Having looked at the first episode of the Matthean Infancy narrative in the previous study, we now turn to the Lukan narrative. The Infancy narrative in the Gospel of Luke is more developed and possesses a more complex literary structure. It shares with Matthew a basic set of information, derived from historical tradition, regarding the names of Jesus’ parents, the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy, the role of the Holy Spirit, an Angelic announcement of the conception and birth, the Davidic ancestry of Joseph, and so forth. Beyond this, the detail of the narrative is unique to each author—with none of the special information in Luke found in Matthew, and vice versa.
We will proceed with our study of the first Lukan episode (1:5-25) in much same manner that we approached the Matthean episode.
From a text-critical standpoint, there is little to say, since the text is generally secure, and variant readings are slight and minor. In terms of source-criticism and historical-criticism, there are more significant issues to address.
We begin with a fundamental aspect of the Lukan Infancy narrative—namely, the parallel treatments of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. This is sometimes referred to as a diptych format, with episodes presented side-by-side on facing panels. The parallelism of this format is clear enough when we consider the first two episodes (1:5-25, 26-38), which each involve the appearance of an Angel (Gabriel) announcing the miraculous conception and birth of the child. The announcement includes a presentation of the child’s name, and a prophecy of chosen rule and future destiny.
The scene involving John the Baptist comes first, with the narrative introduction in verses 5-7. Some information regarding John’s parents is presented, set within a wider historical context. This leads to the question of how or where the Gospel writer (trad. Luke) came by this information, and what kinds of sources may have been involved. Some commentators have posited the existence of a “Baptist-source”, a narrative of John’s life, similar in its biographical and hagiographical aspects to the Gospels. According to this theory, the episodes in 1:5-25 and 57-66 would have been based on this source material. Other scholars would view these passages as essentially Lukan compositions, built up around a few traditional details, and patterned after selected Old Testament narratives. The latter interpretation seems to be more in keeping with the available evidence.
The historical information presented by the Gospel writer in verses 5ff includes several key details: (a) the names of John’s parents, (b) their Levitical/Aaronid ancestry, (c) their age and childlessness, (d) their righteous character, and (e) Zechariah’s active role as a Priest who serves his turn in the Jerusalem Temple. Some of these details have been viewed with suspicion, as they serve a definite literary purpose. For example, mentioning the age and childlessness of Zechariah/Elizabeth allows the author to bring out both the Old Testament parallel of Abraham/Sarah, and helps establish the parallel setting for the Angelic announcements for the miraculous births of John and Jesus, respectively. Moreover, the announcement to Zechariah could not take place in the Temple sanctuary if he did not have a reason for being there (i.e., his priestly service).
However, literary convenience and historical veracity are not mutually exclusive; the narrative may flow naturally on the basis of certain historical details or circumstances. There can be no doubt that the Gospel writer has developed the historical tradition(s) he received so as to bring out and emphasize a number of important themes. At this point, we must admit that historical criticism and literary criticism become inexorably intertwined. I would like to discuss, in particular, the following themes, which are fundamental to both the style and structure of the narrative:
- A male-female pair (Zechariah/Elizabeth) who embody the devotion and piety of Israel under the Old Covenant
- Allusions to Old Testament narratives where God works on behalf of, or manifests Himself to, His chosen servants
- The Messianic character of the child, reflecting established early Christian tradition
- The Temple setting, as a point of contact (and continuity) between the Old and New Covenant
The Faithful Ones of Israel: Zechariah-Elizabeth
There are three different male-female pairs featured in the Lukan Infancy narrative, each of whom embodies the righteousness and devotion of the faithful ones of Israel under the old Covenant. Along with the parents of John the Baptist (Zechariah/Elizabeth) and Jesus (Joseph/Mary), there is the pair of Simeon/Anna whom Jesus’ parents encounter in the Temple precincts. Here in 1:5ff, this aspect of John’s parents (Zechariah and Elizabeth) is established, which is done several ways in the narrative:
- Their names and lineage—the names being venerable Yah- and El-names, reflecting devotion to the God of Israel (cf. my earlier article on this subject); the lineage is the tribe of Levi, the tribe chosen to give special service to YHWH, and the priestly line of Aaron. Zechariah faithfully fulfills his priestly duty in this episode (verses 8ff).
- The declaration in verse 6—
“And they both were right/just [díkaios] in front of God, traveling without blame in all the duties (placed) on (them) and the right (decree)s of the Lord.”
The same adjective (díkaios) was used to describe Simeon (2:25), Joseph of Arimathea (23:50), and Jesus himself (23:47).
- The prophecy of John’s ministry—their child, in fulfilling his Messianic role (as the “Elijah” of Mal 4:5-6), will bring about a revival of righteousness and devotion among the people (vv. 16-17); note the same adjective (díkaios, “right, just”) occurs in verse 17.
Old Testament Narrative Patterns
The use of the Old Testament Scriptures has influenced and affected the Lukan narrative in a number of ways. Scholars have noticed a higher incidence of Semitic coloring and detail in the language and style of chapters 1-2, than in the rest of the Gospel. Some have suggested that this is the result of specific sources (written or oral) used by the author (see above). However, it seems more likely that it is a product of the influence of the Old Testament (particularly that of the LXX) on the author. One can see the influence of the Scriptures here in a variety of ways:
(a) quotation of verses,
(b) use of similar words and phrases,
(c) use of 1st-cent. B.C/A.D. Jewish phrases (influenced themselves by the OT),
(d) application of OT narrative forms and motifs, and
(e) parallels drawn between similar characters and scenes.
(a) is relative rare in Luke, being far more common in the Matthean Infancy narratives; it is hard to judge the extent of (c), but (b, d-e) abound in Luke. Here in Luke 1:5-25, one can recognize echoes and allusions to several passages:
- The Birth of Samuel narrative(s) (1 Sam 1-2). The Gospel writer has made extensive use of this section of Scripture; it has shaped the Infancy narratives in a number of ways: sometimes the parallel is made with John the Baptist, other times with Jesus.
Similarities in wording and setting: Compare for example the wording of Luke 1:5 and 1 Sam 1:1-2 (LXX). Both Elisheba [Elizabeth] and Hannah are without child, though for different reasons: “and there was no offspring for them” (Luke 1:7); “and for Hannah there was no child”(1 Sam 1:2). Note also the parallel between Luke 1:23-24 and 1 Sam 1:19-20:
- “and Elkanah went into his house… and Hannah received together (in the womb) [i.e. became pregnant]… and she brought forth a son, and she called his name…
- “and he [i.e. Zechariah] went from (there) into his house… and Elizabeth received together (in the womb) [i.e. became pregnant…” (the naming is not related until v. 60: “he will be called John”)
Similarities in narrative detail: (a) message regarding God’s granting of their request/petition, in the Temple location (Luke 1:13; 1 Sam 1:17); (b) context of the Nazirite, with emphasis on drink, for both the child Samuel and John (Luke 1:15; 1 Sam 1:11, 13-15)
- Abraham and Sarah (regarding the Birth of Isaac):
- Abraham/Sarah and Zechariah/Elizabeth are both too old for children (“having advanced forward in days”, Luke 1:7; Gen 18:11). Sarah and Elizabeth were both “barren” (steíra); for Sarah a different idiom is used.
- The (angelic) birth announcement (Luke 1:13f) is formally similar to many Old Testament passages, including those involving Abraham (Gen 16:11; 17:16).
- At the heavenly announcement that he will receive a son, Zechariah responds in a manner similar to Abraham (Gen 17:16-17; Luke 1:18)—note also the identical wording, in a similar but different context (1:18; Gen 15:8) katá ti gnœ¡somai “by what shall I know [this]?”
- Angelic announcements (often involving the birth of a child). These follow a general pattern in the Old Testament narratives (e.g., Gen 16-18; Ex 3; Judg 6; 13, etc), which is reflected in the Infancy narratives (not only Luke 1:8-20ff and 1:26-38; 2:8-14, but also Matthew 1:18-25; 2:13-15). Luke 1:8-23 follows this pattern relatively closely:
- The setting for the episode (vv. 8-10), here especially dramatic as: (a) Zechariah is a priest serving in the Temple, (b) he enters the Sanctuary (‘Holy Place’) to offer incense, (c) it is the time of prayer (afternoon/evening offering) and many are praying outside.
- The appearance of the heavenly Messenger (v. 11)
- Fear comes upon Zechariah at the sight (v. 12)
- The Messenger tells him “Do not fear” (v. 13)
- The Message, addressed to Zechariah by name, with an explanation and promise (including, for birth announcements, the name the child shall be called) (v. 13-17)
- The fearful response (question) of Zechariah “by what will I know this? for I am old…” (v. 18) (implied is a request for some sign to know that the message will be true)
- A sign given by the Messenger (often with a rebuke implied)—here the sign can be viewed as a kind of punishment for Zechariah (v. 18-20)
- The response/effect of the angelic appearance (v. 21-23)
Similarities to other passages:
- The appearances of Gabriel to Daniel (Dan 8:17ff; 9:20ff; 10:7ff); the appearance in 9:20ff occurs during a time of prayer (Luke 1:10-11)
- Malachi 3:1, 23-24 [EV 4:5-6]: wording related to Elijah, applied by the heavenly Messenger to the child John in Luke 1:17 (see below). This association between John and Elijah occurs at numerous points in the Synoptic Gospels, and will reoccur in the song of Zechariah (‘Benedictus’) in Luke 1:76-79. Cf. also Sirach 48:10.
- Gen 30:23: Rachel’s response to the ‘miracle’ of becoming pregnant: apheílen ho Theós mou to óneidos (“God has taken away my disgrace”, i.e. barrenness as “reproach/disgrace/insult”); compare the response of Elizabeth in Luke 1:25: epeíden apheleín óneidós mou en anthrœ¡pois (“He looked upon to take away my disgrace among men [i.e. among people]”).
The Messianic Character of the Child
This is central to the Angelic announcement (vv. 13-17), and the prophecy establishes John as a Messianic prophet-figure, according to the type of “Elijah”, drawing directly on Malachi 3:1ff (as interpreted by 4:5-6). This identification of John with “Elijah”, while rooted in historical tradition, came to be the way that Christians explained the relationship between John and Jesus: i.e., John is the “Elijah” (Messianic prophet-figure) who ‘prepares the way’ for the coming of the Lord (Jesus, the Davidic Messiah). The situation in the earlier strands of the Gospel tradition is more complicated, as I discuss in detail in the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (Parts 2–3) and “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition” (articles on the Baptism of Jesus).
The Messianic identity of the child Jesus, and the relationship between John and Jesus in this regard, will be discussed further in the next two studies.
The Temple Setting
The Jerusalem Temple clearly plays an important role in this episode, the Temple sanctuary being the location of the Angel’s appearance and announcement to Zechariah (verses 9-17ff). It also serves as the setting for the final episode of the Lukan narrative (2:22-38), as well as the supplemental episode in 2:41-50. That latter episode, climaxing as it does with the famous declaration by the boy Jesus (v. 49), underscores the importance of the Temple-setting in the Gospel of Luke.
Apart from the traditional associations in Old Testament narrative (see above), the Temple serves a very distinctive purpose for the author in the narrative of Luke-Acts: it functions as a point of contact, and continuity, between the Old and New Covenant. All of the key figures in the Infancy narrative who represent the faithful ones of Israel (under the old Covenant)—Zechariah/(Elizabeth), Joseph/Mary, and Simeon/Anna (see above)—are depicted as spending time within the Temple precincts. So also was Jesus there, with his parents, prior to the start of his public ministry.
Even after the death and resurrection of Jesus, which marks the end of the old Covenant (23:45 par; Rom 10:4, etc), Jesus’ disciples continue to frequent the Temple (24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:20-21ff, 42). This is an important thematic point of emphasis for the work of Luke-Acts as a whole: the continuity between Judaism and Christianity, the old and new Covenants.