The ‘infancy narrative’: Examining the Foretelling
of Jesus’ Birth in the Gospel of Luke

                                                              

 

Peter Engholm

Monash University, 1997

 

 

 

ABSTRACT:

This paper looks at the ‘infancy narrative’ in the Gospel of Luke, and how it could have been a product of Old Testament prophecies and narratives about the ‘coming Messiah’. It shall be argued that to write an account which people could believe in, Luke, whether true or not, draws back to Old Testament sayings and events to validate his story about the birth of Jesus.

KEYWORDS:

Bible, theology, Luke, Jesus, infancy narrative, Old Testament, New Testament

 

FULL TEXT:

Introduction

I will in this paper examine the story of the foretelling of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:26-38) and contrast it to Old Testament’s sayings and prophecies to see whether these cast any new lights on what is told by Luke. This section in the Gospel of Luke is part of what is often referred to as the ‘infancy narratives’, which also can be found in the Gospel of Matthew. These narratives include the foretelling and the births of John the Baptist and Jesus as well as some of their pre-ministry experiences.

The question to be answered in this paper is not whether this account in the Gospel of Luke has a historical true value, or if the author made it up. In this matter, one could argue that Luke wanted to catch the reader from the very beginning with an interesting story. Details could be mentioned such as if Jesus was supposed to be linked with king David, then it is more likely that Joseph did conceive with Mary as he and not Mary according to the Bible is from the Davidic line. Also, as Coleridge seems to argue[1], Luke might have used the two birth foretellings (to Zechariah and Mary) to show the importance of faith (which Mary has and not Zecheriah), which is a central issue of Luke’s Gospel. On the other hand, Luke states in the first verses of the Gospel that he (or she[2]) has investigated everything from the beginning and thus, together with the common belief that Luke was a highly educated and respected person, we might suspect that he would not use any not witnessed events in his Gospel. There are many other arguments for both point of views in this matter, but these are not taken up here.

What is more interesting to look at are the expectations of a coming Messiah at that time - if the story about the angel Gabriel coming to Mary with the news of her having a child is confirmed by prophecies and sayings in the Old Testament and what importance that had for contemporary readers.

Luke’s account in contrast to prophecies and expectations

The first thing to discuss is the child itself. Throughout the Old Testament there are plenty of stories about God promising salvation to His people through the birth of a child. The stories of Abraham and Moses are examples of this. But plenty of verses also speak about another child to be born that will come with deliverance and salvation for the Jewish people: the Messiah, the coming saviour. Isaiah says: ”For to us a child is born, to us a child is given, and the government will be on his shoulder (...)” (Isa. 9:6-7), ”A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse (...)” (Isa. 11:1-16), and maybe the most known passage in Isa. 7:14: ”Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with a child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

With these prophecies in mind, the author of Luke wanted from the beginning of his account to show that this child, Jesus, was the Messiah the people had long waited for, and of whom the prophet Nathan spoke of in 2 Sam. 9-16 ”I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body”[3]. This shows that Old Testament prophecies and its fulfilment give to the prologue as to the whole Lukian gospel its underlying dramatic drive and tension[4]. This is explicatory seen later in the story of the birth in Bethlehem which has its origin in Micah 5:2: ”But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, (...) out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel”. Daniélou also notes when discussing the technique used by Luke that he often uses phrases in the Gospel similar to Old Testament sayings, comparing for example Isa. 9:6-7 and Luke 1:33 [5].

The fact in Luke’s account that Mary was a virgin at first seems to have its roots from Isa. 7:14. But this passage has caused problems ever since the earliest days of Christianity mainly because it is undoubtedly linked with a definite historical event - the birth of Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, and also the fact that the Hebrew word for virgin in the passage also could mean ‘young woman’[6]. Maybe the fact that Mary was a virgin was not the fulfilment of this passage, but instead showing a new beginning, a new order created by God? This would solve the problem with the belief that the Messiah would come from the house of David. God sent Jesus as the fulfilment of old promises of a coming Messiah but through ‘divine fertilisation’ to a virgin as a sign of the new covenant with His people - a new order. Jesus was then ‘adopted’ by Joseph to continue the Davidic line and thus fulfil the Old Testament promises[7]. Thus, Luke also wanted to show that the coming of God foretold by the prophets is not distinct from the coming of the Messiah (which was not the same thing in Old Testament prophecies), but that it was in the Messiah himself that God would come, that is, Jesus[8]. Fitzmyer also acknowledges that Luke does not see the foretelling as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy (which Matthew in his Gospel does), maybe indicating a greater understanding by Luke giving his account more credibility and validy[9].

Finally, the presence of and sayings by the angel Gabriel can also be linked to some events in the Old Testament. Gabriel appears to Daniel (Dan. 8:16, 9:21) and is by some authors, for example Drury[10], believed to be the messenger in Mal. 3:1:
”See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me”, although I agree more with Hermans that this promise refers to John the Baptist[11].

Gabriel’s prophecy of the destiny of Jesus derives from Isa. 9:6f, and his words to Mary are similar to those to Daniel, speaking about Jesus as the Son of God. The prophecy to Daniel was much beloved in Jewish circles where, as for example in Qumran, the deliverance of Israel was hoped for as imminent. The revelation given to Mary was that the moment for that prophecy to be fulfilled now had come[12], and thus Gabriel plays an important role in Luke’s account, building its powerful message on the present emotions and hopes among the Jewish people of the coming of the Messiah. Daniélou says it is reasonable to believe that Luke himself identified the angel coming to Mary as Gabriel as a result of the literary influence of Daniel 9:21-27, and I believe that could be a logical explanation. Matthew does not mention the angel’s name in his Gospel and Luke probably shared the story with him but understood the importance of the character Gabriel from the Old Testament and thus, as explained, used it in his account.

Conclusion

I believe the Old Testament prophecies and contemporary expectations and hopes played a vital part in Luke’s writing of his Gospel and particularly his opening passage about Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary. Luke knew the Old Testament well and the story has shown to have many similarities with and references to it. Thus, he wanted to tell his readers that Jesus was the fulfilment of God’s old promises but at the same time not the way they might have understood them. Jesus was the Messiah the people had waited for but He was also at the same time Son of God. This combination was not foretold by the prophets or by anyone else in the Old Testament, and Luke needed that to be clear before the rest of his account. In summary then, Luke’s infancy narratives incorporates old not fully correct beliefs of a Messiah with new explanations of God’s plan for His people. To write an account which people could believe in, Luke, whether true or not, draws back to Old Testament sayings and events. The presence of the angel Gabriel is one example of that.

 

Any reproduction or distribution of this text is prohibited without express permission by the author. Please contact peter@engholm.nu for permission or further information.

 

REFERENCES:

Coleridge, M., The Birth of the Lukan Narrative, JSOT Press: Sheffield, 1993

Daniélou, J., The Infancy Narratives, Compass Books: London, 1968

Drury, J., Tradition & Design in Luke’s Gospel, Darton, Longman & Todd: London, 1976

Fitzmyer,J. A., Luke, the Theologian, Paulist Press: New York, 1989

Hermans, L., The Bible on the Childhood of Jesus, JSOT Press: London, 1965

 

FOOTNOTES:



[1]M. Coleridge, The Birth of the Lukan Narrative, (Sheffield, 1993), p. 73

[2] It is not clear whether the author of Luke’s Gospel was male or female. In order to be consistent, this paper will refer to the author as ‘he’ or ‘the author of Luke’.

[3] J. A. Fitzmyer, Luke, the Theologian, (New York, 1989), p. 66

[4]J. Drury, Tradition & Design in Luke’s Gospel, (London, 1976),  p. 53

[5]J. Daniélou, The Infancy Narratives, (London, 1968),  p. 33

[6]Daniélou, The Infancy Narratives, p. 48

[7]Ibid. pp. 48-52

[8]Ibid. p. 34, p. 38

[9]Fitzmyer, Luke the Theologian, pp. 66-68

[10]Drury, Tradition & Design, p. 56

[11]L. Hermans, The Bible on the Childhood of Jesus, (London, 1965), p. 57

[12]Danielou, The Infancy Narratives, p. 28