Monday, March 08, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Luke 2-6

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that BibleGateway.com is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Luke, chapters 2-6.  By way of apology, I should note that I was recently informed that Fuller professor Joel B. Green has an excellent commentary on Luke, in the same commentary series (The New International Commentary on the New Testament) as the one I'm actually using.1  Unfortunately, having procured the majority of my commentary library while I was still a student (before Dr. Green came to Fuller), I did not learn of this until I had already chosen the commentary I would use for the Luke portion of this feature.  It is my desire to highlight Fuller professors wherever possible, and so I wanted to at least mention Dr. Green's commentary here, and provide a link through Amazon.com: The Gospel of Luke, (NICNT), by Joel B. Green.

Chapter 2

  • Verses 1 and 2 - Luke is going to some lengths to establish a timeline for the birth of Jesus, mentioning known (especially to his original readers, who would be likely to remember these events either on their own, or through their parents and grandparents having talked about them) historical events and figures. 
  • Verse 5: "Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child." - A nicely subtle reference to something that almost certainly would have been scandalous if we hadn't already read of the circumstances of Mary's pregnancy in the previous chapter.  Yet, I have to say, the way in which Mary is introduced here seems strangely detached from the fact that we've read about her already.  Almost as though Luke hadn't mentioned her before.
  • Verse 24 - This particular sacrifice is indeed mentioned in the Law of Moses.  Specifically, Leviticus 12:8, which further tells us that this is the sacrifice to be given by those too poor to offer the otherwise-sanctioned sacrifice.
  • Verses 25-35 - We don't know anything about Simeon outside of this passage.  I wonder what he was like, and why God specifically blessed him with the knowledge that he would see Jesus.  I imagine that Mary and Joseph considered it an honor to witness Simeon's prophecy--at least until that last bit, a prophecy which promised pain in addition to the message of God's salvation.  I wonder how they responded to the combination.
  • Verses 36-38 - Anna almost comes off as an afterthought.  She is given a much shorter passage than Simeon, and indeed we're not given the actual words that she spoke concerning Jesus, as we were with Simeon.  Yet, the fact that she's mentioned at all is surely a sign of the importance with which Luke viewed this incident.  I'm curious if Luke intends for us to take the numbers of Anna's life literally here.  If she was a widow for an additional 84 years after the 7 years in which she was married, that's already 91 years without even accounting for her unmarried life.  Even given the reality that women married very young in this era, this easily puts the woman at over 100 years old at the time of this incident.  This is by no means impossible, but it's an advanced age even in our own era, let alone in the first century.  Couple all this with the importance of the numbers given in Hebrew numerology (7 is a number indicating wholeness, and even 84 would be 7 x 12, a number easily identified with the tribes of Israel... and later with Jesus' disciples), and it's easy enough to imagine that Luke may have had a non-literal interpretation in mind.  I can't say with certainty one way or another, though.
  • Verses 41-52 - An utterly unique story within the gospels.  The only story of Jesus' childhood and what kind of a son to his earthly parents he was.  Why does Luke include it, especially given that no one else (among works included in the canon of Scripture, that is) wrote anything similar?
Chapter 3
  • Verses 1-2 - More historical reference-dropping.
  • Verse 7 - Luke is strangely less specific than Matthew as to the targets of John's epithet, "You brood of vipers!" Matthew spelled out Pharisees and Sadducees as the vipers, whereas Luke just writes about the "crowd."2
  • Verse 16 - In all of our gospel readings re: John the Baptizer so far, I'm struck at John's reference to Jesus as more "powerful" than he.  We're never really shown any examples of John as having "power," per se.  Why not speak more about Jesus as "worthy" (which we certainly do also get)?
  • Verse 23 - Luke tells us that Jesus was 30 when he started his ministry.  We don't get this information from any other New Testament source.3
  • Verses 23-38 - I think this genealogy is even more boring than Matthew's.  At least Matthew puts a few breaks in his genealogy to make important points.  The two genealogies, of course, have significant differences.  Geldenhuys seems to be of the opinion that these differences are explained by this being Mary's lineage rather than Joseph's,4 although I find this to be a very unnatural reading of the text.  It certainly doesn't explain why Luke should explicitly say that Heli is Jospeh's father rather than Mary's, as is required by Geldenhuys' hypothesis.  (One could make an argument that Joseph became Heli's son by his marriage to Mary, but this is not explicitly stated in Geldenhuys' commentary at this point.) 
Chapter 4
  • Verses 22-30 - I'm missing something.  We move from people "speaking well" of Jesus in verse 22 to Jesus saying openly provocative (one might even say "rude") things to those who were just "speaking well" of him in the next verses.  Indeed, the people are so insenced that they aim to throw him off a cliff pretty quickly.  Other gospels have included sections that indicate the lack of faith of people in Jesus' hometown, but this section seems to be more emphatic than those.  Besides the attempted mob murder, Jesus demonstrates how other godly leaders have had the same problem.  
  • Verses 29-30 - One is left wondering how Jesus moved from being taken to the cliff in verse 29 to just walking through the crowd to safety in verse 30.  As Luke writes it, it just "happens," but this would be considered a fairly large logical gap in almost any work of modern literature.
Chapter 5
  • Verses 1-11 - We finally get to the call of Simon Peter to be an apostle.  I find it interesting that, in this version, Jesus doesn't simply call (and Simon simply follows), but that this call is predecated by Jesus helping Simon to catch a lot of fish.  I'm intrigued, though, that even before we see that Simon will follow Jesus, he calls Jesus "Master."  Perhaps Simon knows Jesus by reputation already?  Simon let Jesus into his boat (from which Jesus is said to have taught the crowds) before we see that they've spoken to each other, so some pre-existing relationship seems reasonable.  Geldenhuys notes that only Luke uses the word translated here as "Master," whereas other writers might have uses "Rabbi,"5 which would certainly be an appropriate form of address to a person who had just been teaching.
  • Verse 39: "And none of you, after drinking old wine, wants the new, for you say, 'The old is better.'" - The other gospels have included the teaching about wine and wineskins, but only Luke adds this bit about preferring old wine to new wine, which seems not entirely connected.  Indeed, it seems a straightforward observation that could be made by almost anyone who drinks wine (I confess, I am not such a person).  What is Jesus'/Luke's point in adding it?

Chapter 6
  • Verse 17-49 - A lot of this passage resembles parts of Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount."  So much so that, despite the fact that Luke describes these teachings as being taught while Jesus is standing "on a level place," many scholars consider this a different account of the same incident within Jesus' ministry.6
  • Verses 27-36 - I am particularly struck by the observation that "even sinners" do some of the good things that Jesus is encouraging his followers not to be too proud about.  I was listening to a sermon yesterday (here's a link to the MP3 of that sermon) where the pastor observed that a recent Barna survey suggested that most people don't think that Christians and non-Christians are all that different from each other.  Moreover, if people were asked to describe how Christians are different, Christians were described as "judgmental" (among other similarly non-flattering sentiments).  Although the pastor made this observation in connection to a reading from Philippians, it seems to me that he might just as well have been reading this passage, at least in this respect.  Christians do not (and have never had, if Jesus' words here are any indication) have a monopoly on moral behavior.  Indeed, at least as far as this passage is concerned, Jesus isn't emphasizing that Christians should be more moral than non-Christians, but that we should be more generous.  I can't say, if I were asked to describe how Christians are different from non-believers in today's world, that I would say that Christians are particularly generous.  Clearly, we've failed on this point.
  • Verse 46-49 - This is pretty much the same story as the house built upon sand from the end of Matthew chapter 7, yet without the sand.  That little difference probably explains why I tend to hear that version taught more than this one.


1Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), Eerdmans, 1951 (FYI, this edition was definitely published later than 1990, but for some reason the publication date of this edition is not mentioned in the text).
2See Geldenhuys, p. 138.
3Geldenhuys, p. 150.
4See Geldenhuys, pp. 151-152.
5Geldenhuys, p. 184.
6In fact, Geldenhuys is so concerned to explain away any seeming inconsistencies that he even titles his chapter on this section (found on pages 207-218) "The Sermon on the Mount."

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