Luke 1:57-2:21

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Home > The New Testament > Luke > Chapters 1-4a > Verses 1:57-2:21
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Summary[edit]

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Story.This wiki page covers two episodes in the pre-ministry portion of Luke's account:

Discussion[edit]

This section is for detailed discussion such as the meaning of a symbol, how a doctrinal point is developed throughout a passage, or insights that can be further developed in the future. Contributions may range from polished paragraphs down to a single bullet point. The focus, however, should always be on understanding the scriptural text consistent with LDS doctrine. Click the "edit" link to edit or add content to this section. →

Luke 1:57-80: Birth of John[edit]

  • Luke 1:59-60. Zacharias’s name means “whom Jehovah remembers” and John’s name means “favored by Jehovah.”
  • Luke 1:80. Might Herod’s decree (Matt 2:16) perhaps explain why John was raised in the desert? Some have speculated that he was raised by Essenes or a similar group. If John were raised by such a group, what might that suggest about his family’s relation to the temple and its priesthood? Why would it be appropriate that the forerunner of the Savior be raised among those who felt that way?

Luke 2:1-21: Birth of Jesus[edit]

  • Luke 2:1-5. Critics of the gospels like to point out that it makes no sense for Joseph to go to Bethlehem for a census, since a census, created to measure and register populations for taxation purposes, only work if people register where they live. People don't generally move back to their ancestral homelands for a census. For these critics, the Bethlehem story is created by the gospel writers to show how the birth of Christ fulfills prophecy.
However, if Joseph, through the gift of prophecy, understands that his son is to be the Messiah, the King of Israel--both by birthright, as well as by nature of his divine conception--then perhaps Joseph decides that the registry, coming on the eve of Jesus birth, is the perfect time for him to move his family back to Bethlehem so that he and his son can be registered there as legitimate heirs of the defunct Davidic kingdom. Rather than seeing the Bethlehem story as a later add on to fulfill prophecy, perhaps Joseph made the sacrifice to move his family under the burden of the late pregnancy to not only fulfill the prophecies of Christ's birth, but to potentially initiate a restoration of the kingdom.
Since Joseph and his family are traditionally thought to have stayed in Bethlehem for perhaps over a year before being warned to leave, it is possible that Joseph had originally intended to permanently settle in Bethlehem with his family. Of course, this didn't work out, and when they return from Egypt, Joseph is told to go back to his former home in Nazareth--perhaps to give Jesus a safer and quieter upbringing away from the power-wrangling closer to Jerusalem.--Rob Fergus 15:05, 19 Dec 2006 (UTC)
  • Luke 2:1: Caesar. "Caesar" in verse 1 is the title of the Roman emperor.
  • Luke 2:1: Taxed. The verb translated as "taxed" in verse 1 and following verses is apographo (related to the "graph" words of English), which meant to enroll or register. Such registration presumably would have included information to be used for taxing purposes, although the word doesn't require it. The word translated as "taxing" in verse 2 is apographe, which many modern translations translate as "census."
  • Luke 2:1: All the world.' It is important to Luke's record that the story of Christ's birth begins on a rather cosmic level: "all the world." Though this phrase may well have been simply a Roman way of describing "the whole empire (since nothing else matters but the empire)," the role the phrase plays in the story here is important: it opens with Caesar Augustus, the honorable, who has power over life and death throughout "all the world," requiring the subjected state of Judah to a census for taxation and conscription purposes. When Jesus is born a few verses later, he is laid quite humbly in a feed-box.
  • Luke 2:4: City. The Greek word translated as "city" in verse 4 is polis (related to the English word "politics"). The word can also be translated as "town"; at the time, Bethlehem was only a village.
  • Luke 2:4. As there are no parentheses in Greek, the role the final phrase of this verse plays in the English translation of the text betrays the understanding of the translators of the KJV. Parentheses accomplish two things at once. They say something about the importance and the necessity of their content: whatever is parenthetical is at once less important and yet nonetheless absolutely necessary. Ultimately, parentheses mar a text, breaking up its flow by frustrating what would otherwise be a rather simple sentence: they are used because some necessary, though not central, information must be included. That the translators relegated Joseph's Davidic lineage to parentheses is rather interesting: they recognized that its inclusion in the passage disrupts the flow of the text, but that it is absolutely necessary to understanding. That is, on the one hand, one must recognize that verses 4 and 5 do not read very well unless some sort of punctuation makes some sense of the jumble of words. But on the other hand, that Joseph leaves Nazareth to go to Bethlehem for the registration would make no sense unless the lineage were mentioned. The consequence of this syntactic interpretation on the translators' part is that the lineage is marginalized: though necessary for understanding, it is marked with a sort of unimportance, thrust to the side of things, almost unworthy of mention. But, as one must recognize the place of Joseph's lineage in the meaning of the story, one must also recognize how not marginal this information is! There is, in short, an irony about the translation here--an irony recognizably embedded in the Greek itself.
In other words, Luke only seems to mention Joseph's lineage in passing, as a footnote perhaps. Yet this lineage is vital: Joseph's place in the Davidic line marks the absolute humility of the royal family (displaced from their city, reduced to rags, sleeping in a stable, placing the baby in the feed-box, not to mention the unfortunate scandal of Mary's being pregnant). When this is set in the broader context of unquestioned Roman power (or, rather, Roman power wielded absolutely, such that when it is questioned, it is not questioned for long), the irony of Jesus' birth begins to open up. This opens onto the humility further implied in the announcement to, of all people, shepherds, etc.
This humility is perhaps highlighted if one knows something of the likely reason for Joseph's being in Nazareth in the first place. If Joseph was, as the parenthetical material claims, "of the house and lineage of David," Joseph's right to rule in Judah would have earned him enemies among the Hasmoneans and perhaps eventually among those elite within the government under the Romans. Some scholars have suggested, then, that Joseph was in an obscure northern village precisely to be out of the way in the meanwhile. His lengthy journey to Bethlehem brings him to his rightful place as heir, but even there he is without the means and connections to provide a decent place for Jesus' birth. Whatever the reason for Joseph's living so far from his ancestral home, and especially in a city of almost no consequence (Nazareth was a tiny village), the census brings him home to where he ought to wield influence and power because of his lineage.
  • Luke 2:5. The phrase translated as "espoused wife" in verse 5 (mnesteuo autos gune) is traditionally and generally understood to mean that Mary was betrothed or pledged to be married to Joseph, a commitment that is stronger than what we think of as an engagement to be married.
  • Luke 2:6-7: Accomplished. The Greek word translated "accomplished" (pimplaemi) in verse 6 could also have been translated “fulfilled.” Luke uses that Greek word, “fulfilled,” eight times in chapters one and two. Why?
  • Luke 2:7: Inn. In verse 7, the Greek word translated as "inn" ("inns" in the Joseph Smith Translation) is kataluma. One possible meaning of the word is the traditional one, referring to a lodging place where strangers could stay. During this time period, such inns would have likely been very small and crude by today's standards, and often used for animals as well as people. Another possible translation of the word is to refer to the room of a house, often the dining room but sometimes a guestroom. Bible scholars who have intepreted the word this way in this verse believe that Mary and Joseph may have wanted to stay at the home of relatives, but found that there was no room there (perhaps because of so many people coming for the census). Kataluma is used two other times in the New Testament, Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11, where the King James Version uses the word "guestchamber" to refer to the place of the Last Supper.
  • Luke 2:7: Manger. In verse 7, the word (phatne) translated as "manger" could also be translated as "feeding trough" or "animal stall."
  • Luke 2:7: Swaddling. In verse 7, the word (sparganoo) translated as "swaddling clothes" refers to strips of cloth that were commonly used for newborn babies.
  • Luke 2:7. The description of the birth itself lays all the emphasis on Mary, while the journey to Bethlehem seems to lay the burden on Joseph. In verses 4-5, Mary is a tagalong, but here the birth is entirely her business. That shift in focus is important: this baby is "her firstborn son," but not Joseph's. That is, though Joseph is explicitly of "the house and lineage of David," Jesus is Mary's, original with her and with whatever secrets she has in her bosom: Joseph stands quite at the side of things. This is doubly significant in light of the fact that Joseph is not mentioned again in regards to the adoration of the Baby in the whole following passage. While shepherds come to worship, Joseph simply disappears from the narrative. Joseph is, ultimately, set up as a sort of background to the story, made a sort of backdrop to how Mary arrives in Bethlehem, but that is it.
We all know that Christ was not born in December. To back this up, in verse 8 we see shepherds in the field tending their flocks. This would not happen in the middle of December. This would be something they would and could do in the Spring. Also, the fact that the inns were all full suggests that there were a lot of people in the area. This would be in line with the Passover (April) in which thousands and thousands of pilgrims went to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration.
  • Luke 2:8. That the angels come to shepherds is significant on a few levels. Certainly, there is a powerful contrast betweeen the highhanded political issues of the first verses of the chapter and the angelic message to these humble shepherds. But there is more as well: David had been a shepherd "in the same country" where these are, and hints of the Davidic themes of Luke are present here.
  • Luke 2:9. The angel appears and with him or her is "the glory of the Lord," a phrase with quite a particular meaning in that era. As spelled out in Ezekiel, the "glory of the Lord" was something like the physical reality of God's presence, the thing that registers with the physical senses when the Lord is near. Ezekiel sees the glory come to and go from the house of the Lord, and the word in Hebrew (as well as Greek) translated "glory" means quite literally "weight." This emergence of the angel from heaven with the glory of the Lord is phrased ultimately in terms of the Day of Atonement, where the angelic high priest would emerge from the temple bearing "good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people," clothed in the robes that made him represent the Lord Himself. This emergence on the Day of Atonement was understood to be the coming of judgment, the great Day of the Lord, and it is significant then that the shepherds "were sore afraid." They should have been: they knew what such an appearance meant, and they were frightened by the coming Day.
  • Luke 2:10. It is in light of this fear and of the apocalyptic overtones of the visitation that the angel's first words are "Fear not." The Day of the Lord was to be fearful indeed, but not to the poor and trodden down: they were to be saved at the last on the great Day of the Lord, according to the prophets. That the angel goes on to extend these "good tidings of great joy" to "all people" is significant as well: from the very start, Luke has the vision of the Gentile missions to come. One should note that "good tidings" is a translation of the Greek euangelion, what is usually translated "gospel": this is the first announcement of the gospel, the arrival of the good message to be brought by the angels. It is to the shepherds, of all people, that the announcement comes (does this perpetuate the acceptation of Abel in the earliest stories of the Bible?).
  • Luke 2:11. It is interesting that the angel describes Jesus as being born "unto you." There is apparently an allusion in this phrasing to Isa 6:9, essentially a reinterpretation, then, of an Old Testament prophecy. Like the passage in Isaiah, Jesus is given four titles here: "Savior," "Christ," "the Lord," and "of David" (compare Isaiah's: "Wonderful Counselor," "the Mighty God," "the Everlasting Father," "the Prince of Peace").
  • Luke 2:12. As heavenly visitors often do, the angel offers a sign or a token that is to prove the genuineness of the vision, so that the shepherds can know surely that they have been visited by true messengers. The sign is, however, quite humble, linking up with all the themes of humility running through the whole passage: they will find a baby in a feed-box.
  • Luke 2:13. The phrase "heavenly host" is archaic enough that many do not recognize the military thrust of the words: what appears in song here are legions of armies, all angelic. The vision is parallel to visions in the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament, where God appears in the midst of so many angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God. As Amos 3:7 puts things, this is the "council" (unfortunately translated "secret" in the KJV), the heavenly chorus and council of God. That the shepherds here have such a vision suggests that they have had a glimpse of what goes on within the true holy of holies (Isaiah describes a similar scene as happening within the temple).
This is especially significant in light of the triple appearance of angels in Luke's Christmas story. The first angel appears to Zacharias at the veil of the temple; the second appears to Mary in Nazareth; the third appears here to the shepherds out in the field. One can note in this series of movement away from the centralized cultus of the temple towards the poor who were—at the time—dispossessed of the temple: from the actual place of revelation at the veil to a house in an obscure village, and then to the fields of the countryside where the poor shepherds tend their flocks. What is so significant about this triple appearance and trajectory is that the third messenger opens the heavens, not to the priestly figure of Zacharias in the temple, but to the homely shepherds in the field: there it is, far from the Holy of Holies, that the throneroom of the Lord is opened again. This, of course, plays into Luke's broader message: the gospel is to be preached to the dispossessed, to the poor and downtrodden.
The temple themes are quite clear here, as they are through much of chapter 1. Three angelic messengers are sent, as in Gen 18 to Abraham, to prepare Israel to behold/enter into the council of heaven by parting the veil. (It will be noted that three angelic messengers are to be found in the Matthew version of the Christmas story as well, though there all three appear uniquely to Joseph.)
  • Luke 2:14. The words of the angels emphasize the logic of incarnation: from heaven ("Glory to God in the highest") to earth ("and on earth peace, good will toward men"). The linking up of God's heaven with man's earth in the encounter is significant: in the incarnation, the glory of God brings about peace on earth, and the two are made one.
  • Luke 2:15. The shepherds collectively decide to confirm the event by seeking the sign left by the angel.
  • Luke 2:16. Not only does "haste" describe the shepherd's way of getting to the stable, but it also describes Luke's treatment of their stay there: nothing is said of their visit to the Christ Child except that they found Mary, and Joseph, and the baby in the feed-box. This sets up the emphasis Luke apparently is trying maintain, however: several verses will set up the subsequent response of the shepherds and how it compares to the response of Mary. This anticipates to some extent the relation between Jesus and those for whom He performs miracles: one keeps things silent, the others broadcast the message widely. Indeed, there is a profound emphasis on this point, and it might be of some importance, given the temple themes running through this story (see especially verse 13): the shepherds, having been given a sacred sign and a vision of the celestial glory, spread abroad the mystery they have been shown, while Mary—the handmaiden of the Lord—"kept all these things" in her heart, maintained the integrity of the symbolism (the verb translated "pondered" here—symballein—is the word from which the English "symbol" is derived) by locking up the signs and tokens she had received within her heart. This is not, of course, to denigrate what the shepherds do: that they glorify and praise God would seem to mean that they speak with the tongue of the angels they beheld. But Mary's different response certainly deserves sustained attention.
  • Luke 2:19: Pondered. The Greek word sumballo means to meet or encounter, either another or oneself. Acts 4:15 also uses this same term to describe a group conferring together. Here, followed by the phrase "in her heart," sumballo suggests a conferring within onself—a rich way to express in Greek what the English phrase "pondered them in her heart" seems to accurately capture. (See also the NET note on this usage.)

Unanswered questions[edit]

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Prompts for life application[edit]

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Prompts for further study[edit]

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  • Luke 1:59-60. Meaning of Zacharias and John Do the meanings of Zacharias's and John's names tell us anything about why the angel told Zacharias to name the child John and why the family and friends wanted to name him after his father? (See lexical notes below.) How would the family have understood the name Zacharias in this case? How is the name John meaningful in this case?
  • Luke 1:67-80. What does Zacharias tell us about Jesus in his blessing of John? How does what he says about Jesus reflect what we saw the prophets of the Old Testament saying? Zacharias specifically says that Jesus has come to make it possible for Israel to perform the mercy that was promised and to remember the covenant. Reread Ex 19:5-6 to recall the promise of the covenant. Given that promise, what does Zacharias foresee Jesus restoring? The Greek word translated “serve” in verse 74 specifically refers to temple service. What should we make of the fact that the priest who has been serving in the temple is prophesying that Jesus will come and make temple service possible?
  • Luke 1:67-80. What does Zacharias tell us about John in this blessing? Why does Zacharias call Jesus “the dayspring,” in other words, the dawn? See also verses 78-79.
  • Luke 2:1-21. As in chapter 1, Luke goes out of his way to tell the story of Jesus’ birth in parallel to the story of John the Baptist’s birth: the joy at the birth of the child, the circumcision and naming, prophecies of expectation by someone closely associated with the temple, and a concluding remark about the growth and development of the child. Why do you think tells the stories with these parallels?
  • Luke 2:8-21. Though Matthew shows us Christ’s birth (or at least his infancy—the wise men may have come some time after he was born) as it relates to the rich and powerful, Luke shows us the birth in relation to the poor. Why do you think Luke tells the story this way?
  • Luke 2:9. Why is it significant that, from among the many poor people living around Bethlehem, the angel appears to the shepherds? What symbolic significance could that have? What was David the king’s occupation? How is Jesus sometimes described?
  • Luke 2:11. The angels announce the good news, the gospel: the Savior, the Messiah (”the Anointed One”), the Lord has been born. How does each of these titles differ in meaning?
  • Luke 2:11. Luke is the only one of the four gospel writers who uses the title “Savior,” and he uses the verb “save” more than Matthew and Mark put together. Why might that be? What does it tell us about his gospel?

Resources[edit]

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  • Luke 2:14: Peace, good will toward men. See this post by Kevin Barney for a discussion of alternate translations of this passage.

Notes[edit]

Footnotes are not required but are encouraged for factual assertions that average readers cannot easily evaluate for themselves (such as the date of King Solomon’s death or the nuanced definition of a Greek word). In contrast, insights rarely benefit from footnoting, and the focus of this page should always remain on the scriptures themselves rather than what someone has said about them. Links are actively encouraged on all sections of this page, and links to authoritative sources (such as Strong's Bible Concordance or the Joseph Smith Papers) are preferable to footnotes.




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