Real Bible Studies, Luke Chapter 2

The Birth of Jesus

In chapter two of his Gospel, Luke provides the most recognizable account of Jesus’s birth. He also provides a very specific timeline, stating it’s during the reign of Caesar Augustus (27 BCE to 14 CE) when Quirinius was governor of Syria. According to Wikipedia, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was Legate of Syria from 6-12 CE where he was charged with administering a census early in his tenure. The census was carried out in 6 CE, so, by aligning Jesus’s birth with it, Luke is placing this event also in 6 CE, and not under Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE when Matthew dates Yeshua’s birth. Luke’s account differs in other ways as well.

Among the items Luke adds to the story is the census, the shepherds, the chorus of angels, and the birth in a manger. He omits any mention of Herod, the slaughter of the innocents, or escape into Egypt. After Jesus’s birth, the family returns to Galilee, making annual trips to Jerusalem for Passover. He also glosses over Mary’s pregnancy, simply stating that Joseph heads to Bethlehem with his wife, Mary, who’s pregnant. There’s no scene where Joseph is visited by an angel to tell him Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, or Joseph considering leaving Mary before learning of her miraculous conception.

Luke also introduces two prophetic figures, a man named Simeon, who has been told he won’t die until he sees The Christ, and an eighty-four year old woman named Anna. She’s said to be the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. Basically, Luke is signaling that it’s known from the beginning who Jesus is and what he’s there to accomplish. Whereas Mark and Matthew are describing an itinerant preacher and miracle worker who just happens to lead an army of followers to Jerusalem in the midst of an insurrection, Luke is fashioning Jesus into a divinely inspired messenger, sent to redeem Judea and quite a few people are aware of his presence.

Like Matthew, Luke provides an infancy narrative, but it’s apparent that Luke did not use Matthew as a source for this narrative. Whereas Matthew skips from Joseph taking the family into Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath to Yeshua beginning his ministry as an adult, Luke provides an account of Jesus’s formative years. From the beginning, Jesus is portrayed as enlightened and wise beyond his years and constantly recognized as being so. During one Passover visit, his family travels a day’s journey back home before they realize he’s not with them. Upon returning, they find him in the Temple asking insightful questions and providing answers which astound those listening. When questioned, he replies that his parents should have known he’d be in his Father’s house. This, of course, astounds them.

The story Luke is telling highlights some of the inconsistencies between the Gospel accounts. Anyone who accepts Matthew’s timeline cannot reconcile his narrative with that of Luke, who places Jesus’s birth ten years after Matthew does. Given the allegorical nature of Matthew’s Gospel, however, one could argue that Matthew didn’t intend his timeline to be taken literally. The circumstances surrounding the “slaughter of the innocents,” for instance, is clearly a device borrowed from the story of Moses, particularly alongside Matthew’s tale of how Joseph took his family into Egypt to escape from Herod. In doing so, Matthew is recalling two stories from the Scriptures, that of Moses, who was saved from the wrath of Pharaoh by being floated down the river in a basket, and the patriarch Joseph, who brings his family into Egypt to save them from a famine.

While Luke quotes Scripture in describing the necessary sacrifices Jesus’s family makes, he’s not alluding to previous stories to send an encoded message to the congregation for whom he’s writing. In reality, probably none of the Gospel writers knew much about the historical figure, such as when he was born or who his family was, and Luke in particular seems intent on fashioning his main character after a strict interpretation of who the Church said he was. We’ve already seen that Luke has taken liberties with the story by making John Jesus’s cousin, which isn’t supported by any of the other canonical Gospels. They portray John as a messenger and, in the case of Mark, the forerunner of Yeshua’s ministry.

Luke concludes Chapter 2 with a similar disclaimer to how he ended the first chapter, by stating Jesus grew in stature and wisdom as he approached adulthood.

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