Thursday, June 06, 2013

The Old Testament Antecedents in Luke’s Story of Jesus’ Birth

by John Shelby Spong

In order to understand the birth narratives found in Matthew and Luke, we need to embrace the fact that there is no way these stories were intended to be regarded as remembered history or as narratives that were literally true. That must be stated clearly. This means that there never was a star in the east or wise men who followed it. There never was a heavenly host of angels who sang to hillside shepherds. There never was a miraculous birth. These stories are memorable, engaging and fanciful, but neither Matthew nor Luke believed themselves to be recording something that actually happened at the time of Jesus’ birth. They knew that they were creating narratives in which they used symbols to interpret the adult experience the community’s leaders had had with one named Jesus of Nazareth.

The proof of this is realized when we discover how much stories from the Hebrew Scriptures rather than eye witness accounts were used to provide the content of their birth narratives. Matthew’s story of the wise men, for example, was originally the creative work of an imaginative preacher, who combined Isaiah 60 with the story of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (1 Kings 10) with some other illusions from the story of Balaam and Balak (Numbers 22-24).

When we turn to Luke’s story, we discover that time after time he drew on accounts in Genesis with other toe-dips into such sources as the books of Daniel, Exodus and Malachi. It is an exciting adventure to unravel this biblical mystery story.

Luke’s narrative begins with the birth of John the Baptist and one knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures will immediately see here a familiar Jewish story. First, the parents of John the Baptist are introduced. Their names are Zechariah, a priest of the order of Abijah, and Elizabeth, a “daughter of Aaron,” who was both the brother of Moses and the first high priest of the Jewish nation. Both Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as righteous people, who “followed the laws of God in a blameless way.” They were now elderly, childless and thus without an heir. This, in a typically patriarchal way, was blamed on the woman, who is called “barren.” No one knew anything in those days about low sperm counts. Readers familiar with the book of Genesis will recognize this story as a retelling of the Genesis story of Abraham and Sarah prior to the conception of Isaac.

Then the story of John the Baptist unfolds. Zechariah’s division of the priesthood was on duty to perform the sacred functions in the Temple. By lot, the opportunity to burn the incense in the Holy of Holies fell to him. This was considered a moment of intense meaning and high honor. A multitude of people waited outside for this ritual to be completed. People are always drawn to moments when mystery fills the air. Inside, however, Zechariah was delayed by what we are later to learn was a revelatory vision. An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. Typically, Zechariah fell away in fear. The angel spoke telling him not to be afraid that his prayers for a child had been heard and that Elizabeth would bear a son. This son, the angel says, will accomplish great things working “in the spirit and power of Elijah.”

Zechariah is incredulous. “How shall I know that this is so? My wife and I are well advanced in years.” In Genesis, Sarah was said to have been 90 years old and “past the time of women.” Identifying himself as Gabriel, the angel gives Zechariah a sign. “You will be unable to speak until the child is born. That too elicited Jewish scriptural memories. In the eighth chapter of Daniel, Daniel also had a vision of the Angel Gabriel in the Temple and following this vision he was commanded not to speak. These stories are been replicated.

This episode took up so much time that the crowd of worshipers began to wonder what was happening. What went wrong? When Zechariah finally appeared and was unable to speak, their wonder was greatly enhanced. They speculated that he must have had a vision, but its content was not disclosed to them. Zechariah then completed his priestly duties and returned to his home. There, we are told, Elizabeth conceived and hid herself for five months, while she rejoiced that the Lord has “taken away my reproach among men.”

Assuming that this story is not history, we ask why was it that Luke decided to name the parents of John the Baptist Zechariah and Elizabeth. Names are always clues in interpretive tales. There are a number of Zechariahs in the Hebrew Scriptures, but the most important one is the prophet, whose work is recorded in the “Book of the Twelve,” also called the minor prophets. Zechariah is the next to last book in the Old Testament followed only by the book of Malachi. Malachi is not the name of the author of this book, but is rather a Hebrew word that means “my messenger.” “Malachi” is thus a nameless voice whose task is to be the messenger, who “prepares the way for the coming of the Lord.” The book of Malachi relates this messenger to Elijah and, as we noted earlier, the angel says to Zechariah that the promised child will come “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” If John the Baptist is thus to be identified with Malachi, the nameless messenger who prepares the way for the Lord, then why not signal that fact by giving John’s father the name Zechariah, the name of the immediate predecessor of Malachi? Luke sends a message with this name. It was not accidental.

What then about his mother Elizabeth? That is a little more difficult, but not impossible to demonstrate. There is a clue in Luke’s text where Elizabeth is said to be “a daughter of Aaron.” There is only one other Elizabeth in the entire Old Testament, where the name is written not Elizabeth but Elisheba. That single Elisheba is the wife of Aaron, which also makes her a sister in-law to both Moses and his sister Miriam. Miriam plays a major role in the story of the Exodus and a song of triumph is attributed to her after the successful crossing of the Red Sea.

Is Luke going to pattern the family of Jesus after the analogy of the family of Moses? I believe he does and this conviction opens up Luke’s interpretive genius. Be aware first that in Hebrew, Miriam, when translated, would be “Mary.” Next note that only in Luke in the entire New Testament is there any sense that Jesus and John the Baptist are kin. In the 14th century, John Wycliffe suggested they were cousins. The sole hint of relatedness is found in the story that Luke tells of the Annunciation by Gabriel to Mary when she learns that she is to be the mother of the Holy Child. In that annunciation, Gabriel uses these words: “your kinswoman, Elizabeth, in her old age, has also conceived a son and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” If Luke’s analogy for Elizabeth was Aaron’s wife, Elisheba, and if Aaron’s sister Miriam was to be Mary, then Elizabeth and Mary were going to be the mothers of these two promised children; one, the first born destined to be the forerunner, and the other, the second born, the messiah. They would then have clearly been first cousins.

Luke then has Mary, pregnant with Jesus, go into the hill country of Judah to visit her “kinswoman,” Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. Here one other interpretive experience occurs. There is a fetal salute. The baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps to salute the baby in Mary’s womb, which means that the issue of priority is settled before the birth of either. What in the world does that mean?

When the gospel of Luke was written there was obviously tension between the Jesus movement and the John the Baptist movement. That tension is reflected in the book of Acts. Jesus originally was a follower of John. John had baptized Jesus according to the first three gospels. It was only when “the Baptist” was imprisoned that Jesus broke forth as a leader in his own right. Some of Jesus’ disciples had come to him after having been disciples of John. So the disciples of Jesus felt a need to establish the priority of Jesus. Luke accomplishes that by suggesting that there had been a fetal salute that established Jesus’ superiority. From where do you suppose Luke got the idea for that story? Again we turn to the Hebrew Scriptures.

There is only one other story in the entire Bible in which a baby leaps in its mother’s womb in a way that meaning is attributed to that action. It too is found in the book of Genesis. In chapter 25 Rebekah, the wife of Isaac was pregnant. When the baby leaped in her womb, she went to an oracle to help her understand what this leaping meant. There she was informed that she was having twins and that the meaning of the fetal leap was to establish the fact that the first born of the twins, who would be named Esau, would actually serve the second born of the two, who would be named Jacob.

Luke takes this Genesis story and transforms it. Jesus and John the Baptist are not twins but they are kin, he suggests. John was the elder by six months, Luke tells us. In this case the elder of the two, John, was to be the servant of the second born, Jesus, like the first born Esau was destined to be the servant of the second born Jacob. John, who was to prepare the way for Jesus will later be made to say about Jesus: “He must increase, I must decrease.” Luke grounded the John the Baptist story in the Hebrew Scriptures. The vision in the Temple and the inability to speak came from Daniel. The post-menopausal pregnancy comes from Abraham and Sarah. The superiority of Jesus to John, as well as their kinship, comes from the story of Jacob and Esau.

Luke is mining the Hebrew Scriptures to portray Jesus’ birth. One cannot understand the birth narratives unless one sees their connections with the Hebrew Scriptures. We will continue this study of Luke’s birth narratives when this series resumes.


Post a Comment