Luke’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined

The nativity of Jesus is such a beloved tale, it’s hard to read it critically without feeling a twinge of guilt, as though I am betraying something sacred and magical in my desire to see where the story comes from and how it’s put together. And yet, it’s not the text itself I defy by scrutinizing the Bible, so much as the myth our culture has created in place of what the text actually says.

When I wrote about Matthew’s nativity story a year ago, I tried to emphasize that, despite its reverence for the Bible, Christianity shows remarkable disregard for the actual details as written. Whether we admit it or not, it is clear from our actions that we understand the Christmas story as a malleable, adaptable legend and not as a fixed historical event.

Purely by coincidence, the nearby preschool my two boys attend here in Japan is a Christian institution, and their annual Christmas recital always includes a nativity play, acted out by the oldest class. This year’s performance was a blend of the stories found in Matthew and Luke, with elements freely modified or omitted as the director saw fit. King Herod — played by my six-year-old, who wore a golden crown obviously modeled after the British crown jewels, Anglican cross included (what a wonderful anachronism!) — heard about the messiah’s birth before the magi ever arrived. No slaughter of innocents was shown, and the family of Jesus had no need to flee to Egypt. The angels sang, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Of course, the Bible tells no story resembling this or any other church nativity play I’ve ever seen. Matthew’s story of the star, the magi, and the flight to Egypt is entirely different from Luke’s tale, which I’m looking at in detail today. Once again, I am indebted to the writings of David Friedrich Strauss — one of the first Protestant theologians to read the Gospels critically — and the renowned Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown.

Gerard van Honthorst, Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)
Gerard van Honthorst, Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)

Some General Observations on Luke 1–2

Luke’s nativity story is very different from Matthew’s in its structure and focus. Matthew’s story is narrative-driven and attempts to portray Jesus as a new Moses — recapitulating Moses’ nativity and sojourn in Egypt — and as a messianic figure who fulfills certain Old Testament “prophecies”.

Luke’s story is concerned almost equally with John the Baptist as it is with Jesus. Structurally, it is composed of several diptychs – adjacent parallel episodes. There is an annunciation for John, and one for Jesus. There is the birth and naming of John, and the birth and naming of Jesus. And inserted into this narratives are several canticles — religious odes ostensibly delivered by the story’s various characters.

As we shall see, Luke’s adherence to literary forms and borrowings from the Old Testament is so pervasive, the historicity of Luke’s story is in doubt on those grounds alone, as Brown himself admits (p. 296). But if Luke is not relating history, then what is he trying to tell us?

The Relationship of the Nativity with the Rest of Luke

It seems fairly clear that, unlike the great majority of Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels, the two nativity stories are independent with no direct literary relationship. Hence one of the Q hypothesis’s main premises: that Luke and Matthew were written with no awareness of the other, showing great similarity when they had a common source (like Mark or Q), and diverging greatly when they did not.

The relation of Luke’s first two chapters to the rest of the book is uncertain, however. The ministry account was clearly composed first and never refers back to the events of the infancy story. The writing style of the opening chapters is different as well, containing highly “Semitized” Greek not found in the rest of Luke. Many scholars, including the influential Streeter, believed that the first edition of Luke (“proto-Luke”) began with chapter 3 (Streeter, p. 209). The infancy chapters were also absent from the Evangelion, an early version of Luke used by the Marcionites. Brown himself acknowledged chapters 1–2 as a later addition, but held that they were still the work of the same author.

Botticelli, The Mystical Nativity, c. 1500
Botticelli, The Mystical Nativity, c. 1500

The Structure of Luke’s Infancy Stories

Luke structures the birth narratives of John and Jesus as follows:

John the Baptist Jesus
1:5–7: Introduction of Zechariah and Elizabeth 1:26–27: Introduction of Mary and Joseph
1:8–23: Annunciation (Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah) 1:28–38: Annunciation (Gabriel’s appearance to Mary)
1:24–25: Epilogue (praise about Elizabeth’s pregnancy) 1:39–45, 56: Epilogue (praise about Mary’s pregnancy)

1:46–55: The Magnificat

1:57–66, 80: Birth, circumcision, and naming of John 2:1–7, 21: Birth, circumcision, and naming of Jesus
2:8–20: Annunciation to the shepherds
(14: Gloria)
1:67–79: The Benedictus 2:22–38: Presentation in the Temple
(29–32: The Nunc Dimittis)
2:41–52: Jesus at the Temple

The deliberate parallels between John and Jesus are fairly obvious. The items that lack parallels often appear to be later additions. The same may apply to the four canticles, which I’ve highlighted in red. Let’s tackle each part of the story.

Zechariah and Elizabeth

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. (Luke 1:5)

Luke starts with the parents of John the Baptist — both unknown from any previous Christian writings. The names he gives, Zechariah and Elizabeth, come from the Old Testament and appear to be symbolic.

Luke’s Zechariah is a priest, and the name “Zechariah” is a priestly name that appears seven times in Chronicles. This choice of name might also be influenced by John’s introduction in Luke 3, which mimics the opening to the book of the prophet Zechariah in its phrasing.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. (Lk 3:1–2)

In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah… (Zech 1:1)

In Luke 1, Zechariah belongs to the “order of Abijah”, the eighth of 24 priestly orders listed in 1 Chr 24. Brown expresses some puzzlement at this point, since those priestly orders ceased to exist during the exile if Ezra and Josephus are to be believed. However Robert J. Miller observes that because Abijah is the eighth and Joshua/Jesus the ninth, Luke’s choice is a symbolic one (Miller, p. 32).

Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth is described as a descendant of Aaron, and indeed, Elizabeth was the name (in Greek) of the wife of the high priest Aaron (LXX Exodus 6:23).

The announcement of Elizabeth’s pregnancy comes as a surprise, since she’s barren and elderly. Miraculous birth oracles for both these reasons occur in the Old Testament, and this story is based on two in particular: the birth of Samuel to barren Hannah, and the birth of Isaac to barren, elderly Sarah. 

Angel Appearing to Zacharias, by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1486–1490)
Angel Appearing to Zacharias, by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1486–1490)

The Annunciation of John’s Birth

Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. (Luke 1:11)

Zechariah is selected by lot to burn incense in the temple sanctuary one day. While performing this duty, the angel Gabriel appears to him to announce that he will have a son. Brown notes that angelic birth annunciations follow a highly stereotyped formula in the Bible (p. 156).

  1. The appearance of the angel of the Lord (or the Lord himself)
  2. Fear or prostration by the visionary
  3. The divine message
    1. The visionary is addressed by name.
    2. A qualifying phrase describing the visionary is used.
    3. The visionary is urged not to be afraid.
    4. A women is or soon will be pregnant.
    5. She will give birth to a male child.
    6. The name of the child is given.
    7. An etymology for interpreting the name is given.
    8. The future accomplishments of the child are described.
  4. An objection given by the visionary, or a request for a sign
  5. The giving of a sign to reassure the visionary

This pattern applies to the annunciations of Ishmael, Isaac, and Samson in the Old Testament, to those of John the Baptist and Jesus in Luke, and to that of Jesus in Matthew. Despite his pious background, Brown acknowledges that this stereotyped formula indicates a literary creation rather than a description of historical events.

Why was the annunciation written to take place in the temple? Ultimately, this passage may be based on the annunciation about Samuel, which comes to Hannah through the priest Eli at the temple in Shiloh. Other motifs from the Samuel story are found throughout Luke 1–2 (Brown, pp. 268–269). There is also an interesting parallel with John Hyrcanus; according to Josephus (Ant. XIII.10.3), Hyrcanus the high priest heard a voice telling him of his sons’ victory over Antiochus while he was in the temple offering incense. When he came out, he told the multitude, and the prediction proved true. Luke seems to be striving for the same effect, but since Zechariah has been rendered mute (see below), Luke has the crowd infer the vision from his silence. How they would make such an inference is not explained.

There are also interesting parallels with the annunciation of the angel to Samson’s mother Eluma in Pseudo-Philo (who embellishes the biblical story in Biblical Antiquities 42). Just like Zechariah, Eluma is (1) told that her prayer has been answered, (2) told what name she must call her son, (3) told that he must never taste wine, and (4) kept silent afterward.

The Angel Gabriel

“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (Luke 1:19–20)

Gabriel appears only once in the Old Testament: in Daniel 8–10, a late Maccabean text. The description of Gabriel as an angel who “stands in the presence of God” (Lk 1:19) comes from 1 Enoch 40:2. The belief in angels of this type developed quite late in Judaism, most likely under Persian influence. Strauss, addressing his peers who believed in the literal historicity of Luke’s story, wrote:

Now it is inconceivable that the constitution of the celestial hierarchy should actually correspond with the notions entertained by the Jews subsequent to the exile; and that the names given to the angels should be in the language of this people. […] We have the testimony of the Jews themselves, that they brought the names of the angels with them from Babylon. […] Was the doctrine false so long as it continued to be the exclusive possession of the heathens, but true as soon as it became adopted by the Jews? (p. 78)

Strauss goes on to assert that the conduct of Gabriel in punishing Zechariah was unbecoming of a celestial being; and that angels, if they exist at all, belong to the invisible world and cannot manifest themselves to the physical senses in the first place.

Numerous details of Gabriel’s appearance in Luke seem to be based on the Daniel account, including Zechariah being struck mute (Daniel 10:15).

Is John the Baptist Meant to Be Elijah?

“With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)

Luke’s ministry account seems to deny John the Baptist an Elijah-like role. Luke has no parallel to Mark 9:9–13, where Jesus says that Elijah has already come, and omits Mark’s use of Malachi 3:1 to describe John’s arrival in the parallel scene (3:4); instead, Jesus himself is described as a “great prophet” (7:16) and compared with Elijah (e.g. 4:25–26).

The annunciation of John’s birth in Luke, however, explicitly links John with Elijah — another indication, in my view, that the infancy stories were written by a different author. Luke 1:17 (quoted above) is a combination of three Old Testament passages about Elijah: Malachi 3:1, Malachi 4:5–6, and Sirach 48:10. The latter two put Elijah in the role of reconciliation, but Luke alters the meaning of Mal 4:6 in an interesting way.

Mal 4:6: “He will turn the heart of the fathers toward the children, and the heart of the children toward the fathers.”

Luke 1:17: “…to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient unto the wisdom of the just.”

Where Malachi envisions reciprocal conciliation between fathers and children, Luke implies that it is the “disobedient” fathers (the Jews) who will be reconciled to the “just” children (the Gentiles). Brown suggests that the author is reinterpreting Malachi and Sirach through a quote that appears later in Jesus’ ministry (Brown, pp. 278–279):

For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’…Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children. (Luke 7:33, 35)

Annunciazione by Botticelli (1489–1490)
Annunciazione, by Botticelli (1489–1490)

The Annunciation of Jesus’ Birth

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1:26–27)

After announcing John’s birth, Gabriel appears to Mary to announce Jesus’ birth. Once again, the stereotyped annunciation formula is followed almost to a T — only the interpretation of Jesus’ name is omitted.

Gabriel tells Mary that her son will be a king who sits on the throne of “his father David” forever (vv. 32–33), using language taken from 2 Sam 7:9–16. But what was originally a promise about the endurance of David’s lineage and kingdom, Luke has turned into an eschatological statement about an immortal king.

The angel’s words of reassurance to Mary are a near-verbatim quotation of the divine visitor’s words to Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18:14), and Mary’s declaration that she is the Lord’s slave is similar to Hannah’s response upon hearing she will have a son (1 Sam 1:18).

A Virgin Birth?

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  The angel replied, “A holy spirit will hover over you, and the power of the Most High will cast its shadow on you. This is why the child to be born will be holy, and be called son of God.” (Luke 1:34–35)

Mary’s question is a strange one. Since she is about to get married, the prediction of a child should come as little surprise. Not only that, but betrothed Jewish couples could actually have sex according to the Mishnah and Torah law.

In fact, many commentators insist that the text does not require a literal virgin birth. In Jewish tradition, addressing the king as God’s son (2 Sam 7:14) and God’s begotten (Ps 2:7) did not mean the king was divine or virgin-born. And unlike Matthew, Luke does not state that Mary and Joseph abstained from sex until Jesus’ birth.

Ultimately, Brown believes that the literary patterns and the need to present Jesus as superior to John the Baptist make it more likely that the author intended to convey a virgin conception (Brown, p. 301). And thus Mary’s question, “how can this be?”, functions not just as a necessary part of the annunciation formula, but to give Luke an opening to explain to the reader the divine origins of Jesus.

That this information is purely for the sake of the reader, there can be no doubt; for Strauss notes the incomprehensible conduct of Mary following the annunciation. Her first impulse should be to tell Joseph of the vision and forestall the suspicions of adultery that would certainly arise from the ensuing pregnancy (p. 108). Instead, as we shall see, she runs off to visit Elizabeth. All events here are artfully arranged in order to convince the reader that Jesus’ birth is miraculous.

The Annunciation by James Tissot
The Annunciation, by James Tissot

Jesus and John the Baptist as Relatives

“And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” (Luke 1:36)

Here, Luke makes the astonishing claim that Jesus and John were closely related. As Brown notes, “this latter detail is never suggested anywhere else in the four Gospels, and is very difficult to reconcile with John 1:33 where [John the Baptist] says that he did not even know Jesus” (p. 285). And Strauss declares that the relation between the two mothers and the intimacy between their families “cannot be affirmed on the testimony of Luke, unsupported by other authorities” (p. 144).

Brown believes the purpose of this invention by Luke was to explain the close relationship between the similar, but separate, religious movements associated with Jesus and John the Baptist. Strauss says it was needed “to magnify Jesus by connecting the Baptist with him from the earliest possible point in a relation of inferiority” (p. 143).

As an aside, biblical inerrantists who try to solve the incompatibility of the genealogies in Luke and Matthew by attributing one to Mary’s family are discredited by the fact Luke gives Mary a Levitical lineage by virtue of her kinship to Elizabeth.

Mary’s Visit and the Magnificat

At that time Mary arose and went hastily into the hill country to a Judean city. There she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. (Luke 1:39–40)

So Mary sets out in a hurry to visit her relative Elizabeth. The motivation for the trip is not explained, and as Miller points out,

The trip itself is unrealistic. From Nazareth to the hill country of Judah is about eighty miles, which means at least a four-day trip, on a route that may have passed through inhospitable Samaritan territory—by a young woman traveling alone. (p. 44)

It is thought by some that either Luke didn’t realize Galilee and Judea were separated by Samaria, or that the pre-Lucan source of this tradition placed Mary in Jerusalem rather than Nazareth (see Brown, pp. 331–332 for citations).

Upon Mary’s arrival, Elizabeth delivers a brief canticle (hymn) about the blessedness of Mary and the “fruit of her womb” that echoes similar proclamations found in Judges 5:24 and Judith 13:18. (Curiously, Mary has not even informed Elizabeth about any pregnancy yet.) This hymn seems to deny the spirit of what Jesus says about his mother in 8:21 and 11:27–28.

Mary then launches into a long canticle known as the Magnificat. This hymn fits awkwardly in its setting and has almost nothing in it that actually relates to Mary’s situation, so scholars generally think it was inserted at a later date. The passage flows better if we skip from v. 45 to v. 56, and the manuscript tradition is, in fact, unclear as to whether it is Mary or Elizabeth who quotes the canticle. (A few ancient manuscripts read “Elizabeth said” in v. 46.) The hymn itself is based on Hannah’s Prayer in 1 Samuel 2 (remember that Elizabeth was barren like Hannah), and a literary source for every line can be found in the Old Testament and apocrypha (Miller, 48–49).

As an odd historical aside, Marian authorship of the Magnificat was so important to Catholics at once time that the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission actually issued a decree in 1912 that it be attributed to Mary. (Brown, p. 334)

The Birth of John and the Benedictus

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. (Luke 1:57–58)

After John the Baptist is born, Zechariah’s tongue is freed, and he delivers a “prophecy” about his son that is known as the Benedictus. This canticle also fits poorly in its narrative context, describing John as “the horn of salvation in the house of David”, which he surely is not, and assuming already-accomplished Davidic salvation (Brown, p. 377). The Benedictus was probably an unrelated messianic hymn inserted here, with verses 77–78 added to relate it to John. Again, every line in the hymn is derived from Old Testament verses (Miller, 52–53).

Zacharias Writes Down the Name of his Son, by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1486–1490)
Zacharias Writes Down the Name of his Son, by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1486–1490)

The Birth of Jesus

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. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the lodgings. (Luke 2:1–7)

The historical problems with this passage are, of course, widely known. I would just note a few particulars:

  1. No decree by Augustus for an empire-wide census is attested by any historical source.
  2. A census was indeed taken of Judea once it became a Roman province under governor Quirinius in 6 CE. However, this contradicts earlier statements that set the nativity in the time of Herod the Great (37 – 4 BCE).
  3. No Roman census required people to travel to their ancient ancestral homeland.
  4. The census of Judea did not apply to Galilee, which was a tetrarchy ruled by Herod’s son Antipas. Anyone living there would have been exempt.
  5. Mary would not need to travel with Joseph for a census (and certainly not while pregnant), since women could be registered by their husbands or fathers.

Though this story is historically implausible and most certainly a literary invention of Luke’s, it is important for explaining how Jesus could be a Nazarene yet be born in Bethlehem (a qualification for the messiah according to some), and for juxtaposing Jesus — the true messianic hope of Jews — against the actions of Augustus, an emperor proclaimed by the Romans to be “savior of the world” and “son of God”. Luke’s census may have been inspired by the Quinta Greek version of Psalm 87:6, which reads, “In the census of the peoples, this one will be born there” (Brown, p. 418). It is hard to argue that Luke even meant to relate a historical event, as his story is completely built on theological symbolism.

The exact birth scene described by Luke is somewhat ambiguous. For example, the Greek phatnē can mean either “manger” (a feeding trough) or “stall” (for tying up animals), and it was probably inspired by Isaiah 1:3 (LXX):

The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its lord’s feeding trough;
But Israel does not know me, and my people do not understand me.

The meaning of katalyma (“lodgings”) here is also uncertain — it could indicate a caravansary; a katalyma was also where the parents of Samuel stayed when they visited the shrine at Shiloh to pray for a child.

The Census at Bethlehem, Peter Bruegel the Elder
The Census at Bethlehem, by Peter Bruegel the Elder (1566)

Angels We Have Heard on High

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8)

An “angel of the Lord” appears to shepherds in the night to announce the birth of a savior and messiah in the “city of David”. Then a “heavenly host” (an army of divine beings who serve God, based on analogy with earthly kings) appears and sings the Gloria canticle.

In its popular KJV rendering, the Gloria reads “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” This translation is, in my experience, frequently cited for the lofty morals it seems to express — God’s desire for world peace and good will toward all of mankind. The actual Greek reads somewhat differently, and is best understood as a bicolon:

In the highest heaven, let God be glorified
and on earth, peace among men favored (by him)

What this means is up for interpretation. Some see this as restricting the blessing of God’s peace to his chosen community, while others believe God’s favour is more widely directed here.

The declaration that Jesus is “saviour, christ, lord” comes from early Christian kerygma, but prior to Luke, these titles were applied to Christ’s resurrection and parousia (Brown, p. 425).

It is unclear why shepherds are specifically targeted by the angels. Miller suggests it was because David lived in Bethlehem only as a shepherd (p. 58). Others have suggested parallels with the births of Mithra and Osiris (Brown, p. 420). It is also slightly odd that Bethlehem is called the “City of David,” as this normally refers to Jerusalem.

At any rate, the shepherds find Mary and Joseph, where apparently a crowd has gathered (2:18), and the shepherds relate what they learned from the angel, to everyone’s amazement. As with John’s birth, the birth of Jesus is widely heralded.

Jesus Named, Circumcised, and Presented at the Temple

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22–24)

Like John, Jesus is circumcised and named on the eighth day. Then Jesus is taken to Jerusalem for his presentation. Here, Luke is confusing two separate customs described in the Pentateuch:

  1. A ritual for consecrating a firstborn male child, described in Exodus 13 and abrogated in Numbers 18. There was no actual Judean custom of bringing children to the Temple for presentation.
  2. A ritual in which a woman offers a lamb and pigeon or turtledove 40 days after giving birth to a male child, described in Leviticus 12:6–8.

Luke refers to the first ritual in verses 22b–23, but the second in 22–24. He also mistakenly suggests that both parents needed to be purified, and according to Brown, it is doubtful that a journey to the Temple was widely practiced in New Testament times. Luke has either “misunderstood a tradition which had come down to him or … he has created a setting from an inaccurate reading of OT laws” (Brown, pp. 447–449).

Again, to seek out historicity in Luke’s story is to miss the point. The presentation at the temple has a narrative and theological purpose: to provide a setting for the encounters with Simeon and Anna, and to parallel the story of Hannah and baby Samuel, who was brought to the Shiloh sanctuary and offered to the Lord’s service, whereupon his parents were blessed by the priest Eli (1 Sam. 2:20) — a role played here by Simeon, who blesses Mary and Joseph in Luke v. 34 (Brown, p. 450).

Menologion of Basil II (11th century)
Menologion of Basil II (11th century)

The Oracles of Simeon

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, named Simeon, a righteous and devout man who was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the holy spirit was with him. (Luke 2:25)

While the family is at the temple, an old man named Simeon takes Jesus into his arms and delivers two oracles. The juxtaposition of these two oracles, with the stereotyped reaction of surprise by Jesus’ parents right between them (v. 33), is somewhat awkward. Brown supposes that the text originally went from verse 27 to 34, skipping the first oracle, which is known as the Nunc Dimittis.

The Nunc Dimittis (“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word…”) seems to be a non-Lucan composition like the other canticles, and D.R. Jones suggests it was originally recited at the death of a believer (cited by Brown, p. 456). It speaks as though Christ’s salvation were already an accomplished act in the past and is derived mainly from Isaiah.

The second oracle is directed at Mary and functions as a somewhat pessimistic prophecy concerning the future of the child, as it seems to anticipate the rejection of Jesus by the Jews. The meaning of v. 35b regarding a sword that will “pierce [Mary’s] own soul too” is obscure.

The Widow Anna

Now, Anna was a prophetess, a daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher. She was extremely old, since she had lived with her husband for seven years after their marriage, and she had been a widow for eighty-four years, who did not leave the temple but worshipped with fasting and prayer night and day. (Luke 2:36–37)

“Anna” is simply the Greek form of “Hannah”, the mother of Samuel who provided much of the inspiration for Luke’s nativity stories. Anna fits the description of an ideal Christian widow given in 1 Timothy 5:3–16. She could not actually have lived in the temple, so it’s unclear whether Luke is using hyperbole when he says she never left it.

If she has actually been a widow for 84 years, she is extremely old — 103 at a minimum — and most English translations assume she is simply 84 years old in total. It is also hard to know why she is described as being from the tribe of Asher. Luke might be taking inspiration from the story of Judith, a (fictional) widow of the tribe of Simeon who decides not to remarry and instead spends all her days observing the Law and fasting (Judith 8:1–8). Judith also sang a canticle of praise to God for his redemption (15:14–16:17), like Anna does here (Brown, p. 468).

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout - Anna toont haar zoon Samuël aan de priester Eli (Anna presenting her son Samuel to the priest Eli), c. 1665
Anna toont haar zoon Samuël aan de priester Eli (Anna presenting her son Samuel to the priest Eli), by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, c. 1665

The Return to Nazareth

After their temple visit, Jesus’ family return home to Nazareth, and Jesus is described in terms similar to those used of John, as well as Isaac and Samson in the Old Testament.

Jesus: The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:40)

John: The child grew and became strong in spirit…. (Luke 1:80a)

Isaac: The child grew and was weaned…. (Gen. 21:8)

Samson: The boy grew and the Lord blessed him. And a spirit of the Lord began to go out with him…. (LXX Judges 13:24–25)

Comparison with Matthew’s Nativity Story

It is impossible to harmonize Luke’s story with Matthew’s. While there are some common elements that point to some shared tradition, the stories as developed by the two authors are contradictory on many points.

Matthew Luke
The story is set in the time of King Herod. The story seems to be set in the time of legate Quirinius, ten years after Herod’s death.
Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth and are brought to Bethlehem by a census.
The angel appears to Joseph after Mary has become pregnant. The angel appears to Mary before she becomes pregnant.
Jesus is born in a house. Jesus is born in a stable or animal stall.
Jesus’ birth is attended by magi. Jesus’ birth is attended by shepherds.
Soon after Jesus’ birth, the family flees to Egypt. Soon after Jesus’ birth, the family travels to Jerusalem for his presentation at the temple.
All Jerusalem is afraid of Jesus, and Judea is unsafe for him. Jesus is warmly received in Jerusalem and recognized as the messiah.
Mary and Joseph move to Nazareth to avoid Archelaus, tetrarch of Judea. Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth because it is their home.

Elements of tradition that Luke and Matthew do share include the names of Jesus’ parents, an angelic annunciation, a miraculous conception, Bethlehem as the place of birth, Galilee as Jesus’ eventual home, association with a star or light (see Lk 2:32), and Davidic ancestry (though the genealogies disagree considerably). These elements are not necessarily shared by other sources (including the other two Gospels), and it will be interesting to see where they come from in another article.


  1. Luke’s nativity story is almost entirely composed out of Old Testament parallels (midrash), highly stereotyped formulas, and pre-existing Jewish-Christian hymns unrelated to the births of Jesus and John the Baptist.
  2. It is concerned with telling the stories of both Jesus and John the Baptist, with the narratives structured to deliberately parallel each other.
  3. The two birth stories are particularly similar to the Old Testament stories of Isaac’s miraculous birth to Abraham and Sarah, and of Samuel’s miraculous birth to Hannah, with some additional details furnished by the story of Samson’s miraculous birth and other Jewish scriptures.
  4. Chapters 1–2 differ in writing style and theology from the rest of the book of Luke (which makes no reference to Jesus’ nativity), and may have been a later addition.
  5. The parts of Jesus’ birth story that touch upon historical events (e.g. the census) are historically implausible for numerous reasons.
  6. Jesus’ birth story in Luke is irreconcilable with the one found in Matthew on many points. His theological approach is different as well; for example, he does not describe events surrounding Jesus’ birth in terms of fulfilling specific prophecies.
  7. Given (1) and (5) in particular, it is clear that Luke’s nativity story must be interpreted symbolically and theologically in order to be appreciated.
  8. Modern Christianity continues to alter and reinterpret the nativity stories to adapt them for modern purposes and theological viewpoints.



• Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Updated Edition, Yale University Press, 1999.
• David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, 1860.
• Robert J. Miller, Born Divine: The Births of Jesus and Other Sons of God, 2003.
• B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins, 1930.

15 thoughts on “Luke’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined

  1. Hello Paul. Joseph Tyson in ‘Marcion and Luke-Acts’ analyses Lk 1-2 as an anti-Marcionite interpolation. I like your articles a lot, but I wonder why you tend not to mention the more radical critics like Tyson who argue for massive forgery and corruption in the sources in the service of identifiable theological conflicts. Thanks for these articles! EZ


    • Emma, thanks for the comment. Tyson’s book is on my reading list in the near future, and I definitely want to write more about Marcion once I have finished it. I think Marcion’s contributions to early Christianity and the formation of the canon are greatly underappreciated.


  2. Good article, Paul. I have just a few comments.

    1:8–25: Annunciation (Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah)

    I think you mean 1:8-23.

    As an aside, biblical inerrantists who try to solve the incompatibility of the genealogies in Luke and Matthew by attributing one to Mary’s family are discredited by the fact Luke gives Mary a Levitical lineage by virtue of her kinship to Elizabeth.

    Just because Mary is a “cousin”/relative of Elizabeth, who is a “descendant of Aaron,” doesn’t mean that Mary is a Levite. Intertribal marriages took place, as evidenced by Aaron himself. His wife, Elisheba, is of the tribe of Judah:

    Exodus 6:23
    23Aaron married Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab and sister of Nahshon…

    Numbers 1:7
    7 From Judah, Nahshon son of Amminadab.

    Ruth 4:19-22
    19Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, 20Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, 21Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, 22Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.

    A ritual for consecrating a firstborn male child, described in Exodus 13 and abrogated in Numbers 18

    Yes, and Numbers 3:11-13 makes explicit that the Levites took the place of the firstborn:

    Numbers 3:11-13
    11 Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: 12I hereby accept the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the firstborn that open the womb among the Israelites. The Levites shall be mine, 13for all the firstborn are mine; when I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both human and animal; they shall be mine. I am Yahweh.

    Luke 2:12’s reference to “swaddling clothes” around Baby Jesus as a sign to the shepherds may come from Wisdom of Solomon 7:3-5, which says of Wisdom: “And when I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth; my first sound was a cry, as is true of all. I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. For no king has had a different beginning of existence.” This ties in nicely with Luke 2:40, quoted by you, which refers to Jesus as “filled with wisdom.”


    • John, thanks for catching that typo.

      Intertribal marriages took place, as evidenced by Aaron himself.

      True; and anyway, it seems unlikely most Judeans knew their supposed tribal affiliation from pre-exilic Israel or Judah, aside from the various priestly castes.

      More to the point, I doubt Luke would say Elizabeth was “descended from Aaron” (i.e. a Levite) if he meant she was a Judahite with an ancient Levite ancestor who had married into the clan. Luke’s intent seems to be that Zechariah was a model priest who had done what priests were supposed to do (though not legally required to) and had married within the Levite clan.

      Good catch with the Wisdom of Solomon reference.


  3. Great Stuff!

    You have a Malachi 3:24 quote but that is Malachi 4:6. Also note the Septuagint version, too:

    Malachi 4:6 LXX
    who shall turn again the heart of the father to the son, and the heart of a man to his neighbour, lest I come and smite the earth grievously.

    I suspect that Matthew and Luke were challenged by John 7:41-42 to reconcile the conundrum of Jesus being from Galilee but was supposed to be born in Bethlehem and to be descended from David. I think Luke rejected Matthew’s version. The genealogy was OK for the first 14 generations but Matthew left out four generations that are covered in the Old Testament from the next fourteen names while including one whose offspring were cursed, and the last fourteen is thirteen names plus the Exile. Luke improved it by making seventy-seven generations with God at #1 and Jesus at #77.

    Matthew apparently used Josephus for his nativity story. Antiquities of the Jews 2, chapters 2, 3, and 4 covers the Exodus account of Moses birth but includes Moses’ father getting a warning in a dream, which Matthew borrows about three times. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh may have come from Exodus 30 or Antiquities of the Jews 3, 3.6.3, 3.6.6, 3.8.3, & 3.10.7, and Antiquities of the Jews 17.2.4 for Herod his younger family members murdered for fear of a prophecy and for wise men with foreknowledge.

    Luke may have rejected Matthew’s account because he didn’t think God would allow all those babies to be killed on Jesus’ account while he got away. So Luke turn to the first event in Antiquities of the Jews 18, the Quirnius census. While it is not plausible that people would go to the hometown of some arbitrary ancestor, it may be plausible to travel if it was a tax census where, if you didn’t register your business interests in a given city, it might be subject to forfeit, so if Joseph was leasing the family farm to tenants, he might have had an incentive to go there. But that is about as far as I would go with the benefit of the doubt.


    • Thanks for catching my mistake with the Malachi reference. Must’ve made a copy and paste error at some point.

      As for Matthew’s reliance on Josephus, I go into that in some detail in my article on Matthew’s nativity story. The parallels are unmistakeable.

      Luke may have rejected Matthew’s account because he didn’t think God would allow all those babies to be killed on Jesus’ account while he got away.

      That’s certainly plausible if you think (as Goodacre and some do) that Luke copied Matthew. However, I increasingly see things the opposite way — that Matthew copied from Luke before Luke’s nativity stories were appended. There are many reasons (some given in this article) to think that Luke chapters 1–2 were written later than the rest of Luke, and possibly by another author. (Brown thought they were written later, but by the same author.)

      While it is not plausible that people would go to the hometown of some arbitrary ancestor, it may be plausible to travel if it was a tax census where, if you didn’t register your business interests in a given city, it might be subject to forfeit, so if Joseph was leasing the family farm to tenants, he might have had an incentive to go there.

      As you say, that might be plausible. (If Bethlehem were even inhabited at the turn of the era, which is uncertain.) But that’s not what the Biblical story says, of course; it says Joseph as a descendant of ancient king David had to go register in the town were David was born. Why David and not some more recent or more distant relative? Why not register in Egypt where the tribe of Judah originated according to Exodus? Why not Ur where Abraham was from? Because Luke wants the reader to focus on Joseph’s Davidic pedigree.)


        • It’s of minor interest as an actual example of a census edict. It confirms what is generally known about censuses, such as:
          • That they were carried out on a provincial basis and ordered by the provincial governor.
          • That absentee residents had to return to their current homes for the census registration, unless they had permission to remain in Alexandria. As Kloppenborg explains, this was to prevent tax evasion and possibly vagrancy as well. (“Unsocial Bandits”, p. 473, printed in A Wandering Galilean, 2009)


  4. “As we shall see, Luke’s adherence to literary forms and borrowings from the Old Testament is so pervasive, the historicity of Luke’s story is in doubt on those grounds alone, as Brown himself admits (p. 296).”

    This is an overstatement Paul. P. 296:

    “The second observation is that such a perfect adherence to literary form raises a question about the historicity of the stereotyped features in the Lucan story (as distinct from the filler material mentioned in the preceding paragraph).”


    • Do you think so, Joe? Brown is certainly cautious and tactful in his wording (since he is frequently addressing more conservative theologians), but I don’t see a substantial difference between historicity being “in doubt” and having “questions raised” about historicity. I only cited one page of many where Brown makes remarks to this effect.

      He says contradictory facts “raise doubts about the historicity of the infancy narratives” (p. 33); that Matthew and Luke are “more interested in theological import than in historicity” (p. 140); that the historicity of the annunciation is “not the most plausible assumption” (p. 307); that “that available evidence inclines against the historicity of large parts” of Matthew’s and Luke’s stories (p. 564); and so on.

      With respect to the annunciation formulas in particular, Brown goes on to say that “independently each evangelist fashioned a narrative of the annunciation of Jesus’ birth which would suit the main lines of the respective infancy narrative,” (p. 298) which is a nice way of saying they are literary inventions. I don’t think I have misrepresented Brown’s arguments. He concludes the section in question by observing that even if there was divine revelation available to Luke regarding Jesus’ birth, “the way in which it could be pictured and supplied” comes from the Old Testament narratives (i.e. as opposed to historical information), which is a theologian’s way of saying the story is true in some sense, even if not historically true.

      In any case, since recording and keeping track of citations is almost half the work in an article like this, I’m glad they don’t go completely ignored. 🙂


  5. Re: the differences between chapters 1-2 and 3-24, it’s probably worth mentioning the usual counterexample, namely 7.16 – and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” (the question then being whether the author of the body of Luke knew the Benedictus (or vice versa)) – not that I find that particularly convincing, seeing as it’s a bit of a theme that Luke has going on: after all, Luke’s interpretation of the destruction of Jerusalem is “because you did not know the time of your visitation” (19.44).

    The parallels with Acts are much more striking. The LXX-ish use of ἐπέπεσεν with φόβος at Luke 1.12 only occurs elsewhere in the NT at Acts 19.17. The weird use of μετά after χεὶρ κυρίου (I think the Greek OT consistently uses ἐπί – I can’t find a counterexample) at Luke 1.66 is repeated at Acts 11.21. Indeed, along with Acts 13.11, which uses the more conventional ἐπί, those are the three instances of the phrase χεὶρ κυρίου in the NT. Then getting into the Benedictus, there’s the fairly stunning agreement in wording at Acts 3.21 ἐλάλησεν ὁ θεὸς διὰ στόματος τῶν ἁγίων ἀπ’ αἰῶνος αὐτοῦ προφητῶν – apart from supplying the subject and the variant on the position of αὐτοῦ, it’s a nine-word verbatim agreement. Then coming to the angel appearing to the shepherds in Luke 2.9, καὶ ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου ἐπέστη is a five-word agreement with Acts 12.7, but more significantly, the use of ἐφίστημι of angels only occurs elsewhere in Zechariah 1.11; and then of course Luke 2.9/Acts 12.7 continue the scene with the shining light motif, developing a common conception of how angelic visitations work. The description of Simeon as εὐλαβής at Luke 2.25 is a very unusual word: it appears twice in the Greek OT, but three times in Acts, and nowhere else in the Greek NT.

    On the two-author hypothesis, I therefore think that there is a good case – despite the way that Luke 1-2 seems to be written in a deliberately affected Biblish style – for identifying the author of Acts with that of Luke 1-2 rather than that of Luke 3-24.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent observations, James. Those are indeed some striking parallels with Acts.

      Personally, I would agree that the “second author” of Luke probably wrote chapters 1-2 as well as Acts to produce the two-volume work we now have.


  6. …baby Samuel, who was brought to the Shiloh sanctuary and offered to the Lord’s service, whereupon he was blessed by the priest Eli…

    It’s a minor point in the scheme of things, but where does 1 Samuel say that Eli blessed Samuel? In 1 Samuel 2:20, Eli blesses “Elkanah and his wife” (Could Hannah not be named? And the man had two wives too), but I don’t see where Eli blesses Samuel.


    • Thanks for catching that. I’ve corrected the article. (And that, in fact, makes the parallel even closer, since Simeon appears to bless Jesus’ parents.)


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