John Shelby Spong
The Gospel we call Luke came into the life of the Christian community in the late 9th or early 10th decade of the Common Era, or some sixty years after Jesus’ earthly life had ended. It opens with a magical birth story never intended to be viewed as history. It is filled with supernatural signs: angels that sing, fetuses that communicate, virgins that conceive and post-menopausal pregnancies that occur. It is Luke’s attempt to capture in mythical language the essence of who he thinks Jesus is – namely the one through whom God can be met. The author, identified in tradition as Luke the Physician, appears to have been a gentile convert to Judaism who then became a Christian.
His Gospel opens not with the birth of Jesus but with the birth of John the Baptist. It seems obvious from other parts of the biblical texts that Jesus began his public career as a member of the John the Baptist movement. The Scriptures are clear that Jesus was not only baptized by John but also that he did not emerge as a leader in his own right until John the Baptist had been arrested and perhaps even executed.
By the time the various Gospels were written (70-100 C.E.) however, the Christian community had relegated John the Baptist to the secondary role of the forerunner, the one who “prepared the way for the Lord.” John was said to have validated Jesus’ claim to superiority in his reticence to baptize Jesus, suggesting that he (John) had a need to be baptized by Jesus. So Luke began his Gospel by telling a story that suggested that even in the births of these two figures, the pre-eminence of Jesus had been established.
By the time Luke wrote his narrative, the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus were some ninety years in the past. In that world there were no birth records, no newspaper stories, and by this time no witnesses. In Luke’s community of dispersed Jews and Gentile converts, there would have been no knowledge of or interest in the parents of John the Baptist. He was for them a minor figure in Judea. So when Luke decided to interpret the life of John the Baptist solely in terms of his relationship with Jesus, he had a clear field to let his literary imagination run free.
He therefore chose names for John’s parents that added greatly to the significance of the story he was planning to tell. He also filled out the character of John the Baptist by lifting content directly out of the Hebrew Scriptures. For Luke, John’s identity was best seen not as the new Elijah, but as the nameless prophet we call Malachi, which simply meant “my messenger,” who was described in the book that bears that name as “a voice crying in the wilderness.” It was the vocation of this prophet, and now the vocation of John the Baptist, to prepare the way for the coming of “the day of the Lord.”
In the part of the Hebrew Scriptures that the Jews called “The Book of the Twelve” or “the minor prophets,” Malachi was placed at the end, with its immediate predecessor being Zechariah. So Luke used Zechariah as the name for the Baptist’s immediate predecessor. That choice required an explanation, which Luke added to his story, about why the name John was chosen where none of Zechariah’s kin bore that name.
This choice also helped Luke assert how deeply the book of Zechariah had shaped the early Christian message. Zechariah 9:9-11 gives us the embryonic story of the Palm Sunday procession. This book also contains a narrative about a shepherd king of Israel being betrayed for thirty pieces of silver by those who bought and sold animals in the Temple. In Zechariah is also found the familiar verse, used by Jesus on several occasions, about the shepherd being struck and the sheep being scattered. The Zechariah name opened a rich vein that Luke could mine as he told his story.
Luke next identified the mother of John the Baptist as a member of the priestly family of Aaron and gave her the name Elizabeth. This name, Elisheba in Hebrew, appears only once in the Jewish Scriptures. She is the wife of Aaron and thus the sister-in-law of both Moses and Miriam (which is, of course, the Hebrew spelling of Mary). Playing on that theme, Luke suggests that since Mary and Elizabeth are cousins, like their namesakes Miriam and Elisheba are sisters-in-law, then John and Jesus might have been cousins.
As Luke’s story develops, other themes from the Jewish Scriptures dance across his stage. Elizabeth and Zechariah are like Abraham and Sarah, too old to conceive a child; but again God overcomes that barrier. Zechariah’s vision in the Temple, his speaking with the angel, and his bring struck mute echo a similar story in the book of Daniel.
The major thrust of these stories however is Luke’s assertion that as dramatic as the story of John is, it pales beside the story of Jesus. John’s birth to aged parents was a wonder, but not near so great a wonder as a Virgin Birth. At John’s birth, the neighbors rejoice; but at Jesus’ birth, it is the heavenly hosts that do the rejoicing. When Zechariah doubts, he is punished with muteness; when Mary doubts, she is reassured by the angel. While still in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, John is made to salute Jesus, who is still in Mary’s womb. It is a beautiful narrative, but it is surely not history.
In Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, two symbols are emphasized: one being mentioned three times, the other twice. First, this special child is to be found in a manger. Second, he is to be wrapped in swaddling cloths.
In the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah, the prophet bemoans the fact that even the donkey knows from whose manger it eats, while the people of Israel continue to deny the God who has constantly fed them. This holy child, this promised Jewish Messiah, however, was placed by Luke into a feeding trough or a manger at his birth. He was to be the “Faithful Jew” who acknowledged his dependency on God at every moment of his life.
In an apocryphal book called The Wisdom of Solomon, Israel’s greatest and most opulent king observed that when he was born, he was “carefully swaddled,” for “no king has had a different beginning of existence (Wisdom 7:4,5).” For Luke to have Jesus come to his people in swaddling cloths was his way of announcing Jesus’ kingship.
There is no star in Luke’s sky. It is replaced with the light of an angel and the greater light of the heavenly host. The birth of Jesus is still, however, announced from the sky. Jesus is the sign of God’s presence coming out of heaven to redeem the sinful world.
There are no wise men in this Gospel. Rather, humble shepherds attend the newborn babe. Luke’s treatment of Simon Magus in the Book of Acts (8:9-24) indicates that he did not care for magi. He also had little use for royalty; common shepherds were more to his taste. These shepherds also allowed Luke to play on the theme of Bethlehem, which was the birthplace of David, the shepherd boy whom God would elevate to the throne. Armed only with the clues of manger and swaddling cloths, these shepherds went to seek the Christ Child in this crowded little town so that they might worship him.
Luke has one other feature that is unique to his Gospel: his characters regularly break forth in song. When Mary visits Elizabeth, she sings a hymn modeled after a song sung by Hannah when her child, the boy Samuel, was born (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Zechariah, who is struck mute when he is told of the promise of the birth of John, later (when that muteness is lifted) breaks immediately into a song of praise that is in perfect meter. When the angels announce the birth of Jesus, they form a heavenly chorus to sing what we today call the Gloria in Excelsis. Finally, when Luke tells the story of Jesus being presented in the Temple on the fortieth day, the old priest Simeon breaks into song that we still today call “Nunc dimittis.” It is almost as if Luke was writing an operetta!
Luke closes his birth story with the account of Jesus visiting the Temple when he was twelve years old, and claiming his “father’s house” as his own. This narrative is patterned after a story of Samuel, who also went up to the Temple (1 Samuel 1:21-28), and it presages the adult Jesus who, Luke says, cleansed the Temple (which he called “my father’s house”) just a week before his crucifixion.
Luke’s birth narrative is a beautiful story filled with meaning, and deeply steeped in the Jewish storytelling tradition. To see it as a myth or parable is to enter it in a new way. It was created to capture a truth that humsan words cannot fully contain. When we read it in this manner, we can still hear the angels sing!