The Christmas Story (VI). Luke and the Roman World

[Part 5 is here., Part 7 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

Matthew sees things in terms of God’s plan, and the last times are at hand. He sees parallels between the birth of Jesus and the Christological events of his death. Matthew has these very dramatic Jewish motifs that are quite characteristic. Stars, the quaking earth, darkness, turmoil in the elements, angels and the intervention of God. Luke contrasts with this. His is a global view, one that extends to the world as he understood it. He’s not much interested in the kinds of events Matthew emphasizes. He knows the Roman empire as the boundary of the known world and that’s where his story takes us. The (Luke’s) Gospel and Acts were probably in a fluid state after being written ca. 90AD and there is manuscript as well as historical evidence for this. Indeed, it is not until the turn of the third century (200 AD) that the New Testament texts settle into a more fixed state. The key here was the attitude of Christians about these texts and their status compared to the Hebrew Bible.[1]

Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome were raised by a wolf. Some people say Romulus killed his brother, but we know he hid out and later worked at Hogwarts.

Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome were raised by a wolf. Some people say Romulus killed his brother, but we know he hid out and later worked at Hogwarts.

Luke’s structure is tripartite. Part one is the story of Israel, the Law and the Prophets. Part two is the life of Jesus–the Gospel of Luke. Part three is the story of how the message moves out into the gentile world by direction of the Spirit–Acts.

Luke is interested in moving through the geography of the world. He has Jesus make a journey to Jerusalem–for nine chapters Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where all this teaching occurs, and then tells of Paul’s extensive travels through the empire.[2]

Luke begins his birth story with the temple (and it’s notable that the very last line of the Gospel ends at the temple).[3] But in Acts, he starts in Jerusalem (where very important things happen) and ends when Paul gets to Rome (with intent to head to Spain [Rom. 15]—tradition has it that he dies in Rome, but the evidence is marginal that he does). The story for Luke is the working of the Spirit that takes Jesus’ career in Palestine and spreads the whole thing through the empire. In Luke’s two birth chapters, he works with these themes a bit.

In this Jewish drama, it’s Caesar Augustus who brings about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and Luke uses the idea of a Roman world census. The empire is present at the very beginning. Luke will even repurpose language from Augustus’s monuments in the words of the Angel to the shepherds. Luke is conscious of the emperor, the Prefect, and local kings at the beginning.

Augustus von Prima Porta (20-17 v. Chr.), aus der Villa Livia in Prima Porta, 1863. Augustus was a clever guy who worked the system. (Image: Wikipedia)

Augustus von Prima Porta, 1863. Augustus was a clever guy who worked the system. The little guy on the bottom left is BHodges. Otherwise known as “Cupid.” (Image: Wikipedia)

Luke, like Matthew, uses the birth story to connect parts one and two. He does this by having Old Testament style figures connect with Jesus. At the beginning of Acts, Luke brings Jesus back and connects him with the Spirit, who then runs the show, so to speak, and this forms a link between parts 2 and 3 of Luke’s work.

Instead of mentioning the genealogical connections of Jesus, Luke brings us Old Testament Personalities, living persons who represent Israel: Zacharias and Elizabeth. Luke describes them as (1) aged and (2) barren. The obvious linkage is Abraham and Sarah. In both cases, God visits the two men, and they say exactly the same thing in response. “How shall this be?” Elizabeth and Sarah are in parity as well, both have this episode of joy. And Luke has a seam here that exploits his theme of broader vision. After all, through Abraham’s seed, all the world will be blessed (Gen. 22:18; Abr. 2:9-11). Luke is using Zacharias and Elizabeth as proxies for Abraham and Sarah. Luke doesn’t stop here, he brings us Simeon and Anna. These are Old Testament echoes: Simeon/Jesus is an echo of Samuel/Eli. Both have the mother who sings praise to God “my soul magnifies the Lord.”

In chapter 1, Luke gives us some clue about himself, perhaps. He speaks of Zacharias and Elizabeth, and Zacharias is a priest. He is one among thousands, many thousands. The priests are organized into cohorts, Mormons might say “quorums.” There are twenty-four (1 Chronicles 24) and Zacharias belongs to the quorum called Abijah (Neh. 12:4). Priests serve in the temple but this service is individual and since there are so many, each quorum/division casts lots to determine which priest will go up to the temple to offer incense twice a day. Note that Luke brings this back at the beginning of Acts when the apostles feel they need a replacement for Judas, who has sinned so greatly as to lose his status forever (the fact that he’s dead doesn’t seem as important as the fact that there is a missing judge of the twelve tribes–a heavenly destiny forfeited). Casting lots seems strange to us, but in their minds it gave freedom to God to make the choice. It wasn’t a human choice, it was God’s choice, and this was a way they expressed this faith and devotion (and it is a wonderful illustration about how God interacts with human culture).

In any case, Luke knows a lot about this Jewish regulation, he’s well versed in it, he has a sophisticated knowledge of it, and he portrays the Jews as a prepared people. He has great affinity with Judaism. But there is a problem. He makes an obvious mistake in his narrative when Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple (the mistake is not visible in the KJV, essentially because of it’s reliance on later texts). The custom among Jews was to dedicate the child and purify the mother. This is something any practicing Jew would know. Luke seems to think *both* parents need to be purified (see RSV Luke 2:22). Luke has a text-book knowledge of Judiasm, but not family traditions. This suggests that Luke was a proselyte, post-temple (the book is usually dated after the 80s) and then converted to Christianity.[4]

Next time: John the Baptist.

[1] For generations the oral sources of the Gospels circulated as preaching vignettes likely with separate provenances, if you like. That preaching seems to have rarely carried with it the historical detail we might hope for. When the Evangelists began their work of sytematizing their community traditions there were few hints about when and where events took place. See for example, Bruce M. Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth and Content (Abingdon, 2003), 134-35. Luke has more sources than Matthew. They share Mark as source text, but Luke extends Mark much more than Matthew does. It’s not known with certainty how the gospels were employed in their various communities, or how quickly they circulated to others (no one would have wanted to give up their written gospel, so they probably circulated at first by people hearing them, and repeating them). People didn’t read them, they listened, and it may be that they were read in their completeness to a church, or in pieces, or perhaps both. Joseph Smith’s preaching is a beautiful microcosmic example of this process. See my forthcoming chapter in Foundational Texts of Mormonism (Oxford UP, 2016?). Also, my forthcoming volume on the Funeral Sermons of Joseph Smith, (Greg Kofford Books, 2016?).

[2] See E. Glenn Hinson, The Evangelization of the Roman Empire (Mercer, 1981).

[3] Luke has Jesus ascend to heaven from the Mount of Olives on Easter Sunday evening and the disciples go back TO THE TEMPLE TO PRAISE GOD. The whole career of Jesus is within the history of Israel. Jesus the man was a Jew pure and simple.

[4] See Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday, 1979) and Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Glazier, 1991). Also, Anchor Bible Dictionary, sv Luke, etc.

And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (RSV)


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Just checking in to say how much I’m enjoying this series.

  2. Lew Scannon says:

    Great stuff. Thanks for sharing these.

  3. Thanks Kevin, Lew..

  4. Leonard R says:

    I just love how you’re able to capture so much richness is so little space. Looking forward to the next installment.

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