The tone, tenor and plot of Luke’s account of the Jesus birth narrative is very different from that in Matthew’s gospel. It is set on grander scale, Mary is more prominent, and Joseph recedes into the background. Both authors in constructing their fictions have chosen very different ways to tell the story. For those interested in any possible historical facts underlying these stories, the high divergence between Matthew and Luke would indicate that there is no common tradition lying behind these narratives.
Luke constructs his narrative around a series of parallel stories concerning the cousins Elizabeth and Mary. As parallels, their stories are both similar and dissimilar. The parallels reinforce memory for an audience that is hearing the narratives. In ancient world silent reading was virtually unknown. Most folks would have heard these stories as part of a performance at a Jesus community meal.
The style of these stories is strongly reminiscent of the Septuagint which was the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures that was widely used in the diaspora. The Greek of this translation is koine, i.e., common Greek, not the elevated Greek of Classical or Attic Greek. It also has many Semitisms, Hebrew idioms translated into Greek. The author of the Lucan birth narrative has imitated the style and idiom of the Septuagint. This gives it an archaic, old-timey, mythical sensitivity. This stylistic feature led critics in the past to speculate that the author was using Aramaic oral traditions, but we now see that this is part of the author’s artistic Greek style. It creates a type of verisimilitude.
The story of Zachariah and Elizabeth is reminiscent of the story of Abraham and Sarah. In both stories the principles are old and childless, a curse. And in both cases the birth is of divine will. This sets up a series of miraculous births.
The gospel of Luke divides history into three periods: Israel, Jesus, and the church. This division of history occurs in no other gospel and so powerful is the Lucan mythological creation that it appears to us as natural. It is the way we continue to divide history to this day—before Jesus (BC) and after Jesus (AD). Facilitating this overall schema, the birth narrative shows Jesus’ family to be observant Jews. The Septuagint style greatly facilitates this model. This section contains a number of canticles, perhaps better referred to as psalms, because this is what they are emulating.
The first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel appear to continue its storyline of the Jewish scriptures. The family is observant, Zachariah is a priest in the temple, the angel’s messages indicate the babies are to fulfill long awaited Jewish expectations. Yet this very Jewish sounding and looking story takes place within the context of the Roman imperium. The Roman empire keeps erupting into the surface of the story, sometimes obviously, at other times implicitly.
The first line of the story implicitly invokes the empire : “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was this priest named Zechariah” (Luke 1:5). The mention of Herod, king of Judea (the Jews—either translation is correct), brings the empire into play. The title “king of Judaea/Jews” implies a complicated relationship to Roman power.
Herod was a client king and his initial patron was Mark Anthony and the Roman senate. Roman power enabled him to defeat his rival Antigonus who had the support of the Parthians. During the Roman civil war between Mark Anthony and Cleopatra on one side and Octavian, Julius Caesar’s adopted son, on the other, Herod sided with his patron Mark Anthony. Upon his defeat at the battle of Actium in 31 bce, Herod beat a hasty retreat to Octavian’s camp, convinced him of his loyalty and utility, and thus successfully switched sides.
As king of Judaea/Jews, Herod undertook a large building program, much like his new patron Augustus. He built the sea port Caesarea Maritima (notice the name), the fortress at Masada, and a new and magnificent temple in Jerusalem. This building program had the negative effect of raising taxes, but the positive effect of putting many people to work.
Herod’s dates are somewhat confusing. It is not quite clear when his reign begins (probably 39-40 bce) or when he dies (between 4 bce and 1 ce). His reputation is also ambivalent. Josephus is of a mixed mind, positive in his early writing, more negative in his later. Matthew is very negative, while Luke passes no judgement. Peter Richardson, Herod King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans (1999), suggests that it depends upon your point of view. In all likelihood, Herod was no worse than the average Hellenistic king, i.e., brutal.
Finally, it is perhaps important to note the title king of the Jews is prominent in the Lucan trial and death scene. It is the inscription over the cross. The empire is always lurking around.
While the story of Zachariah and Mary receive a very Jewish cast, the initial introduction of Herod, king of the Jews, invokes a background story full of the intrigue and violence of the empire which will be variously on display throughout the story.
When the angel addresses Mary, he says:
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of David, his father. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his dominion will have no end” (1:31-33).
The title son of the most high is a variation on the imperial title son of God. Throne of David and house of Jacob pick up on the king of the Jews title. But the ending, “and his dominion will have no end” echoes the promise of Jupiter to Romulus concerning the future greatness of Rome in Virgil’s Aeneid.
Will take the leadership, build walls of Mars,
And call by his own name his people Romans.
For these I set no limits, world or time,
But make the gift of empire without end” (Aeneid 1.371-375, Fitzgerald translation)
In Mary’s psalm, traditionally referred to by its Latin name Magnificat, we are presented with a powerful image of young, lower class girl shaking her fist at Rome’s might and brutality.
and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,
for he has taken notice of the low status of his slave girl.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones,
and exalted the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty (1:47-53).
Savior is an imperial title. The reference to the hungry and rich send away empty refer to the Lucan Beatitude and Woes (6:21, 24).
We have so long shrouded story of the census into a sentimental image of Joseph and Mary trudging in the snow to Bethlehem and the debate about where there was a worldwide census (surely not), that we miss the brute power on display in this introductory sentence to the story of Jesus’ birth.
In those days it came to pass that a decree was issued by Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of the whole civilized world. (This first census was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) Everybody had to travel to his own town to be counted in the census (2:1-3).
The Greek word for decree is dogma, a very strong word. The emperor’s title is Caesar Augustus, imperial title, not his name. In 3:1 the emperor is referred to as Tiberius (his name) Caesar (title). The sheer power envisioned in a census of the whole world (oikoumene) is incredible, but it demonstrates in one sentence the imagined power of the empire—that all people can be moved by the wish or command the emperor.
That mighty power contrasts with the pictured birth of the infant Jesus in desperate conditions of poverty.
It came to pass while they were there that the time came for her to give birth, and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a feeding trough, because the travelers’ shelter had no place for them (2:6-7).
The good news (the gospel) of this child’s birth is announced by angel to a group of shepherds. “Good news” (gospel) is a term from the imperial cult. The birthday of the emperor is good news to his subjects because of the great benefits he brings. Shepherds are in keeping with the upside-down character of the story. Shepherds were viewed as unclean because they wandered in and out of borders.
The angel announces: “
I bring you good news of a great joy, which is to benefit the whole nation. 11Today in the city of David, the Savior was born to you—he is the Anointed One, the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a feeding trough” (2:10-12)
Savior and Lord are Roman imperial titles, while city of David and Annointed One are Jewish. But the real contrast is between these mighty titles and baby, strips of cloth and feeding trough. And this is announced a group of shepherds, the lowest of the low, not to some mighty group like the Roman senate. The contrast could hardly be sharper.
The conclusion is “a whole troop of the heavenly army praising God:
Glory to God in the highest <heaven>,
and on earth peace among those God favors! (2:12-13)
The promise here is peace which was Augustus’ great boast: that he had brought peace to the empire.
The Lucan birth narrative maintains a strong contrast between the empire of Augustus and the empire of God to be inaugurated by this baby. This theme will play out in both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The empire is mighty and brutal. It will kill Jesus and Acts ends with Paul awaiting his execution, although he is clearly innocent.
Luke’s anti-imperialism is not in your face. It is subtle and often implicit. But he indicates from the beginning of his story, that this story, while coming from a backwater province of the empire, and announced to a lower class girl, and signaled by a baby born in poverty, is yet God’s mighty work to overthrow the thrones of kings. This gospel is a contest over the meaning of peace, a problem with which we are still struggling.
Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.