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 historical timeline, locations and the key figures. Interestingly, Luke first begins with the birth of John the Baptist.
Exclusive aspects of John’s birth are not described in any other Gospel meaning they could not be the source for Luke. In the very opening paragraph, 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)
While other accounts have already been written, the author writes, it is his intention to provide a thoroughly investigated account in consecutive order. Parallel passages in Matthew and Mark leave no doubt that, along with Luke, the three share common source references. Many expert authorities believe that Luke was the last of the three Synoptic Gospels to be written, then followed lastly by John.
Very limited is the list of possible eyewitnesses: Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the parents of John the Baptist, Elizabeth and Zachariah. Mary was present when her son, Jesus, was crucified and the whereabouts of Zachariah and Elizabeth are not recorded in the Gospels. John the Baptist was beheaded early during the ministry of Jesus. Mary’s husband, Joseph, is presumed to have died before the onset of Jesus’s ministry.
First in Luke is the account of Zechariah, a Levite Jewish priest, and his wife, Elizabeth. The couple were considered “advanced in years” for not yet having any children; a relative term considering that girls married and began having children as soon as nature allowed, about 13 years of age. Elizabeth considered her “barren” state to be a “disgrace.”
Elizabeth’s pregnancy in her advanced years is not described in Luke as miraculous. Neither of the words expected to describe a miracle do not appear in the Greek text. These words are used, however, elsewhere in Luke – dunamis translated to English using such words as “miracles,” “deeds of power,” “power of the Spirit,” or “mighty works;” or semelon translated with such words as “miracle,” “miraculous sign,” “sign from heaven.”
Zechariah was chosen by his priestly division to offer the timely sacrifices to God. While inside the Temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him delivering God’s message that his wife would become pregnant with a son who was to be named John. Doubting Gabriel’s message, Zechariah was struck dumb.
Only two witnesses to the angelic encounter were possible, Gabriel and Zechariah, both of whom were quoted rather than paraphrased. Twice used in Zechariah’s quote is the personal pronoun “I” rather than being described in the third person. Zechariah can be the only source of the quotation.
Corroborating Gabriel’s message, Elizabeth did indeed unexpectedly become pregnant. Praising the Lord, Elizabeth is then quoted with personal pronouns rather than a paraphrased rendition. For reasons that can only be surmised, Elizabeth stayed secluded at home for the first five months of her pregnancy.
Meanwhile in Nazareth 80 miles away, Mary, who had been betrothed to Joseph, was going about her daily business. Gabriel greeted her saying, “”Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 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 then quoted using the personal pronoun “I” asking Gabriel how she could have a baby when she was a virgin. 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. Like Zechariah, Mary can be the only human source to this angelic encounter.
Elizabeth re-enters Luke’s account when Mary came to visit shortly after Gabriel delivered God’s message to her. Upon hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s babe leapt within her. Elizabeth loudly exclaimed:
“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.”
Noteworthy, Elizabeth knew about Mary’s immaculate conception before Mary told her. Elizabeth’s quoted praise contains four personal pronouns of “me” and “my” making it highly likely she is the source for this quote. Additionally Mary is praised for her complete belief in Gabriel’s message without any question.
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.
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. The source of Mary’s praise strongly appears to be Mary herself.
Matthew articulates Joseph’s reaction to discovering Mary’s pregnancy 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.
Timing is perhaps the biggest differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s Nativity stories. Solely found in Luke is the reason why Mary traveled in her late stage of pregnancy to Bethlehem – a decree by Caesar Augustus.
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 angels appearing to shepherds outside of Bethlehem:
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.
Matthew, on the other hand, outlines a different Nativity timeline when the Magi followed signs in the sky on a long journey to Jerusalem. After consultation with Jewish religious experts, King Herod revealed to the Magi where they might locate Jesus. When the Magi found baby Jesus, the family was now in a house.
Luke adds two other details. Eight days later during the circumcision event, Joseph and Mary officially named their baby Jesus as each were 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 secular historical date markers. Does Luke’s Gospel Nativity meet the standards of credibility?
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 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>
 Luke 1:25.
 Luke 4:14; 10:13; 19:37; 23:8. NetBible.org. Greek text. dunamis <1411>, semelon <4592>
 Luke 1:8. NetBible.org. Footnote 28. <http://classic.net.bible.org/bible.php?book=Luk&chapter=1#n32>
 Luke 1:11, 19.
 Luke 1:20, 24.
 Luke 1:13-17, 19-20.
 Luke 1:25.
 Luke 1:24.
 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>
 Luke 1:28. NET, NASB.
 Luke 1:42-45. NKJV.
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 Luke 1:46-55.
 Matthew 2:1,4; Luke 1:5, 27, 2:4, 23.
 Matthew 2:22; Luke 1:5; 2:1-2.
 Matthew 2:11.