The Christmas Story 10. Luke on the Scene of Jesus’ Birth

Luke has told us about the birth and the circumcision of John the Baptist, and now he begins his narrative of the birth and presentation of Jesus. He spends more time here since this is his main point in the prologue of the ministry.

In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled [RSV Luke 2]

It was a census, not a tax. It is known that Augustus had a census now and then to get an idea of the population in various places, however, he never commanded an empire-wide census. But recall that Luke’s view is a global one, and he wants this to follow that picture. Another thing to recall is that Luke is writing many years after the death of Augustus (August of 14AD -yes the month is named for him) and the other events he tells us about. Consider trying to recall the highlights of the years of the U.S. presidency of William Howard Taft. It gives you some idea about Luke’s story. You have some general ideas about Taft perhaps, but probably not details about him. You probably don’t recall details of his role in the “Big Burn” and the forest service in 1910. But you may have some kind of general picture, legends of Augustus, if you’re Luke. Luke wants us to understand that this is an event that has world-wide significance.

Luke, based on his narrative in Acts, knows that a census is a rather sensitive matter in Palestine. He tells about a Judas (Judah) who started a revolt at the time of a census (Acts 5). And Josephus the historian mentions this as a kind of cascade event that eventually led to the great rebellion against Rome and the destruction of the temple, etc.

Luke uses the census to bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.[1] With this, Luke marks Joseph and Mary as obedient members of society, in contrast to the rebels whose acts (decades later) led to the war in Judea (66-70AD). Judea was a very tiny part of the empire, but this war occupied the best of the army and it took a long time to crush the rebels. The general who conducted the war successfully, Vespasian, was made emperor and his son Titus, who finished the war, was hailed as a hero in Rome.

In other words, in Luke’s era, there were bad memories over Judea, it was an embarrassment in one sense but in another, it played out something like Andrew Jackson and the British at New Orleans (a somewhat questionable engagement, won by American cannoneers but credited in part to an ineffectual Kentucky rifle regiment that didn’t play any role, was made into a glorious victory by song and story and heroes were created). You can see the sensitivity empire Gentiles may have felt over this story of the King of the Jews who was put to death by a Roman governor. Luke’s story of Jesus’ death was very cautious to say the governor (Pilate) calls Jesus innocent, as does the centurion at the cross, and so on. Luke had his audience in mind. Luke made it very clear that the Christians were not those nasty rebels who cost blood and treasure and embarrassment. Joseph and Mary were good citizens.

For Luke, it is no accident that the Emperor plays this providential role in Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem.

And Joseph went up from Galilee from the city of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.

While this phrase lingers in our minds at Christmas, that the city of David is Bethlehem, it is not Bethlehem that was traditionally called the city of David, it was Jerusalem, a city David conquered and made his own. David was born in Bethlehem and Luke changed the usage to mark Jesus and David with a similar origin.[2]

And while they were there the time came for her to be delivered. She gave birth to her firstborn and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. For there was no place for them at the inn.

The story generally goes haywire at this point, I mean in the way it has become expanded in later centuries in all sorts of strange ways, not just mixing with and doing odd things with Matthew, but really focusing on elements in the story that Luke didn’t care about at all. Something similar goes on with the stories of Jesus’ trials, death, and resurrection. In those stories we get odd details, but not the ones we might expect or even want. The driving force for what is mentioned is the passages of Hebrew scripture that the Evangelists linked with the traditions of Jesus’ life. Those details are mentioned because in the minds of the writers, they are confirmed by a reading/interpretation (a translation if you will) of scripture.[3]

Fairly quickly, within a hundred years, Luke’s narrative was connected with animals present at the birth, and probably because of Isaiah 1:3 the first animals that show up in extended stories of the birth are an ox and a donkey. Luke’s mention of a manger was the key. Material in Psalms may have made Luke feel the appropriateness of the census and the birth being mentioned together. And something like this may have led Luke to include the shepherds and their story.[4] Luke constantly included the substance of various passages in the Old Testament in his narrative at the same time as he had a consciousness of the empire. Both occur in Luke’s story of the shepherds:

And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.[RSV Luke 2]

[all the people: Israel]. We want to say that Luke was simply quoting from the long preserved words of angels, but it is unlikely that those words were preserved as a verbatim audit. Instead, the story was preserved in tradition, probably in differing ways, and Luke needed to give some kind of power to this very dramatic event. He does so by appealing to the imperial propaganda style that was used by Augustus, who had monuments built through the empire telling people he was the bringer of peace, the prince of peace. The Senate built an altar of peace in his honor in Rome. And these monuments were preserved by his successors to the same end, they were the preservers of the peace brought by Augustus. He was a brilliant propagandist. Luke inserted some irony in his Gospel by having Jesus come to Bethlehem by virtue of Augustus, but in the end it was Jesus who was the prince of peace.

The angels who came to the shepherds sing a hymn.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased [RSV Luke 2:14]

See the preceding post for more on this and the use of early Christian hymns/prayers in the Gospel narrative.

Next time: the temple.

[1] For some of the issues here, see John H. Rhoads, “Josephus Misdated the Census of Quirinius,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 1 (March 2011): 65-87. Also, Andrew Steinmann, “When did Herod the Great Reign?” Novum Testamentum 51, no. 1 (2009): 1-29.

[2] 1 Chron. 11. 2 Sam. 5. For example, see Anchor Bible Dictionary, sv David, City of (Place). For more on this see Brown, Infancy Narratives. David was one of the great strategists in all literature. He’s very clever in working his way into the kingship—becoming an ally to the enemy—he works with and has a whole cohort of Philistine warriors. His not killing Saul when he has opportunity (he won’t touch the anointed of the LORD, there’s this mystique that David attached to the kingship—but he is smart enough to know that if he killed Saul to get the throne, it would set an awful and dangerous precedent for him). There is a lot of killing, but David doesn’t do it himself—he was always sorry about it—but there was suspicion. And it was a pattern he put to use later. When Saul was defeated, the rest of the tribes came to David for protection, he had the only organized and useful soldiers. He was smart about how this unfolded though. He didn’t force them to make submission to Judah, that would be repugnant to them. There was this bad feeling there. Instead of getting them to gather at his birthplace, he conquered his own city, Jerusalem. It wasn’t the property of Judah, it was his own city—the city of David. He made it the capital of the realm, and that forestalled resentment over any favor toward the tribe of Judah. But this locked all the tribes into David’s city, his power center. He brought the Ark there, and made plans for the Sanctuary, the Temple, and it would be there. He constructed a link between the city, the political state, and the religion. And the linkage was permanent in the minds of just about everybody, and it still is. It’s the volatile center of the earth in many ways. But, David tried to add an amendment to the Covenant: “I will be your God and you will be my people” –amendment: provided you are ruled by the house of David. The northern tribes just don’t buy this and eventually things fall apart. But it was a masterful strategy that had earth-shaking implication even down to the present day, politically, religiously, philosophically. And of course, it put God in the way of getting his work done through the Davidic mythos. God works in, through, around, in between all of us in his own way, I think. Without being irreverent about it, this always reminds me of Tolkien’s opening for the Silmarillion, where the angels (Valar) sing their song of the world and it’s unfolding, but God always has this way of using the music to his own ends, and no one knows the end but him.

[3] I suggest that it is fruitful to consider the Book of Mormon text in this light.

[4] Just before the passage that Matthew notes in Micah 5:2, a reading that the scribes use to claim that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem, there is another that reads “And thou, O tower of the flock, the strong hold of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion.” (4:8) Some Rabbinic commentary on this passage had this tower of the flock (a possible reference to the temple?) as the place that the Messiah will be revealed at the end of days and there are links here to the shepherds watching their flocks, etc.

2 Responses to The Christmas Story 10. Luke on the Scene of Jesus’ Birth

  1. Marivene says:

    On footnote 4, there is a specific location that is called “the tower of the flock” in the fields around Bethlehem, where lambs destined for the temple sacrifices were/ are born. There is a cave at the base, which some scholars believe is the place where the Savior was born. I believe the Church of the Nativity is now a part of the Tower of the Flock – which has an Arabic name, but I can’t remember it.

  2. WVS says:

    Marivene, I think the identification of Tower of the Flock with the place you name has some traditional backing. However, recent thought seems to make the identification with Bethlehem. See Brown, Infancy, 421-25, 674 and also Fitzmyer’s comments on Luke (Gospel According to Luke, vol. 1:396). It’s an interesting issue but a complex one.

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