In my left hand is a small sliver from the tall mirror that broke today in the hall outside our bathroom. Ouch! In my right hand is a bible. Let’s do a podcast abouuuuuuuuut…. THE BIBLE!
Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. On this show we have one job: we examine the text of the Jewish and Christian bibles through the lenses of history and literature. We’ve come a long way so far, all the way through the Hebrew Bible (some Christians call it the “Old” or “First” Testament) and now we’re three scrolls deep into the so-called “New” Testament, Greek Christian texts from the century following the death of Jesus of Nazareth. The two Testaments may be dramatically different in language and scope, but as our discussion today will illuminate, we cannot hope to make good sense of the Greek texts without a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew ones.
Luke’s gospel is the third of the “synoptics,” the three theological biographies of Jesus that begin the New Testament and which all tell (roughly) the same story about his prophetic campaign, execution, and resurrection. A general observation about these texts is helpful before we open up Luke’s volume. In regard to authorship, it’s worth acknowledging that none of the gospels is signed by an author or officially titled “the gospel of Matthew” or “the gospel of Mark,” etc. It’s a bit romantic to imagine Matthew and John, the apostles, and Mark, Peter’s associate or whoever he was, running along after Jesus and writing everything down as it happened. It’s unlikely that the Galilean peasants who followed Jesus could read and write in Aramaic, much less in Greek. More likely these gospels represent the collected traditions, beliefs, and memories of various Christian communities in the decades after Jesus which were attributed to apostolic (or apostolic-adjacent) figures.
Luke may or may not be an exception to this. His name doesn’t appear in the text, but this is the only gospel to open with a first person account of its creation:
1 Many people have undertaken to draw up an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled in our midst. 2 It has been handed down to us by the original eyewitnesses and stewards of the word. 3 So, most excellent Theophilus, since I had traced the course of all of it scrupulously from the start, I thought it a good idea to write an orderly account for you, 4 so that you may have secure knowledge about the matters in which you have been instructed. (Luke Chapter 1)
The editor of the work we call “Luke” set out to compile an “orderly” presentation of traditions and stories handed down by “eyewitnesses,” and he was apparently doing so on behalf of a benefactor, someone named “Theophilus.” The name is Greek and means “Friend of God,” and scholarly opinion is split on whether this was a Jewish Christian sponsor, or perhaps a Roman official. The title “most excellent” has some Roman associations in this period, indicating that this might be one community or author’s attempt to “set the story straight” in an official capacity regarding early Christianity. This would make a good deal of sense given some of the unique emphases of Luke’s stories that we’ll examine presently.
As we mentioned last time, the texts of Matthew and Luke appear to have used Mark as a common source. They also share common material from an unknown second source, and both bring their own unique material to the table. In Luke’s case, his largest contribution of unique material comes at the beginning of his gospel in a lengthy telling of the “nativity” story. While Mark was silent on these matters, Matthew gave us a brief account of Jesus’ birth, the response of Herod, the sojourn in Egypt, the return to Nazareth, and the visit of the Magi. Now Luke gives us his own version of the “Christmas story” and, frankly, it could hardly be more different from Matthew’s in detail and emphasis.
The first thing we notice in Luke’s account is a radical shift in focus. Matthew’s opening genealogy and narrative mentioned Mary but focused on her husband Joseph. Luke puts Mary herself at the center of his storytelling. But, before we even get to Mary, we meet her cousin Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, a priest. They are very old and long to have a child, but she is barren, and… yeah. This story again. This is an Israelite birth narrative if we’ve ever seen one, and it has certain stark commonalities with the stories of Abraham & Sarah and Elkanah & Hannah, the parents of the prophet Samuel. This type of remixed storytelling is common in Jewish writings of the period. Themes, events, and character types from familiar old stories are shuffled and tweaked to tell a new story with a timeless meaning. In Matthew, baby Moses becomes baby Jesus and Pharaoh becomes King Herod. Here in Luke, baby Samuel becomes baby John the Baptist, and so on. Mining these stories for facts but ignoring their style is a perfect way to miss the point.
An angel named Gabriel appears to Zechariah and tells him that his wife will bear a son, a prophet in the tradition of Elijah, who will prepare the people of Israel for the Lord’s return. When Zechariah expresses doubt, the angel tells him to shut up – literally. As a sign, the priest won’t be able to speak until the child is born. Later, the same Gabriel appears to a young girl from Nazareth named Mary, to tell her that she too will conceive and bear a child. This conception will be even more miraculous as Mary is an unmarried virgin. Gabriel says:
30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary.” … “You’re in favor with God. 31 Listen, you will conceive in your womb and will have a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be a great man, and he’ll be called the son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, 33 and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will never come to an end.”
Let’s take a moment to notice something here that will set the tone for everything that is to come. In form, an angel bearing a message from God is a fairly religious phenomenon, but the content of this message is undeniably political. Gabriel doesn’t say, “your child will be the founder of a new religion and everyone who worships him will be allowed to live!” He is announcing a messiah, a king, one who will fulfill David’s covenant and restore Israel’s throne to YHWH. The Christmas story, it turns out, is deeply political. Mary responds with a beautiful song that is appropriate to the themes of the announcement:
49 “The Powerful One, whose name is Holy, has done great things for me, for me.
50 His mercy extends from father to son, from mother to daughter for those that fear him.
51 Powerful things he has done with his arm; He routed the arrogant through their own cunning.
52 Down from their thrones he hurled the rulers, up from the earth he raised the humble.
53 The hungry he filled with the fat of the land, but the rich he sent off with nothing to eat.
54 He has rescued his servant, Israel his child, because he remembered his mercy of old,
55 Just as he said to our long-ago ancestors – Abraham and his descendants forever.”
(Luke Chapter 1)
This sounds like a combination of the royal Psalms and the social-justice rants of prophets like Amos and Hosea. Faced with the news of her impending miraculous pregnancy, Mary starts singing about classism and the overthrow of corrupt fatcats. Later in the same chapter, the prophet John is born and Zechariah speaks a prophecy that is very similar to Mary’s song. I won’t read it now in the interest of time, but please check it out. The bottom line here is the radically political and urgently contemporary content of these stories in their original context, something we have tended to ignore.
Luke Chapter 2 details the birth of Jesus in a narrative that departs significantly from what we saw in Matthew on many points. In Matthew, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem, and so Jesus is born there. When they get word that Herod is trying to kill Jesus, they flee to Egypt, and when they return they choose to make a new life in Nazareth in Galilee to the North. In Luke, they start out living in Nazareth, and a great universal census requires them to visit Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. After Jesus’ birth, the family returns to Nazareth, and there’s not a word about Egypt. In Matthew’s case, he needed a plot device to get Jesus to Egypt so his retelling of the story of Israel would be complete. For Luke, however, the plot device is the census, which historians doubt ever actually took place, but which Luke needs to get the family to Bethlehem. You can whine and pout about these apparent discrepancies, you can squint and pretend they’re not there, or you can embrace the bible as it is and listen to what the authors are actually trying to say.
Another major difference, though not necessarily a discrepancy: instead of foreign “magi” visiting the child Jesus, a group of local shepherds visit the newborn messiah in the stable. While Matthew’s story emphasized the role of foreigners in the new “kingdom of God,” Luke’s story is more interested in the “lowest of the low,” the poor and marginalized among Jesus’ own people. (See last year’s “Christmas Special” podcast for more details about Luke’s nativity story, including some clarification about that “no room at the inn” business.)
Luke also gives us the only stories in the entire bible about Jesus’ childhood. Joseph and Mary take little kid Jesus to Jerusalem for the purification ritual established in the scroll of Exodus. While in the Temple, two old Israelites approach the family and publicly recognize Jesus as “the Lord’s Messiah.” The first is an old man named Simeon, who had been “waiting for God to comfort Israel,” and the second is a prophetess named Anna who has been living in the Temple awaiting the “redemption of Jerusalem.” Together they symbolize Israel, suffering and aging and desperate for God to show up and rescue them. Again we note the consistently political significance of the “Messiah” title.
After one more story about tween Jesus going missing and turning up in the Temple teaching the priests and scribes, Luke fast-forwards and enters more familiar territory with the prophet John in the Jordan valley preaching his message of repentance and baptism. As in Mark and Matthew, Jesus is baptised by John and publicly identified as God’s representative by the sign of a dove and the booming voice of God himself. Luke proceeds to give us a genealogy of Jesus’ ancestry beginning with his father Joseph and going all the way back to Adam and even God. The list is surprisingly short given its scope, and it differs in many ways from the one found in Matthew’s gospel.
Cut to Galilee, where prophet Jesus is “tested” by the devil and begins his career in his hometown of Nazareth with a public reading from the scroll of Isaiah:
18 “The spirit of YHWH is upon me because he has anointed me to tell good news to the poor! He has sent me to announce release to the prisoners and sight to the blind, to set the wounded victims free, 19 to announce the year of God’s special favor!”
(Luke 4, citing Isaiah 61:1-2)
While Luke’s political understanding of Messiah is in tune with what we saw in both Mark and Matthew, he’s adamant about a certain aspect of the Messiah’s mission that comes up again and again in his gospel: rescue and “good news” specifically for the poor. This is a pervasive theme in Luke’s writing (and the Hebrew scriptures he quotes), and yet it’s not how most believers today would explain Jesus. Jesus tells his listeners, “today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!” Which seems like an exciting and positive thing to say, but by the end of the chapter his neighbors are trying to throw him off a cliff. He escapes and flees.
From here Luke’s gospel is a mix of familiar material shared with Mark and Matthew, and a bunch of new stuff that’s unique to this book. The basic storyline is the same: Jesus roams the Judaean countryside, healing the sick and proclaiming the “kingdom of God” in sayings and parables. His message angers the authorities, and when his national tour takes him to Jerusalem he performs a symbolic prophetic action in the Temple which seals his fate. He is arrested and crucified. He is resurrected two days later and appears to his stunned disciples. Here are some of the noteworthy differences and additions in Luke’s version of the story:
In Chapter 5, Jesus calls his first disciples as in the other gospels, but Luke adds a spectacular detail. Jesus meets Simon, James and John – all fishermen – after a long night without a catch. Jesus tells them to cast their net, and they catch so many fish another boat has to help them haul it in. They drop everything and follow Jesus, who tells them “from now on you’ll be catching people!”
Luke records many of the “kingdom parables” we remember from Mark and Matthew, and quite a few that are only found here. These include well known stories like the “good samaritan” (Chapter 10), about a hated foreigner who turns out to be a Jew’s true “neighbor,” and perhaps the most famous parable of all, the “prodigal son” (Chapter 15). This one’s worth a deeper look.
The parable tells of a young son who decides to forsake his family, collect his inheritance, and head out on his own. When he hits hard times and finds himself feeding pigs who eat better than he does, he decides to return home and ask his father to take him back as a slave. The father is so happy to see his son that he forgives everything and welcomes him back, restoring all of his privileges. The traditional church interpretation being that God is ready and willing to welcome repentant sinners back into the fold. Not a bad message, but it’s deaf to some of the very specific symbolism in the story. The “son” is Israel, wandering from the “father” YHWH and wallowing with the “pigs,” that is, serving or colluding with the Gentiles, the pagans, the Romans. When Israel crawls back to YHWH for forgiveness, he embraces them and forgives their wrongdoing. But the parable isn’t quite over, and its message isn’t complete.
There’s an older brother who becomes outraged at the father’s reckless (or “prodigal”) forgiveness of the younger brother. He says, “Hey – I’ve always been a good son, and you never celebrated me like this. It’s not fair!” The older brother is like the Pharisees and Scribes, the self-appointed religion experts who condemn Jesus for the way he recklessly loves and includes the marginalized and undesirable citizens of Israel, the ones they have written off as unlovable and “lost.” Like most of Jesus’ teaching, this parable is aimed directly at the butts of hateful, judgmental religious hypocrites.
Of the remaining Luke-exclusive parables, one in particular is noteworthy for some bizarre thematic elements. In Chapter 16, Jesus tells of a rich man who lived in comfort and ignored the poor man who begged at his gate. When the beggar dies, he is carried by angels to the “bosom of Abraham,” the Jewish version of resting in peace. When the rich man dies, he is “tormented in Hades,” the mythological realm of the dead. The rich man cries out to Abraham for help, but the patriarch basically says, “Sorry! You had your chance!” The man pleads, “Send someone to warn my family!” Abraham replies, “You mean like Moses or the prophets?” Desperate, the man suggests, “What if someone were to rise from the dead? Then they’d listen!” Abraham explains that, “No, they won’t.” A strange parable indeed, but fundamentally similar to the “sheep and goats,” another outrageous cartoon of the afterlife that is really a sermon about love of neighbor here in this life.
The final two chapters of Luke present a much longer and more detailed account of the death and resurrection of Jesus than we found in Mark or Matthew. In Chapter 23 Jesus, having been condemned by the Jewish authorities, is taken before the local Roman governor Pilate. In Luke, Pilate tries to avoid dealing with Jesus by sending him first before Israel’s puppet King Herod. Herod is intrigued by Jesus, having apparently heard about him, but finds no guilt in him. He makes fun of Jesus and dresses him up in a “splendid robe” before sending him back to Pilate, who brings the prisoner before the angry crowds.
Luke’s account of the crucifixion is very different from what we’ve seen elsewhere. As Jesus is marched toward the site of his execution, he is followed by a group of wailing women. He turns to them and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves instead! Cry for your children!” As the Roman guards hoist him up onto his cross, Jesus proclaims, “Father, forgive them! They don’t know what they’re doing!” And while Mark and Matthew barely mentioned the two other “brigands” crucified with Jesus and how they mocked him along with the crowd, Luke gives us more details. One of the criminals mocks Jesus, yelling “Rescue yourself!,” but the other recognizes his innocence and says, “Remember me when you become king!” Jesus replies, “You’ll be with me in paradise (or rest) this very day!”
When Jesus died in Mark and Matthew, a Roman Centurion made a remark to the effect that “this truly was God’s son!” In Luke, the centurion says, “This man really was in the right.” More than in the other gospels, there’s a strong emphasis here on Jesus’ innocence, and – more important – the acknowledgement of his innocence by those around him, especially Romans and Gentiles. This is more evidence for Luke being an attempt by early Christians to go “on the record” with Rome regarding Jesus’ innocence and vindication, perhaps as a defense against persecution.
In Luke’s resurrection scene, an unnumbered group of women arrives at the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus with spices and perfume, only to discover the tomb open and empty. Two angels appear in this version and announce that “he is not here!” The women return and tell the disciples, who don’t believe them and in fact call them “stupid.” Peter marches back to the tomb to get a look for himself, and he is amazed. Later, two disciples are walking along a road when a stranger appears and walks with them. It’s Jesus, but they don’t recognize him. He asks them what’s wrong and their reply is deliciously ironic:
18 … “You must be the only person near Jerusalem who doesn’t know about the things that have been going on there these last few days!”
19 “What things?,” he asked.
“To do with Jesus of Nazareth!,” they said to him. “He was a prophet. He acted with power and he spoke with power, before God and all the people. 20 Our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be condemned to death, and they crucified him. 21 But we were hoping he was going to redeem Israel!”
They go on to describe the mystery of the empty tomb, and Jesus can’t take it anymore.
25 “You are so senseless!” he said to them. “So slow in your hearts to believe all the things the prophets said to you! Don’t you see? 26 This is what had to happen! The Messiah had to suffer, and then come into his glory!”
27 So he began with Moses, and with all the prophets, and explained to them all the things about himself throughout all the scriptures.
One wishes that Luke might have told us exactly what Jesus said as he explained the scriptures to them, but no such luck. This verse has given interpreters free reign to go back and “find Jesus” in the Hebrew Bible, but too often what they’ve really done is insert modern theology and church doctrine back into ancient Jewish texts. As we’ve seen, the deeds and message of Jesus were always in harmony with the law and the prophets, in explicit but surprising ways. Luke wants us to see Jesus as the climax and resolution of Israel’s story, not some M. Night Shyamalan twist that changes its meaning.
The disciples still don’t recognize Jesus until they sit down and eat some bread together. Then, just as their eyes are opened, Jesus vanishes. Later, all the disciples gather together in Jerusalem and discover that many of them have had similar experiences. Jesus appears among them, eats some fish with them, and teaches them more about the scriptures. Finally, he tells them to make his message of repentance and forgiveness available to “all the nations.” Then he leads them out to a town called Bethany, where he is “separated from them and carried into heaven.” Luke’s is the only gospel to record such an event, and his book of Acts will record a very different version of the same event.
Luke’s gospel is a fascinating piece of the New Testament puzzle. On the one hand, it strongly affirms the portrait of Jesus the prophet found in Mark and Matthew, and yet it also offers some contradictory details and emphasizes some unique themes and perspectives. This is only a problem if we expect the bible to be an encyclopedia of true, consistent, and verifiable facts and doctrines. As a collection of human witnesses and responses to the Jesus event, it flickers and hums with vibrancy, life, and creativity. And if you think this was a unique and creative take, wait until we look at the gospel of John…
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.