Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
The Beginning of Luke's Gospel

Towards the end of Luke 3, the author tells us that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his work. In thinking about this information, it's useful to recall that Luke's author (like all the other Gospels, and especially John's) isn't particularly interested in history. His main purpose in writing is theological. He wants to make points about the meaning of Jesus, not "what really happened" to him.

So, as the Roman Catholic biblical scholar J P Meier remarks [1], this statement is "... clearly a passing remark that plays no great part in Luke's theological program."

Because this is an aside, it's worth wondering why Luke should think Jesus' age worthwhile recording. John 8.57 suggests only that Jesus was "not yet fifty years old" in the view of the author of that Gospel.

Commentators think that Luke's author was almost certainly what Hebrews of his time would have called a "Gentile". That is, his culture would have been more allied to Roman and Greek learning than many early Christians, who were probably Jewish to the core. 

Four hundred years before Jesus, a Greek scholar named Thucydides wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. His methods of investigating historical fact came closer to modern methods than for many centuries afterwards. Concern with history as "what really happened" was stronger in Greek and Roman minds than in most.

Luke's stories imitate the style of Greek historians. His words reveal that he is a second- or third-generation Christian who is attempting to improve upon existing tradition.

We shouldn't be misled by the Gospel author's claim to have "carefully studied all these matters from their beginning". Though he isn't quite as firmly wedded to a non-historical outlook on the past as were his fellow Hebrew Christians, his almost overwhelming concern is with "the full truth about everything which you have been taught" in the sense of the truth about how God acts in the world. So his information about Jesus' age may or may not be accurate. To judge that requires that it matches his probable year of birth, for example.

What does Luke's theological priority mean for us 21st century readers of his Gospel? In summary, the following distinctions apply to its first three chapters:

  • Many in Luke's time conceived of the Jewish scriptures (the Old Testament) as repositories of truth. This conception operated in a way very strange to us. What we call "rational thought" was for them subordinate to truth from the past. We are aware of the strong possibility of perceptual error, indeed of self-deception, in our own evaluations of the world around us. So we seek to find "the truth" through an analytical process and by making multiple checks on "the facts". Even then, our conclusions tend to be held provisionally. For Luke and others, rational thought focused on analysing the truth as revealed by God in his past actions. The "historian" or wise man was able to confirm from the past that something now must be true. Reason was subordinate to what was revealed by past authorities, who had after all recorded God's actions. Thus the prophet Isaiah, for example, had to be believed because God had spoken directly to him. It must, therefore, have been Jesus to whom he was referring in Isaiah 53.7-9.

  • When ancient authorities predicted that something would happen, one looked to the present for confirmation that it had happened. We might wonder if a prediction had been fulfilled. Luke would have known that it had been fulfilled. It was therefore possible to first to observe data in the here-and-now and then examine the Old Testament with certainty, knowing that God through a sage or prophet would have predicted anything of fundamental importance. Thus, if Luke believed that Jesus was the Messiah, he would search the Old Testament knowing that he would find those predictions which fitted the facts about the life of Jesus as he knew them.

  • This enabled the Gospel authors to "invent" facts. Of course, that's not how they perceived it. Rather, it's how we perceive it from our analytical, scientific standpoint. In the first century, if one knew that Jesus was the Messiah then stories which had been applied to the Messiah and other great wonder-workers could be applied to him. This back-to-front way of reasoning seems incredible to us. But that's the closest we can today come to understanding the thought processes of the Gospel authors.

  • Great men sent by God from heaven to carry out his work here on earth were always given great powers. One only had to look back at the accounts of the Hebrew escape from Egypt, to Moses, to Elijah and to David to know that this is how things work. The Hebrews thought that their God was the only god with genuine power. But in the Roman and Greek cultures the same principle applied. If the gods didn't actually come to earth in disguise to do their work, then they endowed humans with supernatural powers to enable them to do great things. If Jesus was the Messiah, then it followed that he also would have supernatural powers and would be able to do things ordinary people can't. Luke's author and the other Gospel authors would have thought it unbelievable if Jesus had not carried out what we would today call miracles. But these acts were not important because they broke natural laws - that wasn't in any way the point. They mattered because they confirmed the God-sent nature of the person performing them.

Once one is able to recall these points constantly, Luke's Gospel takes on a different look altogether. It's not until the beginning of Chapter 3 that anything approaching history in a modern sense can be discerned.

Even then (as you can tell from the "bare bones" text here of the first five chapters) the author of Luke is mainly concerned with theological truths. "What really happened" has to be dug out through a sometimes uncomfortable process of eliminating the theology. As J P Meier remarks, "... Luke wishes to impress on his Graeco-Roman readers that the seemingly paltry events of Jesus' public ministry belong to the sweep and indeed the pivotal moment of history."

Meier adds: "Little or nothing can be said with certitude or high probability about the birth, infancy and early years of the vast majority of historical figures in the ancient Mediterranean world." This applies, of course, to Jesus - and perhaps more so because the Gospels are unsupported by any external sources. Nevertheless, some history of Jesus is possible.

A current, and quite conservative, consensus on the main details of the first two chapters of Luke's Gospel, goes something like this in summary:

  • The infancy narratives in both Matthew and Luke stand apart in every way from the rest of the two gospels. Once the narratives have been set down, they are not referred to in any way in what follows.

  • The authors of Matthew and Luke contradict each other in important details. The journeys and geographical details can't be harmonised. This doesn't make for good history, especially since we have so few sources external to the gospels.

  • The author of Luke gets a number of things wrong about Jewish religious practice. He's wrong about Mosaic Law requiring that Jesus be presented at the Temple, for example. This doesn't enhance the credibility of his account.

  • The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem is almost certainly not what really happened. Everywhere else he's known as coming from Nazareth, including Mark and John's gospels. Placing the birth in Bethlehem seems to be the authors' attempt to link up with Micah 5.2 and therefore with the illustrious king David. Referring to the Hebrew scriptures tended to give credibility to the early Christian communities.

  • The genealogy in Luke disagrees with that in Matthew. The genealogies have another purpose entirely. They are not intended to be historical records of birth and descent. The same applies to John the Baptist's genealogy. This is shorter that that of Jesus, presumably because John doesn't have the same status.

  • Both John and Jesus are given miraculous conceptions. That of John has extremely strong echoes of the conception of Isaac by Abraham and Sarah. These are tales typical of great people in the places and times in which the Gospels were written. Zechariah's doubt about the angel's message is typical of ancient birth stories.

  • Luke 2.1-7 gives the impression of an accurate dating of Jesus' birth day. There is no evidence that the Emperor Augustus held a census. But a registration for tax purposes was held in the year 6 when (as we know from elsewhere) Quirinius was Governor of Syria. Luke's dating is almost certainly inaccurate, however, because he later makes it clear that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. Herod died in the year 4. Our conclusion must be that Jesus is more likely to have been born in the year 4, with the year 6 coming a close second in probability.

  • While it's highly probable that Jesus was circumcised according to Hebrew custom on the eighth day, the rest of Luke 2.21-40 isn't probable. Not only does the author make large errors about Jewish rituals. but it's clear that he's creating theology by paralleling the dedication of the baby Samuel (1 Samuel 1.24-2.11) with the baby Jesus.

[1] A Marginal Jew, Volume 1, 1991

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