Luke’s Nativity – An Investigative Breakdown

Luke and Matthew provide significantly different perspectives about the Nativity circumstances of Jesus of Nazareth, yet they have the common threads of the historical timeline, geographic locations and the key figures. In the very opening paragraph of Luke, the author states that his letter is based on the eyewitness accounts “from the beginning”:

LK 1:2-4 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. (NASB)

Interestingly, Luke first begins with the birth of John the Baptist , circumstances not described in any other Gospel. Zechariah, a Levite Jewish priest, and his wife, Elizabeth were considered “advanced in years.” It is a relative term considering that girls married and began having children as soon as nature allowed, about 13 years of age.[1] Elizabeth considered her “barren” state to be a “disgrace.”[2]

Elizabeth’s pregnancy in her advanced years is not described in Luke as miraculous. Neither of the Greek words expected to describe a miracle do not appear in the text; however, two Greek words referencing a miracle are used elsewhere in Luke. The word dunamis is translated to English using such words as “miracles,” “deeds of power,” “power of the Spirit,” or “mighty works” and semelon is translated with such words as “miracle,” “miraculous sign,” “sign from heaven.”[3]

Zechariah was chosen by his priestly division to offer the timely sacrifices to God.[4] While inside the Temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him delivering God’s message that his wife would become pregnant with a son to be named John.[5] Doubting Gabriel’s message, Zechariah was struck dumb during his wife’s pregnancy.[6]

Only two witnesses to the angelic encounter are possible, the archangel Gabriel and Zechariah, both of whom were quoted rather than paraphrased.[7] Twice used in Zechariah’s quote is the personal pronoun “I” rather than being described in the third person – Zechariah is the primary source of these quotations.

Corroborating Gabriel’s message, Elizabeth did indeed unexpectedly become pregnant.[8] For reasons that can only be surmised, Elizabeth stayed secluded at home for the first five months of her pregnancy.[9]

Meanwhile in Nazareth 80-90 miles away, Mary, who had been betrothed to Joseph, was going about her daily business.[10] Gabriel greeted her saying, “”Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[11] The angel’s message continues to be quoted:

LK 1:31-32 “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David…” (NASB)

Mary is quoted using the personal pronoun “I” asking Gabriel how she could have a baby when she was a virgin – Mary is the primary source of the quotes. Gabriel explained the Holy Spirit would impregnate her:

LK 1:35 “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (NRSV)

Gabriel also informed Mary before he departed that her cousin, Elizabeth, was six months pregnant. Elizabeth re-enters Luke’s account when Mary came to visit her shortly after Gabriel delivered God’s message to Mary. Upon hearing Mary’s arrival greeting, Elizabeth’s babe leapt within her exclaiming:

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord. For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”[12]

Elizabeth’s quoted praise contains four personal pronouns of “me” and “my” making it highly likely she is the primary source for this quote. Noteworthy, Elizabeth knew about Mary’s immaculate conception before Mary told her. Additionally she praises Mary for her complete belief in the message from God.

Less obvious, Elizabeth confirmed to Mary she was already pregnant only a few days after Gabriel told her she would conceive the Son of God. A woman’s pregnancy is not naturally known to the mother, barring modern medicine, until 2-4 weeks or later after conception.[13]

Upon hearing Elizabeth’s blessing, Mary was filled with emotion. Her passionate praise is quoted with the personal pronouns “my” and “me” appearing five times.[14] The primary source of Mary’s praise strongly appears to be Mary herself.

Matthew articulates Joseph’s reaction to discovering Mary’s pregnancy months later whereas Luke documented Mary’s perspective. According to Matthew, Joseph considered a divorce until a visitation by Gabriel informed him Mary had not cheated, rather the Holy Spirit impregnated her as a fulfillment of prophecy.

Four key points are common to Luke and Matthew. Both Gospels state Jesus was born in Bethlehem; Nazareth is the hometown of Jesus; and Herod is King with governing authority of Judea.[15] Unique to Luke’s Nativity are two names of rulers serving as historical date markers – Caesar Augustus and Quirinius governing in Syria.[16]

Two details stand out in Luke’s Nativity account not found in Matthew. Solely found in Luke is a decree by Caesar Augustus which, in turn, became the compelling factor for Mary to travel to Bethlehem in her late stage of pregnancy.

Chronicling the night of the birth of Jesus, Mary went into labor in Bethlehem and was forced to give birth in a stable because all the inns were full. Mary then used a manger as a crib for Jesus.  Luke quotes an angel appearing to shepherds outside of Bethlehem announcing his birth and a larger number of angels in the sky praising God:

LK 2:10-14 “…behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord…And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”(NKJV)

Immediately, the shepherds quickly went into Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph with Jesus lying in the manger confirming the angel’s birth announcement. What the shepherds witnessed, they widely told to people who marveled at their report.

Matthew, on the other hand, outlines a different Nativity aspect telling how the Magi observed signs in the sky prompting their long journey to find the newborn “King of the Jews.” After consultation with Jewish religious experts, King Herod revealed to the Magi where they might locate Jesus. When the Magi found Jesus, the family was now in a house.[17]

Luke adds two other details. Eight days later during the Jewish circumcision event, Joseph and Mary officially named their baby Jesus as each were separately instructed by Gabriel. At the 30-day mark according to the Law, the parents presented Jesus to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem and offered a sacrifice which required a priest.

Much of Luke’s Nativity account is unique yet is in sync with Matthew. It includes quotes by Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and the angel Gabriel as well as including several secular historical date markers. Does Luke’s Gospel Nativity meet the standards of credibility?

 

Updated December 18, 2021.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] Luke 1:7, 18. NASB, NKJV. West, Jim. “Ancient Israelite Marriage Customs.” Quartz Hill School of Theology. n.d. http://www.theology.edu/marriage.htm>  Rich, Tracey R. “Marriages.” Judaism101. 2011. <http://www.jewfaq.org/marriage.htm>
[2] Luke 1:25.
[3] Luke 4:14; 10:13; 19:37; 23:8. NetBible.org. Greek text. dunamis <1411>, semelon <4592>
[4] Luke 1:8. NetBible.org. Footnote 28. <http://classic.net.bible.org/bible.php?book=Luk&chapter=1#n32>
[5] Luke 1:11, 19.
[6] Luke 1:20, 24.
[7] Luke 1:13-17, 19-20.
[8] Luke 1:25.
[9] Luke 1:24.
[10] Luke 1:39.  Slatzman, Russell. “Biblical travel: How far to where, and what about the donkey?” Aleteia. 2017. https://aleteia.org/2017/01/24/biblical-travel-how-far-to-where-and-what-about-the-donkey> Kosloski, Philip. “Mary traveled a highly dangerous path to visit Elizabeth. Aleteia. 2019. <https://aleteia.org/2019/05/31/mary-traveled-a-highly-dangerous-path-to-visit-elizabeth
[11] Luke 1:28. NET, NASB.
[12] Luke 1:42-45. NKJV.
[13] Luke 1:18-20. “Month by Month.” Planned Parenthood. 2020. <https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/pregnancy/pregnancy-month-by-month> “Home pregnancy tests: Can you trust the results?” Mayo Clinic. 2019. <http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/getting-pregnant/in-depth/home-pregnancy-tests/art-20047940> “How long does it take to know I’m pregnant?” nct.org. n.d. <https://www.nct.org.uk/pregnancy/am-i-pregnant/how-long-does-it-take-know-im-pregnant>  Marple, Kate. Ed. “Early signs of pregnancy: When will I feel symptoms?” babycenter.com. 2019. <https://www.babycenter.com/getting-pregnant/how-to-get-pregnant/early-signs-of-pregnancy-when-will-i-feel-symptoms_10372077>
[14] Luke 1:46-55.
[15] Matthew 2:1,4; Luke 1:5, 27, 2:4, 23.
[16] Matthew 2:22; Luke 1:5; 2:1-2.
[17] Matthew 2:11.

Death By Crucifixion?

One of the common charges by critics and skeptics against the Resurrection claim of the Gospels is that Jesus of Nazareth did not die by crucifixion, sometimes called the “swoon theory.”[1] In fact, one of the world’s major religions teaches that Jesus never died on the cross.[2]

Roman crucifixions were rife during the century before and after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD as documented by renowned authors of antiquity such as Josephus, Tacitus,  Suetonius, Lucian, Cicero and Seneca the Younger.[3] The assertion that Jesus was crucified but never died on the cross is contrary to the information from several of these secular sources.

Required for a death certificate today, three facts are to be established – when and where the death occurred and the identity of the person who died.*[4] Death confirmation typically requires involvement by a coroner, law enforcement official, medical expert, etc. – someone who can attest to these circumstances of the death.

In the age of antiquity, confirmation of a death was basically the same; it required witnesses. No modern technologies and sciences were available meaning a death determination relied on observations and simple common sense – lifeless; not breathing; limp, cold and still; rigor mortis; obvious mortal wounds; decomposition or other morbid evidence.

Crucifixion by the Romans was fully intended to cause death under the most excruciatingly painful and humiliating circumstances. No escape. Victims could do nothing to save themselves after a group of military men fastened the severely flogged victims, typically by nails, to wooden beams and suspended them above the ground.

Gospels  in all four accounts report that Jesus was crucified, witnessed by many. Luke brought the intended outcome of the crucifixion to dramatic closure stating, “he breathed his last.”[5]

At the top of the witness list is the Roman quaternion, the execution team consisting of four guards, and the exactor mortis who was a centurion.[6] Their job, at the risk of dire consequences for failure to perform their duty, was to ensure death by crucifixion was successfully carried out – expert executioners.[7] Mark’s quote of the centurion’s reaction at the moment of Jesus’ death is dramatic:

MK 15:39 “So when the centurion, who stood opposite Him, saw that He cried out like this and breathed His last, he said, “Truly this Man was the Son of God!”’” (NKJV) [8]

An “excited utterance” by the centurion was his immediate gut reaction to his recognition that Jesus was dead and its significance. United States Federal Law defines an “excited utterance” as being made spontaneously under the influence of a startling event before the witness has had an opportunity for reflection.[9] The excited utterance, considered to be a factual truthful statement, is an exception to the legal hearsay rule.

Quaternion wanted to be sure Jesus was truly dead prompting a soldier to thrust a spear into his side. Bold inaction by the quaternion attests to the assessment that Jesus was dead when they decided not to break his legs to hasten death – they were already convinced Jesus was dead.[10]

John “testified” in his Gospel account that he witnessed the death of Jesus on the cross. With special emphasis on why he is stating his observation, John calls out:

JN 19:35 “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.” (NASB, NKJV)

Seven women are identified in the Gospel accounts as being present at the crucifixion:  Jesus’ own mother Mary and her sister, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, mother of the sons of Zebedee, Mary the wife of Clopas, Salome and many other women from Galilee.[12]

Luke identifies the foremost witness, the crucifixion victim – Jesus himself cried out announcing to his “Father” the moment of his death: [13]

LK 23:46  “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.” (NRSV)

Witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus on Golgotha, a member of the Jewish Council , Joseph of Arimathea reached the same conclusion as the exactor mortis, the quaternion and John:[14]

JN 19:38 “…Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body.” (NRSV)[15]

Joseph approached Pilate with trepidation to ask for the body of Jesus.[16] Surprised at Joseph’s report, Pilate wanted official confirmation from the centurion.[17] The sequence of events suggests Pilate’s orders to break the legs of the men on the cross had only just been issued shortly before Joseph made his request.

Leaving the three crosses bearing their victims under the guard of the quaternion, the centurion left his post to make the confirm to Pilate that Jesus was dead:

Mk 15:44-45 “Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died.  When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph.” (NIV)

As a government official of Rome, Pilate affirmed that Jesus was officially dead. Commanded by Pilate to hand over the body of Jesus to Joseph, the centurion’s job was not yet finished requiring him to return to the crucifixion site.

Along the way back to the crosses on Golgotha, Joseph was joined by Nicodemus, another rich man and member of the Jewish Council who also had kept a low profile as a secret follower of Jesus out of fear of the Sanhedrin.[18] While Joseph of Arimathea approached Pilate, Nicodemus had gone separately to purchase 75 -100 pounds of burial spices.[19]

Hanging lifeless on the cross, the centurion released the body of Jesus to the two members of the Jewish Council. Sunset was fast approaching and a quick burial preparation was needed before the Sabbath began.

MT 27:59-60 “And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away.” (NASB)[20]

Up close and personal, Joseph and Nicodemus removed the body of Jesus from the cross, carried it to the nearby unused tomb of Joseph, wrapped it and applied the burial spices. Finished, they rolled a large stone in front the entrance of the tomb with the body of Jesus inside witnessed by two women each named Mary from Galilee.[21]

Judaism, perhaps the biggest opponent to Jesus being recognized as the Messiah, has always acknowledged the death of Jesus by crucifixion. The next morning, Saturday the Sabbath, Jewish leaders approached Pilate with concerns about the body of Jesus in the tomb.[22]

Fearing a fraudulent claim perpetrated by the Disciples, the Jewish leaders acknowledged Jesus had prophesied he would rise from the dead on the third day. Pilate agreed to allow the tomb to be sealed and guarded by an armed koustodia. The chain of custody of the body of Jesus is in full effect.

Fourteen witnesses are identified in the Gospel accounts as eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus – four Roman quaternion, the centurion, two members of the Jewish Council, two blood relatives of Jesus including his own mother, two mothers of Disciples, one Disciple as well as members of the Sanhedrin and Pilate’s legal affirmation.

Diversity of these witnesses in addition to the strength in numbers builds a level of unimpeachable evidence in today’s court of law. Did Jesus not die on the cross?

* When a victim cannot be identified, the name John Doe or Jane Doe are often substituted.

 

Updated March 30, 2022.

REFERENCES:

[1] Goldman, Russell. “Jesus Christ May Not Have Died on Cross?” ABC News. 2010. <https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/jesus-christ-died-cross-scholar/story?id=11066130>  Samuelsson, Gunnar.  Crucifixion in Antiquity.  2011.  Tübingen, Germany:  Mohr Siebeck.  <https://www.academia.edu/4167205/Crucifixion_in_Early_Christianity>  Bowen, Bradley. “Defending the Swoon Theory – Part 1: What is the Swoon Theory?” Patheos.com. 2019. <https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2019/06/01/defending-the-swoon-theory-part-1-what-is-the-swoon-theory>   “The Swoon Theories.” ReviewOfReligions.org. 2010. <https://www.reviewofreligions.org/2323/the-swoon-theories>  Greenberg, Eric J.  “Jesus’ Death Now Debated by Jews.” Jewish Journal. 9 Oct. 2003. Reprinted from The Jewish Week. <http://jewishjournal.com/news/world/8546>  
[2] Assaqar, Monqith Ben Mahmoud. Central Intelligence Agency. “Was Jesus Crucified For Out Atonement?” n.d. p 6. <https://www.cia.gov/library/abbottabad-compound/CE/CE620DF8125A29EA4358631CA285D178_DID_JESUS_DIE_ON_THE_CROSS-.pdf>  “Did Jesus die on Cross?” Islamic Circle of North America. 2016. <https://www.icna.org/did-jesus-die-on-cross>  Quran Surah 4:157. Trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali. n.d. <http://search-the-quran.com/search/Surah+An-Nisa/8>
[3] Josephus, Flavius.  The Complete Works of Josephus. William Whitson. 1850.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Lucian of Samosata.  “The Death of Peregrine.” The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Volume IV. p 82 <http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/wl4/wl420.htm>  Cicero, Marcus Tullius. “Secondary Orations Against Verres. Book 5. 70 B.C. <https://web.archive.org/web/20160430183826/http://www.uah.edu/student_life/organizations/SAL/texts/latin/classical/cicero/inverrems5e.html>  Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius. The Annals. Books X, XV 109 AD. <http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.html>  Seneca, Lucius Annaeus.  “To Novatus on Anger+.” Moral Essays. “Seneca’s Essays Volume I.”  Book III.   The Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance. 2004. <http://www.stoics.com/seneca_essays_book_1.html#ANGER1> Seneca. “De Vita Beata+.”  “To Gallio On The Happy Life.” Moral Essays. “Seneca’s Essays Volume II.”  Book VII. The Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance. 2004. <http://www.stoics.com/seneca_essays_book_2.html#%E2%80%98BEATA1> Suetonius (C. Suetonius Tranquillus or C. Tranquillus Suetonius).  The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. “Julius Caesar.” #74. <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Julius*.html>  “Crucifixion.” JewishEncyclopedia.com. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4782-crucifixion>
[4] “Physicians’ Handbook on Medical Certification of Death.” 2003 Revision. p 9. Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics.  <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/misc/hb_cod.pdf>  “Death Certificate Requirements.” Education Requirements.  2015. <https://web.archive.org/web/20181031044856/http://www.educationrequirements.org/death-certificate-requirements.html>
[5] Luke 23:46. Most English translations use these exact words. CR Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:39.
[6] Zugibe, Frederick T.  “Turin Lecture:  Forensic and Clinical Knowledge of the Practice of Crucifixion.”  E-Forensic Medicine. 2005. <http://web.archive.org/web/20130925103021/http://e-forensicmedicine.net/Turin2000.htm>
[7] Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Moral Essays. “Seneca’s Essays Volume I.” 1928-1935. Book III.  “To Novatus on Anger+.” Book I, p xviii. 2.  The Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance. <http://www.stoics.com/seneca_essays_book_1.html#ANGER1>  Brand, Clarence Eugene. Roman Military Law. pp 80, 99-100, 103, 141-142. 2011. https://books.google.com/books?id=TWexDAAAQBAJ&pg=PA91&lpg=PA91&dq=sacramentum+violation&source=bl&ots=cx2dAVJJkA&sig=ACfU3U0hRifTdhWkPhOVpdke7eZAyPEseQ&hl=en&ppis=_e&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjsi7Xz___nAhVDWK0KHeYHDLMQ6AEwBXoECAwQAQ#v=onepage&q=insubordination&f=false>
[8] CR Matthew 27:54, John 19:30.
[9] “Excited Utterance.”  Cornell University Law School. <http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/excited_utterance>  “Federal Rules of Evidence Article VIII.  Cornell University Law School.  Rule 803. Exceptions to the Rule Against Hearsay.” <http://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/fre/rule_803>
[10] John 19:31-33.
[11] John 19:35.
[12] Mark 15:40-41. CR Luke 23:48-49. John 19:25. CR Matthew 4:21-22; Mark 1:19-20, 10:35; Luke 5:10.
[13] Luke 23:46. CR Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37; John 19:30.
[14] Matthew 27:33; Mark 15:22; Luke 23:33.
[15] CR Mark 15:42-43.
[16] Matthew 27:58; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50-52; John 19:38. CR Mathew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50; John 19:38.
[17] Mark 15:44.
[18] John 3:1; 7:45; 19:39. CR Mathew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50.
[19] John 19:39. See NetBible footnote #5 conversion of Roman pounds to U.S. measurement pounds. <http://classic.net.bible.org/verse.php?book=Joh&chapter=19&verse=39>
[20] CR John 19:42.
[21] Matthew 27:60-61.  CR Luke 23:55.
[22] Matthew 27:62-65.