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Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke
By Robert C. Tannehill
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1996 Abingdon Press
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Luke differs from the other Gospels in that it begins with a formal preface similar to other Greek writings of its time. The preface consists of a single complex sentence. The writing style contrasts sharply with the narrative style that follows, which uses simpler sentences and is influenced by the language of the LXX. In the preface the author suggests that the following writing is not the product of a reclusive sect but a work deserving the attention of a broad audience, including those with some claim to Greek culture. The preface does not by itself determine the genre of the work. Although some view the preface as an indication that the author is presenting the work as a history, other technical and professional literature of the time began with similar prefaces (cf. Alexander 1993). The contents, form, and function of Luke–Acts as a whole may nevertheless suggest that it belongs with the historical writing of the period (cf. Sterling 1992, who classifies Luke–Acts as "apologetic historiography"). In the preface, the author, who normally avoids stepping into the spotlight, openly speaks about the task of writing.
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In a preface it was common to refer to one's predecessors. Our author refers to "many" who have already composed narratives on the subject at hand. (The word diegesis, translated "account" in NRSV, refers to a narrative.) Modern scholars assume that the author is referring to written sources used in the composition of Luke, and most of them would identify these as the Gospel of Mark, the sayings source Q, and one or more sources used only in Luke, sometimes designated L. It is clear that Luke is not the earliest writing about Jesus. The title or content of a Greek writing was often indicated by a phrase beginning with the preposition peri ("concerning," but translated "of" in v. 1). However, "the events that have been fulfilled among us" seems a rather vague statement about the subject of the predecessors' work and of this new work. To announce the subject as the life of Jesus, however, would not be appropriate for Luke–Acts as a two-volume work. The one distinctive element is the emphasis on fulfillment. "Events ... fulfilled among us" may be a loose way of speaking of events that fulfill previous prophecy, but, strictly speaking, it is the events that have been fulfilled. This phrasing may suggest that the events not only fulfill prophecy but themselves come to fulfillment through the continuing mission and faith-response to which the events give rise.
The author's qualifications to write this work are presented in verse 3. The clause in verse 2 prepares for this by referring to the availability of a tradition that goes back to the original participants in the events. The "many" made use of this tradition "handed on to us" by the original eyewitnesses, and the author of Luke will too. The author does not claim to be an eyewitness, but he claims a foundation for his work in a reliable tradition that comes from a group of eyewitnesses. The word order of the Greek suggests two stages in the life of this group: They were eyewitnesses from the beginning and (later) became servants of the word (a nuance missed in NRSV). This interpretation corresponds to a feature of the Lukan story: Jesus' first followers—among whom the apostles have central place—are transformed, through the risen Messiah and the coming of the Spirit, into bold witnesses for Jesus. The author's claim that the tradition comes from those who were both eyewitnesses to events and servants of the word indicates that the tradition is based on direct contact with Jesus but also permits us to recognize the influence of the early church's preaching on the Gospel story.
The announcement in verse 3 of the author's decision to write is accompanied by assurances of his qualifications to do so. The word translated "investigating" implies that the author has followed the events with his mind. (Since the Greek participle in question is masculine, we know that the author presents himself as male; cf. Sterling 1992, 326.) He has done so "carefully" and with attention to the full scope of relevant material ("everything") and the full scope of the relevant time ("from the very first"). His writing will also be "orderly" (kathexes). Although this could refer to accurate chronological order, many modern scholars doubt that this was possible. The order in question may be a literary order that seeks to clearly display the overarching purpose of God being realized in these events, according to the author (cf. Tannehill 1986, 9-12). The description of Theophilus as "most excellent" probably indicates he is a person of high social standing, but it does not prove that he is a government official. He is not a Roman, for he has a Greek name.
The purpose of the writing is expressed in verse 4. Theophilus (and the wider audience that he represents) is not learning about Jesus for the first time. He has already been "instructed" (NRSV). The verb katecheo could refer to formal instruction in the Christian faith, or it could refer to less formal reports about Jesus. The word translated "truth" (asphaleia) means firmness, security, or reliability. Thus the Lukan narrative is meant to lead Theophilus and others to full conviction that what they have heard is a trustworthy basis for life decisions. The author does not attempt to convince people to make a correct life decision through arguments about historical fact, but by presenting an appealing portrait of Jesus and the early church, and by showing how they fit valued hopes rooted in scripture.
The Infancy Narrative (1:5-2:52)
The Lukan infancy narrative raises several important questions. It will be useful to consider some of these before turning to the interpretation of individual scenes.
Structure: Many interpreters have noted that there are parallels between scenes that focus on John the Baptist and scenes that focus on Jesus. There is also considerable repetition of themes within the infancy narrative. These features help to make the infancy narrative a special section within Luke. They also raise the question of whether the infancy narrative has been constructed according to some overall literary pattern of which the more obvious parallels and repetitions are a part.
The parallels are most noticeable in the first two scenes, in which the angel Gabriel announces the birth of a son, on the one hand, to Zechariah and his wife, and on the other hand, to Mary. When we compare the core of the annunciation to Zechariah with the annunciation to Mary that follows, we note the following common elements: the angel appears; Zechariah and Mary are disturbed by the angel's appearance; the angel reassures them ("Do not be afraid"); the angel announces the birth of a son and designates his name; the future career of the special son is described (in both cases the angel says, "he will be great" and connects the promised baby with the Holy Spirit); the parent asks a question indicating the difficulty of birth in his or her circumstance; the angel replies. (We will note later that the tone of Gabriel's reply is remarkably different in the two cases.)
Later both Mary and Zechariah praise God with hymns (or "canticles"), and the birth, circumcision, and naming of John and Jesus are reported. After the annunciations to the parents, however, the parallels between John scenes and Jesus scenes are less obvious. Nevertheless, there are some significant similarities to be observed. Scholars often try to exhibit these similarities in an outline, but there is continuing debate as to how the visitation scene (1:3956), the presentation scene (2:22-40), and the scene of the boy Jesus in the temple (2:41-52) fit. The uncertainty results from the fact that the connections among scenes are more complex than an outline can easily convey.
While recognizing this difficulty, I would suggest that the following outline is helpful in getting a sense of the infancy narrative as a whole.
I. Preparation for the Births
1. Luke 1:5-23. Angelic annunciation 1: Gabriel to Zechariah.
2. Luke 1:24-25. (Limited) human recognition of God's saving work, with focus only on the end of Elizabeth's barrenness.
1. Luke 1:26-38. Angelic annunciation 2: Gabriel to Mary.
2. Luke 1:39-56. Human recognition of God's saving work; Elizabeth's praise of Mary and Mary's praise of God (= hymn 1, the Magnificat).
II. The Births
1. Luke 1:57-66. Birth, circumcision, and naming, with response of joy and wonder.
2. Luke 1:67-79. Human recognition of God's saving work (= hymn 2, the Benedictus).
3. Luke 1:80. Concluding refrain of growth.
1. Luke 2:1-21. Birth, circumcision, and naming, with response of joy and wonder. Also contains angelic annunciation 3: angel to shepherds.
2. Luke 2:22-39. Presentation in the temple, with human recognition of God's saving work (= hymn 3, the Nunc Dimittis).
3. Luke 2:40-52. Refrain of growth (2:40, 52), with the growth in wisdom illustrated by the story of the youthful Jesus in the temple (cf. Green 1995, 53).
One might question the division of 1:57-80 into two parts in the outline above because there is no narrative transition at 1:66 indicating another scene. The division above is nevertheless useful, for it calls attention to similarities between 1:67-80 and 2:22-40, which both center on a hymn recognizing the significance of the boy recently born. There are similarities between Zechariah and Simeon in these scenes: Both are Spirit-inspired, both have waited for a child, both are associated with the temple, and both hymns are introduced as blessings of God (1:68; 2:28 [NRSV translates eulogesen, "blessed," as "praised"]) but are accompanied by specific predictions about the future of the child (1:76-77; 2:34-35). Furthermore, these scenes conclude with similar refrains of growth (1:80; 2:40). On the other hand, there are similarities between Mary's Magnificat and Zechariah's Benedictus. These are more fully developed hymns of praise than the Nunc Dimittis, and they come from the parents who were addressed by the angel, recognizing that the angel's promise is being fulfilled. In the outline above, therefore, we should recognize links among all three scenes containing hymns (I.B.2; II.A.2; II.B.2). These scenes serve a similar function, for they express human response to God's saving work and provide theological interpretation of the events narrated.
Repeated elements can be expanded or contracted by the narrator. The birth of John is reported in only two verses (1:57-58). The narrative concentrates instead on the day of his circumcision and naming. The division in the case of Jesus is the opposite: the birth of Jesus is told broadly, while the circumcision and naming occupy one verse (2:21). Compare also 1:24-25 with 1:3956. The result of Gabriel's announcement for Elizabeth is told briefly in 1:2425. These verses certainly do not have the weight of the scene that follows the announcement to Mary (1:39-56), but there is a reason for this. The parent to whom Gabriel disclosed the special meaning of the child is not ready to respond with praise. He has been silenced. Therefore, Mary, not Zechariah, first expresses the meaning of God's new saving work for God's people. Elizabeth in 1:25 can only speak of her release from barrenness. Similarly, 1:80 is expanded in 2:40-52.
The balanced structure of the infancy narrative, discussed above, encourages a reading process of comparison, in which both similarities and differences between John and Jesus are noted. The similarities present John and Jesus as key figures in a development with consistent features, while some important differences reserve the more important role for Jesus. The balanced structure also allows the narrator to emphasize certain themes through repetition, and to deepen their significance as they reappear. Thereby the particular Lukan understanding of God's purpose in Jesus Christ is gradually developed, and the recipients of Luke's Gospel are invited to share this understanding.
Use of Scripture: The process of comparison applies not only to the balanced scenes featuring John and Jesus. Those acquainted with the Jewish Scripture are also encouraged to compare the infancy narrative with stories and prophecies in those older writings. Those well versed in Scripture will note many echoes in Luke. These are not formal quotations but hints given through description of characters and events in the story, and through the use of telling phrases. Here as elsewhere in Luke–Acts, the narrative works typologically. That is, there is an assumption that God's new action will follow scriptural patterns, by which it can be recognized and understood. The process is subtle, and Luke's narrative is not reduced to wooden repetition of old stories. But the echoes of these old stories and promises enrich the experience of the new story. The recipients of Luke's story can say to themselves: Aha! It is like this ... only different. Thereby the old stories of faith and hope encourage new faith and hope in the Lukan audience.
The process sketched above engages the imagination of the audience in an exploration of associations. Once initiated, it is difficult to limit this exploration, and some modern interpreters advocate questionable associations with scriptural texts. These exercises of the religious imagination are of the same type as those encouraged by the author of Luke and therefore should not be quickly censured, although they may sometimes draw us away from the main message of the text. In my discussion of Lukan passages, I hope to concentrate on connections that are well supported by the Lukan text and important for understanding it. There is still much to note in the Lukan infancy narrative. To fully appreciate the first three scenes (Luke 1:5-56), the reader needs to know the story of Abraham and Sarah, the elderly childless couple to whom God promised a son (Gen 15:1-18:15); the story of Hannah, a barren woman who asks God for a son and then gives him to the Lord, with a hymn of praise celebrating God's overturn of society (1 Sam 1:1-2:11); the prophecy of the messenger who will prepare the Lord's way, who seems to be identical to the returning Elijah (Mal 3:1; 4:5-6); the promise to David that his descendant would rule on his throne and be recognized as Son of God (2 Sam 7:4-17); and other scriptural passages.
Significance: The infancy narrative in Luke is very important for understanding Luke–Acts as a whole. Literary critics speak of the "primacy effect" in narrative. What the narrator presents first, when the reader is seeking basic orientation, will stand out and affect the reading of the rest of the story. To be sure, not everything will be disclosed at the beginning, and the narrator may be setting the reader up for a later surprise, but the beginning of the story will make an impact that the skilled narrator can use to good effect. We should approach Luke–Acts like any other story, as a continuous narrative to be experienced by moving from beginning to end. The beginning of a narrative can be used to influence the reader's understanding of everything that follows.
Furthermore, in the infancy narrative we find a concentration of broad statements about the saving purpose of God that is unmatched by anything later in Luke. Thus the infancy narrative provides much of the theological context for understanding Jesus' ministry in the rest of the Gospel. The connecting thread that unifies the narrative—the saving purpose of God—can only be understood as the author wishes if we pay close attention to the infancy narrative, and especially to the three angelic announcements and the three hymns or canticles. These contain material especially suited to reveal the basic understanding of the purpose of God that underlies the Lukan narrative. I find four (overlapping) types of material especially illuminating: (1) Reviews and previews. There are statements of broad temporal scope, recalling ancient promises and anticipating future events. Authors frequently provide reviews and previews in order to remind and prepare the reader, thereby helping the reader to interpret key events. The author of Luke is doing the same in the infancy narrative. (2) Commission statements. The angelic announcements also contain broad commission statements—disclosures of what God has commissioned John and Jesus to do in their future ministries that guide readers in understanding those ministries. (3) Highlighted or repeated scripture references. The author understands the story of Jesus as the fulfillment of scripture. It is scripture that discloses the purpose of God in its broad scope. We must note which scriptural texts are given special attention in the narrative and how they are being understood. (4) Theological statements by reliable characters. Some characters are presented as good, perceptive, and authoritative. Unless this impression is later reversed, they should be taken as spokespersons for the viewpoint of the implied author. The angel Gabriel is a messenger from God, speaking with God's authority. Zechariah and Simeon are inspired by the Spirit as they praise God in their hymns, an indication that they, too, are reliable characters at these points.
Excerpted from Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke by Robert C. Tannehill. Copyright © 1996 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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