Luke Chapter 7:11-17

Note: as first published, the commentary was written with the erroneous belief that Luke did not have a version of the story of Jairus’ daughter. I was mistaken. Luke does have that story, and that of the Bleeding Woman as well. I have attempted to edit the commentary to reflect this correct state of affairs. My apologies.

Here we come upon something that is only in Luke. Jesus has just healed the slave of the centurion, and now he’s off to a town called Nain, which is not mentioned anywhere else in the NT. There is a modern town with more or less the same name, and it has an alternative spelling in the HS. However, the truly odd thing about Nain is that it’s way off the beaten path from where Jesus usually perambulated. Most of the stories of Jesus have him on the north side of the Sea of Galilee, which is where Caphernaum is. The Dekaopolis is on the eastern side of the lake, and Tyre and Sidon are to the north, on the Mediterranean shore. Nain is south and west of the lake. Interestingly, it’s not all that far from Nazareth; however, Jesus was in Nazareth back in Chapter 3, and since then he returned to Caphernaum, which is where he encountered the centurion. Now, very suddenly and without any real explanation, Jesus appears in this other town awfully close to thirty miles away. Did he teleport? Probably not.

Here’s my suspicion. In the years after Jesus died, as his story and his legend and his following grew, the number of stories about him multiplied. As mentioned, Nain wasn’t far from Nazareth, so perhaps some Nainite, or Nainian, or Nainiac came up with the idea that Jesus came to Nain and performed some sort of miracle there. And, with enough retellings, and enough years, people of Nain came to believe that Jesus had been there, so the story got added to the oral tradition. I tend to favor this over Luke inventing the story himself, largely because of the location of Nain. I’m not sure where Luke’s gospel was supposedly written, but there is no reason to believe it was all that close to Judea or Galilee. If Luke heard the story and liked it, he probably chose to include it for both those reasons, not being particularly concerned about the logistics.

Which brings us back to a point that has not been discussed much for what feels like quite a while. This unconcern for physical reality is a really good demonstration of the principle that the evangelists were not writing history. This fact, while obvious to so many people is so often forgotten in the breach that it’s a little frightening. The gospels, whatever they may be, or whatever they were intended to do be, were not intended to be, and are not historical writing. That fact cannot be stressed enough. The prevailing attitude is that the four evangelists were telling a single story; that statement is only accurate to a certain point, and one that is reached very quickly. They were telling the story of Jesus. Yes. On that we can agree. But this is not his biography. This is hagiography. No one takes the later lives of the saints entirely at face value, and we should have the same level of skepticism about factual information when reading the gospels. The fact is, Luke really did not care whether Nain was a leisurely twenty-minute walk from Caphernaum, or whether it was on the shore of th Dead Sea. That wasn’t the point, and it wasn’t the point because no one was supposed to take this stuff literally. Repeat once more: the gospels are not, and were not intended to be, history.

There is also a phenomenon that I alluded to briefly in the discussion of Mark. So many–almost all of them, really–seem to be fully-formed little units, like blocks of various sizes. The Gerasene Demonaic is a splendid example. Like wooden blocks, these stories floated along on the stream of oral tradition. Some of them were collected by the evangelists, but doubtless many more simply floated away, downstream, to the sea where they became waterlogged and sank. Perhaps they were derivative, or redundant, or uninteresting, or they gave the wrong message; for whatever reason, they were not collected and they simply vanished from history. Certainly this happened with any number of manuscripts, until a chance find like Nag Hamadi turns up something like the Gospel of Thomas. This being said, I do believe that Matthew, Luke and John also crafted their own tales. We haven’t gotten to them yet, but I truly suspect that the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, and others, were the creations of Luke. They have a high level of literary quality and have always felt like the same mind was behind them. Perhaps when we get to them in Greek, they may not seem to be so. Time will tell. In the meantime, let’s get to the


11 Καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῷ ἑξῆς ἐπορεύθη εἰς πόλιν καλουμένην Ναΐν, καὶ συνεπορεύοντο αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ ὄχλος πολύς.

And it came to be on the next (day, presumably) he came to the city called Nain, and they arrived with him his disciples and a large crowd. 

What I have translated as “next” is a Greek word that implies sequence, things line up in a row. Since it’s en tō hexēs, “on the next…” (the next what is unspecified), “day” seemed like a good choice. But this is what I mean about the distance. To travel thirty miles on foot is a prodigious amount of walking. It’s possible, but it would require some pretty serious intention, and, at best, would take pretty much the whole day. When I was in high school, two of my classmates walked something like that in a day, but these were athletes in really good shape, and 17 years old to boot. Yes, it can be done, but it’s not the sort of thing that’s likely to have happened. It’s doubly or triply unlikely if Jesus had been followed by a large crowd. Of course, it’s always possible that the crowd accumulated as he progressed. Certainly, a large crowd did not walk thirty miles in a single day.

That’s all fine and good. The more remarkable thing is that Luke seems to have no compunction of the size of this accomplishment. This, in turn, tells me that he most likely has no real conception of the geography involved. In turn, the implication is that he was not terribly familiar with Galilee. This is no surprise, really. Go back to what we said in the introduction: this is not historical writing. 

11 Et factum est, deinceps ivit in civitatem, quae vocatur Naim, et ibant cum illo discipuli eius et turba copiosa.

12 ὡς δὲ ἤγγισεν τῇ πύλῃ τῆς πόλεως, καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐξεκομίζετο τεθνηκὼς μονογενὴς υἱὸς τῇ μητρὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ αὐτὴ ἦν χήρα, καὶ ὄχλος τῆς πόλεως ἱκανὸς ἦν σὺν αὐτῇ. 

13 καὶ ἰδὼν αὐτὴν ὁ κύριος ἐσπλαγχνίσθη ἐπ’ αὐτῇ καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ, Μὴ κλαῖε.

14 καὶ προσελθὼν ἥψατο τῆς σοροῦ, οἱ δὲ βαστάζοντες ἔστησαν, καὶ εἶπεν, Νεανίσκε, σοὶ λέγω, ἐγέρθητι.

As they approached the gate of the city, and look, was being carried out the dead only child son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a crowd of the city was sufficient with her. (13) And seeing her the lord was moved with compassion and said to her, “Do not cry”. (14) And going forward, he touched the bier, and those carrying (it) stood and he said, “Youngster/Young man, I say to you, get up”. 

To start, there are two words that are unique in the NT to this passage. The first is the word used for “being carried out”, and the other is for “bier”. These are not common words in Classical Greek, but they aren’t terribly unusual words, either. I bring this up to demonstrate that Luke is no amateur when it comes to writing Greek. He was apparently very well educated. What this implies, in turn, is that if he uses a word found in Matthew or Q, he uses it because he chooses to, not because he’s constrained to because he’s unaware of his options. Now, this does not obviously correspond, or fold into into either a pro- or anti-Q  position. It does rebound into the question of the author of Q, and the education level of said author might be. We know Luke is educated; would an earlier writer, a near-contemporary of Jesus and someone who was an original disciple, or close to one of them, have had this level of education? Let’s think about Paul. He had a number of unique words, but most of them were created by the addition of a novel prefix to an existing word. Some of his early letters had passages that I described as “borderline gibberish” (whether I would think so now that I have more experience is another question). Using him as an example is not a bad comparison, or certainly not an unfair one. He was educated to some degree, but there is a rather large leap from his level of Greek to that of both Matthew and Luke.

Also, there is good chance that the early followers of Jesus were not pagans. Aside from the couple of stories put into the gospels, most likely at a later date, showing that Jesus interacted with pagans, it seems pretty safe to conclude that Jesus did not interact all that much with pagans. First of all, the matter of language comes up; did Jesus speak Greek? If not, did the people of Sidon and Tyre, or the Dekapolis speak Aramaic? These are not irrelevant questions. So, given that Jesus’ earliest followers were Jews who spoke Aramaic, with perhaps a smattering of Greek words related to their trade, the author of Q was likely an Aramaic-speaking Jew. So where did this hypothetical Jew come up with some of the vocabulary that we have found in what is purported to be Q? Matthew read his HS in Greek; he seems as if he would be an obvious suspect.

At this point, we (well, I really) have not come close to creating a coherent argument against Q. All I can hope at this point is that the seeds of doubt about Q have been planted, and perhaps are starting to sprout.

As far as content goes, this seems to reflect back a bit on the daughter of Jairus (Mk 6). The touchpoint of contact between the two is Jesus telling the crowd, or the mother, not to cry. And thanks to the paradigms of Greek verbs, we know that he’s speaking to the mother in particular since the command is 2nd Person Singular, rather than plural. It’s addressed only to one person. Recall that when Jesus gets to the house of Jairus, he asks why all are crying, since the girl is only asleep. There, of course, this statement left Jesus open to mockery, of which there is none here. Regardless.

12 Cum autem appropinquaret portae civitatis, et ecce defunctus efferebatur filius unicus matri suae; et haec vidua erat, et turba civitatis multa cum illa.

13 Quam cum vidisset Dominus, misericordia motus super ea dixit illi: “ Noli flere! ”.

14 Et accessit et tetigit loculum; hi autem, qui portabant, steterunt. Et ait: “ Adulescens, tibi dico: Surge! ”.

15 καὶ ἀνεκάθισεν ὁ νεκρὸς καὶ ἤρξατο λαλεῖν, καὶ ἔδωκεν αὐτὸν τῇ μητρὶ αὐτοῦ.

16 ἔλαβεν δὲ φόβος πάντας, καὶ ἐδόξαζον τὸν θεὸν λέγοντες ὅτι Προφήτης μέγας ἠγέρθη ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ὅτι Ἐπεσκέψατο ὁ θεὸς τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ.

17 καὶ ἐξῆλθεν ὁ λόγος οὗτος ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ Ἰουδαίᾳ περὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ πάσῃ τῇ περιχώρῳ.

And the dead one sat up and began to speak, and he (Jesus) gave him (the erstwhile corpse) to his mother. (16) And fear seized all, and they praised God saying that “A great prophet has been raised amongst us”, and that “God has looked in upon his people”. (17) And this story went out in all of Judea about him (Jesus, presumably) and all the surrounding country.

One minor point: “looked in upon” is pretty literal, but it also does capture the sense of the underlying word. In NT Greek (as if there is such a thing) lexica and translations, it’s often rendered as “visit”; and, indeed, the Vulgate uses visitavit, for which I believe no translation is necessary. The Greek word is not common (again), but it has more the sense of “review”, as in “reviewing the troops”. I think “looks in upon” nicely catches both of those ideas and provides a happy median between them.

Now let’s consider this viz à viz the story about Jairus’ daughter. We have many of the same elements as the daughter of Jairus. We have the parent/child, the weeping, Jesus arriving “too late” because the child is dead. We are missing the request by the parent to save her child. The biggest difference is that the relationship between the parent & child is larger here, and the parent’s situation is more dire. It’s straight-up dire. A childless widow would be destitute. Jairus was a man of substance; the death of his daughter would be cause for grief, but not for economic ruin, so the entire situation here is more fraught with impending disaster. As such, Jesus’ intervention is more pronounced, more “godly” as it were, since he salvages a situation that was ultimately much worse. IOW, Jesus has been elevated to a higher level in a way. This is certainly all true, but the basic element remains the same. Luke chose, IMO, to add this story to raise the stakes the of the circumstances, thus making his entrance and the feat more dramatic. After all, Jairus’ daughter had just died; it was possible that she was only asleep. This young man was on his way to be buried. There’s a bit more urgency to Jesus’ cure in this case. Actually, there is a lot more.

So the remaining question is where did Luke get this story? There were probably a number of different oral traditions about Jesus at the time Luke wrote. There was enough material to fill gospels and apocalypses and all sorts of other apocrypha for a few centuries to come, so there was not just one “oral tradition”. Different traditions had different emphases. The one the produced the Didache has a very different view of Jesus than Luke’s gospel, or any of the canonical works. So there certainly could be, and probably is, L material, and M material, items that Luke and Matthew plucked from one of the ambient traditions that were available to one, but not both of them. But I also believe, fully and firmly, that much of the L and M material came from Luke and Matthew, that each of these evangelists–and John subsequently–were truly the authors, and not just the compilers of the material they present that was not in Mark.

Of course, one never hears this said. Why not? Because that would be an explicit admission that some of Jesus’ teaching does not trace back to Jesus. Rather, it was composed sometime after Jesus, and quite possibly after Paul. Not all of it. But some. Probably a lot. And possibly some of the most famous stuff, like the Sermon on the Mount.

15 Et resedit, qui erat mortuus, et coepit loqui; et dedit illum matri suae.

16 Accepit autem omnes timor, et magnificabant Deum dicentes: “ Propheta magnus surrexit in nobis ” et: “Deus visitavit plebem suam”.

17 Et exiit hic sermo in universam Iudaeam de eo et omnem circa regionem.


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 July 29, 2017, in Chapter 7, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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