We had better say something about Advent and Christmas since it is that time of the year, again!
So here is a tiny thought about how Luke goes about his history of "Advent and Christmas" (that is, of John the Baptist and of Jesus Christ), a thought prompted by observing something in a recent Sunday gospel reading.
The most precise date which Luke gives in the first part of his gospel is in Luke 3:1-2 where he writes, "In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea, and Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias rule of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness."
Nevertheless this only gives us - his readers many years later - a date between 26 and 29 AD because we are not confident how the years were counted when (as here) "the fifteenth year of the reign of" is mentioned. My point for this post is that Luke seems very confident about fixing the date for the beginning of John's ministry to a particular year.
If we go back to the previous significant event, the birth of Jesus, Luke 2:1-7, we find Luke much less particular about a certain year: "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria" (2:1-2).
"In those days" is vague.
"A decree went out [from Rome to the Empire]" is suggestive of a lapse of time for both communication of the decree and organisation of the registration.
(There is also an associated problem with Luke as historian and chronologer because the only attested censuses of Roman citizens were 28 BC, 8 BC, and 14 AD, none of which fits well with Jesus likely being around 30 years of age when crucified and the crucifixion taking place in 30 AD+/- a year or two. Even if we propose a regional census, then the mention of Quirinius as "governor of Syria" raises questions because his known governorship dates do not tie in well with when we think Jesus was born, i.e., according to Matthew, in the time of Herod the Great, no later than 4 BC. My point here, however, is not dependent on whether we can find a combination of "census" and "Quirinius, governor of Syria" which fits other chronological details about Jesus' birth).
If we go back further, to Luke 1:5, we find also a general period of time in connection with the conception and birth of John the Baptist: "In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest ..."
In fact the lack of an attempt by Luke to cross-reference this period to something as specific as (say) a census or another person's rulership or governorship means that this part of Luke's history is the vaguest of the three on when the significant events of John's miraculous conception and subsequent birth occurred. Except, of course, we could argue that we can work backwards from Mary's pregnancy to John's conception, because the conception of Jesus is linked to the "sixth month" of Elisabeth's pregnancy (1:26, 36).
So, what is going on for Luke when he moves from the general vagueness of 1:5 to less general vagueness in 2:1-2 through to the specificity of 3:1-2?
It must be possible - noting Luke 1:1-4 - that Luke in his diligence as historian (of a time, let us remember, less interested in dates than we are) finds a chronological nugget when he asks about the beginning of John's ministry and a lack of calendrical detail in the memory of those who told him about Zechariah and Elisabeth, and Mary. It must also be possible that Luke is not quite as diligent as some would like him to be, especially given his impressive claim in his Preface in 1:1-4. It has been noticed, for instance, that the chronological detail in Luke 3:1-2 is not matched by any great concern for the date of Jesus' death and resurrection. We go through most of Acts without a clear sense of which year (e.g. of the reign of X and the governorship of Y) significant events occur in. (It would be jolly useful for NT scholarship if we knew clearly when Paul was converted (Acts 9) and when the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) took place.) Luke, of course, might remonstrate with me on this point by saying that he put down every date he did know and didn't make up dates he lacked information on!
But my question about dates relating to the events we read of in Advent and Christmas readings also concerns the literary character of Luke's Gospel. It is well known and widely agreed that Luke's Gospel consists of three kinds of material:
- Markan (sourced from Mark's Gospel as a source for Luke's Gospel),
- Q or Matthean (material not drawn from Mark but shared in common with Matthew, for which (a) most scholars think Matthew and Luke drew on a common source, no longer available to us, called "Q," but (b) some scholars think Luke used Matthew as a source for this material),
- Lukan material unique to his gospel (sometimes called "L").
On this division, Markan and Q or Matthean material is widely known in the Christian community. This likely reflects a wide sharing of the oral traditions about what Jesus said and did which circulated before initiatives to write this material down were taken. By contrast the purely Lukan material, L, is much less clear as to its origins. We can readily imagine a parable such as the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) widely circulating in early Christian communities - it is easy to remember, easy to pass on to others.
But what about Luke 1 and 2, where virtually every aspect is unique to Luke? Only the fact of Jesus' birth, its location in Bethlehem, the growing up place for Jesus being Nazareth, and his mother and step-father's names being Mary and Joseph are common to Matthew. (Note how different the Matthew and Lukan accounts are: divine encounter with Joseph v with Mary, wise men v shepherds, flight to Egypt v no flight, Nazareth as safe destination after Egypt v Nazareth as place of departure prior to birth in Bethlehem). Presumably Luke's investigations draw him towards either the family traditions of Zechariah and Elisabeth and Mary and Joseph or those who knew those traditions well. But was it difficult for Luke to nail down some details for the year in which John the Baptist and Jesus were conceived?
If Luke was writing around 80 AD and investigating in the decade before that, then for someone to cast their mind back from (say) 76 AD to 26 AD (if that were the year when John the Baptist began his public ministry) is plausible. A seventy year old witness could be imagined to say, "Ah, yes, that was the fifteenth year of Tiberias ..." But to go back another 26+ years is that much further. If the respective family traditions failed to include specific dates, how would Luke have found out when John and Jesus were born? They were not born to famous families. There were no birth certificates. True, Jesus' birth might have been included in the registration at Bethlehem, but Luke is unlikely to have had access to those records (supposing they were archived somewhere in Syria or Rome).
So Luke's diligence may have hit a barrier of ignorance in respect of the critical year of the conception of both John the Baptist and Jesus.
A final thought, coming from C.F. Evans' fine commentary on Luke. When we look at that extraordinary set of details about who was reigning and ruling what when John the Baptist appeared, in Luke 3:1-2, we find Luke operating in two modes as historian.
First, there is Luke the "secular historian" who tells us what any other historian could have told us, that at such and such a time a bloke called John the Baptist began a ministry which impacted on Jewish society. But those details run on, "... the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness" (3:2b). This is, secondly, Luke the historian of salvation reporting what secular historians could not have told us, that in John, God was at work and through John the word of God came to Israel.
All celebration of the past through Advent and Christmas is a celebration of what people could see and hear in the ordinary way of everyday life, including wild eyed preachers on the fringes of society and puking, crying, pooing babies being born as well as a celebration of what can only be seen with the eyes of faith, that the preacher is preaching "the word of God", that one of the babies born was "the Word become flesh" (John 1:14).