The Christmas season is upon us with the many traditions, events, and emotions of the season. In all of it, I hope we take some time to ponder the reason for the season, which is to celebrate the birth of a small baby in Bethlehem. Some of us know the stories so well we can recite them from memory. But how well do we really know them? Often, our perception is more tied to movies or pictures we have seen than the texts themselves. In this blog, I’ll take a close look at Luke 1-2 and perhaps highlight some things that we may have overlooked in our telling of these Christmas stories. (I’ll go through Matthew 1-2 in a future blog in the same way.)
Luke offers seven episodes in Jesus’ early life in his first two chapters:
- Two angelic visitations with pronouncements of births (John and Jesus)
- The visit of Mary to Elisabeth (and pronouncements)
- Two birth narratives (John and Jesus)
- Presentation in the temple (and pronouncements)
- Jesus in the temple at age twelve
Zacharias and Gabriel (Luke 1:5-25)
The story of Zacharias and Elisabeth is a parallel to many Old Testament stories of couples struggling to have a baby: Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah, and Jacob and Rachel. Luke uses these similarities quite intentionally, to draw our attention to the familiar and historical stories through the words and actions of this couple.
Zacharias was of “the course of Abia” (1:5), meaning he assigned with other priests in his course to minister in the temple twice a year for one week each. Given that his course is assigned scripturally to minister in the temple in the eighth and thirty-second weeks of each year, he would have been there each spring and fall for all of his adult life. But this week would be different than any other.
The daily service at the temple consisted of a morning and afternoon/evening sacrifice (Exodus 30:7-9); this was the afternoon service because the people were all praying outside (v. 10). The service started well before sunrise each day in the Chamber of Hewn (or Polished) Stones, the same place where the Sanhedrin met, with all the priests assigned for that week. They had just immersed themselves to be ritually clean and assembled to receive their assignments. Lots were cast to determine who would participate in the divisions of labor. The method of casting lots was that all priests stood in a circle, then held up one, two, or more fingers. Then the person in charge that day would announce a random number, such as 56 or 70, then start at a certain priest, removing his hat to mark the beginning, and count the fingers as he went. When he got to the announced number, that priest was chosen, or was the first of those chosen (if it was a group task). This repeated until all roles were selected, as described below:
- The first lot was several priests to cleanse the altar in the courtyard and prepare it for the burnt offering.
- The second lot fell on one priest and twelve next to him, to begin the sacrifice on the altar, and to prepare the lampstand and the altar of incense inside the Holy Place. When the temple gates were opened, they slew the lamb and sprinkled the blood on the altar. At the same time, they cleaned the lampstand and incense altar in the Holy Place, stocked the needed supplies, and relit the lamps.
- The third lot determined who would enter the Holy Place to light the incense. A person could only receive this task once in a lifetime. He chose two other priests who entered ahead of him and lay the incense and hot coals on the altar, but the chosen priest was then alone in the temple. Facing the veil leading into the Most Holy Place (or Holy of Holies), the lampstand was on his left, the showbread table on his right, and the incense altar before him just in front of the veil. Outside the priests and Levites (and others in the courtyard) were praying with upraised hands and bowed eyes. He lit the incense on the altar, symbolic the prayers outside. When the priest came out from the temple, he would offer a blessing upon the crowd.
- The priest who received the fourth lot stepped to the altar and burned the parts of the lamb prepared earlier by those of the second lot.
- Finally, all priests involved that day would stand in a semicircle on the steps leading into the temple and pray, one being voice and the others repeating his words. This was followed by temple music with trumpet blasts, cymbals, and a choir of Levites and young priests’ sons singing psalms, accompanied by musical instruments.
According to Luke, Zacharias received the third lot this day, his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to worship before the Most Holy Place and then offer a blessing on the house of Israel. As he was thus engaged before the veil, Gabriel appeared and delivered his message. When Zacharias came out (which took much longer than usual, 1:21), he could not speak and finish his assignment to pray (1:22).
Gabriel’s message was that Zacharias’ prayer was heard. Because of what we know of the whole story, we might be inclined to think his prayer was about a son, but given what Luke tells us about their age, that prayer had certainly ended long before this day. Instead, we should think of the prayer that Zacharias was tasked with giving that day as the one being answered–that Israel might be redeemed by the blessing of God.
Zacharias was, of course, surprised by all this. He was also a bit incredulous with news that he and his wife would have a son. He did what had happened many times in the Old Testament: he asked for a sign. Whatever he was expecting from that request, it’s not likely the sign he got. For almost a year, Zacharias could not speak or hear. Of course, his affliction was not only a sign to him, but to all who interacted with him during the next year. When he did speak again, it was something that everyone would notice and act as a testimony that the miraculous birth of his son was truly an act of God.
Mary and Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38)
Next Luke turns our attention to a young girl in Nazareth, a small city of the hills of Galilee. Luke tells us she was “espoused to a man” (1:27). Marriage practices were quite different then than today. It was done in two stages. Luke’s “espoused” is better translated ‘betrothed’ or ‘engaged.’ This is the first stage. When a young man (typically about seventeen years old) decided to get married (or, more likely, it was decided for him by his father), he would enter the house of his desired bride (typically twelve-and-a-half years old) and literally build a small booth or hut in their living room. When it was done, he would come with his father and two witnesses and give a contract to the girl’s father and a present to the girl (usually coins, the price to ‘buy’ her) with the words, “By this, you are set apart for me according to the laws of Moses and of Israel.” The two were then married legally (‘betrothed’) but not physically. They continued to live apart and had specific tasks before the wedding. He had to build their future home (the small booth represents his readiness to take on this task). She had to prepare her wedding clothing as well as furniture, cooking utensils, and other necessities for their house.
Typically about a year later, on the day of the wedding, the bride would adorn herself with the best clothing available to her, including a headband that had the coins her husband had given her and any other precious stones her family possessed. The groom also dressed his best. They were king and queen for the day. Weddings were almost always on Wednesdays since it allowed adequate preparation time after the Sabbath, and because it was the day God pronounced “good” twice in Genesis. The procession started at dusk (what we would call Tuesday evening) from the groom’s home. As he walked through town, people would announce his coming and everyone would come out with their lamps. He walked to the bride’s home where he found her wearing a veil. By this time, it was dark and thus Wednesday. Presenting the wedding contract to her father, the veil was removed and laid on his left shoulder—’the government shall be upon his shoulder’ (Isaiah 9:6). Then they went to the couple’s new home with friends lighting the way to welcome them. Now the veil was moved to the groom’s right shoulder, indicating the couple was married. This was followed by a feast with the bride and groom seated under a canopy. There was much eating, drinking of wine, music, and dancing. The celebration could last up to a week (interrupted by the Sabbath, of course).
At this point in the story, Joseph and Mary were just betrothed. Joseph was busy building the house and Mary and her family were making their preparations. An angel appeared, praising her and telling her she would have a son. That news would not be too surprising to her, since she expected to be married soon and having relations with Joseph. But the angel announced that her son would be “the Son of the Highest” and sit on “the throne of his father David” (1:32). Like Zacharias, Mary asked for a sign. She received two. First, she would feel the Holy Spirit and “the power of the highest” (1:35). Second, her relative, Elisabeth, who had been barren, was now six months pregnant. Mary humbly accepted all of this, answering that she would be the servant (or slave) of the Lord.
Mary and Elisabeth (Luke 1:39-56)
To confirm her sign, Mary hurried to see Elisabeth. She would not have traveled alone but would certainly have gone with a group for safety. Her encounter with Elisabeth is a marvelously stylized play that I have likened to a song in a musical, such as The Sound of Music or Enchanted. (I especially like the song in Central Park in Enchanted because the man with her keeps objecting to her singing, saying, ‘People are looking’ and such.) Songs in musicals serve many purposes, such as moving the story along, giving us insights into the characters, and developing key themes. So it is with the ‘songs’ Luke gives us in these chapters. Elizabeth’s ‘song’ reflects her revealed knowledge that Mary is also pregnant, something Mary has unlikely told anyone else. Mary’s ‘song’ in response is modeled after the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, which speaks of her own blessings and those God is bestowing on Israel through her and her future son. This conversation is the most extended one between two women in all of scripture.
The Birth of John (Luke 1:57-80)
Next we see Elisabeth have her son and on the eighth day, he is ready to be named and circumcised. The reason they waited until the eighth day was to allow the child to experience the Sabbath as his first covenant, and circumcision as his second. As the person performing the ordinance that day began, he announced the young boy would be named after his father, Zacharias. This was common in that day, to be named after a father or grandfather. Elisabeth interrupted, however, something that was highly inappropriate for her to do. But somewhere along the way, she had learned from Zacharias that the boy’s name was to be John. This is interesting because he could not talk or hear and she likely could not read. They probably had to have an intermediary ‘interpret’ for them: Zacharias wrote, the other person read his words out loud, Elisabeth replied, he wrote her words, and Zacharias read them. A ‘conversation’ would take a long time. But knowing Zacharias could not hear what was going on, she broke in. They brought Zacharias forward and asked him (probably wrote it on a wooden board with wax) what the boy’s name should be. Imagine their surprise when he agreed with Elisabeth and wrote, “His name is John.” I picture her suddenly breaking out in a big smile, saying, “See? I told you so.” But she didn’t have long to celebrate, because as soon as he wrote the name John, Zacharias was able to talk again. He gives his own ‘song’ at this point, singing about the great blessings of the Lord on Israel and the role of his son.
As a related aside, the apocryphal story of Zacharias giving his life next to the altar at the temple because he wouldn’t disclose the location of Elisabeth and John is often told by Latter-day Saints because of an editorial in the Times and Seasons during Joseph Smith’s lifetime (that ended up in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 261). It is also based on Jesus’ words in Luke 11:51, mentioning a ‘Zacharias.’ But close investigation has shown that: 1) The editorial is based on the reading of an apocryphal text (Protoevangelium of James); 2) that Joseph Smith did not author the editorial; 3) that W. W. Phelps was the most likely author; 4) that the Zacharias mentioned in Luke 11:51 is not our priest from Luke 1. The best way of reading Luke 11:51 is that it refers to the Zechariah slain in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22 (hundreds of years before our story here), which was considered the ‘last’ book of scripture at the time of Jesus (and still is in Hebrew Bibles). Thus Abel was the first martyr killed, and Zachariah the last.
The birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-20)
These verses are perhaps more quoted than any others in the Bible, certainly at this time of year. Many have them memorized and enjoy the marvelous cadence of poetry of the King James Version. I personally especially like Linus reciting some of them in the Charlie Brown Christmas show. But our image of the events might be colored by popular renditions in movies and paintings. Let’s look at what Luke says.
Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem “to be taxed” (2:3). While there is no correlated recording of a tax census at this time, we can certainly imagine that the young couple might need a change of venue. To all appearances, Mary is carrying an illegitimate child. (Can you imagine the reaction she might have got, saying, ‘But I am pregnant by the power of God and the Holy Spirit’?) Bethlehem offered a fresh start. However, the image we have of them arriving breathlessly in town, Mary riding a donkey, in labor, and desperately looking for a place to stay is unlikely. Luke’s language is that they arrived when they were still “espoused” (2:5) and that “while they were there” (2:6), it became time for Mary to deliver her son. They probably could not afford a donkey, and if they had one, Joseph would have been riding it (per the custom of the time). How long they were in Bethlehem is impossible to say but it could have been months. Would Mary’s family have allowed her to leave Nazareth when she was nine months pregnant and travel for several days when she could go into labor at any moment? That scenario defies reason. But leaving early in her pregnancy, getting officially married in Bethlehem, and then working together to make things work while they waited makes perfect sense.
When Mary had the baby, we are told that Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes (typical of that time), “and laid him in a manger.” This was done because “there was no room for them in the inn” (2:7). But if they’re already living in Bethlehem, why are they looking for a room? The Greek word translated “inn” can also mean a dining room or guest chamber; it could be that the house they were in was so crowded that there was simply no room in the shared dining area, the largest room in the house. Perhaps they tried to find a more private place for the birth, but couldn’t find one in the small town, so they ended up having the baby in their poor conditions. The word “manger” is a key, having two potential meanings. First, it can mean a trough for feeding animals. Second it can mean the stable where the animals are fed and housed. The first is more likely: Mary delivered the baby and the couple did not have a nice bed for him yet, so they used a feeding trough to lay him in temporarily. Luke’s main point is that Jesus was born humbly and without human fanfare. God will provide that next.
The witnesses of Jesus’ birth come from shepherds out in the fields. An unnamed angel (Gabriel again?) appears and announces good news (“glad tidings,” 2:10) to them that a savior was born who was “Christ the Lord” (2:11). He told the shepherds to go find him. And how shall they do that? They were to look for a baby just born wearing swaddling clothes and “lying in a manger” (2:12). Frankly, those were not very helpful directions. However, it did force the shepherds to go house to house, looking for a baby just born who was using a feeding trough for a bed. You can imagine their excitement as they asked at each home, ‘Have you had a baby today? Is it sleeping in a manger? Because we saw an angel who told us . . . ‘ Their questions alone must have generated significant interest, and their story told over and over until they finally found and worshipped the child.
Through all of this, Luke tells us three times that Mary “kept all these things” in her heart (2:19, 35, 51). The word used means to ‘treasure’ or ‘preserve.’ Thirteen-year-old Mary treasured each experience she was having with her new son.
Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:21-39)
Though we have no details, Luke tells us that Jesus was named and circumcised, like John (2:21). Additionally, the Law of Moses required a forty-day purification period for a mother of a son (eighty days for a girl), after which she was to present herself and her child at the temple (Leviticus 12:2-8). They could either offer a lamb or two doves or pigeons at this time. However, because carrying around animals could be a challenge, women were also able to put in receptacle #3 in the Treasury (in the Court of the Women) the equivalent donation. We don’t know which one Mary and Joseph did, but Luke suggests that their purpose in coming to the temple was to “present him to the Lord” (2:22). The Law also called for a five-shekel donation to ‘redeem’ a firstborn son (Numbers 18:15-16). Since no mention is made of such a donation for Jesus, some have speculated that Joseph and Mary instead dedicated him to God’s service, as Hannah did for Samuel (2 Samuel 1:11, 24-28).
While they were there, two people encountered them. The first was Simeon, a devout man waiting for a promise from God to him to be fulfilled. When he saw Jesus, he took the baby in his arms while Luke presents us with another ‘song’ (2:29-35). Simeon praised the Lord, blessed the child, and gave what can be perceived as words of warning to Mary about hard things she would experience. Next came Anna, a long-time widow whose words are not preserved, but she “gave thanks” to God and told all around her about him (2:38). Both of these people represent the faithful in Israel who waited patiently on the Lord and recognized that blessing as coming to them through this young baby. Mary treasured all these things as well and she and Joseph returned to Nazareth.
Jesus and Mary (Luke 2:40-52)
Finally, Luke concludes his infancy narrative with a story about Jesus at the age of twelve. At that age, a young boy became a man a bar mitzvah or ‘son of the law.’ It was his first year going to the temple for Passover as a man, with rights under Jewish law that he would not have enjoyed as a boy. When the celebration was ended, the large group from Nazareth departed, and it wasn’t until later that day that they realized Jesus wasn’t with them. Lest we think of them as bad parents, he was of age now and responsible for himself. They surely figured he was with the group somewhere. They traveled back to Jerusalem the next day and then spent a third day looking for him (the “three days” of 2:46).
When they found him, he was in the temple courtyard, hearing the teachers there (“doctors” in 2:46) and asking them questions. Since asking questions was the main method of teaching, they were quite astonished at this young man who demonstrated great “understanding and answers” (2:47), firing questions right back at them. Mary is “amazed” (2:48) when they find him there, and begins to chastise him. Jesus’ response both demonstrates his new status and his willingness to submit to his parents: “How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (2:49). Or we might say, ‘Why were you looking all over for me? You should have known that I would be here in the temple, my Father’s house.’ After reminding them of his adult status, he then “was subject unto them” and returned to Nazareth with them.
Luke and us
As we read the familiar stories this year, perhaps we’ll take the time to ponder what Luke was trying to teach his friend Theophilus (1:3) and by extension us, about the beginning of Jesus’ life. Men did not consider his birth and childhood with any note, but God gave many signs that told those listening to the Spirit that he was come and who he was. This collection of witnesses, which includes many angels who sang their own song of praise to him, shepherds who tracked him down, two inspired witnesses who found him in the temple, and indirect witnesses in the lives of Zacharias, Elisabeth, and their family and friends who knew the miraculous story of John, heralds the good news that we embrace even today:
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord (2:11).