Importance in Luke's History of the Story of the Birth of Christ
IT needs no proof that Luke attached the highest importance to this part of his narrative. That Jesus was indicated from the beginning as the Messiah -- though not a necessary part of his life and work, and wholly omitted by Mark and only briefly indicated in mystical language by John -- was a highly interesting and important fact in itself, and could not fail to impress the historian. The elaboration and detail of the first two chapters of the Gospel form a sufficient proof that Luke recognized the importance of the central incident in them.

Further, the author must have regarded this part of his work with special interest, and been impelled to work it up with peculiar care, on account of the authority on which it rested; and he takes some pains to show his reader what was the authority.

The beautifully told story of Luke 1, 2, is an episode of family history of the most private character. The facts could be known only to a very small number of persons. If Luke had the slightest trace of historical instinct, he must have satisfied himself that the narrative which he gives rested on the evidence of one of the few persons to whom the facts could be known. It is not in keeping with the ancient style that he should formally name his authority; but he does not leave it doubtful whose authority he believed himself to have. "His mother kept all these sayings hid in her heart;" "Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart;" (Luke 2:19 and 51) those two sentences would be sufficient. The historian who wrote like that believed that he had the authority of the Mother herself.

But those two sentences are not the only indications of the source whence Luke believed his information to come. Some facts intimately concerning Elizabeth are mentioned in 1:24 and 41; and the narrative carefully explains how these facts became known to Mary, 1:36 and 41 she had been told. But it is never stated that facts intimately concerning Mary were mentioned by her to Elizabeth. The narrative has the form which is natural only if Mary is understood to be the authority throughout: she simply states what concerned herself, while, in what concerned Elizabeth, she not merely states the facts, but also explains that she has first-hand authority.

Moreover, what concerned Mary is expressly said to have remained secret, known to herself alone and pondered over in her own heart. It would be a contradiction that this secret of her heart should be the property of others to tell about her. The historian, by emphasizing the silence and secrecy in which she treasured up the facts, gives the reader to understand that she is the authority.

It is a different thing when we read, 1:65 f., "these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judea. And all that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What then shall this child be?" There a subject of notoriety, which deeply impressed the whole district, is referred to. What is known to many is no secret, and in fact is expressly said to have been a topic of conversation through the country.

The people in the hill country of Judea knew about the marvelous circumstances of John's birth, and talked about it, and wondered. But at Nazareth nothing was generally known. Jesus had been born far away. His parents brought him to Nazareth after some time had elapsed. Even after Herod's death his shadow lay heavy on the land; and the parents, being subjects of his son Antipas, were not likely to talk to their neighbors about the old king's relations to the child and about the prophecies of Simeon and Anna apart from the consideration that the whole subject must have seemed too sacred for gossip. Mary did not herself comprehend the things that had occurred. She kept them hid in her heart, and apparently did not even tell her husband what was in her mind. This child was not to be an unalloyed delight either to her country or herself; he was "set for the falling and rising up of many in Israel, and for a sign which is spoken against"; and for herself, "a sword should pierce through her own soul". It was a dread and vague future about which she pondered in the depths of her own mind, as "the child grew and waxed strong, filled with wisdom". In that marvelous picture, sketched in such simple and brief terms, only he that deliberately shuts his mind against all literary feeling can fail to catch the tone of a mother's heart.

In the description of the early days of John and of Jesus the reader notices the woman's and the mother's feeling, watching the growth of the two children, to whom and through whom so much had been promised. As to John, "the child grew and waxed strong and was in the wilderness (of Judah, the remote country of his birth) till the day of his showing unto Israel". But about her own son there is an added touch of warmth,

"the child grew and waxed strong, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon him" (Luke 1:80, 2:40).

No one who judges on the ordinary canons of criticism which govern the interpretation of ancient literature, can doubt that it is through design, and not by accident, that there occur in the opening chapters of Luke's History all these little touches, indicating so delicately and so skillfully what authority he had to depend upon in the beginning of his narrative. This is specially clear when we remember the declaration made by the author in his preface, that he had investigated from their origin the facts which he is going to narrate. After such a preface, and with all the indications in the narrative, it is plain that the historian either believed his statements to be based on the authority of the Virgin Mary herself, or has deliberately tried to create a false impression that such was the case. Is it a rational supposition, is it psychologically possible, that any man who was impressed with the sacredness of the subject which he is treating should intentionally found his narrative upon such a falsehood as this would be?

Understanding that Mary herself is the authority to whom Luke appeals, we find that the passage becomes clearer, both as to what it states and what it omits.

The origin of the narrative may possibly explain why Luke and Matthew give such different accounts of the circumstances of the birth of Christ. Matthew gives the public account, that which was generally known during the Savior's life and after his death; and popular belief has always some tendency to transform and adapt to moral purposes facts that are much talked about. Luke gives from knowledge gained within the family an account of facts known only to the family, and in part to the Mother alone.

It is most probable that Luke had heard the story which Matthew gives, and it would have been easy to fit this into his own narrative without disturbing either account. But they did not rest on equal authority; and Luke would not mix the two. What he had got was an account of the miraculous birth and of the circumstances which had most deeply impressed the Mother's mind with regard to the origin and mission of her Child, while it was rather the relations of the Child to the old king that had impressed themselves on the imagination of his followers. In them Matthew read a fulfillment of prophecies about the Messiah. But they had not similarly affected Mary's mind, and they were not among the facts which she pondered over in her heart as pledges of the great future that lay before this little Child.

Luke therefore confined himself to what he had on the highest authority. So much he states in full detail; and the rest of the first twelve years of Jesus' life he sums up in the brief expression, 2:40: "He was filled with wisdom and the grace of God was upon him". Then came a remarkable instance of the young Boy's awakening consciousness of his own mission. He had been brought up by his Mother to think of Joseph as his father; but suddenly he declared to her that his Father's business lay in a different direction. Here, again, there was something for the Mother's heart to ponder over, while her Son went on once more in the natural development of a boy, "increasing in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man".

We can argue, then, with perfect confidence that Luke did not take the narrative of the birth and childhood of Christ from mere current talk and general belief: he had it in a form for which Mary herself was in his opinion the responsible authority. What, then, was this form? It must have been either written narrative or oral communication.

If it were written, the writer must have been either Mary herself or some one who recorded her story so carefully and faithfully as to leave full expression to Mary's own feelings.

That Mary herself wrote it seems highly improbable. We should not expect that she had the literary interest or skill which might lead her to wish to perpetuate the facts in her own formal narrative: it is more probable, considering the circumstances of her position in youth, that she would lack the power of setting down a story in written expression with such rare art as to have the appearance of being perfectly natural, even though she would be able to tell it well orally in simple, natural, unstudied words. Moreover, it seems improbable that she should desire of her own self to make public the facts which she had kept so long hid in her heart. It is more natural to think that she hardly ever spoke of them, except to the rare individuals whose sympathy drew her on. The language, too, has a tone and character that do not suggest a formal autobiographical narrative. It seems, if I may venture to express my individual opinion, to be one of those which lose from being recited in public; it is one to be read alone or in the company of some perfectly sympathetic person, but which suffers from the presence of any one who is not in perfect sympathy. It expresses the heart of Mary; but in the form in which it was expressed to a sympathetic heart, and not as prepared for publication.

It is more easily conceivable that some third person, intimate with Mary and recognizing the importance of having an authoritative narrative of these events, should have given literary form to an account coming direct from her own lips. But this account must have been either a part of a complete life of Christ one of those which Luke refers to in his preface, 1:1, "repeated [27] according as they who were from the beginning eyewitnesses or the word delivered the tradition" -- or an independent narrative, ranking with the authority of origin from Mary, and describing just so much as she was best able to tell.

The existence of such an independent narrative, and the utter oblivion into which it fell, if it ever existed, seem alike most improbable. Moreover, suppose, for example, the author who gave it literary form to have been John, in whose house she lived from the crucifixion till her death, we must suppose that her words have passed through the modifying influence of John's mind; thereafter John's words have passed through the modifying influence of Luke's mind; and yet, after all this, they continue to show clear and fresh the marks of their origin. The narrative seems not to have passed through so many stages.

Further, the earliest followers of Christ seem to have been so entirely occupied with his engrossing personality that they thought little or not at all about his Mother. She hardly appears in three of the four Gospels.

Matthew tells the story of the birth of her son in such a way that Joseph is the prominent person, and Mary a mere adjunct. On the few occasions on which she appears directly or indirectly, in Matthew and in Mark "there is a sound of reproof in the words" which Christ uses to her or of her: Matthew 12:46, 13:56 f., Mark 3:31 ff., Matthew 6:3 f. They do not mention her among the women who watched in sorrow at the crucifixion. It has been suggested that they omitted her name in this scene, because it was obvious that she would be there; but no ordinary reader of these two Gospels would gather from them that this was obvious.

The tone which John's references to her convey depends mainly on the interpretation of John 2:4. There the Savior says to her, according to the almost universal interpretation, "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" (ti emoi kai soi, gunai) in a tone of reproof and almost (it might appear) of dislike, as is seen in the illustrative cases which are usually quoted Matthew 17:19, 2 Samuel 16:10, 1 Kings 17:18, 2 Chronicles 35:21 and Judges 11:12. Is this the tone of the only information that John gives about the woman who lived in his house from the day of the crucifixion till her death? The more one thinks of it, the more one hopes that Luther was right when he desired to take the meaning, "what is that to me and to thee?" [28] The old Egyptian poet of the fourth or fifth century, Nonnus, understood the words in that way, for he slightly varies them in his metrical paraphrase, reading ti emoi, gunai, ee soi aute; Professor Blass considers that Nonnus had before him a MS. of the fourth Gospel in which he was read where all now existing MSS. have kai, and argues that we should replace he in the text. We should rather suppose that Nonnus (and probably the whole Asian circle for whom the fourth Gospel was primarily intended) understood the accepted text in the same sense as Luther advocated.

In all that part of Luke's History which is parallel with the common tradition in Matthew and Mark, he mentions Mary only in the same way as they do, and gives no more information about her than they have; and like them, he does not mention her presence at the crucifixion. The only additional allusion to her that he gives in the main body of his narrative, is contained in the words of an unnamed woman, blessing her who had given birth to such a son as Jesus (Luke 11:27) Accordingly, considering the interest which Luke shows in Mary in the beginning of the Gospel, and in Acts 1:14, where she is mentioned as being in steadfast companionship with the Apostles, it seems probable that the written authorities which he had before him told the story of the Savior without referring except in the most casual way to his Mother.

It, therefore, seems unlikely that the first two chapters of Luke depend on an older written narrative. The quality in them is too simple and natural, they give too much of the nature of Mary expressed with the art of Luke, to have passed through the mind of an intermediate writer. And it is difficult to think that any such composition either could have existed in Luke's time, or would have disappeared without leaving a trace behind, if it had existed.

This result is diametrically opposite to the prevailing opinion. It is generally assumed as specially clear, that we have in the narrative of the birth and childhood of Jesus a translation from an Aramaic narrative or from a series of Aramaic narratives. Instead of seeing evidence of Luke's literary power in the variations of style in different parts of his history, many scholars see only evidence of difference in documentary authority. As if the person who wrote the preface 1:1-4 could be blind to the complete change in style between 1:4 and 1:5! Or as if he were unable to put the story into his own Greek, if he desired. It is clear as noon-day that the author deliberately aims at the contrast in style between 1:1-4 and the following verses.

But that there must be a number of separate documents underlying the narrative of 1 and 2, which Luke translated, seems an even more objectionable idea. Because there are three distinct statements about the growth of John, of the infant Jesus, and of the boy Jesus, it is assumed by some writers that these form the conclusions of separate documents. The slight but significant differences between them, in which I see evidence at once of literary art and of the natural motherly feeling of Mary, are treated as being mere tag-ends of separate narratives, which the author of this History had not art enough to hide. He was so incapable of working separate authorities into a unity, that he comes to three separate ends, because he had three separate authorities before him.

"And the child grew and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel," 1:80.

"And the child grew and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon him," 2:40.

"And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man," 2:52.

But, in truth, these three sentences mark three stages in a continuous, unified narrative, written with the finest feeling and art by a single author of the loftiest literary power. They are a quite sufficient proof to one who judges on literary grounds that this is not a composite narrative, but the work of the same writer throughout.

If we are right in this view as to Luke's authority and as to the way in which that authority reached him, viz., by oral communication, it appears that either the Virgin was still living when Luke was in Palestine during the years 57 and 58 -- which is quite a possible supposition on the almost universally accepted assumption that she was quite young when Jesus was born -- or Luke had conversed with some one very intimate with her, who knew her heart and could give him what was almost as good as firsthand information. Beyond that we cannot safely go; but yet one may venture to state the impression -- though it may be generally considered merely fanciful -- that the in, termediary, if one existed, is more likely to have been a woman than a man. There is a womanly spirit in the whole narrative, which seems inconsistent with the transmission from man to man, [29] and which, moreover, is an indication of Luke's character: he had a, marked sympathy with women.

Many other facts in his History show that character. Luke alone mentions the "women which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities," who "ministered to him of their substance"; and he names them: he was interested in themselves, in their gratitude to Jesus, and in their reason for it (Luke 8:2).

He alone tells of the woman who wet Jesus' feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair, and kissed them, and anointed them -- her to whom her many sins were forgiven, because she loved much. He does not tell her name -- was it because she had been a sinner, and he would not chronicle that fact about a definite person? or was his information defective (Luke 7:36) [30] ?

He alone tells about the different characters of Martha and Mary of Bethany, though he left much for John to add (Luke 10:38). Matthew and Mark do not mention their names, but allude to Mary in an obscure and almost inaccurate way.

He alone tells of the women of Jerusalem who followed him to his death, bewailing and lamenting. All three synoptics mention the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee, and stood watching the crucifixion afar off, and how some of them watched where he was laid; but Luke alone tells how they went away and prepared spices and ointments (Luke 23:27, 56).

He alone tells of the nameless woman in the crowd who blessed the mother of such a Son as Jesus; possibly one of those to whom Jesus afterwards said: "Blessed are the childless women, in those days that are coming" (Luke 23:29 compare Luke 11:27).

Thus time after time, Luke is our only authority for the service and ministration of women. He had the tender and sympathetic feeling for women which seems to be quite in keeping with his surroundings in Macedonia (where women occupied a place of so much more honor than in Greece proper), and which makes him record so often in his second book the part played by women in the diffusion of the new religion.

In the texture of the two opening chapters we find full justification for the prominence that the preface lays upon this episode; and we conclude that both the personal character of the author and the high authority on which he claims to rest, would prompt him to lavish special loving care on this part of his narrative and to avoid defacing it by a serious blunder. If he made a blunder, as seems generally admitted, that would be a sufficient refutation of the view which I have maintained, that he was a great historian.


Probably the most reasonable explanation of the remarkable discrepancies between the four passages -- Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-9 (cp.11:2) -- is that there were two distinct incidents: one occurred in the house of Simon the Pharisee, and is described by Luke; the other occurred in the house of Martha and Mary at Bethany, and is correctly described by John. Mark, and following him Matthew, mix up the two and describe the incident as occurring at Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper. They, do not name the woman, and they merely say that she poured a box of ointment over the head of Jesus. The attempts to harmonize John with Mark and Matthew fail completely. John, who says that "they made him a supper there and Martha served," obviously places the meal in Martha's house: it seems quite absurd to suppose that she would be serving in the house of Simon. There is an obvious intention on John's part to correct the current account, as seen in Matthew and Mark, and at the same time to illustrate the character of Martha as described by Luke 10:38. Similarly, inasmuch as the current account placed the incident two days before the last supper, John pointedly says it occurred "six days before the Passover".

Probably, Mark originally fell into error from treating two separate incidents, each perhaps only reported in part to him, or in part forgotten by him, as being one and the same incident. From one incident he caught that it had occurred in Bethany, and from another that it occurred in the house of Simon: accordingly he begins "while he was in Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper, as he sat at meat". It must remain uncertain whether Luke's Simon the Pharisee is the same person as Mark's Simon the Leper, or (as seems on the whole more probable) the incident narrated by Luke occurred in the north, near the Sea of Galilee, in the house of Simon the Pharisee, and Mark, connecting the incident at once with Bethany and with Simon, put it in the house of a Simon who lived in Bethany and was or had been a leper. It would be obviously impossible that the feast should be held in the house of one who was a leper; and it seems not very probable that it would be held in his house, if he had ever been a leper.

It must be confessed that there is some temptation to follow the Roman tradition, and treat the Lukan incident as the same with the Johannine. Luke is vague as to the locality, though it is most natural to understand that it occurred in the north. But the decisive argument lies in the moral of the tale. The reason why any incident was remembered by the disciples lay in the lesson which the Master had deduced from it. The features which drew forth the lesson in Luke are precisely those which are most difficult to reconcile with John. To identify the two incidents, it becomes almost necessary to suppose that the features on which the moral hinges are errors on Luke's part. Now I should be quite ready to admit that Luke had made mistakes about various points, provided they were not essential to the moral; but those are precisely the points that are vital, and give vitality to the whole incident. Matthew and Mark are reconciled with John by assuming that they have erred in the accompaniments; but in the vital details they agree with him. To identify Luke and John requires that the vital details are false in one or the other.

The considerations advanced (see chapter 11) ff., if correct, would entirely disprove the identity of the Lukan and the Johannine incident.


[27] On the sense of anataxasthai see Blass, Philology of the Gospels, 1898, p. 14 f.

[28] Dr. E. Nestle in the Expository Times, 1898, p. 332.

[29] For Eastern feeling read Lady Duff Gordon's Letters from Egypt.

[30] 7:36 ff.: See Note at end of chapter.

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