Monday, 5 September 2011

Luke's Infancy Gospel

Luke's narrative is considerably longer than Matthew's. He begins with a brief introduction, dedicating the book to 'Theophilus', whoever he was. I don't see much point speculating. He makes it clear that he's not an eyewitness (despite subsequent claims, no gospel author says anything which would clearly indicate that he was present at any of the events described), and that he's using sources. He's not too impressed with them, and writes an 'accurate account'. One of his sources has to be Mark, since a lot of material is transcribed verbatim, and, like Matthew, he re-orders the material, in his own way. I rather think that he also has a copy of Matthew, but if so, he rejects Matthew's infancy gospel, and writes his own.

He begins with Gabriel's appearance to Zechariah, promising the miraculous birth of a son, John the Baptist. Gabriel then goes off and appears to Mary to announce the coming birth of Jesus; she's most upset since she's too young. Unlike Matthew, there's no explicit virgin birth. So here we have two angelic visions, two miraculous births, and Gabriel appears, not to Joseph, but to Mary. The unborn John is made to bear witness to the unborn Jesus, as a way of emphasising that Jesus is superior. All four Gospels take up this theme in their different ways; Jesus seems to have joined John's movement at some time - this  is implied by his baptism - and that would imply that John was superior.

The magnificat - Mary's psalm in 1:46-55 - brings in one of Luke's favourite themes; wealth and poverty. The humble shall be raised up, the hungry filled with good things; the proud are scattered, the mighty torn from their thrones and the rich sent empty away. It's traditional OT language, expressing a thoroughly Jewish vision of salvation. Luke's concern for the poor is established as being in line with traditional Jewish expectations. There's an eschatological meaning here; Jesus comes to bring the new age of the Kingdom - not immediately, but within the lifetime of at least some of his hearers (9:27) - and the 'mighty' who are to be torn down aren't specific rulers, but all rulers who stand in opposition to the rule of God. The just society is coming, and the church should embody it in microcosm (Acts 4:34-7), but it's the work of God, despite the church's role in subverting the present order. The remainder of the chapter is concerned with John's birth, and Zechariah's prophecy, which promises that a Davidic saviour (literally a 'horn of salvation') is coming, and that John will be a prophet. We've spiritualised the concept of 'saviour' until we've lost touch with the meaning it held at the time, but it was a royal title, often taken by the founder of a dynasty. One of Alexander's generals, for instance, a man named Ptolemy, seized power in Egypt after Alexander's death, and called himself Ptolemy Soter; Ptolemy the Saviour. The implication was that he had 'saved' the Egyptians from the dreadful rule of the previous dynasty. A horn was a Jewish symbol of military power; we're still in a world where the mighty are liable to be torn from their thrones, and it's clearly the power of God which is behind it. At the same time, obviously, we have a second figure, Jesus, who somehow embodies or possesses that power. We're still in a thoroughly Jewish world, but that is about to change.

Chapter 2 puts us straight into the Roman world. It begins with a reference to a census, allegedly ordered by Augustus, across the entire oikumenon, the inhabited world, or in other words, the Roman empire. We're not yet in the era of the world-empire on which the sun literally never rose, but the attitude is the same. There is, of course, no evidence that Augustus ever ordered any such thing, and it's hard to see why he would wish to go to the trouble and expense of doing so. It's possible that this might be a reference to a general policy of carrying out periodic censuses. A census was a local thing, ordered to determine what sums could be expected in taxation from a specific province. In this case, Judea and Samaria had been ruled for ten years or so by Archelaus, the eldest surviving son of Herod I, the 'King Herod' of Matthew 2. Archelaus was not a success as a ruler, and after a series of complaints from the Jews, Augustus sent him into exile, and imposed direct rule over his domain, while his younger brothers were left in place over the parts of their fathers' kingdom they had inherited.

Quirinius, the Syrian Legate, was the most important Roman official of the day, after the Emperor, with responsibility for the defence of the entire eastern frontier as far as the border of Egypt. The area had been conquered by Pompeius Magnus - the 'Pompey' under whose statue Caesar fell - in the previous century, and the administration had always been extremely lightweight. Wherever possible, it was ruled via native princes like the Herods. Judea was set up as a sort of sub-province, governed by an equestrian - a member of the lower aristocracy - with a small policing force of auxiliaries. His function was to keep order, with the aid of the native elite, which had to be kept in line, and to collect taxes. In the event of serious trouble, the Syrian Legate, a senior Senator, usually an ex-Consul, with major military and political experience, would have to intervene with his legions. This arrangement wasn't unique; the Decapolis was run on a similar basis.

One of the first tasks was to carry out a census, in order to establish the taxation base, which took place in late 6 or early 7 AD. Taxes would be farmed out; rich men would pay the money up front, and then had to collect the money, plus their take. Judging by the number of complaints, the latter was often excessive. Normal practice, understandably, was to assess households in their place of residence. Forcing everyone to return to their place of birth would be disruptive, administratively complex - I wonder how well modern states would cope with it? - and pointless. To make Luke's story yet more implausible, Joseph and his family are apparently living in Nazareth, in Galilee. This was under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, Tetrarch (a title given to a minor native prince) of Galilee and Perea, an area on the East Bank of the Jordan. Antipas, of course, raised the taxes there, and then made his own payment to the Romans. So Luke would have us believe that Joseph travelled from one jurisdiction into another, to register for a tax he wasn't liable for. It's not impossible that Herod held a census for his own purposes, and Luke rejigged the story, but if so, we have no record of it. If Joseph was only temporarily absent from Bethlehem, and had a regular home there, it's strange that he should end up sleeping in an inn stable. The answer, of course, is that Luke's writing, not history, but theology.

The point is, of course, that Jesus was known to have been from Nazareth. His followers, however, were convinced, brobably on the basis of Micah 5:2, that the Messiah had to come from Bethlehem, like David. Matthew and Luke deal with the difficulty in quite different ways. Matthew starts the story in Bethlehem; Joseph and Mary appear to be living there. They become refugees in Egypt, and eventually, after the death of Herod, move to Galilee. His son Archelaus is ruling Judea - there's no mention of Antipas, ruler of Galilee - and Bethlehem isn't safe for the family. Luke starts with the family in Nazareth, and concocts the census story to account for a visit to Bethlehem, and at the same time to emphasise that Jesus is born under Roman rule.

Here, of course, we find a major contradiction between the two versions. Matthew, writing for Jews, has Jesus born in a thoroughly Jewish context under Herod I, who died in 4BC. Luke's Jesus is born ten years or so later. He, of course, writes for Gentiles, and wants to convince his audience that Christianity is perfectly compatible with the Roman order. So he places the birth in a Roman context; his Jesus is born in the civilised world, not under some exotic eastern ally of Rome.

Fundamentalists will sometimes claim that 'there is evidence', or some such expression, that Quirinius had been Syrian Legate before, and that the two accounts are therefore not incompatible. The 'evidence', however, consists of a mistranslation of a partial inscription which doesn't contain the name of the governor it refers to. All we know about Quirinius' previous career is that he had held office in the east; the rest of it is ideological wishful thinking.

Luke's date is almost certainly too late. Pilate was Prefect of Judea from 26 to 36 AD. That would make Jesus about thirty when he was dismissed, and in his mid to late twenties at the accepted time of his death. It's rather too young to make him a plausible leader for a religious movement. Matthew's date is more likely, but it's perfectly possible that neither author knew the correct date. It was an agricultural society, with a low literacy rate, and in such cultures, people often don't know own their birth dates.

Luke's Jesus is born in a stable, and his first visitors are shepherds, not Gentiles as in Matthew. Luke's interests are different; he writes for Gentiles, who need no reminder that they need to be included in the church. He's always concerned about the poor, and so his Jesus comes into the world in conditions of poverty, attended only by ordinary people. Gabriel appears, not to Mary of Joseph, but to the shepherds, announcing a saviour, who is Messiah and Lord, of the house of David. Despite the humble circumstances, these are more resonant titles than Matthew uses; he only calls Jesus 'Messiah' in his infancy gospel. A saviour is one who rescues the people from tyranny; a Messiah is an eschatological ruler sent from God, and 'Lord' can mean anything form 'Sir' to the Most High God himself in person. Jesus isn't being identified with God, but he is being set up as his plenipotentiary.

There's an echo of the claims made for Augustus; an inscription from Priene reads: 'Providence … has brought into the world Augustus and filled him with a hero’s soul for the benefit of mankind. A Savior for us and our descendents, he will make wars to cease and order all things well. The epiphany of Caesar has brought to fulfillment past hopes and dreams.' This sort of language isn't unique to Augustus. It's not necessarily a direct reference, but Jesus is being placed on a level with the emperor. The difference is that Jesus is sent from God himself, while Augustus or his flatterers is content with his being the epiphany of his adoptive father, the divine Julius.

Jesus is circumcised, taken to the Temple, and a sacrifice made, as Torah demanded. The turtledoves or pigeons of v24 are from Leviticus 12:8, which specifies them as a poor woman's offering for purification after childbirth. She's considered to be unclean for a period - seven days for a male child, fourteen for a girl - then there's a period of blood purification; thirty-three days for a boy or sixty-six for a girl. At that point, she makes the offering, and is considered clean. After the seven or fourteen days, she's technically clean, but has to stay at home for the further period, and avoid contact with anything holy. It's a long way from anything in modern European culture, but there is a hangover from it still with us; some of the more deeply misogynistic Anglo-Catholics I've come across have worried about the mere possibility of a menstruating woman entering the sanctuary of a church, let alone administering Communion. Luke's point, however, is that Jesus is a Jew, brought up as a Jew, and that his family are devout observers of Torah.

The Angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds, the glory of the Lord shines around, and they react with the fear which Luke considers appropriate to divine manifestations. There are a number of places in the OT where the distinction between God and angel becomes blurred; in Genesis 16:7, the Angel of the Lord appears to Hagar; in v13, she addresses him as God himself; in Exodus 3:2-6, the apparition  in the burning bush is both the Angel of the Lord and God. And so on. This is an acceptable way to describe a theophany; the message is to be understood as coming from God. The angel announces the coming of a saviour, who is Messiah and the Lord, and the heavenly host appears around him. Quite a vision, but described in such a way as to be compatible with the idea that it was impossible to see God and survive the experience. This puts Luke around the midpoint on a sliding scale; at one end we have John, who insists that nobody has ever seen God at any time; at the other we have a full-frontal vision of God in Revelation 4 - and, of course, several more in the OT. Luke manages to maintain a degree of ambiguity in the shepherds' vision. What really matters is the overwhelming majesty of the vision, not so much the precise - and necessarily inadequate - theological language used to describe it.

The shepherds rush off to see Jesus - rather than Gentiles being the first, as in Matthew's account, it is now the poor who have priority - and the baby is taken to the Temple for the appointed sacrifice. While there, Simeon and Anna offer messianic prophecies over him. Simeone is an old man who's been promised a sight of the Messiah before he dies, by no less than the Holy Spirit. The Jews thought in terms of 'extensions' of God; God himself was 'out there', and inaccessible, but his Spirit, his Word, his Wisdom, his mighty arm, his angels, all served to mediate his presence within creation. The New Testament adds his Son to the catalogue, but remains essentially within Jewish tradition. Simeon prophesies that Jesus will be a 'sign' for the falling and rising of many in Israel - no mention of the Gentiles, in keeping with Luke's idea of 'the Jews first, then the Gentiles'. He goes on to say that Jesus will be opposed, and that a sword will pierce Mary's heart, an early indication of trouble to come.

Anna is a devout old woman who never leaves the Temple. She tells everyone who is looking for 'the redemption of Jerusalem' about the baby. The phrase parallels the inscriptions on First Revolt coinage; the first rebel government was run by priests, and one of their early acts was to issue shekels - providing the pure silver required for the Temple tax - which bore no image, unlike the shekels of Tyre used earlier, and bore the Hebrew inscription 'Shekel of Israel' on the obverse, with the date 'Year 1', and on the reverse, the inscription 'Jerusalem the Holy'. The following year, a less aristocratic regime brought in small copper coins, with the inscription 'The Freedom of Zion'. By the fourth year of the revolt, the government was run by radicals who freed slaves, redistributed property, and appear to have been attempting to enact the Law of Jubilee in Leviticus 25. (Obscure stuff here, so I'd better give some references. Josephus, War, 4:508; Neil Faulkner, Apocalypse: The Great Jewish Revolt against Rome AD 66-73, Tempus, 2002, p288; Ya'akov Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins, Amphora, 2001, p115ff).

Luke's intention is to show that Jesus' movement is compatible with Roman rule, while the 'freedom' or 'redemption' of Zion on the coinage is principally freedom from Roman rule. However, nobody picks up a term from the surrounding culture, and instantly uses it in a radically new sense. Meanings and interpretatioins evolve with time, and in some cases - Paul's ideas about the salvation of the Gentiles, for instance - we can watch ideas developing within the NT. When Jesus or his diciples first used messianic language, they must have been thinking about political liberation; these ideas changed later, as the movement developed within a Roman context, and realised that, contrary to what Paul and his people believed, Jesus wasn't going to return to sweep the existing world order away in the next five minutes. The crucifixion has to have begun a process of reassessment; by the time we get to Paul, we've moved beyond the vision of the messiah as an earthly king to something more akin to the angelic Son of Man of Daniel 7; Jesus is raised up, set over all, appointed to be Son of God with power at his resurrection. By the time we get to Luke, writing a generation after Paul, we find a concern to live alongside political structures which is just barely there in Paul, who doesn't really think such things matter. In his view, Jesus is due to return any moment, so it's not even worth marrying, let alone worrying too much about the Romans!

After this, the family return to Nazareth, until Jesus is twelve. At that age, a Jew would have been growing up, but not yet an adult. He goes to Jerusalem whith his family, to celebrate Passover, and stays behind, vastly impressing everyone who heard him. Various figures of the ancient world - Samuel, Cyrus, Epicurus, and so on - were said to have made a great impression at this age, so Jesus falls into a known pattern here. When his parents come looking for him, Jesus tells them that they should have expected to find him in his father's house. The relationship with God is to the fore here, and while we may well be expected to see the  divine Wisdom at work in Jesus here, it isn't made explicit at this point. He then goes home with his parents, and obeys them like a good lad, increasing in wisdom, and in divine and human favour, while he gets older. So if he had enough wisdom to impress people at twelve, we should expect something tremendous as he grows up!

Luke's infancy gospel ends at this point, and chapter 3, where the main text begins, looks very much like another beginning to the Gospel. This has taken me far too long to write, and I don't intend to attempt to cover two chapters in a single post again!

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