The narrative of Jesus’ birth is surely the most famous section of the Lukan Infancy narrative, and represents the pinnacle of the literary artistry of the work. However, before proceeding to a literary-critical and exegetical study of the birth episode in vv. 1-20, it is necessary to consider first the other critical aspects of the passage.
The Greek text of 2:1-20 is reasonably secure, with only one variant reading of note, involving the form of the noun eudokía in the Angel’s song (the Gloria in Excelsis) in v. 14. I have discussed the text-critical issue at length in an earlier article.
With the narrative of Jesus’ birth in 2:1-20, we find the same source-critical question that we addressed in the earlier studies on Matt 1:18-25 and Lk 1:5-25. The evidence for the use of a specific written source (i.e., a Birth Narrative source) is slight. In my view, these episodes are best understood as compositions by the Gospel writer, based a relatively small set of historical and traditional information. In the case of the birth of Jesus, much of this information is shared by the Matthean narrative (1:18-25ff), and can be summarized as follows:
- The names of Jesus’ parents (Joseph/Mary)
- Their marital relationship at the time of Mary’s pregnancy
- Joseph’s Davidic ancestry, and
- That the birth took place in Bethlehem, with its implied connection to the Davidic Messiah (Micah 5:2, and subsequent tradition)
The fact that the Lukan and Matthean narratives are so different otherwise suggests that there were very few fixed details to the tradition, allowing each author to develop and shape the narrative in a unique way. This is to be contrasted with the remainder of the Gospel, many of the episodes of which had already been well-shaped, as part of the wider Synoptic Tradition, and the original contribution by the particular Gospel writer was thereby limited.
In terms of the details that are original to the Lukan narrative of Jesus’ birth, any attempt to ascertain a specific source involves a high degree of speculation. Critical scholars have plausibly theorized that the Lukan canticles—especially the Magnificat and Benedictus—are derived from existing Jewish (or Jewish Christian) hymns. This seems much less likely in the case of the Gloria in Excelsis, which is quite brief by comparison, and is integral to the action of the narrative.
There are a number of significant (and controversial) historical-critical issues involving this passage, which have been (and continue to be) discussed and debated at length by commentators. It is not possible to solve all of the questions and difficulties in a satisfactory manner, and certainly not within the space of a single article. Here I will simply summarize the key points:
- The cultural and chronological marker established by the author in verse 1, coordinating the time of Jesus’ birth with the reign of Augustus (as Roman emperor).
- The mention in vv. 2ff of the provincial census undertaken by Quirinius (6-7 A.D.), a detail that is apparently at odds with the dating of Jesus’ birth “in the days of Herod” (1:5, compare Matt 2:1ff). By all accounts, Herod died in 4 B.C., with the Judean census occurring after the deposition and exile of his son Archelaus (when Judea was annexed into an Imperial province). There have been many different attempts to work around or resolve this apparent discrepancy, none of which are especially convincing.
- The manner in which the census was conducted, which, as indicated by the author, involved each provincial inhabitant traveling to his ancestral land (vv. 3-4). There is no real evidence that Roman provincial censuses were ever conducted this way.
- The journey to Bethlehem, which is required (in the Lukan narrative) by the curious circumstances of the census. This is at odds with the version of the birth narrative in Matthew, which makes no mention of such a journey. In the Matthean narrative, Joseph and Mary were apparently already living in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. The way the story is told in Matt 2:19-23 strongly suggests that Joseph and Mary come to Nazareth for the first time on their return from Egypt. If the Lukan information, that they lived in Nazareth prior to Jesus’ birth, is accurate, then the Matthean Gospel writer seems to have been entirely unaware of this detail.
For further study on these historical-critical issues, consult any reputable critical commentary or scholarly article on the subject(s). A good introductory treatment can be found in Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 339-406, and also Brown, Birth, pp. 394-6, 412-18, 513-16, 547-56.
However one judges the historical accuracy of the details in vv. 1-5, what is most important is the way that the Gospel writer makes use of the information in shaping his narrative. There is literary and theological significance in each of the details mentioned above, and they play a key role in the thematic development of the Lukan Gospel.
Literary Criticism & Exegesis
We begin with the literary structure of the episode, which may be outlined as follows:
- Historical setting and introduction (vv. 1-5)
- The Birth of Jesus (vv. 6-7)
- Angelic Announcement of the Birth (vv. 8-14)
- Reaction of the People to the ‘Good News’ (vv. 15-20)
Historical setting and introduction (verses 1-5)
All of the problematic details noted above occur in this opening section. Let us consider how the author (trad. Luke) utilizes this historical information to develop the literary and theological fabric of his narrative. The introduction in vv. 1-5 has three main purposes for the author:
- It explains why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem
- It emphasizes the Messianic association with David (and Bethlehem)
- The mention of the Roman census/enrollment establishes a parallel (and contrast) between Jesus and the Emperor (Augustus), whose birth was celebrated as marking a time of peace and “salvation” for the world.
The mention of Augustus in verse 1 has a purpose which transcends the simple information that is recorded. It establishes a world-wide setting (i.e., the Roman Empire) that will prove to be important for the work of Luke-Acts as a whole. In the book of Acts, the disciples of Jesus go out (from Judea) to proclaim the Gospel (the “good message”) all throughout the Roman Empire. This theme is foreshadowed here in the Infancy narrative. A comprehensive, world-wide setting is further enhanced by the phrasing in verse 1, with the expression “all the inhabited world [oikoumén¢]”.
For more on the significance of Augustus, in the context of Jesus’ birth, see my earlier article “The Births of Augustus and Jesus”. Here I will briefly summarize the following points of comparison between Augustus and Jesus:
- Son of God. Gaius Octavius was the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar (so, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus); upon the deification of Caesar (recognized as ‘god’, Jan 1, 42 B.C.), Octavianus effectively became “son of god” (divi filius). This status only increased in strength as he was proclaimed emperor (Imperator, ratified 29 B.C.) and given the title Augustus (27 B.C.).
- Bringer of Peace. Augustus pacified much of the Empire, as detailed in his own account (cf. Res gestae divi Augusti II.12-13 [34-45]) and that of other Roman historians. The shrine of Janus in the capital, open in time of war, was finally closed during Augustus’ reign, and the ‘peace of Augustus’ (Pax Augusta) was proclaimed (the famous altar ara pacis augustae).
- Savior. Augustus was called “savior” (sœt¢¡r)—e.g. “savior of the whole world” in an inscription from Myra.
I have also highlighted three key phrases from a now-famous decree, in which the birth(day) of Augustus is described in the following terms:
“his birthday spells the beginning of life and real living…”
“Providence…. has granted us and those who will come after us [a Saviour] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order…
with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him“
The Birth (verses 6-7)
The birth of Jesus itself is narrated in verses 6-7, parallel to that of John (in 1:57), and using similar wording:
“And it came to be…the days of her producing (a child) were (ful)filled, and she produced [i.e. gave birth to] her son, the first (she) produced…”
The reference to the caravan resting-place (katályma) and the feeding-trough (phatn¢¡, ‘manger’) for animals (v. 7), in connection with appearance of the shepherds in vv. 8ff, emphasizes the association of Jesus with the poor and lowly in society—a theme given special attention in the Gospel of Luke.
The Angelic Announcement (verses 8-14)
Following the birth of Jesus, the Angelic announcement begins in verse 8, which sets the narrative scene—the outdoor, night setting of shepherds watching their herds (or flocks) in the fields around Bethlehem. Apart from historical concerns, the mention of shepherds almost certainly is meant to reinforce the connection with David and Bethlehem (cf. 1 Sam 16:11; 17:14-15ff). This important motif was introduced in the earlier annunciation to Mary (1:32-35). Both in 1:26, and here again in 2:4ff, Joseph is said to be from David’s line (the “house of David”), the latter reference further emphasizing this fact— “out of the house and father’s line [patría] of David”. This Davidic descent of Joseph is confirmed by both of the genealogies recorded in Matthew and Luke, respectively (despite their apparent discrepancies).
Moreover, in the ancient Near East, kings and rulers were often described with the name and/or symbols of a shepherd—i.e. as one who leads and protects the people, as a shepherd does his flock (cf. 2 Sam 5:2; Isa 44:28, etc). It was altogether natural, therefore, that the royal Messianic figure-type—the expected future king and deliverer from the line of David—would take on similar shepherd-imagery, such as we see in Micah 5:2-4 (cf. Matt 2:5-6); Ezek 34:23; 37:24; and Zech 10-12.
The annunciation itself begins in verse 9 with the appearance of the “Angel (lit. Messenger) of the Lord”:
“And the Messenger of the Lord stood upon [i.e. near to] them, and the splendor [dóxa] of the Lord put out beams (of light) around them, and they were afraid (with) a great fear [i.e. were truly afraid].”
This annunciation in Lk 2:9-14 generally matches the birth announcement pattern (drawn from Old Testament tradition) in Luke 1-2 (cf. Lk 1:11-20, 26-38):
- Appearance of the Angel (v. 9a)
- The person is startled (v. 9b)
- Assurance by the Angel “do not fear” (v. 10a)
- The Angel’s message—announcing the birth of a child (vv. 10b-11a)
—including the naming (v. 11b)—here a pair of titles which came to be applied to the name “Jesus” in early tradition (already in Jesus’ own lifetime, according to Gospel tradition)
- The sign given (v. 12) (no question by the shepherds)
Verses 13-14 (with the Gloria of the angelic chorus) break from the pattern, which is fitting for the exalted character of the birth of Jesus. The “good news” (euangelízomai, “I bring you a good message [good news]”) of a birth announcement (vv. 10-11) has become the good news of the Gospel (v. 14).
After the traditional exhortation by the heavenly Messenger (“Do not be afraid!”), the birth of Jesus is declared:
“For see!—I give you a good message (of) great delight which will be for all the people…” (v. 10)
As mentioned above, the Lukan narrative may well intend to emphasize a parallel to the birth of Augustus (v. 1) as a Savior-figure who brings peace to the world. Even more significant, from the standpoint of the Old Testament (Deutero-Isaian) background of the Infancy narrative, is the famous birth announcement in Isa 9:5-6 (6-7)—cf. also the “good news” of Isa 52:7ff; 61:1, passages which both have traditional messianic associations.
In Luke 2:10, the keyword is chará (“gladness, joy, delight”), which is also related to cháris (“favor”, i.e. the favor or ‘grace’ one receives from God). This gladness is qualified as mégas (“great”), implying a connection to God (cf. Lk 1:15, 32, 49, 58), and with the accompanying phrase “which will be for all the people“. In context, the “people” (laós) is Israel, but this widens in the Gospel to include Gentiles (“the peoples [laoí]”, cf. 2:31-32).
“…(in) that [i.e. because] there was produced [i.e. has been born] for you today a Savior—which is (the) Anointed (One), (the) Lord—in the city of David!”
The conjunctive particle hóti gives the reason for the good message of delight which the Angel brings. This clearly is a birth announcement, marking the moment (the day) of the child’s birth— “was produced/born… today” —and the purpose of the birth is declared as being “for you”, i.e. for those the Angel is addressing (the shepherds, and through them, to all people [v. 10]). Note the chain of names and terms which follow, all of them having Messianic significance:
- a Savior (sœt¢¡r)
—the Anointed One (christós)
—the Lord (kýrios)
- in the city of David (en pólei Dauíd)
- a Savior (sœt¢¡r)
Here the “city of David” is Bethlehem; at the death/resurrection of Jesus, it is Jerusalem. In this regard, it is important to note a fascinating parallel between the angelic announcement of Luke 2:14 and the exclamation by the people upon Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Lk 19:38):
In one, heavenly beings declare peace to those on earth; in the other, earthly beings declare (or affirm) peace for those in heaven. One may perhaps compare this with the request from the Lord’s prayer that God’s will be done “as in heaven, (so) also upon earth” (Matt 6:10b [not in the Lukan version]). The emphasis on peace, in a Messianic context, is an important aspect of the portrait in Luke-Acts (Lk 1:79; 2:29; 19:42; 24:36; Acts 10:36).
The Angelic announcement, like the others previous, concludes with a sign, given by the Messenger, confirming the truthfulness of the message (v. 12). After this we read:
“And (suddenly) without (any) apparent (warning), there came to be, (together) with the Messenger, a multitude of the heavenly Army praising God and declaring…” (v. 13)
This motif of the Angel of the Lord along with the heavenly army goes back to ancient cosmic military imagery, associated with Yahweh/El. Here it serves to emphasize the divine splendor (dóxa) and power of the moment. The short declaration which follows in verse 14 is usually counted as one of the hymns in the Lukan Infancy narrative, and like the others, is known by the first words in Latin (Gloria in Excelsis). It is almost certainly the single most famous verse in the narrative, best known from the King James Version; I translate the Greek here literally:
“Honor in the highest (place)s to God
and upon earth peace among men of eudokía!”
For the meaning of eudokía and the text-critical issue involving that word, please consult my earlier article on the subject, which I noted above. This use of eudokía in context means that v. 14b is not a promise or blessing of peace for all of humankind (strictly speaking), but rather for those who have been favored by God and are faithful to him. This helps us to understand the Angel’s words in verse 10: “I give to you a good message of great delight which is for all the people“. From an early Christian standpoint, and within the overall context of Luke-Acts, there are two important aspects to observe, whereby the favor of God is extended to “all people”:
- Salvation through Christ is for Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) alike—that is, for all the “people” (cf. 2:30-32), the people of God (believers in Christ). The book of Acts emphasizes the early mission to the Gentiles (the “Nations”).
- The Gospel and the early Christian mission is for all demographics, all segments of society—i.e. all the people—with special attention given to the poor and oppressed, etc, those otherwise neglected and marginalized within society (cf. Acts 2:17ff, “all flesh”).
How then should we understand the emphasis on peace (eir¢¡n¢) in verse 14? From a traditional religious standpoint, it refers to the blessing, security and protection which comes from God—e.g., Num 6:24-26; Psalm 29:11; 85:8-10; Isa 48:18; 54:10; Jer 16:5; Ezek 34:25-29. Peace is an important characteristic of the coming Messianic age, which God’s anointed representative (the Messiah) ushers in—cf. Isa 9:6-7; 52:7; 55:12; Ezek 37:26; Zech 9:10, etc. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was an opportunity for the people to accept and realize the peace he brings (19:38, 42), but they ultimately rejected him and he was put to death as a criminal rather than accepted as the true Anointed One of God. There is an obvious parallel in language and terminology between the Angelic song in 2:14 and the cry of the crowd in 19:38, as noted above.
The kind of peace expected to be the result of the Messiah’s coming, in socio-political and military terms, was, in fact, realized, to some extent, at the time of Jesus during the reign of the emperor Augustus, commemorated by the famous altar to the Augustan peace (Ara Pacis Augustae, 13-9 B.C.). There can be little doubt that the author of the Gospel is drawing an intentional point of contrast between the birth of Jesus and that of Augustus, whose birthday was also celebrated as a time of “salvation” for the world (cf. above).
The Response of the People (verses 15-20)
The Shepherds respond with wonderment at the Angel’s message, much as the people react to the miraculous events surrounding the birth and naming of John in the parallel episode (1:58, 65-66, cf. the prior study). There is also a general parallel with the episode of the Magi in the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:1-12)—having seen a wonder in the skies (vv. 2, 9-10), they, like the Lukan Shepherds, go to find the newborn child. In the wider context of Luke-Acts, the Shepherds who receive the “good news”, and then travel out to proclaim it to the surrounding population, function as a figure-type that foreshadows the first generation of believers in Christ. Note, in particular, the similarities in wording between verse 20, and the description of the disciples following the resurrection (24:52f; Acts 1:12ff).
Another Lukan theme that we have noted in these studies, is the special role played by Mary. She represents and embodies both the faithful ones of Israel (under the Old Covenant) and believers in Christ (in the New Covenant [cf. Acts 1:14]). The dawning of the New Covenant with the birth of Jesus, and a growing awareness (in Mary) of his true identity, is suggested here in verse 19a:
“And Maryam kept these things [lit. utterances/words] (close) together, throwing (them) together [i.e. trying to make sense of them] in her heart”
This theme will be developed further in the next episode of the Infancy narrative (2:21-38), which we will examine in the next study.