bible blog 1848

LUKE Chapter 2 (CJB version)


Nativity in south Bronx

1.Around this time, Emperor Augustus issued an order for a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This registration, the first of its kind, took place when Quirinius was governing in Syria. Everyone went to be registered, each to his own town. So Yosef, because he was a descendant of David, went up from the town of Natzeret in the Galil to the town of David, called Beit-Lechem, in Y’hudah, to be registered, with Miryam, to whom he was engaged, and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for her to give birth; and she gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him in cloth and laid him down in a feeding trough, because there was no space for them in the living-quarters.


Luke changes the style of his narration just a little as he describes the birth of Jesus. The preliminaries to the birth were described in the stately style of the Greek version of the Jeiwsh Bible, whereas this chapter is written in a softer, more pastoral style, which also records a historical date and events. Luke wants to anchor the story of Messiah Jesus in historical time and he chooses to do so by mentioning an event that affected “all the empire”, the Roman Census ordered by Caesar Augustus. As Quirinius held his post in the years 6,7 CE, and as Herod who died in 4BCE, was the ruler at the time of Jesus’ birth, it’s likely that Luke has simply got his facts wrong. In itself, that’s not a problem, (except to those who think the Bible is error-free!) as even scientific modern historians make mistakes. The problem is that it puts in question Luke’s story about reason for the birth being in Beit- Lechem. The tradition about Bethlehem is shared by the Gospel of Matthew, which however sees Bethlehem as the couple’s ordinary residence at the time. Luke’s sources must have given him Nazareth as their home village, so he has to explain what they were doing in Bethlehem. The census, which he knew took place around the right time under Quirinius, solves his problem.


detail from nativity in south Bronx


We can admit the inaccuracy while seeing that part of Luke’s purpose is to insist that the birth took place in real time, the time of the Roman Empire and its emperors who, in Luke’s day, were considered as divine figures. Luke is saying that during the rule of Divus Augustus, a true child of God was born quietly in an obscure part of his far-flung empire, already subject to the taxation processes of Roman bureaucracy.

Given David’s large progeny, we can guess that a substantial proportion of Jews of Jesus’ time might claim Davidic lineage, but Yosef’s claim is important to Luke who sees Jesus Messiah as a descendant of the great king and therefore as the fulfiller of messianic prophecy.

The CJB translates the Greek “kataluma” as “lodging area” rather than “inn” because it envisages a caravanserai with an internal courtyard for animals, with cooking and sleeping quarters built around it. This is conjecture but it does give a clear image of the sort of accommodation that existed at the time. The wrapping of a baby in cloth strips was a common custom amongst the common people, but the placing of a child in the animals’ feeding trough is an indication of extreme destitution. We should remember the huge number of folk tales in which the hero’s birth or childhood is associated with animals. It is a motif used to distinguish the hero from all societal sources of power and wealth, while associating him or her with an older and more fundamental source of life.

This is a short passage, but in it Luke reveals that on the fringe of the great empire, unknown to its power-brokers because of obscurity and poverty, a child, destined by Davidic descent, human faithfulness, and God’s goodness to be the bearer of God’s empire of peace, has been born.

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