#Luke2Acts – Some Notes on Luke 1 and 2

Yesterday the new Twitter group Bible study, #Luke2Acts, began with Luke 1 and today we have been looking at Luke 2. The following are some of the thoughts that I have had while reading the first couple of chapters. Most of them aren’t original and any that are original should be held very lightly: they are possible connections and interpretations, rather than sure ones.

I don’t plan to continue this as a series of posts. However, I thought that I would whet your appetite and encourage you to get involved. Just use the hashtag #Luke2Acts on Twitter. We would love for as many people as possible to join us!

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The connections between Luke, Acts, and Samuel are especially noteworthy. All three books begin with prayer in the temple. The connections will multiply as we go through the passage.

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Like Exodus and 1 Samuel, the story of Luke focuses upon believing and courageous women and birth (the Hebrew midwives, Jochebed and Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, Hannah, Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna). The focus upon women at the very beginning of a great new work of God in history is noteworthy and follows a consistent pattern of the Old Testament. It only takes forty-two verses for the gospel of Luke to pass the Bechdel Test! The men that surround them are either wicked (Pharaoh and his men, Hophni and Phinehas), lacking in spiritual perception (Eli and Zacharias—Eli later goes blind, while Zacharias is struck dumb), or largely stay in the background (Amram, Elkanah, and Joseph). Many of the women are barren, widows, or unmarried. The barren woman having her womb opened is a very important theme in Scripture (I’ve commented on it here, here, and here, for instance). The story of Luke begins with believing women and a doubting man at news of birth. The story of Luke ends with believing women and (initially) doubting men at news of resurrection (24:1-11).

The focus upon women also goes together with a focus upon the ‘gestation periods’ of God’s salvation. God’s salvation doesn’t begin in the glare of public life, but in the quiet prayers of an ageing couple and in the hiddenness of a young woman’s womb. Thirty or more years will pass before that salvation comes to fruition.

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John the Baptist is to be a Nazirite (cf. Numbers 6) from birth, just like Samson (Judges 13) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11). A comparison of these three characters would be illuminating.

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The relationship between these narratives and others in the Old Testament can become clearer when we recognize the connections between names: Zacharias is Zechariah; Mary is Miriam; Elizabeth is Elisheba; John is Johanan; Jesus is Joshua; Anna is Hannah.

So, what can we make of the possible meaning of some of these names? With Abel, Zechariah was one of the figures who bookended the story of the persecution of the Old Testament prophets (Luke 11:51) and the history of the cumulative guilt of Israel for its treatment of the prophets that God had sent to them. He is the last great martyr of the Old Testament in 2 Chronicles 24:17-25 (the order of the Hebrew books ends with 2 Chronicles, rather than with Malachi) as Abel was the first in Genesis 4. Zechariah declared the apostasy of Judah to a people who refused to listen and was stoned in the temple court. He was a faithful priest and prophet in a rebellious nation. The other alternative is that Zechariah is the prophet of the biblical book of Zechariah and thus chronologically the last of the martyrs (cf. Matthew 23:35; Zechariah 1:1). Zechariah the prophet’s ministry centres around the rebuilding of the temple. By connecting him with these figures, Zacharias’ name picks up the threads of the Old Testament story of faith from where it left off (note that the prophecy of Malachi is quoted in verse 17). It also hints at a new temple building project after the defiling of an old temple and a period of exile. The muteness of the prophet Zacharias could be related to the general silence of God in the period between the testaments. God reopens the mouth of the dumb prophet and a new era of his redemption will come about. He might be a picture of the nation as a whole: Zacharias initially responds with doubt, but his mouth is later opened in praise.

Elisheba was the wife of Aaron and the matriarch of the priestly line (Exodus 6:23). Barren Elizabeth is a symbol of a priestly line in crisis, much as it was in the time of Eli, as Eli’s two sons died on the same day and his priestly house was left in tatters. The opening of the womb of Elisheba/Elizabeth promises the establishment of a new faithful priesthood from the ashes.

Mary is Miriam. Miriam was the great prophetess who helped lead Israel out of Egyptian exile (cf. Micah 6:4). She was the one who protected the infant Moses, the deliverer of his people. She was the midwife of God’s salvation, the one who assisted at Moses’ deliverance through the waters as an infant and who led the women in song at the birth of Israel from the womb of Egypt at the Red Sea. Mary plays a role akin to Miriam’s. She bears, gives birth to, and protects the infant Jesus. She is present at Jesus’ birth and is there for his new birth from the dead and for the birth of the Church at Pentecost. She is the mother figure for the Church, just as Miriam was the mother of the nation, the one who protected it in its gestation period and looked after it in its infancy.

The significance of John’s name is not so straightforward. Johanan was one of the high priests after the restoration (Nehemiah 12:22-23). Perhaps more interesting, Johanan was also a leader of the army who led a remnant of Judah out of the land to Egypt after the assassination of Gedaliah, against the word of the prophet Jeremiah (2 Kings 25:22-26; Jeremiah 42:1—43:7). So, how does this relate to John? First, as the names of his parents suggest, John the Baptist is connected with the formation of a new priesthood. Second, faithful John actually does something rather similar in character to the unfaithful Johanan. John leads a remnant out of an occupied land into the wilderness, where he prepares the way for Jesus (Joshua), the new ruler who will lead them back in.

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Mary is blessed in much the same language as Jael in Judges 6:24. Her song is like Hannah’s from 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Mary is cut from the same cloth as the great heroines of the Old Testament.

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The Spirit overshadows Mary, just as it hovered over the waters of creation. The angel comes to Mary ‘in the sixth month’ (Luke 1:26). Humanity was created on the sixth day. Is a connection to creation being drawn?

Are we supposed to hear themes of the reversal of the Fall in the ‘blessed fruit’ of Mary’s womb? The womb, which once mediated judgment to the woman, now becomes the means of blessing. The fruit of the Garden, which led to condemnation, is replaced by the fruit of Mary’s womb, who brings salvation. Jesus is the Seed of the Woman (and the woman in particular, as Mary is a virgin), the first of a new humanity to replace that of Adam.

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The description of the Spirit coming upon and overshadowing (cf. Exodus 40:35) suggests the creation of a new tabernacle/temple. Mary, her womb, and her child are spoken of using temple imagery. Like Acts, Luke begins with the establishment of a new temple. King David leapt and danced before the Ark of the Covenant as it was brought into Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6:14-16 in the garments of a child. As Mary, the new ark bearing God’s presence, comes to Elizabeth, the infant forerunner John dances before Jesus, God’s presence, just as David danced before the ark bringing the presence of the Lord into Jerusalem.

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John the Baptist is compared to Elijah (1:17). Like Elisha he is a man of the desert, who will go before the man of the land. This pattern can be seen in Ishmael and Isaac, Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha. Just like Moses and Joshua and Elijah and Elisha, the torch of ministry is passed from John to Jesus on the far side of the Jordan. There are also surprising similarities between John the Baptist, Elijah, and Ishmael.

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Mary stays with Elizabeth from the sixth to ninth months of her pregnancy (1:26-57). Darkness was over the land from the sixth to ninth hours in Luke 23:44. Is there a connection?

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Luke 2 begins with a census of the ‘whole world’ by Caesar Augustus. This sets Luke’s story within the context of the wider empire, much as the later story of Israel in the Old Testament is placed within the context of larger empires, as the influence of Israel and YHWH is felt throughout the wider world Israel inhabits. Luke’s narrative of Luke-Acts will conclude with Paul in Rome. By mentioning Rome at this point, this wider world provides a backdrop for the gospel, even though most of the action will be contained within Israel’s borders and population. It also makes clear that Israel is under foreign control.

Gabriel is the angel that is sent to Zacharias (1:19) and Mary (1:26). The previous references to Gabriel are found in the book of Daniel 8:15-27, 9:20-27, and probably also the vision of chapter 10. In Daniel the archangel Michael is spoken of as the angel of Israel (10:21; 12:1). There Gabriel is spoken of as a mighty warrior angel, struggling with the angels over other nations behind the scenes. While the archangel Michael’s ministry seems to be focused upon Israel in particular, Gabriel speaks of Israel’s place within a wider world of empires. There seems to be an amassing of forces on various sides. The great warrior angel Gabriel is sent on a mission. Later on we see a multitude of the heavenly army (2:13). Caesar, meanwhile is taking a general census.

Gabriel

(Thanks to Corrie Haffly for Gabriel’s self-destructing calling card!)

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The census involves people being sent back to their hometowns by imperial decree. The decree of Cyrus led to Israel being sent back to their city to rebuild the temple. It is Christ who will rebuild his Father’s house. It is also worth thinking about David’s taking of the census in 2 Samuel 24. This census led to judgment upon the house of Israel, but also established the site of the new Temple. John Barach has an interesting historical tidbit on the census here.

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Christ is born in Bethlehem—‘House of Bread’—and is placed in a feeding trough. Christ came to the world as food. His body will later be broken like bread and given for the life of the world. Note also Isaiah 1:3.

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We have a rather romantic view of shepherds, but they were tough men. Also, it was a big deal for them to leave their sheep. The patriarchs of Israel were associated with shepherding and Israel as a nation was presented as a flock. Christ is both the Chief Shepherd and the Lamb of God.

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Manger

The angel appears with the very glory of the Lord shining around. The shepherds are given a sign: they will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. Our mental picture of the manger is most likely skewed by countless modern nativity scenes. However, there is a very good chance that the manger was a stone manger, which wouldn’t have looked all that dissimilar from a stone coffin. If the sign given by the angels at the beginning of the gospel is of a cloth-wrapped body in a coffin-like stone manger, the sign at the end is a tomb with an empty coffin and linen cloths left behind (24:12).

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Simeon has a profound experience of the Spirit, one that seems ahead of its redemptive historical time. When he speaks of the ‘sword’ piercing Mary’s heart, it might be worth remembering that Simeon was a man associated with a sword in Genesis 34. Simeon announces that Christ is destined for the ‘fall and rising of many in Israel.’ The order is significant: death followed by resurrection.

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Anna is a widow of 84—12×7 years. Such details are not given to us by accident. Anna represents the state of the nation. Anna is also another new ‘Hannah’, fasting and praying in the temple, seeking God’s salvation. The fact that her tribal origin is given to us is potentially significant. This is another connection with the story of 1 Samuel. In Simeon and Anna we see faithful people nearing death greet the newborn Saviour. Anna is continually fasting and praying in the temple. Later the disciples are continually praising and blessing God in the temple (24:53).

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Jesus journeys to Jerusalem for the Passover. He is lost and then found again after three days. Jesus asks his mother and father, much as he would later ask the two travelers on the road out of Jerusalem to Emmaus, why they didn’t understand his true calling: ‘Why is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’ The angels later ask those at the tomb ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?’ and Jesus has to explain his vocation to those who should have understood. Mary kept this in her heart. I can imagine that, looking back over twenty years later, she would have marveled to see Christ’s destiny being so clearly and powerfully prefigured in his early life. Simeon spoke of the secret thoughts of many hearts being revealed. I wonder whether this is part of what he meant. The true significance of the strange and mysterious events that Mary had pondered over for two or more decades would suddenly be revealed following Christ’s resurrection.

The text speaks of the parents going up to Jerusalem for the feast every year (2:41), just as Samuel’s parents went up to the temple every year (1 Samuel 1:21). Samuel was left behind in the temple by his parents, being ‘lent to YHWH’ by his parents. Jesus was (accidently) left behind in the temple by his parents, reminding them of his true Father and that he was temporarily ‘lent’ to them by God.

The story of Jesus’ precocious spiritual wisdom in the temple is once again reminiscent of the story of Samuel. The description of Jesus’ growing up in 2:52 also echoes that of Samuel in 1 Samuel 2:26. Samuel is the prophet who ends the old order of Israel, foretells judgment on the priestly house, and establishes the kingdom. Christ declares judgment upon the temple and priestly house of Israel, ends the old covenant, and establishes the kingdom.

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Do you have any thoughts on these passages? Share them in the comments (or, even better, share some thoughts on Twitter)!

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in #Luke2Acts, Bible, Luke, NT, NT Theology, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to #Luke2Acts – Some Notes on Luke 1 and 2

  1. lillbjorne says:

    Reblogged this on Life for Beginners and commented:
    Just a quick share of a great post on the new Twitter Bible study we’re doing – one chapter a day from Luke to Acts. I just love the inter-connectedness and repeating themes and symbolism of scripture, and I love that I’m seeing new things in these old, familiar passages that I’ve never seen before. Join us!🙂

  2. Hi Alastair,
    Thank you for this – something I’d like to come back to and read again.
    Just two things for now – the first is personal and maybe not relevant but it came into my mind. Re: the names Miriam and Mary – I was first told that Miriam is the Hebrew for Mary just a few months ago by a friend of mine who is a Messianic Jewess. My friend is called Maureen but she now signs herself Miriam because she says Maureen is the Irish for Mary and Miriam is the Hebrew
    for Mary. I’m fascinated with names anyway and with new names being given to people in the scriptures…but that’s another strand🙂
    Second thing: I’m a retired teacher and was also a Sunday School teacher until almost two years ago and the kids often asked me questions that left me completely stumped.One question is relevant to Luke 3 and I’m a bit reluctant to put it out on Twitter! Anyway, here it is:’Miss, you don’t believe all that about the Virgin Birth, do you? I mean, it were Joseph, weren’t it?!’ Well I think it was the Holy Spirit, but, at the end of ch.3, in the genealogy, we are told that Jesus was linked with the line of Joseph.
    No further comment on that for now!

    Christine
    PS I was actually a language teacher but did some RE on supply.

    • Thanks for the comment, Christine!

      It is important to notice that neither Matthew nor Luke suggest that Jesus was the biological son of Joseph and both strongly teach the virgin conception. Matthew writes: ‘Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus.’ Luke writes: ‘Jesus … being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph.’ Nonetheless, the Bible speaks of Jesus as the son of Joseph, because Joseph was his social and legal father, even if not his biological father.

      The difference between the two genealogies has various explanations. Perhaps the most common is that Matthew’s is Joseph’s genealogy, while Luke’s is Mary’s. Notice that Matthew focuses upon Joseph’s part in Jesus’ birth, while Luke focuses upon Mary’s account. Heli would have been Joseph’s father-in-law and Jesus’ grandfather on Mary’s side.

      • Thank you for that, Alastair! So according to Luke, it was Mary who was a descendant of David. That makes sense.

      • John Barach says:

        I don’t think there’s any good reason to take Matthew’s as Joseph’s genealogy and Luke’s as Mary’s. Luke is quite clear that he’s giving Joseph’s genealogy. But it’s entirely possible, over such a long time period, to have divergent lines that come back together at a certain point, and all the more so if there is the practice of Levirate marriage, as there was in Israel. For one plausible reconstruction, see Jakob van Bruggen’s *Christ on Earth*.

        Neither Gospel gives any hint that Mary was from the house and line of David. That’s why it’s so crucial in Matthew’s Gospel that Joseph not divorce Mary. Her link to the house of David is her being betrothed to Joseph. She’s in his house and he’s in David’s house and therefore her child is in David’s house.

      • Interesting. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Pingback: drbexl.co.uk | #BIGRead14: Breeze

  4. Bronwyn Lea says:

    Fascinating stuff, Alastair. I’m trying to keep a healthy distance between me and Twitter, but I may have to peek in on your hashtag from time to time and eavesdrop.
    And, AWESOME calling card from the inimitable Corrie!!

    • You’ll have to tweet a few thoughts of your own if you can at any point! You don’t have to do every day, but could join part of the way through.

      It is a fantastic calling card, isn’t it!😀

  5. Pingback: Pick of the Clicks 4/26/14 | bronwyn's corner

  6. Pingback: #Luke2Acts—Some Notes on Luke 17 to 24 | Alastair's Adversaria

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