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)

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. Two Greek words referencing a miracle are used elsewhere in Luke, but not used here for Elizabeth. In other instances, 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 had been chosen to represent his priestly division to offer incense 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, six months later 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)

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 greeting, Elizabeth’s babe leapt within her and she 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.”[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 though very importantly, Elizabeth confirmed Mary was already pregnant just a few days after Gabriel told Mary 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 after she returned from the trip to visit Elizabeth. Joseph was considering a divorce until a visitation by Gabriel informed him Mary had not cheated, rather the Holy Spirit impregnated her as a fulfillment of prophecy.

Luke’s Nativity identifies two rulers not found in Matthew serving as historical date markers – Caesar Augustus and Quirinius governing in Syria.[15] Two other specific details are a decree issued by Caesar Augustus which, in turn, became the compelling factor for Mary to travel to Bethlehem in her late stage of pregnancy.

Chronicling 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.  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 the little town of Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph with Jesus lying in a 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 had observed signs in the sky that prompted 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 could locate the babe. When the Magi found Jesus, the family was now in a house.[16]

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 it 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. Four key points are common to Luke and Matthew – Jesus was born in Bethlehem; Nazareth is his hometown; Herod is King with governing authority of country of Judea.[17]  Does Luke’s Gospel Nativity meet the standards of credibility?

 

Updated October 25, 2022.

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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, 36.
[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. Luke 1:26.
[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 2:22; Luke 1:5; 2:1-2.  The Nativity Story. TheBridgeChurch. image. n.d. <http://www.thebridgechurch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/The-Nativity-Story.jpg>
[16] Matthew 2:11.
[17] Matthew 2:1,4; Luke 1:5, 27, 2:4, 23. 

Joseph’s Dilemma With Mary

 

Joseph’s behavior affected the Nativity story in a very important way, much more than it may seem. His reactions to the extreme circumstances surrounding Mary’s pregnancy reveals truths about her as well as himself.

Most likely Joseph knew Mary through community interactions in Nazareth such as during the harvest or through their Synagogue.[1] He would have been familiar with her family’s reputation and had confidence that she was a marriageable virgin, a very important factor in their conservative Jewish society.[2]

Betrothals typically lasted for a year during which time Joseph was expected to be very busy.[3] As a bridegroom, in addition to paying the traditional bride-price, he had to make money for other financial obligations such as preparing their new home and sponsoring a 3-day wedding feast for their guests.[4]

Ketubah, 1063 AD

Initially, Joseph had few worries about the virtuous nature of his prospective bride. By law, a marriage contract called a Ketubah, legally declared Mary to be a virgin, included the terms of their marriage and was signed by the witnesses who vetted Mary.

Mary had less commitment pressures to prepare for the wedding … simply follow the rules of the process. A betrothed girl subject to Judaic Law was under strict supervision of her family and the watchful eye of the community. She was not allowed to be alone at any time with an adult male, not even a male family member.[5]

Gabriel the archangel, during his appearance to Mary delivering God’s message that she was miraculously pregnant, also informed her that Elizabeth, her cousin, was 6 months pregnant. With a common unique situation, it seemed to be the perfect opportunity to visit Elizabeth who lived in a village days away near Jerusalem.[6] Mary would be gone for 3 months. Keeping in touch with Joseph would be very limited and delayed, if at all.[7]

Joseph would not become aware of Mary’s pregnancy until sometime after her return to Nazareth. It is unclear exactly when he discovered that she was pregnant, but it is clear from Matthew‘s use of the Greek word heurisko meaning “to hit upon…to find (by chance)” that it was a big surprise when he did find out![8]

Overwhelming emotions by Joseph would be expected – hurt and anger followed by resentment, embarrassment, doubt, uncertainty, temptations of vengefulness and other mixed feelings. Then the big question – what to do next?

Moving forward with the marriage would be the expected behavior of a man who believed himself to be the father of his betrothal’s baby. Frowned upon by the Rabbis, accidental pregnancies during betrothals were a reality, even in those days. The Rabbi’s dealt with these instances by allowing the couple to move up their wedding date and get on with life as a married couple.[9]

Bill of Divorce or “Get”

Knowing he was not the father of Mary’s baby presented two huge consequences to consider. First is the obvious, why would a bridegroom want to marry his bride-to-be who was carrying a child fathered by someone else?

According to Matthew, a divorce was indeed being contemplated by Joseph. It is perhaps the most telling evidence of a truth that Joseph was not the father of Mary’s child.

Consequences of a divorce weighed heavily on Joseph. Not only would it destroy Mary’s reputation and cause financial loss to both Mary and her family, a public accusation of infidelity could carry a charge of adultery – stoning would not have been out of the question.[10]

Attesting to Joseph’s honorable character, he was seeking to quietly settle the divorce. It would, in effect, minimize embarrassment to Mary, her family and avoid the public charge of adultery.[11]

On the other hand, if Joseph stayed with his pregnant betrothal, their community of family, friends and neighbors would assume the pregnancy was a result of his own doing, even if it wasn’t. Joseph would have to endure the undeserving consequences of facing public scorn and humiliation while swallowing his pride and overcoming his personal feelings. It would take a big man. Few men would do it.

Unexpectedly, Joseph suddenly changed his mind and decided not to pursue a divorce. He set aside all his negative emotions and feelings to honor his marriage commitment to Mary knowing he was not the father of her child while willingly accepting the consequences that would come with it. What caused this sudden change of heart was not to be expected.

Matthew reports the game-changing moment came from a visit by “an angel of the Lord.” He delivered a message from God telling Joseph that Mary’s conception was from the Holy Spirit, her child would be a boy to be named Immanuel which Joseph understood to mean “Jesus.”[12]

Actions speak louder than words, volumes in this case. Something very unusual and significant happened.[13] Did Joseph’s dilemma resolution play a key role in determining if the conception and birth of Jesus of Nazareth was a fulfillment of the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy?

 

 

Updated November 25, 2022.

Creative Commons License

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

REFERENCES:

[1] Brayer, Menachem M. The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature. 1986. pp 68-69. <http://books.google.com/books?id=GhPxFOCdQj4C&pg=PA143&lpg=PA143&dq=sex+betrothal+jewish&source=web&ots=G4jLlub8y9&sig=gnkOuPI8xLKvYl57J9PR9VY3kVg#PPA143,M1>
[2] Brayer. The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature. pp 57, 59, 61. “Marriage Laws.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10435-marriage-laws>
[3] “Betrothal.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3229-betrothal> Brayer.  The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature. p 62.  Edersheim.  The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 1883. Book II, Chapter 4.  https://philologos.org/__eb-lat/book204.htm> Thompson, James C.  Women in the Ancient World. July 2010.  “Women in Ancient Israel” > “Women and the Law in Ancient Israel.” <http://www.womenintheancientworld.com/women%20and%20the%20law%20in%20ancient%20israel.htm>
[4] Missler, Chuck. “The Wedding Model.” Koinonia House, Inc. 2018. <http://www.khouse.org/articles/2003/449/#notes>  Brayer. The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature. p 70.  “Marriage Contract for Shelamzion and Judah.” K. C. Hanson’s Collection of Greek Documents. 128 AD. photo. <http://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/greek/marrcon.html
[5] Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Kethuboth 12a, 12b, 13a, 13b. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/kethuboth/index.html> “Adultery.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/865-adultery> Brayer. The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature. pp 142-143.
[6] Luke 1.  “Map of Israel in the Time of Jesus.”  Bible History Online. n.d.<https://www.bible-history.com/maps/palestine_nt_times.html>
[7] Luke 1.
[8] Matthew 1:18. Net.bible.org. Greek text. “heurisko <2147>.” Lexicondorance.com. <http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/2147.html>
[9] Brayer. The Jewish Woman in Rabbinic Literature. pp 143-144, 146-147.  Lamm, Maurice. The Jewish Way in Love & Marriage. 2018. Section “Celebrating the Marriage Covenant” > Chapter “Jewish Betrothal Blessing;” Section “The Structure of The Marriage Covenant” > Chapter “The Jewish Marriage Ceremony.”  <http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/465140/jewish/The-Jewish-Way-in-Love-Marriage.htm>   Edersheim. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book II, Chapter 4, footnote #27.  “Ḳiddushin.”’ Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9310-kiddushin>
[10] John 8:2-7.  “Adultery.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  “Marriage Laws.” Jewish Encyclopedia.  “Marriage Ceremonies.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10434-marriage-ceremonies> Josephus, Flavius. Against Apion. Book II, #25. Trans. and commentary William Whitson. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Thompson,“Women in the Ancient World.”  Edersheim.  The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book II, Chapter 4.
[11] Matthew 1:19.  Schneerson; Menachem M. “The Betrothed.” Chabad org. 2018. <http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/296931/jewish/The-Betrothed.htm>  “Marriage Ceremonies” & “Adultery.” Jewish Encyclopedia.
[12] Matthew 1.
[13] Edersheim. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book II, Chapter 4.