The Beginning of Luke's Gospel
Towards the end of Luke 3, the author tells us that
Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his work. In thinking about
this information, it's useful to recall that Luke's author (like all the
other Gospels, and especially John's) isn't particularly interested in
history. His main purpose in writing is theological. He wants to make
points about the meaning
of Jesus, not "what really happened" to him.
So, as the Roman Catholic biblical scholar J P Meier
remarks , this statement is "... clearly a
passing remark that plays no great part in Luke's theological program."
Because this is an aside, it's worth wondering why Luke
should think Jesus' age worthwhile recording. John 8.57 suggests only that
Jesus was "not yet fifty years old" in the view of the author of that
Commentators think that Luke's author was almost
certainly what Hebrews of his time would have called a "Gentile". That is,
his culture would have been more allied to Roman and Greek learning than
many early Christians, who were probably Jewish to the core.
Four hundred years before Jesus, a Greek scholar named
Thucydides wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and
Sparta. His methods of investigating historical fact came closer to modern
methods than for many centuries afterwards. Concern with history as "what
really happened" was stronger in Greek and Roman minds than in most.
Luke's stories imitate the style of Greek historians.
His words reveal that he is a second- or third-generation Christian who is
attempting to improve upon existing tradition.
We shouldn't be misled by the Gospel author's claim to
have "carefully studied all these matters from their beginning". Though he
isn't quite as firmly wedded to a non-historical outlook on the past as
were his fellow Hebrew Christians, his almost overwhelming concern is with
"the full truth about everything which you have been taught" in the sense
of the truth about how God acts in the world. So his information about
Jesus' age may or may not be accurate. To judge that requires that it
matches his probable year of birth, for example.
What does Luke's theological priority mean for us 21st
century readers of his Gospel? In summary, the following distinctions
apply to its first three chapters:
Many in Luke's time conceived of the Jewish scriptures (the Old
Testament) as repositories of truth. This conception operated in a way
very strange to us. What we call "rational thought" was for them
subordinate to truth from the past. We are aware of the strong
possibility of perceptual error, indeed of self-deception, in our own
evaluations of the world around us. So we seek to find "the truth"
through an analytical process and by making multiple checks on "the
facts". Even then, our conclusions tend to be held provisionally. For
Luke and others, rational thought focused on analysing the truth as
revealed by God in his past actions. The "historian" or wise man was
able to confirm from the past that something now must be true. Reason
was subordinate to what was revealed by past authorities, who had after
all recorded God's actions. Thus the prophet Isaiah, for example, had to
be believed because God had spoken directly to him. It must,
therefore, have been Jesus to whom he was referring in Isaiah 53.7-9.
When ancient authorities predicted that something would happen,
one looked to the present for confirmation that it had happened. We
might wonder if a prediction had been fulfilled. Luke would have
known that it had been fulfilled. It was therefore possible to
first to observe data in the here-and-now and then examine the Old
Testament with certainty, knowing that God through a sage or prophet
would have predicted anything of fundamental importance. Thus, if Luke
believed that Jesus was the Messiah, he would search the Old Testament
knowing that he would find those predictions which fitted the facts
about the life of Jesus as he knew them.
This enabled the Gospel authors to "invent" facts. Of course,
that's not how they perceived it. Rather, it's how we perceive it from
our analytical, scientific standpoint. In the first century, if one knew
that Jesus was the Messiah then stories which had been applied to the
Messiah and other great wonder-workers could be applied to him. This
back-to-front way of reasoning seems incredible to us. But that's the
closest we can today come to understanding the thought processes of the
Great men sent by God from heaven to carry out his work here on
earth were always given great powers. One only had to look back at the
accounts of the Hebrew escape from Egypt, to Moses, to Elijah and to
David to know that this is how things work. The Hebrews thought that
their God was the only god with genuine power. But in the Roman and
Greek cultures the same principle applied. If the gods didn't actually
come to earth in disguise to do their work, then they endowed humans
with supernatural powers to enable them to do great things. If Jesus was
the Messiah, then it followed that he also would have supernatural
powers and would be able to do things ordinary people can't. Luke's
author and the other Gospel authors would have thought it unbelievable
if Jesus had not carried out what we would today call miracles.
But these acts were not important because they broke natural laws - that
wasn't in any way the point. They mattered because they confirmed the
God-sent nature of the person performing them.
Once one is able to recall these points constantly, Luke's Gospel takes
on a different look altogether. It's not until the beginning of Chapter 3
that anything approaching history in a modern sense can be discerned.
Even then (as you can tell from the "bare bones" text here of the first
five chapters) the author of Luke is mainly concerned with theological
truths. "What really happened" has to be dug out through a sometimes
uncomfortable process of eliminating the theology. As J P Meier remarks,
"... Luke wishes to impress on his Graeco-Roman readers that the seemingly
paltry events of Jesus' public ministry belong to the sweep and indeed the
pivotal moment of history."
Meier adds: "Little or nothing can be said with certitude or high
probability about the birth, infancy and early years of the vast majority
of historical figures in the ancient Mediterranean world." This applies,
of course, to Jesus - and perhaps more so because the Gospels are
unsupported by any external sources. Nevertheless, some history of Jesus
A current, and quite conservative, consensus on the main details of the
first two chapters of Luke's Gospel, goes something like this in summary:
The infancy narratives in both Matthew and Luke stand apart in
every way from the rest of the two gospels. Once the narratives have
been set down, they are not referred to in any way in what follows.
The authors of Matthew and Luke contradict each other in
important details. The journeys and geographical details can't be
harmonised. This doesn't make for good history, especially since we have
so few sources external to the gospels.
The author of Luke gets a number of things wrong about Jewish
religious practice. He's wrong about Mosaic Law requiring that Jesus be
presented at the Temple, for example. This doesn't enhance the
credibility of his account.
The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is almost certainly not what
really happened. Everywhere else he's known as coming from Nazareth,
including Mark and John's gospels. Placing the birth in Bethlehem seems
to be the authors' attempt to link up with Micah 5.2 and therefore with
the illustrious king David. Referring to the Hebrew scriptures tended to
give credibility to the early Christian communities.
The genealogy in Luke disagrees with that in Matthew. The
genealogies have another purpose entirely. They are not intended to be
historical records of birth and descent. The same applies to John the
Baptist's genealogy. This is shorter that that of Jesus, presumably
because John doesn't have the same status.
Both John and Jesus are given miraculous conceptions. That of
John has extremely strong echoes of the conception of Isaac by Abraham
and Sarah. These are tales typical of great people in the places and
times in which the Gospels were written. Zechariah's doubt about the
angel's message is typical of ancient birth stories.
Luke 2.1-7 gives the impression of an accurate dating of Jesus'
birth day. There is no evidence that the Emperor Augustus held a census.
But a registration for tax purposes was held in the year 6
when (as we know from elsewhere)
Quirinius was Governor of Syria. Luke's dating is almost certainly
inaccurate, however, because he later makes it clear that Jesus was born
during the reign of Herod the Great. Herod died in the year 4. Our
conclusion must be that Jesus is more likely to have been born in the
year 4, with the year 6 coming a close second in probability.
While it's highly probable that Jesus was
circumcised according to Hebrew custom on the eighth day, the rest of
Luke 2.21-40 isn't probable. Not only does the author make large errors
about Jewish rituals. but it's clear that he's creating theology by
paralleling the dedication of the baby Samuel (1 Samuel 1.24-2.11) with
the baby Jesus.
 A Marginal Jew, Volume 1, 1991