Luke 1 is the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. It describes the events leading up to the birth of Jesus. It is written to Theophilus, who could be a real person or could simply mean a fellow Christian as theo philus is Greek for God lover. It could be both, addressed to a specific person, whether their name was that or not, and also meant for others as well. (Brown 227) Acts of the Apostles begins addressed the same way in 1:1.
- Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (1-4)
It thus claims to be an accurate history, although skeptics would dispute this. It is meant to confirm the things that Theophilus has already been taught about Jesus, being written by a believer for the purpose of confirming belief. (Brown 227)
Luke clearly states there are other accounts about Jesus circulating and he is aware of them. He also states he is not an eyewitness but belongs to another generation that received its' information from "eyewitnesses" to these events in a previous generation. Some argue Luke thus states that he is getting his information from the disciples and Apostles, which the tradition about Luke being a follower of Paul accords with. Luke however does not say explicitly that he knew or interviewed Jesus' disciples, at least in the Gospel, and so some think "handed down to us" means the traditions and other documents about Jesus that came from witnesses of the previous generation, which Luke carefully researched, not necessarily from someone Luke actually knew. (Brown 227) Sections of Acts however have the author relating events with the author and Paul together, such as 20:5-7, :13-15
According to Robert J. Karris "Luke alone of the evangelists introduces his work with a finely crafted, periodic Greek sentence." (Brown et al. 678) The first sentence gives the "since" clause, the main clause is given in the first part of the second sentence, and the purpose clause is given by "so that you may know...". Luke uses the word epeidēper to start the book, a literary word that only occurs here in the Greek Bible. He uses diēgēsis for "an account", which taken alone seems to mean a personal storytelling, but when compared to other usages at the time, such as with the works of Josephus, is to be taken as meaning a well planned account, although he might use it in the original meaning in Luke 8:39. He uses the word kathexēs for orderly account, which would mean a logical, spatial, or chronological account. Karris argues that the use of the word as well in Acts indicated that Luke is composing in a logical sequence, with Luke building a logical argument for his view of God fulfilling his promises through Jesus. (Brown et al. 678) Many scholars have seen parallels between this style and the openings to the Greek histories of Herodotus and Thucydides as well as scientific manuals and treatises of the Hellenistic world. (Brown 227)
John the Baptist's parents
Luke begins to show what he thinks of as the fulfillment of God's promises. He gives us a description of John the Baptist's parents, who he claims were Zechariah, an Abijah Priest, and Elizabeth, a descendant of Aaron. They are both getting old and have no children. Luke says this all occurs during the reign of "Herod king of Judea" (5), who almost certainly is Herod the Great.
Zechariah is on duty one day and goes into the Temple to light incense. During this time, priests served in the temple once a week twice a year, there being twenty four divisions of priests. Luke says "...it so happened...", kai egeneto, that he was on duty at the time. Some scholars see this as Luke imitating the style of the Septuagint in order to make his book sound like the Jewish scriptures. The majority of modern English translations choose not to include this phrase. (Miller 118)
The Angel Gabriel appears to him and tells him he will soon have a son, to name him John, and to not allow him any alcoholic drinks, and that "he will be great in the sight of the Lord." (15) Numbers 6:3 has obstaining from alcohol as a requirement to be a nazarite. Zechariah doubts Gabriel and Gabriel takes away his power of speech until this happens. Zechariah leaves the temple, unable to speak, and goes home. Elizabeth is soon pregnant. She says "...he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people. (25)" as infertility was often believed to be proof of disfavor with God. (Miller 119)
Luke thus starts with the Temple and then ends the book at the Temple in Luke 24:53 Zechariah not being able to speak and so complete his liturgy is contrasted with the "good news" brought by Jesus. (Brown et al. 680)
There is much debate on the historicity of this information, as skeptics would reject appearances by angels and God's intervention in history in this manner. Whether one believes in such things or not, it is entirely possible that John's parents were childless throughout most of their life until John's birth. Some see Luke as taking a historical event or tradition he received and interpreting it in terms of events in the Old Testament. Luke seems to follow an Old Testament pattern in the sequence of his information here, specifically an announcement of impending birth, the child being given a name, and then discussion of their destiny. (Brown et al. 679) This pattern can be seen in Genesis with Ishmael in 16:11-12 and Isaac in 17:19. Abraham and Sarah were also childless well into their old age. Josiah is announced this way in 1 Kings 13:2, King Solomon in 1 Chronicles 22:9-10, and the Immanuel prediction, used in Matthew 1:23, from Isaiah 7:14-17. Others see a five step pattern, with two extra steps of objections and confirmatory signs. (Brown et al. 680) Gabriel appeared to Daniel in the Book of Daniel 9:21.
Luke then tells the story of Gabriel's visit to Mary, informing her that she will soon have a virgin conception by God. This is not found in Matthew 1:20, which has an unnamed angel appear to Joseph after having discovered Mary is pregnant. Gabriel goes to Nazareth and finds Mary, who Luke tells us is a virgin engaged to Joseph. The name Mary means excellence, while Joseph means "May Yahweh add." (Brown et al. 680)
Gabriel greets her with the word kecharitōmenē, meaning favored or graced, presumably by God. She does not seem to understand why she is favored, but Gabriel then tells her:
- Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end (30-33)
This seems to follow the same pattern as the announcement of John's birth and is also about fulfillment of God's promises. Jesus means "God Saves" (Brown et al. 680) She tells Gabriel she is a virgin but Gabriel says God will give her the child, and thus he will be the Son of God. He then points out how her relative Elizabeth, though old, is now carrying a child, and how "...nothing is impossible with God." 37, then he leaves. Luke states Mary is a virgin, and that she is somehow descended from Aaron, but here says Jesus will inherit his "father"'s throne, or David's. In his Genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3 Aaron is not listed as an ancestor is his Davidic line, and so his descent from David seems to be, according to Luke, legal not biological.
In Daniel 9:24-27 Gabriel gives a prophecy about seventy weeks and the "Anointed One". If one adds the 180 days that Elizabeth was pregnant before Mary's conception plus the 270 days of Mary's pregnancy plus the forty days of "purification" in Luke 2:22, one gets 490 days, or seventy weeks. (Brown et al. 681) Many Christians have seen this as a fulfillment of prophecy, but skeptics tend to counter that Luke could be constructing his story to fit what he sees as fulfillments of prophecy, whether real or not. God's promise of a messiah from the house of David is in 2 Samuel 7
It is significant that Luke states that Mary lives in Nazareth, a small backwater town. He thus has God's grace bestowed on a young, unmarried woman living in an insignificant town. Luke frequently has favor shown on women, sinners, and various "unimportant" people. (Brown et al. 681)
Paul never mentions a virgin birth for Jesus, but in Romans 1:3-4 speaks of him as the Son of God by virtue of his resurrection, and states he had a more than human nature. Luke here has Jesus' divine nature declared from the first moment of his conception. (Brown et al. 680)
Mary and Elizabeth
Mary then goes and visits her relative Elizabeth. Upon meeting the pregnant Mary, Elizabeth feels John move in her womb and is "...filled with the Holy Spirit." (41) This might be related to Genesis 25:22. Elizabeth gives praise to Mary, and Mary, in her Magnificat, gives praise to God. She first thanks God for favoring one so "humble" as her, then praises God for his "mercy" and "help" to all people. Many see the Magnificat patterned on Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. (Brown 232)
In verses 51-53 Luke uses the past tense six times, implying Jesus' conception has fulfilled or is fulfilling these actions of God. These verses speak of the downfall of the proud and rich and the favor of the downtrodden. This might be a general statement, or an allusion to Israel and its Gentile rulers. Some have speculated these represent Ebionite views. Mary then mentions Abraham, again linking this with God's original covenant. (Brown et al. 681) Mary stays for three months and leaves shortly before John's birth. Some find the idea of a young pregnant woman making the trip from Jerusalem to Nazareth improbable, but it is certainly not impossible.
John the Baptist's birth
Friends and neighbors come to circumcise him and try to name him after his father, but his mother protests and then his father writes down that his name will be John, and is suddenly allowed to speak again. He becomes "...filled with the Holy Spirit...", as his wife before him. He sings a song, the Canticle of Zechariah, praising God. Luke then only states that John grew up and went into the desert. This is the only near contemporary account of John's family found anywhere. Brown saw this as echos of the births of Samson in Judges 13:24-25 and Samuel in 1 Samuel 2:21. (Brown 233) Karris sees relating the circumcision, as Luke also does for Jesus in Luke 2, as Luke's way of linking John and Jesus, and therefore Christianity, to a fulfillment of Israel. (Brown et al. 682)
The first part of Zechariah's song praises the still unborn Jesus in verses 68-75. He says "He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David...", with a horn representing strength, such as in Psalm 89:17 and 92:10. (Miller 120) There is then a praising and foretelling of John in verses 76-77, then the song switches back to Jesus in 78-79. Raymond E. Brown thought these sections might have been Jewish Christian hymns linked together by Luke. (Brown et al. 682) It is a common thesis that the Magnificat, the Canticle, and the two songs in chapter 2, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo and the Nunc dimittis, were added by Luke to his original composition from a collection of hymns written in Greek. A minority of scholars think the Magnificat and Canticle might be Jewish hymns taken by the Christians, but Jewish hymns of the period reflect a future hope of God's help whereas these refer to it already having been fulfilled. Another group of scholars, also a minority, argue these were originally composed in Aramaic or Hebrew and so might come from original testimony and so usually argue for these songs' historicity. Scholars often see these as primitive as so probably composed before other songs in the New Testament, such as Philippians 2:6-11. (Brown 232) David is mentioned in the first section, once again linking Jesus to fulfillment of Israel's past. The song ends with a note of peace, a common Lukan theme. Peace is the first thing he says to all the gathered Apostles in Luke 24.
Luke's source for this information is unknown and frequently debated. Even if the Q hypothesis is correct, these stories of John's and Jesus's birth were not in it, nor are they in Mark. Luke does not list anything about an Angel visiting Joseph, which suggests that either Matthew and Luke received their information on this subject from different sources, or Luke has access to both stories, knows Matthew is already circulating, and is filling in the story told in Matthew. If Luke is right, Jesus and John were cousins of some sort.
- Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament Doubleday 1997 ISBN 0-385-24767-2
- Brown, Raymond E. et al. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary Prentice Hall 1990 ISBN 0-13-614934-0
- Luke 1 NIV Accessed 15 October 2005
- Miller, Robert-Editor The Complete Gospels Polebridge Press 1992 ISBN 0-06-065587-9
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