the kingdom John was preaching was of this world, in which case “saving the flesh” could and probably should be taken quite literally. But then I noticed that John does not preach about the coming kingdom. At least, not in those terms, using that word. Both of these concepts, the salvation of the flesh and the kingdom of God are very ambiguous throughout the gospels; does salvation mean eternal? is the kingdom of this world, or the next? The use of salvation in this spot does not help us clarify the answer to that question. But then, by later Christian usage and understanding, “salvation of the flesh” almost has to refer to the physical life, since the belief developed that it is the soul, not the body, that is saved. Except in Paul, we all have a resurrection body, but that is probably a red herring. So why is this term inserted–deliberately–here? What does it mean? These questions are difficult to answer, especially since this is one of only two times that Luke uses the word “sarx”.

Just to note, each time I read this, my take changes a little bit. On this last iteration, I feel pretty certain that Luke is indeed talking about salvation in the later Christian, and Pauline, sense of the term, especially in Rom 11:11 and 13:11. I realize this is cheating a bit, since we haven’t covered Romans in this blog, but it’s also present in 1 Thess 5:8-9. Since we know that Luke was aware of Paul’s career, and probably some of Paul’s writings–Romans among the most likely–we are probably justified in this understanding.  

3 Et venit in omnem regionem circa Iordanem praedicans baptismum paenitentiae in remissionem peccatorum,

4 sicut scriptum est in libro sermonum Isaiae prophetae:

“Vox clamantis in deserto: / ‘Parate viam Domini, / rectas facite semitas eius.

5 Omnis vallis implebitur, / et omnis mons et collis humiliabitur; / et erunt prava in directa, / et aspera in vias planas:

6 et videbit omnis caro salutare Dei’ ”.

7 Ἔλεγεν οὖν τοῖς ἐκπορευομένοις ὄχλοις βαπτισθῆναι ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ, Γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν, τίς ὑπέδειξεν ὑμῖν φυγεῖν ἀπὸ τῆς μελλούσης ὀργῆς;

He said to those crowds having come to be dunked by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the intended destined wrath?   

Have to stop here. I used the same translation “brood of vipers” for this passage in Matthew. Apologies, but “offspring of serpents” doesn’t pack nearly the emotional wallop of my preferred phrase. Although after taking a peek, it appears that “brood of vipers” is the preferred translation in my three modern crib translations (NIV, ESV, NASB). The KJV is the sole dissenting vote, giving us “generation of vipers”. Regardless, I’m reasonably certain that I’ve heard this as “offspring of serpents”. But apparently, the base meaning of the Greek”echidna” is, actually, “viper”. And the “dunked” is a pretentious reminder that the Greek word/verb for “baptize” is not a special word. It’s is a common word, used for many different, ordinary, quotidian affairs. It pays to remember that; otherwise we get caught up in this sense of Christianity, and start thinking of “baptize” in terms that are wholly anachronistic. We start to assume that the word meant the same for John as it does for us. This is emphatically not true, and must be borne in mind.

But the really juicy part of this verse is the “intended“, as in “intended destined wrath”. No doubt we touched on this when discussing Matthew, but the verb “mellow” has several layers of nuance to it. First and foremost, it means “destined”, rather than intended, in the sense of “I intend to do…” No doubt that the two meanings merged, or split from the idea that something happened because Zeus intended it to happen, or it was destined because Zeus intended it to happen. (Editor’s note: this is not exactly proper Greek theology; destiny was the province of the Fates, rather than Zeus, and there is a real question about whether Zeus was bound by destiny/fate or not.) My four crib translations, three modern & KJV, render this as “coming” wrath. This simply will not do. I hate to say a translation is wrong, but “coming” completely obscures the idea of some sort of will, whether it’s the will of Fate, or of a god, or even of God. This has to happen, and “coming” merely states that it will happen. Interesting, this translation as “coming” starts with the Vulgate, for it renders this as “coming wrath”.

Now, the reason for this fudging is very clear. The Christians were very sensitive to the idea of pagan fatalism, and they took pains to deny this, which is why they invented the concept of Free Will. In this way they sought to escape from things like astrology. Or from astrology. The problem is that a British monk named Pelagius took this a little too far, and said that Free Will meant we could merit our own salvation. To which Augustine took great exception, which led him to interpret certain sections (but by no means all) of Romans to entail Predestination. Of course, that is simply another word for “fate”. And so the circle comes complete and we’re back at pagan fatalism, except we won’t admit it, so even St Jerome starts to weasel by rendering this as “coming” wrath. And the NT Greek dictionary I use gives the base meaning of “shall”, with “coming” as the third definition. This is what happens when you start to believe that there is such an animal as “NT Greek”. This goes along with translating “baptizo” as “to baptize”. The circle becomes closed and self-referential and we end up thinking we know more than we actually do. It’s really another example of epistemic closure, self-reinforcing and cut off from outside points of view. This is what I’m doing my very small part to change.

Now, it’s very interesting because in 1 Thess 1:10, Paul talks about the “coming wrath”, and that is exactly the verb he uses: coming. It would really be useful to know where Paul got this. Was this the general expectation for all the communities following Jesus? Or was this part of Paul’s personal revelation. From reading something like the Didache, one gets the impression that this idea of coming wrath may not have been universal to all the various assemblies around the Eastern Mediterranean. There were, after all, other gospels. OTOH, Mark had picked it up in Chapter 13. Here’s an interesting thought: Paul talks about the coming wrath, as if it’s imminent at any given moment. What if the transition to “intended”, or even “destined” represents a stepping back from this immediacy? Yes, the wrath is coming, it’s been scheduled, but for some point in the indeterminate future, rather than hanging there, waiting to spring like, RIGHT NOW. 

7 Dicebat ergo ad turbas, quae exibant, ut baptizarentur ab ipso: “ Genimina viperarum, quis ostendit vobis fugere a ventura ira?

8 ποιήσατε οὖν καρποὺς ἀξίους τῆς μετανοίας: καὶ μὴ ἄρξησθε λέγειν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς, Πατέρα ἔχομεντὸν Ἀβραάμ, λέγω γὰρ ὑμῖν ὅτι δύναται ὁ θεὸς ἐκ τῶν λίθων τούτων ἐγεῖραι τέκνα τῷ Ἀβραάμ.

9 ἤδη δὲ καὶ ἡ ἀξίνη πρὸς τὴν ῥίζαν τῶν δένδρων κεῖται: πᾶν οὖν δένδρον μὴ ποιοῦν καρπὸν καλὸν ἐκκόπτεται καὶ εἰς πῦρ βάλλεται.

“So produce fruit worthy of repentance; and do not start to say among yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’, for I tell you that God can from these stones raise up children to Abraham. (9) Indeed the axe lies at the root of the trees. All trees not making good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 

This whole section of John’s rant is supposed to be from Q. Which means it dates from a period very early in the time after Jesus. Except this little tidbit does not really fit into that timeframe. Here we have a piece of rhetoric the aim of which is to explain why the Jews did not convert to become followers of Jesus. Here we see that John is warning the Jews that they will be superseded in the succession to the kingdom (a term that John does not use in Luke.) That they are the descendants of Abraham will avail them naught. As such, it most likely does not date to the 30s or even the 50s; rather it’s more like it dates from the 70s, or even the 80s. Considerations like this are why I get so frustrated with the Q “argument”; in their epistemically closed world, they just consider the overlapping content, and not whether this content is anachronistic to the 50s, when Q was supposedly written. And attributing this to John makes the early date even less likely.

Now it occurs to me that the image of the axe already lying at the root of the tree does make it sound like the wrath is coming soon. However, Luke got this from Matthew, and Matthew did also describe the wrath as “destined”, rather than “coming”. This means we have to look at this in the context of Matthew’s time, rather than Luke’s.  Part of the problem is trying to push the meanings of some of these words too hard, and this may be an excellent example of me trying to do this. It’s a question of how carefully did the evangelists choose their words, and how did each of them understand and use specific words. Given this, I probably should back down from my position about the transition to “scheduled at some non-specific time in the indeterminate future”. That did happen; it’s still happening as groups continue to predict the coming of the Beast and all the other imagery found in Revelation. It’s just a question of when this attitude became the norm. Was it the 70s? 90s? Sometime in the Second Century? The answer is probably “yes”; it happened a little bit, and bit-by-bit probably starting with Mark. After all, why write a gospel if the world is coming to an end any moment?

One other point of interest here is the fire. This is not a word Luke uses very much at all. In fact, this is more or less the only time he uses it in conjunction with the idea of hellfire. And it appears that John uses some form of the word only once. IOW, the whole bit about burning in hell becomes de-emphasized with time. But then another check shows that it doesn’t appear frequently in Paul, either. It does reappear in Revelation. This ties in with the discussion we had above about sarx and salvation. If we are not being saved from hellfire, what are we being saved from? It’s situations like this that demonstrate the layers of the NT. This idea of the fire is vestigial, preserved from an earlier account. Most biblicists would say thus earlier account is Q; I say it’s Matthew. Either way, it has been retained when some of the surrounding theology has sort of slipped between the cracks. Does this mean Luke doesn’t believe in hellfire? No, we cannot draw that inference safely. It may just mean he doesn’t feel it necessary to stress the point, that it’s become well enough ensconced in the message, perhaps because both Mark and Matthew deal with the topic. Here, perhaps, is another point at which the absence in Luke may be seen to result from Luke’s understanding of, rather than ignorance of, Matthew.

No doubt I’ve brought up this analogy before, but it’s worth repeating. Ernest Hemingway was famous for his very short stories; he would write ten pages and then cut it down to three. His theory was that as long as the author knew what was missing, the story would reflect, would imply the parts that had been removed. It’s only when the author doesn’t know what is in those other seven pages that the readers feels there is a hole in the story. That is how Luke feels so far: there are no real holes because he is aware of what parts of Matthew he’s leaving out. Unfortunately, this is a very subjective “argument”, but I think it’s less so than saying that “Luke would never have messed up Matthew’s ‘masterful’ arrangement of the Q material”. That’s more than subjective; it’s speculative, with no real basis in anything other than the conviction that Q existed because…because we want it to exist. 

8 Facite ergo fructus dignos paenitentiae et ne coeperitis dicere in vobis ipsis: “Patrem habemus Abraham”; dico enim vobis quia potest Deus de lapidibus istis suscitare Abrahae filios.

9 Iam enim et securis ad radicem arborum posita est; omnis ergo arbor non faciens fructum bonum exciditur et in ignem mittitur ”.

10 Καὶ ἐπηρώτων αὐτὸν οἱ ὄχλοι λέγοντες, Τί οὖν ποιήσωμεν;

11 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς, Ὁ ἔχων δύο χιτῶνας μεταδότω τῷ μὴ ἔχοντι, καὶ ὁ ἔχων βρώματα ὁμοίως ποιείτω.

12 ἦλθον δὲ καὶ τελῶναι βαπτισθῆναι καὶ εἶπαν πρὸς αὐτόν, Διδάσκαλε, τί ποιήσωμεν;

13 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτούς, Μηδὲν πλέον παρὰ τὸ διατεταγμένον ὑμῖν πράσσετε.

14 ἐπηρώτων δὲ αὐτὸν καὶ στρατευόμενοι λέγοντες, Τί ποιήσωμεν καὶ ἡμεῖς; καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Μηδένα διασείσητε μηδὲ συκοφαντήσητε, καὶ ἀρκεῖσθε τοῖς ὀψωνίοις ὑμῶν.

And the crowd answered him, saying, “So what shall we do?” (11)  Answering he said to them “Let the one having two tunics give to the one not having, and let the one having victuals do likewise.” (12) There came also tax collectors to be dunked and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” (13) And he said to them, “Not more beside the designated amount keep”. (14) And also asked him soldiers, saying, “What shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do you nothing violent nor make accusations, and be content with your wages”.

I have heard–but cannot specify where, exactly, that Luke is particularly concerned with the poor. I cannot verify this, but the change of “blessed are the poor in spirit” to “blessed are the poor” would seem to support this contention. Assuming this observation to be true, the passage here would be the first example of theme in Luke. Here’s the odd part: the injunction that the person with two coats, or having should share with the person having none seems to be unique to Luke. I was certain that this was also found in Matthew, at least; apparently, that is not true. So what we have here is a situation where Luke is using Q material, but is adding to it. So it’s another instance of Q material being defined so broadly that it becomes difficult to know what, exactly, is supposed to be in Q, and to know what, exactly, the Q material is supposed to represent. Q is supposed to be sayings of Jesus; well, here we have stuff said by John in the Q material. Then we have stuff in Luke that’s not in Matthew in a section that’s supposed to be from Q, and the stuff in Luke is supposed to be an angle that is peculiar to Luke, and it comes hard on the heels of something that really seems anachronistic to the time when Q was supposedly written. Given all this, it gets to be very hard to find a consistent definition of what Q is supposed to represent, which makes it difficult to assess the likelihood of Q’s existence. In short, Q seems to be whatever it is required to be at any given moment. In fact, not only does the previous section seem anachronistic; in the last verse we supposedly have soldiers asking about how they should behave. It’s probably worth pointing out that soldiers, by and large, were pagans rather than Jews. So again we have an outreach to the pagan crowd, which is more likely to be appropriate to the 70s or 80s than to the 50s, when Q supposedly was recorded.

But wait, there’s more! It appears that the questions posed by the tax collectors and the soldiers are also unique to Luke. Thematically, it’s very important and very significant that this is John saying these things. Thematically, these injunctions fit in very nicely with things Jesus has said in previous gospels (and presumably will say later in this gospel). This has at least a couple of implications. First, this is yet more indication of how, far from being embarrassed about the connexion to John, this connexion became more and more important as time went on. Each subsequent evangelist tied Jesus and John closer together, to the point that here in Luke they are first cousins. The idea that John was an embarrassment to the later church. Perhaps maybe by the Second Century some of this set in, but to this point, from Mark to Luke the connexion has become stronger and more prominent. 

The next aspect is to ask if these are not political statements? Tax collectors and soldiers represent the apparatus of oppression of the Empire. As such, is John not telling them to stop oppressing the subject population? To govern fairly rather than viciously? This is possible. Since it’s possibly a political statement, then is it best to put this in the mouth of John? Or, OTOH, had the political situation de-pressurized from the period in which Mark wrote, so that this sort of mild chiding would be tolerated by the Roman authorities? This would also give a later date for this particular passage, being set at a point more than a generation removed from the Troubles of the late 60s.

Finally, let’s think about this in terms of the “brood of vipers” & trees with bad fruit. Those were directed towards Jews; here he has shifted to pagans. And the pagans are asking what they must do, whereas the Jews are condemned more or less out-of-hand, and without any redeeming aspects. This really reinforces the date of the 80s, or to the period when the assemblies had more or less given up on converting Jews. Now, this part of Luke does not appear in reconstructions of Q, so this largely a moot point. 

10 Et interrogabant eum turbae dicentes: “Quid ergo faciemus?”.

11 Respondens autem dicebat illis: “Qui habet duas tunicas, det non habenti; et, qui habet escas, similiter faciat”.

12 Venerunt autem et publicani, ut baptizarentur, et dixerunt ad illum: “Magister, quid faciemus?”.

13 At ille dixit ad eos: “Nihil amplius quam constitutum est vobis, faciatis”.

14 Interrogabant autem eum et milites dicentes: “Quid faciemus et nos? ”. Et ait illis: “ Neminem concutiatis neque calumniam faciatis et contenti estote stipendiis vestris”.


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 19, 2017, in Chapter 3, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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