Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Birth of Jesus: Introducing the Lucan Story

by John Shelby Spong

Somewhere six to ten years after the Gospel of Matthew was written, another gospel, the one we call Luke, makes its appearance. Both Matthew and Luke had Mark as a common source although Matthew used it more extensively than Luke. Some scholars also believe that Matthew and Luke had a second common source, a collection of the sayings of Jesus that they call “Q.” This source, however, has never been discovered in any independent way, so that its only existence appears to be in the common usage Matthew and Luke made of it. For our purposes, we only need to note that there is substantial agreement in content beyond having Mark in common between Matthew and Luke. This also means that where Matthew and Luke diverge sharply, we need to enquire as to why.

At least one of the sources of the primary differences between Matthew and Luke can be found in understanding the audiences for which each gospel was created. Matthew’s audience constituted a much more traditional Jewish community that saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish hopes and dreams. Luke’s audience was more a community of dispersed Jews, who had adapted significantly to the predominantly Gentile world in which they found themselves living and who saw Jesus in much more universal terms as the one who transcended all human barriers and brought human life into a deeper sense of “Oneness.”

When we survey the books of the New Testament we discover that Matthew and Luke alone provide us with stories about the birth of Jesus. Then we discover that these two birth narratives differ significantly from each other reaching the level of overt contradictions. Matthew introduces the birth narrative with a genealogy of Jesus that roots him deeply in Jewish life and history. Luke introduces his narrative of Jesus’ birth with a story set in a Jewish context, but then moves quickly forward to its more universal meaning.

For example, Luke also has a genealogy, but he uses it not as a preamble to the birth of Jesus, but as a way to open Jesus’ adult ministry. Unlike Matthew’s genealogy that begins with Abraham, the father of the Jews, Luke’s genealogy goes back to Adam, the father of the entire human race. Luke’s genealogy is a number of generations longer than Matthew’s. He also avoids the royal line of kings of Judah, going not from David to Solomon to Rehoboam as Matthew does, but from David to Nathan to Mattatha. The two genealogies also differ as to who was Joseph’s father. Matthew says it was Jacob; Luke says it was Heli. Those who try to force the Bible into literal harmony cannot get past these dual genealogies.

Luke also gives us a story of the birth of John the Baptist that is found nowhere else in the New Testament. The purpose of this particular nativity narrative is to indicate the subservience of John the Baptist to Jesus, which Luke does at every point. John’s birth was spectacular in that he was born to postmenopausal parents, a repeat of the Abraham and Sarah story. Jesus’ birth, however, was even more spectacular in that he was the son of a virgin with the Holy Spirit acting as his father. When John the Baptist was born, the neighbors all gathered to celebrate his birth, but that celebration pales beside the fact that when Jesus was born, angels broke through the darkness of the night sky to celebrate and to announce the birth of Jesus.

Indeed, Luke goes so far as to say that while John and Jesus were both in the wombs of their respective mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, the fetus of John actually leapt to salute the fetus of Jesus, to demonstrate that, even prior to the birth of either, John’s secondary role to Jesus’ primacy had been established. This reveals the high probability that in the community for which Luke wrote, there was considerable tension between the movement that grew up around John the Baptist and the movement that grew up around Jesus. Luke was weighing in on that debate in order to claim the priority for Jesus.

As we noted earlier in this series, in Matthew Joseph tends to be the focus of the story. In Matthew the annunciation is made to Joseph in a dream by an unnamed angel, while in Luke the annunciation is made to Mary by a specific angel named Gabriel and not in a dream, but in real time. In Matthew the initiative is consistently in the character of Joseph, while in Luke Mary is the focus.

Luke’s story includes a number of songs that are sung by the principals in the drama, thus turning what might have originally been a nativity play into a kind of “operetta.” Zechariah, at the birth of his son John, is made to sing the words that have come to be called the “Benedictus.” Mary sings the words that we now call the “Magnificat” on her visit to Elizabeth, her kinswoman, who lives in the hill country of Judea. The angels sing the words we now call the “Gloria in Excelsis” to the hillside shepherds. Finally, an old priest named Simeon sings the words that we know as the “Nunc Dimittis” when he sees the baby Jesus for the first time and recognizes him as the fulfillment of the promise for which his entire life had yearned.

While Matthew has Jesus fleeing from the wrath of Herod into the land of Egypt, Luke has him being circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, being presented in the Temple forty days later and then leisurely making his way with his family back to his Nazareth home in Galilee. While Luke certainly asserts a virgin status for the mother of Jesus, he never tries to ground that reality in the scriptures of the Jewish people, and once the story of Jesus’ birth is told, Luke constantly refers to Joseph as the father of Jesus.

Luke’s birth story is by every measure the more popular and the best known of the two. It is Luke’s story line, not Matthew’s, which is followed in our traditional Christmas pageants. These pageants normally begin with the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to a virgin in Nazareth causing her to go to visit Elizabeth, her “kinswoman,” in Judea. These pageants then proceed with the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem to be enrolled. On this journey, Mary is described as being “great with child.” When they arrive they discover there is no room at the inn, so she placed the baby Jesus in a conveniently located feeding trough.

No stable is ever mentioned in Luke’s text, but human imagination has created that stable and populated it with cows and sheep. No animals are found in Luke’s narrative. There is no star and there are no wise men in Luke. Luke apparently did not care for “magi.” In the book of Acts, which is authored by the same person who wrote the gospel that we call Luke, he reveals that he has little use for either kings or magi. So Matthew’s three kings or magi are replaced in Luke by humble shepherds. Matthew’s star is replaced by a heavenly host of angels. The symbols Luke employs are not gold for a king, incense for a deity or myrrh to mark Jesus’ path toward death, but rather “swaddling cloths” and a “manger.”

Luke appears to have taken both of these symbols from the Hebrew Scriptures. In the apocryphal book known as the Wisdom of Solomon, Israel’s most opulent king was made to say: “When I was born, I was carefully swaddled for that is the only way a king can come to his people.” The manger or feeding trough seems to have been lifted from the first chapter of Isaiah, where the people of Israel are criticized for not knowing that they eat from God’s feeding trough. They do not recognize that God is the source of everything that sustains them. Luke will thus introduce the story of Jesus by saying that from the moment of his birth this messianic figure will recognize his relationship with and his dependence on the God of Israel. He will be placed in the feeding trough and will relate to God as a symbol of faithfulness, unlike the historic witness of the Jewish nation. Through this Jesus, not only the Jews, but the people of the entire world, will learn of God’s infinite love for all that God has made.

There is one other echo from the Hebrew Scriptures found in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, and that is found in the figure of Samuel. In the story of Samuel, his mother Hannah is unable to conceive a child and she is found weeping in the sanctuary of God by the high priest, a man named Eli. Eli tells her that her prayers have been answered and that she will bear a son. Samuel’s birth is thus also surrounded by supernatural events. Hannah then in gratitude pledges her son Samuel to the service of God. When Samuel is born, Hannah sings a song that is very similar to the Magnificat sung by Mary; indeed most scholars think the Magnificat is based on Hannah’s song.

When Samuel is of age, Hannah takes him to the worship center of his nation and dedicates him to the service of God under the tutelage of Eli, the high priest. That story finds an echo in Luke when Mary and Joseph take the twelve-year old Jesus to the Temple for Passover, probably in a kind of Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

Finally, to return to the genealogy of Luke in which Jesus’ relationship to God is publicly announced, we now note once again that Luke says the father of Joseph was one named Heli. “Heli” is the Greek spelling of the Hebrew “Eli,” the name of the elderly high priest under whom Samuel served. Perhaps Luke was signaling in this name that he was drawing on the story of Samuel to tell his story of Jesus. Luke did that with other names, as we shall note when this series continues.


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