January 9: Luke 2:52

For the next several days, leading up to the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus (Jan 13), I will examine Luke 2:52—the only verse in the New Testament which describes Jesus’ life as a young man prior to his baptism. Each word and phrase will be discussed in detail.

Luke 2:52
Kai\  )Ihsou=$ proe/kopten [e)n th=|] sofi/a| kai\ h(liki/a| kai\ xa/riti para\ qew=| kai\ a)nqrw/poi$

kai\  )Ihsou=$ (“and Yeshua/Jesus…”). This is the fifth mention of Jesus’ name in the Lukan Infancy narrative: the first two relate to the giving of the name in the angelic annunciation to Mary (Lk 1:31), repeated at the circumcision (Lk 2:21). The next three are found in Lk 2:22-40, 41-52. The parallel structure of these two sections was illustrated in the previous note, and may be clarified here:

  • The little child Jesus (to\ paidi/on  )Ihsou=n) in the Temple (2:22-38)—the phrase is in the accusative (his parents brought the little child Jesus into the Temple), with “the (little) child” mentioned before “Jesus”.
    • Summary statement of the growth of the little child (to\ paidi/on) (2:40).
  • Jesus the child ( )Ihsou=$ o( pai=$) in the Temple (2:41-50)—the phrase is in the nominative (Jesus remained behind), with “Jesus” mentioned before “the child”.
    • Summary statement of the growth of Jesus ( )Ihsou=$) (2:52).

It is significant that Jesus neither speaks nor acts on his own until this second episode (v. 43b, 46-51), when he is twelve years old (v. 42). This is a realistic depiction in terms of the normal development of a human child, and stands in contrast to a number of extra-canonical Infancy Gospels (Pseudo-Matthew, Arabic Infancy Gospel, Infancy Gospel of Thomas), where Jesus is shown to be an omniscient, miracle-working child practically from birth. It is only in 2:41-50 that “Jesus” takes precedence over “the (little) child”, as would befit the historical moment—for at the age of twelve, a Jewish boy was on the threshold of manhood, and would very soon take his place among the adult males in society. In other words, he was beginning to come into his own identity. Something of this is certainly indicated by Jesus’ statement in verse 49 (on the rendering and interpretation of this difficult saying, see my earlier article). The circumstances surrounding this saying are important:

  • Jesus has gone up to Jerusalem with his parents for Passover, as would be required by all adult males from the age of thirteen; for the twelve year old Jesus, this may, at the historical level, reflect a preliminary orientation to the practice under the supervision of his parents.
  • Jesus was separated from his parents and remained behind; it is useless to speculate on just why/how this separation may have occurred.
  • Symbolically at least, Jesus took his place as a young pupil seated among the Teachers (of the Law) in the Temple (there is no real indication that the boy Jesus was teaching them).
  • When confronted by his parents, Jesus affirmed his own identity and destiny (“it is necessary for me to be in/among the [things] of my Father”); note the difficulty his parents have in understanding this.

The Gospel writer (trad. Luke) does temper this episode with a statement in verse 51 (parallel to v. 39), that Jesus returned and was in obedient submission to his parents. However, by the end of verse 52, it is clear that we are dealing with Yeshua/Jesus as an independent young man, and the stage is set for the Gospel narrative proper—that is, of his adult ministry, marked and inaugurated by the revelation at his Baptism (Lk 3:21-22).

This depiction of the (natural human) growth and development of the child Jesus has proved somewhat problematic for commentators and theologians who approach the text from the standpoint of a developed (post-Nicene) Christology. As indicated above, there is no evidence in Luke 1-2 that Jesus, as a child, possessed omniscience (or even divine foreknowledge), nor did he work any miracles. The wisdom (sofi/a) and understanding (su/nesi$) mentioned in vv. 40, 47, and 52 need not reflect anything more than that of a gifted and precocious youth. All of which is fine for an affirmation of Jesus’ full humanity; but what of his deity? This will be explored, in relation to the remainder of verse 52, over the next few notes.

It is interesting that Luke offers no explanation for the name “Jesus (Yeshua)” such as we see in Matthew 1:21 (cf. earlier note), even though he is clearly writing for a Gentile (Greco-Roman) audience (Lk 1:1-4; Acts 1:1ff). Y¢šûa± (u^Wvy@) is a shortened form of the Hebrew Y§hôšûa± (u^Wvohy+), by contraction from Yôšûa± (u^Wvoy). Matthew 1:21 is presented as the message of Gabriel to Joseph, “and you shall call his name Yeshua, for he will save his people from their sins”; however, most critical scholars would effectively attribute the explanation to the Gospel writer (or earlier tradition). If intended as an actual etymology of the name, then, while certainly correct in a religious and theological sense, from a linguistic point of view it would seem to be inaccurate. By all accounts, uWvohy+ (Y§hôšûa±) is a combination of Yah(u), a theophoric/hypocoristic form of the divine name hwhy (YHWH) and uwv (“cry for help” cf. the noun u^Wv [šûa±] “[cry for] help”); the meaning would be something like “May-YHWH-help”. The etymology (if such it is) in Matt 1:21, would seem to derive the name from uvy (“save, deliver”); and, admittedly, the name is very close to (almost a homonym of) the noun hu*Wvy+ (y§šû±â), “salvation”. However, there is no reason to force the narrative in Matthew to bear the weight of such analysis. The similarity between y§šû±â and Y¢šûa± is enough to make the explanation entirely valid—such wordplay is frequent in the Scriptures, and is appropriate to time and place, used for communicating even the most profound theological insight. (See, for example, in my earlier note on Matthew 2:23).

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