My blog resumes with a reading of Luke’s gospel, beginning with what we call the Christmas story.
Luke 1Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
1 Dear Theophilos:
Concerning the matters that have taken place among us, many people have undertaken to draw up accounts 2 based on what was handed down to us by those who from the start were eyewitnesses and proclaimers of the message. 3 Therefore, Your Excellency, since I have carefully investigated all these things from the beginning, it seemed good to me that I too should write you an accurate and ordered narrative, 4 so that you might know how well-founded are the things about which you have been taught.
5 In the days of Herod, King of Y’hudah, there was a priest named Z’kharyah who belonged to the Aviyah division. His wife was a descendant of Aharon, and her name was Elisheva. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. 7 But they had no children, because Elisheva was barren; and they were both well along in years.
8 One time, when Z’kharyah was fulfilling his duties asduring his division’s period of service before God, 9 he was chosen by lot (according to the custom among the priests) to enter the Temple and burn incense. 10 All the people were outside, praying, at the time of the incense burning, 11 when there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing to the right of the incense altar. 12 Z’kharyah was startled and terrified at the sight. 13 But the angel said to him, “Don’t be afraid, Z’kharyah; because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elisheva will bear you a son, and you are to name him Yochanan. 14 He will be a joy and a delight to you, and many people will rejoice when he is born, 15 for he will be great in the sight of The Lord. He is never to drink wine or other liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. 16 He will turn many of the people of Isra’el to the Lord their God. 17 He will go out ahead of the Lord in the spirit and power of Eliyahu to turn the hearts of fathers to their children[a] and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
18 Z’kharyah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man; my wife too is well on in years.” 19 “I am Gavri’el,” the angel answered him, “and I stand in the presence of God. I was sent to speak to you, to give you this good news. 20 Now, because you didn’t believe what I said, which will be fulfilled when the time comes, you will be silent, unable to speak until the day these things take place.”
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Z’kharyah; they were surprised at his taking so long in the Temple. 22 But when he came out unable to talk to them, they realized that he had seen a vision in the Temple; speechless, he communicated to them with signs.
23 When his period of his Temple service was over, he returned home. 24 Following this, Elisheva his wife conceived, and she remained five months in seclusion, saying, 25 “The Lord has done this for me; he has shown me favour at this time, so as to remove my public disgrace.”
I have chosen to use the Complete Jewish Bible because its authors are very aware of the Jewishness of scripture, which is particularly evident in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel, because he chose to tell his tale of Jesus’ birth in the language of the Hebrew Bible, as found in its Greek version, the Septuagint.
His introductory paragraph depicts himself as a careful investigator and meticulous historian, but in fact few narrators are more cunning than Luke, who uses his sources with great freedom, and invents when he feels he needs to.
Where did he get the material for his birth narratives?
Secular history as he knew it provided some of it. He mentions a census under Quirinius, which is crucial to his story as it takes the unborn child to Bethlehem, the city of David. Historians have difficulty with his dating, but clearly he wanted to use the census as an anchor in ordinary time.
Knowledge of Jewish religious custom is another source, used to show his characters in the context of orthodox temple – based Jewish practice.
The Hebrew Bible itself provides models and in fact whole phrases for the speeches of his main characters.
As for the rest, we simply don’t know. Matthew’s Gospel with its very different story proves that birth stories were circulating in the Christian communities. The common elements shared by Luke and Matthew are the virgin birth and the location of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
The so-called virgin birth points to another likely source of information, the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. If Isaiah was thought to have prophesied a messianic birth from a virgin, why then, Jesus Messiah must have been born of a virgin.
We can say with some confidence that Luke’s birth story is intended as a dramatic prologue to the story of Jesus’ ministry, and that its main purpose is theological, that is, it places the story of Jesus into the story that Israel has told of herself, making him the fulfilment of God’s relationship with his people, from the time of Abraham; and in the fuller context, of the relationship of the creator God with humanity.
So we cannot think of Luke as providing us with historical facts, if indeed he had any notion of such a thing. What he has promised to do is to put the stories about Jesus in order, that is, in a connected narrative which does justice to the events and the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. To be sure, we may be able to abstract what we call facts from his narrative but that is not his purpose.
On the other hand, there is no reason to assume that there are no facts embedded in the birth story. Luke decides that his main characters will be two related families of faithful Jews, whose women are especially passionate in their messianic expectation. Perhaps the women of messianic Jewish families hoped that their children might be part of the messianic event. There’s no reason to assume that this is complete fiction as some scholars have done. As a possible family background for Messiah Jesus, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph are a good guess, if guess it is; or just possibly a reminiscence from sources close to Jesus’ historical family.
We can’t ignore the probability that the link with the family of John the Baptist is a theological construction intended to incorporate the ministry of the Baptist as itself a preparation for that of Jesus, as in their different ways the other gospellers also do.
In any case, the story of the conception and birth of John is splendidly done, introducing the reader to the way in which the God of Israel intervenes in the life of his people by promising an unlikely conception, as of course he had done long ago with Sarah and Abraham. Hannah, the mother of Samuel is another formerly childless woman whom Luke has in mind. It also introduces the readers to the angel, Gavriel. Luke knows how to do angels, giving this one the magnificent reply to the doubting Zechariah, ” I am Gavriel, I stand in the presence of the Lord.” You don’t mess about with this sort of creature.
What is an angel? Luke’s angels are symbols of the creativity of faith and of God. People come to believe that their lives are touched by God, not just out of their own faith but out of the faith of their community. They receive a revelation; but the detail of this revelation is partly fashioned by their own creativity, because they are active partners in a divine process. Angels do nothing, but they point to what is being done or will be done as faithful people work with God.
Through the encounter of person and angel, the Lord becomes a character in the story. In fact, he is revealed as the true storyteller, the One whose plot will be worked out in the lives of human beings who work with him/her.