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.

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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.
[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.

Joseph’s Dilemma With Mary

Joseph’s behavior played a key role in the Nativity story, much more than it may seem. His reactions to the extreme circumstances reveal truths about Mary’s pregnancy.

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 full 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 expected to be very busy.[3] As a bridegroom, in addition to paying the traditional bride-price, he had to hold a job to meet other financial obligations such as preparing their new home and sponsor a 3-day wedding feast for their guests.[4]

Mary, on the other hand, had less commitment pressures to prepare for the wedding. 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 secret appearance to Mary, informed her that Elizabeth, her cousin, was 6 months pregnant. 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. No phones, texts or emails…keeping in touch with Joseph would be very limited.[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 to begin with, then 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. As such, these things were dealt with by allowing the couple to move up their wedding date and get on with life as a married couple.[9]

Not being the father of Mary’s baby presented a major set of conflicting circumstances. Why would a bridegroom want to marry his bride-to-be who was carrying the child conceived by someone else? 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.

Knowing he was innocent of premarital sex with Mary, Joseph would have to pay the undeserving price 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.

Indeed, Joseph was contemplating the divorce option, an expected reaction of a man who knew he was not the father of his betrothal’s child. It serves as 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 taint her 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 another truth was Joseph’s honorable character. Rising above any negative feelings, he sought to quietly settle the divorce which would, in effect, minimize embarrassment to Mary, her family and potentially avoid the public charge of adultery.[11]

Unexpectedly, Joseph suddenly changed his mind – he inexplicably decided to continue with his marriage. What caused this sudden change of heart and willingness to pay the huge personal price of staying with Mary is key.

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 had conceived of the Holy Spirit and her child, a boy to be named Jesus.[12]

Actions speak louder than words, volumes in this case. Something very unusual and significant happened. Joseph suddenly 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.[13]

What do Joseph’s actions and reactions say about him not being the biological father of Jesus?

The answer plays a key role in determining if the conception and birth of Jesus of Nazareth was a fulfillment of the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy. Going one step further, if Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, then how can Jesus be an heir to the Throne of David?

 

Updated December 10, 2021.

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.
[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.